"Master of his craft": The art of mastering audio recordings

    Photo by Iñaki de Bilbao CC

    It's not a secret for anyone that all modern music is the fruit of joint work of several creative people at once. Each song recorded by the musicians in the studio goes through a large number of edits and processings so that you and I can enjoy its sound.

    In this article we will discuss what stages each audio recording goes through, what sound mastering is, and also tell what it is to be a mastering engineer.

    The first, in addition to the musical group itself, sound engineer begins work with sound. His task is to monitor the position of the microphones, the volume of each instrument, as well as many other indicators during recording.

    As soon as all the sound tracks are recorded and the director is satisfied with everything, they fall into the hands of the mixing engineer. At this stage, the selection of the best materials, their mixing, alignment of loudness and frequencies, as well as minimal processing, including work with equalizers and compressors, are performed.

    At this stage of processing, sound recordings are not subjected to strong changes and contractions, in order not to complicate the task of the mastering engineer (he cannot correct what was done earlier), to which the composition goes further. It is he who is responsible for how the music will sound. After his work record is sent to the mass production.

    The task of the mastering engineer is not just to fix the flaws and remove unnecessary sounds, but also to adapt the song so that it sounds good both in the car and in the player, and on a high-quality audio system. After all, not everyone listens to music in perfectly prepared rooms with first-class equipment.

    For example, a laptop can not play music loudly and with a large number of low or high frequencies begins to "wheeze." In the cinema, there is another picture - the recording should have a large number of low frequencies in order for the viewer to feel the dynamics well in the hall. If the mastering is performed poorly, then at the exit the listener will receive a “raw” product and will feel deceived.

    An example of a failed mastering is the album of Metallica - Death Magnetic, released in 2008. Over 12,000 fans signed a petition demanding re-release and remastering of the album. “It was impossible to listen to the songs, in connection with which a huge number of CDs were returned to the stores by customers.

    It is worth adding that in the same year Metallica released a system [separately recorded tracks of instruments - approx. Ed.] for the game Guitar Hero, in which case the guitars sounded much better. "Craftsmen" immediately released a revised album, using the sound of guitars from the game - this version is considered among the fans "canonical."

    Mastering process

    So, having received the necessary materials, the first thing that the mastering engineer does is to completely listen to the recording and make an assessment. At this stage it is important to find the strengths and weaknesses of the song, understand how you can improve the sound and find out what the musician / producer wants to get.

    In general, the relationship of a mastering engineer with his employer is very important. To achieve a successful result, an engineer needs to immerse himself in the atmosphere of music and deal with every aspect. The musician makes his own demands, and the engineer, in turn, proposes solutions for their implementation, and also says that it should be added, or which is preferable to refuse.

    We can say that the mastering engineer should make the song better, to ensure that it can make "competition in the market." Under the competition is to understand the frequency of listening on the radio or streaming services. To make a song competitive, you need to process it according to the genre. So, bass is important for hip-hop - it should be massive and “swing” the listener. In the case of pop songs, vocals are important, which would stand out clearly from the music.

    “I try to do what the sound engineer, musician or producer failed to achieve. “These are often technical issues, but conceptual solutions also come,” says mastering engineer Emili Lazar. “People spend a lot of time mixing and, at times, re-singing, for this reason all the songs sound different.”

    The mastering engineer must constantly improve his “musical vocabulary”, understand the sound and train him to listen and look for mistakes in the recordings.

    If we delve a little bit into terminology, then the duties of the mastering engineer include processing the dynamics of the sound, leveling the signal levels, working with the equalizer, suppressing noise, and arranging the songs. To be able to do all this, a person must have a huge store of knowledge and experience, as well as understand and apply various techniques in practice.

    While starting to work on the next project, even professionals in their field can discover something new that they haven’t come across before, so they have to quickly adapt, learn and make the right decisions on the fly. One such story happened to Michael Romanowski, a professional mastering engineer, the owner of two mastering studios, and the president of the San Francisco Recording Academy.

    Once he had a chance to work with Czech singers, and he was faced with an extraordinary problem. With a simple and familiar, seemingly de-essing process - imposing a certain compression to reduce the expressiveness of the whistling consonants [s, s, w] - the singers' voices began to sound as if the performers had a speech defect. In 2012, Michael gave a detailed interview.Emusician.com website, in which he spoke about his work and gave other examples from his practice.

    In general, mastering engineers are divided into two camps: some create their own “corporate” sound, because of which they apply to them, while others literally “polish” the sound to such a state that no flaws can be heard. Both philosophies have a right to exist, because we are all people and each has his own taste. However, in addition to "live" mastering engineers, there are artificial ones.

    In 2014, the company MixGenius launched the project LANDR - cloud service of automatic mastering of songs. Thanks to special algorithms, the program itself determines the genre and prompts the user to choose the style of future sound. Processing takes place in seconds and costs from $ 2 to $ 20 per song or $ 9 per month subscription.

    In comparison with the rates of “living” specialists, where more than $ 500 can be paid for an hour of work, there should be no problems with expenses. For novice musicians, this service will be very useful. But you shouldn’t stay long on it, because it makes all the songs monotonous. This is how to order ready-made food - it can be delicious, but this taste will always be the same.

    In a mysterious way, mastering engineers love to describe their craft, incomprehensible to many, using the example of food. For example, see how Michael Romanowski describes the steps involved in working on an audio recording:
    “There are those who grow food. There are those who cook it. And there are those who submit it. Similarly with music. Farmers (sound engineers) know everything about soil, water and fertilizers, as well as what to do with certain types of crops.

    The chef (engineer on mixing) knows which ingredients are best to add and in what proportion. And the food decorator (mastering engineer) knows everything about how best to serve ready meals - what should be the portion and when to bring it. ”

    Photo by Robert Taylor CC


    The mastering industry has undergone significant changes over the past decades. Thanks to the development of technology, the processing process has become easier, more convenient and faster. Previously, engineers had to duplicate tape recordings in order to save their work and archive them, now, in the age of computers, there is no need to keep records on such media.

    On modern hard drives, you can bring hundreds or even thousands of projects, and not be afraid that they will deteriorate or distort in any way. If the disk is intact, then nothing will happen to it. And the search in the digital library is much simpler - just enter the name of the project, and not run through the archive in search of the necessary record.

    Of course, new technological steps have appeared. If before the specialists worked only with analog devices, then at the moment a significant part of the work is done on the computer. This would not have been possible without DACs, which have made a big step forward in the last 20 years.

    “It was not particularly pleasant to work with the first digital systems - all the time you risk, as if you are collecting a house of cards in a room with a bunch of sharp blades. Moving slowly, so as not to cut yourself. It was uncomfortable and sometimes scary, - notesmastering engineer Jonathan Wyner. “When we worked with ¾-inch u-mattic ribbons, we had to sit for an hour to record the hourly finished work on it. Then we prayed and hoped that the producer made a high-quality tape, and the recording would sound properly. ”

    Now everything is different. Hour project can be recorded in 4 minutes and not worry about how it will sound on a hard disk or on a CD.

    Indeed, the work of modern mastering engineers has changed over the past few years. Check out this short video in which Jonathan talks about the work of a mastering engineer and shares important tips. For example, he tells how to arrange the room in which the magic takes place. In it, all sounds and frequencies should be reproduced without distortion. Therefore it is necessary to cover the reflective elements with something dense that can absorb sound, for example, with curtains. However, it is also impossible to “overhear” a room — some frequencies will simply be lost.

    Jonathan also notes that you should not rely on only one pair of speakers - there should be several sound sources in the studio so that you can evaluate the sound on different speakers. Do not forget about the location of the speakers - the sound "interacts" with the room, you need to consider how it spreads and "wraps around" the corners.

    There are many thematic videos on his channel , in which he explains in more detail various aspects of his work: work with equalizer, volume, compression, etc.


    If the musicians wanted you to listen to music that did not go through the stages of mixing and mastering, they would release it directly to the store shelves from the studio. People who create, edit, mix up music recordings and master them do not exist to get under the feet of musicians, they help performers.

    Properly executed processing can make the sound of instruments more alive or intentionally strange. Moreover, without competent mastering, music cannot be released on some media, such as vinyl.

    Mastering for vinyl has its own characteristics related to the technical limitations of the record. Each track on the disc is a waveform. A louder wave has greater depth and width. The more low frequencies and the greater the loudness level of the melody, the larger the area will be occupied by the track on the vinyl disc and the less material can fit on one side of the record. And there are a lot of such nuances in the art of mastering, which is why it takes years to comprehend it.

    Mastering engineers are part of the creation process, and amazing works of art come out from under their "pen". Nobody needs a version of “Dark Side of the Moon,” which did not go through the mixing and mastering stages, Pink Floyd released the song in the form in which they wanted to hear it.

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