Updated: Mar 24
So, I finally started to make recordings that you could actually call records, and of course, was really interested in this mysterious "mastering" thing. That is the disproportionately expensive process of taking the final mixes that you or I slaved over for hours and tweaking them so they miraculously "sound like a record" and supposedly translate well to any playback system. In about 15 minutes. Max. Today, sure it probably sounds strange... but bear in mind that in the time I am talking about there wasn't really home-brew mastering - not even throwing it into Ozone or any of that business. At best, or usually like most engineers, you'd compress it on the master bus, have an EQ there and you were done - and that was what came out for people's demos at least. A limiter? No way. My first experiences were watching a guy with a magical device called a TC Finalizer and a lot of cow print fabric in his studio off the side of a cassette manufacturing business...do...something - in between really not liking the music...and I do suppose it sounded more record-like at the end. Louder, and brighter mainly with the finished mixes pretty close in level track to track. It was pretty meh. But REAL records, Nah...they got something else, surely? Some secret voodoo magic?
I later produced some b-sides for a single release for a major label signed band, got the train to London, dropped off the material at the fancy "real" mastering house called SoundMasters and was told to come back at noon so I could sit in on the mastering session. I wandered around aimlessly for a couple of hours, arriving back at 11:55 and when I did the legend that is Kevin Metcalfe - the dude that taught Streaky, himself now pretty well known - looked up, and said "Oh, sorry - I already did it". So much for my learning experience and a day and 20 pounds train ticket down the drain. He took pity on me, I did get a cup of bad coffee, and was surprised to see despite his array of super sexy Maselec gear...after he'd sorted the low end on his super insane main monitors he listened mainly on NS10's. Before you call bullshit on that - I assure he is doing killer work to this day, including probably half the reggae produced in the UK! I asked what he did, eager to learn the dark mastering magic that would transform my mixes to a finished record and he quickly looked at his notes saying "not a lot - cut at 400 to open the track out, added some top...then a little bit of compression from these two" pointing to a Maselec and Neumann 473 compressor. Off you go son, I've got another record to cut.
More records followed, and I kept showing up again and again like a bad smell at more mastering sessions all over London, ranging from places like The Exchange (where God aka Mike Marsh worked) to the palatial Air Studios to observe and learn. Different engineers, different EQ's, different compressors...and the key thing I realised was how little happened on a good day; it really was all in your mix. I so wanted something magical to happen, some kind of transformation..but nah. If they had to do a lot, you probably screwed up, which course I sometimes had. The mastering environment shows up those LF weirdnesses you didn't quite hear because of the room you mixed in, humiliates you with the sibilance you should have tamed and your general mixing inadequacy as you developed. They did usually make it better as well as louder, reined in the low end, opened things up but the truth was the heavy lifting was the mix. In fact much to my disappointment, they WANTED to do as little as possible! Good mastering elevates your mix maybe at the most ONE letter grade, from a B to an A, for example - if more than that is needed, like I learned - time to go back and work on your mix!
It was still very important to watch, stay out of the way and learn. I also learned a big thing regarding level - most of them didn't want to slam your master, and they were careful with regards to how they got the master loud. Small stages of gain, little bits of compression, - and most importantly how EQ affects apparent loudness. The other key thing I saw is they often clipped the A/D converters instead of limiting, or did that with only the tiniest amount of software limiter following - which sounds TOTALLY different. That's why mixing into a limiter isn't really a great idea if you're aiming for loud and clean.
Compensating your mix for what a crappy, or even good software limiter will do to it is a BAD idea. Whenever I see people on forums talking about comparing their master with one of the big boys and arguing about what limiter to use I think of this; a lot of ME's push into a set of super high-quality A/D converters which does the big level gain without all those software limiter style artefacts as they are literally clipping to get the level despite all the evils we are told about clipping and the analogue front end of gear at that level is such that they can do it without it sounding bad. We're talking Lavry's not your USB interface, btw!
I also rarely ever saw a multi-band compressor in use...maybe twice on a particularly bass in your face record. Fast forward to the present day and none of this is a secret anymore, and we have tools that emulate entire mastering consoles in a single plugin, but should we master our own music?
The answer is still, ideally - no. You have the same ears, the same bias, the same gear, the same monitors, the same room and lack of day after day experience none of which allows you to be objective and add something positive to the art you just made. CAN you, yes of course but unless you have no choice in which case it's totally fair, you are misssing out as an artist on an opporunity to elevate your music. Plus in my case - learn to be a better mixer!
Need more? Check out the next article which answers the question: What is the difference between mixing and mastering?