Mastering From the Trenches

Mastering has often been a job for highly trained and expensive professionals hired by major labels for major artists. Today almost anyone can attempt
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FIG. 1: Tardon Feathered is the president and mastering engineer at Mr. Toad''s Recording in San Francisco.

Mastering has often been a job for highly trained and expensive professionals hired by major labels for major artists. Today almost anyone can attempt to master records at home using commonly available tools. But a middle ground also exists: a new generation of mastering engineers with fresh ideas operates closer to street level than the more traditional pros, working primarily on independent projects and offering affordable services at their studios.

Using outside mastering services is a smart and surprisingly affordable option for many, and understanding what goes into the process can help produce better results. To get an idea of some of the issues that arise, I interviewed three of the most experienced experts of the new mastering generation: Tardon Feathered (see Fig. 1) of Mr. Toad's in San Francisco, Jeff Lipton (see Fig. 2) from Peerless Mastering in the Boston area, and Paul Stubblebine (see Fig. 3) of Paul Stubblebine Mastering and DVD, also located in San Francisco.

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FIG. 2: Jeff Lipton founded and is chief engineer of Peerless Mastering in Newtonville, Massachusetts.

The panel's combination of mastering knowledge and “street cred” can help anyone who wants to get the most bang out of every buck invested in a self-produced recording. Even if your next project is headed to a “spare-no-expense” mastering facility, some of these peer perspectives might save you a bundle.

What are the most common problems you see with mixes coming from semiprofessional and home studios?

Lipton: Most mixes coming in are optimized for the acoustically inaccurate rooms they were mixed in, as well as mixed on less-than-honest monitors. One major problem, therefore, is muddy low end or muddy lower mids. Most inaccurate rooms portray bass inaccurately or not at all, so engineers tend to guess at what to do in that range. This either leads to way too much bass and lower midrange, or in some cases a bad balance between the kick drum and the bass guitar.

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FIG. 3: Paul Stubblebine owns Paul Stubblebine Mastering and DVD in San Francisco.

Many lower-end studio monitors seem to have midrange boosts and cuts, misleading the engineer in this critical frequency area. Other problems are too little high end because of the popularity of low-quality monitors with built-in high-end boosts; flat and muddy drum sounds, because it's hard to get a good drum sound in a house or project studio; and overcompressed or clipped audio on the mix bus. Instead of letting the mastering engineer get the desired compression level, inexperienced mix engineers usually turn all the faders up too high, and you hear the signal clipping all over the place.

Stubblebine: It's pretty common to find either too much [or not enough] bottom or the bottom-end varying wildly from one track to the next. Another important thing that can be frustrating for us is a mix with one important element too dull but some other element overly bright. That makes it difficult to dig in and brighten the dull element. It's also pretty common that the level of the vocal relative to the track isn't consistent from song to song.

What do you see as the primary causes of substandard recordings that might need drastic fixing in the mastering room?

Stubblebine: I'd lump these causes into three groups. First, we keep coming back to relying on monitoring that isn't up to the task. The speakers don't have to be the most expensive in the world, but if you can't find some placement in the room that gives a reasonably balanced presentation, you're working with one strike against you from the start.

Second is pushing things too far. I'm in favor of using any technique or effect that makes a record better, but a lot of people just seem to turn every knob up until it hurts. There's a sweet spot for any effect, and it isn't always at maximum. I include mixing too loudly in this category. Mixes made that way tend to sound right only when they are played back -loudly, whereas a mix made at a medium volume sounds pretty similar when you turn it up or down. Also, when you do all your listening at high SPLs you lose perspective on your mix earlier in the session. It becomes harder to judge where the vocal is sitting, and harder to judge the low end in relation to the rest of the mix.

The third thing just seems to fall under the general heading of inexperience. Making good recordings isn't easy; it takes both talent and practice. So keep practicing.

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At Paul Stubblebine Mastering, the Camelia Room''s surround setup features main monitors custom built by Alon Wolf, Meyer HD-1s for satellites, and Bag End ELF subwoofers.

Overcompression and “the loudness war” have been common themes in mastering circles over the past few years. Are the voices of experience in the industry persuading engineer-musicians and indie labels to leave some dynamic range in their mixes?

Lipton: No! I often ask my clients how compressed they want their album to be, rated on a scale of 1 to 10. With 1 being dynamic and high quality, and 10 being loud and overcompressed, and most of the time they pick 8 to 10. I explain the consequences of how it will suck the space out of the mixes and make the record tiring and hard to listen to. They say they just want it as loud as the other overcompressed albums they listen to. It's sad, but I don't want to lose business by not meeting or exceeding my clients' expectations.

Feathered: In some ways, it's a hopeless battle at the indie level. For every mastering engineer who educates a client successfully on how to best capture a dynamic mix, one hundred more people are experimenting with [Digidesign] Pro Tools for the first time. When the tools are there to squash the music into oblivion, it can and will be done. Especially since making those final tweaks to your mix almost always means bringing things up in the mix, not down.

Has the spread of 24-bit recording produced improvements?

Feathered: No, the tools are the same; so are the levels they can produce. Some of the new formats, such as SACD, which can actually be rejected at the plant for being “too loud,” have the potential to help battle the volume wars. But anything in the PCM audio world can't. As there is no enforceable standard, it is easy to make PCM audio louder than is necessary or enjoyable with a few simple, cheap tools.

Stubblebine: We've seen some improvement; more mixing engineers are asking about the issue at least. But in many cases mixing engineers feel that they have to give the client a reference copy that already sounds loud, and so they will mix through some fairly drastic compression. As long as the engineer saves an uncompressed mix too, there's no problem. But all too often the compressed version is the only one saved, and that's what we get to work with. That severely limits our room to maneuver.

After hearing a project with the kind of major flaws we've discussed, do you ever advise clients to remix before proceeding with mastering?

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The centerpieces of the mastering room at Tardon Feathered''s Mr. Toad Recording are Dunlavy SC-IV monitors matched with a Hafler 9505 amp and Entech 24/96 D/A converters.

Feathered: Only with the knowledge that they probably won't come back to me once they've fixed it. So you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. A better approach is to have them bring you the remix job, if you do such things.

Would you take on the supervision of a revised mix from a client's DAW or multitrack computer files?

Feathered: Absolutely. In many ways, this is the future of mastering. And it's a far better solution than simply telling the client they need to remix. Since the mixes are essentially totally recallable, I love this idea. The pitfalls come up when you try to open the projects on a different computer rig. It is much easier to have the client bring his or her own machine.

Stubblebine: We have found ourselves in that position a few times, and have indeed gone back to the mix stage with the client, tuned up the mix, and then mastered from that. Since the majority of projects exist in a workstation, it only makes sense to go back and revise it if there's something that is so drastic we can't deal with it effectively in mastering.

What advice would you give to those weighing the potential costs and benefits of outside mastering?

Stubblebine: I feel that the money spent on a professional mastering job returns a lot of value. And it usually makes a bigger improvement in the final outcome than the same dollar amount spent on any other part of the production.

Feathered: If your music is your life, then you must understand that mastering is an essential part of the process. Some people say, “It's just a demo.” To that I say, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

Fan club releases, tapes of your family singing around the campfire, rough mixes — these can get away without being mastered. But don't mess with your life's work! Mastering is your last opportunity to confirm that it all sounds just like you think it does, and to know that it sounds as good as it can.

Lipton: If you've put a lot of time into an album, the last thing you should do is skimp on the mastering. There are so many advantages to mastering with a good mastering engineer in a well-equipped, acoustically designed room. For lower-budget and even many high-budget clients, this is the first time anyone has ever heard the true frequency response of the mixes. When you get your mixes to sound good and even in a flat room, they will sound better in every environment. For example, if a mix is too bassy to begin with, it will sound horrible [when you play it on a bassy system]. It is for this reason that I feel my best mastering tool is my monitoring environment, which I can trust 100 percent.

Quality mastering gear is also crucial to the process. If a processor colors the sound or has a negative effect, it will hurt the entire mix. Good mastering equipment will add the least amount of color, offer perfect phase correlation between the channels, and work musically. And $18,000 A/D/A converters, for example, will usually sound a lot more accurate than stock DAW converters — just like a $12,000 analog EQ will sound more accurate and musical than most plug-ins.

What is the best route for artists who can't afford to master their CD at a professional facility?

Stubblebine: At least involve someone else who hasn't been mixing the project. Part of the value of mastering comes from the fact that the mastering engineer brings a new perspective, and the people mixing the record get so wrapped up in it that they can overlook problem areas. So if you've got a friend who has a good sense of what a recording should sound like, but who hasn't been mixing with you, bounce some ideas off him or her.

Lipton: First of all, artists shouldn't be afraid to call a professional facility and discuss their budget. It is possible that the professional facility will have independent-artist discounts and be willing to work within the artist's budget. I try to fit in the struggling artist whenever I can, because often they have very interesting music.

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In Peerless Mastering''s A room, Jeff Lipton works using an Alactronics custom 5.1 stereo console, and custom monitors through SLS speakers driven by SA Amps with custom crossovers.

If you just don't have any money, try to equalize and compress your material so that it matches a stylistically similar, professionally mastered album. Compare all your songs to make sure that they are consistent in level and relative frequencies. And listen to them in every environment you can.

Feathered: Call around. Professional mastering these days is cheaper than you think. That said, go semipro if it's all you can afford. At least you'll get to hear your project in a different studio with someone who aspires to master CDs professionally. Ask for referrals; listen to their work.

What lessons can you impart to our readers to help them find the right mastering facility, and avoid a mastering job that is not right for them?

Stubblebine: The best indicator would be that someone has mastered great-sounding projects — both musical and engineering — in styles that you like.

Feathered: There is no one correct way to master a CD. No two mastering engineers would even make the same mix sound the same. There are two major factors that affect mastering: the quality of your mixes and the quality of the mastering engineer and studio. A cruddy mix can only be polished so much. But a good mix has so much potential that sometimes it's worth asking an engineer to try it a different way.

Lipton: A lot of budget mastering studios out there are just people with DAWs working in acoustically imperfect environments. Go with an engineer that has mastered hundreds of albums, including several that you like. A big mistake people make is mastering with recording engineers who do not have real mastering experience. They may be good at what they do in their studio, but that won't always translate to objectivity or an ability to hear the imperfections in their material.

Tardon, regarding the subjective nature of mastering that you brought up, would you say you have a consistent style or approach in your mastering work?

Feathered: Absolutely. I have a vision of the way things should sound and often get fairly heavy-handed in my approach trying for a big pop sound. This is especially true at the self-recorded end of the scale, where there is a great likelihood that the finished recordings only marginally resemble a record that the artist wishes they could sound like. I try to make sure my clients know that I might push too far in search of “that sound,” and encourage them to listen critically and make sure they enjoy what I did. I'm always happy to back off if I need to, but that happens on less than 5 percent of the stuff I work on.

Lipton: For me, it is all about the artist's vision. I will work as hands-on or hands-off as the project requires. For example, if a home-recorded mix comes in pretty muddy and everything sounds muffled and unclear, I will do whatever it takes, using whatever tools are required to get the recording to its full potential. However, if the artist prefers a muddy mix, I am very happy leaving it to their liking. In general, I would say that I don't have a “sound” or a consistent approach. I will often change my process and go as far as rewiring my studio to suit a project.

What is your policy regarding client attendance at the mastering session? Some engineers enjoy interacting with clients. Other engineers simply prefer to work alone, and may offer a reduced rate for unattended sessions.

Stubblebine: We welcome it. The majority of our sessions are attended by the producer, the engineer, the artist, or some combination. Experience shows that the more people attending, the longer the sessions take, just because there are more opinions to consider. So it's not necessarily cost-effective to have everyone in the band show up. But it's the artist's choice, and we're fine with it. Of course, we have a certain number of projects we do without anyone attending, and that can work out fine too.

Feathered: I offer two rates to clients — attended and unattended. Unattended is about a 25 percent discount from our attended rates, and 90 percent of our clients go that route. I love this. It gives me great scheduling flexibility and lets me do my mastering work when I'm most in the mood — usually at night. I get to double-check my work and sequence the CD at the start of the next day, when I'm fresh. I feel it delivers my most consistent results.

Lipton: I will work hard to get to know my clients and their preferences, whether they are at the session or not. People who are out of the area can mail me their mixes, and we will discuss them over the phone. I always offer my clients free listening sessions before mastering, but personally I enjoy it if my clients come to the session. In my facility, the client sitting area is extremely accurate, so I can completely trust their comments and opinions of what we are doing. It's fun to have a session be as interactive as the client would like it to be.

If you could generalize for a moment, how would you characterize the differences in quality between the top-level projects you've worked on and the majority of projects recorded at home or in a semiprofessional facility?

Lipton: Top-level projects usually have great basic tracks and mixes that sound fuller and more spacious. Most project-studio mixes are muddier and less distinct, and have less space. In general, people who start with bad basic tracks end up with bad mixes. Inferior A/D converters can really hurt a project too, especially on the drums and vocals.

Feathered: The chasm between the best recordings and the rest of the recordings is now huge. Corners are cut at almost every stage of recording for the independent artist these days. At the very least, the independent artist has to be able to create great performances on their recordings or they just won't stand out from the pack.

Finally, what's your ideal compliment to hear at the end of a successful mastering session?

Feathered: I really dig it when days later the band calls up and is still flippin' out over the results. When it holds up well after multiple plays on multiple systems and they call you to tell you about it, that's the best.

Lipton: The best compliment is when artists tell me that their album sounds the way they've always dreamed it would. It's all about achieving their vision.

Myles Boisen is the head engineer and relationship counselor at Guerrilla Recording and The Headless Buddha Mastering Lab in Oakland, California.


Tardon Feathered

Mr. Toad's

Jeff Lipton

Peerless Mastering
(617) 527-2200

Paul Stubblebine

Paul Stubblebine Mastering and DVD
(415) 522-0108