Ask the Engineer is a series on the Masterdisk blog where our engineers answer questions about music production.
SCOTT HULL is a 28-year veteran mastering engineer and the owner of Masterdisk studios in NYC. Scott started his career in 1983 and has mastered hit records and classic albums in every genre, as well as many Grammy-winning titles. He is widely regarded as an expert in vinyl mastering. Recent projects include albums for Donald Fagen, Sting, Dave Matthews, Glenn Frey and KISS, as well as multiple albums for the Sh-K-Boom, Tzadik and Luaka Bop labels. Over the course of his career Scott has mastered albums for Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Ravi Shankar, Herbie Hancock, Tom Zé, John Mayer Joe Bonamassa, and many more.
Q: Can you bring out the vocal in mastering? Can you push the snare drum back in the mix? Can you soften the cymbals? (And other “Fix it in the mastering” questions.)
A: There is a lot of subtle tone change that can be applied in mastering, but there is always a “but.” I’ll start with the least successful stuff first. If your mix is harsh, too much cymbals or too much high frequency “zing” on the vocal, it is going to be hard to make that sound great in mastering.
Don’t get me wrong — there are solutions and there are ways to soften the upper-mids and top, but often these fixes cause more damage to the rest of the mix. That is why I always suggest that your final mix SHOULD be just a little dark and a little warm. This means different things to different people and in some genres it’s desirable to be dark and warm and in others it is not. But the main take-away point is that if you “aim” your mix to sound exactly like a mastered CD, I may not be able to make it sing. When I use mastering EQ to soften the high frequencies, ALL of the elements of the mix get darker, not just the one(s) that are harsh. So if the hi-hat is ear splitting, I can roll off 7k and up, but even in very small amounts that will make the vocals sound less impressive and the guitar crunch will change and so on.
Tonal balance is the key to this equation. If ALL of the elements are too bright, then the EQ will work. If it’s just some elements then the EQ only serves to un-mix your music. Many people reach for multi-band compression in this case to try to take the sting out of the offending elements. This ONLY works when the offending element is the loudest thing in that part of the frequency spectrum. The effect of the hi frequency band-specific compression will be to soften the loudest, most transient part.
De-essing is a special case and is surprisingly effective. The de-esser has been designed to identify vocal esses and not confuse them with the brightness of the cymbals or snare. Because of the extremely bright tone, trumpets – especially muted trumpet – will get eaten alive by most de-ssers, so great care has to be used around brass and vocals.
Many times, the solution for an overly bright mix is not to cut the harshness, but to find ways of making the bass, warmth and punch regions stand out more. Balance is the key.