Ask Weiss: What is Mastering?

Transcript:

Welcome to the Ask Weiss series, and this question comes to me from a number of sources, and it is all about mastering. What is mastering, and how do I personally interpret it?

Well, first of all, I am not a mastering engineer, however, as somebody in the music production world, I am often times responsible for creating the final master, which means sometimes I have to put on that hat, and I think that’s going to be true whether you’re a producer, artist, recording engineer, mixing engineer, mastering engineer – sometimes we have to do everything.

Ideally, we can hire somebody else, but it doesn’t always happen. So what is mastering? Well, you don’t master a song. You master a collection of songs, and that’s the crux of real mastering. It’s figuring out how one record fits into the picture of all of the other records.

So, when I’m mastering something, I pull all of the songs in the album into a DAW so that I can flip back and forth and hear them back to back. So for example, I might pull this record, City Lights…

[song]

And then I’ll play it back with a record – say, Hennessy Nights.

[song]

And I’ll take a certain note as to how those records differ tonally, and what I can do in the mastering process to make them gel a little bit better, and if you want a concrete example, I would say that in this particular case, the city lights record sounds like it’s a little bit more dynamic, and that the Hennessy Nights record sounds like I went a little bit harder with the compression choices that I used when I was creating the mix.

So, I might choose to try to open up the dynamics of Hennessy Nights, or I might try and squeeze the dynamics together a little bit more for City Lights. Either way, I’m going to find a way to make the dynamic sensibility make sense from record to record. Especially because these will be played back to back.

The other thing is that there is a little bit of a tonal shift. There’s a touch more low, low end in Hennessy Nights than in City Lights, and there’s also a little bit more of that 1-3kHz bite in Hennessy Nights as well.

So again, I’m going to use the determination, maybe I need to take the 1-3kHz down in Hennessy Nights, maybe it needs to come down in City Lights, but either way, I’m going to make these songs sound like they totally blend.
So that’s the big picture stuff, and those choices come into play every step along the way. Once I’ve got those ideas down, the next step is going to be the individual processing, where I say, “Okay, do I like this mix? How can it be better? What can I do?”

The key here is to try to be objective, and that’s really difficult to do if you also happen to be the mixing engineer, which will often times be the case. So one of the things I highly recommend is to put a few days – in this particular case, it’s actually about 2.5 weeks – in between when you do the mix and when you do the master.

This way, you can come back to it and you can go, “Okay, objectively speaking, how do I feel about this? Do I need to go back to the mix? Is this something that’s just about done and just needs a few tweaks on the overall track? Where are we at?”

So I’ll play the record and I’ll try to be objective as possible.

[music]

So I think that record in terms of mix sounds pretty well balanced. It sounds really well glued together. All of the elements stick out. I think I did a good job. That’s me trying to be objective, not me trying to be egotistical, because sometimes, I will do this and I’ll go, “eh, god, what was I thinking?”

But, there are a few things that I think could be better. I think there could be a little bit more top end extension just to add a little bit of life, excitement, and air to the overall record. I think some of my compression choices were maybe a little bit heavy handed, and I could try to emphasize some of the dynamic of the record by maybe putting a little bit of EQ in there to reshape things, or something along those lines, or by using compression settings that have a very, very slow attack setting to sort of enhance the transient. Or maybe even using a transient designer if I really feel like it needs that. This one probably doesn’t.

So, those are some things that I’m going to keep in mind. I’d like to kind of smooth things out a little bit maybe, because it’s a touch on the rough side, but not much. Just a touch.

Then the other consideration is I’m going to want to get this record very loud. It’s 2015, it’s a Hip Hop track, it’s trap influenced, and I think that’s going to call for a louder playback than some records might normally, and I’m not the type who would ever want to sacrifice groove and dynamics and emotion for the sake of level of playback, but at the same time, I also acknowledge that this record might be played back to back in some A&R’s office that’s throwing on the latest Rick Ross record, the latest Drake record or whatever, and they’re not going to compensate for level adjustments. They’re not going to be thinking that way. They’re just going to go from one track to the next, and they’re just going to hear it as they hear it.

So, I don’t want to be out of that ballpark, because that can cause problems as well. So with all of that in mind, this it the treatment that I came up with for this particular record.

[song]

So, my original…

[original mix]

Mastered.

[mastered mix]

So it’s a little smoother, there’s a little bit extra low end extension, a little bit extra top end extension, and the other thing to note is that I’ve level matched these so I’m not blowing your speaker out, but that mastered version is actually 14.5 decibels louder than the mix version, so it’s way louder, and the important thing to recognize is that the dynamic energy is not vastly different than the original mix.

There is – if you listen to it, you do hear that some of the dynamics are faked through EQ. That’s not actual transient that’s coming through. But the difference, the damage control, has been effectively done so that it’s not like the dynamics are gone from the record now that it’s been compressed to all hell.

So, one more time.

[song plays, mastered and unmastered]

Cool. So that’s how I see the mastering process. Great question, guys. If you or anyone you know has a question, feel free to leave it in the YouTube comments section below or on The Pro Audio Files’ Facebook page.

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a Grammy nominated and Spellemann Award winning audio engineer from Philadelphia. Matthew has mixed songs for Snoop, Sonny Digital, Gorilla Zoe, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, 9th Wonder, !llmind & more. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com.
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