For me, mastering is an excruciating process. Even at the best of times it is completely draining. What you do is sit in a very dark and quiet room on a very nice couch, behind a guy sitting at a desk listening to your stuff very intently. For eight or ten hours. Over and over and over and over. Every once in a great while he may say ‘hmmmm’ or perhaps. ‘Ahhhh’. It’s like your nightmare of a visit to that inscrutable therapist who’s only words are ever, ‘And how does that make you feel?’ or perhaps, ‘I see our time is up. See you Thursday.’
Maybe it doesn’t read as all that bad, but you’ve been working on this thing for a year and now the guy is noticing every zit you missed or were hoping to get away with and the thing you thought was so ‘perfect’ turns out to have dozens of zits! All he seems to hear are THE ZITS! He spends absolutely no time on the bits of true genius. He just keeps going back to those flaky pustules of sonic ooze you didn’t have the time or ears or basic competence to correct before you showed up to waste his time. It’s Judgment Day and you have been found wanting.
mastering has become the essential sonic magic that binds ten individual songs together into a cohesive thing we call an album.
You keep waiting for the moment where he looks at you, takes a slow drag off his cigarette and calmly says, “We may need to schedule another day.” Which is basically Ed-speak for, “They stink. They have flaws no amount of sonic Clearasil could cover up. If we continue, count on having a garage full of smelly, unsold product. No one likes you–I mean as a human being. And by the way, you really should take a couple of breath mints from the receptionist’s tray on the way out.”
Why Put Yourself Through It, Man?
What is the purpose of all this mental torture? Why to create a ‘master’! Duh!
And what is a master? Back in the day, it was an aluminum ‘record’. The signal from the tape of your mixed songs would be run into a lathe that looked suspiciously like a record player. And the mastering engineer’s (ME) main job was to tweak the level of the signal in real time so that it was balanced on the left and right sides as the lathe literally cut the aluminum master. Not too weak. But not so strong as to make the needle fly off the record! Hence the expression, “We’re cuttin’ a record, Leroy.”
Nowadays, a master is basically just a CD. It’s a little nicer than an ordinary CD and it’s created a bit more carefully so that there are absolutely no errors. But it’s the role of the ME that has changed. It’s no longer simply making a ‘master’ from which copies can be made (we all know that copying data is no longer a problem for even nine year olds!) What makes it worth having Ed give me ‘the all-day treatment’ is that mastering has become the essential sonic magic that binds ten individual songs together into a cohesive thing we call an album. A good mastering engineer takes your songs and glues them together. When you listen to the finished product, each song seems louder and clearer. But the real ‘magic’ is that each song flows to the next and sounds like it belongs on the same album as the others.
I know this all sounds very abstract, so I’ll give you some specifics. If you were to simply make a ‘mixtape’ of the raw tracks for Beautiful Sounds you’d notice a few things upon first listen. First, there would be a huge disparity in volume between the songs: the quiet songs would sound too quiet; the loud songs, too loud. Second, they would sound like ten very different songs. You wouldn’t necessary be able to put it into words, but any listener at any level of sophistication would hear the mixtape and find the difference in ‘tone’ between songs a bit jarring.
And worse: the overall dynamics would not be ‘radio-friendly’. This means that the quiet bits would be simply too quiet to be heard in your car. It sounds blasphemous to admit that the ME tinkers radically with the ‘sound’ of any work of art, but the big part of the ME’s job nowadays is to create the illusion of dynamic range. He performs all sorts of magic to make the actual volume level of every song quite consistent so that no matter where you ‘drop the needle’ on the CD, it sounds about the same volume. It may feel like the loud parts roar and the soft parts purr, but except for classical music, almost all music placed on CDs is heavily tweaked (the technical term is ‘compression’) so that all parts of the song are ‘radio-friendly’. How can you tell if a song is not mixed and mastered in a radio-friendly manner? Simple. You find yourself futzing with the volume knob while listening. Poorly mastered records make people unconsciously nervous. One finds oneself constantly riding that knob.
And last but not least, if you were to listen to a raw ‘mixtape’, the transitions between songs would be awkward. It sounds like no ‘thang’, but the silences between songs and the length of the fade-outs (if there are fade-outs) are a critical item to listening pleasure. If they are too short or too long or vary from song to song? Again, the songs don’t blend and it makes listeners nervous. Next time you listen to one of your fave CDs, listen to the spaces between songs. A lot of time is spent getting that right.
Tools For Translation
A Mastering Engineer uses EQ and lots of ‘leveling’ equipment to achieve this magic, but the real secret weapon is the room itself. It’s usually the best sounding room you’ve ever been in. Most every room you and I pass through each day is a sonic sewer; filled with various surfaces and carpets that reverberate and dampen and accentuate various frequencies resulting in a totally uneven frequency response. But the ME lives in a room that is almost perfect. No frequency is more important than any other. It’s a joy to listen to almost any sound in such a room. So when he listens to your music, he hears what really is. Nothing more and nothing less. His seemingly small tweaks are done against a totally neutral background. So when he cuts merely 1 dB from 100hz or add .5 db to 7,200hz you really hear it.
The funny thing is that these small changes are what make music translate. Listen to any really well mixed and mastered record you’ll realise that it sounds good on virtually any set of transducers.
Two Campbell’s Soup Cans and Twine
Doesn’t matter. Really well mixed and mastered records seem to have the magical ability to fit properly into every listening system. I’ll say for myself that this is the thing I struggle with–I’ll have mixes that sound fabulous in my room and then sound positively obnoxious on other devices. More than anything else, It is the ME’s art to make this ‘translatability’ happen and for me, this is the real magic. If you listen to a song and it sounds great in your home, but like crap in your car? It wa either not properly mastered or more likely, the ME didn’t do his due diligence: he should’ve handed it back to the recordist because it was so terribly mixed in the first place as to be unfixable in this regard. If you want some specifics of great translatability? For me, the gold standard was the latter Steely Dan and early Donald Fagen records. They simply sound fabulous no matter what device ya play them on.
Finally, I’ll give you some homework which will be both easy and entertaining for a lot of you. Go find every version of a Beatles song you have in your home. If you’re like many of us, you have several versions of a given song. Listen to them back to back and notice, slackjawed how different they sound from one another. There have probably been dozens of ‘remasters’ of The Beatles catalog and they all sound different. You’d think that people would settle on a definitive, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Part of it is a desire to keep milking the same cow. But part of it is simply that everyone has different tastes. Regardless of which version of, say, Revolver, you like best, the fact that each version does sound so different, gives you an idea of the power of the ME. It’s one of those, “one picture is worth a thousand words” moments and I encourage you to give it a bash. Listening is, in itself, a skill well worth developing and this is one of the best ways to improve your listening skills.