For the second time in my life I have realised that reaching out to a mastering studio to put the “finishing touches” on my music is completely pointless.
Allow me to explain…
Mastering recorded audio became its own discipline after the Second World War, when a “dubbing engineer”, secondary to the recording/mix engineer, was tasked with transferring the recorded audio from tape to a master disc, which served as the template from which all following vinyl discs would be pressed. This was a purely technical procedure, whereby the dubbing engineer’s job was to ensure that the final recording, which had been signed off by those creatively involved with the production of the music, was faithfully duplicated onto its designated medium.
Early vinyl records tended to be dogged by various inefficiencies in the tape-to-disc transfer process, not least that the dynamic range of the recorded material could be too large, resulting in the cutting of unplayable waveforms where the needle would actually pop out of the grooves, or even burning out the disc cutting head. The use of compressors and limiters in the mastering process became widespread in the 1960s, to cap the dynamic range at a particular threshold and thus ensure that such problems could be avoided. However, because this process was automated, often the dynamics processing employed was not sympathetic to the fidelity of the original material, and so over-compression would sometimes squeeze the life out of it, making everything sound consistently loud in a way that dishonoured the integrity of the original tape master. Some records ended up sounding particularly nasty due to this pitfall at the mastering stage.
And so, the solution to this problem?
Enter the mastering engineer.
By the 1970s, dedicated mastering studios had been established, staffed by sound engineers using high-end equipment. These “mastering engineers” were incredibly adept at finalising tape masters in an artistically satisfactory way, establishing mastering as a new artistic discipline that could actually make the final result sound “better” than the original recording.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, music production was revolutionised by digital technology, and CDs became the darling format of the music industry. To this end, the significance of mastering for vinyl became less prominent, as the problems incurred by analogue playback were no longer an issue in the digital domain. Mastering engineers, however, did not disappear, and instead their role migrated into audio specialists who serve as the last step in the production process – the guy or gal who collates all the final mixes for a particular release, and applies their technical wizardry to ensure that program volumes and tonal balancing are consistent throughout the entirety of the album. This is arguably of particular importance given the infinitely flexible DIY audio production world in which we now live, where track one may have been recorded and mixed in your bedroom, and track ten is a live recording from that gig you played last year – a far cry from the rigidly calibrated standards of professional audio recording of the 60s and 70s – the mastering engineer can be an invaluable specialist who coalesces all of these final mixes, “topping and tailing” each song to run seamlessly from one to the other, and thereby creating a pleasingly consistent album.
So, what’s my beef with mastering then? Why the need for such cynicism over a specialist process that seems so necessary?
Well, as we have seen, the discipline of mastering has migrated away from being a technical necessity, and has reinvented itself as an artistic process that seeks to “correct” and “improve” audio recordings. It seems to me that underpinning this is an assumption that all recordings require “correction” and “improvement”, such that it has now become an almost unquestioned assumption that recordings must undergo such processes before they are properly finished, regardless of the fact that 99% of all recordings these days end up uploaded onto Soundcloud or YouTube, and as such have very little technical requirement for any fiddling at the final stage. I have had this demonstrated to me twice in my life, and both times I reached the conclusion that mastering is really only necessary if identifiable problems are present with the final mixes, or if an agreeable aesthetic improvement can be made. In short, if your final mixes sound great to you, and you are satisfied that they translate well across systems, then you really have to ask yourself what the point of having it mastered actually is.
Case in point, I recently finished working on two songs of my own, and rather than do my normal thing of using some light compression, adding a little sweetening EQ and then normalising the result, I decided that it is high time I found myself a decent, trustworthy mastering engineer to whom I could reliably outsource any material recorded at my studio – for both myself and my clients – to put the “finishing touches” on the mixes. The icing on the cake. The cherry on top. The sachet in the pot noodle. The mayonnaise on your kebab. Whatever your favourite culinary analogy, that’s what I thought. And so I touched base with several mastering facilities, both home and abroad, each of whom did a test master for me of one of my songs.
In each instance I found their work to be a terrible detriment to my original mix; crushed with compression in a way that seemed to me to be horribly distasteful, and accompanied by notes claiming things like “I tried to make it a tad warmer and kill some spikiness in the guitar”. This seemed to me to be slightly presumptuous – perhaps I like the spikiness in the guitar (I do). But of course, how was he to know otherwise? He is not familiar with my style, my artistic preferences, or what I consider important about my mixes, and so he was just trying to rectify the problems in the mix, as he perceived them. Attempts to articulate my preferences via email just leads to a cumbersome back and forth whereby words prove to be an inefficient medium in which to convey the subjective pleasure of ambiguous terms such as “guitar spikiness”, let alone any other of the myriad things that I neglected to mention. I actually work hard to capture a wide, natural ambience in my music, especially in the drums, and I feel that, in this current age of “loudness war” style over-compression, excessive limiting of transients in order to push up the aggregate volume of the music actually works against this kind of production style, and forces a kind of “breathlessness” in the music, where everything becomes squashed into a mulch of muddy sounding loudness.
Let’s take a closer look…
The image above depicts a stereo waveform representation of my original mix (red), followed by two subsequent masters from two different studios. In both cases we see that the audio peaks have been truncated in order that the aggregate level can be further maximised. The blue-backed waveform represents an attempt by the first mastering engineer – this waveform is a real sausage! Obviously hugely compressed (oddly more so on the right hand side than the left), which manifests as very noticeable “gain pumping” (sharp volume rises and falls) when listening. Detailing this concern to the second mastering studio, they returned their master, which is the yellow-backed waveform above. Noting that I was not a fan of excessive compression, they opted to still squash the mix, but just not as much. The result was a slightly less severe but still noticeable and ugly compression.
It actually seems to have become second nature to mastering engineers to simply make everything as loud as possible, because, hey, louder = better, right? We can see this trend towards excessive loudness by comparing two more waveforms, this time from Nirvana’s song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, recorded in 1991. The image below depicts the original 1991 master (blue), and the 20th anniversary remastered “Special Edition” from 2011 (green):
It is interesting to note that the blue-backed waveform clearly shows Nirvana’s signature loud-quiet-loud song structure represented as an actual change in peak volume between the verses and the choruses. Cut to 2011 and this natural dynamic has been crushed in order raise the aggregate level of the song, arguably sacrificing one of the very trademarks that made Nirvana such a dynamically versatile and intense band in the first place. So no, louder is not always better.
But here’s another reason to be wary of excessive compression. Look what happens when we truncate peak waveforms in this way:
The above image shows a close-up of my original mix (red) side by side with the first master (blue). What we see is that, by truncating audio transients we are actually sacrificing audio content that would otherwise have been present. The detail displayed in the red wave has been totally lopped off and replaced with something resembling a large square wave. Square waves actually introduce odd-ordered harmonics into the signal, which manifests to our ears as rather ugly distortion.
So it seems to me that we are somewhere close to the old days of ramming final mixes through limiters at the mastering stage simply as a matter of course rather than because the music actually warrants it. Indeed, when I suggested to subsequent mastering engineers that I don’t wish to overdo the compression, they still felt inclined to push it somewhat, rather than to err on the side of subtlety. It’s curious why this has become the norm, and of course the much discussed “Loudness War” of the 2000s has impacted significantly upon the industry, such that it seems as though a mastering engineer doesn’t feel he is creating value for money unless he is seen to be mastering for “competition volume”, or else tampering with the mix to some significant and obviously noticeable degree. But for me, this is not actually the job of a mastering engineer. It seems to me that a principled mastering engineer should not be afraid to listen to a mix and decide that nothing needed to be done to it. And to that end, their job is done, and they are still every bit as entitled to be paid as if they had actually decided that there were real tonal balance problems that needed to be rectified. The mastering engineer is your last line of defence against actual technical problems, not a dude who can make your mixes sound “shit hot”. Working under that preconception actually encourages sloppy mixing, because it’s okay – the mastering guy will fix it!
So, where does this leave me?
Well, just to be clear – I am not a mastering engineer, and I do not claim that I can adequately do the complicated job of fixing the technical problems of someone else’s mixes. This task is for dedicated mastering engineers who are good at what they do and conduct themselves in a principled and agreeable manner. But I would urge you, if you’re happy with your mixes and you love the way they sound, please ask yourself – what exactly is the problem that you’re trying to solve? Personally I can only conclude the same point that I reached several years ago when I went through a similar experience: I seem to be trying hard to locate a mastering engineer to whom I can pay money in order to fix unidentifiable problems. All they seem to do – inevitably – is fail to align with my artistic vision and return results that I actually think make my mixes sound worse, not better. And so, being that I do not wish to employ someone to make further creative decisions on mixes that I am already satisfied with, it seems to me that I should take my cue from my previous decision on this matter, and that is that the person best placed to put any “finishing touches” on my music is me.
Hopefully, in a few years from now, when I have again forgotten why I don’t use mastering engineers and I find myself once again looking for that special someone who can put the awesome “finishing touches” on my music, this blog post will serve as a reminder of just how pointless that pursuit is.
An Amendment From The Future
Hello! Future James here. I am talking three years after having published this blog, during which time I have studied the discipline of mastering far more carefully. Whilst I mostly agree with what 2017 James has written, my experience has provoked something of an evolution of my views, and I have come to be slightly less cynical about the artform of mastering per se, and do actually believe that, in the right hands, there is very often further creative mileage that can be explored from most recorded material. To assert that there is little value in having an objective pair of ears weigh in on mixes that were slaved over during intense and often time-limited recording and mix sessions is actually slightly ungracious, perhaps even a little arrogant. I maintain that there are likely far more poor practitioners than good ones, too trigger happy, their favourite plugins locked and loaded, however my own experiences in mastering recordings from years past – long after the emotional connection to decisions made at the recording and mix stage has eroded – has taught me the value of carefully making final corrections and enhancements to the overall mix. But the key word is careful. I have become a fan of Ian Shepherd, who hosts an excellent podcast about mastering, which you can hear here. This is a man who is principled in his approach, receptive to what the client wants and sensitive to the integrity and intent of the material. That is the correct way to be. People like him seem few and far between. As I have found myself in the situation of mastering material more and more, I find that it is possible to tread that middle ground between improving the source material and respecting the clients’ intent.
So. Should you get your stuff mastered? Probably. But it is important to weigh it against your intentions for the material. Make sure whoever you choose is sympathetic to your vision and understands what you want to achieve, and likewise, make sure you understand what you hope to get at the end of it. Too many out there think that the goal of mastering is to make it sound crushed to hell.