When I graduated IPR five years ago, the audio landscape wasn’t that much different than it is today. Mastering was the most elusive part of the audio process for me, and defining what mastering is often led to discussions about the “loudness wars”. Artists, producers, and record labels all wanted to have the loudest song on the radio, presumably for the song in question to stand out. But leveling is only part of the purpose behind mastering. Because the typical perception lands in a place where the average listener interprets louder as better, it’s tough for mastering engineers to do what they know is best for a recording, and it’s even tougher to define mastering in a way that allows young engineers to avoid the common loudness pitfalls.
Enter IPR Instructor Jay Fleming’s “Masters Series” Mastering Seminar. It brought some clarity to the mastering process for IPR students this week.
Here’s what went down…
Instructor Jay Fleming moderated a panel covering the mastering of audio; IPR instructor panelists Steve Hodge, Tom Garneau, and David Gardener, have more than 80 years combined experience as audio engineers. If you include Jay, you’re definitely looking at more than 100 years. Think about that for a moment….
The sheer weight of their experience blows my mind. Especially since I know that many of the artists they’ve worked with have had successful recording careers; I could create a pretty long list for you, but that’s not going to happen here. And these guys played a role, however big or small, in many artists’ successes. For me, the best part is, IPR students have first name access to these guys because all four men are instructors here. This discussion will continue long after today.
So how do the pro’s master?
For this seminar Steve Hodge centered his approach on the type of mastering he most frequently does with a client mix. He loosely defined this by saying “The goal is to get the mix sounding as close to what the final mastered copy would sound like, but it’s mostly about level in this sense.” Many artists are unclear as to what mastering actually contributes to a mix, but louder almost always sounds better to them. Even so, it was clear from the discussion that mastering an album is not only about leveling, but it’s about making sure an entire album’s material has a sonic cohesiveness.
An album is a collection of songs that should sound like they belong together. Making sure individual songs share similar sonic characteristics is the primary aim of the mastering process. And, both EQ and leveling of a client mix play an important role in decisions the engineer will make at the mastering phase. Panelist Tom Garneau provided the best illustration of what this means. With a Pro Tools session open, he quickly moved between stereo mixes of an album project listening to a few seconds of each song before moving to the next. He explained that doing this allows him to get the full sonic picture of the project in order to make the necessary adjustments for the final, overall master. He indicated that mastering cannot meet its desired ends if songs are mastered individually; individual songs must be seen as parts of the bigger whole in order to be brought into an overall focus.
I love the way David Gardner described a similar vision of mastering. He likens it to taking a final metal or woodworking project and making it replicable. The goal isn’t to change the final mix; the mastering engineer wants to take a picture of what the artist, the producer, and the mix engineer, have created together and focus the master to bring out the sonic clarity of what is already there. Gardner offers if the mastering engineer makes changes that amount to more than say 5% of the overall sound, that it’s time to have a sit down with the artist. All three panelists agreed you don’t want to deliver a master to anyone that goes back sounding completely different – you want to keep the original sonic vision for the recording intact.
The seminar wasn’t just about mastering; it was also about recording and mixing with mastering in mind. And, of course, the best results come from making the right decisions all the way through the entire recording process. From choosing the right mic., mic. placement, and preamp choice to deciding how hot the levels should be for “printing” to a DAW track, and, yet again, to realizing how mastering could potentially change your mix and making decisions that keep the bad stuff out on the front end so it doesn’t become an issue at the final stage. There was even discussion as to the best way EQ should be applied: either to an overall mix or to every individual track before each track “hits” the mix buss. Each panelist seemed to agree that there is no one right way to do things, but they implied the results should always include deliberate decisions throughout. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, then you may want to reconsider.
Though mastering a recording takes an experienced ear, knowing what to listen for can be half the battle, and this week’s mastering seminar provided an overall framework of several important considerations to the mastering process. Special thanks to Jay Fleming, Steve Hodge, Tom Garneau, and David Gardener for offering their time to our students. We appreciate you.