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.
So let’s talk about on Chris’s track Apollo. For the entire album, Chris and I agreed that we wanted it to feel airy and atmospheric, but still maintain impact with the percussion and synths. Otherwise, I had complete creative freedom. Here’s what the track sounded like before mastering.
Now where to begin? First, all mastering engineers sit and listen through the entire track several times, and take notes on what to improve. Mastering requires a different type of ear than mixing or regular listening, where the engineer isn’t thinking about the instruments individually, but the frequency levels (volume) as a whole. To tweak frequency levels, we use a tool called an equalizer, or EQ. With this, the engineer is able to raise and lower certain frequency levels to help “equalize” the track. My final EQ was fairly simple. I created a very slight, broad boost around 200 Hz to help create a warmer bass tone, and give more clarity to the lower midrange of the song. The dip at 6000 Hz is to help tone down the percussion, which were starting to become a little grating upon repeated listens.
Next, I wanted to add a light compression to the track. What is compression you ask? Well, first we set a threshold in the levels. Once the music passes the threshold, the compression kicks in, reducing the volume of the louder parts of the track, and increasing the volume of the quieter parts. This makes for a narrower, but more even dynamic range. However, compress too much, and you lose all of your dynamic range. This was not something Chris and I wanted, so I made small changes to help glue the track together, lightly compressing the most of the track except for the extreme high and low frequencies.
Distortion & Reverb??
So I did all this and thought: “yeah that sounds good”. But what else can I do? I decided to play with reverb to help the airy and atmospheric sound. Reverb is not the most common thing to add to masters since it affects the entire track, and is therefore harder to control. If you’re not careful, suddenly the entire track is drowning in echo-y cave, and it sounds like mush. For Apollo, I mixed in a dash of reverb, and EQed out all of the frequencies below 866 Hz. This meant that the high-end shimmer got a dash of reverb, but all of the impacts of
the drums, synths, and vocals remained the same as before, creating a breathy feel for the high frequency content in the track. It’s definitely subtle, but helps the piece flow and creates the illusion of a physical space.
Then just for fun, I decided to try using a tool called a Harmonic Exciter. Essentially it’s a fancy distortion plugin. Similarly to the reverb, I added a touch of distortion, and slowly faded it in. You don’t hear distortion in the way you think of with an electric guitar, but instead it blurs (or distorts) the high-end frequencies of the track, creating a warmer sounding piece.
Make It Loud
Finally, I set the limiter and raised the levels of the track. The limiter acts as a very faster and harsher compressor, immediately compressing upon passing the threshold. All professional music goes through a limiter, often overdone, and as a result the piece feels crushed and lacks a dynamic range. Chris and I decided to go with a smoother limiter that wouldn’t crush the dynamics, but instead help them speak. Check out the album below to see the final product!
Mastering is a challenging art that is often overlooked, but without mastering, albums wouldn’t feel consistent, or sit at the right volume. Their job is best done when their work is invisible.
Thanks for reading, and enjoy the music! 🙂