You've chased down the latest records, found all the right beats, looped all the samples, finally gotten the singer to show up on time and built your own studio in the spare bedroom. You've recorded, over-dubbed, mixed, remixed and edited your track until your brain hurts. It's finished; it's over. You've got the gold in your hands — but you're still not done.
You need a little sheen. You need to have your baby mastered.
Even if you are just sending out song demos to publishing companies or trying to land a big recording contract, having your project mastered by professionals will greatly increase your chances for success.
WHAT IS MASTERING?
Mastering is the final step to take your music to the professional level, the last opportunity to fine-tune all the frequencies that you couldn't clean up in the mix. In the mastering studio, you can compile your tracks; make some mad edits; fade in and fade out; and cut, slice and dice your track with the help of an engineer who lives and breathes for the finest details. In pro circles, these are the engineers with the Golden Ears.
A mastering engineer typically uses high-end gear to bring a track up to professional standards: customized consoles with discrete electronics; outboard signal processing units costing as much as a car; critical (often custom) monitoring environments; and digital audio workstations loaded with hiss removal, decrackling and de-noising software.
You can use many digital sound editing packages to compile your mixes — Pro Tools, Logic, pretty much anything with a digital in and out. You can also use plug-ins and other signal-processing software to apply premastering and mastering techniques to your mixes. But beware of what you add, because not all of it can be removed. And, as any mastering engineer will attest, although they can do wonders to a track, these engineers can only work with what they're given.
To find out what should and shouldn't be done in preparing tracks for release, Remix invited an international roundtable of engineers and indie-label execs to discuss mastering. The common thread? All tracks benefit from another set of ears, and there's a reason these engineers are masters.
What can a home- or project-studio artist do to prepare a mix for mastering?
Chris Cowie, label manager, Bellboy Records: We get demos in that have been so heavily processed by “mastering software” that the track sounds really bad. What I mean is that all this so-called mastering software is easily available, and users are inserting it over the master bus and just whacking everything up. Not all demos we get sound bad, mind you, but I would steer clear of mastering software. If a track has too much bass or not enough top end, this can easily be fixed in the mastering room.
Dave Audé, studio manager, Moonshine Music: You should try to have all songs related to a particular project at the same level. Also, have everything on only one format and make sure you've discussed the format with the mastering engineer ahead of time so he can be prepared.
Marc Lindahl, president, Bowery.com: Make the mix sound as good as you can. Check it on a lot of systems. Don't use any bus compression. Don't clip your master, but don't record too low. If you have an editing program (like Spark), make sure you have about two seconds of lead-in and two seconds of lead-out on each song. Don't trim the ends too close. Call the mastering place to find out its preferred format. Audio CD or DAT is most common.
Martin Pullan, owner, Edensound Mastering: Record to the maximum level within the medium, not over! Use as little overall compression and limiting as possible, as this can't be undone in the mastering. Also, avoid normalizing. Know where all the versions are so as not to waste time in the mastering session trying to find tracks — DAT tape should have IDs and absolute time references.
John Shah, owner, Scrunch Recordings: Ensure the mix is accurate by monitoring through several different sound systems, large to small. Check top and tail of each track for unwanted noise. Do not overcompress or digitally max out the headroom.
Larry Lachman, mastering engineer, Absolute Audio: Check your mixing on other systems. Do not normalize this process — it actually limits what a mastering engineer can do to a final mix. It can also distort the music.
What do you look for in a mastering engineer?
Cowie: Consistency. We use a guy who is very consistent. We once used a guy who did a very good job on a track that I heard, but when he mastered our track, it came back sounding like a transistor radio. So some guys that are good on some stuff aren't necessarily going to be good on your material. We always look for a guy who isn't scared to use all the vinyl or whack up the volume a bit. I hate low volume on vinyl. The more of the vinyl that is used, the better the quality.
Audé: Good ears. A broad, eclectic taste of music. Someone who has some time to spend with you. An early morning or afternoon session before ear fatigue.
Lindahl: Ask yourself, “Did he master records that you want yours to sound like?”
Is it important for a mastering engineer to know about the style of music he or she is mastering?
Cowie: Definitely. They don't have to know anything about the artist. But there is no point in using a mastering engineer who spends his days mastering indie rock to master your latest dance tune. It's just common sense.
Lindahl: Hell, yeah! Definitely! The mastering engineer needs to know the style of music, whatever it is.
Pullan: I think it's important for mastering engineers to have an understanding of many types of music and to be very broad-minded. Specializing or being snobby about a particular style will certainly limit the amount of work you do! Having said this, the same basic rules apply whether you're mastering country, classical, death metal, whatever.
Shah: Yes, it is important to understand the style and sound as well as where, and on what, the music will be played. It is also important to understand where the artist is coming from.
Lachman: Absolutely. A good mastering engineer doesn't just make the music sound good, they make it feel good. Understanding the music you are working on or being a fan helps to make a difference, but it's not a rule of thumb.
When you receive a master mix that has been created in a home or project studio that lacks professional outboard gear, what's the first thing you do?
Cowie: We don't do anything really. If the mix is really bad, we will get the artist to do it again. No amount of mastering will fix a badly engineered track. When we get something in that needs a bit of leveling out or the midrange tweaked a bit, we tend to just leave that to the mastering engineers. With us being a dance label, most stuff we get usually sounds quite decent.
Audé:[Joking.] Put lots of expensive compression and reverb on it and crank the bass up. Each project is different, so having professional gear means jack if the song or mix sucks. Sometimes people overuse the gear; sometimes having no compression is great.
Lindahl: Use compression and EQ to try to get some punch into the drums. Also, if there's a lot of tape hiss and noise, I'll use a plug-in to take it out. It's best to remix a track in a professional studio. If that's not possible, let the mastering engineer try to fix it.
Pullan: The first thing I do is get excited, because I know I can usually make a big difference to the track and the client will be really impressed! I find these jobs challenging and, for that reason, enjoyable.
Shah: Use my ears to check for errors. Mismatches of volume usually can be corrected through use of compression, limiting and automation.
Lachman: Good gear does not always equal good mixes. It does help, though. Good producers with good engineers can do a mix in a home studio that will sound better than mixes in a pro studio done by a bad engineer.
Hip-hop and dance music are generally mixed from many different sources, from prerecorded samples and turntables to MIDI tracks and live musicians. Does dance music have any special mastering processes?
Cowie: Not really, but a mix compilation has to have each single track EQ'd a certain way so that the mix has a certain consistency to it. A commercial CD does have a better sound than a CD that a bedroom DJ does, and that is quite simply down to the mastering and probably a little bit of Pro Tools. The same goes for an artist album that may have been recorded over the period of a year and used different engineers. Again, the mastering engineer will EQ the tracks individually.
Lindahl: Listen carefully for low-end resonances that stick out. EQ those down a bit, precompressor. Use a multiband compressor to control the bass without affecting the vocals.
Pullan: It's important to keep the bottom end under control, because the systems that this music is played on often have subs and exaggerated bass. It's very tempting to wind-in too much. Regarding the different sources, sometimes noise is a problem, but most people seem to accept this as part of the charm of the samples they're using, and often they have used some noise reduction in the recording process anyway. Often, several sounds are on the same sample — for instance, the kick and snare can be off the same mono track, which makes EQ'ing a challenge.
Lachman: With hip-hop, you can really go for it, but dance music needs clarity and punch in order to cut through in the clubs.
Do vinyl and CD releases have different mastering techniques?
Cowie: Usually what you hear in mastering is what you get on the CD, but 12-inch records might end up sounding different as you're leaving the digital domain.
Audé: Cutting vinyl is definitely an art, and when you master for 12-inch, you usually pay special attention to the low end since the guy cutting it will usually change it somehow.
Lindahl: Yes. Vinyl has physical constraints not present in CD, so the master has to account for it. For example, the following can cause problems on vinyl: out-of-phase bass frequencies, excessive bass or treble frequencies, a trade-off of groove modulation vs. side length.
Pullan: With vinyl, you have to be careful not to have any out-of-phase information in the bottom end; otherwise, the stylus won't cope. Also, sibilant distortion is an issue if there is too much top end. And with CD, there is a definite time limit, whereas with vinyl you can squeeze in more time, but the levels go down as the groove gets narrower. Don't forget also that there are two sides, so if there is a segue that starts at the side-change point, this has to be split.
Lachman: It's different from song to song. Most engineers use CD-mastering techniques for vinyl, then roll off some bass usually at 32 to 35 Hz and some of the top, 18 to 20 kHz, in order to gain overall gain volume on the vinyl.
Should artists have a reference CD in mind to start the discussion of where they'd like to go with their mastered mixes?
Cowie: Yes. It's a very good way to work. I often use a CD just to check that I'm on the right track with my mix. But there's no point in using the latest Chemical Brothers album if you have a small bedroom studio with limited resources. Use a CD that you think you could sound like.
Audé: Sure. Listen to a bunch of stuff. At the end of the day, though, a good mastering engineer knows what's up, and you shouldn't have to play a damn thing.
Lindahl: Yes, definitely, at least one.
Pullan: Absolutely. In fact, I think it's good to have a few to get a good cross-section for a level and EQ reference.
Lachman: Yes. I give this advice to many new engineers.
So many software plug-ins and packages claim they are mastering tools. Do any of them help, or should mastering be left to the pros with the big ears?
Cowie: As stated earlier, they claim to be mastering tools. I'm sure they can help, but I would leave it to the mastering facility and the mastering engineer. Just because Cubase, Logic and Pro Tools have these plug-ins, it doesn't necessarily mean they should be used.
Audé: I say to use whatever you have — technology is awesome — but don't “master” something and then send it off to get duplicated. Sit with it for a few days, play it in your car a million times, play it on a crappy radio, play it in a club. If you don't rush it, you'll figure it out.
Lindahl: Don't bring a mastered song for remastering; bring the unprocessed mix. Use them for your mixes; leave the mastering to the pros. If you're interested in mastering, use those tools to practice mastering at home. Some day you might be good!
Pullan: Plug-ins don't do it for me. When it comes to mastering, you can't beat top-end analog gear. If you're talking about doing a generic tweak based on some style of music, this doesn't work either. So much in mastering has to do with the key of the song, the locations the tracks were recorded in, getting rid of a little boomyness that may only occur in one part of the song. These things can only be addressed with a good pair of ears and experience.
Shah: Usually the home-studio software is created on a budget, resulting in an inferior product, whereas more professional mastering houses carry high-end equipment. In some cases, the use of home mastering software, if not used properly or overly used, can make the end results very undesirable. It is important if using this software to send two copies of your material into the cutting house: one copy mastered with the software, one copy without.
Lachman: There is no such thing as a mastering engineer in a box. If your songs are going to be mastered by a pro, don't use them. If you are going straight to duplication, these plug-ins work great.
Hip-hop and dance-music artists are always looking to bring out more lows, phatten the bass and round out the bottom end. What are some techniques used to achieve maximum low-end phatness?
Cowie: The source material is definitely the most important. If the bass sounds or the drums sound like a few tin cups being slapped together, no amount of mastering is going to phatten up the sound. Get the sounds right during the recording process.
Audé: First, you can't add something that isn't there, so don't say, “We'll fix it in mastering.” There are great plug-ins from Waves like the L1 Ultramaximizer for level, and check out T-Racks for mind-blowing bass!
Lindahl: Those are mix issues more than mastering. Check your mixes on sub-woofers, make sure there aren't any phase problems. Also, pick bass sounds that have some mid-frequency content so the bass lines can still be heard on small speakers. Don't mix your songs excessively bass heavy. Keep them well-balanced; then, the mastering engineer can control it from there.
Pullan: Like I said before, you have to be careful here. But there are boxes that introduce lower octaves into the track. I tend to enhance what is already there with EQ and multiband compression. Sometimes I introduce a little stereo spread in that area, being careful to keep the mono-compatibility.
Shah: The reason for this is usually to create the same result of playback in the clubs and car stereos. This is incorrect. It is usually best to reference material with a known quality program of music played back on several systems in order to gain frequency balance. Equalizing and multiband compression can emphasize the low end, but it is recommended to complement these frequencies with its higher spectrum to show contrast. For example, hi-hats show top frequencies to complement the bass frequencies and vice versa.
Lachman: A combination of boosting and cutting certain bass frequencies will let you shape the bottom end and keep it from getting loose and sloppy sounding.
Any final tips about preparing a master or about mastering techniques?
Cowie: It depends on the style of music. Techno suits a lot of compression, but proggy trance doesn't. You have to be careful when using compression on a final mix that has vocal on it. At the end of the day, get the mix to sound as good as you can before using any mastering software, and you may be surprised to find that [the mix] doesn't really need it. I have always been skeptical of mastering software, by the way.
Lindahl: Always bring a backup copy in case the first copy has a dropout. Don't depend on the mastering to save your song. It should sound great already — then the mastering will bring it to the next level.
Pullan: Don't try to master your tracks before you go into mastering. Leave it to the pros, or if you have to, take in the “unmastered” track, too. When laying down your mixes, if you're not sure about the level of the vocal, do a version with the vocal down a dB and one up a dB. It's always the hardest thing to get right, and it doesn't take that much extra time.
Shah: Leave mastering to professionals.
Lachman: Compare your mixes to similar recordings that sound good. Be sure to make the music feel good, not just sound good. That's why people listen to music in the first place … to feel good.
FROM THE LABELS
Dave Audé, Moonshine Music
Since 1992, Moonshine Music has been building up to be the United States' biggest independent record label dedicated to electronic music. Moonshine is based in Los Angeles but works with artists from all around the world. Moonshine has released albums by some of the United States' top DJs, including Keoki, DJ Dan, Christopher Lawrence, Donald Glaude, AK1200 and Omar Santana.
Chris Cowie, Bellboy Records
Bellboy Records (and sister label, Hook Recordings) has enjoyed consistent and remarkable success for almost a decade. Among the UK's independent dance-music labels, its longevity, quality and financial success is unique. Bellboy is home to producers like Vegas Soul, Frankie Bones and 808 State.
Marc Lindahl, Bowery.com
Bowery Records has been making the rawest hip-hop in the New York City underground for years, warning people to “leave the wack and watered down to a place where the beats bang, the rhymes shine and there's no, absolutely no, flossin' allowed. Clean be warned, it doesn't get any dirtier than this.” Some Bowery artists are Nitty, Ghetto Government, Crane and O-Negative.
FROM THE MASTERING SUITES
John Shah, Scrunch Recordings, Philadelphia
Scrunch Recordings specializes in vinyl mastering. It cuts your lacquer and sends it to be plated. The Scrunch staff has been associated with the European and U.S. dance-music industries since 1987.
Martin Pullan, Edensound, Melbourne, Australia
Edensound is a full-service mastering studio, providing mastering, editing and post-production services in a Focusrite Blue analog mastering suite. Clients include Deep Purple, Tina Arena, Killing Heidi, Subsonic Symphonee.
Larry Lachman, Absolute Audio, New York
Founded in 1991, Absolute Audio considers itself a hybrid facility that includes vintage analog gear and the latest in high-tech gadgets. Its clients include Outkast, Koffee Brown, George Clinton, Tommy Boy Records, Jaheim, Boyz II Men and LFO.