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WTF is Mastering? John Scrip of Massive Mastering
Interviewed by Dan Richards

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Dan Richards, Pro Studio Reviews: John, before I get to the obvious question about what exactly is mastering, could you tell us how someone like you winds up as a mastering engineer with a mastering studio? Give us a little info on your engineering and music background, and the interesting road that would take someone from being an audio engineer to becoming a mastering engineer.

John Scrip, Massive Mastering: To make a long story short, along with my own band, I used to engineer and produce a lot of startups. Local bands with very limited studio experience. I'd usually wind up at the mastering sessions and always found it fascinating. I'd end up getting very involved in the decision-making with some projects, and had an insatiable "thirst for knowledge" on what was happening. After a few years of working with bands in other studios, I was hired to design and equip the JEM Music Complex (a mid-level facility in the Chicago area) right around when the "digital revolution" was starting. The owner wanted to keep everything under one roof, so we invested in some basic mastering gear and an incredibly expensive DAW with an incredibly expensive 2x CD-R drive. This was back when burning a "coaster" meant that you were having crackers for dinner because all the pizza money was used to cover the costs of another blank disc.

Anyway, JEM hired me as chief engineer and we brought in Jason Walsh. It didn't take long to figure out that mastering your own mixes wasn't a good idea, so Jason and I would basically "tag-team" projects. I'd mix this band, and master that band, and vice-versa. After a while, I just started getting more and more into the mastering part. If there was down time, Jason would always experiment with mic technique and mixing chops. I'd take mixes and mess with compressors, EQ's, Finalizers and what have you. It really just progressed from there. When JEM's parent company wanted to sell the studio, Jason bought it up and wound up moving it to St. Charles, IL and started Farview Recording. I took the plunge and invested in my own rig, which basically started out as a PC with Sound Forge and a tiny bit of inexpensive outboard gear. I'd master demos for "gear cash" until I built up enough to invest in something a little more "serious". And then a little more, and then a little more.

DR: OK, John. Let's cut to the chase for a minute. What is mastering? What's the process? And why does an artist or a band who've recorded an album's worth of material need to have their project "mastered" before it's ready to go to the duplication facility?

JS: Before someone smacks us with semantics, I suppose we should clear up the difference between mastering and premastering. Technically, mastering refers to producing the final version from which copies are made. With CD's and the like, the actual master (a.k.a. "glass master") is made in a clean room at the replication plant. So technically, the common form of digital audio mastering is actually known as "premastering," as the actual master (the glass master) is made from the premaster disc.

Now that everyone's on the same page, "mastering" has generally become accepted as the term used for the final manipulation of the recording — bringing it into its final "sound" if not quite its final state. When vinyl ruled, the mix was the mix for the most part. The mastering engineer's job was to make sure it transferred properly to vinyl while changing it as little as possible. If there were nasty bass problems, certain phase issues, or levels that got too hot, the needle could literally jump out of the groove. It was essentially the first step in the replication process. Mistakes were expensive, and the skills were very precise and dictated by the physical limitations of the media. Quality vinyl cutting is getting pretty rare and even the most basic equipment is prohibitively expensive for smaller studios.

Digital has a lot of freedoms that vinyl didn't. Phase isn't an issue, low-end content — even volume (except for the "ceiling" of 0dBfs) are things that a digital signal just doesn't care about. Since the "digital revolution" started, mastering has essentially shifted into being the final step in the creative process. The M.E. is now usually expected to put his "touch" on the project, instead of simply creating a technically compliant disc for replication purposes. Individual tracks are carefully massaged to their fullest potential, taking into account the project as a whole, to make it as cohesive as possible.

Sometimes, (but somewhat rarely) mastering is really nothing more than an "O.K." stamp on the mix. More often, a little EQ, compression, level adjustment or some form of processing is applied to make individual mixes "flow" better together and add a level of consistency to an entire project. Sometimes it can change the entire personality of the mix (depending on the client¼s wishes, of course) with radical changes in EQ, heavy limiting and compression for "rip-your-face-off" volume on the finished product. Likening it to something more "human," mastering can range anywhere from a quick haircut to reconstructive plastic surgery.

The "why" part is a big question. One of the basic reasons is objectivity. When the M.E. first hears the mixes, he's concentrating on the big picture. He's not familiar enough with it to anticipate that cool drum roll or the part in the second chorus where the vocalist went a little sharp. Ideally, this first listen is taking place on a system with more transparency and detail than most listeners will normally use. The raw sound quality, dynamics, and overall tonal quality — the good points that need to be exploited and the bad points that need to be minimized — those are the only things that matter at that point. Once you're familiar with and into the performance and the "groove" of the song. You know the saying, "It's hard to see the forest through all those trees." That's also the essence of the "never master your own mixes" rule of thumb.

Another reason we just glossed over is the listening environment. The systems and loudspeakers in most mastering facilities, along with the room, are much more detailed and "picky" than the monitors in the studio or the average stereo system. Large, full-range audiophile-grade loudspeakers and amplification are the norm. Room treatment is taken very seriously to give an honest representation of the material.

The common media, the basic CD-R, also needs to be written to particular specifications (commonly know as RedBook) to be used as a production master. Certain software is needed to arrange, write and log the files to conform to RedBook standards. Also important is the BLER (BLock Error Rate) of the disc. All discs have certain errors that are normally corrected "on the fly" in a CD player. However, this error count must be below a certain threshold for the disc to be considered compliant. The plant will reject too high a count of some types of errors or any of other types on the disc. With short-run duplication, this error checking becomes even more important, as many short-run plants don't check for these errors — they just duplicate what they're sent. Errors and all.

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