Mastering: Myths, Mindset, and Process

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A note from Sam: Last month I sat down with mastering engineer Nicholas Di Lorenzo of Panorama Mastering at a coffee shop in Melbourne. We talked for well over an hour about mastering, me asking the questions, and Nicholas sharing his insight, opinions, and advice.

We both agreed that the EDM production community is in need of answers; that misinformation has been spread like wildfire, and that electronic music producers are doing themselves a disservice by not taking the mastering process seriously.

With this article, we hope to expel myths about mastering, give insight into what professional mastering looks like, and ultimately provide a resource that will give you more confidence in the mastering process and also the people behind it.

Disclaimer: this article will not teach you how to master. Its purpose is to clear up misconceptions, and give you a more holistic understanding of the mastering process and why it’s important. 

Common Myths Surrounding Mastering

Myths and misinformation about mastering are commonplace in today’s digital world. Someone tells Person A that mastering should be done this way, and then Person A proceeds to tell Person B that mastering should be done that way. 

This would be absolutely perfect, if this way was the correct way. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, it isn’t. Let’s address some common myths surrounding mastering.

Mastering engineers can fix a BAD mix

This isn’t true. A mastering engineer’s job is to take a mix and present it as a product for the listener. The quality of that product ultimately relies on the quality of its mixdown.

You wouldn’t expect a barista to make a great cup of coffee from stale coffee beans and expired milk, would you?

It’s the plug-ins/gear that matter most

While flashy plug-ins and expensive gear are great assets to one’s mastering arsenal, they will not make mastering decisions for you.

The ears, what they can hear, and the decisions are made due to them are what matters most in mastering.

Mastering is solely about loudness

Mastering is about creating a presentable product. With certain projects and styles of music, there is a push for loudness, but this is not always the case, and is a poor generalisation and simplification of a mastering engineer’s job role.

The ME is responsible for providing UPC and IRSC codes

It is not a mastering engineer’s responsibility to provide IRSC and UPC codes. However, it is their responsibility to make sure it is embedded into the meta-data of the product for duplication when provided.

The Mindset

The primary goal when mastering is to turn a fully arranged mix/set of mixes into a presentable musical product ready for distribution; that when broadcasted, downloaded,  streamed on a hi-fi system, headphones, car system or on any playback system presents the listener with the most accurate intentions of the music from the first second to the last.

In saying this, when mastering we are not necessarily looking at each individual element in the mix, but rather looking at the whole song, EP, or album as a full start-to-end experience for the listener.

The first, most important thing that imposes itself on this mindset is the mastering engineer’s understanding of the artist’s intentions,Β and how those intentions can be presented to the listener most appropriately.

Note: When sending in your mixes to a mastering facility, it is important you engage with an engineer who is invested in trying to understand your project and your intentions behind it. This way, you’ll both walk away happy with the desired result.

The Process

The mastering process is one that is too often misunderstood and perceive as someone on the end of a desk simply cranking a mix through a limiter and adding a tough of brightness and punch to the mix with fancy plugins and gear.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

1. Preparation for Mastering

The mastering process starts well before any audio signal is ran through a plugin or even dropped into a new session. It starts with the dialogue between the artist and engineer.

Before even setting a date for the mastering session, I think it’s important that there is communication happening between me (the mastering engineer) and the artist to discuss the project; where it’s come from, and where it’s intending to go.

This pre-session communication develops an understanding and appreciation for the work that has already been put into the mix, and also allows me to be empathetic in my approach to the finer details that the artist/client has put forward. THIS is where the mastering process starts, not in the DAW.

Note: If you’re self-mastering, try to establish and mentally take not of the assets and intentions of your mix, as well as how you’d like it to be presented.

2. First-pass and Quality Control

After communication has been handled and the intentions are clear, I like to do a first-pass on the mixes, keeping an ear out for any technical elements or mishaps that might be too difficult to fix in the mastering process and are drawing my engagement away from the mix as a whole.

More often than not, these are things like:

  • Excessive low-end (sub bass)
  • Excessive sibilance (sharp high-end frequencies)
  • Mix elements pushing the digital ceiling (clipping)
  • Major phase issues

As the last point in the production process before music is released, it is a major disservice not to address these problems and point them out to the artist. If these issues are too severe to be adequately addressed during mastering, I’ll recommend they amend them in the mix and export a revision for the session.

It must be noted that this quality control point is where most DIY/self-mastering falls short. Mastering engineers can pick out such problems with greater ease than the bedroom producer, predominantly due to the acoustics of their environment and the accuracy and transparency of their monitoring system.

Upon receiving the final mix (with revisions if necessary), I pencil in dates with the artist for the actual mastering session. Prior to doing so, I request the following:

  • Reference tracks
  • Meta-data/track descriptions
  • ISRC codes (if needed)
  • Notes on final medium for release (digital, CD, tape, vinyl, etc.)

3. Processing (Listening to) the Mix

What people would consider the mastering session starts with a couple of passes, listening to the whole track and contemplating what pulls me in as a listener and what pushes me away. While doing so, I’m always being empathetic and respectful to the client’s briefing, artistic direction, and mix intentions.

4. Surgical and Corrective Processing

After forming an idea of where I want to go with the track, I’ll address the elements of a mix that push me away as a listener. These are often technical elements that require a more surgical approach: resonant frequencies, bottom end that pulls in and out of focus and lacks stability, narrow or dull stereo image, clicks/pops and other general artifacts.

The tools used here (EQ, compression, Dynamic-EQ, Multi-Band Compression, de-clicker/noise/buzz, etc.) are extremely powerful. It’s easy to go overboard, and doing so often leads to a sacrifice in the character of the mix. Surgical and corrective processing requires an acoustically accurate environment as well as transparent monitoring in order to hear how the processing affects the signal.

5. Creative and Complimentary Processing

Having dealt with the surgical process and addressing the elements that push me away as a listener, I transition to a different creative mindset where I can help shape the end product’s balance and dynamics. During this stageΒ of the mastering process, it’s extremely important that I’m still being respectful to the client’s briefing, artistic direction, and the mix’s intentions.

Tonal/broad strokes are equally important in mastering as the small finicky surgical ones are. Understanding the tradeoff point between complementary EQ/compression/limiting to compromising EQ/compression/limiter settings is paramount to the presentation of the end product.

Note: The reason why I have chosen not to delve into parameter settings and/or choice of gear is because these choices and decisions are very circumstantial, dictated, and unique to each project.

6. Sequencing, Topping, and Tailing

If working on a set of tracks (such as an album) I’ll then move on to sequencing, topping, and tailing the track. Piecing together the final production masters at the end of a session is a real tell-tale story of how important, and to what effect good song order and sequencing has on the listener.

The way a set of tracks progress from one to the next, and their emotional impact on the listener is heavily dictated by the mastering engineer’s top and tail. This process involves timing lead-in into the track, and the fade-out/gap at the end of one track to the next.

To learn more about this process, I’ve written a comprehensive guide on my approach and methodology behind sequencing, topping, and tailing which you can read here. 

7. Rendering and Producing the Final Product

Once the tracks have been arranged and pieced together as the final product will playback, I then render the files for the medium they’re to be released on.

Digital releases:

  • Full resolution .WAV at sample rate and bit-depth of recording (with ISRC codes embedded if necessary)
  • 44.1Khz 16-bit .WAV (with ISRC codes embedded if necessary)
  • 320kbps .MP3 (with meta-data embedded)
  • .AIFF (with meta-data embedded)

CD releases:

  • .DDP image with the final sequenced CD playback (with ISRC codes & disc data embedded if necessary)
  • Production Master CD
  • Archive Master CD
  • Reference Master CD
  • Full resolution .WAV at sample rate and bit-depth of recording (with ISRC codes embedded if necessary)
  • 44.1Khz 16-bit .WAV (with ISRC codes embedded if necessary)
  • 320kbps .MP3 (with meta-data embedded)
  • .AIFF (with meta-data embedded)

A Final Word (Sam)

Hopefully this article has provided you with a little more insight into the mastering process. Please note that I’m not trying to discourage you from self-mastering, either, but merely pointing out that it’s less effective than working with a professional.

The more you can understand the mindset of a mastering engineer, as well as the mastering process, the easier it will be to pick a decent mastering engineer and work together with them.

If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave them below and I’ll get back to you!

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