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How I approach mastering - feedback from masters pls.

I do mostly acoustic music in my studio. I record a lot of serious players, and some newer artists. I get this because my studio is not open to the public.

More and more, my clients want me to master their stuff, and the more I learn, the more I know I'm not qualified. However, to the extent that I do master, I'd like to get better at it. I get to listen to much of my stuff on the radio, so I can tell what works there or not, although each station is different, it seems, in how they eq and limit for broadcast.

I'd like anyone willing to tell me what I'm doing right or wrong in my basic process.

1) In recording, I often compress * very gently * with my pendulum compressor, to disk. This is mostly to get a little better sn, but also to get some of the beautiful sound of the Pendulum onto disk before (forever) exiting the analog world. This also allows me to take a bit more risk in the gain structure. I try not to compress percussive sounds at all. It seems the best determination here is the envelope of the incoming sound... but there's also spectrum to consider - the attack of some instruments is defining, and loud. Thus, compressing kills the attack transient and character. It turns out that, in the end, those attack transients stand out, and so become the first sound to be eaten by a limiter. Thus, percussion seems to get bigger in the mix after mastering, but not more percussive. For this reason, I leave fast attack instruments very slightly lower in the mix, knowing that limiting with bring them up. This allows me to preserve a little more dynamic range. A slower attack time (tuned to the length of the dominant transient) also seems to be a key "knob".

2) In mixing, I'm ultra sensitive to the failures of cheap speakers - esp subs, that will be the ultimate listening environment. The drivers in these "ring" near their resonant frequencies and harmonics thereof. Also, 8 foot ceilings and 2 foot speaker stands prevail - so nodes in the 90-150 range correspond to these distances. For this reason, I create notches (-2db) often in material that seems prone to bad resonances in this area. Its just gut feel, really, I guess. Also, I don't use low rolloffs if I can help it during mix, notches work better to preserve the low lows. The attack transient on an a440 plucked string goes down into the 30's. Why take it out without a reason. I often find that in the end, a string attack has as much power as a kick drum to move the music along.

On high end, I've found that much apparant high end is noise. I LOVE the dehisser in samplitude, and noise modelers in software. Sometimes these can perfectly tame a fizzy top.

3) Then in mastering, I try several attack release settings, usually fast attack (8-20) and slower release (12-50). I will listen for frequencies that jump out as I increase the ratio. Often, I will go back to the mix, and fix some source of these so that I can get a little more loudness but still a clean sound after limiting. Then I will do rolloff at a good spot (usually 12db/oct at around 50, depending on how clean the program material is down low. Then I go back and re normalize (because the rolloff gave me back some headroom). I don't use MBC's much because they sound a bit odd, but for certain problems - esp if I can't go remix - I suppose they would be handy.

4) Then I listen on several sets of speakers esp auto, and have the client take it home and make them listen to it in every venue they can. Good ones come back with good feedback. I respond with a little eq, as required, remaster, and then repeat until done.

Should I team up with a mastering house so I can be interactive with the engineers, and perhaps remix for them from time to time if a mix has issues they would prefer to see fixed in the mix? Throwing my mix across the wall to a mastering house seems so ... not musical. Can anyone recco someone good and not too expensive for my clients?

Is my head about in the right place maybe? Am I forgetting any basic steps. I figure the radio stations do a lot of limiting so I don't want to over-do it just to be "radio ready". I prefer not to have clients in the room at all for mastering unless they are thoughtful, in which case they can be very helpful in explaining how their genre "sounds".


Michael Fossenkemper Mon, 04/11/2005 - 20:33

It's almost impossible to tell wiithout hearing anything. Use your gut during the tracking and mixing and go with what you feel works. Then use a mastering engineer to help cover your ass. You can easily work with a mastering house and have excellent communication with them about what you are doing or not doing that can take everything up a couple of notches. Think of it as someone that has your back. If you pick someone that has ftp, changes are quick and painless and the client isn't involved with the stress. Spending 15 or so minutes on the phone with an ME to make sure they are on the same page, maybe doing one song to fine tune what you and the client are looking for is the way to go. It's not as expensive as everyone thinks and it takes the pressure off you to have to do everything. The client thinks you are looking out for their interest, the project turns out better than if you are trying to wear 3 different hats and juggling different things. you can concentrate on what you do.

I can't tell you how much you and your clients can gain from this.

tmcconnell Mon, 04/11/2005 - 21:44

To clarify... and THANKS

I can send an ME full bandwidth mix as a wave file ftp, for example, and get back comments and or a trial master with perhaps a little coaching so I can go back to the mix? This sounds like how I would like to work. So, just to be pragmatic, if I sent a mix to you over ftp, you listened, tweeked, and sent it back, how much would it cost more or less? How much time would that take? Not trying to corner you or anything but are we talkng 20 or 200 per hour, and how much time does it take for a resonably well mixed song in which some dynamic range has been left for you to play with?? This will be good data to communicate to my clients.

Usually I let the client go to the mastering house - whatever they like, and that's the last I hear of it until I hear it on the radio or something - so I don't know much about how much time is spent or typical rates these days.

geckormf Tue, 04/12/2005 - 23:42

I find that the majority of mastering engineers are quite friendly, depending on how much coffee you give them...

On my first couple of big mixes, I arranged for some time with the engineer, before mastering started. We ran through the mixes together, he gave me ideas on how to clean up the sound and basically set up a trial mastering session, using his mystery toys, so that I could hear what was going to happen to the mix.

Went back, ran the mix again and sent it off. All the mixes came back sounding much closer to what I was aiming for. FTP and the like are great but getting in and having a face to face is IMHO a better option.