Zen and the Art of Audio Mastering

B&W Mastering Engineer

Audio Mastering is probably one of the hardest discipline I’ve ever encountered. State of the art equipment as well as above human listening skills are required. That said, experience can play an interesting role as well.

If you want to make a living from Audio Mastering, good luck…!

Oh, you’re still there ? Well, in that case, here are some lessons I have learned the hard way:

Budget your expenses

The more you plan, the less you suffer… That’s a hard truth. I think my biggest regret so far is how I spent my money. Being a gear slut can be dangerous financially, trust me.

Don’t misinterpret my words, you do need to invest money to have a proper mastering studio, and it is true that good sounding gears are expensive. I’m just saying, don’t buy stuff only based on your excitement and intuition. Building a mastering studio requires money that is well spent, and therefore proper budgeting is a requirement.

Create an excel sheet and list whatever you will have to spend for your studio allocating a decent budget for each. Most importantly, make sure you cover all these aspects properly:

  1. Monitoring (Monitors + Speaker Cables + Amplifier)
  2. Acoustics
  3. Computer hardware (laptop, back up drive, etc.)
  4. Audio Interface / ADDA converters
  5. Software and DAW
  6. Books
  7. Analog gear

The most important of all is clearly the monitoring. Put as much as you can in this section. The sound quality you can achieve is directly proportional to the quality of your monitoring. Again, you need a system that will A) Give you a linear frequency response, B) Gives you a proper amount of detail, C) Has low distortion levels.

Analog gear is last for a reason. Although it looks good (and it sounds soooo good), analog gear won’t make you better. Analog is good for texture, but texture is nothing if you don’t get the basics right.

Acoustics is often an overlook one, and unfortunately, I still lack in this area. It is true that it is boring to spend $5000 in foam and such, but it truly does a difference.

Overall, before buying anything, create an Excel Sheet and allow a budget for each category. Then state clearly what you’re going to buy for each, including the options, the shipping cost and the exchange rate (if applicable). Don’t buy anything until you have a clear and complete plan of where you’re heading.

If you don’t: Here is what is going to happen.

You will show up in a music store, and see an exciting piece of gear you don’t actually need (or isn’t a priority in your list) and buy it with the money you should have invested in another area.

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Not convinced ? Here is an example: let’s say I don’t make a budget. If I stretch my credit card, I can have access to 6500$ to build an entire studio. I go to the music store, and see this awesome tube analog multiband compressor at 6500$.  I buy it impulsively and install it in my “studio”. Result: my converters are so cheap, I can’t really run it through analog without degrading more than I would “gain” using an analog compressor. But you know what ? I have no idea I’m degrading the sound because I’m mixing on $300 KRKs.

If, on the other hand, you think it through and make a budget, here is what you could make happen. You budget the following:

  • DIY tower speaker pair: $1600
  • DIY subwoofer kit: $400
  • Used Bryston Pro Amp: $200
  • A decent audio interface with good converters: $1000
  • Refurbished MacBook Pro: $2000
  • Whatever DAW you like: $200
  • Some top notch plugins: $500
  • High grade speaker cables: 200$
  • 2 or 3 Audio Mastering Reference Books : $200
  • Subscription for dropbox : $200

All this sums up to about $6500. For that budget, you can get a wonderful sound out of your studio and compete with the industry. This is absolutely not the case with the first scenario.

No chain is stronger than its weakest link

This mantra is especially true with analog passes as everything is processed in series and not in parallel. A common scenario is the following: the audio comes out of your DAW, is converted into analog, is running through a series of cables of different quality as well as through a 8-9 audio processors (such as compressors and eq’s) before being converted back to digital. Experienced has showed me that you only need one weak spot and the whole chain sounds terrible. For example, I invested $200 to build a high quality home made patch bay. It turned out that the simple fact that I was adding length of cables and interconnections reduced my overall definition tremendously. Obviously after less than a week, the patch bay was removed. For mixing, this patchbay would have been very nice as everything is run in parallel, but it mastering, I was adding basically 20 connections and cables to the chain IN SERIES… Not such a good idea after all.

The best is to buy few well selected equipment and therefore keep you chain as short and clean as possible.

Communication with the client is key

A mastering contract can often be a long distance relationship. Therefore, communication is key. Nothing brings the client closer to you than a real conversation. Attended session gives you instant feedback but is time consuming and not always a possibility. Phone calls are time consuming as well, but are more personal than emails. Find what works with what type of clients, and keep the quality of the communication as a top priority.

 

Tastes change with time (and age!)

We might be about the same person, but the truth is that we evolve and change constantly. It recently happened that I had to master an album in two separated sessions at 3 months interval from each other. When it was time to put the two projects together, it was surprising to hear that I went in two different direction. Both were good, but they were differently good. The first one was intimate, warm, round with a solid low end. The second session, everything came out as huge, bright and detailed and people would associate it to the sound of Ted Jensen from Sterling Sound in NYC.

What happened ? Of course, I had upgraded everything (as I constantly do) so indeed, my chain evolved a bit, my acoustics was sounding different and my monitoring was upgraded as well. Still, I like to think that I have a sound, and that I’m consistent with it. Still, it just turns out that we hear things differently and our tastes changes. The way the music was making me feel the first time was obviously not the same on the second time.

On the macro level, the trends also evolve. It’s important to listen to new music and to stay relevant. It’s good to listen to classics, but keep your mind open to new sounds.

Listen to references before every session

That’s a boring one to do, I know, but believe me it pays off. Find the best sounding references and listen to the best sounding tracks of each album before starting a session. It will set a high standard you will work hard to approximate.

If at some point, midway through a session, you feel that you’re losing it, go back to your references. It is your neutral ground.

Upgrade one piece at a time

It happened few times in my career (as while as quite recently !) that I tried to upgrade multiple things at the same time. As you might guess, it didn’t turn out so well. I added a new compressor to my rack, added a patch bay, changed my signal path, added a huge piece of furniture to my room that made me move my layout, so I also moved the speakers. Guess what, when everything changes at the same time, it’s quite hard to know what is wrong. The phase flipped on one channel; is it my compressor, the patch bay, or my one of my cables… or did I reversed the polarity on one speaker when i moved it? The signal seemed degraded as well… or wait, might it be just the acoustics that changed? Or is it the same problem as the inverted phase one?

B&W Zoomed

Then, for two weeks, it felt as I had “lost” it. I’m talking about that magic touch, the confidence that comes when you know how your room sound and you know how things should sound like. These things are very subtle and a minor change can totally screw up your reference.

One thought on “Zen and the Art of Audio Mastering”

  1. Hi Chris

    Thank you for your advice and warnings about the dangers of mastering. In particular it is not good to buy expensive analog gear before investing in speakers and not treat the acoustics of the room.
    Another subject : what is about the frequencies in mastering ? how to know where are the troughs and peaks in the frequency spectrum ? how to know if the mix has too much low frequencies or too high frequencies (and vice versa) ?
    Thank you for your advices.

    Fred

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