Today's blog will be in two parts. Firstly I will reflect on some important tips learnt about the “black art” mastering music.
Secondly i’ll share with you some photo’s and observations from trip to Soundpark studios in Northcote where I had the chance to be involved in a recording session for a band called Red Spencer.
The biggest thing learnt about mastering so far has nothing to do with mastering itself but to do with mixing. When faced with a single track to work with your options become limited and often compromises may be needed. How you juggle and compromise is determined by the balance and style of mix presented. There are tricks and techniques that may help you balance the spectrum tightrope but an unbalanced mix is generally more time consuming and end up with more compromises. There is no shame in asking the mix engineer to re-send the mix with some adjustments if it’s going to benefit.
Lots of careful steps must be taken when preparing a mix for mastering and a quick google search will have plenty of information and guidelines. Here is just one
In mastering itself the biggest influence of producing quality comes down to your ears and your monitoring environment. Good monitors are needed to hear detail not always evident in poor designs or cheaper components. Knowing how your room responds to a sine sweep or pink noise captured by a calibration mic will help explain some of the things you are hearing and help you make the right decisions. This is assuming you are always using reference tracks to guide your master.
In terms of gear there are lots to choose from and different ways to use it. Important items to have are limiters, meters and analysis software, stereo bus compressors and eq preferable with notched dials for easy recall. With my minimal knowledge of electrical engineering i’m not going to pretend I know why one circuit is better than another but I do know price normally reflects quality.
Other jobs of the mastering engineer include creating masters of an entire album that flows from one song to another without any major change in loudness or quality. Also the engineer must program the music with metadata and PQ codes for audio players. One great program for this is Triumph which was created in association with Ozone and is a one stop shop for the final stage of mastering.
The engineer must always be aware of the different formats used by companies like Itunes and the compression processes used. All formats like TV broadcast, CDbaby, Bandcamp CD have guidelines, regulations and processes that will affect the mastering process. Knowing how each master will react on different media is an art form in itself.
Here is an interesting paragraph which sums up what I just said
“Mastering is not a rubber stamp process. It’s an art in which compromises must be made in order to get a group of songs to work together, and translate to as many formats and playback systems as possible” (Perkins, 2015).
For this second part I would like to reflect on my observations and participation in the sound recordings for the band Red Spencer. I had the opportunity to take more of a back seat role and watch the engineer Dave work the gear the artists. Saying that I did turn some knobs, move mics around and run Pro Tools for a bit.
It was a real eye opener to see that by being a quick, professional and switched on engineer help to get a lot more done with better quality. When you are in a session where people are paying good money there is the added expectation of content at the end of the day. The artists need to feel like they are getting their money's worth ensuring future business.
The session flow was greatly influenced and enhanced by the LAN setup for the fold back system. Pro tools had been configured so that certain internal buses were linked to the studios network allowing the artists to setup their own headphone mixes at positions around the recording spaces. This is such an important factor in keeping the artist happy and a time saver.
It was really interesting the hear the sound coming from great mics, outboard, tape machine and musicians. This was my first time in a studio with a tape machine and found that it gave the drum track more body and glue. The mic and processing chain setup for the drums was intriguing and I wrote down most of the choices. A point to note is each processing chain for the drums went through the Studer A80 24 track tape machine then to pro tools for safe keeping.
Kick out - M88 Beyer Dynamic into a Neve 1073 preamp then into a LA2A compressor.
Kick in - Neumann U47 - Neve 1073 preamp then into UA1176 compressor.
Snare Top - Beyer M201 into another UA1176
Snare Bottom - Neumann U87 position near floor tom picking up the kick beater as well
OH - Single Coles 4038 positioned over the drummer's head. This was the first time hearing the famous ribbon mic known for it’s great flat response, making it ideal for overheads.
Room - Another Coles 4038 compressed by a Chandler Zener limiter.
Trash - The iconic RCA ribbon getting smashed by a Spectra Sonics compressor. We thought it would be cool to place this mic under the grand piano in the room.
One interesting trick with the drum tracks was to record the cymbal hits separately. This allowed for separate compression of other elements.
The only other things tracked apart from guide tracks were two guitars with fairly standard setups (C414, ribbon behind amp) and a digital keyboard with mics on the onboard speaker grills. The guide tracks were a D.I bass and a U87 and vocal.
Apart from all the cool gear the session progressed really well. Dave mixed as he went and started to sculpt the sound for the artist who would come in and listen every hour or so. By having it somewhat mixed each time the artist came in allowed for a clearer picture of where the track was heading and what was working and what wasn’t.
Perkins, Justin. (14 April, 2015). Common Misconceptions About the Mastering Process. Retrieved from http://theproaudiofiles.com/misconceptions-about-mastering/