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WTF is Mastering? Interview with John Scrip of Massive Mastering
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Dan Richards: There's obviously a trend for all the people setting up home studios to buy mastering software and also do the mastering portion of the project at home. Assuming that someone has actually tracked and mixed their project well — what are the benefits of going to an outside mastering engineer working out of a dedicated mastering studio?

John Scrip: Early on, I was part of that trend. The software part really is easy. Technically, writing a RedBook compliant disc with today's technology is as easy as typing a letter. But the software is such a small part of the equation. Everything in the "why" answer applies. The objectivity, the listening environment and so on. The most important part, of course, is the engineer's experience. The tools are easy to come by — the experience is another story.

One typical analogy would be construction: On one side of the street, you've got a guy that just went out and bought the greatest tools available and a really good book about carpentry. On the other side, you've got a guy with a basic set of trusty tools and years of experience building structures of all different types under his belt. Assuming they're both working from the same blueprints, which one do you want building you house? My money is on the experienced guy. Plus, hand the experienced guy those "greatest" tools and you might wind up with an even better house. And the carpenter with 15 years of experience knows to leave the electrical connections to the electrician with 15 years of experience instead of doing it himself.

It's really intangible to a point, but there's an interesting paradox when in comes to mastering: The more experienced the (tracking and mixing) engineer, the more they realize that mastering should be left to a specialist. Even bigger studios that have gear that is as good or better than most mastering facilities still understand the benefit of having that "final check" done by someone who is completely detached from the project.

Now, I'm not saying not to try it, or that it can't be done or anything like that. I can only speak from my own experience. I used to track & mix and go to the mastering session. When I was learning the "finer points" of mastering, I sometimes mastered my own mixes. It didn't take long to realize that if I didn't catch something in the mix, why did I think I would find it during mastering? It was really pretty silly when you think about it — especially in the same room on the same speakers. Every mixing engineer knows about "mixing into a hole" — when you get to that point where you just have no idea if what you're doing is improving the mix or making it worse. Mastering can get the same way even faster. There isn't a solo button to zero in on the bass or the vocal. You have to zero in on the whole mix, quickly, "visualize" what the mix should sound like, plan a strategy to get that sound, set it up and start tweaking. Once you're "tapping your foot" to it, it's too late to truly hit it with an open mind.

It's funny that you should mention the "home" studio trend also, as there's a far more disturbing trend I've been noticing: The "Mastering Room" at the studio down the street.

I was helping out a friend's band (barely any studio experience at all, but pretty good) last year. They were really nervous about it, so I just "tagged along" to help smooth things out and keep the nerves from taking over the session. Sort of a "silent coach". I was setting up some gear and the engineer was asking about the project, "Well, we're just hoping to get these four or five tunes down by tomorrow, and then we're having them mastered somewhere" when the engineer interrupted, "Hey, don't worry about that, we have a Mastering Room here." (that's capital "M" and capital "R" to add to the dramatic effect) When — let's call him "Ted" — shoots a look at me. I pointed to my eye, he shoots a nod back and says, "Can we see it?"

So, we go down the hall to what probably used to be an isolation booth — maybe 6x9 or so, almost covered in 2" foam. Probably known to those who entered as the "giant bass trap". A popular DAW program, a set of popular active nearfield monitors, a popular 24-channel AD/DA setup (24 channels?!?). The only thing that was missing was a sign on the door that said "MASTERING ROOM".

The way it was explained, they'd track and mix in the pretty decent sounding control room with the nice full-range monitors and "reasonably" decent outboard gear. "Then, we'll take it to the "Mastering Room". That's where the magic really happens. Yeah, we'll make it really loud in there. That's the serious stuff."

The horrible-sounding, poorly-equipped, poorly-treated "Mastering Room" is where they were going to "make it really loud". The same guy who for some reason couldn't "make the magic happen" in a fairly well-equipped control room, was somehow going to conjure up some special mojo in a broom closet. That entire collection of "serious stuff" was probably worth less than my main EQ.

This was a studio trying to sell an idea without the substance. Home and project engineers are starting to see the light on having their projects properly mastered. A number of studios are taking advantage of that while taking advantage of the inexperience of the engineers. Of course, there are some well-equipped and well-run mastering rooms in many studios. This wasn't one of them, yet they seem to be popping up all over.

Anyway, "Ted" said, "We'll toss that around," or something similar and the idea was dropped fairly quickly. The next day, "Ted" was telling me on how they almost got into an argument because the engineer kept trying to shove the mix through a popular all-in-one "mastering" box (which I warned him about the day before). "No, dude, we're having it mastered somewhere." And what comes back are the words no M.E. ever wants to hear: "Oh, that's okay, I'm just 'getting it close' for you." It's unbelievable. You've got a guy who should know better, and a client that actually doesn't want their mix smashed. All the pressure off to get the mix "louder" and what does the guy do. I just don't understand it.

DR: So, what does the typical mastering room contain that the typical studio is not going to have? Certain types of gear? Monitors? Types of acoustic treatments? What is it that really sets apart a mastering room from a recording studio?

JS: I think what sets a dedicated mastering or post room apart from a normal home or project studio control room is what it doesn't have. The last studio I worked at full-time had 4 or 5 mobile racks stuffed with tape machines, effect units, a couple dozen channels of compression, EQ's. Not to mention the large console housing, the obligatory production desk, keyboard stands, extra furniture. And again, it's not that good quality work can't be done in an environment like that, but most mastering rooms are a little more "minimalist" in design and function. Control rooms deal with ever-changing circumstances. You might have half the band in there doing overdubs. I've seen some pretty good sized rooms with drums being tracked in the control room. You're moving racks, speakers... Controls rooms are built for and utilize extreme flexibility. Mastering rooms tend to change as little as possible. Once you get it sounding "right" you don't want to touch a thing. Bumping a speaker a degree or two off axis can cause a lot of wondering about "what the heck sounds so different all of a sudden."

The gear tends to be more specialized also. Instead of a dozen "good" stereo compressors, you find one or two "amazing" compressors and perhaps a few esoteric "color" pieces. Same with EQ units, conversion, etc. Pieces of gear normally either get used, or wind up on ebay. There aren't 4 sets of "nice" monitors. There's one set of premium quality, full-range, audiophile loudspeakers, and maybe a set of smaller monitors that probably get very little use (I use mine for down-time DVD viewing for the most part, but I might flip over to them here and there during a session). If there are smaller monitors, you can bet that they're not in the nearfield between the mains and the engineer's ears.

Room design and/or treatments are taken pretty seriously. A lot of experimentation goes into getting the room to sound "natural" without crossing over into "sterile". I've been using Modular Acoustics panels — Nick Fournier's broadband / bass traps — in here for a while. I even had him make me some custom panels to take care of a couple spots where his regular panels wouldn't fit. When I'm tracking — and mixing to a lesser extent — I want to hear the speakers and not much else. Live-End-Dead-End and RFZ (Reflection Free Zone) rooms might be on the menu. For mastering, I want to hear the room also. People listen in rooms. Rooms affect the sound. That's the "real world". I want to listen in a "real world" room. A well-controlled room, of course. That's a must for decent translation.

Chris "bandini" [ forum member question ]: As a sort of adjunct to Dan's last question: I've always suspected that a good ME would never use the "mastering" software programs that so many home recordists are fond of. I'm talking about Ozone, T-racks, etc.

Would a real ME ever use one of these programs, or are they kinda considered a joke for the punters to waste their money on?

JS: Great question, Chris. There's the old saying that "a tool is only as good as the craftsman using it." Rarely are there truer words than those. However, there's another saying, "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Ižve used Ozone and T-Racks with decent results — no thanks to the presets. I remember a setting on T-Racks called "Gentle Master" that mangled the hell out of almost anything you put through it. Scooped the mids out, wrecked the dynamics, put this harsh sheen on the highs.

While I have to admit that there are few M.E.'s I know that use any "all in one" solution, Ozone, T-Racks, Finalizers and such certainly can come in handy for "quick fix" demo mastering and especially experimenting and learning mastering techniques. Once you really get into it, you start to crave what they don't give. You'll be looking for "that sound" and notice that none of the "all in one's" is giving it to you. I can't remember how many compressors I tried looking for "that sound" until I finally found the units I use now. Same with EQ's, converters, all of it.

That's not to say that the all-in-one's are worthless. Some of them can do a decent job, but given the choice, I'd much rather mix and match the gear to the track. Some of the popular hardware, the Finalizers and Quantums and such can come in very handy here and there also, but it's more likely to be the EQ on this, the MS processing on that, the notch filter on this, etc.

A lot of the effectiveness of some of the budget plugs can be dependent on the source material. If youžve got a sort of dull and distant sounding mix and you run it through T-Racks and it brightens it up a bit and puts it a little more "in your face", then it did what you needed it to do. It's likely that top notch gear or a great set of plugs might do it better and with more control. What you need to be careful of is what some processors and plugs can do with something that sounds really great to begin with. Some of them can degrade the sound just by putting them in the chain. Others will enhance the sound just as easily.

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