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Friday, December 12, 2008

Mastering basics for the home recordist

Setting up quality monitoring is one of the keys

Despite the proliferation of home recording and project studios, it seems that the final process of pre-mastering is oftentimes neglected or misunderstood. Many times, people want to do their own mastering despite the common warnings against it, whether for monetary or artistic reasons. So can you do a decent job mastering at home? Sure you can, but only as long as you realize that mastering is an entirely different process then mixing and is a skill that must be learned anew. There is no special plug-in that will automatically make your records sound like this week's latest hit. So here are a few extra tips to keep in mind when you're attempting your own project mastering. You may notice that many of these points are related or directly affect one another, but that’s exactly how mastering is. This is sort of a two part article: the first part deals more with general mistakes that people make, and the second deals more specifically with monitoring in the home studio environment.

Part 1: The Basics

1. “Its ok, we'll just fix it in the mastering”

Ah, this is a good one. In the last few years it seems that mastering has gained the image of being some sort of voodoo process that can fix anything. Sorry to say, there is no voodoo here. A good mastering engineer can set a few bones, but major surgery should be left for the mixer. Especially since we're talking about project mastering here, any mistakes you leave in the mixing process WILL NOT be fixed by mastering. Do your best you can when mixing and leave the mastering until the very end.

2. “Ah, see? This is easy!”

Many common processing methods (EQ, compression, leveling) all increase the overall volume of your songs. This effect can easily give you the impression that it sounds better then your old mixes. ALWAYS monitor your mixes at the SAME volume. You may find that you're losing clarity, punch, or dynamics and that you're original mix is still better. Never stop auditioning new changes and make sure that you aren’t making things sound worse then before.

3. “I just want my record to sound like the RHCP's Californication.”

Make sure to pick the right reference CDs. Comparing your mixes to hyper-compressed and hyper-limited modern pop records probably isn’t a good idea. Watch out for whom you want to sound like, unless you really really do want to sound like that.

4. “Where did I put my compressor?”

Another idea that seems to be prevalent about mastering is that some specific processing is essential. One example of this is compression. It seems many people would like to think that adding overall compression to the final mix would make it sound good. No, adding compression to your mixes will not automatically make your songs sound professional. Only use something if it will make your songs sound BETTER and not just DIFFERENT.

5. “Hmm…I think my songs sound pretty good.”

Being able to recognize the flaws in your mix is probably one of the hardest things when it comes to home mastering. This lack of impartiality is one of the contributing factors why you should send your mixes to an outside source no matter who you are. However, since you are doing it yourself, try listening to your songs on different environments and not just your mixing monitors. Wait a few weeks after you're done mixing before you do the mastering. And of course, don't forget to reference other well-mastered albums.

6. “Dammit, this crackling is pissing me off!”

It is easy to get caught up in the chasing game. Since they are your songs there is always something you will want to change. Try to hear your music as a music listener and not just as an engineer. Maybe enlist the help of your non-engineer or musician friends. Listen the song and not the recording, and THEN decide whether or not something needs changing.

7. “What the devil is an equalizer?”

It seems many people coming from the home studio are self-taught recordists with little to no formal training or studio experience. Using an equalizer is an important part of both mixing and mastering and is a skill that everyone should know. So if you don’t know how an equalizer works, go find one of those internet EQ primers that will help you get a general idea about what frequencies different regions inhabit. Knowing your way around the frequency chart can help you obtain a better mix and then a better master.

8. “Jitta-what?”

Understand your signal chain. When it comes to mastering, you’re dealing with the entire mix. If you’re running your signal through multiple levels of conversion and outboard processing you should know about any possibly degradation. Test the equipment you have for any such flaws and maintain the highest quality resolution until all processing has been completed. You might want to do some extra reading on everyone’s favorite subjects: dither and jitter. Bob Katz’ website www.digido.com has some good articles on these.

9. “Is it ok if I use my Behringer Ultra-Q for mastering?”

Everybody loves to play with gear and to get new gear. When you’re choosing what processors you will use in mastering, only use what will not damage your mixes. The common problems with most “mixing” gear deal with the fact that they have too much coloration or will cause some other form of signal degradation when applied to an entire mix. Of course if you’re looking for a certain sound in mind, don’t be afraid to experiment. Other then these qualities, there are no real differentiable feature differences in mastering and non-mastering gear other then little things like detents, which help save settings (which is important for documentation purposes).

10. “I like the violin sound when I do this, but it messes up the vocals”

In mastering, compromise is the name of the game. The saying “for every action there is a reaction” is quite appropriate here and learning when to stop is not as easy as it sounds. For example, cutting the lower midrange will automatically make the high end more noticeable. Play with your settings, but remember to always double check with the original mixes to make sure you aren’t doing more harm then good.

11. “Isn’t it true that multi-band compression is used in mastering?”

Yes and no. While it is true that multi-band compressors are frequently found in lower cost plug-in bundles, they aren’t necessarily the staple of the mastering engineer. Most high-end compressors are not multi-band and there is a reason for this. Using a multi-band compressor can be dangerous business as you can easily screw up your balance if not used appropriately. Try to use as few bands as possible, and only more then 2 if there are some serious problems that need fixing. In this scenario, a re-mix is always going to be the best solution, but sometimes you don’t have any other option.

12. “Just run it through the Finalizer!”

There are a few all in one mastering boxes out now, most commonly the TC Electronics Finalizers (couple different versions), the Dbx Quantum, and the Drawmer Masterflow. While all useful tools, people can get carried away and want to use all the features at the same time. Just remember to only use only what is necessary.

Part 2: Monitoring for mastering.

There are plenty of resources out there that deal with home studio monitoring, but few deal with it in the mastering environment. When it comes to mastering, the two most important pieces of gear are your ears and your room. Training your ears is something that everyone should work on, but will come eventually with time and experience. However, you can work on your monitoring right away. Being able to hear EVERYTHING behind a mix is crucial to putting out a good master. No amount of processing will help you if your room sucks to begin with. Make sure you test and evaluate every piece of your monitoring chain. This includes: speakers, amps, cables, converters, and even the room itself. Think about hiring a trained acoustician if you’re serious about setting up a room for mixing or mastering. Next time you want to spend $2k on a new processor, think about throwing that money into your monitoring chain instead if you haven’t already. But this doesn’t mean that you have to have a multi thousand dollar monitoring system (although it certainly doesn’t hurt). Just remember that if your monitoring conditions are not ideal, always check outside your room in other environments and learn how your speakers translate into the real world.

1. The mixing room versus the mastering room.

The mastering room is supposed to be the ideal listening room that will reflect the type of sound people will hear in their living room or in their car. This means that the room should be perfectly tuned so that nothing is coloring the sound. In most mixing rooms there are large racks of equipment and consoles that get in the way that negatively impact the listening environment. Many times in mixing rooms, speakers will be placed on top of consoles or in poorly designed soffits. These problems, of course, are not always present, but in most cases are pretty common. For the purposes of efficiency, space, and money, acoustics oftentimes must take a back seat in the design of the mixing room. Whether or not this is a good idea is arguable. But in any case, the mastering room is free of these limitations and can be designed with sound as its foremost priority.

2. Mastering on the boom box.

It seems some people have the notion that if mastering deals with how songs will sound out in the real world then all they need is a boom box as their monitors. While it is true that mastering on a boom box will mean that your songs will sound good on a boom box, they will probably sound like crap when played through other systems like your computer speakers or your home theater set up. The high-end speakers used in mastering are used to make it so your mixes translate on ALL systems and not just the lowest common denominator. Mastering for one specific type of sound system is generally not a good idea unless circumstances call for it. However, things such as boom boxes can be used to double-check your masters if you do not have an optimal monitoring environment. This technique of auditioning should be used at all times until you really learn your monitoring system.

3. Near field vs. Mid field vs. Far field.

In the forums, people always ask, “What monitors should I buy?” They usually ask this question referring to the Near-field monitors that most use for mixing. The term Near-field monitor is actually a licensed name, and these types of speakers should more appropriately be called close field monitors. The main difference between close, mid, and far field speakers are how far away you should be when listening to them. Studios prefer close fields because you do not have to be that far away from them. These types of speakers generally attempt to provide a flat frequency response at close range in order to bypass any acoustical deficiencies present in the room. Usually, this results in a compromise in the speaker’s accuracy but is usually not big enough of a deal to offset their greater ease of installation and use.

However, in the mastering environment where room acoustics can be finely tuned, close field monitors are generally not acceptable. Mid field and far field speakers are generally designed for treated rooms and are of larger size. Hi-fi or audiophile speakers as well as studio main monitors make up the bulk of these types of systems. But since you have to sit further away and fix up your room first, these speakers are more difficult to implement in the cluttered mixing room environment.

4. Monitors used in mastering.

As stated before, the monitors usually used in mastering are of the mid to far field variety that can produce the full range of frequencies. This means if you’re using small speakers you MUST use subs. There is no other way to accurately hear the lower frequencies, which is very important especially if working with bass heavy music like hip hop or techno. You also have to carefully calibrate your subs so that they are integrated seamlessly into your monitoring system. When it comes to mastering, there is a fine line between the so-called pro audio and hi-fi worlds, as the speakers must reflect true life sources but at the same time be incredibly accurate. Speakers found in mastering studios come from such companies as B&W, Dunlavy/Duntech, Quested, and a whole lot more. There is much more leeway when it comes to choosing your monitors as it is a much more personal choice in mastering. Many times when designing a mixing room, there are client pressures to get certain pieces of gear such as NS-10s or Genelecs, but this can generally be avoided in mastering (or if you’re not working with outside clients).

5. Studio monitors vs. Hi-Fi speakers

This is another area that many people ask about in forums. The idea behind the studio monitor is that it will give you an accurate representation of your mixes where hi-fi speakers will color them in a pleasant but inaccurate manner. This usually means a boosted low end and cut midrange. These concepts are generally true when applied to the lower budget end of things. However, it is important to understand that oftentimes quality hi-fi speakers do a better job of producing a linear frequency response then many so-called monitors. The catch is, these speakers are also designed as mid or far field monitors so they are also not created with the close-field, room acoustic defeating designs. Some hi-fi speakers are indeed far too colored to be used in a mastering (or mixing) situation, but the monitoring vs. hi-fi argument is not nearly as cut and dried as some may believe. Select your monitors with caution, but never forget that the room can color your sound just as much if not more then any brand of speaker out there.

6. Headphones and surround monitoring

Headphones are another area that people are curious about. They can reproduce frequencies across the entire hearable spectrum, completely defeat the need for room acoustic treatment, and are just fun to listen to. Of course there are counter arguments that EQ works much differently because the sound does not travel through air, do not give an accurate stereo representation, have poor or inaccurate bass, and don’t let you hear reverbs correctly. Most of these are true, at least to some extent. Personally, I have no qualms with mixing with headphones as long as you know them well and double check on loudspeakers once in awhile. However, when it comes to mastering, headphones are generally only used for double-checking. No headphones as of yet sound better or are more efficient then a well treated room with some good speakers.

When it comes to surround monitoring you have to deal with more. This means more speakers, more channels, more processing, and preferably a separate room. Surround mastering suites usually use the same speaker model for all channels to produce the most accurate sound. Headphones especially important part in double-checking surround as it can be easy to miss things in the multi-speaker environment. Generally, surround takes a great deal longer time due to the additional processing and quality control.

7. Setting up your room.

Tuning up the acoustics in your room can be a difficult task. I hate to say it, but I don’t really know much about it. But there are some things I do know. First, you have to find out what’s wrong with your room. You might not even realize you have standing waves or nodes until you check. There are a few sound analysis programs out there like JBL Smaart, but the easiest method I’ve heard of was through Ethan Winer of Realtraps. Simply play low frequency sine wave samples through your speakers and walk around the room and note any dips in the volume. These areas are where you have problems.

In order to treat your room there is a variety of acoustical tools on the market. Most popular are Auralex and Auralex-type foams for absorption and bass traps. However, according to Ethan among others, nothing beats some fabric wrapped Owens-Corning 703 fiberglass boards for absorption at a low cost. Other tools you might find are baffles for noise reduction and reverb control, diffusors to increase ambience and imaging, and foams/products used for noise isolation or blocking. These all need to be applied in specific manners in order to be most effective so many times calling in an acoustician would be most appropriate.

8. Practical monitoring practices.

So you’ve actually read through this entire document. Now what are you supposed to do? Just remember a few things. If you aren’t working in an ideal monitoring situation always double check your mixes and masters on other systems. Learn your own monitoring system the best you can by playing your favorite well-mastered CDs and learning how they sound. Don’t be afraid of spending money on abstract things such as fiberglass...your mixes/masters will probably thank you later. Finally, work to train your ears at all times because they are your most important tools.

--Jonathan Yu

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