What is Mastering?
There have been many views as to what mastering actually is, and there is still a lot of mystery as to what the mastering engineer does and how he does it. It seems in this day of “software=professional”, there is a concept floating through the music industry consciousness that there is some sort of formula or preset that once known, will work like a magic pill.
Mastering has two components: assembly and interpretation. Assembly is simply putting the songs in order, setting the pacing, and keeping the song levels consistent so the album holds together as a complete entity. But defining the interpretive aspect is a much more abstract exploration. This is where experience and creativity combine to define the individual imprint of the mastering engineer.
What I believe this translates into is the facilitation of the transfer of information. The listener must effortlessly and viscerally comprehend what he or she is hearing without any conscious thought. Any obstruction of this process will impede the listener’s ability to experience the music. This means that all the important components that make up the music must be clearly presented and working together so the listener instantaneously “understands”.
For example, if the mix is too heavy in low frequencies, there may be lack of detail in the kick and bass, and what they are actually doing may be indiscernible. Then the perception of the groove is impaired, and the song feels sluggish and lacking in energy. Or perhaps the midrange is overloaded to the point where melodic elements are obscuring one another. This will lead to masking of some of the components and a lack of intelligibility. It could be compared to watching a movie out of focus.
What this boils down to is that the harder it is for people to understand what musical language the artist is speaking, the less chance there is for them to be interested by it. The human attention span has never been shorter than it is today. And there has never been so many entertainment options available. The more an audience has to work to comprehend the music, the less they will be paying attention to it.
Mastering is being able to listen to a piece of music and knowing what is needed to maximize the transfer of information. It doesn’t come in a software bundle, or magic box. It comes from years of listening and understanding what is important and what works so that the music reaches and touches other people. And no matter which tools are used to attain this goal, the most vital piece of equipment in the mastering chain (in my opinion) is the listening environment. If you cannot hear what is going on with the music due to inaccurate acoustics, you can only guess at what you are doing.
the two things I would advise anyone to look for in a mastering facility
Neither of these comes quickly, cheaply, or in a piece of equipment or software bundle.
I gave a songwriting course a few years ago, and a lot of people have been asking about it. I don’t really have any time to give the course, but here is the Syllabus for those interested.
To be a writer you have to commit to a lifestyle and develop the tools and concepts that will allow you to evolve and develop over a lifetime. This type of program is more difficult and takes longer to master, like most disciplines.
There is roughly 40 years of pop history before you, and you have to have good habits and developed skills because you are not going to come up with anything original. On the contrary, you will be revisiting what has already been done thousands of times by artists who had much stronger and provocative influences. So you have to develop your skills just to try and approach their level of art.
You are not developing or inventing any new style, on the contrary, what you are currently exposed to, and what most of you have grown up with, is an ever devolving and diminishing scope of art. It is homogenizing and diluting in scope, so you must learn from the giants who have proceeded you.
is pretty comfortable, and most of the wars concerning the evils of
society have been fought and largely won. Make no mistake, we must remain
vigilant and continue to fight against these evils, but the western
world is fairly politically correct and prosperous.
Being of the Echo Boomer Generation, most of you grew up materially fairly well off with parents who no longer suffered from the generation gap. You may even like a lot of the same music, TV, art etc. So with the social ills vanquished, the well fed, pampered Western man has little oppressive forces spurning him to create great art. Great art comes from suffering and sacrifice. So we must learn all we can, and develop all we can just to try and gain some motivation of the spirit to find the Undiscovered Country.
Master of Form: Components that make up a song:
own facility will limit you as a Writer:
the more facility and foundation you have, the easier it is to deal
with a leap of imagination when you run into them. If you have limited
facility, when you encounter a creative leap, you will:
All this leads to frustration and blockage of the creative process.
Musical Journal: portable cassette or minidisk best
a. Culture and the Individual Reality:
that can be attributed to the universality of a culture can be attributed
to the unique reality of each individual. While there are collective
points of view, usually held by people of specific countries or geographic
regions, each individual will hold a unique perspective on each topic
relative to his own:
This reality will intersect, mirror and parallel the collective in many ways and deviate in others, and it is in the commonalties that allow the collective to make sense and identify with the individual, and in the differences that can hold the attraction and fascination of the collective.
The writer must manipulate the collective reality and its components
and focus it through his own unique perspective and observations to
present the collective with
Finding the Undiscovered Country:
Lloyd Price once said to me: “Bryan, you got to be true to yourself”. It sounds like a simple phrase, but it is incredibly profound. To be completely true to yourself, you have to really understand yourself. Some people I know are well into mid-life and still do not truly know themselves. Even when you think you are being true to yourself, you may not be. It is very hard to identify what and when outside forces are influencing you. It could be fashion, music, family, friends, peers, society. It is quite easy to go on living without ever realizing that there are some real gaps in your perception of yourself and the world around you. Usually the more experience and contact with other people, your perception expands and reevaluation occurs. And thus you can become closer to being “true to yourself”.
It is also a relative concept. You can be “true” to the self as you now perceive it. And this is the best we can hope to achieve at any given time in our lives. But it is often very hard to enter the Undiscovered Country at will. You must cultivate your ability to access this part of yourself. There is a lot of stuff that can get in the way, and it usually takes years of writing before the trip is reliable. It is rarely effortless.
You know things that you don’t realize. You have seen things you don’t know you’ve seen. And you have experienced things you don’t know you have experienced. It is all locked up in you head, and you have to look at your life and dig it out. These things can be great truths and powerful events that may be affecting you in ways you don’t even know. And they are usually powerful forces in the Undiscovered Country. You must dig them out and try to make sense of them. All that separate enlightenment and ignorance are shades of perception.
acknowledging and exploring you personal culture and reality and starting
to explore the Undiscovered country, YOU WILL DISCOVER SONGS INSIDE
YOUR HEAD. You have to start writing from what you know to get something
meaningful, and you know more than you think.
A. Clichés and the One True Idea:
True Idea and Encumberment:
Melody-centric composition tends to have a greater degree of staying power as the history of pop moves forward into the 21st century, and is generally stronger compositionally. You can copyright a melody, but not a chord progression.
Starting with Words: starting a lyric can help orient your song towards melody-centricity. Because a writer is more inclined to put a melody to a lyrical phrase. It is as simple as that. And melody is a more progressive concept than rhythm. Rhythm is repetitive and therefore more inclined to be of a static nature when applied to a composition. So it you are looking for a way to propel the song along and have development, it can be helpful to begin with a concept that is more likely to provoke change and forward movement of the work.
This method is usually employed by beginners who have not really developed their creative processes and by seasoned writers who are writing for specific artists or business interests. The beginner is at the mercy of his influences and not his imagination, so he goes for the familiar.
II: Art as Master
Young writers tend to write about themselves or people they know. And while this is fine, at some point you need to find more compelling subject matter. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s worthy. And at this point the young writer usually gets stuck inside his own experience. This is why it is very important to nourish your mind.
Musically limited writers can’t play well enough to let the music flow and get bogged down just trying to find the music and then lose their train of thought or leap of imagination. They also will be less likely to run into useful mistakes that would propel the music in a new direction. So at some point you need to learn how to play.
Working with machines/computer nonlinear editing:
Leaps of imagination are triggered by deviations or mistakes made by the writer as he goes through the song, and if you are restricted by the machine, you will not make this leap because your mind will generally be closed to it. It is sometimes good to work with restrictions as an exercise or if you are working on predetermined content, but in the genesis of the song, it will inhibit your creativity, and in the long run your ability to work without machines. If you do not develop you craft on many levels simultaneously, some aspects of it will not develop.
Working organically allows your mind to connect ideas together and intertwine them in ways that will be inhibited if you just paste them together in a computer. Loops have finite harmonic and rhythmic content, if you write in the box, you stay in the box. So keep the machines to a minimum.
Engaging the Secondary Consciousness: this is the ability to have the conscious and perhaps unconscious mind working on your creative projects when you are not actively doing so. It will give you the ability to have your mind working on obstacles or problems you are encountering in your writing while you are going about you other life activities. The more tools and skills you give your mind, (all the things we have discussed to make you a better writer), the less you need of your brains computing power to create, or think of it as a better, faster and more powerful computer you have built inside your head. So it can work on problems when you are not actively doing so. And you will find that solutions will come to you seemly by themselves.
In order to maximize the class situation, everyone must be willing to support each other so that everyone can derive the most development within the group setting. People must be willing to expose their art and accept criticism, knowing that there is no malice or pettiness involved. There can be heated discussion, competitiveness, and conflict all in being passionate about your art, but there also must be the acceptance of the fact that most of the art being exhibited is flawed and in need of development and improvement. The writers must trust in other people in the group even when harsh criticism is levied. But everyone also must realize that their own heads will soon be on the block. It is all right to rip someone, just make sure they feel the love while you are flailing their hide.
Growth from a Group:
The creative process should be fed by, and therefore, start to consume more of an individuals conscious world if it is continually fed. And a lot of the time, this really has to do more with your state of mind while also being a lifestyle. It should be like a creature that continually grows inside your head. The more you feed it, the more space it takes up, and the bigger it gets, the more it participates in your conscious and subconscious life. And the more you contribute to the creative facilities, the easier it is to create.
Integrity in the Context of: Artistic Credibility, Originality, Self
Indulgence, and Commercial Success:
The most we can ask of any developing artist is that they do their best with the ability they have at that point in time, and accept criticism as part of the developmental process. One must strive to improve his ability, knowing that the art they are creating, while perhaps flawed, is a snapshot of their development at this stage. It is an artistic barometer of how far they have come at this stage in their life, and possibly a reflection of what has happened in their personal history as well.
Success as Artistic Justification:
with and without machines or recording your song too early:
2. It should also flow lyrically. It should seem that the words just merge with the song, and have no points where they sound forced, (rhythmically, rhyme), and seem to make sense with the theme of the song.
The Visual Lyric and Concrete Images:
*could give them picture and have them start from there to write lyric.
What is the most important piece of gear in the recording chain?
This question has been asked repeatedly over the years, so I am going to give you an answer. But first, let me set up the context:
My preferred recordings were made before 1990 reaching back to the 1950’s.
The advent of digital brought 2 things with it: The analog-to-digital conversion process, and the shift in the industry from a professional to a consumer based model. During the analog era most recording was done on professional tape machines (generally) of outstanding sound quality, but this has been replaced by digital storage, and the A/D/A processes encompass a much wider range of sound quality, (or lack thereof). The recording medium has shifted from a qualitative, (analog tape), to a quantitative, (sample frequency and bits), format. For the sake of this discussion, I will just say that you should get the best conversion available for what you are doing. This will be the ceiling of your sound quality.
The most important entity in the recording process is the sound source. But this has to do with the ability of the musician, and the quality of the instrument, and is an artistic choice. So it will be discounted for this discussion.
In this context, the most important piece of equipment in the recording chain is the microphone preamplifier. Now let’s discuss this assertion.
Bring your knowledge and experience, and leave your ego out of it. (The rampant over-use of compression is an entirely separate topic, so let’s just forget about it for now.)
In my opinion, there is little need for either equalization or compression when recording. In fact, if one does require any other processing, (barring manipulation for artistic effect), it is as a corrective measure to make up for a poor signal from the preamp. Given a good sound source, a great preamp will negate the need for corrective processing by delivering a full, rich signal teaming with personality, detail, and relevant dynamics. Poor preamps can be characterized as thin, hyper-dynamic, sibilant, or overly colored. These characteristics can arise from low quality components, wimpy power supply, too much negative feedback within the circuit, not enough drive in the output stage, bad circuit design, poor linearity, or any combination of the above.
Sibilance that requires de-essing is just transistor distortion of a transient, usually in the first stage. It is the sound of a gain stage cracking from the SPL. That is why all those old tube recordings have no sibilance. Tubes gently roll off the transient before the amplifier goes into hard clipping.
My favorite preamps have one knob, (gain), or none. The perfect amplifier is a straight wire with gain, and we are all still searching for it. The more buttons or switches on a box, the more processing or stages employed, and the greater the signal degradation. If you feel the sound is lacking, and begin to reach for an equalizer or compressor to “fill in” what is not there, you probably have the wrong preamp for what you are doing. That is not to say that preamps are uncolored, everything is colored. It just comes down to how much damage/enhancing the unit is doing. Remember that each piece of equipment plugged into the chain degrades the signal. You have to decide whether the amount of damage justifies the process being employed. Each separate component inside a unit affects the sound. You can’t get around it.
greatest demand in the industry seems to be for the “everything
box”. I hate to tell you that while these boxes may do a few things
well, they will never do anything great. It goes the same for guitars,
amps, bicycles, whatever: If you want it to be great, go for the unit
that is optimized for one function.