Modern Mastering Miracles
In my song called “You’re Not Mine”, I was the “engineer” (with my Mbox, laptop, and hard drive) for the electric guitar session (at my guitar player’s house). We got a great performance and it sounded clean at the time, but with the dump trucks and other outside noise coming in the window of the “monitoring room” (a.k.a. the living room), I had recorded a couple of short, but detectable, channel overloads that I never heard until we got to the mixing studio. At the mixing stage, we tried and tried to fix the distortions with Pro-Tools but just could not do it. Re-recording was not an option for us from a time/budget standpoint, so I had to live with it. When mastering time came, I wanted to make sure, at the very least, that Scott had heard the crackles so he could make sure that his mastering didn’t do anything to accentuate them. Of course I also asked, “is there anything you can do to make them less noticeable, or even disappear?” Scott zoned in to the track for about ten minutes to see if he could mitigate the problem. I stayed quiet as he worked in this weird “hi-frequency-only” mode that literally made me feel dizzy. He went to headphones and I was out of the loop, until he switched the mix back on and played me the two “crackle segments”. I was speechless. The crackles were simply gone! It was a miracle. Now that I know this little trick existed, my mind raced to all my annoying mouth pops, and a drum-punch clip that we could never fix, and I knew I had a few items to attack using this little trick later!
Even though I was thrilled to have my channel overloads and a few other similar annoyances fixed, that type of surgery can be time consuming. Ten minutes here and there add up, so the best thing is to come in with the cleanest mix you can. However, when you’re mixing and your mixing platform and engineer can’t seem to fix some pop, click or momentary distortion, consider trying to handle it in mastering. Be wary of trying fixes if heavy reverb, delay or other effects are applied around the problem. That will make the fix more difficult, time-consuming and possibly not even feasible.
Song Order, Gaps in Between and We’re Done!
The last thing we did was clean up the beginnings and endings of every song. We set the final order and began working on the appropriate time delay between each song. At this point Scott had a suggestion about switching the order of songs two and three, putting the slower “You’ve Got Me” third, and the more up-tempo “Thank You for Saying Goodbye” second. Having already decided, then re-decided my song order about seven times before walking in the door with my drive, I already knew that in the pre-mastering environment, putting “You’ve Got Me” after “Thank You” just wasn’t working. For some reason, one of my strongest tracks, “You’ve Got Me”, just sounded momentarily disappointing coming after “Thank You”. I thought it was the tempo, or going from one key to the other that was creating this little let down. But when we tried the order post-mastering, it was incredible to see that problem disappear and the song really represent well in that very same order I had rejected at home! I can’t put my finger on exactly what made it work, but something we did in mastering made those two songs work in that particular order.
We were done! We stayed pretty much on schedule after subtracting lunchtime and some extra chatting here and there. Scott explained that he would keep the “real-time master”, which is the best copy that can be made from the computer. His assistant would create four reference copies for me to pick up in a couple hours or the next day. I could then listen and “live with the master” for a few days or as long as I needed to decide if we wanted any touchups or to change a song order. When I was ready to pull the trigger, Scott and his crew would handle sending the best copy to the manufacturer. (And of course I asked him if there were any particular manufacturers he liked.)
I asked Scott a few questions I had been mulling over during the session. I wanted to know how much time he spent on a big-budget album compared to an indie project. His answer surprised me: unless there are major problems with a mix, he usually finishes any LP master in about the same time frame — a one-day/8-hour session. It’s the revisions and multiple mastering sessions that drive the prices up. At its most extreme, Scott divulged an experience he had with an unnamed Grammy-winning artist he worked with years prior. Having already re-mixed several times and re-mastered over the course of two weeks, the album was finally sent off to manufacturing. A few days later, during a mastering session to prepare singles, the artist turned to his producer and said “Why didn’t we put background vocals on this song?” He began singing a harmony part and it was clear that it was important enough to act on. Calls were made over the next few hours, and within days, the presses were stopped on the CDs at manufacturing; background vocalists, producers and engineers flown in and out of town quickly; and the background vocal track was actually laid over the mastered track right in the mastering studio before the master was sent back out for replication. That last-minute change cost them, but the song and the album went on to win several Grammy awards.
I hope to someday have a budget that allows me to follow my creative impulses at any point in the process, but that’s not today. If I want to win a Grammy on my budget, preparation, good research, and being willing to spend money on the important things are the only way. In the end, I got the same mastering treatment as the Grammy-winning artist — the same ears, experience, skill, equipment, and listening environment. My record sounds polished, ready to be heard anywhere, and I’m I’m proud to present them to my fans. Now, everything I’ve lived and breathed for over a year is sitting in my little hand, and I’m faced with the question that Scott says he hears often as the mastering session winds down: “So what the hell am I going to do with myself tomorrow?”
A FEW ARTICLE “BONUS TRACKS”
How Scott Fixed the Clicks
Clicks and pops are mostly isolated to the high frequencies, so Scott isolated everything in the mix above 15k. He generated a soundwave of just that frequency range, so that he was able to see and manipulate the problem area in Sonic Solutions. His adjustments were done at a level of precision that we would never get in the Protools environment. Sonic Solutions and his other gear used in the mastering process are designed for this type of precision. At the same time, the problem has to exist in a pretty narrow EQ range and if there’s heavy reverb/delay on the problem, you can’t isolate it as well. In layman’s terms, average harmonic content is figured for the problem region and for a small region before and/or after the problem. Using mathematical algorithms, Sonic Solutions generates a mirror image of a specified range of the sound wave and reforms a single non-clicking wave using “interpolation”. (Get your old math books if you don’t remember that one.) The tool is very different from anything that is done in the recording studio environment and “should not be tried at home”.
Some Factors that Make Mastering More Important than Ever
MP3s – Especially for indie artists, the first listen that many people will have of your recordings is from a super-compressed MP3 file, and possibly through computer speakers. If you do not master your tracks, you have less control over what will “pop” out in this format.
Home recordings and traveling hard disks – Many, if not most of us, nowadays do some recording or editing of our tracks in a home or project studio. We record and mix in a number of different locations before the project is done, adjusting as we go along. Drawing all these disparate sounds together into one cohesive unit is a major task of the Mastering Engineer.
More competition through greater access to recording gear – Almost anyone can come out with a CD today, with very little expense. The barriers are down, but the desire for the best quality music hasn’t gone away. People make decisions very quickly (like, in seconds) when it comes to judging new music. Don’t let some funky frequency, disparate volume levels, or a mix that sounds right only in your own studio be the cause of your music or artistry being dismissed too quickly. Other artists, producers and even industry folk may see through this to your undeniable talent, but the general public is not as forgiving. Make sure they want to buy your next CD too!
I hope you enjoyed our presentation of Kirsten Thien’s excellent article about the ins and outs of the mastering process. Check out the album which was the subject of the article, You Got Me, here.