There comes a time in every home recordists life when knowing what all of the terminology used in the recording business becomes de rigueur. Otherwise, when someone asks us a question about what we do and we can’t answer it, we are intimidated. We may be led to feel that it is our business to have ‘all of the answers’.
We don’t feel stupid, and for the most part, we aren’t. It doesn’t take rocket science or a degree in engineering to write or record music. It does, nonetheless, take experience. After some amount of time, we get a feel for certain things, our ears become attuned to certain audile anomolies and other things that ‘normal’ ears would overlook. In a word, we get better at what we do (as long as we can remain objective) until finally, it becomes second nature.
But there are other things that we never approach, or perhaps may, but never know it. One of these things is what people refer to as mastering. These days, the word is a misnomer, but continues to be used. Mastering once referred to the cutting of an acetate disk from the master tape. Now, unless you happen to be one of a dying (or revivified) breed of artists who offer their releases on vinyl, the term has simply become a catchall reference to any post-mix processing.
Mastering houses whose primary objective is to stay in business will advertise that mastering of a CD is a necessity for a properly finished product, and there are those who would agree. Words to describe the art of mastering range from ‘balanced’ to ‘lounder’ and ‘polished’.
As one might suspect, I’m still out on this one. After all, I balance in the mix. If I want anything louder, my power amp has a knob labeled ‘volume’. And polished is a cool adjective, but some of this ‘polish’ seems to give limited return on my investment.
I’ve had a few of my ‘more elaborate’ tunes mastered by different individuals to see what all of the fuss was about. I sent one .wav file half way around the world to a fellow in Bulgaria (at his request, no less) who offered to do the job pro bono, and he really did a kick-ass mastering job. But to say that it was better or worse is a lot like choosing between chocolate or vanilla. It was different.
But then, I master my own stuff. I just didn’t know it. I’ve gotten to the point that, in order to arrive at my destination more expediently, I do a lot of stuff during the recording process that (in the analogue kingdom) didn’t used to be done until post-production. Dangerous stuff. For instance, I am notorious about recording with wet signals, but as I have pointed out in past articles, I hear the finished product in my head, and I instinctively know how much of what to add. Plus I have my tones EQ’d and sonically buffered the way I want them, and I can tell how the end product is going to sound when I put it all together. Gaining this skill only took…well, thirty plus years of flying by the seat of my pants and making several horrible mistakes. I’ll still screw up every now and then, but I usually have everything dialed in.
Yet, after all is recorded and mixed, (partly out of that lingering self doubt) I have a 31 band stereo EQ tied to the programme rails. Why? Well, there’s always the chance that I’m wrong about how good everything sounds once I get it all nailed together. I don’t have the EQ there to make huge changes in the mix, however. Were that necessary, something would be better off re-recorded: EQ cannot save a sucky recording. It can remove a bit of booming midrange or annoying brilliance for instance, if this is all that is needed. I hardly ever move the EQ into the positive range. We really can’t add something that isn’t there, but I’ll always nip and tuck into the negative, however.
Also, I still (partly out of tradition) drive the hot programme mix through a stereo compressor, even though I record almost all of the individual tracks through channel compression of some sort. Chain-ganging the programme mix is a good way to smooth out any unruly peaks while the expansion gooses the quieter passages. I don’t run everything through a $30K ‘mastering compressor’, but I don’t record through $10K Neumann mics, either. In my case, the ends justifies the means. Result? My tape recorded, ‘in-house mastered’ CDs still come off as being better engineered than a few ‘professionally mastered’ vinyl (or were they styrene?) records that I bought in the seventies.
I have to realistically consider how, 75% of the time, these tunes are going to be listened to anyhow: mp3 format online. The worst possible way.
Why should I kill myself grooming the bass curve?
However, this question would be a completely different matter were I thinking about having some vinyl pressed. And I understand that the legions of bands offering vinyl are growing. This could be a good thing, but if any of my readers are considering having records pressed, you must be aware that you’ll need to record and mix your music a whole ‘nuther way in order to get the best audio out of the vinyl, and keep the real mastering engineer from pulling his hair out. Vinyl records have physical limitations that have to be observed, otherwise you may consider your project ruined.
I’ll tell you more than you need to know in my next installment, but for now, just remember to record the bass guitar in mono!