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WTF is Mastering? Interview with John Scrip of Massive Mastering
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Rodney Gene [forum member comments]: There is a middle ground perspective that is totally valid but isn't discussed much.

Where does the 'home mastering studio' meet the 'pro mastering studio'? When is OK to legitimately offer the service of mastering? At what point do you consider yourself an engineer? What level of gear or experience do you need to be 'validated'?

Even you John were 'mastering' records before you were a 'mastering' engineer. Everyone has to start and everyone has to develop.

Why are so many 'major' label records destroyed in the mastering process by 'world class' mastering houses, with 'known' engineers and $100,000 + worth of gear? Honestly? That is the real problem.

If I have more integrity, thought and consciousness to compliment the final mix better than a 'real' mastering suite.. And I use a chain of high-end plug-ins to do it, isn't that a better option? Isn't the goal to get a great product? I have purchased 2 GREAT albums this year that were 'remastered' by a legend. The remastering is so pathetic that I won't even listen to one of my favorite records now. Instead I reach for the cassette!! Uh' Bob Ludwig...if you are reading this, no offense but the Journey Escape remaster is shoddiest example of audio work I have ever heard. Fall asleep that day?

MY project studio offers mastering...full blown mastering and we are not hacks and I have a lot of audio integrity and thought...but we aren't a professional 'mastering house either...so? Don't offer it? I do have other options though. I have a tremendous engineer in town who has some serious high-end analog mastering equipment and a nice studio, much like the type described by John. I offer mastering through him IF I myself recorded the record..but more times than not, I KNOW the band is not going to take the record (demo) anywhere. So what then? Leave it? Hard choice.

Although I am not a fresh set of ears, I do know I can improve the final mix through attentive mix polish. Particularly after 2 or 3 days of laying off the material. So I offer it. Is that doing the band a service or dis-service? If I just improved their sound, isn't that the goal?

I am not under the restraints and expectations of any label to get anything loud, so I can do the best I can without that concern..I am a classic Motown, Pop, Rock and country fan. None of the stuff I listen to has been 'destroyed'. I have confidence in my ability to help a final mix sound better, often times much better particularly when I didn't have anything to do with the recording. I have invested in mastering 'tool's, albeit digital (but expensive) for that very purpose. I feel confident when I offer the service that I will apply the right approach based on the material. I am not 'into' mastering for money. I don't have any money and I am not getting rich from ANY mastering job ever. My only goal is the best product available based on my perception.

This 'level' of service is legit. It is often frowned upon by 'mastering' houses but it shouldn't be. Too much shit out there sounds like shit because it was improperly mastered by 'real' mastering houses. This unfortunately is the case with everything...the majority creates the 'blanket' that everyone falls under. In reality there is good thoughtful work being done by folks with a genuine interest in quality...both in the pro house and in the project studio.

John Scrip: Rodney Gene, that's a stream of thought there. A lot of what you're getting at is sort of intangible. "Home" studio — "Pro" studio... I've been in home studios that are set up better and come up with better results that a lot of pro studios. It's all semantics. If you can provide a valuable service to clients that they're willing to compensate you for, it's all good (this is America, dammit!). The goal is indeed a good product. There isn't any "Official Mastering Engineer" medal out there. I suppose that technically, if you can transfer audio to a disc, examine and document that the disc is in compliance with the industry standards (RedBook, in most cases), that's the baseline. After that, the market will decide. If you're validated by your clients, that's all that matters.

And for the record, I agree with you on some of the stuff that's coming out these days. I get too many clients than I can count that say, "Whatever you do, make sure that it's loud." They can be perfectly willing to trade good sound for a few extra dB out the door. The customer is always right. I do what I can to find a nice "middle ground" and occasionally I'll have them go elsewhere if they just want it trashed.

Fairview [forum member question]: I think it would be interesting to discuss what guidelines are there that engineers should think about when mixing that will maximise the potential of those mixes during mastering.

JS: In the interest of "full disclosure," Jason and I were talking about this last week and I'm glad he took the time to throw this in.

The volume wars are getting so many engineers to shoot themselves in the foot, I'm surprised they can walk anymore (hey, that's a good one). They key is pretty simple. First, start with really good core sounds. Record them as best you can. After that, do whatever you need to get the best sounding mix that you can. THEN STOP.

So many engineers over the last several years are fixated on the need to "make it loud" (a.k.a. "get it close") during the mixing session. They've developed some bizarre disorder that makes them think if they're mixes aren't loud, somehow they've failed. Evidently, they also forgot where the volume knob is on the console.

Now of course, the client's ignorance is partially to blame. They're pushing for the volume, and while we can accept that, they're pushing for it at the wrong time. As engineers, it's our responsibility to educate the client.

Of course, if it's cleared with the client that the mix is never going through "traditional" mastering, all the rules go out the window. That should be the client's option, but they should know that it's not the only option. There are studios that send me jobs fairly regularly. They'll explain the options to the clients. Many of them will still have the mastering done at the same studio. However, once they know the options, they may choose to go back several days later and actually concentrate on it. Still, some will choose to have the mix "finalized" (the verb, not the noun) during the mixdown.

The problems lie in between the engineer that "gets it close" during mixdown may be seriously compromising what can be done during the mastering session — especially concerning volume, which unfortunately is so dreadfully important. Others (usually the more experienced engineers) simply concentrate on the mix without concern for sheer volume. Almost without fail, these mixes will wind up louder and punchier while sounding less "squished" than mixes that were limited or otherwise boosted during mixdown.

So technically, if you're dealing with a digital format, stay in 24-bit and get a good level but don¼t sweat it. A mix that peaks at ‚4 or ‚6dBfs is going to have a lot more potential during the mastering phase than a mix that's constantly kissing full-scale. You lose nothing by leaving a little headroom. You lose a lot by hoarding bits.

DR : John, can you tell us some of the things that clients getting ready to have their projects mastered can do to make your job easier — and thereby getting a better product for themselves? Can you give us a list of Do's and Don'ts.

JS: Here are a few things to think about: NOISE is BAD. Especially at the heads and tails. On a DAW, this is so easy to fix, yet a lot comes in with noise at both. When a song is starting, it's simple to just cut everything before the start that's making noise. Guitar amps, room noise — a sloped fade can be applied to every single track if you want. Offsetting them a bit will stop the suddenness of the ambient noise. The same at the end. If you've got noisy guitar amps, either cut the guitar when it stops or fade over the natural fade. If there's a verb trail at the end, you can use it to fill in a cold stop. Noise that's hardly noticeable might be much more apparent after mastering, so the time to be aware of it is at the start of the tracking session. If a song starts with stick clicks and there's verb on the overheads, guess what: There's going to be a verb trail of the clicks on the start of the song. Simple fix again: Copy the stick clicks at the top, move them to their own track and mute/fade the drum tracks for a clean start. You can still use the (non reverberated) clicks during tracking, and simply mute that track during mixing (unless of course, you WANT the clicks as the opening of the tune). Some people say not to "sweat the small stuff". Noise isn't small stuff. RF, hum, monitor whine, hiss, etc. Nip it in the bud so it doesn¼t come back to bite you later.

Too much reverb or other effects can cross the line from cool to irritating very quickly. Some of us get used to reverb easily which makes it very easy to overdo. Almost without fail, these effects will be heard even more clearly after mastering. If you¼re using verb as a big effect or on a stinger of some sort, go for it. If it's there just for a little "space" then it might be good to keep on the conservative side. My approach is to turn it up just so I can actually notice it, then back it off a little. Listen for a bit, then MUTE the verb. There's no better way to find out that there's just to much verb in a mix than to just cut it completely and suddenly. With some, it'll simply "shrink" the space a little. That's fine. Others may notice that they had far too much verb going and didn't even notice it.

Mono compatibility is another issue that gets overlooked. Easy fix again. Start your mix in mono. If your guitars disappear, this is a better way to find out that hearing it on a fringe station. You can try to fix it using EQ or delaying/advancing one of the tracks. Listening in mono reveals so much about a mix that you wouldn't notice in stereo. All sorts of phase problems, EQ anomalies, instruments stepping on each other. Even if you're never going to hear it in mono, you can wind up with a more spacious mix when starting in mono. If you can get it to sound good in mono, it's hard to make it sound bad in stereo. Once you start panning out, you¼re likely to want to change some levels and that's fine. But hitting the mono button once in a while is always good practice.

The one that everyone's tired of hearing about still can't be stressed enough: Limiting, compressing or EQ'ing the master buss. EQ and dynamics are best handled at the track level and to a lesser extent, groups. If the mix needs any of these dynamic processors applied, look around in the mix to find out where it's lacking. Some mixes can benefit from a dB or two of compression to get it to "gel" together a bit. That¼s fine also. The line is drawn once you add compression to increase the sheer volume of the mix. If you need to hear what it'll sound like "loud", then turn the monitors up. Once excessive compression is applied to the mix, problems that would have been fairly easy to deal with might be near impossible to tackle. Limiting — there's just no excuse for using limiters on the 2 buss during mixing. Once you snip those dynamics off, they're gone forever. Keep in mind that the M.E. will probably apply some sort of limiting — especially if "loud" is part of the order. Leave some room to work (I shoot for PEAKS no higher than ‚6dBfs in 24-bit). In the long run, if what you're looking for is a loud master, the worst thing you can do is limit or overcompress the mix. Concentrate on getting a good sounding, dynamic mix and leave the volume for later. Get "good" levels — not HOT levels. Point: In 24-bit, you can mix with PEAKS at-47dBfs and still have better resolution than a 16-bit recording. Some of the best mixes I work on PEAK at ‚8, -10. Even lower than that. We're talking mixes with an RMS level well below ‚20dBRMS. Now part of that could be the engineer's experience (knowing that the sheer level comes later) or it could be the experience of just getting a good mix and not being concerned with the levels.

Speaking of levels, getting overall mix levels that match from song to song isn't really important at the mixing stage. I certainly don't mind it when all the tracks have the same apparent volume, but it isn't the most important thing and it absolutely isn't worth the risk of clipping. But sure, if you mix a tune that peaks at ‚12dBfs and you want it to be a little louder, try selecting all the channels and lift them up a dB or two and see where it peaks. There's nothing wrong with trying to attain a good level. There is everything wrong with exceeding a good level.

DR: John, do you have any favorite ME's? Any favorite albums from a mastering perspective?

JS: Wow, that's actually quite a tough question. Some of the obvious ones... Doug Sax (Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon"), Bernie Grundman (Steely Dan's "Aja"), Bob Ludwig (Tori Amos' "Under the Pink"), Pat Sullivan (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets soundtrack), Trevor Sadler, Brad Blackwood, and whoever mastered ZZ Top's Tres Hombres and left all the hiss intact. I can't imagine the beginning of LaGrange if it was all cleaned up. You crank it up and here that amp hissing away like it's hell about to be unleashed. Then that snare whacks you in the chest. It would've been so easy to modernize it too much and screw it up. That hiss is part of the anticipation.

Those (and the albums listed) are just off the top of my head. There's so many out there. Some really great stuff, too. Of course, I'm sure all of them have credits they wish they didn't have also, but the customer is always right. Of course, most of the best mastering engineers are the ones you don't notice.

Bryan "black sugar" [forum member question]: John, first off, I'd like to thank you for all of the info you've shared. What steps do you take to ensure Red Book standards? I've just been relying on CD Architect to tell me if there are any problems when I burn to disc.

Do you use/prefer a specific program to check BLER? I'm not even sure where to start on that one.

I've heard that the glass mastering process can change the "sound" of your final master. And after my band's last EP was pressed, I believe it! Do you find this to be true, and if so, is there any appreciable (predictable) pattern to this or steps you can take to counter this in advance (so to speak)?

JS: Many CD writing programs have certain "safeguards" built in to make sure you don't write a disc that won't be up to spec. I remember CD Architect 4, and if anything could find a reason NOT to burn, it was CDA4.

One of the few tools — "affordable" tools, that is — to check the Block Error Rate effectively is Plextor's PlexTools Professional. It comes bundled with, and is dependent on a Plextor Premium Series drive. If you're handing discs to clients for replication, you owe it to yourself and them to have it. Especially now that so many are using short-run duplicators.

DR: Hey, John, thanks very much for your time and contributions during this interview. Any parting words for those interested in learning more about the mastering process? Any resources that you think are particularly good? Anything we haven't touched on that you'd like to add?

JS: Less is almost always more. There are books, websites, you name it. But I have to admit, there's nothing like spinning knobs. Get the best monitors you can possibly get your hands on, and listen to the best music you can find while reading books and articles by some of the greatest M.E.'s around.

It's likely that by reading all that stuff, you won't really feel like you're learning anything at all about mastering. But when the questions present themselves, you've already primed yourself to come up with the answers. While there's no substitute for practical experience, it certainly doesn't hurt to familiarize yourself with some of the science behind the art.


For more information on John Scrip and Massive Mastering visit massivemastering.com.

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