Turn Up the ‘Good’ Knob: The Importance of Mastering

[if you are interested in my mastering services, please email me at: willcady@gmail.com. I have a flat rate of $25 per song and will revise the final product until you are fully satisfied.]

Mastering. For years of my life, I went on having no clue what it was all about. All it meant to me was dropping our CD off at some seedy studio in Boston, paying them $75 a song and then picking up another CD with the same music that just…sounded better. Of course, my ignorance never prevented me from announcing to my band at 2 am from my carved out spot on some mixing room floor, arms folded behind my head, “nahhhh it’s fine…it’ll be fixed when we master it, let’s just move on…vocals aren’t that important.” I can actually think of about seven times when that happened. Eighteen year old Will Cady at his finest right there, ladies and gentleman. So convinced he’s thinking for himself when all his mind can do is research.

Granted, there were times when my sentiment was correct. Mastering can bring out certain things that are lost in a bad mix and it can embolden a performance. I was certainly naive given the fact that I just assumed mastering would fix everything. However, I had the notion that mastering is important and sometimes, that’s enough. Truth be told, it is extremely important. So then, what is mastering exactly?

The best way to learn mastering is to do it. I’ve been recording music and mastering the material for my own music and for all of the Source Audio clips and videos. The second best way to learn mastering is for someone else to do it and tell you allll about what they did. That’s going to be our method here today.

For this article, I went ahead and grabbed two of the last un-mastered tracks by The Help. They are called ‘The Spider’ and ‘Animals’.

The Spider

First, listen to the un-mastered version and click on my obnoxious little face for notes about the music:

The first thing that is important in mastering is to understand the main idea behind the music you are working with. Fortunately for me, I am one of the writers of this music so I am in great position to do that. Considering all the subtleties of the process, it is very clear to me that any musician would benefit tremendously from mastering their own material. However, you have to work hard to make it worth it.

‘The Spider’ is a Rock song. The bulk of the song is based on one riff with the choruses being “harder” and guitar driven while the verses are “softer” and bass driven (see: Nirvana). The guitars are distorted throughout the entire song and the dynamic range stays fairly high until the requisite breakdown-outro (or Bro-tro as we call them) near the end.

Graphic Equalizer

The first place to start is with a Graphic Equalizer (EQ). An EQ works the same exact way that the Bass, Mids and Treble knobs work on your home or car stereo. Instead of having knobs to turn up or down, a Graphic EQ provides a visual representation of (left to right) Bass, Mids and Treble that gives a lot more control than three knobs. In fact, a lot of people use Graphic EQ’s on their iPod when they go to change the sound to ‘Rock’ or ‘Loudness’ or ‘Jazz’ in their settings.

The Logic EQ with settings used to master ‘The Spider’

The jagged blue line is a visual representation of the music being played. For example, when you hear a low bass note or a kick drum, you will see a spike on the left side of the Graphic EQ. Inversely, if you were to hear a high squeak or a click on the high-hat, you would see a spike on the right side of the Graphic EQ.

The smoother gray line is the Graphic EQ doing its work. This line is basically drawn by me, the user, and it is meant to influence the music being represented by the jagged blue line. When I pull a section or point up, the music right below that will come up with it. The same applies if I push a section or point down.

I’ve boosted certain parts of the musical signal based on what needed work in the original mix. That narrow peak on the left side? That’s targeting the kick drum to make the song a bit punchier. That gradual slope in the middle? That’s to try and boost the lead vocals and lead guitar which, if you take another listen, are way too low in the mix.

It’s tricky work trying to fix a poor mix, because instead of adjusting the volume of a part, you are adjusting the tone of the entire piece. I pushed the Mids in this song as much as I could without making the whole song sound…well, bad.

There are other things that can be done with an EQ, like pinpointing a hum from a noisy air duct or a bad amp and taking it right out of the mix, but that is for an advanced class.

Compression

After making your slight tweaks with the EQ, you can move on to the Compressor. For this article, I don’t think it would be beneficial to get into the actual tweakings of a compressor, but rather to focus on the principals behind it.

Pre-compression (top) and Post-compression (bottom)

In this image, we have a screen grab of two sound-waves of the same song. The sound-wave on the top is ‘The Spider’ as visualized pre-compression and the sound-wave on the bottom is ‘The Spider’ as visualized post-compression. In these sound-wave images, the middle portion where everything seems to be coming from is a neutral point. The lines moving from the center to the top represent sounds in the left channel while lines moving from the center to the bottom represent the right channel. (Left and Right make up Stereo sound) The louder the noise, the larger the spike.

There is a point at which a noise can be too loud, or a spike too large. That threshold is zero decibels (dB). The zero decibel line is represented in a sound-wave image by the top and bottom edges of the track (the blue territory). For example, if the un-mastered track was cranked past 0 dB, we would see a pure black bar on the top of that image. Passing 0 dB results in clipping, an ugly distorted sound.

Having addressed that, the first thing you might notice after looking at the image above is that the compressed track looks louder. That is only partially true. The music itself is not turned up any louder at all. Instead, the dynamic range is smaller. The loudest sounds remain at the same volume while the quieter sounds have been boosted. If you take a closer look (just to the right of the white player line), you’ll see that this is true. It’s almost like we’ve zoomed in on the sound-wave and to make sure everything fits, we’ve had to compress the loud parts so they still fit. The result is an overall louder sounding track. Since we’re pushing those softer parts of the music up closer to 0 dB, the average volume is increasing, but not clipping.

Adaptive Limiter

After compression, it’s important to have an Adaptive Limiter to give the song an extra kick in the pants. An Adaptive Limiter is very similar to a compressor, only it sets a ceiling on the mix (typically set to -0.1 dB) to ensure that the music never goes above 0 dB and clips. For those of you actually doing this, remember this rule: The Adaptive Limiter Always Comes Last In The Chain.

Volume Automation

Remember how I went on for a bit about the structure of ‘The Spider’? That was really important. The reason it’s really important is because of something called Volume Automation. Look at this image:

This is Volume Automation.

The yellow line represents the Gain which controls the output volume (also known as gain).

 

What you want to do with volume automation is pick the spot in the song that you want loudest and set that to zero dB and work your backwards from there. In the case of ‘The Spider’, that part was the Bro-tro. If you take a look at the rest of the automation, you will see that it follows the same concepts from my notes in the initial recording of ‘The Spider’ at the top of this page. The idea is to enhance the pre-existing structure of the song That big dip in the beginning? That’s to help accentuate the stop before the riff.

The results of volume automation are subtle, but their purpose is to synthesize the changes in dynamics and energy that can be lost in a studio setting. When you see a good band perform, their volume will fluctuate as they reach different parts of music because they are responding to the energy of each other and the crowd. In the studio, there is no crowd and it can be difficult to reproduce that kind energy, especially when parts are recorded one at a time.

I should also note that you can automate just about anything in mastering. You could have a wah type effect opening and closing over the whole song. Crazy stuff can happen, if you want to do it. For now, though, I’m looking to make an approachable sounding track, which brings me to:

Other Effects

In this instance, with ‘The Spider’ we did not record one part at a time, but rather recorded as a full band with no overdubs or punching-in so there is some natural energy in there. However, the room sounds a little ‘dry’. What I mean by that is that it sounds small, because when we recorded, each of us were literally playing in small rooms. The goal of many studios is not have a natural sound of their own, but rather to provide a sonic tabula rasa with no character so that when it comes time to mix, the engineer has more control over the final product.

Reverb is one of these tools that can create that character that’s missing and it can do some very cool things. Think of walking into an empty room and clapping. Reverb is based on reproducing the principles that make that experience happen. It works by adding a reflective sort of echo to the sound to create the effect of any sized room. A good reverb will allow you to choose the size, shape and even texture of a room. The terms ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ are often used to describe the amount of reverb on a recording. The ‘wetter’ it is, the more reverb or effect you can hear.

In the case of ‘The Spider’, I put on just enough to make it sound like we were playing a small theater.

So, with all that put in place, here is the mastered version of ‘The Spider’ (to download it, click on the down-facing arrow on the right side of the player):


So now with that all said and done, let’s see if you can hear the differences between the original and mastered versions of a totally different song. ‘Animals’ is a psychedelic song that follows an entirely different set of rules than ‘The Spider”. The percussion is all household objects instead of a drum kit, the structure is escalating, but more fluid, there are no distorted guitars and the song was recorded in pieces. How would you master this song?

‘Animals’ Un-mastered

‘Animals’ Mastered

Did you hear a difference? What are the EQ changes? Any compression? What is the volume doing?

If you’ve read this far, my hope is that you had an answer to each of those questions. If you want to know more, keep exploring and learning the finer points of mastering. There are tons of resources out there! There are also plenty more concepts to learn about mastering. If you want to really do it, you need to know about bit rates and dithering and all that good stuff. If you want to hear more from me on this, leave a comment or send me an email and I’d be happy to oblige.

[if you are interested in my mastering services, please email me at: willcady@gmail.com. I have a flat rate of $25 per song and will revise the final product until you are fully satisfied.]

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