Master Class – The Art of Mastering

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The author at work in his studio, Michael Romanowski Mastering in San Francisco.

To many, mastering is a mysterious necessity. What really happens during mastering? What can I expect from it? Why do I need a mastering engineer; can’t I just master my own project? This is a big topic with as many answers as there are opinions.

Let’s start at the beginning. Mastering, in its essence, is the last step of the artistic process, and the first step of the manufacturing stage. But there’s much more to it than that. Like all aspects of making records, the process has evolved over time from strictly producing exact copies of records (i.e., LP lacquers from mix tapes) to assembling multiple media sources and sculpting the final sonic presentation.

Like every step in the recording process, mastering incorporates both art and science; I’ll offer my perspective on the artistic element.

The Big Picture: Artistic Goals The real-world artistic goal of mastering is translatability. People listen to music in all sorts of environments: big speakers, little speakers, iPods, cars, headphones, laptops. If your goal is to make the music sound as true to the artist’s intent as possible, you will provide a broader and longer music-enjoyment experience for listeners.

Mastering engineers create a cohesive body of work from a collection of songs, and creating that “package” sound requires understanding the artist’s goals. The songs on any given album were recorded and mixed over a period of time—and often, in different studios and with different engineers along the way. This process often introduces sonic variety from song to song. Here is where I will refute the argument that “no one listens to full records anymore; they only listen to singles.” I’ll just call that bullsh*t and leave this topic for another day. There is not enough space in this entire magazine for me to get into listening habits, psychoacoustic fatigue related to the loudness issue, or the relationship between artist and consumer. I will leave my soapbox sitting comfortably beside me for the time being. Let’s get into the session flow and the process of mastering.

Michael Romanowski

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The Mastering Process: A Walkthrough First, a little background on me, for context: I’ve been professionally mastering records since 1994; I am the owner and chief engineer of a two-room mastering facility, Michael Romanowski Mastering, and owner of the historic recording studio Coast Recorders, both in San Francisco. (I am also a co-owner of a tape-only label called The Tape Project.)

Mastering typically starts with an artist/producer/engineer delivering mixes to me. Songs can come in many forms, even within the same project. While it is most common to get audio files from a DAW, I still get material on 1/4", 1/2", and even 1" tape. (Some projects even rely on cassette tape or LPs as a master source.) I always encourage the client to be at the mastering session, because this is a subjective process. Like mixing, mastering is art, and art is experiential; it is in the ears of the beholder. Having clients present also helps to answer any questions that they, or I, might have. They might want to learn how to prepare better next time. They may have opinions on presentation, or they may just want me to demystify the process. There are times when it is very helpful to me to know more about the mixing or recording sessions—for example, to explain whether certain sounds are intentional, or to discuss the merits of different versions of the mixes, or if multiple release formats are required for various distribution channels such as LP and high-res digital releases.

The next step is to listen to the mixes. I cannot, should not, and will not make any decisions until I have been able to give everything a critical listen and can begin to develop an objective opinion. In fact, I believe that one of the very core tasks of the mastering engineer is to develop opinions, based on an objective perception.

This is big. Very big. My mantra: “I should not be making any changes to the audio until I have enough perception information to form opinions.” Opinions on what, you may ask? Things like, Is there enough low end in the mix? Do the vocal frequencies sound natural? Is the last song way brighter than the next song? Does the dynamic range feel natural? Is it too compressed? Is this soundstage supposed to be from the drummer’s perspective?

How do I form these questions or try to solve these issues? I listen. I form ideas as to what I think the content sounds like. I think about what the music could sound like. This is the core of the art: My opinions have been developed over time through thousands and thousands of hours of listening—not listening to content, but listening to presentation. By the way, maintaining objectivity is exactly why the mix engineer should not be the mastering engineer. When one is deeply familiar with, or emotionally attached to the content, it is extremely difficult to be objective.

Now that I have established a Point A (what the record sounds like) and Point B (what I think the record could sound like), the next step is to figure out how to get from A to B. The only way I can feel confident about my decision-making process is to be confident in my own perception of the mix. Here, I want to emphasize that although mastering engineers rely on many specialized tools, the most important piece of equipment in my room, is my room.

Once I have been able to listen and make judgments about the presentation of the audio, I will decide which equipment to use—never before. That would be like putting salt on your food before you taste it. (By the way, I find that food analogies work well in explaining audio. There will be more forthcoming. I have lots of them.)

Mastering is a Zen-like process; I rely on my perception and opinions to guide my actions. While this is true for every step in studio production, let’s break down the stages for a minute. Recording engineers make choices about capturing individual sounds—from choosing the correct mics and mic placement to configuring gain structure, signal flow, etc. Their function is to commit the best representations of elements of a performance to media for balance and playback. The mixing engineer’s job is to balance recorded elements and create the presentation that the artist or producer envisions. Mastering is all about translatability and presentation of this complete body of work. Back to food: Someone grows the food. Someone cooks the food. Someone serves the food. The farmer (recording engineer) knows his soil, water, and fertilizer needs, his crops. The chef (mix engineer) knows the balance of ingredients—the chemistry of combinations, the taste. The service (mastering engineer) is all about making the elements of the meal presentable to the diner: the proper portions (EQ) in proper places. The right timing (pacing and fades) and temperature (dynamics). The final phase of quality control between creation and consumption—here, between the artist and the listener.

The “Sound” of Mastering I am regularly asked, “Do you specialize in a certain type of music?” and, “Do you have a ‘sound’?” As for the first question, objectivity is a requirement for me, so style of music does not matter. Some may argue this point, but I will stick to my guns and insist that the translatability sought after in the mastering stage of engineering is dependent on frequencies and dynamics, not content. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a longtime musician, and I am a true music fan. I listen to a lot of music away from work. I still put on music at home and sit on the couch and just listen. I dig into the songs and the instruments, the sounds, the words, and inflections. But for mastering, I couldn’t care less that the third verse is about a favorite truck, or that this rock song has a pedal steel in every song. These are important for content, but not for my objectivity. The questions I ask myself are “how does this song sound?” “How does this relate to other songs, sonically?” “How does this record flow from song to song?” “Will this draw listeners in, or will it make their ears touch in the back?” These kinds of questions do not rely on the subject matter of the song, or even the style of music. Now, there are exceptions to every rule. There are key elements to pay attention to in specific genres. For example, heavy compression and classical music do not play nice together. Or, something I just learned recently—de-essing Czech singers can make them sound like they have a speech disability.

Opinions differ about having a “sound” as a mastering engineer. I recently spoke on a panel with my good friend and fellow mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen. An audience member asked us if we thought we had a “sound.” Gavin said without hesitation that yes, he had a sound. I just as quickly said no, I do not. I have always maintained that as with producers, there are two types of mastering engineers, and both are sought after.

Some producers are sought after for their “signature” sound; when artists complete projects with them, they sound more like the producer than they did going in. Some producers are sought out by artists who want to sound more like themselves than they did when they started. Jeff Lynne and Todd Rundgren are great examples of these two approaches. When artists work with Jeff Lynne, they end up having elements of his style and sound—a sort of vibe and space—incorporated into their music. On the other hand, Todd Rundgren produces records sound like a polished, focused version of the artist. I have always strived to take the latter approach. I feel that it is my job to best present the artist’s material as naturally and openly as possible. To me, this will help ensure long-term accessibility of the artist’s vision of the record. But I learned from that panel discussion that I can try to adapt to the audience’s perspective. Will they mostly be listening in a club at loud levels? Is this going to be something that people will likely listen to on their phones during their commute? Is this quiet dinner music? These perspectives do affect my production choices. So yes, in some ways, I do have a sound. This comes back to the importance of having an initial conversation with the client about the goals of record.

Preparing For Mastering Now that you have a better idea of the mastering engineer’s perspective, there are a lot of things you can do to optimize your experience. Let’s start with the basics. First, get organized! Know what your songs are called, which version of the mixes you want to use, and where they are located on a drive. I have had many sessions in which clients would come in, hand me a bag of un-labeled DATs/CDs or a hard drive, and they would have no idea what I should be looking for. This is the quickest way to increase your billing time: Most mastering engineers work by hour, and taking time to search for the correct mixes, or trying to reach the mix engineer to figure out what the labeling hieroglyphics mean, can take as long as the session itself. It is also helpful to have a good working order of the songs. It does not need to be the final version—that often changes before the final master is made—but we have to have something to work with, especially when assembling a reference for you.

Do not put fades on files unless you are absolutely sure that that is exactly what you want. We can make songs shorter or shape the fade in mastering, but we cannot make them longer. You may think your fades are correct for the song, but when it comes time for assembly, a little more tail may make the difference for a natural flowing record—especially on a live record with applause, or one that feels “chopped.”

If your mixes are digital, it is helpful to know their resolution. This is not completely necessary, but useful when setting up for the session. If you are bringing your mixes on tape, please, please, please print alignment tones from the recording deck. Analog can sound really great, or it can sound really crappy, depending on the skill of the engineer. Tracks with a high noise floor or improper record alignment can make us wish they arrived on DAT instead.

With any media, it is preferable to have some headroom, so leave at least a few dB of room at the top to work with. This does not mean turning down your master fader in your DAW. This means leaving some dynamics and headroom for the mastering engineer to make necessary adjustments to each song so that they can become a single body of work without compromising other tracks.

Remember that anytime we need to EQ, we are adding or subtracting energy. Given that there’s a finite number of ones and zeros in digital files, that means we would have to process the sound just to process the sound. Do not over-compress or use the master bus to add gain to your mix. This processing is unnecessary and irreversible. Back to my food analogies: This would be like trying to take flour out of a cake that has already been baked. I have talked with many mix engineers who tell me that when starting a mix session, the first thing they do is put a couple of EQs and compressors on the master mix bus. What? That is insane. Another food analogy: That would be like starting with a cup of salt and trying to add just enough of the other ingredients to make soup—ass-backwards. I realize the importance of providing a mix reference that you and your clients can use to compare to finished records you listen to regularly. But it’s important to understand that the mastering process is not complete. Those finished records have been mastered already; your mixes haven’t. If you want to get an idea what might happen to the mix during mastering, and you feel like you need to squash for a client’s reference, okay, but take that processing off the mix before mastering.

Understand (or if you have a client, explain) why you are intentionally removing this processing. Whether you are the artist, the engineer, or both, it’s important to remember that you are being relied upon for your expertise. If you are an engineer, your clients expect you to guide them through the parts of the process that they either don’t know about or shouldn’t be paying attention to. You trust them to be an intentional artist, and they trust you to be an intentional engineer. I sat on another panel with producer/mixer Chris Lord-Alge, who fielded a question from a mix engineer who wanted to print stems and alternate mixes to take to the mastering session. He asked, “Why would you even think of doing that?” The person responded that he was not sure what it was going to sound like and wanted to be prepared. Chris shot back, “How could your client trust you if you did not even trust yourself?” The moral of the story? Own your work.

Remember that in mastering, we only have two channels to work with. We cannot change the mix; we can only change the perception of the mix—shifting the focus, perhaps, using EQ to get rid of problem frequencies while adding others that may be lacking. In mastering, compression is a way of bringing the mix forward a bit, or to glue the instruments together a bit more. At this stage, these are finishing tools, not construction tools. If someone is recording and says, “let’s just capture it; we will fix it in the mix,” they are already starting on the wrong foot. The same goes for mastering. If mix engineers say, “let’s fix it in mastering,” they are passing the buck and not doing their job.

Hopefully I’ve helped demystify the art of mastering a little bit here. I haven’t even touched on the technical side and manufacturing process, which I’ll save for another time. I’ll finish by emphasizing the most important points: Mastering is an art form, and should be approached as such. Since mastering is about the presentation, it is subjective, yet still requires an objective perspective of the music. There are as many opinions about how mastering is needed and used as there are engineers. Music is art. And art is not a competition; it’s an expression. When my clients leave at the end of the day and have a reference in their hand that represents all of the hard work they have put in, all of the time and money spent, all of the emotions and hardships they went through to make their record, I want them to be proud of their body of work. I want their fans to be able to listen into the music. I want them to be drawn into what the artist has to say. I am honored by that trust that they put in me with their creation. My job is to help artists better express themselves and connect with their fans. And I love it.

In addition to being the owner and chief engineer of Michael Romanowski Mastering and Coast Recorders in San Francisco, Romanowski is president of the San Francisco chapter of The Recording Academy and an active member of the Producers and Engineers’ Wing. He is also a musician and a teacher.