15 Mastering Engineers Talk about Genre, Part 2: Processing Techniques

By Jonathan Wyner, iZotope Education Director

March 27, 2018

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In this three-part blog series about the role of genre in mastering, we're exploring the question, “How much does genre determine what happens in mastering?” In Part 1 we explored deliverables and level in general. In Part 2, we get a view of whether the aesthetics of each genre can be correlated with the use of processing techniques.

To understand the meaning of the question, it’s helpful to break that down by asking, are there clearly definable attributes that live inside genre definitions? If the answer is “yes,” then it would seem to follow that a mastering engineer who is mastering a jazz record would have a different “process” in mind compared to someone mastering an electronic record.

You might be tempted to jump to the conclusion, “Of course that’s true,” but I decided to step away from assumptions and ask a panel of experienced mastering engineers to speak to the same set of questions from the perspective of a single genre. It’s interesting to see themes contrast and agreements emerge, sometimes in surprising ways. There’s something to be learned here, about mastering itself and how certain core values stand apart from issues of “style.”

Below you will find the list of engineers who generously gave some of their time to help all of us think about this together, as well as a song that each worked on. Before going further, I think it’s important to understand that most or all mastering engineers are incredibly versatile in their output, musical taste, and sensitivity. In this case I asked each to help us by selecting a single genre for this comparative piece.

I hope you enjoy Part 2. It may answer some questions and it may raise others. Feel free to weigh in on social media.

Participants:

Engineer: Luca Pretolesi, Studio DMI, Las Vegas | Genre: electronic

Engineer: Bob Olhsson, Audio Mastery, Nashville | Genre: acoustic (singer-songwriter), jazz

Engineer: Darcy Proper, ProperPrent Sound, Wisseloord, Netherlands | Genre: acoustic (singer-songwriter)

Engineer: Dan Millice, Engine Room Audio, New York City | Genre: rap/hip-hop

Engineer: Michael Bishop, Five/Four Productions, Shaker Heights, Ohio | Genre: classical

Engineer: Adam Ayan, Gateway Mastering Studios, Portland, Maine | Genre: pop

Engineer: David Glasser, Airshow Mastering, Boulder, Colorado | Genre: acoustic (singer-songwriter, folk, bluegrass)

Engineer: Paul Blakemore, Concord Bicycle Music, Beverly Hills, California | Genre: jazz

Engineer: Cem Oral, Jammin Masters, Berlin | Genre: dance/electronic

Engineer: Alex Psaroudakis | Genre: electronic

Engineer: Mike Bozzi, Bernie Grundman Mastering, Hollywood, California | Genre: rap

Engineer: Jeff LeRoy, PARMA Recordings, North Hampton, New Hampshire | Genre:  Classical

Engineer: David V.R. Bowles, Swineshead Productions, Berkeley, California | Genre: Classical

Engineer: Gavin Lurssen, Lurssen Mastering, Burbank, California | no genre chosen

1. How much/often do you apply compression (as opposed to brickwall limiting)? Does your selected genre require it? How often do clients request it?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “Clients usually don’t request compression, but during mastering I tend to use light compression, and I like to sidechain internally so I don’t have any pumping. I will set 500 Hz and down and 5 kHz and up to not trigger the detector, whether it’s a plug-in compressor or hardware compressor, so it’s more of a mid-range compression. Normally it’s a slow attack, fast release trying to stay away from changing the envelope of the drums, so I don’t want to kill the transient giving me a more musical dynamic response. Then I’ll compensate with limiting later to reach the right RMS.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “I often view compression as a way to take some of the load off of the limiter. It can also enhance the rhythm depending on the arrangement. Does your selected genre require it? It depends. How often do clients request it? Almost never.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “I consider compression part of my standard mastering signal path and use it when the mixes I receive allow for it. However, many mixes arrive already heavily compressed and limited, so in those cases, further compression is certainly not necessary. I would say I use it in most acoustic jazz projects and about half of the singer-songwriter projects I receive, although many of the latter tend to be arriving in a similar state to pop material where they’re already hit harder than I would like to start with.”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “It 100% depends on the mix that I hear coming through my monitors. I can’t really give you an honest opinion because it depends on the sound. I can say that lately I have been using multiband compression more often than stereo compression, but that could totally change at any moment. I realize this answer is likely annoying to readers, because it’s an answer I hear often, but it truly just depends on all aspects of the mix, which I won’t know until I hear it. If I like how it sounds, then I go with it.

Does your selected genre require it?  It is never required.

How often do clients request it?  Not often in this genre, more often in other genres for sure. Rock for example.”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “Additive sidechain compression is often and carefully used. The genre doesn’t require compression, and no one requests it specifically, but they almost always prefer the masters when additive side-chain compression is used.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “When needed :)

Does your selected genre require it? Not necessarily (in mastering), but compression is an integral part of all Pop music.

How often do clients request it?  Not often, but I think it is expected if needed.”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “I use some sort of compression on most projects, generally for tonal color and not level.

Does your selected genre require it?  Often, yes.

How often do clients request it?  My clients are usually agnostic or uninterested in the specifics of the mastering process, and only concerned with the final master.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “I only use compression if the average volume of the mixes is not appropriate for the genre, or if there is substantial difference in average volume of songs in the sequence. Most of the overall dynamic range work is with a brickwall limiter or with a multiband compressor preceding the limiter. The multiband is not used to boost volumes but rather to reduce volumes in certain frequency ranges so the final limiter doesn’t overreact.

“Sometimes jazz albums benefit from compression in conjunction with limiting depending on how they are mixed.

“Clients rarely if ever request anything. I speak with them about their concept for an album and then generate a complete version one. I make adjustments or completely redo depending on their comments on the version one.”

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “Almost always in different amounts.”

Does your selected genre require it? Absolutely. Compression here also compensates amateurish mixing and flattens unbalanced aspects of a mix.

How often do clients request it? Rarely. Most clients seem to have endless trust in the mastering engineer’s skills.”

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “Not much compression unless its really dynamic (20 RMS or more). Mostly limiter.

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “Not Usually. The ‘concert hall’ aesthetic is one that artists and reviewers alike are listening for. Another factor is the instrument/ensemble. For example: one aspect that makes an orchestra sound like an orchestra is the command of dynamic contrast, and implementing compression can quickly give the impression of an ‘over-engineered,’ inauthentic recording.

“Once in a great while, an artist will request it, and this is often the result of low RMS due to high dynamic contrast. In extreme cases if this, we might manually gain down the loudest peaks (a rambunctious timpanist or crash cymbal player is often to blame) and then normalize.”

David V.R. Bowles, Classical: “Often.

Does your selected genre require it? Yes, but I do as little as possible.

How often do clients request it? Rarely, but I do explain the need for full dynamic range.”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “These days, it is fair to say that a high amount of releases require both.

Does your selected genre require it? Yes and no. The music is the music. The mixing of art and commerce means that we need to have the level of experience that knows when and how much to do. Limiting or compression should only ever be done for musical choices. Never, repeat NEVER, for the sake of getting level only. But there is usually an expectation of the fans in this area.

How often do clients request it? Hardly ever. It is mostly left to us as to how to process and treat the music. I have always enjoyed this aspect of my career.”

2. What aspects of your work transcend genre?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “When mastering I like to clip on purpose as an effect, but I always want to make sure regardless of the style of music that the clipping side is musical and not a mistake. In order to achieve a certain RMS level, I don’t want to compromise the quality and have it turn from a musical type of clip to an actual mistake or pure distortion. Regardless of style, I always try to avoid any unwanted distortion.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “Minimizing distractions from the music including minimizing distortion and noises.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “I don’t’ have a huge selection of tools, although I feel they are quite versatile. So very often, my chosen signal path will be the same, regardless of genre. While the tools may remain the same, how they are implemented may differ depending on genre, particularly with regard to compression and limiting.

“Also, for me, working in a well-calibrated, sonically-familiar work environment is imperative no matter what I’m working on.”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “Quality control and quality assurance.”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “Drama, color, size.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “Most aspects of my mastering work transcend genre. In fact, in giving this survey and questions much thought, I kept coming back to the notion that genre tends to have little to do with how I master a recording. More often than not, personal preferences of the artist, record producer, engineers and mixer inform the aspects of my work more than anything else. The recordings themselves tend to speak to me in terms of the artist’s preferences, and of course good old communication between myself and the artist, producer, and/or engineers informs me of their preferences.”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “Preserving the artist’s and producer’s vision transcends genres. For all types of music, making the master ‘work’ in the real world across delivery platforms is the goal.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “Respect for the fact that any album is not my record, it is the artist’s record. Therefore anything that I do can be changed to meet the artist’s vision for the album. I don’t tell artist’s how there album should sound, I facilitate making their concept a reality.”

Mike Bozzi, Rap: “Appropriate commercial levels.”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “Equalization, and mitigation of extraneous noise (we use RX to remove noises during stereo mastering—a critical approach when recording full bleed).”

David V.R. Bowles, Classical: “EQ, noise reduction, dynamics processing, dBTP measurements, digital release delivery protocol, documentation…”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “Client relations and communication. Always understanding the key elements of what is important to somebody in terms of priority. They will always articulate even if only subtle, but it is important to see what the message is before dealing with a client.”

2. Do you make use of subtle clipping in your work in order to avoid brickwall limiter artifacts?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “I often use clipping. Sometimes I’ll use a combination of clipping first and then limiting after. I find it to be more musical to cut the peaks first instead of shaving the peaks, and then do a little bit of limiting to raise the RMS even more. But shaving after clipping is more effective for me.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “I’m not a fan because of what can happen with broadcast processing, but it is a good solution in some cases.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “No. (At least, not intentionally.)  :-)”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “I have. If it sounds good, I will do it, and vice versa.”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “I never use clipping, unless the particular style of music requires it for effect.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “Absolutely, but it depends on musical style. Some music comes across better by using either hard or soft clipping. Two recent albums that received Best Engineered Latin GRAMMY nominations both used soft clipping as part of the dynamic range processing.”

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “No. I use many tools to achieve “competitive loudness,” but not clipping.

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “I do clip very slightly the AD sometimes on EDM, metal, pop, and rock. Very slightly, as the resulting sound is not so sexy, and clarity is lost very quickly. The final gain is probably under 0.5 dBs, but everything counts.

“It’s been a while—I don't use ITB clipping (too blurry, too smeary). I do use ITB tape saturation as an FX prior to going OTB sometimes, which can be related to clipping, depending on the settings”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “No, not necessary.

“For digital files we distribute 24-bit and dithered 16-bit masters, and mFIT for iTunes. 16-bit for CD (of course).

“For vinyl, the "no compression” rule is often 'bent’ to increase RMS and ensure lowest performance dynamics are sufficiently above vinyl noise levels.”

David V.R. Bowles, Classical: “I make sure that the level does not exceed -1 dBTP; that lack of a single dB in dynamic range does not make any difference!”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “Certain clients prefer the sound of clipping to brickwall and it is quite genre specific. A longer waveform like piano or horns will crunch, but if it is high-peak-energy rock music, then clipping can be better. I prefer brickwall, but we often go into clipping to avoid the brickwall sound if it is not appropriate.”

3. Do you use reverb in your mastering? If so, what is the main application?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “I do not use reverb in my mastering. If I need to create some side information, I’ll use different techniques like a multiband exciter on the sides or add some second or third harmonics on the side only, but not reverb.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “I use it for one classical client.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “I usually only have to apply reverb for repair work, be it on a reissue where a tail was cut off short or sometimes on new material if there was a problem when the mixes were rendered and there is no other solution. I have occasionally done projects involving narration where the narration track was sent separately, in which case I might need to apply reverb to that material to fit in with the music.”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “No. One time I remember using reverb to fix a mix that was cut off too close at the end of the song, to try and make the decay at the end sound natural and not abrupt. This case was only intended to fix a specific problem with the mix.”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “Reverb and early reflection programs are often used. mostly to help create depth.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “Almost never.”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “Rarely, unless requested by the client. Occasionally I will use early reflections only for recording lacking a sense of space.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “Only occasionally, and this is usually on classical or through-composed music. There was one jazz album that needed a reverb fix, but usually mix engineers have handled reverb. I use numerous different reverb/ambience plugins.”

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “Rarely. Some mixes simply ask for additional space or room to get ‘alive.’ More technically answered, those mixes need an enhanced stereo imaging.”

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “Once in a blue moon to add some tail at the end of a song.”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “Ideally, reverb is not needed for mastering, as ambience should ideally be the result of room mic levels in the mix. We will occasionally use a nuanced amount of reverb for ‘smoothing’ room reflections, or to more closely match recordings produced at different sessions/locations.”

David V.R. Bowles, Classical: “Sometimes, to add spaciousness to a dry recording (or to improve someone else’s close-miked approach).”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “Once in a rare rare while. Hardly ever and only when somebody can’t go back to the mix, which is increasingly rare these days.”

4. Do you lean toward or away from multiband tools in your work (optional: and why)?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “I like to use multiband on mid/side mode when I feel I need more clarity and need to expand the side. This is happening a lot in the lower mid range, sometimes where there is a concentration of information from the tail of reverb plus the lower part of the chords causing the side to take too much space. In order to get more clarity and separation, I’ll reach for a multiband.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “I do comparisons and typically use it in parallel unless I’m de-essing.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “I use multiband tools where necessary, but try to steer away from them whenever possible. This means that I’m generally using them while trying to ‘fix’ some kind of imbalance in the mixes I’ve received. Usually, one of my goals in mastering is to make the material as loud as possible for my clients (not that I’m always happy about that) and in acoustic music, one of the aspects of sound that helps to maintain the ‘sonic illusion’ of dynamics in heavily ‘dynamics-limited’ material is the shift in harmonics. A guitar played loudly has different harmonic content than one played softly—same with piano, horns, reeds, etc. A soft voice played loudly sounds different than a loud voice played softly.

“Multiband processing can shift the harmonic content in such a way that these subtle differences become less apparent, therefore the feeling of getting louder at a dramatic moment in the song/piece can become less as a result of it. Since I’m often struggling so hard to create the illusion of dynamic, I don’t want to give anything up that helps to create that illusion if I don’t have to.”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “I find to be extremely useful multiband. When I need it, I am it’s champion, and when I don’t need it…”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “I often use iZotope Dynamic EQ for problem tracks.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “No (preference).”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “I have several multiband tools here, and they are used on about 20% of my projects, most often to solve some problem with the mix— buried vocals, splashy cymbals, etc.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “Multiband tools are very useful when required. I don’t use them as a standard practice, though, because usually stuff I work on is already well mixed and doesn’t need the kind of correction multiband can do. An exception is when preparing digital files for lacquer cutting. I almost always use some kind of multiband device to optimize files for lacquer cutting. Digital tools for HF control are much more sonically transparent than relying on the analog ‘acceleration limiter’ on a lathe.”

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “I use it when it is needed. I rarely use more than two bands, though. Separating hi-end from low-end is mostly sufficient for my work. Often I prefer dynamic equalization.”

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “Never. They don’t sound musical to me.”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “Away.”

David V.R. Bowles, Classical: “I do this quite often, in order to leave some areas of the tonal spectrum alone.”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “Usually multiband compression in my opinion is when there are problems with a mix. But it also can be nice at times as a compliment to a mix. Usually if I want to get into it I will combine an eq with a compressor and feed into the compressor some areas which would hit it harder and create a kind of multiband scenario. Somehow it feels better when I do it this way.”

5. How important is mono-compatibility in your work?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “Mono compatibility when mastering dance music is very important, specifically in the low end and making sure there is no stereo information going to the sub in a club or festival system. Anything under 200 Hz is pointless to have stereo information. I usually don’t do extreme low cut if I have a lot of side information.

“In the low end, but I’ll use a shelf to shave the side in a smooth way to make sure there is no side information under 200 Hz.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “Very! It is critical for broadcast, streaming, and live sound.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “Mono-compatibility is as important as ever, given the amount of material being heard in mono or practically mono circumstances, so I try to avoid any processing in the mastering workflow that would reduce mono-compatibility in the material I receive. If there are issues in the mixes I receive, I will let the client know about it in the event that something can be done about it (if they feel it’s an issue), but very often in mastering, there is little that I can do to fix an inherent phase problem within a mix.”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “Big picture, it’s just another thing on the checklist that a mastering engineer should keep track of and consider throughout the project.”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “Very important.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “Very important, as I deem it important to a good mix. That said, I can’t fix it if it’s broken!”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “Important only to the extent that it is important to the client, unless something is seriously out of whack.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “Not really an issue unless there is something radically out of phase. For vinyl versions this is always a consideration at low frequencies.”

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “Very often! Beside the physical necessities for a vinyl cut, dance music is played in clubs mostly. Clubs often use mono-subbass-systems. Here, a wide stereo bass would cancel out and lose energy, causing a weak bass response.”

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “Quite important as a lot of the music I work on will end up either on radio or in a club and/or on vinyl.”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “Mono compatibility is a consideration, and is checked as part of workflow.”

David V.R. Bowles, Classical: “Since my main mic array is mostly omni, the oscilloscope view is pretty hazy. However, I feel imaging is extremely important, and strive for this from pre-production onward.”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “It is only an issue when something is phasy, and then we usually request a mix tweak. We always check it out as part of the workflow.”

6. How often do you use stereo field adjustment tools (widening/mid-side/etc)?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “I do use stereo field adjustment tools when mastering dance music, specifically when there is too much side information or there is too much extreme top and I want to control it.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “Typically only in EQ.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “I have an analog box that allows the adjustment of the side signal relative to the mono mid material, and I often (maybe 50% of the time?) use that—raising the sides about ½ dB—for a mild widening effect. I have not been using digital widener processing very much recently.”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “These tools are definitely a must-have option for mastering engineers—one of many. I hate to use the ‘it depends on the mix’ answer. It really just depends, sometimes I use it on every mix, sometimes I leave it alone and don’t change the width at all, but often it’s a mix of the two throughout the span of an album.”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “On almost every project to some extent.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “When widening is needed :)”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “About 20% of the time, usually lightly with the Ozone Imager.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “Frequently, if the music sounds better by changing stereo width. Sometimes mixes sound congested and opening up the stereo width slightly in conjunction with a tad of compression on the mid (sum) if needed can make things sound clearer.”

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “Almost always. Only a few mixes seem to acknowledge the importance of a realistic and solid stereo image. Most mixes tend to be to broad, causing a lack of center information that sounds too indirect or impersonal.”

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “Quite often when the mix is done ITB and at home studios. Not so often when it comes out of a nice mixing room.”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “Almost never.”

Only when I receive a recording which is either centre-heavy or completely coincident (and sounds too mono)

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “We find that our console gives the impression of widening a track. It technically does not, but when a track gets opened up somehow it always feels bigger taller and wider. We don’t use a widening tool to get there though. That would be more of a mix function.”

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