Genre in Mastering with 15 Professional Mastering Engineers, Part 1

By Jonathan Wyner, iZotope Education Director

March 20, 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 start by looking at deliverables and level in general.

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 1. 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. Does your genre inform your mastering practice?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “Yes, genre is very important during my mastering practice. There are a lot of sub-genres of dance music that have very distinct characteristics, so when it comes to the mastering stage, I have to make sure I don’t change what is the real nature of the song and don’t change the priority on the mix that represent that style of music. For example, if I am mastering a trap song and it has a sustained 808 kick, and if technically it is too low based on standard mastering techniques, I need to consider that it may represent the way that style has to translate.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “Genre defines the target audience, reviewers, venues, broadcasters, and financial backers. It is the context the recording will be heard in.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “First and foremost, I suppose the genre impacts my mindset when starting the session. Understanding the artist’s style and the intended market are important in determining what my sonic goal may be.

“I may think in terms of ‘natural’ vs ‘commercial. Is ‘radio-friendly’ a factor?, Is being ‘loud’ important? Are ‘depth’ and ‘sense of space’ more important than ‘power’ and ‘impact’ or vice versa? This is not always straightforward in acoustic genres and may largely be determined by the intended audience/commerciality of the project.

“Once I have an idea where I am trying to go, then I can begin to think of my signal path and what converters/processing/other tools I may want to start off with for mastering.”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “When mastering a rap/hip-hop project, my approach will always be focused around the impact of the drums in the mix, vocal presence and vocal clarity, and loudness (depending on how aggressive my client wants their record to be).”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “Classical can cover a wide range of styles and ensemble sizes, from the early music and baroque eras to contemporary, and solo performer to large-scale symphony orchestra. Mastering practice changes dramatically between all these variables. Mastering work on a contemporary ‘classical’ piece can be as intensive as on a ‘pop’ project at times.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “I consider pop a huge umbrella in terms of genre, and if anything, being respectful of the lead vocal is the biggest concern and consideration when mastering. That said, see answers to Question 2.”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “In some ways it does. With most (but not all) acoustic music, preserving, and possibly enhancing the sense of real spaces, and ensuring that the natural tones of the instruments are not compromised, is fundamental. An understanding and feel for how this music sounds live is important.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “I have mastered more jazz albums than any other genre, but I would not say that it informs my mastering practice. Each genre of music and recording style has its own requirements and mastering style. An experienced mastering engineer usually has significant expertise in multiple styles.”

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “Dance music has reached a scary level of standardization that demands quite an amount of knowledge and experience (go clubbing!) about the current tendencies. Danceable music in general is more “felt” than heard in my opinion.”

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “Usually it does inform; some genres like EDM tend to require a lot of ITB processing, while others like reggae/dub, rock, and metal will be mostly OTB with possible compression (more on reggae or non-compressed mixes). Classical is fully ITB with no compression and almost no EQing. Folk/singer-songwriter is often fully OTB with barely a limiter at the end.”

Mike Bozzi, Rap: “Mainly in how I think about level and low end.”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “Absolutely, the most common example being the lack of multiband compression. Preserving the dynamic contrast of the acoustic performance in an accurate representation of the physical space remains an important hallmark of classical mastering that we generally support.”

David V.R. Bowles, Classical: “My ideal is to represent performers and acoustic spaces alike (this always varies depending on the repertoire and number of performers involved).”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “It does and it doesn’t. As far as genre goes, it is important to know the market. We serve the artist who serves their fans, so the music must compete.

“Mixing art and commerce is the key. Being plugged in to the market is a very important element that is necessary to pursue the service, and the clients are attracted by the level of experience.

“As far as the chain goes, every engineer I know has a trusted chain and can do almost anything with it or some variation of it. We have our trusted tools that allow us to work in a genre that is specified and understood through experience.”

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.”

3. How much of your work is single tracks vs. collections, full albums, or longer form?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “Our work is probably 80% single releases, and the rest are EPs or albums.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “Almost all full albums.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “I would guess that about 75-80% of my work is on albums or longer forms (BluRay/DVD/multimedia streaming).”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “Pretty balanced split—it seems I’m always in the middle of a few albums, EPs, and singles throughout the span of the week.”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “Always long-form.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “I do an equal amount of singles and albums or long form projects.”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “20% singles, 30% EPs, 45% full albums, and 5% box or multi-disc sets.”

I only do a few singles each year, although the number is growing. I mostly work on full albums or multi-disc catalog releases.

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “EDM asks for single tracks. Albums sell much less, and compilations often stay unmastered, as many clients don't want to pay extra money that might never pay back.”

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “Half-half.”

Mike Bozzi, Rap: “50/50.”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “Most all of our projects are full commercial releases, so mastering all tracks on an album simultaneously is the norm.” 

David V.R. Bowles, Classical: “Most of my work is ‘full album,’ though some of the artist-led productions are on the short side.”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “It was LPs forever, and lately it has become more of a singles market and lots of EPs.”

4. At what point in your workflow do you think about the issue of final level output? To what extent does that relate to genre?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “Level output relates to genre a lot. Styles like trap, dubstep, or hard electro need compression, limiting, and clipping in order to translate certain ways, and are a part of the sound versus something that requires more dynamics like house music or pop future bass. I have my own techniques to reach the RMS levels that I want, so I’m not really worried about that until the final stage. Mostly I try to make sure that at the beginning of the mastering process I control the crest factor on the actual track. So I use a multiband, for example, to control peaks and to have a more level overall master by the time I get to the end.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “Again, context.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “Very early. It is one of the first aspects I try to determine as I start working because it can have such a big impact on the workflow.

“It’s a high priority in my work. Despite streaming normalization, this still seems to be a big issue with clients, even in singer-songwriter and jazz genres.

“[To what extent does that relate to genre?] Even in the singer-songwriter genre, I have still not encountered an artist who was not concerned with being ‘loud enough to compete.’ This is a shame, of course, because that genre can suffer terribly when heavily over-limited to achieve loudness. In spite of the acoustic nature of singer-songwriter material, it seems that a very ‘unnatural/over-processed’ sound has become the norm, particularly with younger artists.

“In acoustic jazz, I have had a handful of clients who prioritized dynamics over loudness, but still, in most cases, it seems to be a concern—although certainly not as over the top as for rock, pop, rap, modern R&B, and EDM.”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “[I think about final level output] throughout the entire process from beginning to end. Most clients in this genre ask me to ‘make it knock’ or ‘make it as loud as you can without distorting.’ I get this request often.

Michael Bishop, Classical: “[I think about final level output] at the very beginning of the mastering process. Preservation of (or at least the impression of) good dynamic range is very important. I need to know where I’ll end up before I begin.

“[To what extent does that relate to genre?] Most classical artists want dynamic range to be represented properly because that’s where much of the ‘drama’ of the performance comes from. However, they also want to have good playback presence in the final master. A great deal of work is done to preserve the impression of the performed dynamics and to sometimes further create crescendos/decrescendos where they didn’t exist.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “[I think about final level output] right at the beginning, going hand and hand with EQ.

“[To what extent does that relate to genre?] For some genres, a certain amount of level is an expectation, though it seems these days that loud is an expectation of all genres.”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “I’m thinking about final level from the beginning. Sometimes this involves matching a reference recording cited by the artist; most times it’s a judgement call. I EQ listening through a limiter, but don’t print the limiter until the end, giving the opportunity to fine-tune the final level, as well as capturing a mastered, un-limited version.

“It is often related to genre: acoustic music artists (bluegrass, jazz, etc.) are not as likely to demand as high a level as rock.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “I think about level from the very beginning. I pick a target dynamic range and try to make the entire album work within that range. Sometimes I must revise the initial target for the best results.

“Almost all of the music I work on is for commercial release, so appropriate volume is a very high consideration. However, overall volume is entirely genre specific. You would never master a classical album the same as a modern R&B album. You would never master an Americana album the way you master a contemporary jazz album, etc.”

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “Regarding EDM, it’s genre dependant on how loud it needs to end up.”

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “It directly relate to genre, and I think about it at the beginning. I have three position for my monitoring:

“1st: classical, movies, Spotify masters (highest volume)

“2nd: pop, rock, R&B, reggae, country, rap

“3rd: EDM, metal, dubstep (lowest volume)

“Those three different monitoring volumes guide the final loudness of the master. I also check the VU, but mostly rely on the monitoring volume.”

Mike Bozzi, Rap: “Early stages.”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “We almost exclusively use peak normalization, and apply it to the first presentation to the artist / re-apply it to subsequent mastering revision rounds. This is often the most dramatic change for the artist, with other revisions being more nuanced. It’s especially important to be thinking about track-by-track level output at the onset of mastering because of the nature of classical pieces (ex: full movements intended to be quieter/louder) and in instances where multiple pieces were recorded/produced at different sessions and are ‘compiled’ into one album. As simple as peak normalization can be, it’s of critical importance that this approach is used by in large.”

David V.R. Bowles, Classical: “When I’m recording; after editing/compilation/noise reduction. In general, vocal or living composer repertoire has greater dynamic range.”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “[I think about final level output] right from the beginning stages of calculating gain structure. It is such a strong color of the sound that in my rig that it needs to be considered from the get-go. It’s a high priority. Every genre  has a level of expectation from the fans at any given place in the timeline of what is currently being released.”

5. Are you doing multiple mastered versions for different distribution platforms (peak normalized CD/iTunes, LUFS streaming, vinyl, other)?

Luca Pretolesi, Electronic: “Yes, we do send multiple mastered versions. We’ll send one master for approval, which is usually the version for Beatport/iTunes. When it’s approved, we’ll do a -14 LUFS for Spotify and YouTube. And strangely enough, due to the popularity of Instagram, which sums everything to mono and brings up the level almost 4 dB, we’ll send a version where we bring the peak down -4 dB and send that for Instagram use. If necessary, we’ll also send a more dynamic version, especially if it is played for FM radio in Europe who still have a lot of analog stations who use crazy old limiters.”

Bob Olhsson, Acoustic/Jazz: “Yes.”

Darcy Proper, Acoustic/Singer-Songwriter: “For budget reasons, most of my clients are looking for one mastering that works well across all of their intended release formats/platforms. That being the case, very often vinyl or normalized digital distribution become effective arguments for backing off a bit on level to hold on to some dynamics.”

Dan Millice, Rap/Hip-Hop: “Yes.”

Michael Bishop, Classical: “Yes. There are separately treated masters for CD, iTunes, streaming, vinyl, and HRA, PCM, and DSD downloads.”

Adam Ayan, Pop: “Yes, but it’s all about deliverables.”

David Glasser, Folk/Bluegrass: “Yes. Usually lower peak level and less limiting for LP, MfiT.”

Paul Blakemore, Jazz: “Yes, every release comes out on multiple formats—usually CD, HiRes, MfiT, and vinyl. Each of these has its own requirements.”

Cem Oral, Dance/Electronic: “Absolutely. The louder the master needs to be, the more it needs a more average levelled version for streaming, vinyl, and archiving. I tried LUFS for a short while, but noticed that those masters get sent back frequently. The reason lies in the bigger dynamic range, that does not help the ‘dramatic’ dense feel of the genre. Imagine speakers overloading and naturally compressing. That’s what many EDM client unknowingly look for ;-)”

Alex Psaroudakis, Electronic: “Yes, constantly: MFIT/CD, Youtube/Spotify, vinyl, pre-master. I master everything first for iTunes and that one goes to the CD when they do one.”

Mike Bozzi, Rap: “If requested. Budgetary restrictions play a large part.”

Jeff LeRoy, Classical: “Yes. 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 submit the same master for all formats, especially when a disc contains many tracks (which should not be normalized separately).”

Gavin Lurssen, No Genre Selected: “Most of the time, one master file is the one that all formats get made from. There are some exceptions, particularly in vinyl, but quite rare. We always keep up on whether or not this should change when a new format comes out. Each new format is checked quite thoroughly on our end each time. Budget is also a consideration in these areas, so based on this it is important to make sure what is being delivered sounds good on each platform if it only comes from one hi-res master file.”

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