I started mastering records while working at Ardent Studios, learning ‘how to listen’ from great producers and engineers like John Hampton, John Fry, Jim Dickinson, Skidd Mills, and Jim Gaines. I also learned about organization and clear communication - things that help all session runs smoothly. Here are five things I’ve learned about mastering that I’m convinced will help you in your musical endeavors.
1. Fix Your Mix!
As production tools have improved over the years, they’ve made procrastination easier and easier to the point that mastering engineers are often asked to fix issues that are better handled in the mix room – things like vocal levels, overall vibe of the tracks, etc. Everything we do in mastering has a negative attached to it, so while we can pull the apparent vocal levels up with EQ, we’re also boosting anything else that shares that frequency range in the mix, such as the snare drum. In the mix room, you can adjust these things with no negative impact. Careful monitoring of levels in a variety of listening environments will help you determine if your mix levels and overall vibe are what you are looking for. Spending the time on the mix is worth it.
2. Let It Go
Music is art and it captures a moment in time. While it’s permanent and often tough to let things go (what artist is ever fully satisfied with their work?), the reality is we’re creating something to move people. It’s not uncommon for an artist to try and emulate a certain vibe in their work, and then end up with something completely different. Sometimes you have to let things go and let the music go where it wants to.
3. Label It
Years ago, every mix came in with an audio slate at the top of the track, where the engineer would record the date, artist, track title, mix version, etc. All the information needed to identify the mix was there. As digital files now dominate the landscape, slating has all but disappeared, as it’s easy enough to label the track titles with all the necessary information. Text is cheap, so make sure you include all the needed info in the track title. Time wasted chasing down information (like correlating “working” titles with final titles), can cost you money and be an archival nightmare in the long term.
This seems obvious, but communication is incredibly important, especially when you aren’t attending the mastering session. Whether it’s about the overall sound of the track, how loud you want it, or whatever your sonic goals may be, the mastering engineer can help you achieve your vision for your art if he or she understands the desired outcome. Sending a document or email containing your thoughts goes a long way towards helping the mastering engineer get on the same page as you.
Make sure you listen to the both the mixes and the mastered reference tracks on a variety of playback systems. It doesn’t really matter if all you listen to is your phone or laptop - there are plenty of listeners who still have full-range audio systems. All too often, a client will request something like ‘more bottom end’ when it’s already huge, simply because they cannot hear it on their laptop. A good mastering engineer works in a finely tuned acoustic space with a killer monitoring system, so it’s likely they’re hearing more than you. If you’ll reference on a variety of different playback systems you’ll get a much better picture of how your music will translate across different systems.
Grammy and Pensado award winning mastering engineer Brad Blackwood operates Euphonic Masters in Memphis, Tennessee, where he has mastered records for artists such as Maroon 5, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Everclear, Korn, and Sara Bareilles. Find out more at www.euphonicmasters.com.