August 24, 2007

Friday Open Thread: Mastering...

by Chris Randall

We're deep in the beta testing of Liquid today, so I don't have time to ponder out a pithy comment on the music industry at large, so this is an open thread.

The topic today: mastering in the home studio. I'm personally of the impression that the whole L3 "squish it 'til it bleeds" method is seriously detrimental to the quality of your music. Since most people will be listening to your music via MP3, and in the unlikely event you're played on the radio, they'll run it through their own brutal compression algorithms, is it necessary to have every tiny sound slamming 0db at this juncture?

What's your favorite 2-buss treatment and finalizing method? Please extemporize.



Page 2 of 4

Aug.24.2007 @ 2:44 PM
beauty pill
Yowee. I would never bring this up, but it feels a little weird not to mention this: I run a professional mastering studio for a living (

This is actually my line of work, how I put food on the table. We have a lot of fancy gear (Lavry Gold converters, DW Fearn VT7, Pendulum ES8, Great River MAQ2NV, API 5500) which I love, but we are fundamentally independent and underground-minded: we're not snobs. We are fundamentally music fans first and audiophiles second. We like what works. We don't look down on inexpensive digital tools. There ARE some digital tools that work elegantly in replacement of analog.

In rare circumstances, there are digital tools that are better than their analog counterparts. For example, I have never heard an analog multi-band compressor that sounds to my ears as good as the best of the current digital tools that exist for this application. There are many mastering engineers who would say "Sacrelige!" But fuck it! I go by my goddamned ears. That being said, multiband compression is trendy and over-rated and usually sounds like open ass.

Speaking frankly, I have almost never heard a self-mastering job that didn't make me cringe, but I do not hate the concept of self-mastering. (Most mastering engineers will draw analogies to self-dentistry, etc. but that's just fearful over-dramatization). As I said, I'm not a snob. I'm a DC punk rocker at heart (one of our early projects was remastering the entire Fugazi catalogue), so I do not look upon people who work within economic confinements with disdain. Furthermore, unlike a lot of the mastering community, I don't think objectivity is superior to subjectivity. Both can be good energies in the right situations.

Okay, shut up, Chad, what do you recommend?

I'm a plug-in fiend... I have bought one of nearly almost everything that exists. I'm always curious and I respect people who make plug-ins. (I'm here 'cause I'm an Audio Damage fan!!) The Sony Oxford plug-ins can be really cool if you want to just take a mix and "bring it more forward." They're well-designed and their elegance approaches the poetry of analog hardware. If you can get a handle on basic concepts like attack and release, and also have a general understanding of frequencies, you can go pretty far with that stuff.

I admire Sonalksis and am encouraged that they are working on mastering-level tools. I look forward to hearing them.

--- Chad


Aug.24.2007 @ 2:49 PM
beauty pill
Just looked it up and I spelled "sacrilege" perfectly wrong! Didn't feel right when I was typing it, but I thought "Wait, isn't it a hybrid of 'sacred' and 'religion'?" I am dumb.

- c


Aug.24.2007 @ 2:52 PM
I used to keep as much dynamics as I could and I spent a long time on my last record. When I posted pre-release tracks on my site, almost everyone complained that they weren't loud enough. I was hesitant to join the loudness war but I gave it a try anyway using Waves C1 then Waves EQ then Vintage Warmer(for tape saturation only) followed by a reverb at about 2% wet and then slammed into L2 and I hated it, tried again and again to get it. Finally I took out the first compressor and eased back on the L2 and found a happy medium. Nobody seems to complain anymore and I think it was valuable to go through that whole process. I realized that I hate the BBE sound which at first I really liked. Now I hear it in other music and I almost can't listen to it.

Aug.24.2007 @ 3:14 PM
Further to what beauty pill says, I don't consider what I do as mastering, as I don't really know what exactly it is that mastering engineers do.

I do something perhaps best described as finishing.

I will say that with most records I own which have been "re-mastered," I prefer the earlier versions which were simply "mastered." I find the concept of some 3rd party mucking about 30 years on with old records just to make them sound more palatable by our current standards rather unpleasant on so many levels. Old stuff should sound old, ephemeral recording aesthetics are as much a part of the art as ephemeral songwriting aesthetics.


Aug.24.2007 @ 3:30 PM
I had a hell of a time getting my a composing & writing partner to not want to strap a BBE across the 2-bus. "But if it sounds better?" I like the occasional BBE on a snare or kick or bass...

I've got no wisdom to share - it's all I can do to feel comfortable mixing. So I look forward to the day that I can turn some of my mixes over to someone in a proper acoustic space that knows what they're doing (I'm calling Chad; good ethos & those Fugazi CDs sound great), and has a philosophy like Gibbon: let the dynamics breathe and fuck prevailing tends. But until I have work that warrants it and I can afford it, I just blindly shoot away myself.

I mix with a db mastering limiter set to catch the very upper peaks, keeping it at about -3db (sometimes I'll test mixes with a little VW on them but turn it off for export). Bounce down to a 32-float wav, bring it into SF and run a chain of VW (used *very* modestly), GissEQ, sometimes a little Sonitus:Multiband (but I stay mostly clear of that, due to too much blind groping), and now with SF9 the Ozone Mastering Limiter, set very also transparently. Most of the time my mixes translate well enough. Then I dither down to 16-bit with SF.

But, yeah, I'd love to mix some in a studio, and have them done professionally. Until then, this is all very useful information.


Aug.24.2007 @ 3:39 PM
tom vx
i hear a lot of people saying multiband sounds like ass, but i don't know- TOO MUCH multiband sounds atrocious, but if you use it like an exacto knife instead of a chainsaw it can really help.

Aug.24.2007 @ 4:28 PM
For most in-house 2-buss/quasi-mastering that we do we come out of the HEDD, hit a paid of Fearn EQs, then the Thermionic Culture Phoenix and either the Smart C2 or Crane Song STC-8. Unless it's for a really insistent client that has tried our patience and wants nothing of any substance whatsoever. Then we just strap on an L3 and call it a day.

Aug.24.2007 @ 5:05 PM
Personally, I mostly limit sparingly with the UA Precision Limiter, maybe just a dB or two at the peaks, more if the particular sound or style requires it. Things that are more compositional and sound design oriented get less limiting/lighter compression, dancier or less dense stuff usually ends up limited more. After reverse engineering some stuff on the last Chemical Brothers album (specifically 'Saturate'), I've been playing with pushing things up to 0 dB. I used to shoot for someplace between -2 and -3 depending on how the perceived volume related to other tracks.

My area of focus when mastering however is the stereo imaging quality, not volume. Overusing dynamics processing after the point in the signal chain where you have established the imaging can seriously destabilize the imaging. Especially if you are panning using a volume only (read pretty standard) technique. I expect nothing I write will ever be on the radio, and I'd consider myself to be geared towards more music-centric consumers that are more likely to appreciate a more open natural sound even if the volume is a bit lower in spots.


Aug.24.2007 @ 5:49 PM
We ('Destination Moon') decided to get our CD mastered professionally. It cost us just over 400 Australian dollars - which is a lot less than the price of most of the plug-ins mentioned here - and we were very happy with the result.

The engineer used side-chain compression - i.e. the compressed signal (a custom-made single-band valve compressor) was mixed back in with the uncompressed original. This sounded great - it gelled the whole mix together and brought out the low-level detail nicely without squashing the dynamics at all. I believe this technique is used a lot for classical music, and I'm sure it would work well for at-home in-the-box mastering too.

Prior to mastering, when I was burning CDs of my mixes I'd use Adobe Audition to raise the level a little. I'd normalise the file, then use the 'hard limiting' function to add a few decibels. Looking at the file in Audition I can see how many decibels I can add with the majority of the file left untouched and only a handful of peaks being limited. This is usually enough to make it at the quieter end of the mastered CD level without sounding squashed.


Aug.24.2007 @ 5:54 PM
Ok, I know its fashionable to not like Waves, with their obnoxious copy protection and high price (which is most likely necessitated by their marketing rather than intensive R & D), but personally I think the L3 sounds damn good (especially compared to the L1)?as long as you don't overdo it. Of course, this is the rule with any mastering limiter.

In my experience, the safest way to get your track to be decently loud without fucking it up is to use plenty of compression on each individual track. That way you can get instruments that you want to be ?full and upfront? where you want them to be before you even get to the mastering stage. I also find it helpful to slap a mastering limiter on the mains before I start seriously mixing. This avoids the pitfall where you spend a bunch of time getting your mix perfectly balanced, and then say, ?Ok, now time to add a reasonable/tasteful amount of limiting to squeeze out an extra 2 or 3 decibels,? only to find that once said limiting is applied the whole balance of the mix is thrown out of whack.

As far as mastering plugins, I highly recommend Soniformer and Elephant by Voxengo. I'm always baffled as to why Voxengo plugins aren't mentioned more often on AI. Maybe because there's still no Mac versions yet?


Page 2 of 4



Sorry, commenting is closed for this blog entry.