Welcome to the introduction of Mastering Primer. My name is Fotios Koulakos. I am a mastering engineer, as well as a composer/guitarist, producer, and all around gear fanatic! Who among us isn't a gear junkie? "Let is he who is without G.A.S. cast the first tube!"
I just recently registered at Studio Auditions, but I've actually been in the music/studio game since the early 80's. As I am sure most of you know, years ago, resources like Studio Auditions, MySpace, or any of the myriad media outlets like this simply did not exist. Suffice to say, Studio Auditions is a great resource for all our kind. It's exceptional for artists/clients who are searching for a particular service in our vast field, as this seems to be Studio Auditions' raison d'être. Along with the obvious benefits SA has to offer, I noticed article contributions are also part of the site. The old light bulb lit up in my head! I thought it would be a perfect place to shine some light on a very misunderstood skill. MASTERING.Of all the studio production methods, from composing, arranging, recording, producing, and mixdown, mastering has easily been the source of confusion, misconceptions, and a few well spun urban legends.
Recently I've noticed an enormous demand for studios/producers, session musicians/arrangers/composers, as well as all manner of audio/video multimedia production. This is largely due to the playing field getting more and more level. With the internet, independent artists/labels, MySpace, as well a host of other options that empower just about any artist, the need for mastering services has, dare I say, quintupled to say the least. But with all this demand, believe it or not, mastering is still a sorely misunderstood art.
So, the basic concept behind this article series is to present an introduction to the basic tenets of mastering. Seasoned mastering engineers (as well as more "traditional" studio engineers) are undoubtedly familiar with all I will have to say in upcoming articles. To those I say, please be patient (consider this a refresher), there are a lot of folks not familiar with any of this. Many times the basics are glossed over, in the assumption that artists, clients, even producers and labels already know them. A lot the time, THEY DON'T. So we'll establish the basics. Ground zero. No assumptions. Remember, level playing field right? Good. Hopefully I can bring a unique perspective to the table, since my background is drawn from variety of sources including, studio recording, production, and composition, not just mastering. If anything, all of these backgrounds have added and enriched my mastering work, since I am not in a compartmentalized mindset, and am familiar with all the steps in the recording chain. I feel that holds true for all of the mastering engineers out there. A good point of reference/perspective is a very valuable tool in a mastering engineer's bag of tricks!
The ultimate end goal is to lift the shroud off of mastering, dispel the myths and establish its relevance in the grand scheme of things. Sort of like a mastering field guide. Remember, the mastering engineer is the last person to make any sonic changes to your recording before duplication/replication, so the importance of getting this step right is absolutely, positively critical.
Unfortunately, mastering is still considered a hidden "black art." Consider that not all that long ago, asking questions, or simply discussing mastering was akin to airing dirty family laundry about the "weird uncle" with the bad eye! Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but it does make my point. The truth is, "mum" was definitely the operative word! Mastering was not the most glamorous topic. Mastering engineers chose to work from behind the shadows, unintentionally (due to the solitary nature of the work) fuelling ridiculous tales and legends.
While that might be good and fine in creating mystique, it doesn't help in educating artists on the relevance of this process. Most musicians and even studio owners/engineers are hazy at best on what it is we actually do. Some even say, "Mastering…huh… I don't know what it is, but I know I need it."
The musicians, who are on the roster of a record label, usually don't get any discussion in this matter either. They are ushered into the studio, record under the overview of a producer, and that's as far as they concern themselves. The label then has the recording mastered, manufactured (replicated), and finally distributed, where it ends up in the consumers hands. Once again, the artist is out of the loop as soon as recording ceases. This happens simply by default. It's not the result of some mass conspiracy to keep artists/producers in the dark. When recording and mixing are done, the artists/producers job for the most part is simply finished. This is where the mastering engineer does his/her thing, and unfortunately, this is also the breeding ground for some serious misconceptions. It is here at this point that some of those above mentioned "mums the word" policies proved as fodder for the imagination of conspiracy minded individuals.
Now, for the independent musician, it's NO different. Across the board, the common consensus is as follows:
That's painting with wide brush strokes, but you get the general idea.
Now, a record label at least, gets the steps right, including mastering, so the artist only concerns him/her self with the business of selling, touring, and so forth. I'm not condoning ignorance, but at least under a label, especially a major one, one can rest assured that the recording will sound finished, even if the artist is unaware of the process involved. Things get UGLY for the independent musician, who goes through the above mentioned 4 steps by him/her self, and then realizes, THIS DOESN'T SOUND LIKE A "PROFESSIONAL" CD!!!
Panic sets in.
"Oh $#@*, I've wasted my time and money. This won't compete with 'professional' releases, blah blah, woof woof," and so forth and so on. The number one question that follows is: "What's wrong with my recording?" Answer: NOTHING is wrong, it simply isn't finished. It hasn't been mastered!
So at long last, time to lift the veil: What is mastering?
Well, let's take a look at the steps that most artists/studios cover first, as this will lead right in to answering that question.
For reference sake, I'll assume that the recording in question is spot on. Everything is clear, instruments are in tune, mix is perfect, EQ is pleasant. Effects, and reverbs are just right. You get the idea, BUT….even so, the songs and recording:
Now there are a host of other things that need to be done, and we'll discuss those in upcoming articles, but, the above mentioned are usually the top three issues evident at first. Those are the panic inducers. The three punch combo that knocks you silly. Song sequence, noise issues, stereo field issues etc. come into play later when the top three are addressed. So again, what is mastering?
Simply put, mastering is the final process in which a recording is assembled, tweaked, and fine tuned to sound like a cohesive work from start to finish, in song sequence, tone (EQ) from song to song, as well as an overall consistent tonality and continual theme (as in everything sounds as it belongs on the same CD), and most importantly, the ability to be played on a variety of playback systems with similar, as well as accurate sound reproduction of your original recording session. That is referred to as being able to "translate" to a variety of systems. That's the super brief overview.
Simple enough concept right?
Hang on, not so fast! Don't forget our pal Murphy and his indefatigable laws. In our world, fixing one thing ruins another. That's the law of contradiction Murphy cursed mastering engineers with.
Well, here is the trick. All of this has to be done WITHOUT ruining the artists'/producers' original vision. Mastering ultimately becomes a precarious balance between doing too much or too little. The single most important fact that you can learn about mastering is this: In mastering you are an audiophile…that is, you listen and make adjustments to the whole project, not individual instruments per se. You listen as a consumer might listen…to the overall effect. In the recording or production stage, you are working on placement, recording quality, effects, panning, mixing, and production in general. During mastering, the engineer looks at the entire sonic picture at once. Audiophile, audiophile, audiophile!!! Remember that.
Here's a simple analogy: in the studio you are like a painter, making sure every color and detail is just how it needs to be. This requires you to stand right in front of the canvas, so you don't see the whole accumulative effect of your "painting and detailing." This also applies to mixing, although to a lesser degree, because it forces you to stand back a little further and evaluate your "picture."
BUT… in mastering one has to stand back far from the canvas and make overall improvements and adjustments to the WHOLE picture. This gives rise to a seeming paradox. A mastering engineer needs to take the "holistic" approach we've discussed, but still retain the painters "up close" perspective so as to not lose any of the original vision. This can get tricky, as we now are trying to play both sides against the middle.
Remember, any adjustment made in one frequency department affects everything within that frequency department. If we trim 100 Hz on the low end to tame a kick drum, that will invariably affect ALL living things in that register. Now there are some cute tricks that we can do to isolate surgical zones, but still the overall message I'm trying to impart, is that generally, adjustments now fall into the "all for one, and one for all" category. SO, the time for super isolated EQing is during recording and mix down. The closer your recording, EQ, and mixing are to your expectations, the more a mastering engineer can enhance it. Once again we EQ the whole mix. Keep that in mind when you are recording and producing.
I'm hot on the wagon to educate people on this topic because knowing what comes before, and, in this case after recording, puts musicians in a mindset to think of the whole chain of events, not just their own specialty. It eliminates the compartmentalized mentality mentioned earlier. This leads to better recordings, and ultimately better CDs. Am I saying that every artist should spend years and years learning all of the technical details of mastering to improve their records? No, not at all. What I am saying, is that artists and producers alike need to at least have a comprehensive working knowledge of mastering in general, so they can make educated decisions during their recording which leads into mastering, and to be able to ask the right questions with regards to everything from choosing a mastering engineer, to specific services they need performed, as well as knowing what can, and cannot be done.
If you are getting surgery performed, do you need 12 years of medical school to understand what the surgeon will do? Of course not! BUT, you do need a basic comprehensive understanding of what to expect, or you might be in for a rude awakening due to unrealistic, impossible expectations, or even problems that might rise up. Well, it is exactly like that in this business. Artists/studios nowadays need to take more of a multimedia approach to their craft. Gone are the days of one guitar, a couple of stomp boxes, a loud amp, and you were an anarchic lord of misrule over everything decibel related. And if you were actually fortunate enough to own a cassette 4 track…well now, you were THE Royal High Priest of Recording in your neighborhood!!! These days you have to be savvy and well informed on the WHOLE front, not just your own particular brand of mischief. Ok, enough preaching, you get the idea.
Let's now take a look at some of the techniques and processes used in a typical mastering scenario. I'll make this brief as we are on a topic which could take up books, and still not fully explore all of the possibilities! In future articles, we'll delve deeper into these tools and techniques, so stay tuned.
At first, we usually need to address:
The concepts of the above mentioned topics are self explanatory, but there are unlimited ways to go about all of them, with no one way being right or wrong. It's all context dependant.
You now have a solid comprehension of the very first basic steps involved in mastering. I realize that there was not a lot of "technical speak" in this issue, but I felt it was imperative that you first be aware of the philosophy of mastering! In part 2 of "Mastering Primer," we will take a functional and more technical look at some of these steps. Again, I will try to lay a useful foundation relevant for today's artist/studio, and then build on it. Once in place, we'll get into more of the greasier parts! Future articles will cover gear used, techniques and concepts, protocol, room set up, and even tips on prepping your work for mastering, war stories (actual examples of some projects, and how problem audio spots were dealt with), all the way to tips for the musicians out there who wish to try their own hand at this, as well as a host of other topics. Some topics might even be reader inspired, so feel free to ask questions, make comments, or give suggestions! I sincerely hope these articles will help give you a well rounded working knowledge of mastering. After all, we are seeking the same result…To make better recordings, period.
See you next time…