Mark from Engine Room Audio has been mastering records in the Big Apple for more than 12 years, witnessing the analogue to digital revolution and various NYC scene waves. We asked him a few questions about the art he masters, something not many emerging musicians are familiar with….
Mastering is a sort of “secret art” not many emerging musicians fully understand. What’s its function and why should records be mastered?
Mastering is such an important part of making a record sound “like a record.” Now that I’ve been doing it for so long, I’m kind of amazed to recall that at one point I didn’t understand (and couldn’t hear) its impact. Some of the sonic issues that we deal with in mastering are issues that musicians don’t normally deal with in the course of writing and performing a song, or even recording it. On some level it requires a different way of thinking about and listening to music. Although I don’t think it’s really all that difficult to do, I think that unless they have been through the process, musicians may not really understand what Mastering Engineers are doing. I’m sure the fact that many Mastering Engineers discourage clients from even coming to the sessions doesn’t help! What the hell are they doing in there anyway? Of course, at Engine Room Audio, we encourage our clients to come, sit down, have some coffee or whatever, and discuss.
Broadly speaking, Mastering has four basic functions:
First, we want to take care of all the basic housecleaning / organization of the different songs into a record. Did you bring your bag of CDR’s or your hand-truck of 1/2” tapes? Have you chosen mixes? What is the sequence of the songs, what kind of spacing do you want between them (if you think all songs have 2 seconds between them you haven’t been listening close enough!), are they all the same perceived volume? Do you even want them to be the same volume anyway? Some of these things are artistic choices, some are just minutia, but they make up the framework of the record.
Second, we want to take care of any problems the material may have.These days, a lot of people are making records in places that you wouldn’t expect, at first, to be recording studios; kitchens, bedrooms, U-Store-it, you name it. Most of these places do not have the best sonic characteristics;standing waves, nodes, modes, too live, too dead, slap off the walls, again you name it. It’s a long list. The net effect is that very often people’s mixes don’t have the same amount of low-end, or high-end or whatever, that they think is there. A “real” Mastering Engineer with their tuned room is going to be able to hear this stuff and, hopefully, correct it. (By the way, don’t get the idea that the big expensive control rooms are perfect in this regard either, there is a reason they call it a “mastering lab.” It’s difficult and expensive to build a room that is truly “flat.” Experienced producers, by and large, wouldn’t dream of mastering a record in the same room it was mixed).
Other problems that may occur are editing issues or clicks and pops that may be in the mixes. Because most mastering platforms have a higher degree of resolution and mathematical precision than Pro-Tools or Logic or whatever, people will often also leave the “creative” edits to the Mastering Engineer: “We want the intro from mix four, the first verse from mix 3, and every chorus from mix 17…”. Cleaning up the beginning of tracks and getting the fades right are also examples of edits that the Mastering Engineer may do.
Third, there is a certain amount of improvement or “sweetening” that the Mastering Engineer may be able to do. Mastering Labs are generally equipped with a variety of high-end E.Q.’s and Compressors and other specialized gear that the Mastering Engineer can use to make your record sound better. Most well recorded albums will be sonically improved by mastering. Most of the time, records leave our mastering lab sounding bigger, more open, louder and more sort of “3D.”
Last but not least, the Mastering Engineer is responsible for delivering a “Master” that will be master copy of all the copies that your legions of fans will end up with in their CD changer or their iPod or whatever. There are a couple of aspects of this task that may not be immediately obvious. One of the things we want to end up with at the end of the session is a technically acceptable master that has virtually no bler (inaudible) errors on it, meetsthe Red Book Standard so that it will behave the way you want it behave in people’s CD players (i.e. has ID numbers that make sense), and will pass the Eclipse test so that a Glass Master can be made from it in order to stamp quality copies. Although most people have little reason to care, there is actually a difference between an Audio CD (Red Book Standard), and a CD that will play audio (the kind you burn from your computer from iTunes or Toast). [see side bar for a more in depth description]
Mastering is about working on a track that is already mixed down to stereo; what can be changed at this stage?
A Mastering Engineer is going to be working with the overall sound of the final mix. In mastering we can work with the EQ structure of the mix. We can work with the dynamic range of the mix and we can work with the “spatial” quality of the mix. It may sound like a short list, but those three things can drastically affect the way the song comes across. By manipulating those variables we can make a mix more punchy, give it more air, give it more presence, make it more open sounding, make it warmer, or whatever other sonic attributes a song needs to give it the best chance to be a great song.
How long “should” it take to master a full-length album and what are the main processes involved in this?
It can vary depending on the project. The long estimate would be that if I am dealing with a record that is coming into the mastering session as high resolution files (24 bit and a sample rate of anything other than 44.1) For this kind of project I usually tell people to estimate about an hour a song, “all-in.”. This would include the time spent doing sample rate conversions and dithering down to 16 bit, and the output of the Red Book Standard Master (which has to be output in real time). Dithering and Sample Rate conversion are functions that you kinda’ want to leave to the mastering engineer. The odds are very high that the dithers and sample rate converters that they have in the mastering lab are going to be better than yours, so it’s part of the process if you record using higher sample rates. I obviously have done projects more quickly than an hour a song, but I wouldn’t expect that you are going to be able to do an entire record in four hours. We have a great “indie” rate at Engine Room and we also offer some great package “all-in” project rate deals.
Since the advent of home recording, did you notice any change in the average quality of the recordings you get to master?
Well, some of the crazy shit people will do in their bedrooms is pretty cool! I would say from an artistic perspective, things have gotten better overall because people have the time to try things. From a sonic perspective though, things have been not so great. I do think the pendulum is starting to swing the other way again. Lo-Fi has its place, but people are starting to realize that good sounding records are cool as well. There can be cool things that happen with that kind of “make a record in our kitchen” recording, but there is something to be said for having a producer, an engineer, and rooms with equipment that people have spent time on with the express purpose of getting great sounds.
What are the main problems you experience when working on home-recorded tracks? Are there any tips you would give to our home recording readers?
The biggest problem for sure is that the culture of home recording has sort of forgotten, or perhaps never knew, the true function of mastering when it comes to making a great sounding record. I see files all the time where people have obviously been “Mixing For Volume.” Do yourself a favor andlet the Mastering Engineer (even if that Mastering Engineer is you) worry about how “loud” or “bangin’” or “pumpin” or whatever your tracks are. When you are mixing, try to get a good balance between the instruments, try to get the track to be as exciting or interesting as it can from a musical perspective, and let the mastering process be the stage where it gets loud, if loud is what you want. The records that end up being super present and big almost always come into the mastering room with five or six db of headroom in the stereo mixes. Generally speaking, the Mastering Engineers are the masters of dynamic range manipulation, and therefore the masters of clean, powerful loudness.
Are there different ways of mastering for different medias? What different elements need to be emphasized when mastering for radio, home stereos or clubs?
The one remaining delivery medium that has different “rules” is vinyl. The dynamic range of vinyl is quite a bit smaller than digital mediums, and the “available” dynamic range actually changes even within one vinyl record (the closer to the center of the disc the more compressed the program material has to be to be playable). As far as playback environments, the goals that you shoot for when mastering a record are pretty much the same from one to another. The same set of objectives that make a record sound great on the radio are going to work in the clubs or on your stereo as well because those mediums have found individual ways to push the elements that work for them. If you push the low-end of a dance record because you want it to sound “bangin’ in the clubs,” when you actually get to the club with that record, it’s not going to be playable because they have already pushed the low-end so much to get the “club sound” going actually in the club. They have adapted to what the mastering engineers are outputting. That points out another reason for going to a Mastering Engineer, the experience that they have with knowing what is in the “acceptable range” when it comes to commercial music is a big asset. Believe it or not, what we in our culture think of as “sounding good” is not the same necessarily as what other cultures accept. I once mastered a few records for a pretty famous Nigerian artist, and I couldn’t believe what they were looking for in terms of the high-end frequency content. They‘re totally into this ultra pushed screeching high-end thing that took a little while for me to get used to, so having some experience with what your target audience is expecting is a good idea! Mastering Engineers spend their time working with exactly this thing, it’s one of the things you pay them to know.
What’s your favorite album by a NYC artist you have mastered?
Right now my favorite is a record by a band called Swift Ships. It was recorded by Marc Ospovat in his studio in Brooklyn. The guitar sounds are a little aggressive at times, but the record has great energy and the lyrics are the best I’ve heard in a while. It reminds me of that Jeffrey Lee Pierce / Gun Club sound. I also really dig the Langhorn Slim record from last year. It was recorded in a loft somewhere so it’s not a big studio sound either, but the energy and the songs really come across.
Your company offers a wide spectrum of audio related services, from recording to mastering to CD Duplication and Design. How did things develop in this “vertical” direction?
Engine Room Audio developed out of a smaller company that I started in my living room with my cousin about 12 years ago on Ave. A. At that time the band that we were in had just gotten a record deal, but we were a year away from going into the studio so we decided to start some kind of business so we wouldn’t end up spending our entire life in 2A. I knew a few people at some of the New York based record labels, and we decided to start doing cassette duplication. We did promotional copies for all kinds of people, V2 Records, A&M Records all kinds of East Village bands. At that same time, I had a small studio in the apartment and we were recording ourselves as well as some of our friends bands, so when some of our duplication clients started asking for Mastering services to make their demos better it wasn’t much of a stretch to add a few pieces of gear and get a basic Mastering studio going. Through our duplication work, I ended up doing some mastering for some “big name” producers, and after hearing my work, they encouraged me to take it on as a serious pursuit. After a few years of doing all those things, playing with bands, Duplicating, Recording and Mastering, it was obvious I needed a “real” Mastering room and a more serious recording environment. We’ve been in the Engine Room Audio space for about 6 years now, and along with my fabulous production manager, Amy Hills, we have been working with all kinds great musicians from every level of carrier development and musical genre offering them a kind of “one stop shop” for professional production.