Are you a mastering engineer by default?

Discussion in 'Microphones (live or studio)' started by leonardkravitz, Jun 29, 2005.

  1. I am knee deep in an editing session for a pianist and I've been thinking. There are some requests to alter the sound, and on top of that I am thinking "I may think I'm just piecing this thing together, but to him I am the last guy in the chain... when I deliver the edited CD it's off to the presses! What's mastering?"

    While I aim to deliver a professional product, this raises the stakes a bit as far as quality control and things go--if I am the last piece in the puzzle then I feel it's my responsibility to be absolutely certain that this disc is replication ready in every way. But I do not have an efficient mastering-workflow operation, and I do not have the room or the gear to comfortably make those kinds of processing decisions. I'm just here mouse-jockeying with my headphones on with a regular monitor check, which is all that is required for editing IMO.

    Is it possible to be just an editing or recording engineer today? Do you classical location recorders have a monster mastering rig at the home/office for this kind of thing? What do you put into the CD you deliver your client, as-is edited, or raise everything to peak? Do you send them to a mastering engineer, or "mastering's extra?" Or do you cut the CD in iTunes and put it in the mail?

    PS - iTunes... is that Redbook? ha, I'm cheap. It is bit-identical, I can say that...
  2. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Mar 8, 2004
    Tacoma, WA
    Good question.

    I posed a question regarding classical mastering a while back and it sparked a rather big debate.

    I think, ultimately the recording engineer in today's society must play the role of mastering engineer to a degree. Do many of the REs suck at being MEs? Sure, but it's what the artist can afford.

    In general, I master all my own stuff, but truthfully, I've put together a modest mastering setup of my own including powerful and clean HiFi amps (Rotel) and NHT 2.5i speakers (not Dunlavy's but they sure are accurate as hell), a REL sub (best $4000 sub I ever bought for $850 - I knew a guy who knew a guy...) Then of course, factor in Sequoia, some good plugs from the kind folks at Waves and Timeworks (soon to be Algorithmix too) and a mastering setup you have.

    Of course, I also feel a tad comfortable in the medium in which I work. Having sat in pro orchestras for 20 years, I'm pretty sure I'm familiar with the sound of an orchestra - which helps a great deal. I recently sent a project off to a ME at the request of the client. They dropped $500 cash and got a distorted and uber-compressed piece of sh*t back. Oh well, the ME they suggested does pop recordings and wouldn't know a harpsichord from a harp.

    Now, that being said, I just worked out a deal today where all of my "farmed out" mastering will be handled by Airshow. These guys are fantastic and know how orchestras should be treated. Basically, if I can't do it or the client wants it worked over by another warm body, the good fella's at Airshow will work it over and return a jewel. It's confidence in the ME and their overall products that drove me to Airshow, but it's confidence in my own work ethic and pride-of-work that allows me to be the final cog in many a creative wheel.

    To answer your question regarding -

    What do you put into the CD you deliver your client, as-is edited, or raise everything to peak?

    I treat every project as if it were the New York Phil. Even Jr. High bands get the same treatment. I never simply level the channels and then hit burn. Always, always always I listen to the entire disc making small corrections (gain riding, eq, compression only when necessary and often frequency conscious) and essentially manually normalize the disc to the loudest sections throughout the entire program all the while trying to preserve dynamic range and fight off noise where possible.

    That means my average turn around for a finished product is around 5 weeks, but I've never had a complaint about it when they hear the disc. (Well, sometimes, but I can't do jack about crappy playing :wink: )

    My $.02

  3. Sonarerec

    Sonarerec Guest

    It all depends on the budget, actually. And the fact that there are not many really good classical mastering engineers in the US. There are specialty shops in Boston, NY, LA and Philly. But the issues of delivery format and whether it is surround or not complicate things.

    Also, some of the best classical mastering engineers (and editors) on the planet are in London where the rates are a fraction of here in the US-- Finesplice and Classic Sound to name but two. In fact, it is cheaper to fly with the material over to the UK, have some good ale, and bring it back completed than pay $175 an hour in some places in the US.

    For most things I will master my own, especially now that I have monitors and room response I can trust plus Algorithmix noise tools, linear phase EQ and Altiverb.

    All gets down to time and money. Every client gets a CD but not every CD gets the full "beauty treatment." Not every client can afford the 5-10 hours that it takes from loadin to burning the DDP CD-R with a BLER count to really do a first-class mastering job. Also, I like to be able to spread it out so I can listen over two days in order to maintain perspective

    As for raising everything to zero-- depends on the ensemble and the reasonableness of the client. For most material I will use a "trace amount" of compression and peak limiting simply because most home playback systems cannot reproduce the dynamic range of large-scale classical music.

    I recently had someone complain that when he listened in his car that when the disc was over the radio blasted him out. A string player in a top-10 orchestra, in fact. I suggested that he try the same thing with a CD of similar material from DG, EMI, or Sony Classical. He stopped complaining. The volume wars are everywhere!

    You mention editing on headphones-- sooner or later you will discover that some edits that sound fine on cans do not on speakers. Plus you absolutely cannot judge balances on cans-- it least I can't. Always end up wishing for a slightly different balance. I might use the cans for a sonic microscope but I have learned the hard way that I did not like what came through the speakers when I worked that way.

  4. FifthCircle

    FifthCircle Well-Known Member

    Feb 12, 2001
    Los Angeles, CA
    Home Page:
    As much as I'd like to avoid it, I usually end up having to play ME for the projects I work on. I have very few clients that are actually willing to foot the bill for a true mastering job. I usually have my clients book an extra day with me so that we can put together the master. I usually refuse to generate a master for replication on the same day that I do mixing/editing as my ears are just plain burnt out by that point.

    I do have a couple mastering clients who love the work I do, but until I have a better space to work in, I try to avoid doing any serious mastering work.

    This is one of the big reasons why I use Sequoia here. I can do everything I need with a single program. When I need to mix, I can mix, but I also have the ability to do high-quality work in the 2 track domain and then generate a DDPi to send to the replication house.

  5. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Jun 22, 2004
    Philadelphia, PA/ Greenville, DE
    Home Page:
    Aaaahhhhhhhh, this is why I enjoy this forum, and this group of people. A topic so near and dear to my heart! :twisted:

    One could write volumes on this subject alone. Of all the genres of recorded music, I think this is the one where the line between RE and ME is completely blurred; esp if you want your product to sound right to YOU at the end of it all, that is.

    By its very nature, accurate (or as close as possible to such) recordings of live acoustic music take (IMHO) a much different approach than close-mic'd, multitrack, "articifical" creation of music sounds - ie: building a song from scratch in the studio with a pop/rock/rap/house/trance recording. That's NOT to say one is any better than the other, but this place - acoustic music - is where we all hang our hats, and that's the nature of this genre - natural, and accurate. Who knows better how to deliver that than the very engineers and producers putting it together?

    Instead of building the bass & kick drum tracks up from the bedrock on up, one instrument at a time, often in dry, isolated, closed-in spaces, we're capturing what's already been created onstage; and again, that's a very different approach. And although there is an ever-growing amount of mutlitracking involved, it just doesn't work the same way as side-chaining the bass&kick comp/limiter to work together, or finding the right swirly reverb & pitch correction for the not-so-good front man of the upcoming EMO band. We have to capture our concert "Bass" drums and solos quite differently, and limit/compress in a very different way than the latest Franz Ferdinand release. (I'm over simplifying, but you get the idea...)

    To do that properly, the artistic vision and quality control has to be there at the outset, and that continues uninterrupted through to what happens at the end. Yes, there are indeed some truly magical, wonderful ME's out there that can always polish something just a bit better than anyone else, and if you can afford that, or THINK you need something additional, then it's fine to pursue it.

    But I think the rank and file of producers and RE's here are automatically changing hats into MEs as the project moves to the finish line. I know I certainly do, all the time. Frankly, I don't know how to separate the two in our case. I am always aware of peaks, transients, EQs, room noises, musical issues, ad infinitum, and I do stay aware of all those issues as the project moves along.

    While it's easy to get tunnel vision with the type of multitrack recordings that never actually happen in real time (mentioned above), and thus the need for a third party at the finish line (Mastering), it's less likely to happen that way with acoustic music, esp if we're the ones that captured it in the first place. WE KNOW what we're supposed to hear at the end, and as long as we're aware of the limits of modern playback systems, clients expectations, average listener's dynamic range, etc., then most good RE's are quite capable - as ME's - of delivering a good pre-glass master to the replication plant, ready to go.

    But getting that far along does indeed take a world of intuition, experience and knowledge. It's tough to know when one is ready and confident enough to be delivering that kind of product. How does one know, for example, that what they're hearing in their project studios is REALLY accurate? That takes a lot of time, effort, listening, adjusting, purchasing and more listening to finally say: "Yes, I am confident that my production/mastering studio will give you good, repeatable, reliable mixes when you take them elsewhere."

    THAT is the thing that strikes fear in any sane engineer's heart: Does it sound like this elsewhere? Are my mixes actually as good as I THINK they are? And that is where good mastering facilities come in to play, should you need them. (It is also an invitation to abuse and fear tactics by some to make you THINK you need more than a little level adjustment or track sequencing to complete the final product.)

    In the old days (before DAWs, GUI's and computers in general), one was always wise to run it past the true "Golden Ears" types, who had exotic gear with ruler flat response, great speakers, transparent limiters and EQ, all designed to safely get a fantastic recording to sound even moderately good on Vinyl. THOSE guys knew how to do it in their heads, via their ears, cutting lathes, and "read-ahead limiting" tape systems.

    Those days are long longgggg gone (unless you're a vinyl freak, and if so, I can't help you here. ;-) Since DAW's with powerful, useful software have replaced the old fashioned "We don't know what it LOOKS like, but we know what it SOUNDS like" approach, we can now see as well as hear what is going on, and make recordings that, IMVHO, compete with and often surpass the best of what USED to be available. Very often this is now happening in home/project studios instead of big, world-class institutions that used to claim exclusive domain over it all.

    It's hard to argue with what one can do with Sequoia, Pyramix and many other fine software packages now. I'm not only doing things that I would never have been able to afford before (in the big analog $tudio days), I am doing things that were IMPOSSIBLE to do just a decade ago, with tools that would have been completely unaffordable (let alone in existance) to someone in my position only a few years ago. (My own mixing/mastering tools include Sequoia V8, reNOVAtor, various plug-ins, etc., Lipinskis L505s, Bag End Infrasub Pro 12, etc. and mixing space that's taken me a long time to perfect.)

    I'm not knocking analog technology (or mastereing engineers old or new) by any means, but the savvy producer/engineer/mixer of today (esp in classical/jazz) can certainly do it all, if everything is in place throughout the chain.

    I'll state what few others may be too polite or shy to state right here: At this point in our industry I believe most of us can do as good a job mastering our stuff as ANYONE out there. Period, bar none. (How's THAT for cheeky, eh? :) Frankly, I doubt that the guy in the mastering plant has anytyhing better than what I'm offering anyway..... Is his dither algorithm any better than mine? Is his 32 bit floating point mastering system doing something that mine isn't? How accurate are HIS monitors for the environment he's working in? (Certainly, they're probably a cut above most others, but again, not nec better than many others here.)

    Since all the important things done up front (performance itself, mic placement & position, the very venue sound itself) are in place; there's very little that needs to be changed with EQ or compression, etc, and I'm loathe to let anyone ELSE decide what's right for my "children". Like Jeremy, I take the same fanatical approach to my projects regardless of the class level of client - it's the same 4 star treatment if your'e the local HS Concert Choir or St. Olaf's touring choir, I make no distinction in the chain of production and level of quality. I "fall in love" with each and every project I do for clients, I know no other way to do it.

    In effect, I am always working towards the finished master, and it's simply a part of the overall service we provide. Frankly, I think every job sent out to another studio - no matter how benign the "Mastering" is - is a potential lost client for me in the long haul. Call me paranoid, but that's one of many reasons why we do it all here. I also make sure the client is happy with the mix and sound long before we commit to bulk quantities from the "master" as well.

    I truly, fully, appreciate the job of a good skilled mastering engineer, but like every other job in the world today; NOTHING is gauranteed, and nothing lasts forever. If I were a full time ME, I'd be looking over my shoulder a bit, and I'd keep every option open as long as I could. There will always be a need for excellent ME's in other genres of this biz, but it will probably evolve further, just as it has in the last 10-15 yrs already. The ME methodology of the future could be almost unregonizable from the old ways, as recording itself becomes more virtualized and streamlined.

    This is neither good nor bad, it just IS. IMHO, we are all the better for it.
  6. Thomas W. Bethel

    Thomas W. Bethel Distinguished Member

    Dec 12, 2001
    Oberlin, OH
    Home Page:
    In the "for what it's worth department" we specialize in acoustic mastering hence our name "Acoustik Musik Ltd."

    When I did classical recording work in the past I was the defacto mastering engineer since when the project was complete it was my studio that had done all the work including the recording, the post production and some mastering to make it all sound good. I realize now that even though I thought I was doing the right thing I was not since it was my work I simply did not listen to the final results with the clinical detachment a good mastering engineer should have. I was too caught up in the sound of my recording and I glossed over things because I knew that at such and such a measure there was a noise I could not edit out or that the performer came to the final recording session somewhat hung over and had some problems during the session.

    Had I been listening as I do now to some one else's recording I would probably have caught these things right off. If I do any classical recording now I have a good friend do my mastering because he will catch things that I never will.

    What ever works for you do it. If you want a really good mastering job from someone with very good ears and lots of experience and most important detachment for the project then I would suggest you either a good mastering engineer or at least have him or her listen to the final mastering to make sure you are not missing something important. All of us get caught up in the project especially if we have worked on that project for months or even years and we get to know the project so well we fail to see the whole picture.

  7. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Jun 22, 2004
    Philadelphia, PA/ Greenville, DE
    Home Page:
    Excellent points, Tom, but I do believe there is a way around it, if need be. (Second opinions are ALWAYS a great idea, of course.)

    If possible, I leave the project for a while, and go on to something else entirely (I mean, REALLY leave it - this is easy enough to do if you're busy with other things). Then come back to it fresh - days or weeks later, if you can. Try it on other speakers, play it in the car, on someone else's system, etc. I truly believe this is just about as good as a second opinion if you're listening dispassionately. I try to pretend it's someone else's work - to hear it as if someone else did it.

    Only an hour ago (today) I played for a friend/client some excerpts from a set of live Jazz/Acoustic concerts we did, spanning the last season (Fall 04 through Spring 05), all done in the same venue, same setting. After not hearing them for a while, it was immediately apparent which ones were mixed & edited on my older speakers and which ones were done on the newer ones. We could both hear it immediately.

    Granted, I might not have heard the difference at the time, but with only a month gone by since the most recent concert mix, and 6 or 7 since the first in the series, the differences I can hear now are like a beacon in the dark. (I'm of course a little dissappointed with the mixes on the old ones, and very glad I made the upgrade to the Lipinski's in early 2005, but that's another story...)

    Of course, the real key is knowing what you're listening to, and understanding all the factors that are affecting the final mix. And I think that's a big part of what good mastering engineers do. This genre more than any other, seems to be an inseparable blend of both the RE and ME process. I could be wrong, but that's just how I work, anyway.

Share This Page