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Surprising Differences That Mastering Can Make - By John Vestman
Ok. So you know that CD mastering is the final step before replication. You know that the order of the songs can be changed easily. Maybe some highs, mids, lows, or compression is used. Or we'll leave it flat, limit it a little, and bring up the level. You've checked out some mastering procedures and you know that your music deserves to be taken seriously. But what the heck are these surprising differences... you mean that more is possible?

A little background: I come from an era before there were sequenced samplers and keyboards that sound like God... In my day you laid down the basic tracks with a scratch vocal, punched in the guitar here and there... overdubbed more guitars, keyboards, real strings, horns percussion and vocals, and there was no Midi. You had to play well, or the track was loose and mushy sounding.

In the studio, my band's producer nagged us to play in the groove but I didn't have a CLUE as to what groove was - even though I had good timing. Groove is different. It's a key element in making a record sound like a record. People can tell you about it, they can help guide you to it but... it took me years to truly get it - and I'll tell you that it is magic.

Why in the world am I talking about groove on a CD mastering page? Because in some cases, timing errors can be corrected and the groove can be improved in mastering. Huh? Read on...

Groove means the bass player and the kick drum are moving the speaker cones in the same direction at the same time, and that translates into punch. This is one of the benefits of using a computer-based multitrack format - you can edit any out-of-sync parts that creep up. Along with digital audio workstation editors, midi sequencers are playing perfectly in sync, and there is a real cohesiveness to the sound that even beginners can produce. But this comes with a price.

The price: Digital editors and quantised sequencers mean you don't HAVE to play perfectly. Auto-tuned vocals mean you don't HAVE to sing perfectly! So this raises the questions How do you learn groove if you don't HAVE to groove? How will you sound live if you're not using these technologies on stage?

Without a real commitment to playing with the groove, your live music may not be as magical as your record... One of the effects of lower budgets and home studios is that there has been a decline in musicians who really really know how to apply this knowledge to their music. The great engineers and producers from yesteryear aren't working in most home studios today, so often players aren't getting this invaluable training and experience.

How this applies in mastering is that if your mastering engineer has the ears to hear and feel this kind of musical depth, then he or she will be able to offer you the improvement that is possible - if the necessary equipment is in place too. If the equipment and ears aren't in place, these issue won't even be addressed at your mastering session. Perhaps in 95% of all mastering sessions, the word groove doesn't even come up.

The good stuff: Here, the Sonic Solutions digital editor shows the actual waveform of your music. In certain cases, we've then been able to use editing techniques to correct those flaws. Drummers have been flabbergasted. Producers have been astounded. Artists have sobbed. Just kidding! Artists have been amazed and grateful. You won't find this option in just any mastering studio. It takes patience and expertise to know exactly what can (or should) be changed.

On occasion, I've heard an entrance to a song, or phrase, and I could tell for instance that the bass player was ahead of the kick drum. Let's say, not by much, but enough that it took away the tightness of the entrance. With editing, I was able to move the beginning of the bass note back into the kick drum so that it sounded tight, and nothing was lost in any other way. Chances are, you wouldn't expect a mastering engineer to be able to alter the musical performance once it's mixed. But there's more....

Without a relentless recording engineer or producer commanding a project (or a relentless recording budget), compromises in musical performances are made sometimes. Not everyone can be Fleetwood Mac. I've had projects where I'll hear that the kick drum is varying in loudness. While sometimes limiting and compression can help, in one case there was a project where 30% of the kick notes were too low compared to the rest of the song. With skilful editing, I can go in and raise the kick drum notes that are too low without affecting the rest of the mix. "Remixing" was the term one producer used to describe what I did. THERE'S A CATCH, THOUGH. It takes time. So does rebooking the studio and remixing an entire song. You decide which costs more. But there's even more to tell you.

The Sonic Solutions digital mastering system is a multitrack mastering system. You can add things to the mix according to your imagination. Let's say that one song just needs more verb on the snare drum. Book a 1/2 hour session with your mixing studio, do a rough mix, tweak the snare, add the verb, then mute everything including the dry snare sound, and record the snare reverb onto a DAT or cdr. Bring it to me, and I'll add it to the song and mix it exactly to your specs! Bingo. More snare reverb. In mastering. BUT THERE'S MORE.

Level correction is the most underestimated tool of mastering yet. It's amazing what can be done. Too-soft intros can be perfect. Too-loud tom-toms can be fixed. Radical sibilance can be easily tamed. Ok, we're supposed to have De-essers, Limiters, Compressors, multiband compressors, etc. to deal with these things. We do. But there are times when MUSICALLY, it makes more sense to use level correction in the computer to adjust these things. Low-to-high notes of an acoustic piano can be re-balanced. Peaks can be managed ahead of a compression device making the compression more invisible. The list goes on, even after the simplest song-to-song comparisons are made and corrected.

Multiband compression is another way to smooth out harsh peaks in vocals or instruments, or tame tubby kic drums... but there's an art to doing this without causing other sonic artifacts (use caution, all you Finalizer dudes...) De-essing is another incredible tool. Too many recording studios should have them and should use them! Often a correctly de-essed vocal can be mixed up more without covering over guitars or other instruments. See my page on cassette tips to know more about de-essers.

I've had very fine artists bring in wonderful music with a solo instrument that was played slightly out-of-tune in some places. Noooo. You can't retune a solo guitar. Yeeeees I can! Nooo. You can't tune up a vocal. Yeeees I can! Let's say that you've thought ahead and after you've mixed your mix, you make a "tracks" version or an instrumental mix. Then (after consulting this web page) you've recorded an acappella vocal mix, or solo instrument mix with all the reverbs and effects that you used in the song, mixed as they were before. You bring in your mix, and we hear a small clunker that was missed at tracking time. By replacing the mix with the instrumental tracks version, and then tuning up the a cappella sections that need work, we can combine the two performances (altered and original) into a perfect take, and then blend them perfectly with the tracks for the perfect mix with the perfect performance! In an extreme case, the guitarist went into the studio and recut a solo at the end of a song, and we replaced the sore solo! But there's more!!!!

Sonic Solution's fast Copy-and-Paste editing capabilities also gives the ability to clone a good chorus and replace a so-so one quite easily. Combining the best elements from different takes is easy too. Know your budget, though, because these changes can take time. If you come into the mastering session prepared, your project will sound it's best, and you'll feel confident about it when it hits the market!

John Vestman is a veteran mastering engineer with over 26 years in the industry. His credits include: Hole (Courtney Love), Juice Newton, Ambrosia, Andre Crouch, The Wynans, Great White, Candyman, Billy Davis Jr./Marilyn McCoo and more. John Vestman Mastering is located in Orange County, California, and his web site http://johnvestman.com offers over 40 pages of information about successful studio recording techniques and sound philosophy.


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