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What Is Mastering?

What Is Mastering?

Last week I finished mastering Red Lights for Warning Skies, Chris Burgess’s first EP and final project at Berklee College of Music. Putting together any type of album is an extremely difficult process with many different steps, but today I’m going to focus on mastering, and its role in the production. Mastering Vs. Mixing So what is mastering? Maybe you’ve heard of it, or maybe not! Mastering is the final step in the music production phase, and often confused with mixing. So how do they differ? Simply put, a mixing engineer works with over hundreds of tracks, while the mastering engineer works with just one. The mixer will balance all the elements from “lead vocals”, all the way to “cymbal swell 3” and blends them together to form a cohesive track. Once the mixing engineer is finished, he or she renders a stereo audio file of the entire track, and the job is finished. The mastering engineer takes that single stereo audio file, and makes the final tweaks, adjusting the volume and frequency levels, and occasionally adding in reverb or slight distortion. However, since there is only one track, mastering engineers are unable to make tweaks to the cymbals without affecting the vocals and guitars as well. This makes mastering a game of compromises, where fixing one element sometimes damages another. As a result, the tweaks made are often very slight, and not noticeable on their own. With mastering, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.   Polishing Apollo So let’s talk about on Chris’s track Apollo. For the entire album, Chris and I agreed...
5 Things I’ve Learned Pursuing A Creative Career

5 Things I’ve Learned Pursuing A Creative Career

On July 8th, I packed up the majority of my life, shoved it into a car, and began the cross-country trip to Los Angeles. I had no job lined up or opportunity awaiting me. My Dad and I spent a week driving through the US, stopping at Niagara Falls, Pikes Peak, the Grand Canyon, and a couple others along the way. If you’re moving somewhere, I highly recommend making it into a sightseeing adventure. Five months later, I have a job; I’ve worked on some extremely cool projects, and met an amazing group of people who have been welcoming and supportive. Starting a new life and career is challenging anywhere, so here are some things I’ve learned that made it easier.   Lists I’ve found that making lists is the best thing ever. If you already do this, congratulations – I wish I had figured it out sooner. There is something so fulfilling about creating a list, and then crossing off each item as it’s completed. Having a list gives you the feeling that you accomplished something that day, even when work is slow. I like to add simple tasks to it as well, such as “get groceries”, or “take a walk”. Anything that I know I need to do that day, but might not do without some prompting, goes on the list. And at the end of the day, I feel productive and satisfied.   Routine Having lists helps create routine, and routine is something difficult to come by when you’re working freelance or assisting someone with odd work hours. All of us are creatures of habit, and...
The Basics of Game Music Interactivity

The Basics of Game Music Interactivity

Game music has evolved exponentially over the years, moving from beeps and bloops of Space Invaders to the lush orchestra of games like Uncharted and Halo. But even though there are 30 plus years separating these games, there is one unifying musical element that links them together; music interactivity.   Reactive Music! Now what is this music interactivity you speak of? Music interactivity refers to how the soundtrack adapts to player input and varying game states. Why this is this important? At their core, games are just another storytelling medium, much like film and TV. However, the unique feature of video games is that the story is nonlinear. When you watch a film, every event happens exactly the same way every time. This is not the case in games. Every person’s play-through of a game is slightly different. Maybe the player doesn’t go into that cave, or encounter that character, or engage in a battle. Since these choices are in the player’s hands, it makes it difficult for the music team to predict the player’s actions, and as a result, nearly impossible to write a linear score. So composers and sound designers developed systems within the game engine for music to adapt to player choice, and music interactivity was born. Over time, game designers have developed three main ways to create scores that respond to player input, hence the name interactive. These three methods are known as branching, layering, and crossfading, and are still used today. However, some audio teams choose to blend the techniques to create a more intricate and musical score.   Branching First let’s talk about...
Music Interactivity In Hearthstone! – Part 2

Music Interactivity In Hearthstone! – Part 2

So last week I talked about how Hearthstone’s music changes while the player navigates between the different menus of the game. (It’s actually really interesting, and you can read about that here!) Now I’m going to geek out about how the music changes during actual gameplay!   A Worthy Opponent But first, you must choose your deck. As I mentioned last week, no music plays in the pre-game lobby. All you hear are various crowd ambiences creating the illusion of the bar you’re playing in. However, once we choose a deck and click “Play”, the music kicks back in. We hear Blizzard’s version of slot machine music complemented by an extremely fast spinning wheel indicating that you are searching for a worthy opponent. The game randomly chooses one of four different pieces each time you search, helping to make each match feel different and to keep you from becoming annoyed every time you start a match. However, the coolest part about this is that the tracks Blizzard uses are excerpts from the music of Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness! These excerpts are then looped, and heavily filtered and processed to sound like they’re coming out of a slot machine. Additionally, this is the only time that the music loops in Hearthstone (although I tend to find opponents so fast I never reach the end loop). Otherwise, every piece plays from start to finish. Listen to Hearthstone’s version, and one of the originals from Warcraft 2! Once our opponent has been found, the sound effects and screen change covers the fade out of the “searching for opponent” music and the fade in...
Music Interactivity In Hearthstone! – Part 1

Music Interactivity In Hearthstone! – Part 1

All right let’s talk about Hearthstone! This is one of my favorite games currently, and I could rant about it for a VERY long time. There are so many cards, characters, and types of decks… but today I’m going to talk about the music interactivity! As you may know, Hearthstone is Blizzard’s card game based off of the Warcraft lore. Every card and character ties back into the lore somehow, tying all of the Blizzard games together. However, the music is done by Peter McConnell, a composer not part of Blizzard’s in house audio team. He’s best known for his work on Broken Age, Psychonauts, and Sly Cooper, and his Hearthstone music is great too!   “Come on in! It’s cold out there.” So back to Hearthstone itself. I launch the game, and am welcomed into an inn/pub by a cheery dwarf who tells all his friends to make “some room by the hearth would ya?” As this opening dialogue takes place, the menu music enters simultaneously. This is the first piece of music we hear, and it beautifully draws you into the inn/pub atmosphere with acoustic guitars, solo violin, and various hand percussion. This music is only heard at the main menu, and doesn’t loop right away. (In fact, none of the music in Hearthstone loops! All of it has natural endings and waits a set amount of time before the next piece enters.) After it finishes, you hear crowd sound effects to create the illusion of active pub, and then maybe 15-30 seconds later; the main menu theme starts all over again. While this is a great...
Interstellar: What to Listen For as You Watch

Interstellar: What to Listen For as You Watch

My friends and I went to an early screening of Interstellar a couple days ago and saw it in 70mm film and IMAX. I went into the film with very little knowledge of the plot, score, or really any idea of what I was getting myself into, other than it would be about SPACE. So let’s talk about the sound. I had read a few articles saying that the sound mix for Interstellar had possibly ruined the film. Critics are saying that dialogue was hard to hear at points, and that it took them out of the film. And that’s all I knew as I went to see Interstellar. I actually really enjoyed the sound and music to Interstellar. This is easily my favorite Hans Zimmer score (although Gladiator is another favorite. Check that out here!) and the sound team made some very interesting choices that worked really well in the film, and differ from a lot of sci-fi films being released today. Space is actually silent! Sound first. The dynamic range of this film is huge. Interstellar is one of the few films that choose to make space truly silent. There is a sequence where it cuts from inside the spaceship, to back outside the ship as they launch probes. The sound goes from a gentle ambience, dialogue, and the flicking of switches, to complete silence. You could hear everyone in the theatre for a few seconds, which is so rare in films today. On the other end of the spectrum, the amount of low end that they managed to fit into the mix is amazing. Maybe IMAX...