May 5, 2010
There are plenty of moments to enjoy in this video with veteran mastering engineer Howie Weinberg – not least, proof that mastering engineers really do have a sense of humour !
I want to pick up on just one thing he says almost in passing though, and amplify it. People are always asking “What is mastering”, and it’s a question that lots of people have tried to answer, including me:
But Howie’s analogy is short, sweet, and very, very, deep. He says that a mastering engineer is like a photographer who specialises in retouching images in the darkroom to get the very best out of them.
I want to make that statement simpler, and explore the idea in a little more depth:
Mastering is like photoshop for audio
How to take great photos
- Buy a great camera, with some nice lenses, and a nice big memory card
- Choose a great location
- Find great lighting – maybe the end of the day if you’re using natural light, or get some nice bright floodlights
- Get your subject looking it’s best
- Take lots and lots of photos, trying out different angles, different lenses, different lighting
- Sift through all those photos and pick the best
- Make the best print you can
And then, if you’re anything like me, you take a good look at that print, and realise that despite all your time and effort - it’s not right.
For a start, it needs to be cropped to a different aspect ratio to give the best impact. And, the exposure wasn’t perfect on the shot you like best, so it needs a little contrast and brightness adjustment – not to mention the gamma level.
Luckily, a skilled Photoshop user can fix all these problems, and more.
If you’re dealing with a group of photos, you may feel you want to adjust the white balance to get the colours consistent. If you’re really fussy, you may use a blur filter to fake depth-of-field on some of them – or get all arty and make few of them black and white, or use a fancy effect filter for impact.
And while you’re doing all that, you’re maybe removing some lens flare, doing a little red-eye correction – and, while you’re at it you may as well use the Clone Tool get rid of that huge zit…!
Now let’s look at the audio parallels.
Mastering is Photoshop for audio
How to make a great recording:
- You choose the best mics and recording gear you can find (Camera, lenses)
- You choose a great space to record in (Location)
- You use screens, blankets, and mic placement to get the best sound (Lighting)
- You use the best musicians you can, with the best instruments available (Subject)
- You spend hours or days recording (The photo-shoot)
- You sift through all the takes looking for the best performance (OK, you’re with me, right ?!)
- You spend even more time mixing for the best sound (The print)
And then, you burn a CD, stick it in you stereo/iPod/car CD player, kick back to listen and realise that despite all your time and effort – it’s not right.
Luckily, just as with photos, you can improve almost all of this in the mastering.
- Clean up the starts & ends – maybe edit out that unnecessary intro (Cropping)
- Optimise the level using compression and limiting (Tweak contrast & brightness)
- Use EQ to gently balance the sound with other tracks (Adjust the colours & white balance)
- Subtly enhance the stereo image (Fake up some depth of field)
- Very occasionally you might use reverb to add space and depth (Effect filters)
- Take out hiss, clicks, pops, thumps, hum (Red-eye correction, zit-removal!)
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
So, Mastering is Photoshop for audio (in the hands of a skilled user). When you’ve finished, what you find is that even though all the individual changes were quite small and subtle, overall they make a massive difference.
You’ll recognise this if you’ve ever made one of those online books of photos as a gift for someone. While you doing it, it seems like a huge effort for not much return. But when you look through the final copy, and compare it to the original images on your computer, you realise it’s made a dramatic, important impact.
The originals looks scrappy and thrown-together by comparison – full of flaws and inconsistencies.
Whereas the time you spent balancing the colours and brightness levels, optimising levels and cleaning things up – plus deciding which pictures should go on which pages and when there should be one on it’s own (gaps & running order!) – has resulted in a really satisfying, professional-looking whole.
Moderation in all things
Of course, you have to be careful not to overdo it. We don’t want your music to be the audio equivalent of a glossy magazine cover – all scrawny airbrushed models and bland headlines, crushed blacks and auto-adjusted colour levels, right ? And let’s not even mention the Loudness War…
But the fact remains, mastering can make all the difference for your music. And most of all – thank #!*? you got rid of that zit !
Please add your own analogies and parallels in the comments…
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