In the November 2009 “TalkBack” section and MixLine newsletters, we asked readers to tell us how mastering has helped their projects in the past.
I mixed my solo CD, Dedication, at home. I decided to accept a drop in the quality of the end result and have a finished mix that was exactly what I wanted to hear. It would have been too expensive to do it in a pro studio, and my endless changes and nuances would drive a mixing engineer up the wall!
I then had my CD mastered by a pro using old valve technology—mostly German and British—and the sound is just great. I would not have dreamt of doing that myself, and especially not at home. The engineer was very cool and totally on the ball—a massive help when I was confronted with final decisions.
Mastering was probably the most important part of the process after writing the tunes.
The Truth About Mastering
That was a strange little article (“From the Editor: The Misunderstood Part of the Record Process,” December 2009). I’m trying to figure out who you are trying to convince that mastering is “needed.” I think you’re mad at the guy who asked [the panelists for the October 2009 AES panel “Mixing With Attitude”] about preventing “a mastering engineer from screwing up their track.” But you didn’t really need to write a whole article to get even with him, did you? Or was he maybe representing a real truth, and you found him to be scary and threatening?
Mastering a good mix is really not necessary. I do some mastering, and the truth is, all you can do in mastering is change what’s already there. Now, if you’re in a loudness contest, sure, get that bastard mastered. Or if your mix or your band sucks, sure, give it all the help you can. But really, wouldn’t you like to hear what good recordings of good bands really sound like for a change?
But now that “you people” have convinced everybody that they can record themselves with toy software just as well as a real studio can record, it’s only a matter of time until you’ll have to jump on the approaching bandwagon that proclaims, “Hey, you can do your own mastering, too.” Nothing is sacred anymore, brother.
I remember when CDs were first available to small artists, and they would ask me, “Do you think this is good enough to go on a CD?” If we only had a fraction of that respect for our listeners now, what a better world it would be.
So there you sit, saying roughly the same thing, by purporting that mastering makes our world better. Maybe it does, but if so, it will soon be done by home recordists in bedroom studios everywhere, and we’ll be able to say goodbye to the current glut of mastering labs, just like we said goodbye to the big studios, good artists, good music, good sound and good record sales.
Knowledge Is Power
I wish to give kudos for Eddie Ciletti’s November 2009 “Tech’s Files” column (“To EE or Not EE? That Is the Question”) on teaching electronics to audio recording students. I have never seen a stronger, more effective justification for including a basic electronics class in a recording or live sound curriculum.
However, I will speak from my own experience as a sound engineer/designer who went to a four-year school to learn audio (Columbia College Chicago, class of 1995), who has had training in both electronics and music, and who has been steadily employed in various aspects of pro audio ever since.
I think training in both electronics and music is equally important, and the two disciplines are tied together by common mathematical relationships. As an example, a keyboard player I know once asked me how to use the 10-band graphic EQ in his powered mixer. I simply related the filter frequencies and intervals to notes on his keyboard, and that one-sentence explanation was all he needed.
Electronics training can be beneficial in subtle ways. Consider impedance, for instance: It can have a big impact on how some mics and instrument pickups sound—especially anything with passive, reactive circuitry. Understanding this when patching gear is very important; if impedance is not taken into account, the result may be hard to “fix in the mix.”
Grounding is also very important to learn. In something as complex as a studio or a concert P.A. system, hum and buzz can happen if anything that wasn’t previously part of the system is recklessly added in—and again, you can’t fix it in the mix. Gain structure and operating levels are another key area. It’s all too common for pro and consumer, digital and analog equipment to co-exist, and sometimes using a tone generator and voltmeter is the only way to get everything correctly gain-structured when metering inconsistencies abound.
Understanding electrical power, and how it relates to system grounding, is huge—especially in anything mobile where you may have to deal with temporary power systems. Knowing how to use a VOM to check power and grounding is just as important as knowing that an outlet that works fine for a vacuum cleaner may not be so good for the visiting engineer’s effects rack.
And anyone considering a career in live sound needs to understand RF. Live sound doesn’t happen anymore without something that’s wireless.
I have made serious efforts to learn these areas—either in college or on my own after graduation—and they have been key to my survival!