Chapter 11

The Inner Game

Mindset Approaches

In this chapter, I explore a professional Mastering Engineer’s focus of thoughts while mastering. I’ve identified eight areas that shed insight into an effective mindset, which I detail next.

Mastering Is Either Effective or Not

A completed mastering project is either effective at enhancing the listening experience, genre-appropriate in its presentation, and well executed, or it isn’t. It either effectively presents The Eleven Qualities of Superb Audio Fidelity introduced in Chapter 2, or it doesn’t (barring recording or mix concerns—it’s worth revising a project that doesn’t thrill the client). I mention this because with experience and more projects successfully mastered, one develops confidence that each new project has been properly mastered. If mastering revisions are requested, you will possess the professionalism to dialogue with the client, understand their impressions, adjust your game plan, and remaster the project to their liking.

Psychoacoustics

Psychoacoustics1 refers to the study of sound perception in humans, and it is important to discuss a few key points. Ultimately, the process of listening to and evaluating audio is subjective. Our ears sense and or brains interpret what is pleasing or displeasing about sound. For example, the Fletcher–Munson Equal Loudness Contours (see Figure 1.3) indicate that mid-range frequencies are more apparent to us, so that our sensitivity to them in instruments and music is enhanced. As a consequence, exaggerated mid-range frequencies quickly become uncomfortable to hear. Familiarity also plays a role; expecting to hear audio with a specific sonic quality and impact informs listening experience. Imagine a dance or hip-hop track rolled-off in the low frequencies, or a rock track with no mid-range definition in the guitars—the first impression would be: “What happened?” You may have experienced disliking the sounds or production qualities of a new song on the radio, but after repeat listens, later realizing you actually do like it.

These are examples of psychoacoustics at work. Well-produced audio sounds compelling and appealing, and your experiences listening for and identifying that appeal is uniquely personal. An opinion about the quality of mastered audio is informed by all of your experiences listening to music, and your knowledge about music and recording/music technology. In one sense, with the exclusion of artifacts or distortion, psychoacoustics indicates that there is no incorrect mastering, per se, but everything that informs that particular recording—from style/genre, to recording methods, to end use (function), to context of the artist’s other releases, and trends in music—all combine to inform how we hear, and how we come to make audio mastering decisions. This knowledge is liberating if the ideal mastering adjustment or alteration escapes you; simple enhancements and adjustments or fresh experimentation are often fine approaches to explore while mastering.

Lead the Listener by Embracing Macro-Dynamics

Remember that the Mastering Engineer is the proverbial ‘wizard behind the curtain’ implementing final audio adjustments, and as elucidated in Chapter 2, a primary goal is to enhance listening experience for the consumer. Consequently, it remains important to identify and embrace the underlying musicality of the recording in your mastering work. We’ve covered important foundations and approaches to mastering, but remember that the final result must be appropriately musical. A particular example of this is macro-dynamics, whereby you want to lead the listener through the various sections of the song to the payoff of the chorus or other musical climax. The song and its recording, mixing, and ultimately mastering should all support the dynamic ebbs and flows of the composition. This is clearly where experience as a musician, songwriter, or producer can pay dividends in mastering. Your clients will understand if you posses a sensitivity to their music when they listen to the final master.

Work Habits

A professional Mastering Engineer implements good work habits, allowing them to master audio at a high level of fidelity while also documenting what was done for reference and repeatability. For instance, if the client loves the result, the mastering chain can be recalled for their next release. These habits establish the repeatable structure or scaffolding that allows a Mastering Engineer to hit the mark for the client each time. A key system of habits imparted in this book is Part III—The Five Step Mastering Process; practicing it regularly will produce consistent and professional mastering results.

Be Meticulous

Mastering as a discipline requires a great deal of organization and attention to detail. There is a potentially wide margin of error beyond aesthetic adjustments that may include improper digital clocking, converter calibration, equipment issues or even failure, compatibility issues between analog devices, and generating the final delivery format at the correct specifications. A Mastering Engineer must successfully achieve aesthetic goals, but also be 100% confident that their technical procedures are sound—another important reason to triple-check your mastering system and document each project with session notes. Your closet may be a mess, and you may not be able to find your tax returns from last year, but you must have all of your EQ notes, source files, and mastered files archived and retrievable in short order. Many times, I’ve restored masters for clients years after our session, and they are beside themselves with relief. Allow the band or artist to get drunk with excitement upon completion of their project—as the Mastering Engineer, you will celebrate, too—but your role is always the proverbial designated driver en route to audio nirvana.

With time in front of the speakers (where the client is paying for your expertise), and the project on a deadline, your skills will naturally evolve. You will catch inconsistencies/problems in the audio that range from mixes that are too loud, too quiet, excessive, or lacking in certain frequency bands, to improperly balanced instruments or improper use of the audio image, to name a few. Some of these can be adequately fixed in mastering (for example, sections of a vocal performance that are overly sibilant or ‘spattery’ can be effectively de-essed without sending the mix back), and others warrant a call to the producer or mix engineer to send a revised mix. Again, don’t be shy about requesting revisions, as they will allow you to create a better sounding master, and everyone will be pleased in the end. If the production team wants to provide you with additional flexibility, ask for stem sources.

Documentation (Notes)

I introduced this in Chapter 1 under Competency #9—Implement Recallable Workflow Approaches. You must have an effective system for documenting each project. As mentioned, at Capitol, I repurpose analog tape box legends to take notes, but you can make your own note sheets in Excel, or implement a digital option. Notes should contain session information (date, artist, album title, project title), objective assessments, all of the zone 2 analog EQ, compressor and limiter settings, the sequence of the mastering chain, and also any advanced techniques implemented such as parallel EQ, zone 1 plug-ins before converting to analog, or zone 3 processing after capture. This also allows you to track the artists and projects you master throughout the year. An ancillary approach is to keep a notebook handy to jot down workflow ideas, questions, equipment wish lists, client conversations, or other relevant concepts to research later. While working on this book, during mastering sessions, I regularly wrote down important ideas to explore.

Listen Universally

Use your ears to listen to both the client and the music. Discourse with the client until you are certain you are describing the same musical phenomena with the same adjectives correctly defined. I once had a client who asked for a dynamic master, and then he played me an example of a very limited, loud master. Thankfully, we were able to resolve that discrepancy before I launched into the mastering of the project, avoiding wasted time and unnecessary frustration. Once you and your client are communicating effectively, the mastering session should progress with ease.

Manage Problems With Humility and Professionalism

If there is a problem (and there occasionally will be), or the client is not pleased with the mastering, get more clarity on their expectations and redo it. I typically include one revision for free and rarely dispute what the client is hearing before sending the revision (unless we are not hearing/describing the same issues). This is simple professionalism. If the client appears to abuse your goodwill here, you must let them know from the outset that subsequent revisions are at your hourly rate.

Conclusion

If your mastering mindset and work habits remain quality-focused and consistent, you will enhance the audio fidelity of each project and continue evolving as a Mastering Engineer. The mindset concepts outlined in this chapter frame mastering work and client interactions for a successful outcome. By understanding and implementing these approaches, you will provide deeper value to the production team, meaning that your insight and skills will be regularly sought after.

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