Mastering Ethos

Do you really need audio mastering for your compact disc or digitally distributed release? Yes, I think so. And not just because I’m a mastering engineer. Here, I attempt to explain why it’s an important finishing step, as well as, what lead me to learn the craft of audio mastering.

My Trip Down The Mastering Rabbit Hole
I got into mastering audio partly out of curiosity and partly out of pure frustration. I wanted to understand why — no matter how good the mix — records often came out sounding slightly inferior without mastering, or unfortunately, often were sterile and lifeless after mastering. I’d sat in on sessions with many well respected mastering engineers throughout the southeast — a couple of personal heroes in fact — but, I’d always come away from the sessions unhappy with the results. And it was through no real fault of the engineers or studios. There was just a level of detail I was hoping to attain, and I was unable to articulate exactly what I was after. Were my mixes so inferior that the mastering engineer could simply do no better with them? No. I’d heard some horrible mixes come out of mastering sounding wonderful. I was perplexed for years. So, as is my pattern, I threw myself into that which was baffling and confounding me. Down another rabbit hole… this one lasting about 8 years.

Many people like to apply a mystical aura around mastering (even some mastering engineers), but it’s a craft like any other. There’s no magic… just technique and experience. What makes it different from the other audio crafts is the necessity to listen to and think of audio in a completely different context than you do when tracking and mixing. Performing, tracking and mixing is about the moment. You always strive to get each moment in recorded time “right”. Mastering, on the other hand, is about the whole.
Over the years, I’ve often heard mix engineers — especially from the indie scene — malign mastering as unnecessary and destructive. While improper mastering can certainly be destructive, some level of mastering is almost always necessary. And it’s not simply to conform to some expectation of loudness (a whole other unfortunate topic for later discussion, but the “expectation” part being highly debatable and somewhat mythical itself). Mastering is necessary to deliver a cohesive sonic presentation.

Great Mixes Need Mastering
When you have a really great mix of a song, it “translates” well. This means you burn the track to a CD-R, rip to your iPod, take it around to every stereo system and pair of headphones you can find and it sounds fantastic. Great mixes are exceedingly rare, but they do exist. So, let’s assume you are a golden-eared Bruce Dickinson who has produced 12 songs, each mixed perfectly. Do they need mastering? Yep. Because no matter how well they translate individually, taken as a whole you will hear inconsistencies. Track 3 sounds louder than the rest, even though it’s not. Track 7 doesn’t have as much low end as the others. The highs of Track 9 jump out after Track 8.

So, here you have these perfect mixes, but you’re being told (or thinking to yourself) that you need to go back and make “corrections” because they aren’t working in context with the other songs. But as you go back to Track 3, you find backing off on levels makes the mix seem less exciting. Adding low end to Track 7 just muddies things up. Bringing back the highs on Track 8 is giving you claustrophobia. You find you’re ruining your perfect mixes. They were right. Now they are clearly wrong. And they still don’t work right in sequence with the other tracks.
This is a common pitfall for mix engineers. I don’t know a single good engineer or artist who doesn’t struggle with this issue at some point. Their instincts tell them their mixes are in the sweet spot. But the clients, bandmates or friends are nitpicking issues of consistency as if they are things that need to be fixed in the mix. The mix engineer is correct… the mixes are right. The client or band is also right… there are consistency issues. The solution is simple. You need a competent mastering engineer. 12-15 hours in the hands of a good mastering engineer and you could have exactly what you’re after, instead of wasting weeks tweaking until you hit the “I’m sick of this… let’s just say it’s done!” mode. I’ve been there more times than I care to admit as well.

Striving For *Your* Best
Mastering is not about fixing mistakes or inadequacies in the material. Often we are forced to do a bit of that, but when I come across clear mix issues I generally try to get the client to correct the mix if logistically possible. Otherwise, I’m limited in what I can do for the project. In fact, the better the mix, more more flexibility the mastering engineer has to make the whole project sound wonderful. I’d go so far to say that if you feel your songs are important and the mixes are fantastic, then you especially need to make sure you are getting a lot of close attention in the mastering process so the project reaches its full potential.

This, in fact, is the very reason I started this website. I want your recordings and mixes to be the best they can be before they ever touch the hands of a mastering engineer (be that me or anyone else). I want to try and clarify what, in my opinion, is the domain of the artist, tracking engineer, the mix engineer, the producer and the mastering engineer. Those roles are rarely clear cut these days. But understanding, in general, what those roles mean and the perspective from which they each approach the music will keep you from beating yourself senseless with the goose chase of forcing one role to inefficiently and ineffectively do the role of another.