Posted on 18. Mar, 2016 by Daniel Duskin (Record Producer, Mixing & Mastering Engineer) in Mastering, Ssh!
Everyone is talking about professional mastering services. You’ve heard all sorts of buzz about how important mastering is. You probably heard that mastering is required to get that radio ready sound.
Why is mastering so popular? What I have to say about mastering will certainly change your outlook!
Is Mastering That Important? What happened to mixing?
My Professional Answer May Shock You!
Mastering In The Early Days
To understand all of this, it’s important to know the roots of mastering.
In the early days of vinyl records, after the audio was recorded and mixed—before it could be pressed and copied for sales—a master disc had to be created on a lathe. That master disc was aluminum coated with nitro-cellulose lacquer, which was then electroplated with nickel.
It was the mastering engineer’s job to operate that lathe and make sure that the master disc was the best quality possible for mass reproduction.
Early Mastering EQ & Compression
However, it was quickly recognized that some recorded material wasn’t reproduced very well on the consumer vinyl record played back by the listener, due to large dynamic range, too much low end energy, extreme stereo width, etc.
Some of those elements mastering was subduing could be good, right? Yes, of course, but let me explain.
If the audio material had too much bass, too much dynamic range, or was too wide, it was at a dangerous risk of pushing the needle out of the groove on general listening.
Additionally, the more dynamic range, the more low-end, and the wider the stereo image, the wider the groove on the vinyl record had to be.
These wide grooves ate in to play time, reducing the number of songs that could fit on an album and still sound good.
As a minor solution to this problem, it wasn’t long before simple bass and treble controls were added to early mastering equipment, and compressors were introduced to deal with the dynamic problem.
If a mix was too bassy, it was easy for the mastering engineer to reduce some of that low-end.
Soon, ballsy Mastering Engineers could reach for those bass and treble controls and tweak them to improve dull mixes, brittle mixes, and more—it was forbidden territory since the mastering engineer’s job was [no more, no less] simply pure reproduction—not improvement—but the door was beginning to open up to create a new art; the art of mastering.
In 1959 Rein Narma designed the Fairchild 670 tube compressor while developing an 8 channel audio mixer for Les Paul.
The Fairchild compressor soon became the standard for top-class mastering facilities, due to it’s clean and transparent signal, robust features, and ability to process stereo material with mid/side processing.
The Fairchild 670 tube compressor was 65 pounds, had 14 transformers, and 20 vacuum tubes.
Finally, by combining this compression technique with basic EQ, it was now possible to control the dynamics in a way that did far less damage to the mix, and create a master disc that didn’t produce vinyl records that jumped out of the grooves.
The Age Of The Compact Disc
Not only did the content formatted by the mastering engineer have to meet the new Red Book compact disc standards, the compact disc could also contain IRSC and CD-TEXT information, so the mastering engineer had to have the proper equipment and knowledge to handle these new requirements.
The CD had far more dynamic range than the vinyl record or cassette, so many of the mastering compressors were turned off, so now purity became the biggest priority—that consept was not new to mastering engineers at the time, since they were already obsessed with the sonic quality of a mixdown / master.
Of course, the compressors could be used if needed, but they weren’t needed to prevent the needle from skipping anymore.
At the same time, bus compression was introduced into the most popular—and expensive—mixing boards (SSL, Neve, etc), so that overall compression sound that was associated with mastering for vinyl was partially traded off to the mix engineer.
It seemed as if many of those mastering compressors might turn into door stops, and for a while, many did!
The Loudness War
As soon as this topic is mentioned, heated opinions are quickly voiced. Well, not here. I’m going to discuss the history of the loudness war, and not what I think about it. I think it’s more useful to understand these things than it is to get worked up about them.
The loudness war is probably as old as the first musical instrument. If you were crafting a lute, the sound of that lute was not only judged by the tonality—as well as hundreds of other factors—but also by how loud it was.
Let’s face it, whether we agree with it or not, when sound is produced by two different sources, the louder of the two is generally perceived as higher sound quality—if all other factors are close to equal—that louder version is usually chosen by most people.
By the time radio had regular music in rotation, it was immediately noticeable that the loudest mastered copy that the radio had on hand usually got more attention. Because of this, record companies soon picked out mastering engineers that were known for making louder masters—we’re talking pre-world-war-II here!
At the time, the loudness war was often pushed and perceived as more of a technical problem—because there was truth in that argument. This is because the louder the master, the lower the noise floor. It was easy to write off running stuff into the red as a problem, because it had been done “just to avoid hiss.” Of course, that was only part of the reason—some of it had to do with being louder than everyone else—a true loudness war, long before the compact disc.
By the 1980′s, even though the age of the compact disc was hailed as a cure to the lack of dynamics, it certainly wasn’t going to last.
With all of those compact discs with such dynamic range, it was no time at all before someone realized that if they were just a few decibels louder than the rest of the compact discs in rotation, they would really stand out! That was the beginning of the end of extreme dynamic range in digital masters.
It happened so fast, the dynamic utopia was practically over before it even began…
Make no doubt about it, LOUD is a huge part of professional mastering. It always has been, and likely always will be—in one form or another.
Digital Was Lacking Warmth – Mastering The Cure?
The introduction of professional digital audio was first embraced in recording studios in basic effects processors by companies like EMT, Eventide and Lexicon in the late 1970′s. These devices could only record about a second of audio, and early digital audio recording devices designed to record longer material didn’t sound nearly good enough to compete with high end analog tape recorders.
By the late 1980′s, digital tape recorders had become good enough for many top studios, but were still not accepted as sounding good enough—not as good as analog—for many top artists such as Tom Petty, Neil Young, and many others. At the same time, stereo DAT recorders were becoming common for mixdown, replacing 2 channel master tape recorders.
While studios were racing to stay up on the latest trends in digital technology, golden-ear listeners were noticing a lack of fullness in music as a growing problem…
Mastering engineers noticed that mixes which were recorded to 2 channel analog master tape were almost always louder—without digital clipping—than mixes that were recorded to stereo DAT. This meant that not only did analog tape processing sound fuller, but it was also LOUDER!
Imagine being the first mastering engineer to notice this, and then realize that all you had to do was transfer that DAT to your Ampex ATR102 master tape machine, and the record companies will notice that your masters sound fuller, and are louder than anything else out there!
The Rise Of The Home Studio
Home studios are much older than most people realize. Just one—incredible— example was Les Paul (the man, not the guitar he invented) was recording multi-track audio in his home—and on the road—in the 1940′s! Les Paul wasn’t even the first, but his innovations were ground breaking!
By the 1950′s and 1960′s, home tape recorders were relatively common among many notable artists. This increased exponentially by the 1970′s, and by the 1980′s, four, eight, and sixteen track tape recorders were affordable enough that tens of thousands of musicians were recording their own multi-track material.
Mastering In The 1990′s
In the early 1990′s, Alesis introduced the ADAT 8 channel recorder, which was soon upgraded [sic] from analog to digital. Soon it became common for artists to record multi-track material on digital ADAT, and mix it down to stereo DAT.
The abundance of heavily dynamic recordings was high, and the sound was lacking the big and full sound achieved by recording studios with high quality analog tape machines.
This was the moment that mastering was introduced as a solution to the thin mixes produced by the home recording market.
Mastering engineers had a whole new market, and the buzz about the benefits of mastering began to take off!
So, it’s 1993, and you’ve recorded & mixed your whole album on ADAT and bounced it to DAT. You’re happy with the recordings, and fairly happy with the mix levels… but you wish it sounded as big & full as the major label mixes.
Mastering was the answer to your problems! The mastering engineer could transfer your DAT to analog tape, or at least run it through some sweet tube gear to fatten it up—it felt like a miricle process, and much of that buzz is still trickling over through today.
But, do the benefits of mastering from the 1990′s still exist?
Mastering In The Early 2000′s
By the early 2000′s, much of the new benefits that mastering offered to home recording in the 1990′s still remained true.
Those early 90′s digital EQ and compression plugins were lacking—EQ’s introduced a lot of aliasing, and compressors had less than musical results.
Plugin compressors and EQ’s in the early 2000′s were getting a lot better, but there were still many poorer quality plugins in use. This meant that mastering still had a lot to offer in warming and fattening up a mix.
The End Of Mastering For Warmth & Fullness?
By the year 2003 or so, plugins got fairly good at emulating analog warmth—but still lacked something.
By the year 2006, great analog emulation was attaining incredible results!
Even if you have the opinion that the quality wasn’t there yet—or even still isn’t there—the harmonic content added from various plugins at this point was removing the headroom that allowed mastering to give such large benefits in the 1990′s and very early 2000′s.
By about 2005 – 2010, the early digital setups that produced extreme transients, extreme dynamic range, and a lack of warmth a few years before was barely produced anymore.
Mastering was soon often unable to obtain the same level of extraordinary improvements as was obtained in the 1990′s.
But, that wasn’t about to stop the buzz about the importance of mastering!
Keep in mind, mastering still has some very important benefits—which I will go into later.
So, Why Is Mastering Still Promoted?
Let me offer you two very contradictory reasons for this.
- Because if the benefits of the past are promoted as still true, mastering engineers won’t lose work.
- Because mastering can STILL help make sure your mix is it’s best before reproduction!
Before I continue, I want to emphasize number two above, because the goal of this article is not to demonize mastering. The goal is to end old beliefs that don’t apply very much anymore, and focus on what mastering might be able to do for you today.
Thin mixes that need warmth and fattening sill exist, and good mastering engineers know how to improve a mix with that problem. So, while some of the reasons to master don’t apply as much as they used to, the benefit of mastering can’t be ruled out entirely. However, it would be a mistake to think of mastering as only making mixes fuller.
If you sent a dense mix with plenty of plugin tape emulators, tube saturation emulators, plus bus compression, and expected a large increase in warmth and fullness, you would probably have been very disappointed—if that was the primary advantage you were hoping for.
Should I Get My Music Mastered?
My response may shock you…
Most of you should NOT get your music professionally mastered!
However, if you’re a record label (big or small), if you expect music downloads in the tens of thousands—or higher—or you’re in a privileged “spare no expense” financial situation, then by all means, get it mastered!
If you expect to make profits on music downloads, the small cost of mastering is probably worth your expense.
The true value of the mastering engineer is having an experienced expert—who has never heard your mix before—make any final judgement on whether your mix should simply be transferred to the final medium, or if it needs a small EQ adjustment.
I like to tell my clients that mastering is “quality control.” Unfortunately, sometimes they only hear the word “quality” and they assume that I must be telling them that mastering will improve the quality every time. Quality control isn’t an improvement process, it’s a final check. I’m sure you can see how a quality control check has value for a record company—any large investment can more easily warrant some small costs to increase the potential of a return in profit.
Mastering Isn’t Mixing!
This is the part where you will probably assume that I’m giving a shameless plug for my mixing services. If you think that’s the case, I can’t avoid the assumptions, I can only try my best to reassure you that I’m giving you honest information.
Every year, I hear more and more people use the word mastering, when they are talking about mixing. This creates a lot of confusion about what offers big improvements, and what these big improvements are worth.
That confusion really needs to stop perpetuating itself, but I don’t have the power to stop it.
Mixing involves all of the elements of a song (referred to as multi-track), which allows for a complete and complex transformation, while mastering can only involve a minimal amount of processing to just the final 2 channel mixdown.
If you were wondering whether mixing or mastering makes the bigger musical difference, it would be mixing, not mastering. Another way to look at it is time spent: mixing a song can take as little as 3 hours to as many as 30 hours, while mastering usually only takes 3-30 minutes. A professional quality mix is what can make a song sound powerful, radio ready, and get that major label audio quality.
As long as mastering continues to be promoted as a be-all-end-all, more and more people will assume that the mixing process must be called mastering. That confusion is good for mastering engineers, and while I seek no harm to the part of this industry that comprises hard working mastering engineers—and I pray that no harm is done—I do feel that breaking the myths, and providing an honest perspective will help a lot of people make wiser decisions.
I would rather see more people who actually need mastering get their stuff mastered, to offset the loses due to people avoiding mastering who never needed it.
Before too many readers assume that I’m just trying to guide people to mixing services (which will always cost more than mastering) just to make some money, I should mention that most of you don’t need mixing either. That’s right, I just told you that you probably don’t need my mixing services either. I’m crazy, right? Maybe. Or maybe I think it’s better to have happy clients than it is to have angry clients.
you can only make enemies.
If you just can’t get your mix right, a professional mix engineer can fix everything and get your mix to sound as big and great as you have dreamed that it could be. But, mixing services cost more, because mixing requires a lot of hard work. So if mixing is outside of your budget, you probably shouldn’t rack up your credit card debit on mixing services.
I’ll discuss more of the greater benefits of mixing in another article—this article is about mastering.
Summing Up — How To Make Your Decision
If you answer yes to 2-3 or more of these questions, you might want to consider an online mastering service.
If not, you should probably save your money.
- Your mix sounds small, cold, &/or thin.
- You’re un-pleased with the balance of the mix, & you don’t have access to the multi-tracks.
- You expect or hope to make a profit on this music.
- You are part of a record label (indie or major).
- You have a great deal of money to invest, and you have no issue investing it in anything that might help.
- You would rather a professional decide just how loud to make your mix, so you can stop questioning your decisions.
- It’s crucial that you have proper ISRC codes for purpose of sales.
- You plan on pressing at least 10,000 compact discs from a glass master.
author: Dan Duskin