The Dark Art of Mastering
Mastering is an artform that requires immense skill, years of experience and more importantly trust. the important final stage in the production process be it for a single track release, album,or film/documentary. Mastering occurs after the track has been mixed and allows ones music to stand up to the competition in terms of overall spectral balance and loudness. (Snoman, 2014 p 409). Mastering is the process that makes an album ebb and flow seamlessly from one track to the next. Tuning the consistency of volumes, tonality and timing between tracks. It’s the fine tuning of levels and frequency balancing, preparing the metadata of the track for distribution. (Owsinski, 2014 p3).
Mastering is the crucial step that makes the song ‘work’. So one isn’t noticably louder or quieter than the next, ensuring there is no rapid peaks or troughs within the song or in the blend of the tracks. Ensuring the songs are arranged in the correct order for the album, taking in the artist's intent whilst maintaining a neutral perspective as the listener.
The mastering engineer is often employed with the highest level of trust and respect, years of knowledge and an ear capable of connecting where the artists project is and where it needs to be. Considerations of all aspects are applied, including that the audio adheres to guidelines and industry standards, be it loudness levels for distribution for commercial television or knowing the potential effect on a track once volume is adjusted after being submitted to an online streaming service. As the adjustments itunes or Spotify may apply in their upload algorithm may just see all that bottom end removed due to it being mixed too low initially on a high volume recording. Mastering can be done using plug ins or outboard gear, usually both, with processing usually focusing on Noise Reduction, MidSide EQ/Harmonic Balancing, Dynamics, Harmonic Excitement, Stereo Imaging and maximizing Loudness (Snowman, 2014 p410).
Being shown the mastering process and developing an even more critical ear was great for my development as I could then apply that to past and future projects. I utilised this by making up for some errors in my original mix of my Song Xploder project - “These Lines” by increasing the noise floor of the samples and also the crack of the snare with a mild boost around 3khz.
Using the izotope and ozone plug ins was a great way to really hone in on the various frequencies when using the 8-band EQ. We used a lot of trial and error in accordance with the standard Pro Tools EQ here to establish some problem frequencies before removing them. This is known as noise reduction, focusing on clicks, pops, hums and white noise that can often slip through the mix, proving it important to listen in different types of environments and not just mix on one set of speakers or headphones. We also used the Izotope De-Crackle to remove some of the static around the high end during the in-class re-mastering of “Smooth Sailin”. This corrective process was simplified when clicking the ‘monitor what is being removed’ box so you can accurately hear what is just being taken away, assuring we didn’t take too much high end out of the character of the mix.
Using Ozone really helped bring the best out of our final submission for our “AWAKENING EP” for our 5.1 Studio Project. By being able to visually see where the frequencies were sitting and balancing, not just left and right but also front to back, we were able to use Mid Side EQ correctively. This also helped to maximise our creativity by ensuring we didn't have frequency clashes and could really immerse the listener with unpredictable shifts in the balancing. This reflected the intent and style of the album and enhanced our final submission, particularly on the track “Order & Chaos”.
Analsying the sound field and keeping Integrated LUFS around -14
It was important to reference our track with not only the original mix but also an established track of that genre to compare loudness levels and dynamic range. In our week one assessment we used Jet’s “Are you gonna be my girl” as our reference, but quickly learned the importance of having the actual CD or wav over just an online ripped version, as quality was lost in our process of initially obtaining the track.
It was also interesting to see how each group approached their various tasks when it came to mastering their assigned in-class projects. The “Loudness Wars” is the battle for every song to just be as loud and in the face of the listener as possible to garner attention, however I was surprised that each group seemed to forget about this when submitting their mixing for in-class peer review.
By using a maximiser at the final stage our intent was to reduce loudness levels of peaks whilst also maintaining increased volume and dynamic range. Whereas some groups seemed to just “slam the hell out of it” which was reflected in a very fat and clipped waveform, our group opted for more dynamic range, so whilst the listener isn’t necessarily smacked in the face by the end product, the intricacies and variance in the timbre of the instruments and even frequency and were more evident. Whilst their methods were impactful, this “Loudness War” can also be quite fatiguing for the ear which was noticable after the first 90 seconds-to-2-minutes of playback. Neither method is more right or wrong than the other, and various genres have different needs as we saw by comparing an Arctic Monkeys stem - flat out and fat, compared to The Beatles stem, more dynamic range and room for movement in the master.
Using Izotope insight to monitor Integrated LUFS (between -10 and -14) on our Awakening EP
Using the outboard gear, notably the GML and Manley Backbone was fascinating in EQ control and definitely had more ‘real’ feel to me than the in the box mix master. It was slightly harder to monitor though, yet felt a more natural process despite the precision in physically monitoring the science that the plug-ins seem to better provide. It’s obtaining a nice blend of the two, and keeping in mind key factors such as using the VU meter to measure the loudness of the mix and LUFS to maintain a consistent overall loudness in the mix with consistent peaks and valleys.
Mastering is no simple task, the combination of art, science, experience and trust that I hope to one day be established at in my career.
Snowman, R. (2014). Dance Music Manual - Tools, Toys and Techniques (3rd ed.) Burlington, MA. Focal Press
Owsinski, Bobby. Mastering Engineer's Handbook, CENGAGE Learning, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sae/detail.action?docID=3136729. Mastered Projects hyperlinked: Trentlos the Prophet - These Lines (Song Xploder) https://soundcloud.com/trentonoff/trentlos-the-prophet-these/s-Td8Xu
Lone Survivor - Awakening EP https://soundcloud.com/lonesurvivormusic
Lone Survivor - Order & Chaos https://soundcloud.com/lonesurvivormusic/order-chaos