Getting the Most out of Mastering

IN A recent interview, Mix magazine asked Sterling Sound managing partner and senior mastering engineer Greg Calbi to talk about the way his work has changed in the age of low-res streaming and high-res digital releases.

Greg Calbi helps DIY recordists prepare their mixes

In a recent interview, Mix magazine asked Sterling Sound managing partner and senior mastering engineer Greg Calbi to talk about the way his work has changed in the age of low-res streaming and high-res digital releases. But after 40 years of helping artists from Alabama Shakes to Ziggy Marley to elevate their music, Calbi is less interested in new formats than he is in the changing face of his mastering clients.

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“I master up to 200 albums a year, and maybe ten of those will sell over half a million,” Calbi said. “But the other 190 or so records or so that come out that aren’t huge hits also really need our service. Our clients might be artists who are doing this entire thing on their own—they’re engineering, but they’re not necessarily engineers. It’s a totally different type of person that’s having to develop as a songwriter and creator in this environment, and it’s a very taxing and high-energy and low-paying situation that musicians come into now, and try to be successful.”

Greg Calbi in his studio at Sterling Sound. As a veteran who serves many novices, Calbi takes his responsibilities as an educator, as well as engineer, seriously. Electronic Musician asked him to help artists and engineers understand what mastering engineers need from them to get the best from each project. Here’s his advice, in his own words.

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Keep Everyone on the Same Page Probably the primary thing to tell a person who’s new to the mastering process is that the mixes they make do not, and should not, need to be level-maxed. They shouldn’t be super loud and super compressed. That’s something that is better left for the mastering person.

I had a guy here very recently who had a really nice-sounding project, but he’d used level-maxing software that was so out-of-control that it couldn’t be accepted by any of the analog equipment that we usually use to process audio. I had him take that plug-in off and come back, and it sounded fantastic.

Ideally, if someone does mix using level-maxing software, they should provide the mastering engineer with that plus [a mix] with that bypassed. And no matter what, it’s important for the mastering engineer to have whatever version everyone involved has been listening to. Whether there’s a quieter version, or a louder version, or a version with vocals that are more prominent, the mastering engineer needs to know what everyone’s received, so that the post-mastering level can be equal to what everyone has heard. It’s almost impossible to get an approval on a master if somebody on the team has a mix in their possession that’s louder.

This is something every engineer has to deal with: What is the vision, and what is the perception of mix as it’s being heard by the people who are involved in sponsoring it, or buying it, or by the musicians who think of it as their own.

Know Your Room Frequently, the biggest challenge with people mixing in a home environment is their monitoring situation is less than ideal. In other words, what that person is hearing does not accurately reflect what is being recorded, and when the music that the person is recording is played back on accurate equipment, all of a sudden, anomalies appear. It can be difficult, particularly in the low end, to get an accurate representation of what is actually on that digital file. For example, the client could have a room that’s very narrow and not deep enough to really reflect the low end, so the bass gets cut off, but meanwhile it’s on the file.

Over the past five years, it’s become an endemic problem where I’ll get something that has a massive amount of low end, and then have to determine: Did the person mixing this really want to have this much low end, or did they just not hear it? If somebody comes to a session with a mastering engineer and listens in a room that’s properly balanced and tuned, they’ll hear it right away and go, “I didn’t know I had that much bass!”

But if the client is just sending a file to a mastering engineer, the engineer has to play a guessing game as to what the client’s taste is. He doesn’t know if the client just loves bass—some people just love low end, and you don’t want to take that away if they love it—or if that’s not what they really meant. It helps a lot if the mixer knows what to expect from their room sonically, so they know what maybe needs to be communicated to the mastering engineer.

Communication Is Key I recommend that anybody establishing a new relationship with a mastering engineer send a note of explanation, particularly if they have a specific sound in mind for the mix: “We’re doing a reggae thing, so we really want the low end to be big and rich and round,” for example. Communication is very important with anybody who’s working on any part of your music project, whether it’s somebody playing a bass part or somebody mastering it. You have to let them know what you’re trying to do, because you’re creating a work of art, and there’s no obvious correct or incorrect; it’s all about creating something that’s going to be pleasing musically, and it pays for everybody to be on the same page.

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I always encourage clients sit in on mastering sessions if they can, but unfortunately with the economics of the business being what they are, only about 35 percent of my clients can sit in—and I have more attended sessions than anybody here at Sterling.

Short of that, I just encourage as much interaction as possible. It’s a strange thing: Some people really don’t want to be involved in mastering, even if they mixed the project. They really just want to pass it on to somebody else. I respect that. So, sometimes communication just means a one-sentence email: “Do what you think is best. We like what you do, and that’s why we sent it to you.” That’s good to know, because then if I hear the bass as too loud, I can say, “I know they want me to use my best judgment, and I know what will make it something I like listening to and I feel proud of.”

Other people will sit in and listen to a mix, and say, “This is one part where the keyboard is too low, or in this vocal line I can’t understand one word.” That’s what I call inside-the-mix tweaking, which generally a mastering engineer will not take it upon himself to do unless the client asks for it.

Ask for What You Want Inside-the-mix tweaking means, working on the individual elements to get the mix to where everybody wants it to be: all the vocal lines and solos are loud enough, the hooks at the end are loud enough. These are things that are mix-related, but a mastering engineer could help with. However, these would not necessarily be things that a mastering person would do without encouragement and without suggestion.

I wouldn’t ever start to take apart a mix like that if I weren’t told to do it. It would be disrespectful to the people who mixed it. A mastering engineer doesn’t look at his work like a mix fix. Mastering is different from that. You don’t go inside the mix unless there’s an obvious problem, like all of a sudden a guitar solo is panned all the way to the left and it’s clear there was a mistake in the automation or something where one channel got muted by mistake.

Exercise Your Options If you look at the mix as raw material, the mastering engineer has more flexibility if he has something that’s closer to the source rather than ultra-processed at the end. On the creative side, on sound creation, I would say that in terms of the actual elements of the mix—the guitar sounds, the keyboard sounds, the bass sound, the vocals—it’s not so much for the mastering engineer to determine what gets included. It’s more about creating balance between everything.

But if a mix engineer wants a mastering engineer’s input on those inside-the-mix type decisions, it helps to give the mastering person some choices. If you’re not sure how much bass to have in a mix, you can print the mix with no bass and then print the bass track on a separate stem and then send both to me. This is not frequently done, but if the producer/engineer is also the artist, that person might benefit from a professional mastering engineer’s perspective. So sometimes the client will say, “I printed a mix with the bass the way we think it should be, but I also gave you a mix without the bass in the instrumental and the bass on a separate track.” You basically can do that with anything, but it’s usually the bass or the vocals that are the most debatable and complicated, where you might want to offer more options.

Knowing your mastering engineer: A note to Calbi from John Lennon. When to Compress If clients use compression on individual tracks and then mult them, that kind of stemming will work, but if there’s compression at the very end of the chain—so the bass is before the compressor, for example—that will change the mix drastically. Not only will the bass be different, but the mix compression will be different. In other words, if you bus-compress the whole mix and then change something prior to the mix, you need to put the entire mix through that same compressor to get that same feel for the mix. If people do separate drum compression, vocal compression, bass compression, and they combine all the three at the end with no bus compression at the very end, then I can balance them here.

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I keep coming back to this, but so much depends on how much interaction the client has with the mastering person. If you want to include the mastering person in the mix process, and let him know that, he can be very helpful, and if the client is an independent artist who’s financing the project himself and working in his own studio, then the client has the flexibility to go back and create another mix, or break out a mix for the mastering engineer.

So if you’re uncertain of the vocal level, print a couple of mixes and send them to your mastering engineer and say, “Which one do you think we should use?” Bass up or bass down? Vocal up or vocal down? Compressed or uncompressed? Give the mastering person a choice and then have some communication about it.

Know Your Mastering Engineer If my client is somebody I’ve been working with for a while, we can communicate back and forth, even during the mix, via an upload server that we use for works in progress. Longtime clients might send me a mix and ask, “Are we close? Are we there?” But I would have to have a relationship with somebody to do that. It’s not like people can just see my name on the internet and say, “Can I send you some mixes to listen to?” That’s not the way it’s done. But there is a lot of flexibility within the system here once you get to know somebody.

I encourage people to develop a relationship with a mastering engineer they trust because there are benefits to having that relationship. Let’s say you just bought a new A-to-D converter and you wanted to do a mix with it and also mix with your old converter, and you want somebody who has good ears to say which one sounds better. It’s the same as having a couple of bass players you often use; it’s just good practice to build those kinds of relationships.

What Will It Cost? If someone is not here attending the session, we bill by the track. But we have a limit. If people send us 15-minute tracks, and then we have to bill by the hour, because that can change a half-hour job into a full-hour job. The per-track rate will also include some consultation if someone wants to send a mix and ask us to check the mix and make sure it’s in the ballpark. But if we get into a lot of back and forth, we would have to start billing by the hour, but we would let the client know that in advance.

Is It Ever a Good Idea to Master Yourself? The thing is, it’s really important that someone involved in your project has an environment that is accurate, but somebody who’s mixing and mastering would be mastering in the same room where they’re mixing. They’re not getting the perspective they need to understand the quality of what they have.

What I always say is, for the past 40 years I’ve worked with professional people from professional studios who have years of experience, and who still rely on a mastering engineer to listen and correct their mix if it needs correction, or enhance it if it needs enhancement. I’m talking about some of the most talented people on the planet: guys like Geoff Emerick and Al Schmitt. They don’t just use mastering engineers to create a master to be manufactured; they take the opportunity to check their mix and make sure the music is taken as far as it can get musically.

So, if that’s the mentality of longtime professional engineer, why would somebody who has less experience think they’ve enhanced the mix as best they can, if there is enough money and enough time to plug somebody else into the process?

Obviously, I’m a mastering person, and I want to feel like my job means something. But when somebody says to me, “I never knew it could sound this good”—when somebody who’s a musician and really deep inside their project says their recordings took on another dimension—I realize that the work we do here can make an album sound more dynamic and better.

Barbara Schultz is a freelance writer and editor, and a regular contributor to Electronic Musician and Mix magazines.