Mastering | Another Gray Area

Dec 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Sarah Jones



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Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering

Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering

These are tricky times for mastering engineers. While one could argue that mastering engineers are always “mixing,” the line between mixing and mastering is blurring. Certainly, low-cost tools have lowered the bar of entry for artists and engineers, and demystified some of the processes involved; lower budgets have put a crunch on overall productions, squeezing projects especially at the end stages; and, quite simply, with the number of options available through DAW recording, decisions tend to get delayed.

It's important to distinguish the difference between making fine mix adjustments in the mastering room and finishing the mix during mastering. The latest trend to enter the mastering room — the provision of mix stems accompanying a ref — can put the mastering engineer between a rock and a hard place. When yours are the final ears on a project that a producer, engineer and artist have presumably labored over for months, how much can you be expected to do? How much do you want to do?

Mix Stems and the Mastering Engineer

Stems — the separated elements of a final mix — are increasingly showing up in mastering rooms, a trend welcomed by many engineers as an opportunity to fine-tune, not finish, the mix. “I would say it's not my preference to mix anything,” says Bob Ludwig (Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Coldplay) of Gateway Mastering (Portland, Maine). “I get to work with some of the world's greatest mixers, and I would never want to step on anybody's toes, so it's best to have something that the artist has approved beforehand and the A&R person has approved, and everybody's happy. Just send me the final thing. But having said that, if the artist is not happy with the vocal levels, for instance — which is what most of it comes down to — then it's actually cheaper to have us, or the remixer, go back to the stems that the mixer might have created. Instead of having to hire the mix studio again and go back with a big expensive console, they can take the stems and correct the odd vocal word usually right in Pro Tools or some other workstation, or they can do a special vocal-up mix from the stems very easily.

Jennifer Munson of Taloowa Mastering

Jennifer Munson of Taloowa Mastering

“For years, great mixers like Bob Clearmountain would routinely do a master mix — a choice mix, he would call it; a vocal up a half dB, perhaps a vocal up 1 dB and, occasionally, a vocal down a half dB or something, and then do an instrumental mix, a TV mix and now very often an a cappella mix so that vocals can be mixed back,” he continues. “At the same time, we just did a new Natalie Merchant record — a fantastic record. All of the lyrics are based on children's poetry that was written in the late 1880s and early 1900s. While most of it was mixed to half-inch, the producer made sure to have everything on stems as well.”

New York mastering engineer James Cruz spent long stretches at Hit Factory and Sony before opening his own facility, Zeitgeist Sound Studios (Long Island City). He recently mastered projects by Beyoncé and Calle 13, and the latter earned five Latin Grammys in '09, including Album of the year. Cruz, who also works occasionally as a mixing engineer, enjoys the flexibility of working with stems, yet is careful to maintain a mastering perspective. “Sometimes I'll actually get an 8-channel file of everything so I can tweak the mix a bit here and there,” he says. “Yes, I'm making slight mix decisions at that point, and there are other mastering tools that I can use to make slight mix decisions, like different styles of EQ to bring out the stereo image or tighten it a little bit more. The more freedom I have, the better the end result is going to be. I'm not saying that I would use all of those options, but it's good to have them.”

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