Mastering | Another Gray Area

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



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Zeitgeist Sound Studios' (New York City) mastering engineer James Cruz

Zeitgeist Sound Studios' (New York City) mastering engineer James Cruz

He emphasizes that he would take the same mastering approach whether or not he was dealing with stems, “but as I'm mastering it and I'm listening to it, and thinking, ‘It'd be great to hear that vocal out a little bit more or hear the vocal down a little bit more,’ or, ‘It'd be great if that kick drum would come out a little bit more,’ I can't do it with EQ, because by bringing up the kick drum I'm also bringing up the string bass and everything just starts to get a little bit muddy. If I could just reach over to my Pro Tools and nudge the kick drum up a little bit, the kick drum is up a little bit without ruining the feel of the entire mix.”

Andrew Mendelson, owner and chief mastering engineer of Georgetown Masters (Nashville), appreciates having access to mix elements, but notes that working with stems can sometimes change the vibe of a session. “It changes the workflow a little bit,” says Mendelson, who has mastered artists such as Kenny Chesney, Ricky Skaggs, the Rolling Stones and White Stripes. “It seems like in audio production in general, people have a tendency to push things off to the next stage and there's certainly the risk of [waiting to figure out mix issues in mastering].”

Gavin Lurssen, of Lurssen Mastering in Hollywood, has mastered projects ranging from Spinal Tap to the Grammy-winning Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand. He says the line is blurred to the point that several of his clients don't even want to hear their mixes until they've been mastered. “What some of them are doing is, if their budget can support it, they'll come see me to get an idea of what the finished product will sound like before mixing is done,” he says. “They'll go back, they'll make adjustments with the end result in mind, because they want to know what it's going to sound like when I've mastered it.”

Gavin Lurssen of Lurssen Mastering in Hollywood

Gavin Lurssen of Lurssen Mastering in Hollywood

Of course, mixing options in mastering are often defined by the media format. “Predominantly, we're getting files off the Internet and they're mixed down to 2-track; I almost never deal with stems. Instead, my husband has designed an MS processing system that allows us to alter vocal levels and other relative balance issues easily and quickly, even in a stereo track.” says Jennifer Munson, who engineered at Gateway and Sony Classical and has mastered music from artists ranging from Isaac Stern to Busta Rhymes. She now divides her time between mastering at her own facility, Taloowa Mastering, and engineering the On the Media program for NPR. “Often [stems are] offered if they're talking to me directly at the start of a project. I'll listen to one track or something like that, give them feedback on what I'm hearing and then the rest of the album usually comes back just fine.”

Summing choices also can influence mastering options. Mendelson says that when mixing on a console through a series of outboard gear, when stems are printed through that chain, the stems summing together through those 2-channel devices will not sound the same as sending each individual track through those devices and then summing behind them. “Sometimes pulling the stems together, the sum of all the elements doesn't actually create the master mix. So you're going to have to make a choice: Are the stems better to work with than the master mix, which was signed off on? Because before you even touch a knob, you've got an inherent change in the sound.”

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