Being one with the master...
The past four weeks have been spent learning all about the fine art of mastering!
Although I previously had views about mastering and what constitutes the activity, there were a lot of new ideas I was exposed to, and extra thoughts to be considered...
Firstly, I did not realise how much was involved in mastering beyond very technical applications - I thought the processes were slightly 'creatively detached', clinical, so to say; getting the songs to correct levels, compressing and limiting the tracks to a specified, consistent sound and appropriateness for various platforms of release. I was unbeknown to the level of creative input mastering engineers have – such as applying EQ and other tasteful corrective and artistic actions. This was, in hindsight, quite naive of me, seeing as there generally is a creative subtext to most tasks within the arts! I still do however consider the crux of the sound to come from mixing and editing, with mastering being the more 'technical' icing.
Dave Turner, our teacher, showed us various examples of what different mastering engineers did to different tracks, and I realised individual mastering engineers actually influence the sound of a track greatly. With there being many variables to twist and incorporate in the process, they (naturally) create very different products, and even have their own distinct sound and style. I did previously imagine most mastering would make tracks sound the same, or at least very similar. It is a more complicated process than I first figured.
An issue with mastering I have for a while deliberated, and a point of conversation that was raised in our class, is that the dynamics of a song can be lost through too much processing and compression. A few examples Dave showed us, as being in his opinion too ‘squished’, I agreed - there was a loss of character, with the real feel and variance of a track being dissipated. It is not necessarily better to take away dynamic range from a track, as this often translates to the track’s distinctiveness and style.
Mastering engineers have a very meticulous responsibility – to advance a track, have it at a level of commercial quality, and at the same time keep its flare and style. I think it is probably the case (mostly) that less is more. (Although I’m not versed enough in mastering to know this!
It has just often proven itself the case in mixing). What a great ear they would need to have to work on very specific aspects of tracks! Especially with mastering being that final stage; having to subtlety perfect and finalise tracks, be very attentive to and selective with what tracks need to feel completed.
Something I discovered throughout this intensive is that it is weirdly very enjoyable to apply EQ to tracks as a 'completed' mix. I found greater satisfaction focusing on the entire mix at a time than when affecting sound by sound, instrument by instrument – it feels like you are having greater impact, with even minute EQ changes. I liked honing in on, and really hearing what changes are doing to, the track as a whole. Sometimes when EQing individual features, and using a plug-in, one can get too caught up in each part without seeing the whole sound image, and lose sight of the vibe of a track (what will inevitably be what people are experiencing and listening to – the whole work!).
The mastering suite at SAE Melbourne.
The GML 8200 Stereo Parametric EQ - I found it a real pleasure to work with.
I also have recently thought how much I prefer using outboard EQs. Firstly, I like the physical turning of knobs – you feel in a way where you’re going, how the song is being affected, and the best part is that you are wholly listening. Although yes, you can see the numbers, and you can see where the dial faces, it’s so much more intuitive than having the visual spectre/representation on screen of the frequencies being affected and the space they are increased or decreased.
This is something that Joe from Crystal Mastering in Melbourne, as a guest lecturer, also touched on. He explained that using analog mastering gear, means he focuses on, and is highly attentive to, the very slight, yet audible, changes his actions are taking in the mix – and does not default to particular ways of working, but treats tracks as separate entities, with distinct requirements.
Joe in his mastering studio (Photo source: http://crystalmastering.com.au/studios/gallery/)
I completely agree – I believe I EQ’d so often in-the-box, using plug-ins, that I began defaulting to certain ‘images’ of the space; expecting what to hear or not hear. Especially, myself personally being what I'd call a visual learner, what I see impacts what I hear – and I think I can often persuade myself (subconsciously) that something sounds good because I am happy with how it looks. (As much as I would like to think I do not take in to account how something ‘looks’ when it comes to sound, I think I can’t help it, and I, like most others, am just hard-wired that way).
I am more receptive to sounds when I am simply listening.
Which brings up the point that maybe engineers should vary their gear, and the mode of their processing and effects, in order to avoid getting stuck into any habit – having new, unchartered gear, would force one to think more, and therefore focus more on the sound (rather than the visual frequency spectrum).
So yes, I very much like not having a visual graphic for EQ, but only using my ears, it has been a very enlightening practice for me to engage in, and I think will influence every aspect of my mixing from here on out!
Joe also lent some great tips into his methodology, and gave amazing insight into his day-to-day practice as a mastering engineer and what it entails.
Some real take-away points included the order in which he attempted tracks – that he would firstly work on those that he identified as needing the most work, and would continue in a fashion that would make the most of the patterns of processing employed – in order of songs with similar styles and necessary editing and requirements. (Also a considerably rational manner of organisation and use of time!).
I was slightly gob-smacked at the sheer pace these mastering engineers work through tracks and albums – that Joe would complete the mastering for entire albums in a single day. This would bring up the issue for me of requiring ear breaks – I just don’t know if I would happily be able to breeze from one song to another that briskly, with the maintenance of a clear mind and fresh ears. But I guess that is where experience and professionalism come into play – the longer one has been doing something, the greater their speed and comfortability in doing it (with the all-important preservation of quality).
A very notable factor in Joe’s lecture, was the highly inter-personal dependency of mastering (and indeed, all creative, collaborative work). Joe emphasised the need to most-effectively communicate with clients – with people whose work you are effecting (after they have spent the long dedicated hours to creating the songs). Because whilst the artists and engineers know the songs, the mastering engineers know the audience and the practicalities of most effective release. It was very appealing and encouraging to hear that he has never had to knock back a client – that even if problems arose, constructive communication would work to dissipate discrepancies and assist all to be on the same page.
He also persuaded me of the value of getting a track externally mastered – by someone who was not involved in the creation of the track. This is important as, it is eventually the ‘un-involved’ public who are going to be receiving the work, so an ‘un-involved’ engineer should give it the final send-off to them! (With an unbiased, unaffected, open ear finalising the mix for release).
The more I hear about mastering, the more I consider it to be a career I would potentially pursue. I like how niche the work is – that you have an entire mix, and a very specific and direct point: to prepare it for audiences, for ears. Also that the art is applied track by track, with processing worked mainly as a whole, to make it 'sound good' as an entirety. There isn't a colossus amount of tracks to individually edit and mix, to get caught up in - you're looking more at the big picture. (Sometimes working from the very early stages of a session can become overwhelming. Especially when you are in charge of composing, arranging, recording, mixing, processing AND potentially also mastering, one begins to lose subjective sight of the project, and the joy from making very minor tweaks and edits is simply obliterated).
I have now peaked interest in mastering, and will continue to research the work, watch YouTube videos and read articles from mastering engineers, to keep formulating my own practices and views on it all. I also intend to go back to all my previous productions and mixes and master them, or better yet, exchange sessions with my peers to master each other’s! As empirical and professional engineers.