Mastering | Another Gray Area

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



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Andrew Mendelson of Georgetown Masters

Andrew Mendelson of Georgetown Masters

“Mastering engineers can get good summing buses to deal with stems,” adds Lurssen, “but problems can arise when engineers bring in stems and want to go back and make minor mix adjustments. And then, because they want to adjust one balance in the mix, they might raise the guitar half a dB, but they end up going through a summing bus that will degrade the whole thing. That process can mean taking one step forward and four steps backward.”

Different Goals, Different Mixes

As the loudness wars drag on, in an effort to satisfy A&R with a “competitive” mix while providing mastering engineers some dynamic breathing room, mixing engineers may resort to creating two distinct reference mixes — a heavily compressed version for the clients and a less-compressed version for mastering. The danger? Mastering engineers are working from a different point of reference from the client. Further complicating matters is the idea that CD mix references physically resemble a finished product, influencing client expectations, explains Lurssen.

“It used to be that you would get a lacquer vinyl reference or a DAT ref, even a cassette ref,” Lurssen says. “But when CDs became affordable in the '90s, all the mix rooms started using CD refs.” Increasingly, he says, artists, comparing their unmastered CD references to commercial CD releases, began to question why their music wasn't as loud. “Mixers would run everything through an L2 or a Finalizer and crank it up, and they would come into the mastering room and it would be pretty hot,” Lurssen continues. “And the mastering community would say, ‘Can you give me something that's not quite as hot?’ And we would get something that was not quite as hot, but the bands would say, ‘Hey, this isn't what I remember it sounding like.’ Because the mastering engineer is working on something that the artist hasn't even heard. The artist needs not only to really hear the [actual] mix, but the artist needs to understand that if it hasn't gone through the process of mastering, it's not going to sound like a commercial CD.”

Lurssen feels the line between mixing and mastering is more blurred for the client than to the engineers along the chain. “You have to educate people from scratch; there's a responsibility that goes into audio processing,” he says. “I usually get to know somebody before they come and see me, and I go through all this with them, which is time-consuming, and in this business time is money. They don't even realize that this is where the value of their mastering session starts.”

Munson agrees that clients and artists often do not understand the mastering process — a problem that is sometimes perpetuated by attempts to make the clients happy with a mix before it has been mastered. She adds that there is a lot of weight on the mix engineer to be a buffer between artists and mastering, to keep mixes at a reasonable level. “Just having a mix engineer who's saying, ‘This is how it's going to be, just turn it up, listen to it and know that the end result is going to improve dramatically after mastering if the mix is not crushed’ — having someone who gets that process, who can convince their clients of this, I think that's the hard part.”

“I'm a big proponent of starting with what's been approved, what everyone is liking so we're all on the same page,” says Mendelson. “When [mix engineers] remove all those compressors when they send it to me, now I'm starting with a mix that's totally different than what's been approved. And I understand the intention was to give me more room to work, but it's really important if you're going to do that to also send what people have been approving, even if it's nothing more than a 16-bit/44.1k reference.”

Knowing Enough to Be Dangerous

Just as merely owning Pro Tools doesn't make someone a recording engineer, having a mastering plug-in doesn't make someone a mastering engineer. “People put these plug-ins on stuff, it makes it louder and it makes it more compressed, and it makes levels a lot closer to being even, but it's not a substitute for a trained set of ears and all of these things we are doing,” says Cruz. “[Mastering plug-ins are] just squashing the hell out of everybody's mix. They're taking all of this time to make this great-sounding mix and convey the emotions of the artist, then to just strap one of these things across the mix just squashes everything down, killing all of the life and all of the emotion in it.”

In addition, Mendelson notes that simply labeling tools “mastering EQ” and “mastering compressor” perpetuates the misconception that mastering is purely about processing, as opposed to the broader process of creating a high-quality master — and that philosophical change leads people to take things into their own hands who might otherwise not have done so.

“There's a lot more to mastering than the processing,” he says. “That's one element. But I have a staff of four people who assist me doing all kinds of other work, in terms of production and quality control. It is like a bridge between the creative aspect and the distribution side of making a work of art — making a proper DDP image, Red Book-compatible CD or, in the case of surround sound or audio-for-video, ensuring optimum quality data compression where necessary, making sure ISRC and UPC codes are entered correctly, making sure that CD text is entered correctly, doing a final QC and making sure that nothing's amiss. It's a last stage to find any flaw before you go to make a whole lot of copies.”

Mastering engineers agree that although technical and economic factors may cause them to work differently, they remain true to their focus. “As far as my role changing, it's only in the sense that I can do things that maybe I once couldn't as my tools get better,” says Mendelson. “But I still view my role as a mastering engineer as somebody who takes the finished mix and makes that final mix entity sound as good as it possibly can.”

Sarah Jones is associate director of Women's Audio Mission, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing women in the recording arts.

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