What is mastering, and what do you do to my music?
It’s the final stage of the music production process. You’ve recorded and mixed your music. Mastering is the final polish. We use eq, sometimes compression, and sometimes a few other tricks to make your music sound balanced and properly leveled (the right loudness) so that it will translate well to different audio systems. It can give your music a little extra “impact” and make it sound a little more “like a record.” It can make your music sound a little wider, add a little sparkle or aggressiveness, soften harsh moments, and reveal detail.
Nonetheless, well-done mastering should not dramatically change your music (unless you ask for that). We can improve things, but don’t rely on the mastering engineer to fix serious problems!
What is your Modern Mastering approach?
We believe we do mastering form the artist’s and producer’s point of view. I (Everett) have hired mastering studios as an artist before and been frustrated with my ability to get what I wanted. We try to understand what you want your music to sound like and help you get there. We love artists and want artists to sing our praises. We’ll do just about anything to make you happy!
We are humble. We know we can’t just get it sounding good on our high-end speakers and guarantee that we’ve “nailed it.” After we’ve worked on your music, we listen to the result on multiple days and on multiple speakers, because we know you have to live with the result for a while before you truly know what’s just right and what needs extra tweaking. Given only one afternoon to work on a project, all mastering engineers are fallible—even the most experienced ones! A humble approach is crucial for a mastering engineer to do his or her best work.
We are conservative. We address problems where they need to be addressed, but we try not to overprocess. If music sounds good coming in, it shouldn’t be changed very much. We are willing to recognize when a mix already sounds just right, and do little or nothing to it. Music must sound natural, or it’s not listenable. Overprocessing may make music sound initially impressive (loud, compressed, bright and sparkly), but usually at a cost of listenability.
Do you master from stems? And what are stems?
Although most mastering projects arrive at our desk in the form of a stereo master, we are more than happy to master from stems.
Stems are “mix components,” which, when re-assembled, sum to the original complete mix. It’s sometimes advantageous to send us stems because they give us additional flexibility. For example, suppose the mix needs brightening with eq, but when we make the drums and instruments sound maximally impactful, the vocal gets too edgy and thin. With a stereo mix, we’d have to compromise by making the mix less bright than it should be to protect the warmth of the vocal, while making the vocal slightly more edgy than one might like in order to give the overall mix impact. But if we had a vocal stem and an instrumental stem, we could brighten the instrumental stem exactly as much as necessary, and perhaps brighten the vocal significantly less, allowing us to have the best of all worlds without compromise.
Indeed, probably the most common division of stems is a vocal stem (with vocal effects included) and an “everything else” stem. But sometimes bands make a “just drums” stem or a “just bass” stem. All of these can give us additional flexibility.
What are the most common problems you encounter?
That’s easy. Muddy, flabby bass and harsh midrange. We have ways of dealing with both, although if a mix is seriously muddy, or seriously harsh, it should be re-mixed.
What are your top priorities in mastering?
Our overarching priority is to achieve BALANCE and LISTENABILITY.
Our first priority is to get the bass right. We work hard to get bass to sound full and round while without being muddy or taking up “too much energy.” It should be clean and satisfying, and not get in the way of the rest of the song. You can go with tighter or more expansive bass—either style can be done cleanly. But many artists know what I’m talking about when I say all too often, bass comes out flabby and muddy. We won’t let that happen to your music!
Our second priority is to preserve the beauty of the vocals. Well-recorded vocals can become edgy and harsh if the mastering studio just goes about cranking high-end to get the record to “sparkle and shine.” You have to take great care here. As the artist, you will listen carefully to your whole mix, but your listeners will focus on the vocal, and the vocal should sound inviting—even if it’s nasty punk rock! There is sometimes a natural tension between these first two priorities. Pulling out lower midrange frequencies (focused around 180 hertz) can clean up your bass while thinning out your vocal, so this is a balancing act we undertake very carefully. (For you mixers out there: it’s helpful to make sure there’s not too much energy in the bass guitar track around 180 hertz, and not much energy there or lower in any of your other instruments. That way, your mix won’t be too muddy, and we can effortlessly leave all the yummy warmth in your vocals.)
Our third priority is to preserve the natural sound of your overall mix. It’s easy to over-compress, over-brighten, over-widen, or pull out harmonic enhancers to add “sparkle” to a song. It sounds so impressive! Plus, it gives the mastering engineer an ego boost because he feels he “did something significant” to add to the song. But the result is overprocessed, unlistenable music. The mastering engineer should leave no noticeable footprint, and music that doesn’t need a certain process should not receive that process. A mastering engineer, at root, must be willing to do NOTHING, if nothing is what’s called for. So we aim for a natural, easy-to-listen-to sound. This applies to all styles from classical to hip hop to punk to folk.
Our fourth priority is to avoid listener fatigue. Compression and brightening are often part of the mastering process (although less so today because many mixes arrive at our desk already sufficiently bright and compressed, courtesy of the mix engineer). There must be dynamic range, and not too much sustained brashness, for a listener to want to continue listening to your album for its full duration. Overprocessing to make music sound initially impressive or sparkling is dangerous. We certainly want your music to sound big, wide, impactful, and impressive. But we also want your fans to fall in love with your record, so we work hard to achieve impact without listener fatigue.
Our fifth priority is to avoid brittleness. This is not the same as mid-range harshness, and occurs at higher frequencies. Modern digital recording can sound brittle in the very high end—not because digital is “cold and lifeless” as some claimed it was 20+ years ago (and perhaps they were right), but because digital recording gear doesn’t struggle to preserve fidelity at very high frequencies (above 10k) as tape and vinyl do. With digital recording, high frequencies are perfectly preserved, and hi-hats, shakers, and high overtones can easily become “too prominent.” This gives recordings a brittle sound that has become a subtle but recognizable hallmark of digital home-made, demos. We smooth that out for a silkier, more “analog” sound. (Although it should not be called “analog,” because very well-recorded, mixed and mastered digital recordings will sound beautiful in the high end.)
Our fifth priority might sound boring, but it’s to get the levels right and get the songs to hang together properly. This, actually, is the main job of a mastering engineer: the songs should hang together properly on the record. No one song should be too much brighter, or have too much more bass, than another song (although if you don’t allow for some difference, you’ll end up with songs losing their inherent character), and listeners should not be forced to reach for their volume control to compensate for one song’s being too loud, another song’s being too soft.
If we meet all our priorities, your record will be simultaneously impactful, impressive, energetic, warm, and effortlessly listenable, regardless of style.
Why should I hire a mastering studio rather than master my own record?
You could master your own record! You might well achieve good results. But we do think it’s very helpful to get a new, and experienced, pair of ears to listen carefully to your music and apply a finishing touch from a new perspective. It’s not that expensive to have your record professionally mastered, and if the mastering engineer really listens to you and understands what you want, it will improve your record’s sound and act as an invaluable check on your own mixing work. If there’s a problem you weren’t aware of (due either to your monitors or to your narrow focus from having worked so long on it), a good mastering engineer will catch it and address it. If your record already sounds great but you’re not sure, a mastering engineer can apply relatively little processing and provide you with the assurance that you didn’t miss anything important.
Also, it’s helpful to have your record mastered by someone who uses his or her mastering tools daily and has a deep experience of what processes are likely to enhance a song, and what are likely to be a waste of time.
How do I send you my music?
You can use our upload tool here on the website, or you can have us set you up a dropbox folder.
Can I be at the studio for my mastering session?
Right now, we do not host artist-attended mastering sessions. But we can talk to you throughout the day as we work on your music, send you samples for comment, and make it as close to your being there as possible.
Do you mix?
Occasionally, we will mix a record, and we think we’re great at it! (You can hear some of our mixing work on our SoundCloud page.) But mixing takes longer, is a bit more expensive, and is subject to engineer and studio availability. If you’re interested in mixing services, speak to Everett directly by calling us.
Do you use a lot of expensive, exotic analog gear?
We use both digital and analog processing, depending on the material. We have high-end analog eqs and compressors as well as the best digital mastering plug-ins. While the belief that analog gear sounds warmer and “has magic” persists, in multiple double-blinded tests, we have confirmed that there is no discernible difference in quality between the two, and we are not the only studio to obtain such results. We use whatever tool sounds best for your song. However, if you insist on one kind of processing or the other, we’ll be happy to oblige. Some artists insist on analogue gear because they simply feel digital processing robs music of some kind of warmth or soulfulness (we don’t think so, but we have the gear to do it all-analogue—plus ultra-high-end boutique A/D-D/A converters—if that’s your preference). Some artists prefer all-digital for its easy recall-ability. Our suggestion is that artists just let us use the combination of gear and plug-ins that we think enhances your music best. Whatever we use, it’ll be recall-able.
Do you have a “go-to” signal chain?
Some mastering studios have a go-to chain, but we really don’t. We have some habitual things we do (we usually try to get control over bass and midrange problems before applying a full eq curve, then apply compression after that, then de-easing in the rare case it’s necessary, then add multi-band compression unless it makes the music sound worse, then deal with brittleness as the last stage), but nothing is set in stone.
How fast can you turn my music around?
Usually within 3 days. If we get really busy, it could be longer. If we’re super busy and you want to pay extra to have us rush your project, we can do that, but usually you won’t have to pay extra, and it’ll be just as though we rushed it anyway. Our recommendation is that you NOT be in a rush when you’re mastering. We like to work on your project and then listen to it on a different day to check our own work, then have you listen to it and send us suggestions and additional tweaks. It’s not uncommon for you to be tweaking your music days and even weeks after the original session—which we’re happy to do. It’s worth the extra time to be fully satisfied as you take your music to the world.