Tips to Ensure Success with Mastering

An interview with Disc Makers’ SoundLab Senior Mastering Engineer, Paul Elliott

Paul Elliott
Paul Elliott

Paul Elliott, senior mastering engineer at Disc Makers’ SoundLab mastering studios, offers a few tips to help artists get the most out of their mastering sessions, as well as some of his own opinions about the role of mastering in the album-making process.

First, prepare an accurate track listing – in the proper order – of all the songs you are sending to the mastering engineer. If there are any alternate mixes, be sure those are clearly labeled and tell the engineer which one you prefer be used. In fact, it’s best not to send anything to the mastering session that you don’t plan to use. And don’t refer to a song by a nickname – that can cause confusion and end up delaying your project.

Other small things that you should tell your mastering engineer include whether you want to keep the count off on a particular song or have it removed. If there’s a particularly long jam at the end of a song, let the mastering engineer know if you want them to fade it out or keep all of it – don’t assume they’ll know what you want. Songs with abrupt endings can have a very dramatic effect, but it’s nice to let the mastering engineer know that’s what you intend it to sound like on the album.

It’s great to have the artist attend the mastering session if he or she can make it to the studio. That way we can communicate in person, which really helps ensure they get the most out of their session. Sometimes this ends up being a learning process for the artist, especially when they’ve done a lot of the album’s recording themselves. The first time they hear their songs in the mastering studio, they’ll often say something like “I’ve listened to that recording hundreds of times, but I’m hearing things I’ve never heard before,” which is indicative of them having worked in a home studio that wasn’t acoustically accurate. I can’t overemphasize the importance of working to get an accurate monitoring environment in your home studio to the extent you can afford.

SoundLab at Disc MakersMany times I’ll cue up a new project for mastering and think that there’s no way the engineer could have heard what I’m hearing. This could be just an outrageous amount of bass that dominates the mix, or a very harsh, metallic sound on all the cymbals that is grating, or any number of other problems. That’s because the listening environment where the recording was made masked these flaws in the record which can be difficult to correct after the fact. A mastering engineer can only help polish what’s on the original recording. That’s why if someone asks me about whether they should buy a new piece of recording gear or spend some money improving their acoustics, I’ll always encourage them to go for creating a more accurate listening environment.

We offer a free screening for mastering clients which has proven to be very helpful to a lot of artists recording their own albums. We’ll evaluate a song and let you know if we hear any problems or issues that could be dealt with at home before you finish mixing your album. It’s basically a way to confirm that you’re headed in the right direction with your mixes before you finish everything up.

One other question that comes up quite a bit is the issue of loudness. Many artists believe that the louder their album is, the better it sounds. That’s a little bit of a pet peeve of mine, going solely for loudness as an end in itself. If you really like the sonic quality of boosting the loudness of your final mix, than go for it, after comparing it closely to the original. Sometimes I’ll find that very loud mixes tie my hands a bit if the levels are too hot. We use some of the finest analog D-to-A converters, which sound wonderful, but if they are getting hit too hard at the input stage, we’ll have to back down the levels to avoid clipping. It’s often best if the artist has the mastering engineer make the final level adjustments with regard to loudness.

For some types of songs, I believe that to have the best overall impact, it’s actually better to not have the loudest possible volume. For instance, if there is a contrasting dynamic range written into a song, the only way it really works is for the lower-volume part of the song to be at a lower volume. If you compress it and boost it, it will lose its contrast with the louder section. You lose the impact and punch. You lose what was emotionally good, that feeling the listener gets when it gets big! In my opinion, if loudness is your main goal, you sacrifice impact, that’s why I tend to go just a little bit softer volume-wise and let a song’s dynamics draw in the listener. But ultimately, it’s up to the artist to decide what works best for them, I just hope that people aren’t only comparing their record to someone else’s. Instead, judge your work on its own merits and work with your mastering engineer to get the best sound possible.

Related Links:

Disc Makers SoundLab
http://www.discmakers.com/soundlab/whatismastering/index.asp

An interesting article on the trend toward making records louder may be found at http://emusician.com/tutorials/emusic_masters_mastering/

This downloadable track log allows you to provide the mastering engineer with the exact order and any notes on your album’s various tracks: http://www.discmakers.com/pdf/tracklisting2004.pdf

Since mastering is a subjective art, this sample questionnaire provides a number of helpful questions to consider before you send your master off to be mastered:
http://www.discmakers.com/pdf/SoundlabQuestionnaire.pdf

A useful glossary of various forms of digital audio file formats for online music distribution may be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audio_file_format

An interview with old school British mastering engineer George Peckham (aka Porky) including a brief look at how vinyl masters are cut may be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpidqcG7sSo&feature=related

13 thoughts on “Tips to Ensure Success with Mastering

  1. I’m an upcoming artist who recently got some mastering work done from Quickstar Productions LLC. They doing all kinds of stuff for uknown artists and bands… they do great mastering work, and for only $40/song…and they can get all your music on Itunes/Napster/Rhapsody/Zune and pretty much every music store online.. Check out the site http://www.QuickstarProductions.com... email any of them

  2. I would like to learn how to go about getting my music put on the i-tunes internet site. I have completed and mastered two CD’s with aproximately 12 songs on each one. Where could I receive sound Advice? I am already a subscriber to Disc Makers.

    My Band’s name is BALUGA WHALES

  3. I agree with Steve. I just took on a job today re-recording a project that was “tried” at home, but alas, they made “mush”. They definitely weren’t ready. Now they bought the gear, and are paying me as well. You just can’t really compete with great mics, pre’s and compressors, and you can’t just go down to the local music store and purchase “good ears” and experience (or a good mastering engineer ;-).

    1. Not sure who you are asking this question too but I think you would need to define for me what you consider “successful” mastering. My definition of success for a mastering engineer would be – “Did I make this recording the best it could be?” . In which case I feel I’ve been very successful at what I do.

      If you are looking for which sold the most then I have no idea. None of my records go gold or platinum because we are dealing with independents and not labels. Most of my projects are for a release of about 1000 discs but hopefully they will get into the right hands and get them signed. However, I want to make the point that mastering does not “sell” albums – good songs do. The technical side (recording/mixing/mastering)is there to enhance the song. If what I do doesn’t help the song or the album of a whole then I don’t do it.

      Paul

  4. In my opinion, too many folks are going the home route who are not “ready”; also I have found that a lot of people record at a freind-of-a-friend’s place who will “give you a killer deal”. I still like to go to an established studio where it just seems that professionalism arries the day. You may pay more but you are unlikely to run into the problems overed in this article. The better the product before mastering, the better it will be after. Common sense, but often overlooked. A great point was made that mastering can opnly do so much . . .

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  6. Some obvious but useful tips for those musicians who do not really pay enough attention to the mastering process. In my experience many indie musicians produce tracks in their bedrooms using equipment that does not faithfully reproduce the track and therefore many tracks have a poor initial mix which can make it harder to get a good final mix from. I highlight the main points of your article on my independent music blog because I feel your tips are extremely important. It can be read at http://independentmusic-greg.com/paying-more-attention-to-your-track-mastering

    Thanks for the tips.

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