Chapter 12

Session-Saving

Mastering Tips

In this chapter, I’ve culled five helpful tips from my daily mastering work at Capitol Records. These concepts are the result of completing deadline-driven mastering sessions that must get approval from the client after the first attempt.

Mix Evaluation—Reject a Subpar Mix or Project

This is an important point, as evidenced by previous mentions in the book. A Mastering Engineer must develop enough experience and confidence with recordings and mixes to assess mix quality and viability for mastering. Mastering remains a downstream process, and although impactful changes can be made, the quality of your work is directly affected by the quality of the mixes you receive. If the mix has instrument or frequency balance concerns (among other issues listed ahead), you are wise to request a revised mix and provide the client with specific mix notes. It is helpful to keep an updated list of professional mixers or engineers handy for referral if necessary. By evaluating the mix with objective and subjective assessments (Chapters 5 and 6), a clear concept of the overall quality of the mix will emerge. Following, I’ve listed eight common mix issues that may require a revised mix.

  1. Too Loud or Too Quiet: Standard mix level should be between +4dBu and +8dBu on a VU meter, and/or between −6dBFS and 0dBFS (decibels full scale). If the mix is much louder than this, it may be lacking dynamic range or suffer from extreme peak-limiting.1 If it is too quiet, it may have excessive noise (as the signal-to-noise will be compromised), especially once level is increased in mastering. Also, a quiet mix file may not make complete use of the particular digital word resolution (at 6dB per bit).2
  2. Instrument Balances Off: This occurs if the natural presentation of a group or ensemble is incorrect, or if prominent mix elements or instruments are masked or difficult to discern. Most obviously, if any instrument is interfering with the lead vocal, that must be rectified. If instruments are competing for the exact same frequency ranges, or are panned directly on top of each other, this can also necessitate instrument balance changes and a mix revision.
  3. Frequency Balances Off: This usually occurs if there are issues with the acoustics of the mix room, or with the speakers. The result is an overly dull or overly bright mix. This issue is generally broadband, affecting either low, mid-, or high frequencies, but could also apply to specific instruments being over-equalized in the mix. Another example is if the mix engineer boosts similar frequencies on most of the instruments, resulting in an excess of that tonality.
  4. Too Mono or Too Stereo (i.e. Too Much Widening): A great mix ideally makes effective use of the stereo image. If the mix elements are not properly panned, or conversely, if they have excessive widening effects applied, mastering will be compromised. The obvious exception here is deliberately or historically mono mixes.
  5. Improper Vocal Placement and Presentation: Obviously, the lead vocal in most recordings is critically important. The treatment of the vocal as broadband frequency-wise, present, and natural sounding is ideal. The mix should be revisited if the vocal is in any way too quiet or too loud, or masked by competing instruments or frequencies, or if the diction of the words is difficult to follow.
  6. Genre-specific problems: This refers to inappropriate mix treatments considering the musical genre. Examples might be a rock track with boomy low frequencies and insufficient mid-range; a hip-hop track with thin-sounding kick and bass; a singer-songwriter, classical, or jazz track with excessive limiting. Each genre of music generally dictates specific instrument and frequency balances, along with dynamic range expectations.
  7. Macro-dynamic issues: I also refer to this as inverted dynamics. This is generally an affliction of over peak-limited mixes, whereby the quiet sections become louder than the loud sections. The revised mix should have the dynamics between song sections substantially restored.
  8. Production Shortcomings: If the quality of recorded sounds or instruments is lacking, or if possibly the expertise of the production team is limited, it will be reflected in the mix. Addressing and revising these concerns with a more established mix engineer can result in substantial improvements.

Make sure to get the highest quality mix available of the recording before beginning the mastering session.

Oscillator Sweep the Signal Path Redux

I refer to this procedure in Chapter 7—The Mastering Game Plan, but it bears repeating as a valuable tip. Once the mastering chain is selected, it is essential to sweep the chain with an oscillator tone from the PBDAW between at least 20Hz–20kHz and verify that both level and frequency response are flat at the dBFS and VU meter reference level of your studio (usually −14dBFS = 0VU = +4dBu) while reading the RDAW output. This is very important, as certain load interactions between analog equipment circuits may have undesirable interactions that can result in level loss, low- or high-frequency roll-offs, or both.

If there are level drops or frequency roll-offs, troubleshoot first by bypassing analog equipment one at a time (notating the result) until you achieve a flat reading. Next, swap the sequence of analog equipment until the response is flat. You may need a technician to add buffer amp stages between the equipment in question, which will solve loading issues. Otherwise, use a mastering console (i.e. the Dangerous Liaison or Maselec MTC-1X) with buffered insert switches for each analog piece to achieve a flat response through the mastering chain.

It is critical that your mastering chain is flat so you are not compromising audio and unwittingly using a mastering system that works against the audio. You never want to add extra level or over-equalize to achieve the desired result; ideally, the quality of your signal path alone adds fidelity to the audio even before any adjustments.

Spectrum Analyze the Mastered Audio

Check the frequency response curves of mastered audio you like (highly regarded or favorite releases, or your own or a colleague’s work) with a spectrum analyzer (which implements fast Fourier Transform methodology [FFT])3 and compare it to an analysis of your current mastered audio (see Figure 5.8 for the Voxengo SPAN spectrum analyzer). This comparison will reveal any frequency response differences that can be addressed during the mastering session. The analysis should also corroborate what you are hearing, and serve as a quick test that your playback system and room are reproducing audio accurately. Unless one is deliberately compensating, a frequency imbalance from the speakers or room acoustics will be inversely represented in the finished audio. For example, bright speakers or a reflective room will result in a dull mix or master, and dull speakers or a dead room will result in a bright master. Your room must be true (flat) to avoid these problems. A frequency analysis of program material will help catch this phenomenon if you are adjusting to new speakers or a new room, or have made other changes that affect the sound presentation.

When In-the-Box (ITB) Mastering Is Your Friend

ITB mastering is explored in Chapter 16, but I mention it here as a practical alternative to an analog or hybrid mastering chain. If the feedback from your first pass of mastering is less than enthusiastic, or the client otherwise prefers the flat mix, you can do a revision pass ITB. I’ve found that often the client will enthusiastically approve the revised mastering because ITB mastering offers a gentler mastering footprint by avoiding DA and AD conversion concerns, and extra electronics or compatibility issues that can occur with analog mastering chains. Additionally, by utilizing only a compressor, one or two bands of EQ, and a transparent peak-limiter, the processing is contained, which preserves the characteristics of the flat mix.

What If Your Client Is Difficult?

In rare occasions, it helps to have a plan to manage an unusually difficult client. If they can’t let go of a project, or describe phenomena that you don’t hear or agree with, explain that you believe the master is fine, but you will indulge a final revision. Avoid endless mastering revisions on vague or contradictory feedback. If you have an office staff or a booking manager, have them alert the client that revisions are limited unless they agree to pay for ongoing work. Fortunately, this situation remains uncommon, and usually, my clients are spot-on with their revision requests. Ideally, they simply love the result and can’t believe their ears. However, if the project is not progressing, you can refer a colleague or issue a refund and move on to the next project.

Conclusion

These five tips can help a Mastering Engineer maintain a high degree of execution and avoid mistakes. By combining aesthetic musical sensibilities with a repeatable system of approaches and checks and balances, the probability will become very high that your clients will love your mastering work and you will catch issues before the approval stage. Preventing mistakes and managing client concerns with poise becomes critical in building and maintaining a mastering client base. The extra attention is well invested if it avoids the disappointment of an oversight.

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