What You Need to Know about Mastering

What You Need to Know about Mastering

Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer Vlado Meller is considered to be one of the “masters of mastering.” His studio in Charleston, South Carolina is part of the Truphonic Recording studio complex and features gear he has refined and perfected over many decades. Vlado got his start cutting vinyl at CBS Records in 1969 and has been a mastering engineer ever since, working on hit records in all genres of music, from rock, pop, hip hop and heavy metal, to jazz, classical, dance, opera and Broadway. He has mastered records for a long list of superstar artists across styles, including the Beastie Boys, Andrea Bocelli, Johnny Cash, Celine Dion, Kenny G, Michael Jackson, Lil Wayne, Linkin Park, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Metallica, Oasis, Pink Floyd, Public Enemy, Shakira, Barbra Streisand, Jack White and many more.

 

Vlado 1a (2) (640x457)

 

Vlado talked to me about his long career and how the mastering process has changed since he started out in the industry. He also detailed the finer points of conscientious mastering, and why good mastering is so important for artists looking to make their recorded music sound its best.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Thanks so much for taking some time to talk to me, Vlado. Tell me how you first got involved in the music industry.

 

VM:

 

When I came to this country in 1969, I was looking for a job, and CBS Records was hiring big time, because they were building studios and mastering rooms around the country, in Nashville, San Francisco, Los Angeles, etc. And they were particularly hiring tech people who could build consoles, etc., because CBS was known for building all their own gear. They would buy components from manufacturers, but they would pretty much build everything else from scratch, including recording consoles, mastering consoles – everything was built at CBS’s studio main facility at 49 E. 52nd street.

 

I was hired by CBS Records that same year, and since then, I have been doing pretty much nothing but mastering. While I originally started as a tech guy, a year to a year and a half later I entered the mastering world, and continue successfully mastering in my own studio to this day.

 

Mastering used to be all about cutting vinyl. All the older guys who are still mastering came from vinyl days. We were the real analog people. Everything was done on tape, and editing was done using razor blades. After you finished your mastering, you would cut the vinyl “reference” for the client. Then the client would take that disc home and and either they approve the master or reject it. Vinyl was the only medium at that time. Later on, cassettes and CDs came along, but when I started, the only thing you had was vinyl.

 

It was a very time-consuming process back then to create vinyl, because vinyl is very dependent upon the length and type of the program, and each mastering engineer would go through the process in a slightly different way. We all had to put it into a vinyl format, but if a client’s program was 27 minutes or longer per side, it became difficult to cut, because the space on the vinyl for a 17-minute record, 20-minute record or 29-minute record is identical. So, the longer the record, the more creative you would have to get with fitting the grooves on to that limited space, without causing degradation of audio or – even worse – skipping.

 

I cut vinyl from 1971 to the late 1990’s. Around 1986, we started to master for CDs. It was the start of the digital revolution in mastering. Vinyl was still a main media for music, but it was the start of a slow decline for vinyl as CDs were picking up steam with consumers.

 

Music Consultant:

 

And how did that change the process?

 

VM:

 

It was a drastic change and a brand new learning experience. In 1986 when Sony and Philips developed the CD, suddenly we started to transition from the analog world to digital mastering. Instead of razor blade tape editing, we were introduced to the first digital work station. All the recording, signal processing, editing, EQing, and assembly were done in digital format.

 

From 1986 on, we gradually began doing more and more digital mastering. Analog was still coexisting with this upcoming new format, but digital recording and mastering were becoming much more prominent. By the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the majority of mastering transitioned to digital, since CD sales steadily outpaced vinyl sales, although we would still prepare a separate master for vinyl release.

 

Today, I would say recordings are 98-percent digital and 2-percent analog. There are still a few clients doing analog recordings and it’s all good if their release is geared for vinyl. But at the end of the day, everything becomes digital if the program is going to be released on CD or a DVD,

 

Music Consultant:

 

The guys at Daptone do their work in vinyl.

 

VM:

 

Sure. There are still collectors, but digital has really overtaken the recording world. With the younger generation driving the music industry, it’s all about digital. Every album winds up on a smartphone, iPad or computer hard drive, so the analog world of recording is slowly fading away. Every once in a while, a label will do a limited vinyl release for which we create a separate master for cutting. Companies will press a limited run of 5,000 -10,000 copies to satisfy the vinyl lovers and collectors.

 

Music Consultant:

 

So, you track stuff, mix stuff, and then hand it over to a mastering engineer. To my ear, that just sounds like an ultra-fine EQ and compression, but I don’t have the finely-tuned ear of a mastering engineer. How does the process work?

 

VM:

 

Mastering engineers work with individual songs or tracks that were prepared by mixers. These days, there are very few albums that were done by one mixer, one producer and in one studio. They are often done at different places. One song could be done in L.A., one in New York, one in London. Every album has 10-15 songs, so sometimes you will end up with 15 different files from four different studios, with three different producers and four different engineers. A record company might throw that all at you as a mastering engineer and say, “This is it.” They will give us really specific instructions about what they want done to the song. So, as mastering engineers, we take all these different recordings and songs from different studios and make them into one unified album.

 

If you put 14 songs on a CD, and every one sounds different, it is a problem. You don’t want the listener to have to turn the volume up and down, bring treble or bass up and down as they are listening to the CD. We are the ones who decide what the final EQ and the levels will be as well as what the overall sound of the CD will be. We also create the fades, crossfades and any other edits or sound adjustments that clients request. We work closely with mixing engineers and producers to find out exactly what they want to hear.

 

Mastering engineering is very different from mixing and producing. Mixers and producers create the mix, layout of instruments, vocal effects, and balance, whereas mastering engineers take that mix and bring it to another level for the best possible sound for commercial release. Every mastering engineer has a certain sound signature. And honestly, there are only a handful of mastering engineers to this day who do mastering for major labels throughout the world. If the producer likes a record I did two or three years ago, they will call me and say that they’re ready to work with me again because they liked my work back in 2013 for example, and would like a similar sound for their new project.

 

At that point I start talking to the mixing engineer or producer to get familiar with their new project. Sometimes I’ll get a few mixes for a test, just to see if the sound post-mastering is close to what they are looking for. If they like what they hear the mastering process begins. As I mentioned before, all the files are delivered in digital format for final mastering.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Well, and the track mastering on an album is one thing, but I know people master singles. Where does that fit in?

 

VM:

 

Singles are individual songs, so you don’t have to match them to anything, but you still have to enhance them for the best possible sound, whether it’s for the radio, iTunes or whatever format the client decides to go with.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Of course. What does this enhancement entail?

 

VM:

 

Enhancement means I run the song through my choice of EQs, compressors, DS’ers, or whatever I think the program needs. Clients trust my decision, as I consider myself as having the best speakers out there. They enable me to hear whatever the deficiencies are with the mix, and to make any corrections that’ll lead to a more exciting, clearer, punchy, and powerful sound. I will work on it until I am satisfied with the overall sound of the song. This part of the process is an x-ray of the mixer. We pretty much QC [quality check] the whole master, from beginning to end. If there’s a need for too much “fixing” I can request another pass on the particular song/mix from the mixing engineer.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Is this a difficult conversation to have?

 

VM:

 

A mixer is invested in making sure his or her mix sounds right, because they were hired for the job by the artist, producer or label. The same goes for the mastering engineer. We work together to deliver the best possible sound to our clients. Both of our names will appear on the credits eventually. Most of the corrections can be done in mastering, though in some instances the mix has to be revisited by the mixer in order to correct. Thanks to the processing tools available in digital mastering, a majority of problems can be “fixed” in mastering. That was not possible in the analog days. Obviously going back and forth between mastering and mixing can become costly for the client, so all of us have to be very aware of it. There are certain steps we all have to go through in creating a final master. Everybody is equally involved in this final stage of production – the producer, mixer, A&R person from the label and last but not least, the artist. To release the project for final distribution we all have to be on the same page – 100% happy. They wouldn’t let me finish and then release an album if it doesn’t sound right. So, I am not the final guy in the approval process, I am just the final guy in the creation process. I create the final masters when they tell me everything sounds great and beautiful.

 

Music Consultant:

 

I’ve been told that, while mastering is the fine-tuning you speak of, the compression and the micro EQ, some of that compression actually helps music sound better on radio. Is there any truth to that?

 

VM:

 

Absolutely. If you took a flat master and listened to it in the studio, you might be very impressed. But then the engineer might burn you a CD, and you’d play it in your car, or on your home stereo system and the sound suddenly loses the excitement you were expecting. It’s flat, low level, and just not a very exciting sound. In the car you would hear more of the engine noise than your recording. This is especially true with classical music and jazz, because there are a lot of quiet sections and different dynamics through out of program.

 

As a mastering engineer, I enhance the overall program levels, adjust the frequencies, and create a smooth flow from song to song, but try to keep the dynamics as much as I can, depending on clients’ requests. I create a new master that you can take and play anywhere – in your car, in your home with the dog barking or your kids listening to their music loudly next door. You will be able to enjoy it. Your music will be optimized for radio, your home stereo, boombox, TV your smartphone, or anything else.

 

Pretty much every record that has come out since I started working in 1969 has had to be mastered. We even had to enhance every master for vinyl record. And therefore vinyl record was always better than the actual tape master, unless the tape master was long in length. Some artists were releasing records that were 31 minutes per side. So, obviously it was impossible to fit that many grooves on to the vinyl. Engineers would have to trim some levels or roll off some trouble frequencies to make it fit. So, in that case, the tape master sounded better than the actual vinyl. But if the program was 17 minutes long or less we could bump up the bass, adjust the mids and highs, so when people played it on a turntable, everybody was rocking and the vinyl record was reproducing a great enhanced sound created by the mastering engineer.

 

Good mastering brings the mix to life.

 

Music Consultant:

 

I’m surprised by the breadth of your discography – everyone from Andrea Bocelli to System of a Down.

 

VM:

 

I have been a very lucky person. Working for one of the biggest record labels in the world – CBS Records – exposed me to a huge and most diverse catalog of music – classical, Broadway, pop, jazz, R&B, country and later rap and hip-hop. When I started to work with Chuck D and Hank Shocklee in the early ‘80s, rap was still unknown, but it was slowly starting to surface. Whatever artist I was asked to master, I would gladly master.

 

Many independent mastering engineers at that time decided to specialize – some doing only classical music, some only jazz , some only pop. Unfortunately, in five to seven years, half of these people were out of business. If a guy was known for classical music, then suddenly one of his clients had a record that wasn’t classical, they would pick another engineer. I was very lucky and happy that I did what I did. My specialty was and is every type of music.

 

A lot of people questioned why I’m cutting vinyl records for classical label -Masterworks – but then also working on vinyl with Chuck D. And I would say, “Why not?” I know what each particular genre of music supposed to sound like. I was exposed to it daily. I would master whatever came at me: Bob James, Kenny Loggins, Pink Floyd, Paul Young, Chuck D, Vladimir Horowitz, Nick Lowe, George Michael – and I can go on and on and on.

This has been a very rewarding job because I have been trained to work with everyone and every genre of music. Engineers who pigeonholed themselves into one genre of music often lost half their clients regularly.

 

Working with a lot of different types of music also helps me cleanse my “ear palate.” If you only listen to one type of music, you’ll burn out quickly. I love to do rock n’ roll and heavy metal. But if the next day I get a classical record, I am happy. It’s relaxing and soothing, and it resets my ears for when I need to do something else. Next day I can go on to master a heavy rap album, no problem. I think the same thing goes for mixers. I have mastered Kanye West’s tracks and Bocelli in the same week.

 

Music Consultant:

 

I would find that difficult.

 

VM:

 

It really isn’t. From the outside, it seems like it would be. But I enjoy the variety and I like to make it sound better. I do not analyze every piece of music and think about what that artist should’ve done better or should’ve done instead; whatever that artist did, I respect it. My job is try to make it sound better, and they trust my ears. They trust that I can make their master sound better than what they initially heard in the studio. At the end of the process, it goes back to the artist, and often the artist will make the final call to me and say to me, “It sounds amazing, I love it.” Then I know I did a good job, and it makes me happy. Again, all that success goes back to my start in the business, the way I was trained by best in the business – CBS’s mastering people at that time. They were the pioneers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, cutting vinyl and mastering. It’s very hard to learn mastering these days, because where would you go to learn it? The opportunities in this field are very few and hard to find.

 

Music Consultant:

 

It’s like that with a lot of music industry jobs, but especially with studio jobs.

 

VM:

 

It’s a very closed circle that is difficult to penetrate unless you get to assist a really good mastering or mixing engineer. Then you have a chance. But even then, your chance is limited – just because a client likes my sound doesn’t mean they would necessarily like my assistant’s sound and style. I only need one assistant. But I am really glad and ready to pass my mastering experience on with the kind of hands-on training I received at CBS Records. This is why I started to offer my mastering workshops here in Charleston, South Carolina – we have had people come from all over the world, and it’s been really great to see them then go off and develop their own mastering careers wherever they choose to settle. These are small but intense workshops, 3 or 4 students maximum.

 

The beauty with mastering is that you can give the same song to three different mastering engineers and you will get three different-sounding CDs back. The artist ultimately has to decide which sound they like the best. These days, we do a lot of shoot-outs. The producers and bands don’t know who to pick, and sometimes they will get three very different recommendations. So, the producer will take one or two songs and give one to me and one to two other guys. After all these years, I still have to do that. Otherwise, I may not get the job. I participate in it, even when it’s someone I have known and worked with for past 30 years. The stakes are so high for producers now that they want to make sure the end product is absolutely perfect.

 

Music Consultant:

 

If you have a big client these days, you have to hold onto them.

 

A lot of my clients and the people I talk to in the music industry regularly will have similar questions about mastering, because it can be very confusing to them.

 

First of all, a lot of producers are offering iTunes-specific mastering now. Would you do that with a record that was already mastered? Why would someone do this? It seems like a bad idea to me, personally.

 

VM:

Once you establish a good working relationship with the artist, producer, and mixing engineer, they will more than likely come back for the next album. If they liked my mastering results, I become their mastering engineer for future projects, hopefully.

As far as producers offering mastering for iTunes-specific mastering now, I am not aware of that. The mastering engineer involved on the project is the one who creates and supplies the hi-res master for iTunes. Also, whoever that mastering engineer is, he or she has to be certified by Apple to be able to deliver that master to iTunes.

Mastering for iTunes means that the master has to originate as a hi-res file. It should not be created from a low res file. iTunes gets the high resolution mastered master in the same sampling frequency as the original client’s master supplied for mastering. The majority of files delivered to mastering are 96 kHz and 24 bits. For CD mastering, we have to convert it to lower resolution – 44.1 khz and 16 bits. Four years ago, iTunes decided they can create a better quality sounding albums for consumers if studios would supply the hi-res final master for their production. When someone wants to master for iTunes, we keep the program at hi-res throughout the mastering process, without conversions. Then, iTunes gets that master, and they’ll put their proprietary AAC compression on it. The quality is much better than supplying a 44/16 file to iTunes. The consumer will get a much better quality sound for downloads from iTunes.

 

Music Consultant:

 

So if someone comes to you knowing they are going to do a strictly-digital release, should they ask for both the hi-res and the lower-res versions?

 

VM:

 

For CD manufacturing the final master will be 44.1 khz, 16 bit, regardless of what the original files sample rate frequency was. We will convert the final master to 44/16. For iTunes it will stay in the native resolution supplied by the client – hi-res. As I mentioned before the program has to be recorded in hi-res, or else it won’t work. You can’t turn lo-res file into high-res and have it sound good. You’re just creating a fake hi-res file. The higher the sample rate of the original recording, the better the quality.

 

Music Consultant:

 

And is it the mastering engineer’s responsibility to encode the metadata, or does that fall to the distributor?

 

VM:

 

We do pretty much everything. Labels will supply the mastering engineer/studio with all the necessary information needed to be encoded in to a final master in form of a PMCD or DDP: ISRC codes, proper titles, UPC codes, catalogue number assigned to the album and any other information needed for domestic or international releases. With major labels, the master goes through another final QC check by their own QC department. The label can change/modify the metadata if there is a need for that. They cannot modify the sound.

 

Music Consultant:

 

Why do you think some people still don’t understand the difference mastering makes in the process of making records?

 

VM:

 

I think the main reason why some people don’t understand the mastering process is mainly a lack of information out there about mastering and what mastering does for an average record. We were always operating in the background as the last step in the recording process. With vinyl we were the ones who created the record. You would never know it, since the credits in the back of the album did not mention the cutting engineer. Only in the mid 1970’s did we start to get credits on albums we worked on. With the introduction of CDs and digital recordings/digital workstations, fast computers more people became interested in mastering, because suddenly they could manipulate the sound themselves with various music programs and software now available to an average consumer. Having a capable laptop and music software supplied with it doesn’t make you a mastering engineer. But what it did, it created a whole new generation of young people interested in recording and mastering process for the first time. Professional studios and labels always knew about mastering – not to mention every album out there available to consumers has been mastered. Anyone who wants to know what difference mastering makes needs only to listen to the original, unmastered file and then listen to the mastered file. They would be blown away by the difference.

 

To learn more about Vlado Meller and the work he does with artists, visit the Vlado Mastering website.