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Secrets of the Mastering Engineer

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by Bob Katz

Mastering requires an entirely different “head” than mixing. I once had an assistant who was a great mix engineer and who wanted to get into mastering. So I left her alone to equalize a rock album. After three hours, she was still working on the snare drum, which didn’t have enough “crack”! But as soon as I walked into the room, I could hear something was wrong with the vocal. Which brings us to the first principle of mastering: Every action effects everything. Even touching the low bass affects the perception of the extreme highs.

Mastering is the art of compromise; knowing what’s possible and impossible, and making decisions about what’s most import and in the music. When you work on the bass drum, you’ll affect the bass for sure, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse. If the bass drum is light, you may be able to fix it by “getting under the bass” at somewhere under 60 Hz, with careful, selective equalization. You may be able to counteract a problem in the bass instrument by dipping around 80, 90, 100; but this can affect the low end of the vocal or the piano or the guitar – be on the lookout for such interactions. Sometimes you can’t tell if a problem can be fixed until you try; don’t promise your client miracles. Experience is the best teacher.

Think Holistically

Before mastering, listen carefully to the performance, the message of the music. In many music genres, the vocal message is the most important. In other styles, it’s the rhythm, in some it’s intended distortion, and so on. With rhythmic music, ask yourself, “what can I do to make this music more exciting?” With ballads, ask “is this music about intimacy, space, depth emotion, charisma, or all of the above”? Ask, “How can I help this music to communicate better to the audience?” Always start by learning the emotion and the message of the client’s music/ After that, you can break it down into details such as the high frequencies, or the low frequencies, but relate your decisions to the intended message of the music. Some clients send a “pseudo-mastered” demonstration CD illustrating their goals. Evin if you don’t like the sound on their reference, or you think you can do better, carefully study the virtues of what they’ve been listening to. During your mastering, refer back to the original mix; make sure you haven’t “fixed” what wasn’t broken in the first place. There is no “one-size-fits-all” setting, and each song should be approached from scratch. In other words, when switching to a new song, bypass all processors, and listen to the new song in its naked glory to confirm it needs to be taken in the same or different direction than the previous number. Likewise, as you gain experience, you may want to “tweak” the “presets” in your equipment. Presets are designed to make suggestions and provide good starting points, but they are not one-size-fits-all and should be adjusted according to the program material and your personal taste.

To continue reading, download the PDF for Secret of the Mastering Engineer