What Mastering Is All About
Fab Dupont unveils the secrets of mastering and gives you the keys to understand this vital part of the record making process.
In this tutorial you'll learn:
- Where mastering came from
- How mastering has evolved through time
- Why mastering is just as important as recording and mixing
- Why you should hire a mastering engineer for your records
Fab details the goals of mastering and believe it or not, it's not just about making your record sound louder than a Katy Perry record.
If the concept of mastering has always seemed obscure and distant from you, this video will start down the path towards mastering enlightenment.
For anyone looking to become more enlightened on how to master for themselves, check out Fab's Mastering Tools tutorial.
Once logged in, you will be able to click on those chapter titles and jump around in the video.
- 00:00 - Start
- 00:0 - History of Mastering
- 02:55 - Coherence
- 03:29 - Sound Reference
- 04:24 - Loudness
- 05:37 - The Room
- 06:43 - Mastering While Mixing
Good morning children! Today, we're gonna talk about something secret.
Really, really secret! So you have to make sure that nobody's listening while you watch this.
Look around! We're gonna talk about mastering...
and what mastering engineers do to your music.
I'm told it's very secret! We shall see. Let's go! So what is mastering? Good question! To know what something is, it's always a good idea to know where it comes from.
Originally, there were only one kind of engineers, people who would take the music and cut it into a vinyl.
That was until the late 40s.
Then, the good people at Ampex invented the tape machine.
That pretty much changed everything. So now, you recorded onto tape.
But the only distribution medium was really still vinyl.
So you need some dude to transfer from the tape to the vinyl, cut a vinyl master from the tape recording.
That person was called a transfer engineer.
He is the ancestor, the Neanderthal if you will, of the mastering engineer of today.
As time went by, and recording techniques developed, multitrack, big consoles, and stuff like that, there was more and more creativity happening on the recording side, and on the mixing side, and also more and more variety into the different kinds of song that would be put into one record.
Which means that the cutting engineer had to do more and more work...
match levels between songs, match tone between songs...
You know, one song might be mixed in Ouagadougou, and another one in Pretoria, they had to be on the same record. Who's gonna match the level? Who's gonna match the tone? It's gonna be the cutting engineer.
At that point, the cutting engineer started being called mastering engineer.
I don't know who started, nobody knows, but that person's a genius.
Then, CDs came along, which meant everything had to change.
We are now in digital.
Actually, at the beginning, you would master, transfer, your record from tape, analog tape, to a video recorder called a 1630, which was a big, expensive hunk of junk, that had been modified from being a video recorder into being an audio recorder, with the adjunction of a big other hunk of junk transcoder- modifier-converter thing.
Digital changed everything.
And all the mastering engineers had to learn that.
Somebody was wise enough to realize that the whole transfer thing was really complicated, why not use a computer? Then the good people at Sonic solutions came up with the first ever dedicated piece of software.
At that point, the process became transfering from tape still into the computer. And then...
as music started to be made on computers, the mastering engineer had to learn to transfer from computer to computer.
Anyway, even today, where everything is digital, mastering is a very valuable part of the process.
Let me tell you why.
Because of modern production techniques, songs tend to be mixed by different people at different places, at different times, which means they don't sound the same.
Maybe your first song was mixed by Tony Maserati two years ago, but then, you ran out of money! So you mixed the rest of the record by yourself, in your bedroom, on your laptop, on headphones.
Not gonna sound the same! It may sound great, but not the same.
Do you really want one song on your record to sound completely different? No! You want somebody to take care of that for you.
Somebody who knows the difference between that mix and your mix and can match them. That will be the mastering engineer.
Reason number 2.
Are you sure your record sounds the way you want it to sound, and the way it should sound? If you're a mixing engineer, you make a record every two weeks, or every month if you're not so busy.
If you're an artist, you make a record every what? Two years? Max! The mastering engineer tends to make a record a day.
So a mastering engineer listens to a lot of music and knows a lot of music, so he has a great reference on how a record should sound.
If you wanna dig into styles, a mastering engineer who's specialized in hip-hop, for example, listens to hip-hop all day long. He knows what hip-hop records are supposed to sound like, because that's its stuff.
Of course, you also know what hip-hop records are supposed to sound like because you listen to Jay-Z all day long.
But that's not the same thing, because when you listen to your own music, you don't hear the problems, you don't hear what you're doing, because you're in it.
Having a second opinion as to the tone of your record is great.
It's a good reason to hire a mastering engineer.
Reason number 3.
Because of the limitation of the digital medium, and the pervasive human insecurities, especially amongst A&R executives at record companies, there's something called the Loudness War.
Meaning everybody wants their record louder than the next record.
It's not a new thing.
Back in the days of cutting vinyl, the transfer engineer's job was to try and make the record as loud as possible to minimize noise.
Then, since some A&Rs at some record labels noticed that the louder records came out louder on the radio, grabbed more people's attention, then sold more records, then the race was on.
Now, today in the digital medium, and because of the modern tools, it's turned into an insane pissing contest where the loudest record is the best record, with absolutely no consideration about sound quality whatsoever.
Also, there's a lot of confusion as to what a really loud record sounds like on the radio, it's not what we think it is, and a lot of confusion as to what a loud record sounds like on a laptop, or on low quality preamps like, for example, the worst one ever made, iPhone, or Android phones.
There is still this feeling that you have to beat the Katy Perry record.
And that's an art form to beat the Katy Perry record.
And consequently, you need somebody who knows how to do that.
Can you learn how to do that? Yeah! Do you want to learn how to do that? I don't know! Reason number 4.
Ask yourself: do you have a perfect room? Are you absolutely sure that what you hear is what you get? Well, if you've ever had to print a CD of the mix and go listen to it in the car to make sure, you don't! Most likely, you don't.
Mastering engineers spend a lot of time and a lot of money, and a lot of brain share on making sure that their room is as accurate as possible.
It's very costly.
I have been in rooms that cost as much as a million dollars, just for the walls and the floor, let alone the equipment.
The value there is that you play something in those speakers in that room, and whatever you hear is whatever it is.
If there's a problem, you hear it, if it's all good, you're sure that it's all good.
The mastering engineer will know the room very well, and that's why he's valuable.
He is your guarantee that you did not screw up.
Now all that said, is there any kind of magic to mastering? I don't think so! There's no more kind of magic to mastering that there is to playing guitar or learning how to mix a record.
It's a trade, you gotta learn it.
It's a bunch of skills that you have to acquire.
It's a bunch of equipment you gotta learn.
It's a bunch of systems you have to develop.
So should you master what you mix, then? I mean, mastering engineers use the same tools you do when you mix: compressors, limiters, EQs, de-essers, name it! What's the difference between mixing and mastering? When you're mixing, you're working at the micro-level.
You're scrutinizing the relationship between a verse and a chorus, for example.
When you're mastering, you're working at the macro-level.
You're scrutinizing the relationship between songs 2 and 3 on your record.
It's a completely different process and headspace.
What most people think about when they say: Mastering while mixing is basically make your track loud and in your face, that's not mastering! That's called making your track loud and in your face -ing! Different thing! You can do that.
Probably not a good idea if you're gonna have a mastering engineer come after you on this project, we will discuss that elsewhere.
The take home idea here is that mastering is taking a bunch of songs and turn them into a body of work that's coherent.
Can you do it yourself? Of course you can. It's like fixing your own teeth, or driving your own car.
It might be a little dangerous at the beginning, but after a while, it gets safer.
In summary, we can say that mastering is the process of making you record sound... number 1...
as good as it can sound! Number 2...
Lie within the realm of that style, or outside if you're a pioneer.
Three... Sound like a coherent body of work.
Four... Be loud as hell, if you're into that kind of stuff.
Don't tell anyone! Et voilà!
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Fab Dupont is a Grammy winning NYC based record producer, mixing/mastering engineer and co-founder of pureMix.net.
Fab has been playing, writing, producing and mixing music both live and in studios all over the world. He's worked in cities like Paris, Boston, Brussels, Stockholm, London and New York just to name a few.
He has his own studio called FLUX Studios in the East Village of New York City.
Fab has been nominated for Grammys 6 times, including two Latin Grammys and has received many other accolades around the world, including Victoires de la Musique, South African Music awards, Pan African Music Awards and US independent music awards.
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