Real Mastering F.A.Q.
Why should I have my recording mastered?
Look at Real Mastering like this. You’ve done a painting and it’s on a canvas. You’ve got this in your house on an easel. Now you’ve got to get it out to the world. You’ve got to figure out, “How can I most accurately get this image I’ve made – this painting I’ve made – in my house, to the world in the most accurate way, in the most efficient way?”
In a way, that would be an analogy to mastering records. You made this music and you’ve got it in your house. You’re playing it over your speakers. You’re listening to it. You’re in your world. Excuse the word compete, but you want to be able to compete with the rest of what’s out there.
You want your recording to be competitive in the volume world because your CD might be on a multiple disc CD player playing on random. You don’t want to have one of your songs come up and be drowned out by a barking dog or conversation chatter.
You have to figure out how to beat that battle which requires technical expertise. Getting your music noticed requires a lot of things. There’s no easy one-button cure. There are ways to have your music more prominent and still retain the dynamics. That’s what mastering is: the ability in knowing how to do that.
A lot of people fall down there because they just turn it up. They just compress the music more and take the cheap path. The cheap path is what the brain throws out. The brain just dismisses and marks the music as garbage and puts it in a mental SPAM file, so to speak.
You should have your recording mastered because you want it to get the best exposure possible in the best possible light. You’ve got a lot of things – you’ve got millions of things – that you’re competing with. You want to give yourself some sort of an edge or an advantage.
What services do you provide during Real Mastering?
I’ll make some good coffee, pat you on the back, and give you a comfortable chair. I will really to try make your music sound as good as it can sound.
I will try to understand what you’re trying to do. Then I will try to enhance that. That’s the key. It’s not about me thinking I’m the genius mastering guy and I know what everything should be, because that is like every tomato looking the same or every piece of corn tasting the same or this kind of nightmarish, homogenized world. We don’t want that.
What we do want is to get into the artist and the music to understand what’s going on. Then, we’ll try to make the most of what that is and make your music as important, as vital, and as noticeable as possible. That’s what you want to provide during mastering, as well as a pleasant experience.
What can I expect mastering to do for my recording?
Generally speaking, what will happen is that you will have a great improvement in a lot of areas. One area would be dynamics.
Another would be understanding if you’ve got the right sequence for your album. As a mastering guy, you could say, “I love this record, but I don’t like the sequence.”
The set list for a show and the sequence of a record are very similar. For a show, you want to play something for people that draws them in and captures their attention. It’s probably something they’re familiar with. If you have a new record with no songs they’re familiar with, then maybe something that is reminiscent of something they’re familiar with, something that draws them in.
You don’t want to make them feel like that Maxell® ad where the guy is sitting in the chair and being blown back. It’s not like that. We’re not blowing off an atomic bomb here. What we’re doing is trying to get the listener to lean in to the speakers and be more interested. You’re trying to get the interest level up.
When you’re mastering and sequencing a record, you’re trying to make a sequence that has the first song absolutely capture the audience’s attention and gets them in your hold. The next thing you deliver them is very important. You’re leading up to a point where you’re going to introduce fresh material. Then, the sequencing becomes a pacing thing. It becomes a thing where your material is, in a sense, like a movie with a beginning, middle and ending. The goal in sequencing a record is when somebody puts it on, they never have the inclination to take it off. They don’t want to leave the room. They don’t want to do something else or pick up the phone. They are captivated and they stay with your music.
To whatever extent you’re able to pull that off, you’re in a good place. I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out how to do that. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I’m sure I could get better, but that’s a challenge and that’s a big homework assignment for you.
What tools do you use in audio mastering?
You use what tools are available to you, but not so many, that you feel like you’re flipping through a dictionary. You don’t want to get lost in the tools and lose sight of what’s important: the music.
In an ideal world, you’d want to pick up an instrument, perform a song, and have the listener connect with it. They’d feel the way you felt when you wrote it. That’s the end of the story. That’s the ideal world.
Well, that’s not usually what happens. You’ve got to use different things along the way to prop things up, to enhance things, to modify things, to make things more interesting. These are the things that are part of record making. These are what come into understanding how to make a great record as opposed to just having a decent performance, which is different than a record.
A performance is like a snapshot or a glimpse that occurs for a moment and it’s gone. But a recording can be played over and over ad nauseam. The point is you’ve got to be able to make sure that what you present is something that’s going to last, something that’s going to have staying power, and have mystery as well.
This becomes like movie making because, with a song, if you reveal everything in your lyrics right away, you’ve lost the ability to capture the audience’s imagination and have them revisit it. With a recording, without teasing or tricking or making the audience feel inferior, you want your listener interested and intrigued. Intrigued in a way that makes them want to go back and say, “What was he saying there? What did that mean?” That’s why you never want to say things exactly verbatim about anything. It’s like good poetry.
The same applies to music, as well. The tools used in audio mastering are just what you need in order to accomplish what you think is needed. The better you are at mastering, the more you understand what’s needed.
The best mastering guys are the guys who recognize when nothing is needed. The fearful and the inexperienced mastering guys are the guys who think, “What am I not using?” or “I should be using everything,” or they’re fearful for the fact that they’re not doing anything when they might realize that being the best mastering engineer might be the guy that says, “This needs nothing.” That might make you the best mastering guy in the world. But people don’t get that part. That applies to everything in life. It’s true.
What file formats do you accept?
As far as the file formats I’ll accept for mastering, you want the highest possible resolution. That would be 24-bit, for sure. “A” 16-bit is an alternative, if that’s all you have, but 24-bit for sure.
Then you get into this other area of 44.1 which is where a CD is at. You want to go with multiples of 44.1, so you want to go with 88.2 or 172.4, etc. Any multiple of 44.1 is good because it’s divisible by two. Everything has to come down to being 44.1.
If you go 48 or 96 or 192, it seems better because of a higher sampling rate, but it’s not better because it has a problem. Eventually, the recording will be converted to 44.1 and you’re going to end up with a truncated situation where you have a .3333 ad infinitum at the end. You’re throwing away more data in truncating, than you’re gaining being at a higher sampling rate.
My advice is always, always use a multiple of 44.1. And, of course, you’re going to use 24-bit because that’s the highest used bit rate at this time. Maybe, eventually it will be 32, or 64, but right now it’s 24.
I’ll accept anything and can make anything work. But if you want to get your best advantage, you want to have the highest resolution. Also, you’ll want to archive for the future.
For example, say they come up with some great way to make CDs or make something out of this 20, 30, or 40 years from now. If you just recorded everything at 44.1.16, which is the CD thing, then you’re limited to that. If they come up with this way-better thing and you’ve got a higher resolution archived copy of what you’ve done, then you’ll be able to take advantage of this new discovery. You’ve got to look forward, think positive, and always think in terms of the highest possible resolution in archiving.
That’s a double answer to “What formats do you accept?” It’s “What formats do you accept?” and “What do you recommend?” I’m saying the same thing.
What do you need from the mix or the mix session?
A great song, a great artist, a great bunch of people to hang out with or talk to, a cold beer.
What do I need from the mix session? You need the best you can get. That’s what you need.
I don’t need stems. They’re partial. They’re like delivering a mix in bits. It’s like delivering a two-track mix in an eight-track version so that you can mess with the mix when you’re mastering. I don’t want that. I don’t want to be that person because I didn’t get hired for that.
If I have to do that, I’m going to charge an extra $5,000 a song because that’s making me be the producer and that’s not what I was hired to do. I was hired to master.
How do you evaluate the mix?
You evaluate the mix by whether you like it or not, whether it feels good. That’s really it. Does this mix feel good or not?
What equipment do you use to listen to the mix?
The best equipment possible. The least amount of equipment possible and the best equipment possible. Class A amplification, speakers that you can trust. That’s a big thing.
You want to listen to speakers that you like the sound of, that you understand, that you don’t have to second guess. You put the music up on those speakers and you listen to them and you say, “Wow, sounds good.” You can trust them. Whatever you do on those speakers sounds good. Then, when it’s taken to another set of speakers, another variety of speakers like houses, cars, headphones, whatever, you want what you did on the speakers you use to sound better – not just as good or especially not worse, but you want it to sound better.
That’s about choosing the right speakers in the first place. It took me 25 years to find those speakers for myself.
Can you fix another engineer’s mix?
Yes, sometimes; and sometimes no. That’s an impossible question to answer in that way. There’s such a huge variable. The answer ultimately to that would be “yes, but…” If it’s bad enough that you can’t fix it, then you can’t fix it, but generally you can. Generally, I have found very few times you can’t fix.
The only time is when I’ve had mixes from people that are so bad that they have to be re-mixed. Then I’ll just say, “Look, I’m not going to waste your money or your time mastering this record because this record needs to be mixed.” Then, often those people ask me to mix their record. I do and they’re very happy. What’s great about that is, when we master it, it happens really quick and it makes the mastering job really inexpensive.
How do I deliver my music to you for mastering?
If you send it on CD, you have jitter involved. Jitter is the fact that CDs are timed to a time clock, a crystal clock, and they spin. There has to be accuracy in tracking the spinning. If you have a file and there’s no spinning disk, you’re much more prone to accuracy. Actually, it’s better to deliver a file than a CD because of the fact that jitter doesn’t become involved. You’ve got to be accurate about your delivery. It’s best to use something that has an ability to do the counting of the bits, a checksum.
With a digital file you can do a checksum. A checksum is a piece of software that counts the number of digital bits in the file that you’ve sent. You generate a checksum on your end, then you send another person the checksum and they can read the checksum on their end. If the numbers match, that means that every single bit has been transferred.
That’s something you can’t do with a disc. You can do it, but likely it won’t be right because discs are always going to lose something. The nature of the spinning medium versus a static medium, that’s just the case. So the best way to deliver music for mastering is really in a file format rather than a disc.
How long does mastering an album take?
That depends. When I did the Wingless Angels record with Keith Richards and we went to master it, we didn’t do anything. So, it just took as long as it took to listen to it back.
I’ve had records that I’ve gotten that have taken me a week to master because it’s like surgery. You’ve got to go in and you’ve got to fix the mixes.
If somebody knows what they’re doing, mastering an album can be done very quickly. But if you get something which needs a lot of work, you’re going to make sure that what comes out is right and not pass it off with a day’s work. You’re going to really work on it. It might take you a week. I’ve had that happen.
I’ve had an album take me five or six days, which is awful, especially when you agree to a price ahead of time. That’s why I’ve said to people, “I’m going to give you a price. If this all goes smoothly and I’ll do it in X amount of time relative to your price, but if you don’t like it, well you don’t blame me. It’s going to be because I didn’t have the time to do what I felt I should do.”
That fits right into the next question of “How do you evaluate and price a mastering project?”
For some people, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll say, “Send it to me. Let me listen to it. Depending on how much surgery it needs, I’ll tell you what it will cost.” I want to make sure you get everything you need.
Can I sit in on the mastering session?
Of course you can. You can sit in on the mastering session. Generally, there’s a bigger charge for that because what happens is you spend twice as much time mastering because of the fact people ask a lot of questions. If they weren’t there asking those questions, you could just keep on working and you’d save a lot of time. That’s really the deal. If you want to sit in on the mastering session, sure, if you’re willing to pay for it.
What if I don’t like the mastering results?
My attitude about it is, I’m basically giving a guaranteed result. I’m saying that I’ll do this until you’re happy.
But I want to hear it first because I’ve had people send me records to master and I’ll listen to them and say, “This record doesn’t need to be mastered. It needs to be mixed. This record sounds horrible. This is no more master-able than anything. You can’t master this record. It has to be mixed.” I’ve ended up mixing a few records because of that.
What if you don’t like the mastering results? Well, it’s not going to be because I didn’t make sure you were happy, but I’m going to be honest with you about it in the beginning.
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