It is said that to understand a subject fully, you must teach it. While I’m not implying that Bob Katz’s understanding about music technology is lacking, I get the sense that he has wrestled with the topic to a much greater degree than he would’ve if he hadn’t written about it.
Within the pages of the outstanding third edition of his book Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science (2014; Focal Press), Katz not only demystifies the subject of mastering in a logical, well-organized way, but he has created a resource that will be equally of interest to pros and beginners.
Although the first and second editions of the book were important surveys of the skills required to become a mastering engineer, the latest version has been greatly overhauled to reflect important changes in the field during the seven years since the second edition was published, such as the way music is consumed. For example, as high-quality streaming becomes the norm, the author describes how the loudness wars could end if loudness normalization is adopted by the media companies that deliver music. In fact, the chapter on the subject, as well as the subsequent ones, are invaluable.
START WITH A GREAT MIX
The biggest surprise to those unfamiliar with Mastering Audio may be that it isn’t just for nascent mastering engineers. Rather, it examines topics that are important in every stage of the recording process, such as properly dealing with dynamics and monitoring, or understanding dither and jitter. Katz also delves into mixing and effects processing from the standpoint of the mastering engineer and the types of problems he or she typically encounters. Consequently, Mastering Audio should be mandatory reading for anyone making music in a personal studio.
Katz is not just cautionary about overusing EQ and compression; he gets into the theory of how we experience sound to explain why some techniques work and others don’t—for example, using delays and taking advantage of the Haas Effect to add depth to a mix rather than soaking everything in reverb. The information is explained in a way that is easy to understand and is surprisingly fast paced.
In fact, the further I got into the book, the more I realized how useful it would be even for musicians who have no interest in recording themselves, but who want to understand enough about the science, technology, and lingo to know what to listen for when they’re given a mix of their record, not to mention a master to sign off on.
The greater lesson the book offers is that lifelong learning is important in our field, especially for those who want to continue making high-quality recordings. That means keeping abreast of the technological advances that are meaningful; that we can put to use in a practical way, rather than simply following what’s trendy or au courant.
Katz points out early on in the book that the reader’s focus should be on the skills, not gear acquisition: In many cases, it is not our tools that hold back the quality of our work but, rather, our lack of understanding as to what they do, as well as their potential. And it’s too easy to get comfortable and set in our ways once we find something that works. Consequently, when a major disruption arrives in the form of a new technology, we tend to view it as a major hassle. But if the new paradigm means a measurable improvement in sound quality, it’s worth the extra effort it takes to learn and internalize the skills required to work with it.
It should be no surprise that Katz, himself, regularly challenges his expectations to make sure that what he is hearing is as reliable as possible, to the point where he has embraced a particular technology that he disavowed in an earlier edition of the book. Who else but one of the masters in the business would admit that in print? (No spoilers here! Read for yourself to find out what he learned.)
All of this points to how instructive the book’s title is. When viewed in the active sense, it says everything about what it means to be a musician or engineer in the 21st century: Achieving a full understanding of the art, science, and craft is a journey; it's about the process, rather than a single goal we can expect to achieve.