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What is your approach at mastering?

Member for

17 years 5 months
How do you usually start off, are you they type that likes to listen to the song a whole bunch of times before you go at it, or are you much wilder and attack the song right away... also what do you think you can do to improve your own tactics?

Me for example, I am much quicker to attack the song, i like to go right in instead of listening 4-5 times. I think that if i was more patient, i would do better work than what i am spitting out now...

Really post anything you want (we are starting to lack new posts so I'm starting one up here )


Member for

17 years 4 months

TrilliumSound Fri, 09/17/2004 - 10:11
Hi bennyg,

I usually start with listening to the songs once or twice as a "normal" listener. After 20 -30 minutes, I have a pretty good idea of what I like 8-) in these and what is bugging me :x , if it is the case.

What do I like the most ? Does it need EQ's ? Would I go analog to Tube it or go Digital ? Does it need compression and / or Limiting ?

Honestly, I have a tendency to try these anyway but I make sure to not forget my first impressions which becomes better and better with the time and experience. If there is a producer and know what he really wants, then I will suggest some "approach settings" from my listening phase.

I have a tendency to jump already when there is more "annoying" EQ's though. :?



Member for

19 years 11 months

Thomas W. Bethel Sat, 09/18/2004 - 04:28
I start by listening to the all the songs on the album at least once though. I am looking for things that stand out in the mix and things that are buried. I am also looking for potential problems that will have to be addressed before we can master the album. I usually pick the song that needs the most help to start with since it will take the most time. I listen to the song completely though to give me an idea of what I want to do. I consult with the artist(s) and the producer, if present. When all that is done I start on the mastering of that song. I continue doing the same procedure until all the songs are completed and then put them into order and listen to the order of the songs making some small changes were needed. When that is done I invite the artist to listen to the complete session and when they are satisfied with the results (after doing and tweaks they need) I burn the results to the Master CD and give them a listening copy to take with them.

This is the plan but sometimes things change and we start immediately on a song that the artist is most worried about or a song that he needs for radio air play or to put up on the web. Sometimes so much "sonic surgery" needs to be done that I have to work on the problems first before I can master any tracks. If the material is really bad coming in I may possibly ask the artist to think about a remix or I may ask that he or she come back later after I have a had a chance to work on the material by myself to correct major problems.

Nothing in a mastering session is routine and every project has its own rhythm and flow.

If I have an uptight producer or artist who is all over the project I may have to change the way I work on the project. I like the artist and the producer to be involved and I am in constant dialog with them about what they are feeling. Sometimes they either clam up and say nothing or they are so caught up in the mastering session and so anxious to fix every little thing that is wrong that they overwhelm the session with minutia. In my facility the client is always right and I go out of my way to try to please them. After all they are the ones paying the bills.Sometimes they want "instant" fixes for problems that are either unfixable or will take a considerable amount of time to correct and I have to let them know that this is the case. I also try and suggest alternative solutions to the problem but it is always the artist that makes the final decision on how to proceed.

Many people feel that mastering is the one thing that can fix all the problems that have gone wrong in the tracking and recording sessions. They ask for impossible things like fixing an out of tune instrument or to fix an inconsistent beat in the percussion which should have been done in the mixing process or recording and not left until the mastering session. I can usually fix a whole range of problems BUT something's I cannot fix and if they are sever enough the artist may have to think about fixing them by redoing the mixing or the recording to correct them if they want a perfect album.

I think Bob Katz said it but mastering is a science and an art and you need both to be able to do a good job but the things you need the most are good people skills and good communication skills to get the most out of any session.

Hope this is what you were looking for.

Member for

19 years 2 months

Michael Fossenkemper Sat, 09/18/2004 - 15:38
The first this I do is look for anything that is a session stopper. (not all the songs are there, strange unfixable noises, unfixable mixes, wrong versions) basically anything that could bring the session to a halt. If there is something, I ask or make calls and let them know that something has to corrected. If nothing is wrong, I go on. I listen to the mixes and determine what shines and what doesn't, how they were done, where they were done and when were they done. Sometimes I get projects that were mixed in 2 or3 sessions or 1 or 2 places and I group those mixes together. Find the one I like the most and start tweeking. I then try to bring all the others up to that bar if they're lacking. I then recall the first one I did and see if it's still working with the rest. I try and not listen too much to everything before I start working. I like to give a quick listen to everything and start digging in using my initial reaction of the first listen.

Member for

21 years 2 months

Pro Audio Guest Sat, 09/18/2004 - 16:49
Michael and Tom, you both give very different opinions on your preferred methods. While that is to be expected, it would be good for me to hear both of you expound upon your specific reasoning for your "normal" or "preferred" order of progression.

Michael says he likes to start with the mix he likes most (which could reasonably be the best mix or the mix with the least problems), whereas Tom prefers to start with the song that has the most problems or "needs the most help".

Tell us your individual reasons for those preferences.

Member for

19 years 2 months

Michael Fossenkemper Sat, 09/18/2004 - 17:43
well, my reasoning and experience is, I start with the best one, make it as good as I can and this is what all the others are to be measured by. For me and I would guess others, the first one you start with is your reference point, whether I wanted it to be or not, mentally it's fixed in my brain. The next one after that can't help but be compared to the previous one as we learned in our group project. So by me starting with the best one, i've set the bar to the highest common denominator. Now all of the songs must try and meet that bar or i'm not happy. I also ask the client which one they are most happy with and the worst one and why. This gives me insight into what they are going for and the circumstances behind it.

Member for

19 years 11 months

Thomas W. Bethel Sat, 09/18/2004 - 18:50
It has always served me well to do the worst song first. This is for two reasons 1) I get it out of the way 2) once the worst is over I can concentrate on mastering the rest of the album and by doing the worst one first may know a lot more about where the pitfalls are in the rest of the music and everything is more enjoyable for me knowing that the problem song is out of the way.

Sometimes a client wants a certain song done first for some reason or another and that is the song I will start with. Some times the project comes in at different times so I will never get a chance, until I am done with all the mastering, to hear the songs in the context of the album and sometimes that can be a real shock.

As to listening to all the songs. I guess I want to know what I am facing up front and the only real way to do this is to listen to all the songs all the way though. I have a project in house right now that every song is different. Different instrumentation, different singers, different feeling and if I had started mastering with the first song I never would have understood the breath and depth of the complete album which would have clouded my feelings for the music.

I think different ways of working are basically different strokes for different folks and what ever your way of mastering if it works for you and your clients I say do it.

Most of my mastering session are attended so maybe there is a difference right there in the way I and others on this list work.

If I need to do a lot of "sonic surgery" I may take the complete album in house and work on it to get it ready for mastering BEFORE I invite the client back in.

Hope this helps!!!!

Member for

21 years 2 months

Pro Audio Guest Sun, 09/19/2004 - 08:20
It does help Tom. It 's important for me to hear different philosophies and to understand the reasoning behind them in order to better form my own opinions and preferences.

I certainly understand the urge to get the hardest challenge out of the way first. But I wonder if by working on the "worst" song first, if it is sometimes a challenge to ensure that you don't feel tempted to make the rest of the songs sound more compatible and "in-line" with it at the risk of not making those songs as good as they could be?

Just as Michael tries to take the best song and use it as a guide and a benchmark for judging the rest of the songs, is it sometimes hard to keep from using the worst song as a benchmark, thereby lowering the overall standard for the rest of the album?

Also, what if the worst song is not intended to be released as a single for radio (which is most likely the case since it is the "worst" song), and one of the best songs is planned to be a single? Do you take a chance of degrading the overall quality of the single for the sake of the total cohesiveness of the album by using the inferior song as a benchmark?

Member for

19 years 11 months

Thomas W. Bethel Sun, 09/19/2004 - 08:43
I guess the thought never really crossed my mind.

Thanks for raising the question.

The problem with doing the worst song last or later in the session is that by the time you get to it you are very tired and your ears are tired and you might not spend a lot of time on it for those reasons (but of couse if it is a bad song maybe you should not spend a lot of time on it.

But as I said in my earlier post what every way you work you should be consistant and comfortable with the way you work. And of course do what the client needs done.

I guess there is never really a "right" way.

It is just the way you tend to work.

Thanks again for thinking about this and posting it.

It makes me think and that is always a good thing.

Member for

18 years 7 months

golli Fri, 10/01/2004 - 22:22
Great topic!!

In my view this topic is just as important, if not more than "how do you pro's EQ a poptune and how much compression................?" and I'm guilty to :lol: .

I remember Tom answering some mastering related question, awhile ago that the difference between the ones, that make it in this business and the ones that never get of the ground was:
A) the "winners" listen to the material, presented to them, form an opinion and apply that to actual work that will better the song. B):The ones that dont make it, listen and then twiddle knobs forever until they loose sight of the goal.
Sorry Tom if I put you out of context but the meaning of it stays with me and that is exactly what my goal is now.

That means I dont start the twiddling right away 8-)
I'm only remastering and archiving anyway so the denoising and such are an absolute must, to start with.

I am, by no means a pro, though I'm chiming in here. Just wanted to renew Tom's advice. And I feel that this line of thinking, apply's for both of the above mentioned working methods, whether its a new material or remastering.
Resting your ears regularly is very, very important ,in my view. It is essential for me at least and I'll have to apply that method when I working on something. I have found out, that after listening, constantly to just anything for about an hour or more my brain starts blocking out some freq's. But what exact/pinpoint freq's it blocks, I still dont know exactly. Around 6k-8k maybe cause I find them sometimes sticking out when I come back to the session after 10-15 min.
And I dont listen loudly, you could have a relatively easy conversation when I´m working on stuff.

Michaels method, to find the best material and make that the trophy, to compete for sounds like a exelent way to aproach an album.

So in the end (after all my rambling) I would like to ask
Michael Fossenkemper. If you get some songs to master an album
and find a song that sticks out, well mixed, trouble free and just plain good.
Do you process that particular song even further before that song becomes the thing to compete with?
If you do that, is'nt there a danger that you have to "overprocess" the other songs to get them to the same level as the best song?
I mean all gear has it's limits.

Member for

19 years 2 months

Michael Fossenkemper Sat, 10/02/2004 - 07:15
Well it depends on the song. If I can improve it, I do. If I can't, I try and do no harm. But what I don't want to do is dumb down the better mixes because of a few bad ones. On the lesser mixes, I do what I can to bring it up to snuff with the rest. If it can't make it, then that's what it will be. There is always a danger of overprocessing especially on a project that is all over the place. You A/B to make sure that it's better. You find the limitations of your gear and you experiment to find options to overcome challenges. I spend a huge amount of time trying to overcome limitations. Most of the time I find that if you have good gear, you can find a way to get what you want.

what I do find is that if i set my bar high, I try harder to reach it.

Member for

18 years 7 months

golli Sat, 10/02/2004 - 14:47
Thomas W. Bethel wrote:
In all fairness NOT everyone can make a good mastering engineer. You have to be able to translate what you are hearing into a plan of action and some people seem incapable of doing this. It is not because they are not smart or not knowledgeable enough it is simply because they cannot use the right and left brain together to get what they want from the music.

Found it! Straight from the ............. mouth. As to the name of the thread, this pretty much sums it up, does it not?

Another thing, besides all the acustical construction of the room and the quality of the monitoring system. Dont you professional mastering wizards all have to get your ears checked out regularly? I mean it can be measured where you start to drop off, frequenzy wise.

Member for

17 years 4 months

mixandmaster Mon, 10/04/2004 - 05:45
I tend to do it Michael's way, work on the best tune first, then go at the rest of the CD.

Things that I do that people haven't mentioned (not that they don't do them)...

1. I don't mind there being some differences in tone or "loudness" in the CD, but I always have the songs before and after the one I'm working on as a reference point. This gives me perspective on the flow of the CD.

2. Before I twiddle any knobs, I listen to music in the genre that either the artist or I or both (hopefully) sound good. I try to have three or four examples on hand. I keep these around to check if I get a little confused or when I come back from a break, just to set the mood.

3. I don't remember...there was a third when I started typing this list.

Member for

17 years 8 months

Cucco Mon, 10/04/2004 - 11:29
First, I want to say that this is a great topic! Second, I think it's great that two excellent resources (Tom and Michael) are sharing with us some of the insight that goes into their mastering sessions. I would like to expand on the question but aim it in the direction of classical music.

Tom, I know of your experience in classical music and Michael, I'm not as familiar with your experience with classical, but I'm sure you've been around the block a few times with classical. I'm sure there are a lot of classical recordists lurking on-line. They might get a bit of info from this series too.

As the vast majority of the work that I do is classical, I often find myself dancing on a fine line. Obviously, mastering in the rock/jazz/pop/r&b/etc. world is far different than mastering classical.

In the perfect world, one would place microphones carefully and use the purest signal path possible to obtain the exact sound of the performance. But, in the real world, occassionally a little tweaking needs to be done. What's worse is sometimes the client doesn't realize what should and shouldn't be done.

A good example of this is: I have recently been awarded the contract to record all of the performances at one of the local universities. The music director, with best intentions, likes to sit in on post-production and mastering sessions. She also knows enough about recording to be dangerous. So, when we get most of the way through the mix, she throws out the question "How would that sound with a bit of compression?" Though my insides are screaming, I find a way to gently apply a little compression without killing the sound all the while explaining to her why compression and classical music don't usually work together. Of course, at this point she then requests a little extra eq here and there and then --REVERB--. Now, I start to die a little inside, but I do what's requested. (even though there is already a natural reverb tail from the hall and the use of a good omni set-up.)

Though I do occassionally apply a little eq, I try to keep it minimal. I feel very strongly that, if I have to heavily eq an orchestral passage, I have failed in the recording stage by faulty mic placement or levels innappropriate of classical music. And while for certain "pops" style classical, I'll gently reach for my compressor, for Mahler and Beethoven, I'll leave it conspicuously out of the chain.

I think there are a lot of recordists out there looking to make a little dough, so they record the local orchestra and then treat it like the punk band they had earlier in the week. The compress the hell out of it, apply reverb to make it sound like it was recorded in a big hall (ironically), and then eq the bass heavy, mids forward and highs slightly rolled off.

Perhaps a discussion of do's and don'ts in the orchestral world of mastering (and recording for that matter) should be mentioned or discussed too.

Gentlemen, your thoughts??? 8)

Member for

21 years 2 months

Pro Audio Guest Mon, 10/04/2004 - 11:53
I understand your problem very well.

Most of the time, I avoid having a customer in the room with me while I get a basic mix going, and then allow them to come in and discuss ideas and changes.

If you have done enough pre-production and have a good idea of what the customer wants before-hand, there is simply no reason for them to be with you when you are getting a basic mix.

I also have what I like to call "producer knobs". These babies are the absolute best knobs you can buy. They can solve just about any problem the producer has with a mix that you know sounds the way it should, and the "producer" suggests that it really could use just a little (insert whatever asinine suggestion they come up with).

Here's how they work:
You are sitting there with your lady producer who suggests that the pianissimo violin parts REALLY could use something to bring them out a little more, and you know that if you make them stick out any more than what they already are that your chances of being able to work with any other person who hears this recording are very slim.
What to do?!?
Reach up with a grand flourish and say excitedly "OH, I GOT IT! Listen to THIS!"
Crank one of those "producer knobs" all the way to the right, then grab another one and twist it all the way to the left! Punch a couple of tiny buttons so that they are glowing red - and play that bitch back!
Look up with a confident, triumphant look in your eye, lean back in your chair and put on the biggest shit-eatin' grin you can manage.

Watch her face light up and listen while she proclaims you to be a genius such as the world has never known!

All the while knowing that the pieces of equipment containing the "producer knobs" aren't even in the signal chain.