Mastering has often been a job for highly trained and expensive professionals hired by major labels for major artists. Today almost anyone can attempt to master records at home using commonly available tools. But a middle ground also exists: a new generation of mastering engineers with fresh ideas operates closer to street level than the more traditional pros, working primarily on independent projects and offering affordable services at their studios.
Using outside mastering services is a smart and surprisingly affordable option for many, and understanding what goes into the process can help produce better results. To get an idea of some of the issues that arise, I interviewed three of the most experienced experts of the new mastering generation: Tardon Feathered of Mr. Toad's in San Francisco, Jeff Lipton from Peerless Mastering in the Boston area, and Paul Stubblebine of Paul Stubblebine Mastering and DVD, also located in San Francisco.
The panel's combination of mastering knowledge and “street cred” can help anyone who wants to get the most bang out of every buck invested in a self-produced recording. Even if your next project is headed to a “spare-no-expense” mastering facility, some of these peer perspectives might save you a bundle.
What are the most common problems you see with mixes coming from semiprofessional and home studios?
Lipton: Most mixes coming in are optimized for the acoustically inaccurate rooms they were mixed in, as well as mixed on less-than-honest monitors. One major problem, therefore, is muddy low end or muddy lower mids. Most inaccurate rooms portray bass inaccurately or not at all, so engineers tend to guess at what to do in that range. This either leads to way too much bass and lower midrange, or in some cases a bad balance between the kick drum and the bass guitar.
Many lower-end studio monitors seem to have midrange boosts and cuts, misleading the engineer in this critical frequency area. Other problems are too little high end because of the popularity of low-quality monitors with built-in high-end boosts; flat and muddy drum sounds, because it's hard to get a good drum sound in a house or project studio; and overcompressed or clipped audio on the mix bus. Instead of letting the mastering engineer get the desired compression level, inexperienced mix engineers usually turn all the faders up too high, and you hear the signal clipping all over the place.
Stubblebine: It's pretty common to find either too much [or not enough] bottom or the bottom-end varying wildly from one track to the next. Another important thing that can be frustrating for us is a mix with one important element too dull but some other element overly bright. That makes it difficult to dig in and brighten the dull element. It's also pretty common that the level of the vocal relative to the track isn't consistent from song to song.
What do you see as the primary causes of substandard recordings that might need drastic fixing in the mastering room?
Stubblebine: I'd lump these causes into three groups. First, we keep coming back to relying on monitoring that isn't up to the task. The speakers don't have to be the most expensive in the world, but if you can't find some placement in the room that gives a reasonably balanced presentation, you're working with one strike against you from the start.
Second is pushing things too far. I'm in favor of using any technique or effect that makes a record better, but a lot of people just seem to turn every knob up until it hurts. There's a sweet spot for any effect, and it isn't always at maximum. I include mixing too loudly in this category. Mixes made that way tend to sound right only when they are played back -loudly, whereas a mix made at a medium volume sounds pretty similar when you turn it up or down. Also, when you do all your listening at high SPLs you lose perspective on your mix earlier in the session. It becomes harder to judge where the vocal is sitting, and harder to judge the low end in relation to the rest of the mix.
The third thing just seems to fall under the general heading of inexperience. Making good recordings isn't easy; it takes both talent and practice. So keep practicing. This is an excerpt from the following article: Mastering From The Trenches.
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