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Mastering in 2017 — Where Do We Go From Here?

Years ago, I mixed a project that was to be mastered at a relatively high-end mastering facility. I was excited to be handing off my mixes to a reputable and seasoned engineer, who would be working in an acoustically-treated room, with expensive monitoring, and sought-after analog hardware. My excitement was diminished, however, upon first listen to the mastered versions of these tracks that I had spent the previous month mixing. The sense of space, detail, warmth, and dynamics that I worked hard to create were met with and mangled by heavy-handed compression, limiting, and additive high-frequency equalization.

Fortunately, the producer felt the same way I did and listened to my advice to create a more conservative master. A revision session was booked and the final version of the album is pleasant sounding to this day.

In the days leading up to that revision session, I tasked myself with “mastering” the tracks as I would using equalizers, compressors, limiters, etc. I used my masters as evidence that whatever was settled upon shouldn’t be overly compressed and/or bright. When that same producer contacted me to mix another album, he asked: “Why don’t you just master it this time?” This was the beginning of me studying and practicing the art and science of mastering music.

To be honest, I don’t blame that engineer for the decisions they made during the first round of masters. They did sound modern, for the time. It just wasn’t what best served that particular project. A lot of the decisions were likely a result of the climate during the middle of the loudness war. I don’t want to get too specific about the loudness war because it has been covered so many times, from so many different points of view. I want to analyze where we are in 2017 and where we seem to be heading.

Some engineers and audiophiles simplify the motives of the loudness war to be that artists, producers, and labels equated volume with quality and that if a song was louder, it would be more likely to catch a listeners’ attention, and was therefore “better.” Many opinions expressing the desire to return to “the good old days” of dynamics have been published.

To quote Paul McCartney speaking about the music and productions of The Beatles: “We were always pushing ahead: louder, further, longer, more, different.”

This suggests to me that loudness has always been one stylistic choice among many that make up an overall musical aesthetic. So artists’ desire to push the boundaries of what the recorded medium could handle is nothing new. The media on which we record and distribute music has changed plenty, but that desire has existed for seemingly as long as recorded sound. Perhaps at first because of signal-to-noise ratio, but that matters much less in the digital realm.

So if we listen to music that was produced during the peak of the loudness war (assuming it has been won…more on that later), what exactly is so unpleasant about it? What characteristics do over-compressing, clipping, exciting, and limiting a signal impart?

It’s almost as if the ambience of the room in which the music was recorded gets removed. Mind you, this is assuming we are discussing music that was actually recorded in a room. Guitars sound like they are directly coming out of the speakers. Bass is large, but not dynamic. Vocals are reproduced with full frequency, yet are somehow still flat. The transients of the drums cause the other elements of the arrangement to duck or pump. It’s certainly a sound, but it isn’t natural.

One of my points is that this particular sound shouldn’t be blamed entirely on the mastering engineer, here’s why: During a mix for a major label, I was encouraged to match the levels achieved by the recording engineer for the end-of-night mix. Typically, end-of-night mixes are done without much care, so it’s not uncommon that a limiter (like the L2) is inserted on the 2-buss, and without paying enough attention to how transients and general space are negatively affected, the mix is printed. Unfortunately, artists, producers, and labels might develop attachments to these smashed versions of their tracks, and keep in mind, this is before mixing.

My point here is that the desire to create competitively loud music has simply become a part of the culture of major labels, and over time, it became as much, if not more about that sound (the upfront, in-your-face sound that I described before) than it did the levels displayed on meters. Also, if we include some types of electronic music or music that is more sample-driven, it seems to be the general consensus (at least among producers that I know) that bright, compressed, limited, and loud is simply part of that aesthetic.

I’ve read plenty of opinions by excellent engineers that the loudness war is over, that because of loudness normalization and a collective desire to return to dynamics in music, that pushing your masters will no longer be fashionable by 2020. My advice to anyone getting into mastering, or anyone who is involved in production on any level, truthfully, is to take those opinions with a grain of salt. Not that I don’t agree that music with more dynamics, free of clipped transients, and music that retains a sense of space and separation between instruments is sonically superior, (think back to the opening paragraph), but this industry has always been and continues to be one driven by the desires of clients. Inevitably, some clients are going to ask for masters that have been pushed hard with the types of processing I described before, and although I don’t prefer music that was mastered during the “peak” loudness war years, there is a certain amount of skill in obtaining that sound.

Remember, it’s not like the war was started by an entirely new generation of mastering engineers beheading the old guard. These were seasoned engineers that were simply asked to push the limits of the medium. It was and continues to be a trend, and everyone is responsible to some degree. Loudness-normalized streaming services are a primary source from which we get our music, but they aren’t the only source.

I believe that “loud” should be viewed as a style, not a problem. Engage in a discussion with each of your clients, and if a particular project is best served by being mastered more conservatively, then approach it that way. Know how to use the tools at your disposal to make up-front, in-your-face masters that can still be considered high-quality because you’ll inevitably have clients that desire to push the boundaries of the medium. While I prefer the sound of masters that were treated with subtle amounts of processing, and therefore sound more dynamic and natural, I respect the desires of each individual client.

After all, what could be less rock and roll than telling a musician to turn their music down?

Mastering in the Box

In this 3-hour course, Ian Vargo teaches you how to get great sounding mastering results at home using exclusively plugins in the box. Includes thirteen topic-specific workshops and eight different genre walkthroughs, plus all the song files so you can practice along with the course.

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Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo

Ian Vargo is a Producer, Mixer and Audio Professor based in Los Angeles. He has worked on numerous major label and independent records. Get in touch on his website or learn more from him in his new Mastering in the Box course.

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