For my second intensive this trimester, we undertook a course in mastering. This involved learning all the processes involved with finalising music for release including dynamics and other processing to improve sound across a variety of systems, naming and file format conventions, tagging, compiling and preparing for a rip to CD. Most of the unit consisted of learning to use analog equipment for processing, mostly to achieve higher levels of signal in tracks but also to correct issues or improve frequency balance. It was certainly interesting getting a breakdown and an insight into what mastering engineers actually do, as it is considered a sort of ‘dark art’ by many producers and musicians. The only real point of difference between an amateur and a professional mastering engineer seems to be experience in listening and improving sounds across a variety of genres and efficiency of workflow, at least once high-end hardware is assumed to be accessible to both. At the start of this intensive I was definitely confident I would learn some skills that would be quite useful later in my career.
During the first week we mostly listened to the difference between unmastered and mastered tracks, the things we mainly noticed were a higher overall level, slightly improved frequency balance and just sounding fuller and richer in general. We also listened to the differences between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ master. Of course this is somewhat subjective, but in this case the ‘bad’ masters tended to have too much compression, or the low end stood out more than it should. After that me and my current work group undertook some masters of our own, attempting to match the ‘good’ masters we had heard for the same tracks. One of the challenges we faced at this point was figuring out how the equipment was patched in the mastering studio, as we patched some things incorrectly and spent time trying to fix it in other parts of the signal path. We also had issues trying to get the limiter to be the last thing in the signal chain, since it worked as an insert, so we had to experiment in pro tools to get the desired result. Once we had all the hardware and software figured out i think we achieved some reasonable results and began to discover our individual strengths in this area.
In the second week we had a series of exercises to do that involved correcting small issues in tracks using mastering techniques. These issues included the vocals being too quiet, too much low end in a mix, and a loud hissing throughout the song. The most interesting problem to solve here was the vocals being too low in the mix, as we had to utilise mid-side processing to achieve a solid result. After learning how to patch a piece of outboard gear into mid-side mode, we proceeded to use EQ to bring up the main frequencies of the vocal in the center channel, and then bring down those same frequencies in the sides to balance it out. There were some issues we had with the compressor in particular, getting it to run in stereo link mode was difficult to figure out so we mostly avoided using it, but it worked for us eventually. We completed all of the exercises competently and I learned some new skills. We also watched a fairly lengthy documentary about the mastering process, which contained some useful tips.
The following week we had to master some tracks for other students, sound-a-like projects that had been completed recently and needed to be finalised ready for assessment. This was the first time we had to master under pressure, and we were given about 45 minutes to complete each song. We listened to the original tracks to get a good idea of what they sounded like, and tried to match them as best we could. Unfortunately one of the tracks was submitted to us incorrectly, so we only had to master two tracks instead of three, but we were still pressed for time. I don’t think we had any real issues with these tracks, I found we were able to allocate tasks quite well to get things done in a short time span and all the tracks sounded fairly good in the end.
The final week of this intensive we were to master a 5-track EP, including all of the processes that follow the audio side, editing, tagging adding time-stamps and ripping it to CD. The first part of this was finding some reference CDs so we had an idea of the sound we wanted, we ended up using a Radiohead album which we thought represented the same mood. We had a decent amount of time to complete this task and I feel like we had a strong grasp of the concepts involved in mastering at this point. After we had finished processing the audio we proceeded to edit the tracks together into one audio file so we could rip it to a CD, we learnt a bit about ISRC codes and other identifiers that are amended to an album.
These last few weeks I also started to work on my classmate Chris’ Major project, which he had asked me to co-write and play some instrumental parts for. We had a long session in one of the studios and I think we worked really well together, coming up with some good musical ideas and generally pretty efficient and still relaxed. I think the track will turn out quite well and I’ll be able to do whatever Chris needs from me.