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The heart and soul of mastering

by Ian Shepherd



This tip is so simple that when I first thought of it I almost felt as if I didn’t need to post it.

But talking to people about mastering recently, I’ve realised that it’s one of those “obvious to you” concepts that Derek Sivers talks about. I just take it as read, but I’m finding out that many people haven’t even considered it.

In fact, I’m starting to think it’s one of the key differences between online mastering services that charge as little as $20 a track, and what I consider to be the “realistic” rates that I, and engineers I know and respect, charge. Those super-low charges just never made any sense to me, before – how could anyone make any money, charging so little ?

So here’s the tip.

When mastering, every track needs it’s own optimised settings

See ? I said it was simple.

It’s not just a case of choosing a single EQ, compression and limiting setting and running a whole album through it.

The whole point of mastering is to assess each song on it’s own merits, and choose the level, EQ and any compression or limiting settings purely based on that particular song. Every time, go right back to scratch and make a fresh start.

That’s how you achieve the goal of balancing all the tracks – finding the ‘centre of gravity’ of the album, the line that leads you through the sequence and ties everything together.

That’s how mastering can make an album from a collection of songs.

Even now, typing this, I can’t believe that anyone would want to do it any other way ! But I’m coming to realise that that’s what a lot of other places call “mastering” – boost the level, add a little bass and treble and some compression, and hit “bounce”.

Whereas I can spend anything up to an hour finding the perfect sound for just a single song.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that you won’t end up using similar settings on many songs on an album – if they’ve been recorded in a single studio, by one engineer, and have similar instrumentation, it’s very common to find that there’s a general character to the sound, that just needs moving one way or another.

But it’s the smaller changes around that general sound that works the magic. It’s how even subtle changes over the course of a group of tracks can give an overall result that’s far greater than the sum of the individual adjustments. I’ve literally made changes of only a fraction of a dB on a track-by-track basis and heard the impact of the collection of songs transformed – more times than I can count.

The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts

Or, to put it another way – mastering is not a zero-sum game.

And it can still astound me, even after all this time – while you’re working the adjustments seem tiny, trivial – too small to worry about. And then you listen to the whole sequence and the overall effect is like night and day, a transformation – it’s like… magic, almost.

In fact, it’s the heart and soul of mastering.

Make each individual song sound the best they can be – in the context of the rest of the album – and everything else follows naturally.

So, next time you’re tempted to take the easy route on the “mastering” stage – think again. Take some time, show the songs some respect, and you’ll be amazed what a difference you can make.

Image by ‘Just Justin

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4 Responses

  1. Steve Clark says:

    Nice article Ian! It all rings true!!!

  2. David says:

    Great words Ian. Blessed to have grown up professionally around one of the finest mastering engineers in LA, I never saw it done any other way.

    But things are very different now and your post is critical and needs to be heard. It’s not a difficult concept you expressed, but some of the most profound things are simple!

    Thanks

  3. Rick says:

    The problem is that many (many!!) musicians are footing the bill for their own recordings from start to finish including CD manufacturing,artwork,up front royalties on cover material etc.. Since budgets are so small it’s hard to resist the “quickie” mastering services who charge a fraction of what real mastering studios charge. No ones at fault and I doubt that anyone thinks that the services are the same quality but having been in that situation a few years back I understand the appeal of someone who offers mastering at $25-30.00 dollars per song compared to $150.00 per song or more. Hell most of the musicians I was working with had never even heard of or understood what mastering actually is or how it works. It was some odd line on the credits od CD’s and albums (mastered by: Bob Ludwig). It meant nothing to them. Most musicians walk out of a studio with a mixed product and consider it done and ready for pressing.

  4. Bruce says:

    I agree totally with you Ian. The question is do I mix my tracks with a dry sound or dirty it up with some reverb and/or delay. I am finding that many recordings today are dry and some are with effects. I thinks less is more but I am not sure what works best in this day and age. Thanks for the great advice.

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