The Mastering Panel at SXSW

I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the Mastering Panel I participated in at the South by Southwest festival in Austin in March. It was a great opportunity to hear some opinions on mastering from some experienced engineers. The other panel members were Bob Ludwig, Adam Ayan, and John Merchant.

I’m glad to say that it wasn’t the now-typical rant about why you shouldn’t make your mixes really loud. Rather, it was a more creative look at what a mastering engineer thinks is important about the music — what really matters when you are tying to get noticed.

Mastering Panel with Scott Hull at SXSW 2010
The Mastering Panel at SXSW 2010: (L to R) Adam Ayan, Bob Ludwig, Scott Hull and John Merchant

Bob Ludwig started the discussion with a brief history of the art of mastering, some photos and descriptions of equipment and philosophy from 30 years of experience.

Next, Adam Ayan discussed some of the mistakes artists make when preparing their music for release. He played several examples showing how an intuitive mastering engineer can extract more depth, emotion and value from a mix with a “just right” (as opposed to cookie cutter) approach.

I reinforced what Adam said, explaining that a first-class mastering engineer gets to know the producer and the artist, and is an integral part of the music creation process. An “e-mastering” approach will never achieve this. I asked the bands in the audience if their music has deeper meaning than just being “loud enough”. Of course it does! It’s important to look carefully at what’s lost when the primary focus is on competitive levels.

Then I played a few samples demonstrating that mastering can have a significant impact even on low-bit rate files. I played some 128K mp3 files of a tune with and without mastering. It was clear to me (and hopefully to the audience too) that even at these low bit-rates you still get more out of your music when it’s well mastered. For example, good tonal and instrument balances will translate regardless of the delivery format.

John Merchant, a well know mix engineer, kept us all laughing while showing us some very badly mastered examples to make the point — very graphically — that too much “mastering” is like too much hot sauce. The example he used was from Metalica’s “Death Magnetic” album. The CD version was played side-by-side with the much less compressed Guitar Hero version — showing just how ugly “loud” can get.

Unfortunately, the panel was very short considering all the opinions we could have unleashed! A lively Q & A was expected too, but time ran out before we could get to it. Hopefully we’ll get to do a panel like this again — it was a lot of fun. And I would have liked to have heard what questions independent artists might have about mastering. –Scott Hull

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