Goodnight Kiss Music
Why You Need It,
Where To Get It, and
How To Make the Most of It
by The G-Man
Mastering is widely misunderstood, often mangled, and sometimes
mistaken for mixing. So, what is mastering? It's the audio step
that comes just before manufacturing a CD. Some people would
even say it's a crucial step.
Once you have finished recording and mixing your songs, the tracks
are shaped, sculpted, scooped, equalized, compressed, and finessed
into sonic splendor (well, you hope) through the audio process
known as mastering. Mastering is what gives depth, punch, clarity
and volume to your tracks. It is part science, part craft, and
part alchemy. . . just like songwriting, singing, performing
"Loud vs. Proud."
Contrary to popular belief, mastering is only a little about
making a hotter sound. While it's true that the gain, or volume
level, is boosted during mastering, it may be that raw decibels
are the least critical aspect of the process. What's important
is the way mastering makes songs sound. Because in the end, mastering
is less about "loud" and more about "proud."
Mastering Engineers Speak Out.
"Mastering is the crucial, critical, and final creative step
in the process of making an audio recording," states Art Sayecki
of Burbank, California's Art Mastering. "When your work is in
the hands of a mastering engineer, that is when all the ultimate
sonic judgments are made, all necessary aural enhancements are
applied, and the definitive content of your project becomes a
coherent and sophisticated artistic creation. When a mastering
engineer does the job properly, it can literally separate the
hits from the rest of the market."
Nancy Matter of Moonlight Mastering, agrees. Mastering helps
"to balance everything out to have a listening experience of
continuity from beginning to end for the consumer. This is true
of all audio, no matter what the playback system."
Matter, whose recent projects include the Peter Gabriel Live
Concert Series "Up" Tour, the Duran Duran Live Concert Reunion
Tour, and the "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" soundtrack, points
out that "Loud is good as long as dynamic range is not destroyed.
Mastering too loud (usually through over compressing) can sonically
hurt a project rather than help it and knowing the difference
establishes the difference between someone who 'does mastering'
and someone who is an accomplished mastering engineer."
View From The Lodge.
Emily Lazar, of The Lodge in NYC, is both a musician and a mastering
engineer. Her credits include David Bowie, Jeff Buckley, Sonic
Youth, and the "Goldmember" soundtrack, to name just a few. "I
approach mastering with the idea that music, like any other art
form, attempts to touch people," Lazar says. "It tells a story
far beyond that of its lyrics, if there are indeed lyrics. There
are similarities between people and music -- both are often seeking
a meaningful connection. That means my job as the mastering engineer
is very much about making certain that the music tells a story
that will resonate deep in the heart of the listener," Lazar
The Artist's View.
Carl Verheyen is a session guitarist whose work you hear every
week on hit recordings, movie/TV soundtracks, and commercials.
As lead guitarist for Supertramp, and as leader of the Carl Verheyen
Trio, he plays in front of tens of thousands of people each year,
but at least half of his professional life takes place in studios,
and he has strong opinions about the mastering process.
"Mastering is the fine-tuning and final equalization of the music
for broadcast quality status," Verheyen says. "It puts all the
frequencies in the correct ranges so that the bass isn't too
loud, the highs don't hurt and the levels are constant with other
CDs on the market." With his most recent release, SIX, Verheyen
turned to Eddy Schreyer at Oasis Mastering, calling him "a very
caring and talented artist."
There can be tremendous loyalty toward mastering engineers on
the part of artists and producers. Michel Sembello, composer/performer
of songs from hit albums and the huge film "Flashdance," told
Art Sayecki "After hearing what you did with 'Maniac,' you are
the only person I will let master my stuff."
>From The Booth.
Larry Crane owns Jackpot! Recording and is the publisher of Tape
Op magazine. He gets right to the bottom line about mastering:
"It's the final stage of preparing mixes for production/replication.
. . the last step in the process of making a release." Crane's
advice about the decision to go to mastering: "Don't skimp!"
A reviewer and A&R Pro Speaks Out.
Bernard Baur is a Review Editor and Feature Writer for Music
Connection magazine, and in addition, serves as an independent
A&R consultant. In all these capacities, he hears a lot of CDs
every month. Does mastering matter to reviewers and A&R executives?
"It can matter very much," Baur states. "When you get something
that obviously isn't mastered, you wonder how aware the artist
is of everything they should be doing. Those artists who are
'in the game' know that they almost always need to take their
recordings to the next level, and that includes mastering."
While acknowledging that the song is still of primary importance,
Baur notes that, all things being equal, it's the mastered track
that will tend to get the most attention. "People at magazines
as well as people at record labels have gotten used to hearing
a polished and fully finished recording," Baur says. "Comparisons
with tracks that aren't mastered can be alarming." And mastering
is being used in more situations than ever before. "Even so-called
demos are being mastered these days," Baur points out.
"Mastering demo CDs is becoming a standard practice in the hyper-competitive
music market," notes Sayecki. It's easy to see why: record label
A&R departments are deluged by demos from aspiring artists. Sayecki
continues: "Mastering of demos can be an important step in giving
an artist an extra edge over the competition."
Different Kinds of Mastering.
Be certain the mastering house you select has expertise in the
area of mastering you seek. Klay Shroedel is Chairmen and CEO
of West Coast Film Partners Inc., an LA-based Entertainment company
developing and producing film, TV, music and musical theater
projects. While working with recording artists such as Celine
Dion, Frank Sinatra and Sting, he also has impressive film and
TV credits, including "Permanent Midnight", "Survivor," "Under
Suspicion," "Jurassic park 2 & 3," "Titanic," and "Terminator
"There is a basic distinction between mastering for film vs.
CD," Shroedel states. "It's the dynamic range. In CD mastering,
you try to achieve maximum volume without losing the dynamics,
but the overall compression and db range from quietest to loudest
is usually narrower than when mastering a soundtrack or a film
score. The same concept of preserving the dynamic range applies
when mastering CD classical releases." Shroedel will bring his
experience to yet another type of mastering when launching his
upcoming theatrical multimedia project.
"Mastering is all about finesse," says Matt Forger, whose name
is on 200 million albums as recording engineer, mixer, and producer.
After working with Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, and countless
indie artists, Forger has a unique perspective on all things
audio. Having seen him in the studio inserting one drum sound
on one of his Pro Tools tracks, I can attest to both his dedication
and his joy at working with music.
"You are sometimes dealing with tiny increments of equalization
or compression," Forger states. "And it's interesting how a small
change in one part of the mix can have a big affect on the total
mix. But whatever you do with the mixing, mastering can take
something that sounds good and make it sound great." Sayecki
agrees, and points out that the taste level of the engineer can
be a major factor in the outcome. "Sometimes Baroque embellishments
are needed and sometimes modesty is called for."
As production budgets get smaller, more album projects are being
completed at least partly on home systems. Eddy Schreyer of Oasis
Mastering points out that this "can result in lesser quality
sounds. Using a major mastering facility can very often dramatically
improve the final product. The mastering process increases the
level and size of your recordings."
Chris Gehringer of New York's Sterling Sound has mastered upcoming
albums for Jewel and Roy Hargrove, as well as dozens of highly-regarded
hip hop and Latin albums. Gehringer is noticing that mastering
engineers are being called on to perform audio changes to tracks
that "are almost like mixing assignments. Ideally, tracks are
already mixed and your sonic decisions are already made when
you come in for mastering. But with the advent of so much digital
recording, we're getting tracks with numerous alternate mixes,
lots of stems, and even various additional takes of voices and
instruments. We're frequently acting as a mixer even while sonically
paying attention to mastering." Gehringer notes that today's
modern gear allows a lot of flexibility, which is both blessing
What You Get.
In almost every mastering session, the following actions are
* Optimizing average and peak volume levels for proper relative
* Signal processing - compression & EQ
* Arranging tracks in final sequence
* Timing of the space between tracks
* Establish a sonic "field" for all tracks
* Place track markers at head of all tracks
* Remove unwanted noise like clicks, pops, hiss
* Clean-up start and ending of each track (including fades)
* Insert Master Track Log ‚ the PQ codes required for replication
Hear The Gear.
Everybody agrees that achieving sonic perfection is an excellent
goal of mastering. "When a mastering engineer and a recording
artist work together, sonic perfection is exactly what can occur,"
states Sayecki, "but it is a complex process. Of course it requires
a skilled professional with experience, technical knowledge,
artistic ability, and dedication. It also takes great equipment."
In the mastering facilities that artists praise, there is never
a total reliance on off-the-shelf equipment. "For the most part,
regular store-bought components cannot perform the processing
required by a world class mastering studio. All top mastering
facilities use custom or highly-customized signal processing
equipment," Sayecki notes.
Revealing a meticulous approach to the equipment utilized at
Art Mastering, Sayecki states, "We design our own proprietary
circuits to perform advanced signal processing tasks such as
equalization, expansion, compression, noise reduction, stereo
field enhancement and amplification. By utilizing discrete, class
A electronics as well as vacuum tube circuitry, our gear rivals
or exceeds top audiophile equipment in terms of sonic purity
and integrity." Art Mastering also houses a custom Telefunken-Neumann
mastering console, the only one of its kind in the USA.
Nancy Matter's Moonlight Mastering has a ton of superb modern
gear, yet she also states "Any time an artist can afford to mix
down to analog tape, either 1/4-inch, 1/2-inch or 1-inch, I highly
recommend it. There is a warmth and flavor that begins within
that media that translates wonderfully over to the mastering
that digital does not have."
A CD is a CD is a CD.
The CD format is actually fairly complex, and there is tremendous
versatility offered by various CD configurations. There are 2
main modes and 10 different CD sub-formats: CD-Audio, CD-ROM,
CD-ROM XA, CD-I, CD-G&CD-Text, CD-Extra, Photo-CD, Video-CD,
CD-i Bridge, PC-Games/Data. Mastering engineers may know a little
or a lot about any or all of these configurations.
How Long Does it Take?
Although there is no limit to the time or money that can be spent
on mastering, many people in the business state that a good rule
of thumb would be an average of 8-12 hours for most albums, or
in the neighborhood of an hour for each song. This assumes that
the CD was well recorded and no additional processing requirements
are specified. Additional time will be allocated depending on
the condition of the original recording, a client's specifications
and any unusual or custom needs.
You can find "bargains" in mastering, but "buyer beware" is a
good adage to follow. Larry Crane relates this mastering horror
story. "A band received a $25 mastering job from a 'live sound'
engineer who had just hooked up Pro Tools and didn't know what
he was doing. The mixes were distorted, peaked with digital overs
the whole time, and sounded far worse than the original mixes."
Prices from respected mastering houses vary, but you can get
excellent work for $120/hour in Los Angeles. Of course, you can
spend more, sometimes a lot more, but for the majority of artists,
you can budget around "two dollars a minute" multiplied by "an
hour per song" and be in the ballpark.
A Little History
Bobby Hart is the co-writer of hit songs for everyone from Little
Anthony, Chubby Checker, Paul Revere & The Raiders, and The Leaves
to an Oscar-nominated song for the film Tender Mercies. A top
ten recording artist himself (Boyce & Hart) and producer of The
Monkees, he has watched the art of mastering change over the
"When we started out in the sixties, the main function of mastering
was to take your studio mix and compress it so your top end and
your bottom end were all squished into the middle for radio.
That was the main concern, just make it work for radio, meaning
a mono mix for AM radio. Every studio in town had those little
Auratones. In mastering, they would hardly be concerned with
EQ, just with compression. Then it changed in the 70s, and from
that point on, the goal was making your track sound better overall."
Hart has seen his tracks engineered and mastered by pros such
as David Hassinger, Val Garay, and Bernie Grundman. "I don't
know the technical side of it," Hart says, "I just know it makes
the sound bigger and better."
"In mastering, exceptional hearing and technical expertise are
supported by creativity and artistic intuition," says Sayecki.
"In order to achieve the maximum impact on the listener, certain
creative elements of psycho-acoustics, psychology, use of proprietary
techniques, and knowledge of the music market have to be applied
in the context of the intended audience - all while recognizing
the goals set by the producer and the record label."
Emily Lazar also acknowledges the intangible: "As critical as
it is to maintain respect for the integrity of the music, it's
just as vital to bring something new and unique to the project,"
she says. "Obviously, it's a balance, but finding that ideal
path is one of the things that separates the work of an ordinary
mastering engineer from a great one."
Fix Your Mix.
What can you do to make your mixes work best for the mastering
engineer? If you're in doubt, many mastering houses offer a free
or low-cost assessment of your CD-R or DAT. This is an excellent
method to find out if your mix is in the proper condition for
mastering, as well as one good way to see if you like the personal
and/or business style of the mastering facility. But there are
some guidelines to follow in preparing your mix for mastering...
"First of all," states Forger, with a smile, "a good mix is a
good mix. If everything is in proper perspective with good balance,
then you're probably ready to go. This is assuming you haven't
squashed everything with compression, of course. The same 'trick'
for testing your mix that we've all used for years can work well
to test a mix that's being finished for mastering: burn a CD
and go play it in the car. Drive around and see if you can hear
everything at a fairly low volume level. The road and wind noise
acts as a filter that's ideal for testing a mix," he says.
"Don't compress your whole mix (left and right) if you don't
know what you are doing," states Larry Crane. "This bus compression
cannot be undone, and is one of the biggest complaints I hear
from mastering engineers." Matter seconds that point: "I agree
with using little to no compression on the final mix."
Matter notes, "I find that in mastering, when you have a great
mix, you end up with a great master. However, the real challenge
is when you receive lower
budget projects and can make them sound like a big budget record,
Now that's mastering! At that point, the gear is important, your
room is important, but most of all, how you use that gear and
that room is crucial."
Forger recommends that you "Take along a CD that sounds good
to you, one that has the type of frequency balance that you would
like your CD to have. It will give the mastering engineer an
idea of what you want your finished CD to sound like, given that
it's a similar style of music, and you will have a better idea
of the sound character of the speakers at the mastering studio.
Mastering studio speakers always seem to sound different from
what you're used to, but the mastering engineer knows them intimately."
Gehringer and Schreyer agree with Forger's idea of finding a
CD with the sounds you're seeking. Schreyer also reiterates the
oft-stated rule of not putting too much compression on your mixes.
And he recommends you try to pay attention to the overall sound
and arrangement in order to get your mix as close as you can
to what you want to hear. "Train wrecks don‚™t master well," Schreyer
Many mastering engineers echo this advice: if you're in doubt
about compression in your mix, do two versions, one with and
one without the compression and send both to the mastering facility.
Verheyen points out: "Remember this important fact and you'll
be safe: The mastering engineer can NOT mix your record. They
do not deal with individual track levels, only frequencies. But
if you come in with great sounding tracks, he or she will only
make them sound better!"
Some mastering engineers will try to make time to assess your
tracks and advise you on potential mixing decisions you might
want to make. Art Sayecki does this quite often. Nancy Matter
does, as well: "I listen to tracks all the time and give advice.
I do this as a courtesy for people who need a sonically correct
room to hear their music and get a different perspective which
helps them in mixing for their final project."
"When it comes time to present your recordings to the world,"
says indie artist Olivia Duke, "you just have to find a mastering
engineer you respect and trust." Duke already has had some of
her songs utilized on television soundtracks. Did she follow
all the advice in this article? Absolutely. And did she master
her tracks even though they are not yet part of an album? You
bet. Why? "Sometimes," Duke points out, "mastering can be everything."
The G-Man writes and records in Los Angeles. Hear what he's up
to at: gmanmusic.com