RA's Peter Chambers goes behind the curtain to tell the rest of us just what a mastering engineer does—and why they're vitally important to every note of music you hear.
"Master" is a hefty old noun. In the days of yore, masters were important men. They had control of wives and animals, they were the captains of ships, they did as they pleased. People knew better than to mess with a master. As a verb it's scarcely better. Typically, you mastered something to subdue it, to get the better of it, to own, dominate and possess it.
In fact, if you peruse the OED, it's only once you've read through eight definitions featuring silenced children, whipped livestock and highly polished weaponry that you come to mastering in the sense of audio. "To create the master copy of (something); (Sound Recording) to record the master disc or tape for (a record or recording); to make a recording of (a performance) from which a master disc or tape can be created."
I can't help but think that this eighth sense of "master" masks the other seven senses of the master himself, and his mastery. That's because a mastering engineer isn't just a highly skilled, thoroughly experienced audio craftsman. To us lay people, there seems to be some kind of weird goings-on in those anechoic rooms, something that reaches beyond skill and even art into the realms of black magic. But, as I found out after speaking to several of the world's leading mastering engineers, it's not like that at all. In fact, mastering has two fundamental, basic roles in music, neither of which necessitates knowledge of arts either dark or martial. Well...only a bit.
The first of these roles is the technical one. Productions have personality: No two recordings are identical, and no two producer's techniques follow the same route (let alone rules) in order to achieve their particular, peculiar sound—and this is especially the case with electronic music, which focuses so carefully on sculpting timbre. Omar-S is not Deadmau5 is not Alva Noto, and this is a good thing, surely. As a t-shirt I once saw in Japan said: "Many colours make happiness rainbow."
Problem is, all those beautiful colours have to appear in order to be heard, and on all speakers ranging from the tinniest little earbuds and laptop speakers right up to the multi-million dollar club systems. From this point of view, mastering is just about ensuring that will happen: the technical craft of mastering is just about applying knowledge to make sure the recording translates. The mastering engineer, as AudibleOddities' Shawn Hatfield explains, is applying an "understanding of the science of sound and how best to achieve the highest range of playability on the widest array of systems." You can make your recording as weird (and as weirdly) as you like: Mastering makes sure you can hear as much of that weirdness as possible on any available system.
The tricky part? Although the master copy is the recording from which all subsequent copies will be made—the closest a recording comes to being an "original"—it's never a "machine translation," even though machines are used. Beyond the basic, technical matter of what mastering has to do, everything mastering involves is a matter of interpretation. As Prairie Cat Recordings' Mark Richardson puts it, "With audio, there are only opinions." Mastering engineers don't just feed your odd-shaped sound experiment into machines, they exert a shaping influence on recorded music, and they do so with their own ideas, their own style. They're artists in their own right.
Mark Richardson: "Imagine that the audio project you've worked on is a vehicle, a car. And in the studio, you and the artists and the engineers have worked to put together this car to the best of their ability. Once the car is finished, some people will always opt to have it go over to a detail shop, have some guys make it as shiny and buffed out as possible. That's what mastering does for audio, it's a detail shop."
And here move from the first, technical aspect to the second, artistic aspect. Almost everyone would agree that a recording should sound as good as possible—but who determines "good"? Which details are to be emphasised, and what constitutes "shiny and buffed"? Most engineers agree that this is absolutely a matter of the intention of the artist and the intended meaning and context of the recording they've produced. Dubplates & Mastering's Christoph Grote-Beverborg elaborates the list of questions he goes through each time he sits down to master a recording: "What does it try to achieve musically, atmospherically, sonically? Does it meet its goal? If not, where are the weaknesses and the strengths? And what listening situation is it aimed at? A mobile telephone, an mp3 player, a home stereo or the club?"
Here you can see it's always a matter of motion, of moving between the technical/scientific and the artistic/interpretive. Technically, the mastering engineer has to enable an intelligible dialogue between the stereo and the listener. Artistically, the mastering engineer is trying to establish a better understanding between the artist, their aims and the outcome that will emerge at the other end. In this way, the mastering engineer is a kind of therapist, a person who intervenes in the recording process to improve communication where it's sub-optimal or salvage it where it threatens to break down. For Stefan Betke, this is the part of mastering that he sees as most important. "The mastering engineer is a third person who listens to your music without being involved in it, and with a very open ear… You're helping people make musical decisions, so it becomes a musical process as well." It's a matter of saying to musicians, producers and recording engineers—who may have become so close to their recording they can no longer "hear" it—this snare is very high and sibilant: Is that what you wanted?
"What people want," has recently taken on a decidedly political character in the world of mastering, as Robert Babicz tells it. "I get sent some really, really, really loud stuff on file, with the request: Can you make it shiny and loud? They think that loud is good, and they often still think so, even after I've tried to convince them otherwise." The so-called "loudness wars" have come to dominate people's awareness of mastering, and very often it's mastering engineers who have been blamed for all this unbearably loud, fatiguing music, something that nearly every engineer I contacted really, really, really arced up about when asked.
What is loudness, and why is it such a problem? In order to get at this, it's important to distinguish loudness from volume. Rotate the big knob clockwise and you increase the volume at which the recording is being played, pushing a larger signal through the amplifier, down the cables and driving the speakers harder. The volume knob increases the sound intensity—a physical quantity measurable in definite physical units. Volume is primarily a physical thing. Loudness is related to volume in that it is the extent to which a sound is heard as loud. Loudness is the magnitude of the auditory sensation produced by that sound. Loudness is primarily a perceptual thing. And it's loudness that people want.
But why? Why do people want loudness? Don't they have volume knobs? The simple culprit is compression, but even then, there's a story to be told, and it starts thirty years or so ago. Back in the day, analogue audio formats could only be so loud: vinyl couldn't be grooved too deep or wide without transgressing the physical limitations of the format itself. During the '80s, tape faced similar physical limitations: Push the signal too far, and you caused unpleasant distortion. So not only was loudness considered to be undesirable, it was also constrained by the physical limitations of the format.
With digital, this gap has to a great extent been closed, which means recordings can be made to seem significantly louder without sounding distorted. Compression helps to make the music sound louder without hitting those dreaded physical limitations. All of the loud stuff remains loud. And all of the soft stuff becomes louder too. But recall the point from the end of the last paragraph: loud recordings weren't just precluded by the limitations of the medium, they were also undesirable, and they were undesirable because they destroyed the dynamism and nuance that makes good recordings so beautiful (and relaxing) to listen to. As Christoph puts it: "When everything is loud, nothing is loud. When you allow for a certain amount of dynamism you can achieve more depth, more detail, more richness in sound. A maximised recording sounds flat, lacks depth and is tiresome to the ear." Maximise to minimise.
So why did loudness become a good thing? When did people decide it'd be a good idea to "yell" at their devoted fans? Robert Babicz thinks it comes down to confidence. "Maybe people are a little unsure about their musical ideas, so they think that, if I make it loud, then the people will 'hear me' and like me. Something like that." Christoph believes that it's partly what happens when inexperienced people use the maximising and mastering plugins included in most software production packages, and the way the plugins interfere with transients, which are (technically) the attack phase of the signal and (perceptually) what gives each sound its signature. Knock off the transients, and vocal chords and Nords, oboes and Oberheims, all begin to sound like indifferent mush: "These plug-ins, they're transient killers, especially if used by inexperienced people. It is very easy to get cheated by the increased loudness when switching in a maximizer."
Shawn Hatfield elaborates: "The biggest and most common mistake people make is to squash their recordings before mastering. I see it in eight out of ten projects that come to AudibleOddities… There are lots of songs that come through my studio that had dynamic range at one point, but—because they wanted their song to be as loud or louder than the next guy—they squashed it with a limiter before I've ever had a chance to decide what would work best. Dynamic range creates an ebb and flow of energy that can tell a powerful story."
In short, ladies and gentlemen: please stop yelling at each other. And trust your mastering engineers. A blow up is also a breakdown: Usually, if people are yelling at one another, this is a sign of failing communication. People mostly raise their voice when they don't think they've been understood; they yell 'cos they're afraid they won't be heard. Either that, or they yell because they have to, because everyone around them is already shouting. The net result of this is a perfect recipe for a thumping headache: Recording and mastering engineers trying to impress record execs with loud recordings, recordings all vying for market share by trying to out-yell each other, and a culture of listening to such recordings through cheap D/A converters playing highly compressed files which are then pumped (with the digital EQs on their computer bumped up and the normalizer on) through shitty headphones or el-cheapo computer speakers.
The remedy for this is simple, and it involves calm, quiet and confidence: the characteristics of a master, in other words. Or mistress. (Cos maybe machismo is part of the problem, too.) "For me," says Babicz, "'educating the people' is just a matter of being myself and doing what I do. Just complaining about what's wrong with music—I see no reason in this. You just have to take action, do what you do, develop your own thing."
Stefan Betke claims, emphatically, that it is a matter of moving the conversation beyond an obsession with technology. It's a conversation where technology is posed as the solution to problems caused by technology, one which absents the vital role of our understanding and use of that technology. "A purely technological point of view, pure technology without anything else, it doesn't work. Technology on its own works against every cultural development." The art and craft of mastering is at its most crucial right here, because mastering engineers, as people who have a highly developed, deep understanding of how to use technology to finish recordings, are our best defence against what got us into this fix in the first place—a very stupid understanding and application of technology, which has then been followed by an (at times) misguided conversation applies focuses and blame to technology, rather than our applied understanding of it.
Remember: mastering engineers use technology, but not in order to make technology heard, to place it centre stage. On the contrary, the point is to allow the artist's expression to reveal itself, and the only way to do that is to operate almost inaudibly in the wings. You shouldn't notice the technology, you should hear the music. A mastering engineer does not make music; she allows it to be heard.