Audio Mastering: Top Ten Tips for Sonic Excellence – Part 4 – Final Steps
INTERVIEW: Plug-ins, dynamics, compression, the use of maximizers, and so-called home mastering are all part of the aural landscape dealt with by mastering engineer Art Sayecki. In the conclusion of this interview with Scott G, everything gets fixed in the mix, including the controversial concept called artmastering. Part 4 of 4.
BONUS SECTION ONE: Plug-ins, Compression, Reverb, Maximizers
G-Man: What happens when well-mastered material is up against poorly crafted sounds?
Art Sayecki: I was recently invited to a visit a songwriting seminar in Los Angeles which was attended by publishers as well as songwriters. During the seminar I noticed that mastered demos were heavily preferred by the publishers during the listening sessions even though in most cases this preference was entirely unconscious.
G-Man: Did anybody mention mastering as the reason?
Art Sayecki: No, they just liked certain songs because they sounded better. I thought that songwriting quality would be more important but it didn’t seem that way.
G-Man: Were good songs overlooked?
Art Sayecki: A few excellent songs that were presented as a voice accompanied by piano were almost entirely ignored over those that had luscious instrumental arrangements and were professionally recorded and mastered even if not that strong from the songwriting point of view.
G-Man: Did you confront any of them?
Art Sayecki: When I asked a couple of publishers about the sonic quality of the presented material, they replied that the marketability of the track is very important to them and that it is much easier to promote a good quality professional sounding demo over a voice and piano scratch track.
G-Man: So even at a place where songwriting should have played the key role…
Art Sayecki: It was actually the recording, production and mastering that were leading the way.
G-Man: You know that some people are still going to try mastering at home.
Art Sayecki: If for whatever reasons you decide to master yourself then here are a few tips for you. First of all use your ears.
G-Man: Well, duh.
Art Sayecki: Yeah I know it sounds a little trivial but it really isn’t. Time after time I see artists who are swayed by advertising, packaging or user interface more then the actual sound of the plug-in. There are countless great looking plug-ins out there that have an awesome user interface and pretty packaging but they sound mostly dreadful.
G-Man: Forget the facade and focus on the sound.
Art Sayecki: Exactly. Record a few different versions with different plug-ins, play them to people, get their opinions, and then make your final decision. All you really need is a handful of good plug-ins, but learn how to use them before you actually apply them to your mixes.
G-Man: With processing of any kind, it’s easy to go overboard.
Art Sayecki: Usually, the less processing, the better. The more plug-ins you use in your signal chain, the more chances are that your mix will end up muddy, harsh and unpleasant. Keep in mind that distortion introduced by one plug-in can be magnified by the subsequent plug-in that you use. The order in which you apply the plug-ins can make a big difference. For example, applying EQ before compression will most likely produce a different sound than applying EQ after compression. Pick the one that pleases your ears.
G-Man: What about compression?
Art Sayecki: Be judicious with compression. Most mixes produced on digital workstations are over-compressed. Excessive compression masks sonic details and makes the material sound unnatural. Narrowing dynamic range may be beneficial if you are trying to achieve a quick sonic impact but it may be very tiring for a longer listening. Try to find the right balance. Listen to your favorite records and try to mimic their sound.
G-Man: The more bands of compression, the better?
Art Sayecki: Feel free to experiment with multi-band compressors, very often they prove more beneficial then single band compressors. If you only need to tighten the basses then there is no need to apply the squeeze on the electric guitars or vocals, so select the appropriate frequency range and ratio and compress only selected frequency range that is troublesome and let the rest of your mix breathe.
G-Man: How about reverb?
Art Sayecki: Reverb is very rarely applied during mastering. I almost never add reverb during mastering unless the client specifically requests it.
G-Man: But sometimes it is necessary and there’s no time to go back to mixing.
Art Sayecki: If you have to add reverb during mastering then select the most transparent algorithm you can find and be very modest. Usually thick reverbs add mud.
G-Man: Can you EQ first?
Art Sayecki: You may also consider equalizing the signal that you are sending to the reverb plug-in, in order to emphasize, de-emphasize, or even remove certain frequency ranges. That way you will have more control over the character of reverb and you can apply it more selectively only to the frequency range that really needs it.
G-Man: What about maximizers? I use one on commercials if there’s no time or budget to hire you. But what about on songs?
Art Sayecki: During home mastering, maximizers can be used to boost an overall loudness of the track, however they may also add mud and cause your low frequencies to sound sloppy. Again trust your ears. Try several settings and select the one that gives you maximum loudness and the most pleasing sound.
G-Man: Some people say it’s really just all a matter of compression.
Art Sayecki: Some maximizer algorithms are derived from compressor or limiter algorithms and sometimes they can be substituted by using compressor or limiter. So compare your mix with a maximizer plug-in applied and with limiter or compressor applied and select the one that sounds best. I personally like to boost the low frequencies with the EQ before I ever reach for compressor or maximizer. Additionally, the maximizer plug-in will also reduce your dynamic range so if you go too far your mix will sound ugly, squeezed and small.
G-Man: There are also plug-ins to do all kinds of other things.
Art Sayecki: Depending on your individual needs, other plug-ins may be applied as well, for example to remove noise or to enhance or widen the stereo field.
G-Man: But the fewer plug-ins you use…
Art Sayecki: …the better your chances of getting a clean master. Each plug-in alters the sound. On some workstations even plug-ins in a bypass mode may alter your sound, this shouldn’t happen but it does, and some companies are more interested in turning a quick buck than in making good quality product.
BONUS SECTION TWO: “Artmastering” and More
G-Man: I need to ask you about the term “artmastering,” You coined this term to describe a mastering approach which in my opinion is one of the more interesting developments in the recording arts. Not only because it opens new artistic possibilities but also because it is very liberating in terms of making recordings. How did it all come about?
Art Sayecki: Back In February of 1999, my company began experimenting with stem-mix mastering and various other rather unorthodox approaches to mastering in order to improve the sound of mixes done on digital workstations which were becoming more popular. We noticed increasing numbers of harsh and unpleasant sounding mixes that were rather difficult to master. This was partly due to the use of digital plug-ins which at that time were rather technologically primitive, and also to equally unevolved digital hardware. The rather grim state of digital affairs coupled with other known problems associated with traditional recording sparked in us a few original thoughts
G-Man: So what steps did you take in developing a new approach to CD mastering?
Art Sayecki: At first we began by testing every plug-in that we could put our hands on, and comparing it to the analog gear in our possession. We were aiming to find out their shortcomings, and then we tried to counteract them by enhancing and softening the sound and minimizing the digital harshness using our custom designed gear. We also tried doing it on stem-mixes with sounds processed separately. We called that stem-mastering (or stem-mix-mastering). The stem-mixing wasn’t anything new, I first heard about it when I got into sound production in the seventies but we were arguably the first to use it in a mastering suite as a technique. This was all very cool but we still felt that there was something missing and that artistic expression was being enslaved and subjugated by the technical thinking.
G-Man: And this led you to artmastering?
Art Sayecki: Yes. One day in February of 2000, I basically turned off all my equipment, and pretended I forgot everything I knew about mastering, and asked myself a fundamental question: “What is that every artist really wants to accomplish with his/her music?” And the answer to this key question was quite revealing. It hit me that it isn’t a great frequency response or a killer signal-to-noise ratio; it isn’t even a great sound, though that is certainly welcome. Artists really want to make an emotional impact on listeners. They want to express their thoughts, hopes, and emotions and find a way to communicate with the audience on an artistic level. So I called this new approach “artmastering” to emphasize that it focuses on the artistic content of the music rather than the technical aspect of the process.
G-Man: This makes sense. When I pick up my guitar and start writing a new song I don’t think about technology, other than what is absolutely necessary to capture the sound.
Art Sayecki: Exactly, what is really important is how to create and deliver the new artistic expression. The quality of your sound is important but it is secondary. During the process of artmastering, an artist and engineer together explore the artistic aspects of audio material, and devise a method, process or technique to accomplish the artistic goals by all means necessary.
G-Man: So how does artmastering compare to traditional mastering?
Art Sayecki: Just like in traditional mastering, artmastering tries to achieve the best sonic results but as defined by the artistic sense of human beings rather then by some dry and emotionless technical specifications. Who really cares what is the frequency-response or signal-to-noise-ratio if the music sounds great. This doesn’t mean that engineers performing artmastering don’t pay attention to sound quality. Just the opposite, we love an excellent sound as much as anybody else but we are not bound or restricted by the traditional dogma of sonic quality.
G-Man: Can you give us an example?
Art Sayecki: During artmastering, an acoustic jazz recording may come to shine by applying only the most subtle and sonically transparent signal processing, while a grange-rock recording may in some cases benefit from a brutally harsh and even distorted sound which may magnify those aspects of the performance that will have the greatest impact on the listener.
G-Man: So really there are no limits as to how far you can take it.
Art Sayecki: With the permission and assistance of the artist, I may use any equipment or technique necessary. I can delicately or radically alter sound of a recording and in some extreme cases even change tempo, the key or even the nature or content of the composition to get the maximum emotional impact on the listener.
G-Man: Why would someone want to do that in a mastering studio rather than in the recording studio?
Art Sayecki: There are many reasons. For example, you as an artist, after finishing a recording, may gain a new insight into your work. You may find new dimensions of your work that you didn’t even realize existed. At that point, going back to the recording studio would mean starting all over again from scratch. This is just too much, and is often counterproductive, because the same or even more interesting result may be achieved in a mastering studio with artmastering. Let’s say you want to give your song a heavier or more transparent sonic texture and on top of that you want to alter the tempo and the key of a chorus passage in your song. There is no need to go back to the recording studio and re-record, re-mix and then re-master the entire material. It will cost you thousands of dollars and a lot of time while I can have it done in just a few hours with the same or maybe even more interesting result using artmastering.
G-Man: Looks like this is a subject for an entire book.
Art Sayecki: It really is. Now since you mentioned it I guess I will have to write one, (laughing).
G-Man: Any last words?
Art Sayecki: Your ears are the most important aspect of the process, so train them by comparing and listening to various software options and various pieces of gear equipment. And take good care of them. Most artists like loud music, especially if it is their own. Loud mixes may damage your hearing, particularly in the high frequency range in a way that you will not even notice. So when you start bleeding, it may be just the sign that you were looking for to let you know that your playing is a bit too loud.
G-Man: You know me, I wear earplugs at clubs, but it is tempting to blast a track every now and then.
Art Sayecki: I love to crank the amp pretty loud myself at times, but for a musician, hearing is perhaps the most valuable asset that one can’t afford to lose. In the studio, I turn down the volume a bit and during concerts and rehearsals I use a special kind of ear-plugs that allow me to hear the entire frequency range of the sound but at a lower level. And even though those plugs are not cheap, they are definitely cheaper than the value I place on my ears. It’s very much like the protective gear you wear when riding a motorcycle, you can still kick some butt while minimizing your own risk. So plug up, crank up and have fun.
G-Man: Thank you for this interview and for your advice.
Art Sayecki: Thank you, G-Man, for taking the time. I always enjoy reading your articles. You have made a great effort to help the music community and I respect that. I just try to do my part. I love working with artists and listening to new music. This is the greatest part of my job and I’m really glad that I can share a bit of my experience so we can all make better music together.
Conclusion of a 4-part article. Visit www.artmastering.com for more information.
[tags]gman, G-Man, Scott G, Music Critics Must Die, music rants, mastering, Art Sayecki[/tags]