What Is Proper Mastering?

I used to say that Lacquer Channel’s competition was other mastering rooms like João Carvalho Mastering and Sterling Sound but now I say our competition is ignorance. The art of mastering becomes more and more disambiguated as the fast-food-esk digital music age becomes more prevalent. What people try to pass off these days as mastering is only a shadow of what real mastering should be. I contend that mastering is a specific skill and an art and that only a true mastering studio can do proper mastering. What is proper mastering? Here is come criteria:

A dedicated room designed specifically for mastering: 
Mastering rooms are designed for one purpose: mastering. While a dedicated mastering facility is ideal, a recording studio that has built a room specifically for mastering can still qualify as a mastering room. Mastering rooms are well-balanced, aesthetically pleasing, and acoustically neutral. Two Canadian designers that come to mind that design mastering rooms, Pilchner Schoustal International and Group One Acoustics, design their mastering rooms differently than they design recording rooms. The control room of a recording studio is a multi purpose room. A band may record in the room, they perform, they mix, and they track. The recording control room has to accommodate what might be a large console, tape machines, multiple gear racks, and multiple speakers. Mastering rooms are just for listening. While there is more to mastering than listening, that’s the most important part. There is usually minimal gear in the room and minimal people – usually only one set of speakers, and usually only one main engineer.

Mastering quality speakers:

B&W 802

A good set of speakers is one of the most important components of the mastering studio. Some studios, like my room at Lacquer Channel, have had their speakers custom-designed ($15,000). Most mastering studios use high-end audiophile hi-fi speakers.

Usually, they are large and full range and they are almost always expensive. For example In Phil Demetro’s room at Lacquer Channel, he uses a pair of B&W 802′s ($12,000) Joao Carvalho uses Wilson Maxx speakers ($40,000). Zen Mastering and Silverbirch use Lipinskis ($6,000). Wreckhouse Mastering uses Dunlavys ($8,000). A good mastering speaker is one that sounds incredible in the room, yet translates well with lower-end systems.

Analog and digital chain:
While there are many mastering studios that use an all-digital chain, almost all of the top mastering studios have an analog chain. Analog arguably still offers a higher-quality sound than digital. Plug-ins, while they do serve their purpose, still do not have the natural sound of analog nor do they offer the ergonomics of real knobs and switches for that hands-on experience.

Mastering quality gear:
Any high-end piece of gear can be used for mastering; however, traditionally, there are certain criteria that make a piece of gear specific for mastering. They are:

  • Matched pairs. (dual mono or stereo units that are identical). If your gear is not identical on the L/R (or M/S), you can have undesirable phase issues or it can lead to an unpleasant listening experience.
  • Stepped Switches. As opposed to constant variable pots, stepped switches allow precise recall and matching between pairs. Stepped switches are usually higher quality and cost two to three-times the price of constant variable pots.
  • Overbuilt and over-spec’d power supplies. The better the power supply, the better the gear will sound. Some engineers take out the internal power supply, and make it external to move it away from the audio path of the gear.
  • High-quality internal components. Mastering gear is expensive. In part this is because of the high quality internal components.

A comfortable lounge:
While not equipment, a proper mastering studio will have a comfortable lounge where you can relax, get away from the loud music, and enjoy your time at the studio. This is one of the most important single days in the recording process. De-stressing and letting the engineer do his/her job is important in getting a good master.

Experience with making lacquer masters or masters for vinyl.
Vinyl mastering has a certain limitations. The engineer should have experience with working within those limitations.

George Graves cutting lacquers then and now

WHEN IS A MASTERING STUDIO NOT A MASTERING STUDIO?

There are studios offering mastering in Canada that do not meet the aforementioned criteria. While I acknowledge that some of them do good work, I would put them under the category of pseudo-mastering. In some cases, I believe you are best off not mastering at all than using some of these studios. Here is how you can identify what I would consider a pseudo-mastering studio:

Home Studio with no dedicated mastering room:
I’m not opposed to the mastering home; in fact, my first mastering room was a home studio, but I had a dedicated room that I used for nothing but mastering. I had an acoustician come in and treat the room and I had gear dedicated for mastering. A room that doubles as a bedroom or a rec room would not make a good mastering room.

A studio that uses only plug-ins:
Nothing wrong with plug-ins. In fact I use some myself, but plug-ins as the only option seriously limits the mastering engineer’s ability to do the best work on an album, sonically and ergonomically.

Recording Studio that offers mastering:
Albums should not be mastered in a room that’s also used for recording. The whole point of mastering is to have a new, third-party ear in a room that’s specifically designed for mastering. The exception to this rule is a recording studio that’s built a dedicated mastering room.

Online Mastering:
While the concept of online mastering is not flawed, any studio that will not give you the option of attending the mastering session can easily raise suspicion.

An engineer that also does equal amounts of producing, recording, and mixing:
Mastering engineers should make their living doing the majority of their engineering as mastering. Traditionally, mastering engineers have only done mastering. Mastering comes with a specialized skill set that takes years to learn.

Some of the studios that fit into the above categories will do good work. I’m not trying to paint them all with such broad strokes, but it’s not uncommon that I’ve had clients that have had their mastering done cheaply only to realize that the masters were worse than the mixes. They’ve come to me to re-master and the project ends up costing the client far more than if they had come to me in the first place.

FINISHING TOUCHES

One has to realize that while artists might spend months recording and mixing their album, mastering is one day. All of the work is compressed into eight or so hours. It’s literally a make-it-or-break-it stage and the potential for disaster is huge. I know mastering is expensive, but there is a reason for that. Mastering engineers typically spend years without pay honing their skills. Most mastering engineers I know didn’t call themselves mastering engineers until they had at least a few years of experience. The equipment used for mastering sometimes costs two or three times than the recording equivalent and rooms are expensive to design for mastering specific sonic neutrality.

Good mastering makes all the difference for a listenable and enjoyable recording and bad mastering is obvious even to a listener who has no idea of what mastering is or what it entails.

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