Considerations of the Mastering Engineer
This is a guest post from mastering engineer Barry Gardner who operates SafeandSound Mastering - A mastering studio proficient in mastering electronic dance music.
More Than Just Software Plugins:
If you read enough audio forums you could easily be lead to believe that mastering is done with a type of software. Mastering limiter, mastering compressor, etc, etc. There are numerous software plug-ins that provide a good quality sound, there is no doubt about that, but the software itself is just one aspect of what is required. To ensure that a high quality mix is mastered to a high level you need to consider a range of factors.
The process of mastering itself is really a synergy between equipment, skills and monitoring as opposed to something that is literally applied blindly to the stereo master bus. As we know every piece of music is unique unto itself and so part of mastering is finding an acceptable compromise between the varying tracks that are to appear on a release.
In addition elements of quality control are evident, avoiding pops in vocals, clicks where there are bad edits or bouncing errors. All of these are aspects of mastering which cannot be taken care of by a sole piece of software. Mastering is about ensuring that a piece of music works with other pieces on any given release and that they all translate well across the many sound systems they are likely to get played on. And finally it is important that the files work well with their target medium be it compressed audio files or a CD release or other high resolution format.
The prerequisites for successful professional mastering are as follows:
1) Highly accurate monitoring
2) Highly accurate acoustics
3) Hearing acuity and experience
4) The best tools possible, both analog and digital.
5) Ability of engineer to apply quality control and keep track of lots of information. Accuracy is required for entering subcode data such as track names and ISRC codes.
Objectivity is not essential but it certainly helps to be able to have a fresh set of ears on your project. Sometimes producers and musicians become so close to their own music that they can no longer make effective decisions.
These are the essentials and a little known and spoken about factor which is often eclipsed is the engineers personal understanding about the specific equipment he or she uses and their interaction with each other. Most analog devices for example have primary uses, whether they are an equalizer for tone shaping or a compressor for adjusting dynamic range. However they often have secondary uses such as they produce a euphonic ‘pass through’ character or provide some other desirable sonic change.
This means there are subtle qualities of enhancement that are secondary to the devices main use. As an example the Manley Massive Passive hardware has a very subtle stereo widening and slight excitation of the very high frequencies. This is even before the equalizer knobs are used. I also have a Vari Mu Compressor which can add a subtle bass boost at 100Hz whilst adding a slight sheen and width in the high end. This is before the compressor is going into gain reduction. So these secondary uses are sometimes beneficial and add up to make a mastering chain more flexible than initially considered. They also account for that elusive ‘something’ which people can miss when mastering their own tracks.
The monitoring situation cannot ever be underestimated, despite having nice analog equipment. The right settings on a plug in will invariably be better than the wrong settings on an analog device. Given great monitoring and both analog and software the best results can be obtained with a combination of tools.
Hopefully this explains why mastering is not simply slapping a limiter on the stereo bus. Each stage is finely tuned and interdependent and this is what makes the results much better than what can normally be attained at home.