The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook
The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook 4th edition shows you:
• The secrets to making hot masters
• The rules of compression and frequency balancing
• How to mix with mastering in mind.
• The trick to making great-sounding MP3s and streaming audio
• The mastering secrets and techniques of the pros
• Everything you need to know about mastering for vinyl
• Everything you need to know about mastering for CD
• Everything you need to know about Mastering for iTunes
• How to submit to online stores and services like Pandora, Spotify and Gracenote
• How to master for television and the new CALM act
• and much more!
What It's About
This 4th edition of the bestselling Mastering Engineer’s Handbook is a thoroughly updated and comprehensive manual on the art and science of creating well-mastered recordings.
Today’s musicians and engineers benefit from the availability of high-quality, low-cost software based mastering tools, but the challenge is to understand those tools and learn to use them wisely.
Redesigned and updated to reflect both the latest in technology and recent changes in the marketplace, this new edition of the book covers all the fundamentals of the mastering process, and is a treasure-trove of knowledge, with an overview of the history, tools, and philosophy behind mastering as well as complete reference information for all audio delivery formats in use today.
The book also features interviews with some of the legends of the mastering world, including Doug Sax, Bob Ludwig, Bernie Grundman, Glen Meadows, Greg Calbi, and many more.
Give your music the attention it deserves – give it the benefit of the expertise you’ll find in The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook 4th edition.
Kind Words From Readers
I own an earlier edition of “The Mastering Engineers Handbook”. It’s been extremely valuable to me over the years. I learned a lot the first time I read it, and use it as a “Reset” button.
I must thank you for writing the two books “The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook” and its new counter part “The Mastering engineer’s Handbook. I have found them both to be a wealth of information. They are well thought out and a pleasure to read time and time again.
John De Carteret
I just wanted to write and tell you how much I enjoyed your ”Mastering Engineer’s Handbook”. Very well written and informative. Keep it up!
I just finished the mastering engineers handbook and wanted to let you know I appreciate the information it presented.
Great job on the book!
I enjoy reading material by Bobby because his experiences comes right off the pages you can feel everything he’s talking about. The study of this book has taken my tracks to a world class level and has increased by plays on Spotify.
…and dozens more like it!
Let's Look Inside
Table Of Contents
Part 1: The Mechanics of Mastering
1. The Essence of Mastering
Why Master Anyway?
From Vinyl, to CDs, to MP3s, and Beyond
The Difference Between You and a Pro
There’s Always Room for DIY
2. Some Digital Basics
Standard Audio File Formats
3. Prepping Your Tracks for Mastering
Mixing For mastering
Mastering Session Documentation
Why Alternative Mixes Can Be Essential During Mastering
4. Monitoring for Mastering
The Acoustic Environment
Let’s Fix Your Listening Area
Basic Monitor Setup
On the Bottom
Listening Techniques for Mastering
Monitors versus Headphones
5. Tools For Mastering
Using the Compressor in Mastering
Using the Limiter in Mastering
Using the EQ in Mastering
The Peak Meter
The RMS Meter
The Perceived Loudness Meter
The Phase Scope
The Phase Correlation Meter
The Spectrum Analyzer
The Dynamic Range Meter
The Digital Audio Workstation
6. Mastering Techniques
The Basic Mastering Technique
Making a loud master
Level Technique #1: The Compressor-Limiter Tandem
Level Technique #2: Multi-Compressor Packages
Advanced Level Techniques
The Effects of Hypercompression
Setting the Compressor
Setting the Limiter
Using Multiband Compressors and Limiters
Reducing Sibilance with a De-esser
Frequency Balance Techniques
The Mastering Signal Path
The Basic Mastering Signal Chain
An Advanced Signal Chain
Editing Techniques For Mastering
Eliminating Intro Noise and Count-Offs
Making a “Clean” Master
7. Mastering for CD
How CDs Work
Scanning the Disc
How CDs Are Made
Mastering For CD
Editing PQ Subcodes
Inserting ISRC Codes
Inserting UPC Codes
Adjusting the Spreads
The DDP Master
8. Mastering for Vinyl
A Brief History of Vinyl
How a Vinyl Record Works
The Vinyl Signal Chain
The Master Lacquer
The Cutting Stylus and Cutter Head
The Mastering Console
How Records Are Pressed
9. Mastering for Online Content
Lossy versus Lossless Codecs
MP3 Encoder Parameters Explained
It’s All About the Source File
Choosing An Encoder
The Ins and Outs of MP3 Metadata
Creating Great Sounding MP3s
Creating Files for Streaming Services
Creating a FLAC file
Submitting to Online Stores and Services
Submitting to Online Song Databases
10. Mastering For iTunes
A Look at AAC, the iTunes File Format
iTunes Mastering Tips
iTunes Sound Check
The “Mastered for iTunes” format
The Mastered for iTunes Tool Package
Submitting to the iTunes Store
11. Other Types of Mastering
Direct Stream Digital (DSD)
Mastering Music for Film
Mastering Music for Television
The Affect of the CALM Act
12. Archiving The Master
Delivering the Master to the Replicator
Archiving the Project
Part 2: The Interviews
13. Greg Calbi – Sterling Mastering
14. Dave Collins – Dave Collins Mastering
15. David Glasser – Airshow Mastering
16. Gene Grimaldi – Oasis Mastering
17. Bernie Grundman – Grundman Mastering
18. Bob Ludwig – Gateway Mastering
19. Glenn Meadows – Mayfield Mastering
20. Doug Sax – The Mastering Lab
Chapter 6 Excerpt - Basic Mastering Technique
Basic Mastering Technique
Now that you’ve seen the basic philosophy of mastering, let’s tackle the creative aspects. The actual mechanics of mastering can be broken down into a number of functions, namely maximizing the level of a song or songs, adjusting the frequency balance if necessary, performing any editing, adding fades and spreads, and inserting PQ codes, ISRC codes and metadata.
What really separates the upper echelon mastering engineers from the rest is the ability to make the music (any kind of music) as big and loud and tonally balanced as possible, but with the taste to know how far to take those operations. The DAW functions, on the other hand, are somewhat mechanical, and although there are tricks involved, they usually don’t get the same amount of attention as the former. We’ll look at all of those techniques in this chapter, but first, let’s look at the basic approach used by most pro mastering engineers.
The Basic Mastering Technique
If you were to ask a number of the best mastering engineer’s what their general approach to mastering was, you’d get mostly the same answer.
1. Listen to all the tracks. If you’re listening to a collection of tracks such as an album, the first thing to do is listen to brief durations of each song (10 to 20 seconds should be enough) to find out which sounds are louder than the others, which ones are mixed better, and which ones have better frequency balances. By doing this you can tell which songs sound similar and which ones stick out. Inevitably, you’ll find that unless you’re working on a compilation album where all the songs were done by different production teams, the majority of the songs will have a similar feel to them, and these are the ones to begin with. After you feel pretty good about how these feel, you’ll find it will be easier to get the outliers to sound like the majority than the other way around.
2. Listen to the mix as a whole, instead of hearing the individual parts. Don’t listen like a mixer, don’t listen like an arrangement and don’t listen like a songwriter. Good mastering engineers have the ability to divorce themselves from the inner workings of the song and hear it as a whole, just like the listening public does.
3. Find the most important element. On most modern radio-oriented songs, the vocal is the most important element, unless the song is an instrumental. That means that one of your jobs is trying to make sure that the vocal can be distinguished clearly.
4. Have an idea of where you want to go. Before you go twisting parameter controls, try to have an idea of what you’d like the track to sound like when your finished. Ask yourself the following questions:
Is there a frequency that seems to be sticking out?
Are there frequencies that seem to be missing?
Is the track punchy enough?
Is the track loud enough?
Can you hear the lead element distinctly?
5. Raise the level first. Unless you’re extremely confident that you can hear a wide frequency spectrum on your monitors (especially the low end), concentrate on raising the volume instead EQing. You’ll keep yourself out of trouble that way. If you feel that you must EQ, refer to the section of the EQing later in the chapter.
6. Adjust the song levels so they match. One of the most important jobs in mastering is to take a collection of songs like an album, and make sure they each have the same relative level. Remember that you want to be sure that all the songs sound about the same level at their loudest. Do this by listening back and forth to all the songs and making small adjustments in level as necessary.
The Effects of Hypercompression
Over the years it’s become easier and easier to get a record that’s hotter and hotter in perceived level, mostly because of new digital technology that has resulted in better and more effective limiters. Today’s digital “look ahead” limiters make it easy to set a maximum level (usually at -.1dB FS) and never worry about digital overs and distortion again, but this can come at a great cost in audio quality, depending on the situation.
• Too much buss compression or over-limiting either when mixing or mastering results in what’s become known as “hypercompression.” Hypercompression is to be avoided at all costs because:
•It can’t be undone latter.
•It can suck the life out of a song, making it weaker sounding instead of punchier.
•Lossy codecs like MP3 have a hard time encoding hypercompressed material and insert unwanted side effects as a result.
•It’s known to cause listener fatigue, so the consumer won’t listen to your record as long or as many times.
A hypercompressed track can actually sound worse over the radio because of the way it interacts with the broadcast processors at the station.
A hypercompressed track has little or no dynamics, leaving it loud but lifeless and unexciting. On a DAW, it’s a constant waveform that fills up the DAW region. Here’s how the levels have changed on recordings over the years (Figure 6.3).
This practice has come under fire since we’ve just about hit the loudness limit thanks to the digital environment that we’re now in. Still, both mixing and mastering engineers try to cram more and more level onto the file only to find that they end up with either a distorted or overcompressed product. While this might be the sound that the producer or artist is looking for, it does violate the mastering engineer’s unwritten code of keeping things as natural sounding as possible while performing his level magic.
When digital first came out, people knew that every time the light when into the red that you were clipping and that hasn’t changed. We’re all afraid of the “over” levels, so people started inventing these digital domain compressors where you could just start cranking the level up. I always tell people, “Thank God these things weren’t invented when the Beatles were around because for sure they would’ve put it on their music and would’ve destroyed its longevity.” I’m totally convinced that overcompression destroys the longevity of a piece. Now when someone’s insisting on hot levels where it’s not really appropriate, I find I can barely make it through the mastering session. I suppose that’s well and good when it’s a single for radio, but when you give that treatment to an entire album’s worth of material, it’s just exhausting. It’s a very unnatural situation. Never in the history of mankind has man listened to such compressed music as we listen to now.
MasteringEngineer Bob Ludwig Interview Excerpt
Mastering Engineer Bob Ludwig Interview Excerpt
After having worked on literally hundreds of platinum and gold records and mastered projects that have been nominated for scores of Grammy’s, Bob Ludwig certainly stands among the giants in the mastering business. After leaving New York City to open his own Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine in 1993, Bob has proved that you can still be in the center of the media without being in a media center.
What do you think is the difference between someone who’s just merely competent and someone that’s really great as a mastering engineer?
BOB LUDWIG: I always say that the secret of being a great mastering engineer is being able to hear a raw tape and then in your mind hear what it could sound like, and then know what knobs to move to make it sound that way.
You know where you’re going right from the beginning then, right?
Pretty much. It’s a little bit like the Bob Clearmountain school, where after 45 minutes of mixing he’s practically there and then spends most of the rest of the day just fine tuning that last ten percent. I think I can get 90 percent of the way there sometimes in a couple of minutes, and just keep hanging with it and keep fine tuning it from there. It comes very, very fast to me when I hear something. I immediately can tell what I think it should sound like. And the frustration is, sometimes you get what I call a “pristine piece of crap”. I call it that because it’s like a bad mix, and anything you do to it will make it worse in some other way. But 99.9% of the time I hear something and I can figure out what it needs, and fortunately I know what all my gear does well enough to make it happen.
Like today, I was doing something while training one of the guys that works with me. I put this song up and said, “I know this piece of gear would be perfect for this thing.” He said, “Man, I haven’t seen you use that in like nine months or a year.” I said, “I know it’s gonna be great.” I fired it up, plugged it in and boom, it was right there.
How many of your sessions are attended?
When I started my own business after working at Masterdisk and Sterling Sound before that, our business plan called for a twenty percent reduction in overall business but the opposite actually happened. We thought that half the people that had attended sessions in New York would attend up here. It turns out more people attend sessions here than in New York, which was a total surprise.
Do you think that there’s a difference between the way people master from coast to coast?
BOB LUDWIG: I don’t think there’s so much a difference between coast to coast as there is just between some of the major personalities in mastering. Some engineers might master almost everything into the analog domain because they love working with analog gear. I certainly do that sometimes, but I would say that I’ve tried to accumulate what I think is the very best new gear as well as funky old gear that has a certain sound. If a tape comes in sounding really, really good, I have gear that will stay out of the way and do exactly what I need without inflicting any damage on the thing at all.
Occasionally we’ll get a tape in that’s so good that I’m just happy to change the level on it if needed. The level controls I have are made by Massenburg and some engineers over at Sony and are as audiophile as you can get. If you’re not using the level control, you can take it out of the circuitry so it’s as much a straight wire as possible so at least I’m convinced I’m inflicting as little damage as possible on a great sounding tape if all it needs is simply a level change.
Is that in the digital or analog domain?
Analog. Talking about different engineers, there are some engineers that just like to slam the hell out of everything. It seems like their only criteria is how loud they can make it, not how musical they can make it. And for me, I’m under pressure from A&R people and clients to have things loud, but I try to keep the music at all costs. I’ll think nothing of doing a Foo Fighters record one day where it’s totally appropriate to have it smashed, then the next day do something that’s perhaps even 4 dB quieter than that because it suddenly needs the dynamics for it to breathe.
The dynamics wars… where did that come from?
I think it came from the invention of digital domain compressors. When digital first came out, people knew that every time the light when into the overs or into the red that you were clipping and that hasn’t changed.
We’re all afraid of the over levels, so people started inventing these digital domain compressors where you could just start cranking the level up. Because it was in the digital domain, you could look ahead in the circuit and have a theoretical zero attack time or even have a negative attack time if you wanted to. It was able to do things that you couldn’t do with any piece of analog gear, including an Aphex Compellor or (Empirical Labs) Distresser. It will give you that kind of an apparent level increase without audibly destroying the music, up to a point. And of course, once they achieved that, then people started pushing it as far as it would go. I would say the average level of a CD has peaks on a VU meter that are at least 3.5 dB hotter than they used to be, if not as much as 6 dB hotter than they used to be.
I always tell people, “Thank God these things weren’t invented when the Beatles were around because for sure they would’ve put it on their music and would’ve destroyed its longevity.” I’m totally convinced that overcompression destroys the longevity of a piece. Now when someone’s insisting on hot levels where it’s not really appropriate, I find I can barely make it through the mastering session.
Another thing that has contributed to it is the fact that in Nashville, the top 200 Country stations get serviced with records from the record company, but apparently there’s some kind of an agreement that the major record companies have for stations 201 on up to get serviced with a special CD every week that has the different labels new singles on it.
It’s called CDX. Glen Meadows does that.
And of course, when they started doing that, the A&R people would go, “Well, how come my record isn’t as loud as this guy’s record?” And so that further led to level wars even in Nashville, so that everyone’s record would be the hottest record on the compilation. And of course when the program director of the radio station is going through a stack of CDs, a mediocre song that’s twice as loud as a great song might at first seem more impressive, just because it grabs you by the neck. It has a certain impressiveness about it so you listen to it before realizing there’s no song there, but at least on first listen it might get the program director’s attention.
I suppose that’s well and good when it’s a single for radio, but when you give that treatment to an entire album’s worth of material, it’s just exhausting. It’s a very unnatural situation. Never in the history of mankind has man listened to such compressed music as we listen to now.
In mixing too, if you don’t put bus compressors on, or if you don’t compress something, clients inevitably say, “Why are you not doing that? That’s what I want.” You can’t get into trouble if you squash something, but you can if you don’t.
Tell me about your monitors.
I used to have Duntech Sovereign 2001 monitors. I think around ’86 when I was at Masterdisk, I decided to find the best monitors I could so that when I was working on digital I would have something that could really reproduce sub-sonic defects. So I went down to New York to some of the audiophile shops to see what kind of audiophile speakers I might be able to find for mastering that would be professional enough that I wouldn’t have to change the tweeter every other day.
I found these Duntech Sovereign 2001 speakers. Tom Jung, the engineer that owns the DMP label, had a pair at his house in the basement. His basement had very low ceilings. The Duntech speakers are in a mirror image arrangement; the tweeter is in the middle and then there are the midrange speakers and then there are the woofers on the top of the speaker and the bottom. So in the basement of his house, that upper woofer was coupling with his ceiling as well as the bottom one coupling with the floor and he had bass for days. So he sold me his pair of Duntechs and that’s what I used at Masterdisk from then on.
I also bought one of the first Cello “Performance Amplifiers” from Mark Levinson when he was there at the time, and subsequently he told me that somebody in Japan had actually bridged a pair of these things and it was really worthwhile. Of course his amps are mega expensive, so he loaned me another pair so I could try to bridge them together. Doug Levine, who ran Masterdisk and was in charge of all the money, could actually hear the difference between the bridging and the non-bridging enough that he thought it was worth spending the extra money on it.
Then when I started Gateway, I got another pair of Duntechs Sovereigns and a new pair of Cello Performance Mark II amplifiers this time. These are the amps that will put out like 6,000 watt peaks. One never listens that loudly, but when you listen, it sounds as though there’s an unlimited source of power attached to the speakers. You’re never straining the amp, ever. So I used those Duntechs for quite awhile.
Then when I began doing 5.1 surround music, Peter McGrafh, a Classical engineer friend of mine, had fallen in love with these Eggelston Works “Andras” speakers that are made in Memphis. Bill Eggelston has been designing speakers for many years and Peter told me that he thought those were the best speakers that he had heard at the time. Peter used to own an audiophile hi-fi shop and he’s heard everything under the sun. As he’s a very good Classical engineer, I give what he says a lot of credence. So I had made it a point to seek them out. I really fell in love with these Andras and for the 5.1 music, I use five of them. They retail for around $14,000 a pair, and I have 2 1/2 pair of them. They were Stereophile Magazine’s “Speaker of the Year”. With five of them in the room, they move plenty of air with no problem whatsoever but I felt that there needed to be a bigger speaker to work right in stereo.
I told Bill Eggelston if he ever decided to build a bigger version of the “Andra”s to let me know and maybe I’d consider changing my Duntechs if I thought they sounded better. He decided to build what he thought was the ultimate speaker which is called the Eggelston Works “Ivy” speaker (he names all of his speakers after former wives or girlfriends). These speakers are a little bit taller than Duntechs and they weigh close to 800 pounds a piece. They’ve got granite on the sides of them. There’s three woofers on the bottom, a couple of mids, the tweeter, and then a couple of more mids on the top. Actually each cabinet had 23 speakers in it.
You know how M&K uses the isobaric principle in their subwoofer? The Eggleston Works “Andras” use that same isobaric principle in their woofers. Well, Bill extended that principal to all of the speakers, so behind each speaker is two others. I guess if the isobaric principle is carried out to purity, you’d have an infinite number of speakers. But he has two behind each of them and they’re amazing. Every client that comes in, once they tune in to what they’re listening to, starts commenting on how they’re hearing things in their mixes that they had never heard before, even sometimes after working weeks on them. It’s great for mastering because they’re just so accurate that there’s never much doubt as to what’s really on the tape.
One reason I’ve always tried to get the very best speaker I can is I’ve found that when something sounds really right on an accurate speaker, it tends to sound right on a wide variety of speakers. I’ve never been a big fan of trying to get things to sound only right on an NS-10Ms.
Do you have a specific approach to mastering?
BOB LUDWIG: To me music is a very sacred thing. I believe that music has the power to heal people. And of course a lot of the music that I work on, even some of the Heavy Metal stuff, is healing some 13 year old kid’s angst and making him feel better, no matter what his parents might think about it. So I treat music very, very seriously.
I love all kinds of music. I master everything from Pop and some Jazz to Classical and even Avant Garde. I used to be principle trumpet player in the Utica, New York Symphony Orchestra, so I always put myself in the artist’s shoes and ask myself, “What if this were my record? What would I do with it?” So I try to get some input from the artist. If they’re not there, at least I try to get them on the phone and just talk about what things they like. I just take it all very seriously.
Mastering Engineer Doug Sax Interview Excerpt
Mastering Engineer Doug Sax
If ever there was a title of “Godfather of Mastering,” Doug Sax has truly earned it, as evidenced by the extremely high regard in which the industry holds him. One of the first independent mastering engineers, Doug literally defined the art when he opened his world-famous Mastering Lab in Hollywood in 1967. Doug recently passed away, but his magic remains a big part of the albums he worked on for major diverse talents as The Who, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Diana Krall, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rod Stewart, Jackson Browne, and many, many more.
Do you have a philosophy about mastering?
Doug Sax: Yes. If it needs nothing, don’t do anything. I think that you’re not doing a service by adding something it doesn’t need. I don’t make the stew, I season it. If the stew needs no seasoning, then that’s what you have to do, because if you add salt when it doesn’t need any, you’ve ruined it. I try to maintain what the engineer did. A lot of times they’re not really in the ballpark due to their monitoring, so I EQ for clarity more than anything.
When you first run something down, can you hear the final product in your head?
Oh yes, virtually instantly, because for the most part I’m working with music that I know what it’s supposed to sound like. Once in a while I’ll get an album that’s so strange to me because of either the music or what the engineer did, that I have no idea what it’s supposed to sound like and I often will pass on it. I’ll say, “I just don’t hear this. Maybe you should go somewhere where they’re glued into what you’re doing.”
For the most part, I’m fortunate to usually work on things that sound pretty good. I work on most of the recordings from great engineers like Bill Schnee, George Massenburg, Ed Cherney and Al Schmitt. These are clients that I’m the one they go to if they have a say in where it’s mastered. Every room has its claim to fame and mine is that I work on more albums nominated for engineering Grammy’s than any other room, and probably by a factor of three or four to the next closest room.
How has mastering changed over the years from the time you started until the way it is now?
My answer is maybe different than everyone else’s. It hasn’t changed at all! In other words, what you’re doing is finessing what an engineer and artist has created into its best possible form. If an engineer says, “I don’t know what it is, but the vocal always seems to be a little cloudy,” I can go in there and keep his mix the same yet still make the vocal clearer. That’s what I did in 1968 and that’s what I still do. The process is the same and the goal is the same. I don’t master differently for different formats because you essentially make it sound as proper as you can, and then you transfer it to the final medium using the best equipment
One of the things that has changed recently is that every client that comes in wants vinyl again. Almost nothing comes into the Lab that doesn’t do vinyl anymore. For one thing, it doesn’t cost that much. For another $1500 you can be doing vinyl, and you’re in a young market as the people buying these turntables are 18 to 25, and that’s proven. If you want to get your album to people that are really listening to the music, that’s the way. It’s also where the people that are going to buy hi-res downloads are coming from as well.
Right now we’re mastering a Jackson Browne album and making a CD master, MFIT master, 96k master, 192k master, DSD master and vinyl. That’s 6 different formats. Three years ago we made a CD master and that was it. That’s becoming more and more routine.
I think this is all an offshoot from the phonograph record in the home. The fact that someone has to make a commitment to listening to a record and won’t be listening on earbuds but real loudspeakers is a revolution right there.
Is it true that you were the first independent mastering engineer?
Absolutely. Independent has to be clarified because if you go back to the late ‘60s and before, everything was done in-house. You were signed to a label, you were given an A&R man, and you stayed within the label. If you recorded at Capitol, then you went down to Capitol’s mastering to get your product cut to lacquer. You went to Capitol’s art department and they gave you the artist that designed your cover, and that’s the way it was.
It was really at the end of the ‘60s that certain top producers would say, “I love the security, but I would like to work with an artist that’s not on this label. I would like to work with Streisand, but she’s on Columbia.” So they started to break off from the label and really started the process where nobody is tied to one any more. The cry became, “If you sign me, I’ll use the engineer I want and I’ll record and master where I want.” That’s 40 years of hard fought independence, so from the standpoint of an independent that is not aligned with a label, just a specialty room that handles mastering, the answer is yes.
I was one of the pioneers when there was no independent business. We opened up our doors in December 27 of 1967 and by ’71 or ’72, you couldn’t get into the place because we were so busy. By ’72 we were doing 20 percent of the top 100 chart and there weren’t a lot of competitors. There was Artisan in LA, and Sterling and maybe Master Disk just starting in New York, and that was it. Now there seems to be a thousand because the reality is that it’s very easy for someone to go into this business now, or for the artist or engineer do it yourself. You can get a workstation with all the bells and whistles for a song and a dance. A Neumann lathe setup in 1972 was $75,000, and that was just the cutting system; you still needed a room and a console, so you had to have a big budget, and there was only a few people doing it as a result. Now you fire it right up.
And don’t forget that in the industry for almost ten years there were no tones on an analog tape, so you didn’t know how to line up to the machine.
There were no tones?
No tones. I’m one of the instigators in railing on these guys to go back and print the tones so I could at least set my machine to where your machine was. There was no such thing as nearfield monitoring either. It didn’t exist. People used to go to these strange studios with big speakers in the wall, most of which were useless as far as relating to the real world, and the engineers never knew that they were out in left field because they had nothing to take home. The cassette was just starting and only a handful of engineers that I can think of actually had a 15 ips (inches per second) tape machine at home that they could take home a mix and find out where they were.
I started the process in the early ‘70s just in self-defense. I would say, “Look, before you do anything, come in with your first mix on-the-house and find out if you’re in trouble. We’ll listen to it and get you straight.” I just got tired of watching these guy’s eyes open the first time they ever heard their mixes outside of the studio. “Oh, my God. I couldn’t hear any highs in the studio so I kept adding highs.” That absolute horrendous reality is really the reason why nearfields came in.
Mastering Engineer Bernie Grundman Interview Excerpt
Mastering Engineer Bernie Grundman
One of the most widely respected names in the recording industry, Bernie Grundman has mastered hundreds of platinum and gold albums, including some of the most successful landmark recordings of all time such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Steely Dan’s “Aja,” and Carole King’s “Tapestry.” A mainstay at A&M records for 15 years before starting his own facility (Grundman Mastering) in 1984, Bernie is certainly one of the most celebrated mastering engineers of our time.
Do you have a philosophy on mastering?
Bernie Grundman: I think that mastering is a way of maximizing music to make it more effective for the listener as well as maybe maximizing it in a competitive way for the industry. It’s the final creative step and the last chance to do any modifications that might take the song to the next level.
There are a couple of factors that come into play when we’re trying to determine how to master a recording. Most people need a mastering engineer to bring a certain amount of objectivity to their mix, plus a certain amount of experience. If you [the mastering engineer] have been in the business awhile, you’ve listened to a lot of material, and you’ve probably heard what really great recordings of any type of music sound like, so in your mind you immediately compare what you’re hearing to the best ones you’ve ever heard. If what you’re hearing doesn’t meet that ideal, you try to manipulate the sound in such a way as to make it as exciting and effective a musical experience as you’ve ever had with that kind of music.
You have to interface with the producer or the artist too, because they might have a vision that may be slightly different than where you intuitively want to take it. They might want to emphasize some aspect of the music that you may not have noticed. A lot of it is definitely trial and error on your part, but it’s also give and take between the producer and the artist because you can’t sit there and arrogantly think that you know where this recording ought to go and that they don’t.
Can you hear the final product in your head when you first run something down?
Well, you do get ideas. If you’ve been in it awhile and you’ve heard a lot of things then you know where to go. Like if you put on a hip-hop record, you know that it’s very rhythm oriented and it has to be really snappy and punchy on the bottom end. You know that some of the elements are really important and that this kind of music seems to feel better if it has them.
Maybe the client had a monitoring system that had a lot of bottom end and the mix comes out bottom light as a result. That’s why probably the single most important piece of equipment that a mastering engineer can have is his monitors. If you know the monitor and you’ve lived with them for a long time, then you’re probably going to be able to make good decisions. The only problem with that is, if the monitor is something that is a little bit esoteric and only you understand it, the producer or artist can become very insecure with the result. That happened to me when I first worked at A&M and I had a monitor system where I knew what it should sound like, but it was really kind of wrong for everyone else. They had to trust me, and they did, but I could see them get really concerned about what they were hearing, so in my studio I’ve gone to great lengths to make it a very neutral system that everyone can relate to.
What monitors are you using?
We put them together ourselves. We build our own boxes and crossovers using all Tannoy components. It’s not that we’re going for the biggest or the most powerful sound, we’re going for neutral because we really want to hear how one tune compares to the other in an album. We want to hear what we’re doing when we add just a half dB at 5k or 10k. A lot of speakers nowadays have a lot of coloration and they’re kind of fun to listen to, but it’s hard to hear those subtle differences. We just use a two-way speaker system with just one woofer and one tweeter so it really puts us somewhere between near fields and big soffited monitors.
Do you use nearfields as well?
We have some NS10’s and some little Radio Shack cubes that a lot of people around town like to hear what it’s going to sound like on. Usually if you can get it sounding good on our main system, it’s just that much better on the other ones.
Do you still cut lacquer?
Oh yes, we sure do. We have one room with two lathes where we cut all of our lacquers now that’s going all day long. We can’t do it fast enough. I don’t know if this is going to last, because it’s gotten into this area where people think that vinyl is “happening,” but the expense that you have to go through to make a vinyl album and the cost of manufacturing is way more than CDs. I don’t know how many clients actually make their money back.
I have a love/hate relationship with vinyl because there are so many things that can go wrong and there are so many limitations. It can sound incredible if everything is right and you’re careful not to exceed any of those limitations. The problem is that it’s analog. Any little thing that goes wrong, you’re going to hear it.
Are you doing a separate master for vinyl?
Ideally, but not necessarily. Some of the clients want us to cut from the CD file, but you’re using a signal that’s been modified to be very aggressive. That’s right where you’re going to start having trouble with vinyl, because those grooves get radical when they have that much energy in them.
How do you think that having experience cutting vinyl has helped you in the CD age?
It takes a lot more knowledge to cut a good vinyl disc than it does to do a CD. With CDs, except for artifacts and various changes that occur in the digital domain, what you get on the monitors is very close to what you get on the disc and you don’t have all the various distortions that vinyl can come up with. Vinyl has inner groove distortion and tracking distortion because of too much energy in the high frequencies, but this doesn’t happen on CDs or digital files. With CDs, of course, the quality is the same from the beginning to the end of the disc, which isn’t the case with vinyl. High frequencies might get a little brittle, but they don’t distort on a CD, whereas they will on vinyl, so there’s this whole grab bag of problems with vinyl that you have to consider. Part of being a good vinyl cutter is knowing how to compromise the least.