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Realistically-speaking, there’s no such thing as a perfect recorded/mixed sound (unless you’re Al Schmitt, then that’s an entirely different discussion). However, you can certainly hear the difference when a record is done by a professional versus a hobbyist or aspiring engineer.
In mastering, every session is a learning experience no matter what skill level you are at. But to really sharpen your mastering chops, there’s no better way to learn how to master a song than by working on a “not-so-perfect” sound—a track that needs the extra guiding pair of ears to take it to the next level. This article will walk you through a mastering engineer’s thought process as they tackle this particular type of mastering session.
The virtues of a “not-so-perfect” sound
Music schools, mentors, textbooks, and even YouTube tutorials have all made it their mission to teach us how to achieve a great-sounding record. We spend years sharpening our production and engineering skills to get us closer to that goal of creating a hit song. But it’s worth taking a step back to reflect on the virtues of the “not-so-perfect” sound.
Flaws in a production aren’t necessarily always a bad thing. Mastering engineers such as Bob Ludwig and Mandy Parnell didn’t become today’s mastering legends if it weren’t through the learning experiences they gained from mastering imperfect records in their earlier days.
Unlike songs that were recorded in state-of-the-art acoustically-treated studios and mixed in the perfect listening environments, a “not-so-perfect” sound encourages you to harness not just a deeper sense of critical listening but to also think outside the box and exercise a more creative problem-solving approach. For many engineers, this has even led them to discovering unconventional “secret weapon” techniques that have earned a permanent place in their mastering toolbox.
Finally, not every recording that doesn’t fit the criteria of a “great” sound necessarily falls under flawed or problematic. As a mastering engineer, it might make sense to think that it’s your job to “fix the mix.” But when tackling challenging mixes, it’s wiser to take on a more nuanced approach, as aptly described by mastering engineer Darcy Proper:
“At first, I thought it was my ‘job’ to fix things to a certain extent...Now, I focus more on what seems unique and special about [the music] and how I can bring it forward. I focus on the positive things, and enhancing those naturally minimizes the flaws. This approach allows me to be open and ready for new and unusual kinds of sounds and characters. And when you’re always listening to what’s special about the music you’re working on, that’s a nice place to be.”
Music is a subjective form of art which can’t simply be defined in binary terms—“right or wrong,” “good or bad,” etc. Rather than listening for the flaws, listen instead for the artistic intent behind the production. This will lead to key mastering decisions that would most complement the song.
In relation to this, keeping the communication between you and the artist/producer open is crucial in every step of the mastering process. The first critical step to bringing your masters to life is by making sure you’re on the same page as the artist/producer when it comes to the song’s artistic direction.
Some notes before mastering
Before you begin mastering, make sure that your environment is optimized for an ideal, accurate listening experience. The less extraneous noise and acoustic anomaly you have to fight against while mastering, the more fidelity you have while on critical listening mode.
Mastering shouldn’t also be relied on for damage control. The reality is, any fix that needs to be addressed can be more effectively done at the mixing stage versus mastering. The ideal scenario is that every stage of the production has been utilized to its maximum potential (based on the available resources) before reaching the mastering stage where the last 10% potential of the record is brought out.
With these in mind, you can then focus on the mastering task ahead. Below are 2 separate mastering scenarios featuring songs that dealt with unique sets of challenges during the production process, resulting in some “not-so-perfect” characteristics. Here, I’ll be walking you through my thought process as I tackled each mastering session.
Mastering scenario #1
For this example, I’m pleased to be collaborating with Women’s Audio Mission (WAM)’s Jayme Brown. Outside of being WAM’s Program Coordinator and Girls on the Mic Instructor, she’s also a member of Oakland-based a cappella group Antique Naked Soul, which we’re showcasing in this example today.
Artist: Antique Naked Soul (Oakland, California)
Engineered by: Valentino P
Assistant Engineer: Daniel Fries
Antique Naked Soul (ANS) is an all vocal hip-hop/soul group comprised of acclaimed beatboxer Tommy “Soulati” Shepherd, musicologist and singer/songwriter Candice Antique Davis, Jayme Brown and N’gala McCoy.
As the group was working on new music for their upcoming album to be released this fall, one song entitled “Summertime” encountered a few challenges.
“We had a limited budget, which meant we had a limited amount of time to record and mix the full album, and a deadline for when we wanted everything completed. [The engineer] worked out of someone else's home studio. I think we wanted to get the song to a point where a listener would have to remind themselves that the recordings were a cappella.”
Before you devise a mastering game plan, talk with the artist and/or producer first, especially if it’s your first time working with them. Get a better understanding of their artistic direction. For the track “Summertime,” Jayme hears an early mid-90s G-funk influence. Songs such as “Freak Like Me” by Adina Howard and “On & On” by Erykah Badu were mentioned as sonic references. Furthermore, from researching about Antique Naked Soul online, I learned about the group’s strong social justice message that goes beyond the confines of typical a cappella sound.
Understanding the sound and artistic intent of the artist, it’s time to master. And it starts by listening to the unmastered track from beginning to end. Here’s the unmastered version of “Summertime.”
From listening to the song, the first thing that stuck out to me was the fullness of the low-frequency energy in relation to the rest of the mix. It’s understandable given that the mixer had to work out of someone else’s studio. Inaccuracies in the bottom end tends to be the first thing that happens in that case. But despite that, it’s an overall solid mix that bridges the organic vibe of the a cappella sound with old-school hip hop.
There are three main goals I wanted to achieve during the mastering process. First is to control the build-up in the low end without compromising its good qualities—the punch of the “kick,” the weight of the bass “drone,” the warm organic vibe. Second, I wanted to make sure that enunciation remains a focus, that we don’t lose the lyrics and message within the rich vocal production. And third, I wanted to deliver on this particular request—”...get the song to a point where a listener would have to remind themselves that the recordings were a cappella.”
I started with Ozone 8’s Vintage EQ to control the bottom and top-end frequencies. These parameters on the Vintage EQ were modeled based on the Pultec EQP-1A, a popular vintage shelf EQ from the 1950s. Its wide bandwidth makes it perfect for sculpting a natural EQ that doesn’t drastically manipulate the sound of a 4-part a cappella track. For “Summertime,” I opted for a .2 dB cut on 20 Hz to slightly pull back the low end and allow the rest of the mix to come forward. A 0.8 dB boost was then applied around 16 kHz to add some air to the mix.
As a choral/a cappella singer myself, I know the importance of getting the message behind the music across amid an array of voices singing along with you. And this is even more crucial for Antique Naked Soul and their powerful socio-political message. To achieve that, I used the Ozone 8 Equalizer to add a 0.25 dB gain around 1 kHz range. This subtle boost adds presence in the vocals without interfering with the overall production and arrangement.
Working in a mastering studio, I relied on The Bakery’s tube line amps to add gain to the music before passing it through a limiter. But you can bypass this and rely solely on Ozone’s Maximizer to add the much-needed gain to your music without sacrificing dynamics and clarity on your master.
Finally for limiting, I used the Maximizer module in IRC III mode set to Crisp with a slower response time. I found that these overall settings allowed for the best translation of the song’s soulful vibe in a limited, mastered environment. The aggressive quality of the crisp style complemented the song and gave it a more edgy, current sound that takes it beyond a standard a cappella sound. Setting the Transient Emphasis to 135 also allowed the transients from the beatboxer’s percussive sounds to come through making the master full and energetic while retaining the depth and space of the mix.
Listen to the final master of Antique Naked Soul’s Summertime below:
Mastering scenario #2
For this second example, we feature a band hailing all the way from the Philippines.
Artist: Sidhimig (Pasig City, Philippines)
Recorded by: Self-recorded by the band
Mixed by: Jorel Corpus (Los Angeles, CA)
Sidhimig is a band of young musicians from a community church in Pasig, Philippines that writes and performs religious music with a contemporary sound. Their album Puso Ko'y Sumasamba was made possible through the support of their local community.
With no background in music production, the band took on the gargantuan task of recording everything themselves through the help of YouTube tutorials and rounds of trial and error. Not having access to a state-of-the-art facility, they utilized creative guerilla-style recording techniques to transform their church into a recording studio. The lack of adequate production tools was also a challenge they took head on.
“It wasn’t easy using the church’s cheap dynamic mics and analog mixer to record the band. Feedback noise was a common problem. The production tools we were using were either free or demo so not all features were available but we did the best we could,” shares Robert Verdejo, one of the members of Sidhimig."
Fortunately, the band got some help from a Los Angeles-based GRAMMY, Emmy and Billboard #1 certified mixer who took on the task of helping the band with mixing their full EP. Admittedly, Jorel Corpus did most of the heavy lifting in this production in comparison to me, the mastering engineer. So before we get to mastering, I’ll have Jorel describe his mixing workflow below.
“I think the main challenge was that most of the rhythm section (drums, bass, and guitar) were given to me on a single mono channel. I had to sculpt what is essentially 70% of the sound using only one channel.
I used Ozone's Dynamic EQ to control the lower mid range and to give it a boost of ‘air’. The vocals also had a lot of noise, pops and whistling frequencies so I used RX a lot to take those out. I had to compromise between cleaning it up completely and leaving some in there paying attention to the tone and feel of the vocal as I cleaned it up. For the Final Mix bus, I used Ozone to do some final EQ, a bit of Exciter and spread on the upper range frequencies and a limiter.”
Listen below for the mix of the song Puso Ko’y Sumasamba before mastering:
With Jorel taking the Sidhimig EP to the next level, I then focused on assessing the music in a magnified scope, assessing the last 1% that could be enhanced in the mix. After thorough listening, I wanted to hone in further on sculpting the low end. Tame the bass guitar ever so slightly to give way to the articulation on the kick drums. My aim is that by shaping the low end, the end result would be a more balanced sound overall with a warmth that complements the brightness of the mid-range and top end.
To achieve that, I relied on the surgical precision of the Ozone 8 Equalizer. Using 3 EQ bands, I fine-tuned my low and low-mid EQ settings to achieve a nuanced reshaping of the bass frequencies.
Starting with enabling Band 2, I honed in on 60 Hz with a 0.8 Q (bandwidth) bell-shaped EQ filter and boosted it by 1.6 dB. The 60 Hz boost helps bring out the articulation in the kick drum.
Second, I enabled a low shelf EQ at the 150 Hz range to attenuate the low / low-mid frequencies by -0.5 dB. With the bandwidth set to 13.5, this EQ effectively controls the build-up in the bass guitar sound while subtly clearing out the muddy low-end in the vocals.
Finally, I added a boost in the subharmonic frequencies using low shelf EQ (Baxandall shape) set to 1 dB at 30 Hz. This subtle added weight in the subharmonics provides support to the articulation we’ve added in the kick drum, thus making the overall EQ shape more balanced.
For the next step, I utilized our studio’s solid-state line amps for added gain but as mentioned in the first example, you can effectively stay within the digital domain and add some much-needed gain while retaining dynamics using Ozone 8’s Maximizer.
For limiting, I used the Maximizer module in IRC III mode set to Clipping style with a fast response time. In addition to setting Transient Emphasis to 90, I found that these overall settings allowed for the best translation of the music in a limited, mastered environment. The aggressive quality complemented the song while allowing for the transients from the drums to come through making the master sound full and energetic yet not crushed.
Listen to the same song Puso Koy’s Sumasamba after mastering:
Final thoughts: Less is more
At this point, you’ve probably noticed the lack of compressors in both examples. It simply wasn’t necessary for the needs of either song we’ve featured. This is a point worth mentioning because there seems to be a compelling urge, in general, to throw in a compressor, simply because. Compression in the mastering stage is perfect for achieving that much-needed glue and punch in your masters. But if not done thoughtfully and with intent, you might just end up taking away the natural dynamics and transients that the mixer has worked hard to achieve. It’s worth taking the time to A-B your mastering chain with and without a compressor before you make your final mastering decisions.
You’ve also probably noticed the very small increments with mastering adjustments (as opposed to mixing). Mastering engineers have to work within the confines of a limited headroom, and it takes time and practice to shift the brain to this magnified level of critical listening.
Rest assured that mastering engineers aren’t born with a pair of golden ears! It’s by doing constant listening exercises and by practicing your mastering chops as often as you can that your ears begin to develop a level of acuity that’s ideal for mastering. And by embracing this, you’ll quickly discover how these tenths-of-a-dB adjustments can go a long way towards transforming the sound of your masters without taking away from the fidelity and artistic intent of the music.