I've always thought of mastering as sort of a dark art. You send your finished mix off to the mastering studio and some cultured individual takes it into a room rich with walnut paneling and dons a smoking jacket, pours some cognac and several hours or days later your mix comes back sounding even better. OK, maybe it's not quite that impressive, but maybe the reality is even more impressive. If ever there was a repository for rare and expensive analog gear it's the mastering studio. Picture a signal chain where every device is more expensive than your car and as rare as hen's teeth.
But just the other day I heard a couple mastering engineers discussing how they go about the process and for once it didn't have anything to do with settings on an L2. They were talking about how they hear the material and go about applying their craft to it. It turns out it's right up my alley!
The thing is, they're trying to make improvements to a mix, not my manipulating the tracks like the mix engineer did, but by looking at the entire audio spectrum and gently applying subtle EQ curves and dynamic processing. We're talking adjustments of tenths of a dB in some cases. But what totally blew my mind was they way they talked about hearing the spectral content and sometimes completely missing the song!
I've listened to music that way my entire life. To this day I have to listen to a song a pretty long time before the lyrics start to sink in. It's worked out pretty well for me as a live engineer, because I can very quickly hear how a room will affect the sound I can tune a system up in a hurry. Then as I move on to mix, I start out by listening to the entire spectrum of sound and get things balanced, then I start to pay attention in a more musical fashion and do things like bump guitar solos and whatnot.
Going into studio work, I don't often have the luxury of sending out for mastering, so I have to do it myself. I'm also usually pressed for time, so I've devised a technique to kind of fake it. I set up a multiband compressor on the two bus right at the start of a project. Then as I went along mixing I would start to hear when I got into it and kind of let that guide me. It worked a lot better than trying to just dump it on at the end and getting surprised by how it behaved.
Now that I've got a better picture of the process I'm starting to think about how I'll apply my plugins after my mix is done. I'll still mix into the multiband, but then I'll take it off and start to make decisions about where to apply compression. If I want the mix to pump with the kick drum or if I want it to be on its own. On the EQ front I'll be looking for any spots that could use a little taming or some additional sparkle.
If you're looking to read more, there's a good series on mastering over at ProSoundWeb, here's the link: 10 Questions About Mastering
What do you know about mastering? Care to share a few tidbits?