Audio Mastering: Top Ten Tips for Sonic Excellence – Part 1 – Getting Started
INTERVIEW: An audio mastering engineer can be a secret sonic weapon for every artist and producer. Scott G interviews Art Sayecki of Art Mastering and the result is 9,000+ words in a four-part article that reveals tip after tip you can use to make your recordings sound better than ever.
Art Sayecki makes good music sound great. Even better, he makes great music sound spectacular. His company, Art Mastering (www.artmastering.com), operates the largest mastering studio in Los Angeles, where he utilizes proprietary computer algorithms and a custom built Telefunken-Neumann mastering console with vacuum tubes and solid state signal paths.
Working on projects for release in the USA, U.K., Germany, Sweden, Russia, Nigeria, Ukraine, Poland and Japan, he has enhanced audio of every description for such clients as Michael Sembello, Bobby Hart, John Murphy, Dizzy Reed, Matt Forger, Yuming, Klay Shroedel, MAKE GmbH, West Coast Film Partners, and many more.
(Full disclosure: I have worked with Art on several of my albums and on numerous commercials.)
G-Man: Obviously I know your professional background, but why are you giving us all this information? Is it part of some commercial promotion for an audio company?
Art Sayecki: I’m not being endorsed by any company and didn’t sell out (at least not yet). You are going to get my honest opinion on every subject and the truth may hurt. I’m not selling any advertising and I’m not getting paid for endorsing some product that’s supposed to do something but doesn’t.
G-Man: So you’re never going to endorse a product?
Art Sayecki: If some amazing piece of gear comes along that I truly believe in it, then I will tell you about it but without any strings attached. And if I ever decide to work with some company, you will know about it because I will tell you. I really dislike it when famous people publicly claim to like a product while in fact they are being paid to like it.
G-Man: Are you a digital or analog guy?
Art Sayecki: Both. I love digital technology. It’s great. I love the idea of plug-ins, but there are very few of them that I would consider sonically adequate to be used for mastering. Digital technology is getting better, there are many great plug-ins for mixing, but when it comes to mastering, we are still not at the point where a few hundred bucks worth of plug-ins could compare to a high end mastering EQ or compressor.
G-Man: Why can’t plug-ins compare to high-end gear?
Art Sayecki: Most so-called mastering plug-ins are no better than the EQ or compressor you already have in your digital workstation. And it is not about the sampling rate, because 192 kHz is plenty. Nor it is about the bit resolution because 24bits is also enough. It is about the algorithms. There are an infinite number of factors that define the sound of a piece of equipment.
Art Sayecki: Yes, I said infinite. In order to model the factors in the digital domain, we focus on the most significant ones and we try to model them the best way we can. We have a pretty good idea about the fundamentals, but in most cases we still fail to capture many important details and that’s where the finesse and subtlety of the best analog mastering equipment lies.
G-Man: You don’t like the digital mastering EQs that are commercially available?
Art Sayecki: There are some very good digital mastering EQs out there, but the effort that goes into their development is reflected in their price. For example, Weiss EQs cost as much as a new car. A good quality digital mastering EQ may be priced well in excess of $10,000. The stratosphere is the limit. And a $100 bag of plug-ins will not compare no matter how pretty they look and how nice the box.
G-Man: Does this mean some indie artists are priced out of the market for pro mastering?
Art Sayecki: Some say they can’t afford it, but I doubt that because here at Art Mastering, we offer discount rates for indies, we master some records as low as $500 per CD, and we also offer payment plans. But if you cannot afford that, then you have to accept the fact that your record will not sound professional.
G-Man: Are there any steps artists can take on their own?
Art Sayecki: You’ll just have to do the best you can with the plug-ins and gear that you already have. Better to improve your recording, mixing and production rather than wasting your money on yet another pseudo-mastering plug-in that won’t do the job. If you get a great mix, you can master it at any time later on. Oh, and if you really have amazing talent but you are totally broke, then call me, tell me about yourself, and we will try to figure out a way.
SECTION ONE: Trying To Get CD Quality Sound At The Mixing Studio
G-Man: The phrase “CD-quality sound” has become a commonly used phrase, but what does it really mean?
Art Sayecki: Originally, “CD sound” was a result of combining the benefits of digital technology with the experience of professional engineers who paid their dues cutting vinyl and recording in the analog domain. Like all new technologies, CD pressing and preparation were initially very expensive and they were beyond the reach of an average indie artist.
G-Man: You could only get CDs from big record labels.
Art Sayecki: Correct. Large record labels had the budget to make sure the material was tweaked and massaged by whole teams of professionals to get a top notch sound. This practice established a very high level of audio quality which was then hailed and praised by the critics and then widely accepted by the public.
G-Man: The first CDs were made by extending the old vinyl mastering process?
Art Sayecki: Sure. Mastering was invented way before CDs, so the tricks of the trade were already known to the pros when they started dealing with CDs. They just improved upon the already known process and adjusted it to the requirements of the new technology and in turn gained more sonic options. And voila, the CD-Quality sound was born.
G-Man: Why do some CDs sound so much better than others and why do major record label releases sound so polished and nice while a great many indie releases don’t have this quality?
Art Sayecki: Mastering is the answer, and from my experience, 8 out of 10 indie artists, engineers and producers never worked with a professional mastering studio and 6 out of 10 don’t understand what mastering can do to improve their sound. Some of them may have come into contact with semi-pro or home-mastering but most of them don’t really know what professional mastering can do to transform their sound from an ugly ducking to a jet propelled firebird. OK, I’m exaggerating, but not much. The difference can be dramatic but one needs to know how to get it and it is not just the mastering engineer who shares the glory, it is also the artist, engineer and the producer. The whole team is responsible because the material that you give me has to be of at least average professional quality before I can turn it into a great sounding CD.
G-Man: What happens in a recording studio that helps or hinders mastering?
Art Sayecki: During a mix, a recording engineer will try to get the best sound to impress the client, and that’s a normal thing. Most engineers do it by tweaking the highs at around 12-18 kHz to get that sparkling sound and boosting the bass at around 20-500 Hz to get the punchy low end. I have seen this time after time. If you boost highs on cymbals and acoustic guitars and lows on kicks and basses, then you get this sound that aims to be CD-sound, but it really isn’t, it is just a wannabe.
G-Man: So it’s fooling the ears of inexperienced listeners?
Art Sayecki: Correct. Excessive boosting of the high frequencies and bass in the recording studio isn’t such a good idea. Keep in mind that in the past, on many analog mixing consoles, the highest EQ band was placed between 12-14 kHz, and occasionally 15-16 kHz. So in the mixing studio, you really couldn’t boost too much of the high end without sounding artificial. The high frequency sheen and sparkle and the bass punch were added during the mastering session. When CD technology emerged, this practice continued to deliver the best results and it still does today. I’m not bashing the digital workstations, they are great, I use them on a daily basis and love them, but one needs to just know what to do with them and what their limitations are.
G Man: Give us an example of mistakes often made in the recording studio.
Art Sayecki: Properly recorded cymbals have much more high frequency content then a human voice. So if you boost the track with cymbals by 3 db you probably have to boost the vocals more than 3 db to keep them from being buried and slurred by the shimmer of cymbals. Now let’s say you boosted the cymbals and you decided to also boost the vocals, do you do the same with bass guitar, kick drum, electric guitars and all other instruments? No you don’t, because then the entire mix would sound shrill and sharp. The phase shifts and the distortions from adding too many high frequencies on individual mix channels can create a very unpleasant sound so most indie engineers just boost the selected instruments because that’s how they remember it sounding on CDs.
G-Man: Does this apply to analog or digital?
Art Sayecki: This applies to both analog and digital workstations. So in most cases, engineers just boost the high end on cymbals and vocals and add some low end boost on kicks and bases.
G-Man: And that’s why some people think this it is CD sound?
Art Sayecki: Unfortunately, they do. Is this a CD-quality sound? Definitely not! On most well mixed and mastered CDs, one can hear every high frequency detail of every instrument including a kick drum. If you boost just cymbals and vocals you actually cover-up and bury the high frequency details of all other instruments.
G-Man: So what’s the secret to boosting the right frequencies?
Art Sayecki: Many mixing engineers don’t realize that a high quality, custom built, mastering gear can boost selected frequencies up to 20 db (and in some cases even more) and all that without sounding harsh or shrill or boomy, just the opposite, the high end mastering EQ can actually add a round and silky presence, ambiance and bass definition that otherwise is not there.
G-Man: I’ve heard artists claim they can “sort of” do this kind of mastering.
Art Sayecki: This is just impossible on a digital workstation or analog mixing board. So that is why, at Art Mastering, we designed our own custom equipment. Go ahead and boost the highs or bass 20 db with a plug-in EQ and see what you get… It will be worthless!
G-Man: That’s why you keep asking me for well-balanced mixes, even if I think they sound a little dull.
Art Sayecki: Exactly. If you send me a well balanced mix, even if it is a little dull, I will run it through my magic black boxes and make it sparkle like the most expensive diamond. But if your cymbals are too bright, then when I enhance the sonic spectrum they become even brighter and they just kill the vocals and the entire mix.
G-Man: And why can’t you find just the right frequency for the cymbals and tweak it to my liking?
Art Sayecki: Unfortunately, the high frequencies of vocals and various instruments overlap with those of the cymbals. And even though there are various mixing and mastering techniques to deal with it, such as stem-mastering, but with a traditional stereo mix, the excessively bright cymbals leave me much less room to work with and less latitude to turn your mix into a masterpiece because my hands are already tied.
G-Man: Same with compression?
Art Sayecki: Too bright and too boomy mixes face an additional problem during compression. If your bass and highs are excessive then I’m limited in terms of compression as well. If I squeeze it too much trying to get the maximum loudness, then bass and highs will sound unnatural or they will start “pumping” the compressor. So not only do you limit yourself in terms of sonic spectrum but also in terms of loudness.
G-Man: I have to confess something…
Art Sayecki: What?
G-Man: I hate dull-sounding mixes.
Art Sayecki: I’m not advocating making dull and boring mixes. Quite the opposite, feel free to add some high and low frequencies when they are needed but be moderate. If you think it needs 4db at 14 kHz, it probably only needs 2 db. Don’t try to make it sound like a CD at the mixing stage because you limit your options and the end product probably won’t be as good.
G-Man: What’s the percentage of poorly-mixed material from indie artists?
Art Sayecki: I would venture to say that 80% of the indie material that comes to my studio is too bright or has too sloppy or too excessive basses.
G-Man: What about noise when you have to boost something a lot?
Art Sayecki: Don’t worry about the noise floor. When a mastering engineer boosts any frequencies by, for example 10db, it doesn’t mean that the noise floor is also boosted 10 db. Anyway, these days the noise floor on most mixes is so low that it is not even a concern, and you can be assured that high end mastering equipment, either analog or digital, will have a better signal-to-noise ratio than your mixing board or digital mixing workstation.
G-Man: If you could sum up your advice for this section, what would it be?
Art Sayecki: Keep your mixes balanced and not too bright or too bassy. Shoot for soft highs and tight basses. Don’t try to get the CD-Quality sound at the mixing studio. Let professional mastering do the rest.
[tags]gman, G-Man, Scott G, Music Critics Must Die, music rants, mastering, Art Sayecki[/tags]