Tamar Mastering-Professional Audio Mastering
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by Marisa T. Déry
(Published August 2003)
A while ago, I was in the middle of a mix session when the engineer – looking at the clocking ticking away – said those dreaded words: “You can fix it in the mastering process” … aaahhh, memories!
Just a few years ago, people were saying, “We’ll fix it in the mix.” First of all, not everything can be fixed in the mastering process. Granted, a lot can be done, but isn’t it better to use your mastering time to make things sound great and not just good enough?
More than once I’ve had people hand me CD masters and an old normal bias cassette (distorted, of course) with the question: “Can you match these?”
Mastering engineers do have a lot of toys and (hopefully) creativity. We will go a long way, using all means possible to make you sound as good as possible, but one also has to be realistic with one’s expectations. Clicks, crackles and pops can be removed, but if they are too long or are on top of key words, then you have problems.
I’ve had old reels given to me that speed up and/or slow down randomly at various speeds; this predicament can be fixed, but it does take time. People must be aware that although we have the tools and the skills to repair problems, we still need time to do it right. We live in an instant-gratification society where people mistakenly think that if we aim the mouse on the screen and click, everything fixes itself instantly. That is not so.
Regardless of the DAW or software that you have, you need time, training, expertise and instinct to do it right. A 10-minute track just might take an hour to clean up properly, so please be aware of that when setting up your budget.
What Can Mastering Engineers Do?
We can add bass, highs, mids; make it sound clearer and LOUDER; clean up the fade ins and the fade outs; balance the levels of the songs; put in the appropriate silence (if required) in between tracks (“if required” because I haven’t put a single second of silence in between two hip-hop songs in the last year). We can also add special effects (rain anyone?) and reverb; add post-production tracks, edit, loop, reverse, chop etc.
Most mastering engineers are creative. We love music. We love sound. We would rather use our focus and energy on “the song.” We don’t just want it to sound good; we want it to sound GREAT. We get our high when the artist’s eyes light up because we were able to interpret sonically what was in his head. A master must sound as good as possible when it is given to the mastering engineer; with the right mix, a mastering engineer can concentrate entirely on the music and not worry about being a (sound) doctor.
When everything is set up properly, we get that little piece of music we all know and love … those eyes are lighting up again!
Marisa T. Déry, a native of Ottawa, ON, is Chief Mastering Engineer at the Tape Complex in Boston, MA and owner of Tamar Mastering. Her clients have included the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Tugboat Annie and RUSHYA. For more info check out www.tamarmastering.com.
by Marisa T. Déry
(Published June 2004)
Lately, I have been doing a lot of Forensic Audio – which inevitably means that I’ve been documenting all my efforts meticulously. In this field it is important to have every setting logged, and every scheme properly identified; when you are asked to be an expert witness in court, you are expected to back up your work.
All this has reminded me of something that I, unfortunately, don’t often see in the music world: logging of work done on a project.
When a project starts on a 4-track, gets bounced on to Pro Tools at Joe’s then uploaded at Sally’s on her Pro Tools system only to show up at a studio two months later for mixing, then the Mastering Suite 3 weeks later. Wouldn’t it be nice if all those events were logged?
Too many times I get bits and pieces in the mastering suite only to be asked to “match” everything. The Audio Engineering Society is trying to improve the situation by creating the “Recommendation for delivery of recorded music projects (2003).” This concept includes a CD insert (page 28-29 – http://aes.org/technical/documents) that would be placed with the master revealing the entire history of the project.
It would now be revealed that track 1 used a Waves Trueverb on the chorus or that 4 songs out of 5 are 16 bit while one is 24 bit.
When each song goes through so many different engineers, it is imperative for the sake of the integrity of the project to have a record of everything.
Besides, wouldn’t it be great to have all that info for the box set?
Marisa T. Déry, a native of Ottawa, ON, is the owner and Mastering Engineer for Tamar Mastering in Boston, MA. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, her clients have included the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, James Day, Tugboat Annie and RUSHYA; she has also mastered soundtracks and TV scores that have appeared on ESPN, TLC, Animal Planet and the Boston Film Festival. For more info check out www.tamarmastering.com.
by Marisa T. Déry
(Published October 2002)
In this article I will be writing about “The Musicality of Mastering”. Although I will touch on some technical issues, I’d like to focus on the creative process of mastering. The mastering engineer’s role seems to be changing a bit. Whereas before a person would walk into the room and I would EQ it in the best way that I could (adjusting levels etc.) now I’m actually putting more and more special effects in the mix – record noise, backwards snare, flange on a section of a song (à la Britney) – people are asking for my input.
First, I would like to touch on a much talked about subject amongst Mastering Engineers: L-O-U-D-N-E-S-S
Play a CD that is five years old, then play a new release, and you will hear that the difference is staggering.
Ex. Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” (Marvin Gaye’s Greatest Hits, Motown) then Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer” (Hybrid Theory, Warner Bros.) then Marvin Gaye again.
What is happening now is that music is getting louder and louder at the expense of dynamic range. In the early ’90s, the reference level was -12dB on most DAT players, which is why many old players had a line at -12. Then came the finalizer and people began setting their levels to 0. The problem was that every DAT player manufacturer had a different reference level for 0. Makers of consumer DATs would set the meters hot so that inexperienced users wouldn’t distort their recordings. 0 wasn’t “0” anymore. The finalizer made things worse because you could set the mix with an OUT ceiling of -0.3dB (which is the recommended maximum for CDs), yet still make your program louder and louder (while still remaining at -0.3dB).
The question is, “When is loud TOO LOUD?” All that I can say is that you need to leave room for the music to breathe. People are handing me mixes at 0dB, because the engineer cranked up the finalizer or the limiter conveniently located in the studio. Engineers are concerned that their clients won’t be impressed with their skills, so they give them a “finalized” mix where there is absolutely no room for me to do anything. 0dB is also dangerous because many CD-burner towers assume that if the program is peaking at 0.0dB it must mean that it is overloading, and promptly rejects all the CDs being duplicated (it’s quite impressive to see all those CDs popping out with flashing lights by their side).
A Good Mix
A mastering engineer relies on getting a good recording and mix to do his/her job properly. Too often musicians run out of money after the mix, and are never really satisfied with their mix. Your job is for them not to remember that they didn’t like their mix.
Analog vs. Digital EQ
There is importance in combining noise to the chain going to the DAW. Generally, I will extract a mix from a CD with the Adaptec Toast Extractor into the computer. It will be imported into Pro Tools where I have an endless amount of Audiosuite plug-ins (bells and whistles). This faster technique is used because the client wants everything to be done as quickly as possible. “Extracting” unfortunately (fortunately?) is faster than real-time loading. What I prefer is a DAT or CD master, where I will patch it into an analog EQ then go to Pro Tools. Those mastered mixes, to me, sound human.
There is a breath in those mixes that I cannot replicate with digital processing; there is a noise, a life to those mixes. One must never forget that what you are mastering is music. An artist puts time, energy, emotion and passion into those songs. Out of respect to the artist and the music, you have to make that mix breathe and come alive. You can’t process it to such an extreme that there is no dynamic range, no peaks and valleys, no life. It’s just a block of noise, a block that you can beautifully see in Pro Tools or any other program (ex. the L1 set at 12dB threshold).
Another thing that I would briefly like to touch upon is Audio Restoration. Whether you are dealing with old reels or 78 RPM records try to make them sound as natural as possible. There are many outboard EQs and software plug-ins for that purpose. The Waves restoration package is one that I use a lot. Yet even there, you must listen with musician’s ears.
Resist the temptation to get rid of the entire hiss, especially with orchestral music! It’s not only about the sonic quality; it’s also about the music. Be creative when you are working on these programs. I have a little Casio keyboard at work and when I can’t figure out what frequency is humming at full volume (I’m stuck and/or tired), I’ll grab the Casio and find the note on the keyboard. I have a chart that associates the notes of a piano keyboard with frequencies, so if the note (or hum) is Middle C, I’ll look at the chart, and find that I need to notch out 261.63 Hz – it’s a start.
Which brings us to the creative side of mastering …
Recently, I did a project where the artist came up to me and said, “I have three songs that are mixed, and one that is unfinished. I have an appointment with the A&R rep at DreamWorks on Friday … help me.” So I listened to the said “unfinished” song and began throwing suggestions.
– Why not throw a Janet Jackson type drum loop at the head?
– During the Tag section at the end “chorus” it.
– When it comes back “flange” it.
– In the beginning, listen to the lyric. Play with it.
– Pan to the left when you say, “left”.
– Pan to the right when you say “right”.
– Make it move.
I am now listed as “Remix Engineer” …
There are a lot of plug-ins that you should play with – too many to cover them all, but the L1 Ultra-maximizer (now L2 Ultra-maximizer) must be mentioned, as it is now a must in all productions. Before it was recommended that one should set the attenuation meter/setting between -3dB and -6dB; now anything goes, so all you can really do is match the levels of a new release.
But be aware! It has been said (AES Conference, New York, 2001) that 9 out of 10 songs on Billboard’s Top 10 are distorted, and that songs from the 1970s sound technically better and have more dynamic range than songs released in 2001-2002. We have become a generation of “distorted” listeners (it’s no wonder that teenagers today will be partially deaf by the time they reach 30). Hopefully 5.1 technology might help ease the loudness wars.
I’m writing this article because of my concern with where we are going with the loudness wars. I am an engineer by trade, and a musician by birth. I have pursued a career in engineering because of my unquestionable passion for music. I respect Creators and Performers that bare their soul to tape. They rely on the Basics Engineer, the Overdubs Engineer, the Assistant Engineers, the Mixing Engineer and the Mastering Engineer to preserve the integrity of their music to tape. It is our duty to understand their music, their art.
It’s not just about putting a mic in front of an instrument and pushing the record button, or adding highs and lows in the mastering process. It’s about understanding what you are recording, mixing or mastering. Using your instincts to make it sound right. As a technician, your job is to make the music sound as sonically perfect as possible; as a human being, your job is to make the music sound as human as possible (with or without noise).
Marisa T. Déry, a native of Ottawa, Canada, is Chief Mastering Engineer at the Tape Complex in Boston, MA. Her clients include the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Tugboat Annie, Scientific, Chapter In Verse and RUSHYA.