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Sound Advice

The Musicality of Mastering by Marisa T. Déry

In this article I will be writing about “The Musicality of Mastering”. Although I will touch on some technical issues, I’d like to focus on the creative process of mastering. The mastering engineer’s role seems to be changing a bit. Whereas before a person would walk into the room and I would EQ it in the best way that I could (adjusting levels etc.) now I’m actually putting more and more special effects in the mix – record noise, backwards snare, flange on a section of a song (à la Britney) – people are asking for my input.

First, I would like to touch on a much talked about subject amongst Mastering Engineers: L-O-U-D-N-E-S-S

Play a CD that is five years old, then play a new release, and you will hear that the difference is staggering.

Ex. Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” (Marvin Gaye’s Greatest Hits, Motown) then Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer” (Hybrid Theory, Warner Bros.) then Marvin Gaye again.

What is happening now is that music is getting louder and louder at the expense of dynamic range. In the early ’90s, the reference level was -12dB on most DAT players, which is why many old players had a line at -12. Then came the finalizer and people began setting their levels to 0. The problem was that every DAT player manufacturer had a different reference level for 0. Makers of consumer DATs would set the meters hot so that inexperienced users wouldn’t distort their recordings. 0 wasn’t “0” anymore. The finalizer made things worse because you could set the mix with an OUT ceiling of -0.3dB (which is the recommended maximum for CDs), yet still make your program louder and louder (while still remaining at -0.3dB).

The question is, “When is loud TOO LOUD?” All that I can say is that you need to leave room for the music to breathe. People are handing me mixes at 0dB, because the engineer cranked up the finalizer or the limiter conveniently located in the studio. Engineers are concerned that their clients won’t be impressed with their skills, so they give them a “finalized” mix where there is absolutely no room for me to do anything. 0dB is also dangerous because many CD-burner towers assume that if the program is peaking at 0.0dB it must mean that it is overloading, and promptly rejects all the CDs being duplicated (it’s quite impressive to see all those CDs popping out with flashing lights by their side).

A Good Mix
A mastering engineer relies on getting a good recording and mix to do his/her job properly. Too often musicians run out of money after the mix, and are never really satisfied with their mix. Your job is for them not to remember that they didn’t like their mix.

Analog vs. Digital EQ
There is importance in combining noise to the chain going to the DAW. Generally, I will extract a mix from a CD with the Adaptec Toast Extractor into the computer. It will be imported into Pro Tools where I have an endless amount of Audiosuite plug-ins (bells and whistles). This faster technique is used because the client wants everything to be done as quickly as possible. “Extracting” unfortunately (fortunately?) is faster than real-time loading. What I prefer is a DAT or CD master, where I will patch it into an analog EQ then go to Pro Tools. Those mastered mixes, to me, sound human.

There is a breath in those mixes that I cannot replicate with digital processing; there is a noise, a life to those mixes. One must never forget that what you are mastering is music. An artist puts time, energy, emotion and passion into those songs. Out of respect to the artist and the music, you have to make that mix breathe and come alive. You can’t process it to such an extreme that there is no dynamic range, no peaks and valleys, no life. It’s just a block of noise, a block that you can beautifully see in Pro Tools or any other program (ex. the L1 set at 12dB threshold).

Audio Restoration
Another thing that I would briefly like to touch upon is Audio Restoration. Whether you are dealing with old reels or 78 RPM records try to make them sound as natural as possible. There are many outboard EQs and software plug-ins for that purpose. The Waves restoration package is one that I use a lot. Yet even there, you must listen with musician’s ears.

Resist the temptation to get rid of the entire hiss, especially with orchestral music! It’s not only about the sonic quality; it’s also about the music. Be creative when you are working on these programs. I have a little Casio keyboard at work and when I can’t figure out what frequency is humming at full volume (I’m stuck and/or tired), I’ll grab the Casio and find the note on the keyboard. I have a chart that associates the notes of a piano keyboard with frequencies, so if the note (or hum) is Middle C, I’ll look at the chart, and find that I need to notch out 261.63 Hz – it’s a start.

Which brings us to the creative side of mastering …

Recently, I did a project where the artist came up to me and said, “I have three songs that are mixed, and one that is unfinished. I have an appointment with the A&R rep at DreamWorks on Friday … help me.” So I listened to the said “unfinished” song and began throwing suggestions.

– Why not throw a Janet Jackson type drum loop at the head?
– During the Tag section at the end “chorus” it.
– When it comes back “flange” it.
– In the beginning, listen to the lyric. Play with it.
– Pan to the left when you say, “left”.
– Pan to the right when you say “right”.
– Make it move.

I am now listed as “Remix Engineer” …

There are a lot of plug-ins that you should play with – too many to cover them all, but the L1 Ultra-maximizer (now L2 Ultra-maximizer) must be mentioned, as it is now a must in all productions. Before it was recommended that one should set the attenuation meter/setting between -3dB and -6dB; now anything goes, so all you can really do is match the levels of a new release.

But be aware! It has been said (AES Conference, New York, 2001) that 9 out of 10 songs on Billboard’s Top 10 are distorted, and that songs from the 1970s sound technically better and have more dynamic range than songs released in 2001-2002. We have become a generation of “distorted” listeners (it’s no wonder that teenagers today will be partially deaf by the time they reach 30). Hopefully 5.1 technology might help ease the loudness wars.

In Summary
I’m writing this article because of my concern with where we are going with the loudness wars. I am an engineer by trade, and a musician by birth. I have pursued a career in engineering because of my unquestionable passion for music. I respect Creators and Performers that bare their soul to tape. They rely on the Basics Engineer, the Overdubs Engineer, the Assistant Engineers, the Mixing Engineer and the Mastering Engineer to preserve the integrity of their music to tape. It is our duty to understand their music, their art.

It’s not just about putting a mic in front of an instrument and pushing the record button, or adding highs and lows in the mastering process. It’s about understanding what you are recording, mixing or mastering. Using your instincts to make it sound right. As a technician, your job is to make the music sound as sonically perfect as possible; as a human being, your job is to make the music sound as human as possible (with or without noise).

Marisa T. Déry, a native of Ottawa, Canada, is Chief Mastering Engineer at the Tape Complex in Boston, MA. Her clients include the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Tugboat Annie, Scientific, Chapter In Verse and RUSHYA.

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