Mastering

May 27, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

After more years than I can count I am still trying to figure out mastering.

This might seem kind of odd considering our own in-house mastering engineer, Gus Skinas, is one of the world’s most respected. Yet, still I struggle with defining exactly what they do.

I do know they volume adjust tracks on an album or disc. I also know they selectively EQ in order to average out the recordings. Sometimes too they add a touch of compression.

But beyond the obvious, there seems to be a bit of a mystery in the form of art. Like sorcerors holding tight the secrets of their craft.

In 2018 I interviewed the famous Bernie Grundman. If you’re interested in learning more about the art of mastering, this is a good one to listen to.

You can click here to hear the interview.

Whenever art is involved there’s inevitably going to be craft that cannot be put into specific instructions like do this when that happens.

Art is personal. At the end of the day, we’re listening to a person’s vision of how music should sound.

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31 comments on “Mastering”

  1. I sometimes think of studio music as the musicians providing the raw ingredients and the engineers are the chefs turning it into three courses of food that are good in their own right and compliment each other. The likes of Grundman might be considered more like an archeologist, putting together old stuff from the remaining remnants.

    I listen to a lot of classical music, which is rarely if ever recorded in a studio and usually the recording location is chosen to provide the desired acoustic and overall sound, which you cannot produce in the studio or by mastering and it ends up sounding like Glenn Gould. The recording engineer is the critical technician and classical labels and broadcasters keep the same ones for decades. I appreciate classical music requires editing and often some compression, but I’ve not given mastering much thought as it’s impact on the final product is relatively limited.

    I’ve just read an interesting article here:
    www “dot” izotope “dot” com/en/learn/classical-music-recording-mixing-and-mastering-fundamentals.html

    1. Steven, I find it very interesting that while you listen to classical music I mostly listen to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, etc. which is what some people call classic rock. One of the major difference between the two is that classic rock is almost always recorded in a studio ( except for “live” albums ). Your description of what happens when music is recorded in a studio is very accurate. It may surprise some people that much of classic rock never used a mastering “engineer” ( I have a hard time thinking of the people who do the recording, mixing and mastering as engineers because for me an engineer has always been someone who has a degree in electrical, mechanical or chemical engineering ). With only one exception that I can think of when The Beatles recorded it was George Martin and The Beatles who listened to what the men in the recording room put together and when they said it sounded good that was it. Whatever was on the tape at that point was released. There was no Bob Ludwig or Steve Hoffman called in to make the final adjustments.

      On occasion there are re-releases of rock music that has been “re-mastered” with the participation of the musicians who made the original “un-mastered” music. Sometimes the music is 50 years old. For the most part, I find that these re-masterings that involve the original musicians produce an improved version of the original. This, of course, is very controversial since there are purist who will only listen to the authentic originals.

      1. The best rock remasters I know of are the Dire Straits by Mark Knopfler and various albums by Steven Wilson, including some of my favourites, Jethro Tull and King Crimson. It is unsurprising as they are both experts of all stages from performance to the finished product. Knopfler famously recorded and mastered the first Dire Straits album in his small apartment, I seem to remember John Mayal recorded the Bluesbreakers with Clapton in his garage.

        There are plenty of young, talented, recording and mixing engineers around. There is a new recording studio up the road from me called Copper Brown, they have all the facilities and personnel so you can, very economically, rehearse, record and produce a professional finished product and they can then help you set up on open of the streaming sites and actually generate income.

      2. All of those classic rock final mixes did go through a separate mastering process before you were able to hear them. If nothing else, a cutting master had to be prepared before the record was cut. While the artist/producer would often have to approve the final result, this was a specialized task they were not directly involved with.

        1. scott, Of course there had to be a conversion of the master tape that the musicians prepared without the addition of a mastering engineer to a vinyl record since that was the main media for distributing recorded music in the 50’s to at least the mid 80’s. Obviously there had to be the RIAA equalization applied to the as well as making certain that particularly loud or bass heavy passages did not cause cutting that was too “hot”. So while the cutting engineer may take steps to insure a good vinyl pressing these are of the kind of musical alterations ( such as trying to bring voice forward ) that today’s mastering engineers might make.

  2. Maybe the grand masters of mastering Grundman etc like to keep their secrets very close to their chest – telling everybody your hard won and very successful works techniques is not on. I still don’t know the secret ingredients of Worcestershire sauce even though I once lived in Worcester UK.

    1. AllanG,
      Your last line cracked me up. It could be turned around and apply to so many things.
      I can’t fly a plane even though I once traveled in one, etc etc.
      Hilarious, thanks for that.

      1. Richtea, I can fly a plane (light aircraft) but I’m scared of heights, the two don’t seem to marry. Life is a conundrum but I still think of the elite mastering engineers as alchemists, turning base metal into gold.

        1. AllanG, I agree with your comment. If mastering engineers didn’t have their own little secrets then why are Doug Sax Bernie Grundman so highly regarded in their field and why do the recordings that they mastered sound great. There are other incredible mastering engineers as well. I think that they have their own techniques of performing their art that many of their contemporaries aspire to.

  3. This is a very interesting approach to the role of the mastering engineer as an artist, one I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with, but is not without its problems.
    Surely the true artist is at the source of the music, the performer and musicians. Everyone else including the mastering engineer then assists in creating a facsimile of that performance.
    In any other sphere of art that facsimile would be known as a forgery.
    So where does that leave the mastering engineer? 😉

  4. I just listened to Paul’s Ohm’s Law podcast and there is no question in my mind that Bernie Grundman knew his craft like few others. If you haven’t heard this podcast I highly suggest that you give it a listen.

  5. So I was looking at credits on an on a cd booklet the other day and I see
    Artist(s) – recording engineer – mixing engineer – mastering engineer

    At least 4 people involved in the final product. Who has the most influence?

      1. So… who are the guru mix masters? As their influence on the final sound is greater than Sax Grundman Katz, Hoffman and their ilk, shouldn’t we know more about them?

        Yes i know: “Sunbeam Studio.”

      2. Paul, do you think it’s because they „create“ the soundstage and balance between instruments? Is this difficult and an art or „just“ important?

        1. I am not sure about your question. Are you asking about mastering engineers or mixing engineers? Depending on the recording if it is a multitrack then it is the mix engineer that makes the magic. The mastering engineer simply touches it up for that final bit of magic. Kind of like in cooking where the last guy on the food prep line cleans the plate and makes everything look pretty.

          1. I meant mixing because I was not aware how much of the cake of what mixing engineers do is magic or basic work to be done. If mixing is so influential not only to the balance of the whole but also to the sound quality, why then do we so rarely see remixed albums for sound quality reasons by different mixing engineers, but mostly remastered ones? Is it because it would be too much work and too expensive?

            1. It’s a great question and I can only guess at the answer. Most bands and producers would never allow a remix of their work from the original 16 or 24 track masters without them being in the studio making those decisions. They are extremely possessive of those decisions.

              We just got through tracking a great band and mixed according to their artistic stylings. I nixed the record for release on Octave. Our deal with musicians is that they can then take their mix and do what they want. We retain the right to mix to what we want and then release. Which is what we are doing and now it sounds great! For audiophiles. 🙂

    1. The choice and placement of microphones id so important. The selection of the right microphone/s for the instrument/s and/or vocal/s concerned is critical.
      I read the fascinating link provided by Steven on the direct-to-disc 45rpm One Zero production and noted there exactly what I used to do in putting two mics on a snare with one phase reversed 180 degs for both recordings and live gigs, more reality I guess.
      Worth a read, loved the bit about having a fire extinguisher ready by the cutting lathe incase it caught fire 🙂

  6. I was fortunate to have the great Bob Katz do my stuff. Whatever it is they do, it’s the final ingredient in making a great product.

  7. This reminds me of something I read, about JBL in the 1950s and 1960s. Although they had blueprints for big speaker systems like the Paragon, there were tricks that the employees did on the production line that were never written down. The article speculated that perhaps the speakers could never be reproduced because these tricks have been lost.

    Or, the neck shaping on 1950s Fender guitars. There was a lot of hand-finishing involved and certain factory people have become prized for the way they shaped the necks. No one else did it quite like them.

  8. Yes mastering skill and quality seems the most important step after recording skill and quality. Very few experts who stand out for this in the world.

    Before Gus joined Octave as mastering engineer I just saw him mentioned for authoring SACD releases, but that’s probably my very limited view on it.

  9. Imagine how different music/recording history would have been had that hifi shop owner said to a scruffy teenager “get outta here kid you can’t afford any of this stuff” instead of “let me play you something.”

  10. I love the Grundman interview. Great mastering engineers are like great artists. They can teach techniques but they can’t transfer their innate creativity. I used to teach manual perspective rendering to architectural students. I could take their drab, flat-looking drawings and with a few strokes of the pen or brush make their drawings come alive and sing. Secret techniques can be shared, but the real artistry comes from within and is unique to each individual.

  11. In modern times, one of the tasks of the mastering engineer seems to be trying, and failing, to convince the artist/producer to let them back off on the limiting/compression.

  12. Interesting observation by Paul on who has the most influence on the ‘sound’. I would have assumed the recording engineer capturing the best of the artist / instruments for the rest to work with. So in the end I guess it’s some of all involved.

    Either underrated as you say, or maybe not appreciated enough.

  13. The most import thing to remember is to not cut the high frequencies as it removes all the upper harmonics and to not over utilize compression if you really need it. A great company to follow is Native DSD. They have some Youtubes as to their perspective on recording and their website is great with audio samples without touching eq or compression so, you get a really clean and reliable sample. Recordings direct and simple. Closest thing to being there from a listeners point of view.

  14. “Sometimes too they add a touch of compression.”

    With all respect, Mr. McGowan, you’re incorrect. Very much so.

    You’d be entirely correct instead so have said “Sometimes – very, very, very rarely – they DON’T apply compression”.

    Compression is such an integral part of recording – in all musical genres – that it’s a very rare recording that doesn’t use it. Wlima Cozart Fine’s Mercury Living Stereo recordings famously didn’t, and the occasional audiophile label doesn’t [altho not always] . Among those labels are Reference Recordings, Chesky, and the like.

    Otherwise, most recording engineers usually have an arsenal of compression circuits and devices – not one, but many. They apply them not only for their intrinsic, distinct compression effects, but for their EQ and overall sound-sculping properties.

    Their are plenty of youtube videos on recording techniques, made by actual recording and mastering engineers. In other words, by the guys who actually do it.

    I believe that Steve Guttenberg devoted an entire video to a recording engineer and compression.

    I strongly recommend those videos for majority of your participants here, who’s posts and comments reveal – as usual – the usual audiophile and anti-audiophile ignorance, magical thinking, and general incorrectness.

    1. With equal respect I was not referring to recording or mixing. I was, in fact, referring to mastering. And there, on occasion, mastering engineers use a touch of compression. But, I am sure you know that. 🙂

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