Mortgage The Masters !?
I recently mastered a crowd funded LP for a new client who had been working with a Grammy award-winning mastering engineer up to that point. Unusually it took about 7 drafts, some of them partial, to get this LP right.
At partial draft 5, after some mix tips from me, the client was happy that the masters were now sounding sick. The bottom end was huge and the dynamics really punchy. But there was something I really liked in the client’s initial self-mastered mixes and I didn’t have it yet. The search for that sound led me off down their own mix-buss mastering chain to figure out which plugins/ settings were getting key harmonic signatures, and which were superfluous or counter-productive. I played around with the API emulation, thinking it was maybe the filter sloped spectrum compression – but it was on flat mode, it sounded better out in this case. Turns out the slightly driven mid/hi compressed edge I liked was just a reet good dollop o’ ‘tubes’ in the Slate FG-MU – very nice bit of kit.
But we don’t like the iLok licensing model at our co-op studio Sirkus. We need to housekeep, tweak & shiz on laptops. So out came the PSP tubes … sweeet. Hats off to the Polski programmers par excellence encore! We got there, and ended up referencing everything from NIN to Madge’s still superb sounding Music. Net result: one more happy client seriously impressed with results. One or two tracks had been mastered by the previous mastering engineer. The client drew direct comparison to how much better the KJAMM remasters sounded. It’s an apparent paradox that never fails to surprise artists and pros alike. The plug-ins can sound better in experienced hands than the real analogue gear, because the emulations and convolutions are effectively indistinguishable (within non-linear extremes of loudness) but don’t code (usually!) for less-than-perfect longish audio wiring, earthing systems and impedance interfacing weirdnesses to plinths, racks, patchbays….
Even Prism Sound converters are far from perfect. Talk of deliberately driving the analogue side of them into clipping just makes no sense when we can avoid the conversion altogether and emulate some awesome FET, or tube harmonic alchemy. Heresy to some – no doubt. But ultimately whoever you choose to master
Sometimes it does take a while, more so maybe with a new client .. sometimes it’s peazy.
Mastering Engineers Master – not Mix … Right?
What you may not realise is many big mastering houses charge extra for a ‘named’ engineer and for each draft – unless you’re a big name maybe. Also most of the old-school mastering folks were thoroughly trained – but on top mixes. They don’t mix commercially! This would’ve been a strange statement not too long ago, but the democratisation of the mix and production process means it’s now critical.
Are You An Accomplished Mix Engineer?
if you’re not an accomplished mix engineer, you may need a mastering engineer with commercial mix battle scars who can feedback pro mix tips and fixes … and let you resend. That’s very different to general advice on compression or level. For example these LP pre masters was redrafted several times by the artist after specific advice from me about double compression of the vocals.
Back in the days of spending hours lining up and degaussing tape machines that cost as much as a house, we had to get serious level to tape – or it sounded pants. So trusty variable gain (tube) compressors like the Drawmer 1960 sit the level to-tape up beautifully; ticking over, and digging deep when the vocalist hits hard. Then in a dense mix something snappy and solid state is needed back from tape, like maybe a dbx 160 to push the vocal up through the guitar wall. Drop em in your plugin slots in that order! It’s easy when you know how, but careful with the attack times and ratios… So the consultancy element of the mastering engineer’s role is, and always has been, the key expertise you should be paying for. Pick a mastering engineer who has the experience needed – and who cares about your sound as much as you do. Whoever that is! 🙂