Mastering in The Digital Age

Mastering, in the days of vinyl records, was viewed as a critical process, requiring a deft touch to push the grooves to the limit, but never over the edge. And through the CD revolution, where major labels still ran the entirety of the music industry and paid the studio card rates, mastering continued to be a standard operating procedure, with the only question posed being: “Who of the handful of master meisters — the Bob Ludwigs, Bernie Grudmans, and Ted Jensens of the industry — will do the job?”
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But, approximately a decade ago, everything quickly began to change. “Mastering isn’t automatic anymore; in fact, for a lot of people, the idea is actually antiquated,” comments Mark Greenwood, manager of Quad Studios in Nashville, a city experiencing a particular surge of independent recording artists. “If you want your recording to be competitive, like on the radio, then I recommend professional mastering. But if you’re selling your own CDs at gigs, doing MP3s, then a lot of projects just don’t need to make that investment.”

DOING IT THEMSELVES

You don’t need a license to be a recording artist, and the same goes for mastering engineers — a specialty whose practitioners once spent years as protégés to experienced mentors, but many of who now compete with black-box solutions and software. Bryan Bradley, director of pro audio/recording merchandise at Guitar Center, sums up the trend: “I was in one of our stores when I overheard a customer ask why his music sounded ‘choppy’ in his car stereo. A salesman discovered that he was burning mixes straight to CD. The customer left with a copy of [Sony] Sound Forge and a book. I’m guessing now he doesn’t reach for the volume knob every time a track changes.”

This DIY mastering trend follows the same vogue as personal recording, and it’s had the same effect on professional mastering houses as home recording did on commercial studios. But while the art of mastering is still sufficiently mysterious and rarefied for it to remain a professional niche, even major houses have had to accommodate new economic realities. Some, like Sterling Sound in New York, have instituted “unattended mastering sessions” where projects are assigned to a pool of engineers and assistants for processing during off hours, at substantially lower rates. “We’d rather lower the rates than let projects wind up with less-than-acceptable results by amateurs,” says Murat Aktar, Sterling’s president.

The advent of digital technology has spawned a cohort of second-tier facilities and engineers that cater to the indie recording market, many of whom hold as equally dim of a view on DIY mastering. “DIY mastering is the bane of my existence,” says Erik Wolf of Nashville’s Wolf Mastering. “You used to need a cutting lathe and lots of experience. Now, every bonehead with a plug-in thinks he can master a record properly.”

IS IT A MASTERING ISSUE?

“If a producer is to a record what a director is to a film, then a mastering engineer is like a colorist on a movie,” says Brent Lambert, owner of The Kitchen Mastering in North Carolina — a man who is as facile with the basics of DIY mastering as he is with analogies, listing the main missteps for auto-mastering being in level, compression, panning, and frequency allocations. “Ostensibly, people want mastering to make their records louder,” he says. “But that’s misleading. Especially with digital systems — when you hit the converters or summing buses too hard, it misshapes the signal and distorts.

“Misuse of compression is rampant; typically, amateurs use too fast an attack time and too long a release, especially on percussion. They will not put enough emphasis on de-essing. Most of the monitoring systems are set up improperly and the image is off — they think they’re panning wider than they really are, which leads to crowding a lot of instruments in the same octave too far to the same side, causing similar frequencies to build up and blur. And that leads to a really disparate top end; cymbals, pianos, and other top-heavy sounds get brighter in the mix as they try to separate them. Then, when it’s time to master, they brighten the entire song, over-emphasizing the highs on those instruments. The same scenario applies to the low end, too. What a lot of people look at as a mastering issue is really a matter of thinking the mix out better.”

LIMITING PROBLEMS

Kevin Gray, who has mastered records for artists including Billy Joel and The Who and now owns AcousTech Mastering, says: “The tendency over the last few years with indie records has been towards over-compression and over-EQing. It might be driven by major labels that always look to make a record louder, but I think home recording has a lot to do with it.”

When it comes to processing, Gary asserts the mentality is additive, not subtractive: “If you’re within 6dB of zero, you’re still using all 16 bits, and you can leave some headroom for the mastering engineer to apply EQ and other processing. And don’t think doing this over eight-inch speakers is going to be accurate. You need a full-range monitoring system unless you like nasty surprises.”

However, Gray agrees amateurs can achieve a decent sheen, if they’re willing to take the time to reference mastered takes in a variety of monitoring environments, averaging outcomes. “That takes time going from one monitoring set up to another to compare, but time is something this type of client usually has more of than money,” he says, citing one technique wherein you put your refs into a multi-CD changer with discs that were mastered correctly and used as references for your monitoring system.

You can use plug-ins, also — Gray uses Waves’ L2 in Pro Tools regularly. “But not cranked up 15dB,” he cautions. “When you push compression to the wall, you flatten the image and lose the presence of individual instruments. You can’t tell one drum from another; the cymbals are a big mish-mash.”

Gray points to vocal sibilance sneaking through the mastering process as a widely felt woe. “You need to be very conscious of what’s going on in the 8-to-12kHz range on vocals,” he explains. “It’s really noticeable on vinyl, which is why I use super-fast-acting limiters for disk cutting.”

MASTERING FILES FOR A MODERN WORLD

Long before iTunes undermined the music industry, the indie music universe was trading files online. What’s taken longer to suss out, however, is what effect codec algorithms have on music. There’s no argument that digital impacts how music sounds; in the mid-1990s a group of mastering engineers, led by the late Denny Purcell, compelled the major labels to acknowledge exactly that in a series of critical listening tests. However, there’s been no such movement to address what codecs such as MP3 do to music.

Alan Douches, owner of West Side Music in upstate New York, encounters the issues often with his large base of independent music clients. “There are no real level and gain structure standards in online music distribution like there are in broadcast or CDs, so most of the problems center on level,” he says. Douches has set up a 16-bit/44.1kHz side chain that runs parallel to his conventional 24-bit mastering signal path specifically to create MP3 masters. He sets the level at 0.4dB lower than that for CDs, sends the stereo signal to its own Lexicon 2020 comp/limiter, and he also introduces a hi-pass filter, set at between 38 and 40Hz, to limit the amount of low-frequency information that goes to the file-based master. “Limiting the level and the amount of low end helps avoid ‘confusing’ the algorithm,” he explains. “If you give the file a little more headroom you have a better chance of developing a better sound at the extreme ends of the frequency spectrum and not inducing artifacts like ‘pumping’ on the low end or crackling on the high end by overloading the codec’s [ability to process data].”

The high end is where the mastering minefield for files ultimately lies. “Ironically, it’s the same place it is for SACD, the ultra-audio format,” comments Allan Tucker of Foothill Digital in New York City. “Too much information at the top end translates horribly for sensitive formats, including SACD and especially lossy formats like MP3.”

Such perils serve as testament to the fact that the onset of the digital age, and all the subsequent new means and ends at the recording artist’s hands, has done little to truly simplify or demystify mastering — it’s still a process shrouded in secrecy, a proclivity best suited for those that have moved out of the realm of the initiate. If anything, the advent of digital technology, particularly in the area of distribution, has made mastering all the more tricky . . . by the sheer plethora of codecs out there if nothing else.