Mastering Engineers | The Finishing Touch

Dec 1, 2010 8:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



Education Guide

Mix is gearing up to present its longstanding annual Audio Education Guide in its November 2014 issue. Want to have your school listed in the directory, or do you need to update your current directory listing? Add an image, program description, or a logo to your listing! Get your school in the Mix Education Guide 2014.

Mike Wells of Mike Wells Mastering

Mike Wells of Mike Wells Mastering

Wells: I re-do projects all the time. It ranges from people saying, “I tried to do it myself and I couldn’t figure it out,” to, “My friend tried to do it and he couldn’t, so now we’re talking to you.” At the end of the day, most of it comes down to mastering engineers being able to communicate—especially to independent artists—what is achievable given the recording. Sometimes it’s a tough-love answer. I have found that it’s not a good idea to promise things that can’t be delivered. In the world of Internet mastering, we see that happening every day: Grand promises are made for a dollar a song.

I’m hoping that in the next few years we might see a renaissance in the appreciation for those who have dedicated themselves to audio engineering, whether it’s tracking, mixing or mastering. Over the last decade, the manufacturing and sales sector have really pushed with such fervor this idea that you can do everything yourself, but the reality is most people are going to fall short in one or all of those areas, no matter how diligent they are, and there is no plug-in that is going to make up the shortfall of what an actual professional in one of those areas can do for them.

Marcussen Mastering's Stephen Marcussen

Marcussen Mastering's Stephen Marcussen

Kevorkian: I mostly see two types of mixes coming though the door: The “old-school” ones with plenty of headroom, and the mixes that have been already maxed out and been brick-wall-limited to death. I understand this [latter situation] was probably done to impress the label or the artist. Once in a while, I get those loud mixes and they sound amazing. There is nothing I could do to make them sound better. So I do the best possible transfer to the 16-bit/44.1kHz world. Those are isolated cases. Most of the time, over-limited mixes do need some work, and unfortunately when there are no more transients left in the program, it is very hard to do any corrections—de-essers don’t work the way they should and compressors are useless. Unless the mixing engineer is very confident with the processing he applies to the final mix, I would suggest providing the client with the pumped-up versions for approval and bring the non-processed files to the mastering session. It’s so much better to work with.

Marcussen: I’ve seen a lot of people go through the D.I.Y. stage; I think that’s part of growth in this business. If you’re lucky enough to be able to make a record and you’ve got a shoestring budget and that’s how you’ve got to do it, then that’s how you’ve got to do it. There are a lot of D.I.Y. guys who provide a valuable service, and it’s a stepping-stone for artists to get their stuff out. It’s not all bad—you can do some fairly impressive stuff in some of these workstations; we see it. But at the end of the day, when you go to mastering, you’re really paying for the guy’s experience that’s working on your project. Anybody can technically add bottom, middle, top, whatever it is—make it loud, make it this or that. But when you go to somebody that’s been doing it for a long time, there’s a whole different perception that comes with that and that’s obviously a good thing.

Years ago, when Pro Tools was really taking off, we started hearing a lot of complaints in the mastering community about receiving unlabeled PT sessions from acts, poorly employed DSP plug-ins, etc. Has that situation improved as musicians have gotten more savvy about using DAWs and plug-ins have, by most accounts, gotten better?
This is why I don’t have Pro Tools! I don’t have that problem. I work mostly from stereo mixes—not from sessions. I understand why it could be productive to adjust a mix while mastering, but most of my clients don’t have the luxury to spend two or three hours on a song anyway. To be honest, I don’t even like working from stems. To me, it takes all the spontaneity away. I like to work fast and have the client evaluate the result in an environment they know well. They can then touch up their mixes if needed and I will recall my settings. Mixing is an art, and I am not a mixing engineer. Occasionally, I am happy to have a kick track stem available to add a little punch to a mix that needed help.

Today, almost every musician has a more or less elaborate studio setup at home. Like everyone else, they have to go through a learning curve. They are more knowledgeable about software and plug-ins, but still, talent makes the difference.

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