I have successfully mastered over 350 projects, about 130-140 are projects I also produced recorded and mixed. Over 70 have been audio books on tape and/or cassette for BTC Audio Books, an imprint of Gooselane Editions, and the remainder were stand alone mastering jobs.
Mastering is the enigma of contemporary audio productions. The question I am asked by students and clients more than any other is, “What is mastering?”
Bob Ludwig (a mastering guru) says, “Mastering is the last step of the creative process and the first step of the manufacturing process.” I think this is a great answer, but it probably doesn’t go very far in explaining mastering to a novice.
Some would offer the technical explanation that mastering is a combination of: Compression (Often multiband which would have an EQ’ing effect as well). Limiting, setting the overall level, adjusting fades and spaces between tunes and fine E.Q’ing and this definition is also 100% correct, but still may not tell you much. Allow me to attempt to put it in laymen’s terms and give you some practical examples that will remind you of things that you’ve heard rather than read. Keep in mind that the examples cited are not to be taken literally and are crude similarities to professional mastering.
1. Every time you adjust the tone (bass, treble, mid, low, high and bass boost) control of your home or car CD player, you’re doing a crude re-mastering job because you’re making sonic adjustments on an un-adjustable stereo mix, you may have CD’s that vary in volume or most often low frequency or bass information that causes you to make adjustment to your own taste, based on your familiarity with your room or car and your previous listening experience and knowledge of the control on your system. These are examples of EQ’ing.
2. To try to explain what compression might do to your mixes, I offer the following: For those of you old enough to remember cassette decks in cars in the age of records, you may remember, make a cassette dub at very hot levels to listen to in the car and if you did you may remember it sounding “better” in the car than off the original source. I know this used to pleasantly surprise my friends. It may have sounded better because by asking the cassette to reproduce levels, it was unable to reproduce it “compressed” to the audio down to what it could reproduce often resulting in creating a sound that has more aggressive and seemed to have more punch, also, if you recorded it with the Dolby on and played it back with the Dolby off, the high end would open up beautifully, so just dubbing a cassette could effectively serve as a crude, preset, re-master.
I hope these two examples helped you understand a bit more about mastering so if mastering is a combination of: EQ’ing, compression, limiting, fades, etc., what else is entailed?
In my opinion the above list leaves out the most important skill a mastering engineer has: “The ability to listen very closely, accurately assess the mix and determine what has to be done to make it a finished product.” This may seem too obvious but realize that a mastering engineer is a professional listener first, a person who can hear extreme subtleties, make extremely fine adjustments and very quickly assess the big picture again, kind of like adjusting the focus of your hearing. A mastering engineer has complete familiarity of their listening environment and the sonic properties of the style of music that you are working in. I, for one, try to get as much out of the client as far as where they want to go with the sound of this CD, but typically get instructions like “whatever you think”, “make it rock”, or “Make it sound cool” all of which are fine because I’d much rather that you be honest than try to make something up to sound cool.
Suffice to say the mastering is the last creative step because it is the last time you can make adjustments so your mastering engineer is a consultant much like a doctor or lawyer as they advise you if something should be done and to what degree.
Lloyd, how did you get started mastering?
I started doing my own mastering out of necessity because I was disappointed with the sound of the first few CD’s I produced. I worked very hard to create a sound with great clarity, depth and open space that was on the DAT tape I sent away for duplication, but some of these aforementioned qualities here significantly diminished in the final product, so like everything else I bought the right equipment and have done all my own mastering since early 1993. Other mastering work came immediately and it’s a large part of the work I’ve done ever since. In the past 12 years I’ve learned a great deal as I read everything I could get my hands on, done literally 1000’s of hours of critical listening and, of course, the experience of successfully mastering close to 400 projects.
“Yeah, that all sounds great, but didn’t I read somewhere that you shouldn’t do mastering where you record your CD?”
That’s a fair question and for the most part, I agree as I master for dozens of people who have their projects recorded other places. As has been already stated Reel North is a duel functioning facility doing both record/mixing and mastering. I had been professional mastering for years before I even designed the current studio to function as I just described and I’m not one of those guys who bought a finalizer and started calling himself a mastering engineer. Again, I’d been doing mastering for years before the finalizer had been invented (but it is a great tool though), All the same, many clients, especially experienced pro clients, have brought up the concern about mastering where you record.
A specific example was Julie Doiron in 98.When I had my first meeting with her and her manager, Peter Rowan. They were both very impressed with the work that “Big American Mastering Facilities” had done to her previous work, in particular, Eric’s trips releases on Subpop so they asked me to do a quick mastering job on this current demo that she was using to apply for grants and distribution so I mastered her demo and they were completely happy with it. She got the grant and the distribution and the album that we did together “Julie Doiron and the Wooden Stars” won a Juno award in 2000 for Best Alternative Album. I co-produced, recorded, mixed and mastered that CD.
One person doing it all isn’t that rare either. Rudy Van Gelder is probably the most respected recording engineer in the field of jazz. He had always done his own mastering and the “Rudy Van Gelder” reissues are among the best sounding CD’s I’ve ever heard. To quote Rudy, “Why would I get someone else to finish this when I’ve taken it this far and know what has to be done.” I’m not pretentious enough to liken myself to Mr. Van Gelder, an engineer I respect greatly but I do very much identify with his viewpoint and work ethic.
I believe there are actually advantages to having your producer master your recordings because your producer is going to get to know you a lot better than an outside mastering engineer and be infinitely more familiar with your likes and dislikes. As a producer, I take time to educate my clients about mastering, sometimes, especially with current rock projects prepare multiple options so we can listen together to different options and decide which way we want to go. I have worked very hard to retain clarity, punch, and fullness while at the same time, complying with current loudness demands and have been very happy with the results. I’m not saying that more producers should become mastering engineers, simply citing advantages of the work experience I have had.
If you call me to do a mastering job, you may be surprised that I have more questions for you than you have for me because I want to make completely sure that we are on the same page before taking on your project.
Most mastering is billed by the job; below are current rates. They do not include HST, so add 15%.
Single song - $200.00 – 250.00
Full length CD - $700.00 to $1200.00
Compilation CD – Call
Note: These rates include reference CD’s and are my full mastering package.
In recent years many mastering houses have offered “economy” packages where they put your songs in order and “normalize” them to be about the same level. With all due respect, this is doing half the job and if I can’t do my best work, I’d rather not do it at all.
Bottom line 350 finished projects, all to 100% client satisfaction.