Understand Your Mix’s Essential Final Step
By Ken Micallef
They’re mysterious, they’re straightforward. Their work is ubiquitous, but their credit is overdue. Their job comes after recording and mixing, but they’re often expected to fix past mistakes. Their gear is esoteric, and though their exact role is often misunderstood, it’s an essential component to every record ever made, from Meet The Beatles to The Fame. The mastering engineer is the final link in the recording chain and the first stop for mass production, but what exactly does he or she do?
To answer that question (and a few more), EQ spoke with four prominent mastering engineers: Gavin Lurssen of Lurssen Mastering, Michael Romanowski of Michael Romanowski Mastering, Andrew Mendelson of Georgetown Masters, and Joe Palmaccio of The Place. . .For Mastering. They don’t agree on everything, but their goals are the same—to make each master all it can be. But questions remain. Like, what exactly is the role of the mastering engineer?
“Mastering is the final step in the artistic process of making a record, and the first step of the manufacturing phase,” Michael Romanowski explains. “You’re taking sounds, which are songs, and listening to them in an extremely tuned room; listening for frequency, level, how the sounds sound within the song, and how they sound with the songs when they go together. Mastering is the final check for quality control in the sonic presentation. It takes years of ear training and listening and focus to get to where you’re paying attention to the bigger-picture details and not the smaller-picture content.”
Andrew Mendelson relays the nuts and bolts.“ We are taking the completed mix, and using tools not too different in principle from the tone controls on a radio or playback device,” he says, “and trying to fix any issues, and present the mixes in the best possible way. We’re ensuring that the mixes translate well to all listening environments. Then we work on the final master, which is delivered to the pressing plant, download service, or label production department.”
“When working with an established client, my role is that of a trusted and objective listener,” adds Joe Palmaccio. “Established mixers and producers who have long-standing work relationships with me trust my judgment. Another role occurs when working with first-time clients—both first time for mastering and perhaps the first time making a finished recording. Today it is common for a first-time client to meet with me before they’ve recorded a note of music. My job includes becoming a trusted advisor to the overall production in addition to carrying out the traditional mastering duties I perform with established clients.”
But with Pro Tools, plug-ins, and in-the-box recording, who really needs a mastering engineer? Sure, superstars can afford the ultimate finished touches on their recordings, but for Joe Average in his bedroom studio, cost is anything but no object.
“A mastering engineer offers a specialty position, a lot of human experience; he or she can advise the artist on the tonal structure of the music,” Gavin Lurssen explains. “The mastering engineer offers gear that goes much deeper than a piece of software. We use very intricately and carefully designed tools to dig into the audio that go far beyond what any software can do. Until the industry is further developed, automated software designs generally emulate the craft best performed by a human.
“Technically, you don’t need a dedicated mastering engineer,” Andrew Mendelson adds. “The essential part of the process is the creation of the deliverable master. People can do that at home, but when we create a master it goes through a rigorous quality-control process that ensures the client that everything is being done properly. People tend to think of mastering as just the processing stage, but it’s the attention to detail and creating the deliverable master that is truly the fundamental part of the job.”
“Producers and mixers can lose their objectivity,” Palmaccio says. “The most important reason they seek out a mastering engineer is to have someone to objectively comment on the good and bad, catch potential problems and offer solutions to fix those problems before they release their music. It’s true that there are tools one can use for mastering inside Logic and Pro Tools, but without experience, the tools are limited to the skill of the user.”
With their specialized experience and specialty gear, mastering engineers are truly deep listeners. But what are they listening for? Romanowski listens to “get an overall feel for presentation. Is it too loud, too quiet, too bright, too boomy? Is the frequency response from low to high well-represented?” Mendelson also has a well-honed laundry list, perking his ears for “Tonal balance, sibilance, apparent levels, mouth noises, broadband noise, level and balance between songs.”
“I want to see if the recording elicits any sort of emotional response,” Palmaccio says “Then I listen to the actual mechanics—what is the instrumentation, and how is that affecting the musicality of the song itself? Enhancing or correcting a mix includes adjusting equalization, applying compression or limiting, adjusting the stereo spread, and adjusting the level of the entire song or certain parts of the song.”
We’ve all seen the mighty toys of the professional recording studio, but the mastering room is a decidedly more foreign place to most of us. Its rig in total is typically minimal, its gear purpose-built.
“The mastering engineer’s chain is a very intricate look at EQ and limiting and it also takes into account the gain structure of the audio going through that gear,” Lurssen explains. “And because we deal with digital mixes, the gain structure coming out of the digital-to-analog converter into our gear and getting reconverted back from analog to digital is a big deal. Each mastering engineer generally designs their own gear for true transparency; Lurssen Mastering’s equipment chain is all customized with emphasis on a combination of tube and solid-state analog processing gear. When you’re working with two-track final mixes, you are working with something that has already gone through a digital or an analog summing bus,” says Lurssen. “An analog summing bus usually provides a more palatable or three-dimensional sound but these days there is a lot of mixing within a workstation, which leads to digital summing. When it comes through the console at our studio it will all be processed analog and all of these details need to be taken into account.”
“Most recording engineers work with small nearfield monitors, Palmaccio says. “Most mastering engineers use larger full-range systems. Another difference is the number of channels that mastering engineers work with. Recording and mix engineers are working with lots of channels, but most of the time I am working with two channels: left and right. Cable runs between gear are short and minimal because I want to maintain as high-quality a signal path as possible. Much of my processing gear is mastering-specific from the manufacturers. This includes features like easy reset ability and L/R channels matched to exacting tolerances.”
Tracks come into mastering in every incarnation imaginable. Lurssen says he “gets every file type available, including stems [grouped tracks]. Stems do offer flexibility in the ability to make fine-tune adjustments to the mix, but it is important to maintain the notion that the mixes should not be altered in the mastering room if at all possible,” he says. “Mix choices being made before mastering generally keep everybody focused in the right areas.”
Romanowski prefers to get AIFF (.aif), Wave (.wav), broadcast Wave, and FLAC; Mendelson has received “half-inch, quarter-inch, CD, DAT, VHS tape, even cassette,” he says. “Sometimes we’re pulling something off vinyl for a movie soundtrack. But it’s primarily PCM files, followed by DSD files and tape.”
Another ubiquitous bit of business is the constant call to “make it louder!” How do mastering engineers preserve musical dynamics while meeting the needs of clients who seek out ultra-compressed, “competitive” mixes?
“I tell people that I’ve never in all the years I’ve done this heard of a consumer returning a disc or a download because it wasn’t loud enough,” Lurssen says. “We maximize the level at which we print a mix while retaining the musicality every time. If someone wants to go louder, it’s not advisable. But some music can be super loud; it’s part of the vibe. We’re just aware of it and we’re responsible with it.”
“With no dynamic range, it’s very fatiguing to the ears,” Romanowski plainly states. “A really loud record means you will listen to it less often. People think loud means better MP3s, but they’re actually worse because there is no low-level information. You can automatically gain-match your playback; iTunes’s Soundcheck will do that. But people are starting to pull back as they understand the ramifications of over-compressing your music.”
Palmaccio takes a pragmatic approach to the loudness quandary. “There’s an optimum point where loudness and musical impact meet. Once you push loudness beyond a certain point, you lose the musical impact. The mix, in effect, sounds smaller and sometimes downright unpleasant. Sometimes clients just want it really loud at the expense of everything else. By simply showing them two approaches—one maxed out and one not—they hear a loss of musicality and often go for the second approach. Ultimately, it is the artists’ decision as to how they want their music presented.”
Beyond loudness debates, mastering engineers face a variety of challenging situations in the studio. “I usually have one of my assistants go through and manually de-ess each ‘s,’” Mendelson explains. “Maybe they didn’t have the tools to properly mix, or maybe the mix was dull to begin with, so that by the time we got the mix sounding good, the ‘s’’s sound too bright. We’re always going through and taking out some kind of mouth noise or cable noise. I would rather do that manually than use some broadband processor which will inevitably remove stuff you don’t want taken out.”
“The hardest mastering sessions are those when the artist and/or producer didn’t really get what they wanted in the recording or production process and are hoping mastering can save their artistic vision, Palmaccio confides. “Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that. Most of the time it requires an honest conversation. Not the most fun day, but honesty is a very important part of being on a creative team.”
No matter the experience and talent of the mastering engineer, some mix issues simply cannot be resolved in the mastering process. “Mastering is not a fix, although we are being relied on more to fix people’s mixes,” Romanowski says. A lot of people who are making records shouldn’t be making records. There are a lot of demos being released and they’re relying on the mastering engineer to fix it.”
“Phase issues are often difficult to deal with,” Mendelson says. “For example, when you have two instruments in the same frequency range that are panned the same way; if you have a dull vocal and a bright vocal, that will be trouble. If a mix is balanced, it doesn’t bother me, but if you have issues you want them to be consistent across the mix.”
Near the end of their job, or even at the beginning, the mastering engineer addresses the format that the music will be released on. Some mastering engineers take a a consistent approach, regardless of release format; some see each format as requiring a unique creative process. But at the end of the day, whether it’s for vinyl, CD, or a download, the priority is to perfect sonic issues in the mix.
“If [the mix] sounds good on one format, it should translate to the others,” Mendelson says. “Sometimes you have a severely compressed CD that is going to be cut to vinyl and we will back off on the limiting a little bit. And sometimes there is a different mix for radio, and you will do what that mix warrants. I mastered a single yesterday and there were six different versions— same song, different remixes, and they all sound drastically different.”
Joe Palmaccio sums it up. “I will master slightly differently when I know the final product will be vinyl. Vinyl by its nature has some limitation with regard to frequency response and loudness. There are three main components that change for me when mastering for vinyl as opposed to CD or digital release. The overall disc level is not as hot; the bass content has to be controlled with either filtering or elliptical EQ, and highfrequency limiting is used if there is an inordinate amount of treble content in the mix.”
But at the end of the day, whether the music is released on vinyl, CD, or as an MP3, mastering engineers strive to make the final product sound as good as it can, whenever the mix is under their control. “Somebody needs to take a stand somewhere in order to get the fans something palatable to listen to,” says Lurssen. “If we start changing what we do to accommodate new technologies, it’s all going to fall apart. We just do what sounds good in the studio. Someone has to take a stand, and it’s important that it’s the person at the last stage of the process. Sure, you’ll make minute adjustments here and there for vinyl or other specific applications, but generally speaking, you set boundaries. It’s all about having confidence in what you do.”