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Seeking input on recent "pro" mastering experience

Hi all,
So, I recently spent a day mastering a record I recorded and mixed at one of the primo, ultra fanciest mastering houses in the universe - which shall remain nameless. It also happened to be with one of the most respected mastering engineers in the business, not some intern who happens to work there. There are a bunch of issues, many of which stem from the mixes themselves, I'm the first to admit. But one curious thing is that he seemed to employ a fair amount of M/S processing through their master console to produce a widening of the stereo image. It sounded cool on paper. (It was really hard to judge how things were sounding in such a pristine, unfamiliar environment). But upon getting the masters home, and back at the studio, I feel like it's kind of artificially wide sounding. So do other folks involved in the project. And worst of all, it actually seems to drop the lead vocal level in the mix, which is of course occupying the center of the stereo space. Is this supposed to happen with M/S widening? How common is M/S processing at the mastering stage, and is it used for widening, or for other purposes? He also seemed to be a little heavy-handed on the high end, which again, I thought might have been the case while we were there, but I couldn't tell for sure until I got home. Granted it was all great EQ's, Massive Passive and this EAR thing, and the fancy digital one all the mastering places have. But it still seems a bit too brittle in the end. And he was also using maybe 5-6 various compressors and limiters, simultaneously. Is this standard procedure for mastering?
Anyway, just curious what your collective thoughts might be... Thanks!


RemyRAD Tue, 11/07/2006 - 18:29
Well again, this is all subjective. You have relied on a professional to provide you with professional results. It sounds like he did a professional job albeit not necessarily to your liking? And so even though you were there, you had no frame of reference to judge what he was doing. That's not his fault. He widened your stereo image perhaps because he thought your lead vocalist was too high in the mix and so utilizing the "MS" style processing (which wasn't exactly that), it does exactly that, lower the center of the stereo image (the real process used was to take your left and right channels and combine them to mono. Then, that mono signal is then combined back to both left and right channels but added in out of phase, which will lower everything common to what appears in the center stereo panned image. Care must be taken too high pass filter one, if not both of the left and right combined mono channel so as to lessen the loss of bass frequencies, which will also likely be reduced in the process.)

Using multiple limiters, compressors and equalizers, may have been utilized because he felt your sound was lacking? Good mixes rarely need much mastering, contrary to popular belief. People have commented that my mixes already sound compressed and mastered without mastering and they do. So I rarely need much in the way of mastering. You paid him to educate you and put on a show for you and he did.

Now, next time, bring some popular well-known CDs with you to play in an unfamiliar room to gain a frame of reference as to what you are listening to so that you can make better decisions and direct the mastering engineer to provide you with the sound you desire.

In many ways, you have just paid for some very useful education, so don't feel bad about the results, I'm sure it's not bad. Maybe not just what you wanted?

Please remit $150
Ms. Remy Ann David

Pro Audio Guest Tue, 11/07/2006 - 18:37
Thanks for that patronizing response. I freely admit, that due to multiple constraints with the project, definitely not excluding my own skills as an engineer, the mixes were not what they could/should have been. But I'm not an idiot, and it wasn't an $X,000 "education", and he wasn't "putting on a show". I'm glad your mixes are perfect, though.

RemyRAD Tue, 11/07/2006 - 21:45
While I didn't mean this to be a patronizing reply, I was rather amused by your dislike for what he did, since it apparently did not sound screwed up while you were in his control room? I actually rather assumed that you thought it sounded pretty spectacular in his control room? Otherwise I would think you would have asked him why he was doing what he was doing if I did not sound correct to you, given your engineering experience and knowledge?

So have you learned at this point in time, that mastering is not a panacea for taking something that is already "compromised" to something stellar? Again, if it's not right to begin with, it's not going to be. A polished turd is still a polished turd.

Your question as to whether other mastering engineers do what this mastering engineer did again is highly subjective. Like I said in the past, it's not what you've got but what to do with it. I'm an old engineer and I like to play with knobs and dials, there are so many to play with. Sometimes it's better not to do much with all of your stuff. LESS IS MORE as I frequently say.

What do you believe was compromised, given your engineering expertise, in your original mixes that required a top shelf mastering engineer to over manipulate your product? I was once involved in a local FM radio stations compilation album that was mastered at a competing studio. They wanted to roll off nine DB at 60 hertz from my mix. When I asked them not to apply that much, they gave me various reasons for doing it which I objected to. Their compromise was only to roll off 6 DB instead of the original nine. I told them that was still way too much but even over my objections they did so anyhow. How did the compilation album sound? Our cut sounded as thin as they made it sound and I was not a happy camper over that but you see in their control room, their Klipsch control room monitors gave them an over abundance of false bass. This, from a guy who was a multimillionaire and built the studio from the ground up doing everything the right way except for using industry-standard monitors at the time such as JBL and UREI. Nobody really ever liked the mixes coming out of Sheffield as they did not relate to other systems very well. All because he thought his speakers sounded better than other manufacturers and even though that may have been true, his mixes weren't. He never thought anything was wrong with his facility, since he could afford the best that money could buy. Now, since the studio doesn't make enough money to keep its doors open, they have turned into a recording school instead so they can teach the wrong way of doing things to others.

I have great ears and a big butt, so watch out or I will sit on your mixes and really compress the heck out of them.
Ms. Remy Ann David

Thomas W. Bethel Wed, 11/08/2006 - 04:44
First I understand you are upset. You posted the same statement over at Gearslutz(Dead Link Removed)

Instead of posting this concern all over the web have you in fact called the mastering engineer and talked to him and expressed your concerns? Maybe he was having a bad day, maybe he had a head cold, maybe he thought your stuff needed what he did to it. If it sounded GREAT on his stuff and does not sound good on yours I would suspect your listening equipment. I had a client that was thrilled with what we did to his mix but called me up and said it did not sound good in his apartment. It lacked bass and was way too wide. I told him to check his speaker connections and guess what - his speakers were wired out of phase. I have also had people who listened to stuff here and whne they got home said that one channel lacked high frequencies which turned out to be that the speaker had a blown tweeter and the client never noticed it because he did not have a frame of reference and until he heard his material here and then at home he never realized that his tweeter was MIA. I am not saying that this could be the cause but you should check it out.

Lots of times when a client comes in for mastering they have an idea in their head of how they want their stuff mastered. Sometimes they can express that idea and I can share in their artistic vision sometimes their vision is something that I cannot see. There is also the possibility that their stuff will NEVER sound like what they think it should sound like due to lack of recording and mixing skills and their lack of musicianship in playing their instruments.

Sometimes people want the mastering engineer in one mastering session to "fix" all the ills that have befallen their project from the get go and it is just not possible.

First thing I would do is call the mastering engineer and express your concerns. Do it in a "I have concerns" tone and not "this is NOT what I wanted or expedited it to sound like" tone. Secondly if he says come on in and we can take care of any problems bring along some CDs that you know and can listen to on his system so that you can get your ears acclimated to his monitoring setup. Third find out if there is a cost involved, there should not be, but every business has different ways of doing "make goods" and determine if the cost will be worth it.

Sometimes people go home play stuff for their friends and members of the band, get some negative feedback from their friends or band mates and then call back and tell me that they did not like the mastering in a couple of songs so we set up a time to redo the mastering for free and when they come in they basically want to re master the entire album at my expense based on what others have told them. I don't mine redoing a couple of songs but to redo an entire album is not really something that I will do for free. I tell people to bring in CDs that they are familiar with and we listen to them together before the mastering session (this is done at no cost to the artist) so they can listen to my system and get familiar with it. Most of my mastering sessions are attended so there is no excuse for anyone being unhappy with my mastering for an entire CD unless they were not paying attention or they are playing the results on inferior equipment or they are listening to what other people say and letting other people's concerns become theirs.

Best of luck and let us know how it all got handled....

Pro Audio Guest Wed, 11/08/2006 - 07:50
I find that I sometimes have to adjust to new mixes or mastering. I'm not assuming that's the case in your situation, but your post got me thinking about how I give myself room/time to get used to new mixes, even my own. I just get sort of biased after listening to a mix for a while. Then if I re-mix it, have someone else do it, or have it mastered, it can sound a bit funny at first. Usually, it sounds great after a reasonable amount of time to get used to it. Of course in some cases there may truly be an issue or problem with the new mix, but I know myself well enough to realize that I need an adjustment period before making a judgement.

This is a concern of mine with clients/artists that I'm working with (production); they can get used to session reference mixes and can be dissapointed with new mixes that don't sound the same as the mix they're familiar with.

Again, I'm not assuming this is the situation in your case, but this post got me thinking about some of my similar experiences.

Pro Audio Guest Wed, 11/08/2006 - 11:05
>>mixed at one of the primo, ultra fanciest mastering houses in the universe
One does NOT mix at a Mastering studio! Getting your terminology togheter would be a good start. Unless you meant otherwise... :)

1) Mastering doesn't make up for a problematic mix

2) It is normal to have a project mastered as many times as necessary to get the sound the CLIENT wants. Mastering Engineers cannot read minds, though some can come so darn close, it' scary!

3) when you take a project back to the Mastering studio for changes you still have to PAY for it. It's such a subjective thing that it's only fair. Unless it's a glaring technicall issue, of course (like a glitch, click, wrong conversion, etc...).

4) Call the Mastering studio and book another session if you need to and/or discuss your concern with the engineer.

5) If you book a Mastering Studio that is well ABOVE your mixes' quality it's a mistake. You don't want to be in that situation, for a variety of reason. It's a bit like a musician that knows he has problems in his playing but, wants to go on the road with the top session players in the biz. Nothing good can come of it...

A product is only as good as the weakest link.

Good Luck!

Pro Audio Guest Wed, 11/08/2006 - 17:36
>>mixed at one of the primo, ultra fanciest mastering houses in the universe
One does NOT mix at a Mastering studio! Getting your terminology togheter would be a good start. Unless you meant otherwise... :)

Ok, so granted that was a poorly constructed sentence, but I did not say I mixed the record at the mastering house. I said "So, I recently spent a day mastering a record I recorded and mixed at one of the primo..", by which I meant that we recently mastered a record that I had recorded and mixed, blah, blah..."

And actually I'm not upset, and I'm not making a big deal out of it. Everything is cool. (although I hate being patronized...) I was truly just soliciting opinions from folks in the mastering world about what went down. We are going back to the mastering guy once we get our collective thoughts together. I wrote a more detailed reponse on the Gearslutz forum at the link referenced above. I won't bother to repeat it all here...

Michael Fossenkemper Wed, 11/08/2006 - 19:54
Great, getting everyone's thoughts together and just laying them out in a respectful clear manner to the ME, and I'm sure it'll be resolved.

Like everything in ART, taste is subjective and sometimes it takes a little back and forth to get what you are looking for IF you don't get it the first time around.

Sometimes responses to questions can seem a little harsh when you can't see the people. I wouldn't take the responses personally. Some have a sarcastic or harsh flare to their posts, but if you read them in a micky mouse voice, then they come off as kind of funny.

Thomas W. Bethel Thu, 11/09/2006 - 03:39
A lot of musicians seem to think that mastering is a magic cure all for their problems. They come to a mastering engineer expecting him or her to pass the magic wand over the material and make it all sound WONDERFUL! When the mastering engineer does not do what the musician thinks they should do they get upset. As Michael points out "Like everything in ART, taste is subjective and sometimes it takes a little back and forth to get what you are looking for IF you don't get it the first time around."

Instead of calling the mastering engineer back and expressing concerns lots of people start bad mouthing the mastering engineer for not being able to do what they wanted and the engineer gets a bad rap.

I had a client that I worked with for a long time. He was a very good client and we did lots of work for him. He recommended me to quite a few of his friends and one of them came to get some stuff mastered. The person who came to get the mastering done had some great tracks and there was not much I really had to do to make it sound GREAT! He left here very pleased and told me that he would spread the word. I basically tightened up the bass, smooth out the mids and gave the mix a bit of air in the higher frequencies. A simple mastering polish and I charged him for two hours at our normal rate.

A couple of weeks later my regular client called and told me that the person he had recommended me to was saying lots of bad things about the mastering and how it was a rip off. I told him what the person had said when he left here and seemed very pleased with the work I had done for him. I called the person I had just done the mastering work for and asked him what was going on. His reply was that he thought that I did so little to his material that it was a rip off to charge him at all and that he could not really hear the difference between what he had done and what it sounded like after it was mastered. He said he did not want a confrontation when he left so he said it sounded GREAT!

In that situation I don't really know what I could have done differently to please the client (maybe NOT charge him) and the bad word of mouth was not good. The tracks coming in sounded good but after mastering they sounded GREAT! If you listened to them together the mastered tracks had a much more polished sound to them that the incoming tracks lacked. The guy used the tracks that I mastered when he replicated the CD so I guess he must have liked them enought to use them.

Sometimes people are hard to understand....

JoeH Thu, 11/09/2006 - 11:40
You showed a lot of guts by calling the guy, Tom! 8-)

I had almost the same kind of session recently, and advised the client that there was very little needed beyond what he already had. (Suggesting he come to me for the mix as well, next time...) He left happy and the CD we mastered for him has since been released, and he's happy.

Many times, however, the client simply doesn't have the playback capability back at home to reveal what is heard in a high end mastering suite. It's always good to warn them about that as well. I can demonstrate a discernable change as little as 1 db with the client sitting there with me, toggling back and forth between samples, but I'm sure they can't get that kind of detail back at home on their Events or other pro-sumer stuff.

And forgetabout taking one CD out of the player, and then comparing it to another one 20-30 seconds later. If they can't toggle something back and forth immediately, it's too subjective, and all bets are off!