Studio Philosophy 101: I Don’t Presume I’m a Mastering Engineer (But I Do it)

Posted: August 28, 2012 in Philosophy, Tricks of the Trade
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Ok. A small post about my mixing philosophy. Pretty simple – I’m not a mastering engineer. Every time I go into my  brother’s audiophile listening room, with its $70,000 worth of speakers, preamps, amps, acoustic treatment, etc., I realize that mastering is not the first element in my game. I don’t have the rig. Its a different art entirely from mixing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t do it! I’ve got good software for it, and a fairly good ear for the job. But I’m not going to tell you that I can do what a boutique mastering house can do with several hundred thousand dollars worth of gear.

Whether I’m mixing for my own mastering, or someone else’s, here’s the plan:

1. Whether I’m mastering or sending it out, I provide a final mix that is mastering friendly. Even if the client is not going to pay for mastering, I don’t just assume that I should slap a mastering plugin onto the mix and pump it up. I’d rather that the client listen to a well mixed CD than one that is sloppily mastered, or crammed into the Procrustean bed of someone else’s mastering “preset.” That doesn’t mean I don’t use mastering plugins – but I use them to achieve mixing ends – centering bass frequencies on live mixes, multi-pressing frequencies to add more punch or presence, etc.

2. I try to listen to my final mixes on lots of equipment – car speakers, mid-field monitors, near-field monitors, 2.1 computer speakers, etc. I figure if my mix translates pretty well, then if the client doesn’t pay to have it professionally mastered, at least it will sound good in lots of contexts.

3. I try to listen to my final mixes (and masters) on at least one audiophile system – just to tweak it with all the audio information I can, and with the best soundstage possible. My brother lives in Denver – and I have been known to haul my computer and Apogee Mini-Dac into his listening room when visiting him, spending a few hours with whatever projects I have going. It helps. I have a couple of other options nearby.

Near my home, a new listening room has just been installed at The University of the South, Sewanee, TN. It’s called the Ralston Listening Library. The guy who runs it is Tam Carlson, one of my English Professors when I was a student there years ago. He’s a music lover. When I was a student in the 70’s we used to go to his home and listen to old Toscanini vinyl albums on his electrostatic speakers. Amazing! Last time I was up there, he told me he’ll log me a few hours in the room if I call ahead. He might do the same for you. Here is a picture of Tam hanging out in this amazing room.

Ralston Listening Library, Sewanee, TN

For a great article about this listening room, and more great pictures, check out Stereophile.

4. Finally, I leave as much space in the mix as I can. By this I mean that I don’t hyper-compress the audio – even if it is Heavy Metal. When I bounce the final mix, I don’t want my gain structure and compression to leave the transients looking flat as a doornail. I leave at least 3 db. of headroom overall, and work for clean gain throughout the chain, with no tracks overly compressed or pumping. I focus on building a luxurious stereo soundstage and on getting the kind of sonic palette that works best for the project. In the end, however, I want a good mastering engineer to have something he or she can work with, adding the kinds of finishing touches that only they can add. If I squash out all of the gain, or over-compress, there’s nothing a mastering engineer can do.

What I’m trying to say is this: “to thine own self be true.” I’m a recording and mixing engineer. And I mix in a way that lets the mastering engineer do his job (even if that happens to be ME).

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Comments
  1. Scott McClure says:

    That’s a great philosophy…and you are getting very good at actualizing it. I suspect that most people would not be able to tell the difference between what you do and what they would get with a final mastering process unless you made them do some serious listening on an audiophile system.

  2. Maxxy says:

    That seems to be the Philosolphy of my procuder / engineer as well. He always says, “you want it mastered, I can GET it mastered for you, but I don’t do mastering “.

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