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Hey Kids! Forget Mastering Until…..!

Brandon Drury —  July 18, 2009 — 25 Comments

I haven’t pissed anyone off for a few days so I’m about due. Writing Killer Home Recording has really taken time away from my audio civil disobedience. I still haven’t recovered from Vietnam (I was born in 1980.)

In this robo, over the top, one-sided, devil’s advocate style blog I’m going to point out one concept. I can’t wait for the four letter words to fly, but the proof will be in the pudding….or the video.

Hypothesis:
If your mix isn’t already turbo bad ass, mastering isn’t the solution.

Evidence:
In this video, Butch Vig, that no-talent ass clown (wait, wrong guy), pulls up the tracks for Smells Like Teen Spirit off the Nirvana Nevermind album.
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErcJ2kUC4Wg

Analysis:
One thing strikes me as interesting right the bat. These tracks sound finished! The sound of that record is there even in this “rough” state. Hearing the solo’d tracks and such makes me wonder exactly what they did during mixing because the damn thing sounds pretty much finished with the faders all basically at unity. In fact, I’m so impressed by the raw tracks that I have to wonder if there was really a song improvement from mastering at all.

Now, it’s possible that they did a milllion, zillion things to all these tracks and then printed the tracks into their DAW to make playback easier for the documentary. That’s irrelevant in this case. Regardless of the mixed state of this thing, one thing is clear. The tracks, in their rough Youtube state, sound badass and we can all agree that they were not mastered.

What Is The Role Of A Mastering Engineer?
A mastering engineer is kind of like a baby doctor. (I refuse to learn girl medical crap when I can read about potential holes in Einstein’s theories.) Dr. Baby Doctor is there to be the final authority at the end of the child manufacturing process, address potential problems, and make sure the thing comes out alright. (You don’t have to refer to a baby as a person until you have one.)

Most of us don’t have to track our family trees back too far to find a few cases where no baby doctor was present, but few of us have a problem listening to The Doc when the umbilical cord hits the fan. With that said, the amount of intervention desired of The Doc varies from personal to person. Some people want a natural child birth without modern dope and cutting edge robotics. They just want the Doc to be there in case something bad happens.

There is one thing I think all of us males can agree on, regardless of our views on the role of The Doc. No guy wants to let The Doc take part in the initial creation phase! (The role of additional chick nurses in that department is subjective.)

Where we, as recording guys, draw the “initial creation” line also varies. However, it’s clear in this case that Butch Vig and Nirvana had their sound DOWN long before they stepped into the mastering studio. The sonics of that record were already there long before the mastering engineer got a hold of it.

What Did Andy Wallace Do?
Andy Wallace is THE rock mixer. He’s gotten his hands on some of the most desirable rock tunes of all time for my generation and is about as bad ass as they get…..or is he? While we’ve had to speculate as to the exact state of the tracks Butch Vig was toying with, it looks like a beginner could pull the faders up and call it a day. When tracking is seemingly that good, this whole mixing thing seem to be on the level of what a monkey can do. Most of us only dream of working tracks that sound THAT good.

Before You Attack
So for those of you are are arming up to retaliate in your defense of mastering, I just slammed the mixing process too. You are going to need a bigger cannon. It kinda reminds me of a mix with three instruments and two of them are a bit too loud. It’ easier to just push the third instrument up a bit. In other words, when the four letter words fly, why not instead of going way out of your way to defend mixing AND mastering, why not instead go ahead and slam the tracking process?

I’m not expecting anyone with more than 30 minutes of recording experience to slam the tracking process. So I expect all we’ll be fighting about will be the relative importance of each stage of recording. While the importance of mixing changes from to song, it’s clear that a song that revolutionized the world certainly didn’t lean on the mixing process THAT hard.

So Why Write This Blog?
Since my aim is not necessarily to slam mastering, but to identify it’s clear purpose, why would I write such a blog?

  1. Way too few people have any real understanding of what mastering is. Speculation and overemphasis on audio recording forums seems to run rampant.
  2. Even worse, way too few people really understand what is expected from them during the tracking and mixing processes. I think the Butch Vig video illustrates this to an unparalleled degree.
  3. Good mastering costs money. I’m not against that. I am, however, against people who suffer from #1 and #2 shelling out the bucks.
  4. For people on micro budgets who may only print up 100 copies of their recording (or choose internet distribution entirely) it’ll be clear that the solution to their potentially much bigger problems may not be mastering at all. The links further up the chain may need to be placed under greater scrutiny.

Conclusion
In home recording land, many of us are looking to define what each role of the process should have. My intention was not to say that mastering isn’t an important part of the process. I simply felt that this video could illustrate just how bad ass and how close to the final version the tracking (and maybe some mixing) of Smells Like Teen Spirit was to the final version before the mastering engineer got his hands on it.

This notion of “polish” is dramatically overstated in my opinion.

This blog is about pointing people in the right direction for their answers. It’s clear in this example that the tracking was flat out bad ass and further links in the chain had a relatively small impact on the final results.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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25 responses to Hey Kids! Forget Mastering Until…..!

  1. I definitely have to agree with you on a lot of these points, especially in the rock genre. I have a lot more respect for the engineer that is configuring mic placement and getting everything recording onto the tracks. That process is always so painful which is why I guess a lot of professionals take a whole day just to get everything set up, and not even worry about actually recording until the next day.

    I think with pop music it would be a bit different though where almost every track you hear has 5 plugins on it, yet done in a subtle yet noticeable way…well except for autotune (sigh). Same still applies in principle though – can’t polish s**t.

  2. This post is particularly relevant to me at this time, seeing as I just finished recording a friend of mine who does Christian Grindcore music. I am always down for experimenting with different genres of music, but I have to say that this has been some of the hardest music to mix that I have ever worked with. Everything is loud all the time; the vocals, the drums, the guitar, the bass, the air around the mics, everything. With my particular gear and recording program, this has translated into a mix that distorts pretty easily, while still remaining drastically lower in overall volume level than what I would prefer.

    That being said, the finished product is decent, not exceptional, but decent. I was thinking that mastering might be necessary to bring the levels up to the full potential without distortion, but I am really wondering if the problem is more with my front end and the acoustics of my room. I’m sure mastering will help some, but I’m assuming it will still sound much like the mixes I have now.

    BTW: if you want to hear the rough mix of the title song;
    “Oh Lord Most High” here it is: http://www.myspace.com/thylongsuffering

    If anyone has any suggestions, or constructive criticism, I’m all ears.

  3. I have to say that this has been some of the hardest music to mix

    Interesting. I’ve never noticed one genre being tougher to mix than another. I’ve noticed that some songs and some bands are tougher to mix but this is almost entirely due to poor performances or poor arrangements.

    this has translated into a mix that distorts pretty easily

    Do you mean you are distorting our 2bus? If so, you’ve got some major issues.

    #1 Killer Home Recording: Murderous Mixing is an absolute must. I cover just about everything I know in that book.

    #2 Do a search for Brickwall limiter. Download the Arazdaz brickwall limiter immediately.j

    #3 Toss it in Bash This Recording http://forum.recordingreview.com/f11/

    I was thinking that mastering might be necessary to bring the levels up to the full potential without distortion, but I am really wondering if the problem is more with my front end and the acoustics of my room.

    Re-read this blog one more time and watch the video. If your mix is DAMN good, mastering isn’t gonna help.

    Christian Grindcore music

    Is there Muslim Grindcore? What about atheist grindcore? Just curious. I wonder why they don’t designate other products with religious affiliation. Why can’t I buy a Christian bowl of cereal or a Christian super bowl ticket? (I’m big on bowls today, apparently.) :-)

  4. Thanks Brandon,

    I’ll download that program asap. And I’ll chuck the mix into the “bash this mix” pile for the bludgeoning of a lifetime.
    I’m gonna have to get a copy of your book too.

    Yeah, there probably is Muslim Grindcore……why not? I was thinking about writing some childrens Grindcore just for kicks. It’ll basically be a “Barney and Friends” album but with all blast-beats and growling/screaming.

  5. I was thinking about writing some childrens Grindcore just for kicks

    Now you are talking! I’d pay to hear that!

    I’ll download that program asap

    It’s not really a “program”, it’s just a VST plugin….which I guess is kinda sorta a program.

    Send me a link to your Bash This Recording “pile’ so I can give a stab at it.

    Brandon

  6. Sweet!

    Will do.

  7. Saw the DVD with Butch and I agree – song was recorded so well that bringing up the faders was all that was needed.
    But not every one has a room that sounds as good. Not to mention equipment, skilled engineering … and a great band.

  8. True. In fact, I’d guess that none of the 48,000+ members of RecordingReview.com are cranking out recordings that sound like that. That’s not really the point.

    The blog was about mastering. The point is that in big boy land mastering doesn’t change the sound that much….which is exactly the same as what it does in home recording land.

    Brandon

  9. I’ve never had a mix that doesn’t need mastering to a greater or lesser degree. Sometimes, I’ve found that plug-ins like Ozone, or tc Electronics ‘Finalizer’ are a great start. The mixes that need the most work are those that have been tracked carelessly, and then nothing seems to work.

  10. so what you’re saying is that the mix should sound like a master but not as loud, wide and crisp? because what always happens to me is i would think my mix is sounding pretty perfect until i whack some Ozone on it… then the levels of the instruments start to change and stuff that was just the right volume is now too loud. that means i have to go back to the mix turn it down and then it will start sounding all right again. i feel like just paying for one Abbey Road master to compare what my master sounds like against theirs. Maybe they’ll get the same levels problem as me but i seriously doubt it…

  11. so what you’re saying is that the mix should sound like a master but not as loud, wide and crisp?

    No, not at all. My view is the mix should should EXACTLY like how you want it to sound when you mix it. When I do my pretend mastering (self-mastering) I only need 1-2dB of additional level, max.

    As I discuss in Killer Home Recording: Murderous Mixing I go ahead and put a Waves L2 brickwall limiter up. I go ahead and use a 2bus compressor and I often use a high shelf boost EQ to bring out the top end. Sometimes (rarely) I use a widening gadget.

    There is an enormous difference in 2bus processing and mastering. Simply waiting to do your 2bus processing until after the fact (when you have lost all control over the individual elements in your mix, which you have pointed out already) doesn’t mean it’s mastering.

    Brandon

  12. Dude, you’ve brought the seemingly untouchable process down for this simple minded studio rat to understand. It’s always been my aim to get it right on the front end which takes some work, but it’s all worth it on the backside. Start off clean and simple, unless the aim is a Rhinestone Cowboy.

  13. I agree that not enough emphasis is placed on the tracking and mixing stages and too often engineers rely on mastering plug-ins to “save” a weak mix. HOWEVER, that being said, the careful use of the right mastering software can take an otherwise lame sounding mix and do wonders for it. It’s not always possible to record really good instrument sounds, especially when you’re working with musicians who simply don’t understand the process and are impatient to begin recording. The volume of a mix will get much higher as instruments are layered unless the mix is automated to compensate. The result is you won’t be able to hear solo instruments and when all instruments are playing you’ll be reaching to turn down the volume. While the dynamic range would be desirable in a studio environment, it is not desirable in a home or car environment, at least not for rock music.

    The example chosen is a poor one. If all you have are guitar, bass, drums, and a vocal, then sure, you can slam every track with compression and EQ, mix them together, and call it a day – a monkey could mix Nirvana. Let’s see you do that with an 8 piece band and layered vocals. Without mix automation and a tremendous amount of time adjusting it, you’re going to need to go through a mastering process if you want the final product to be fit for listening outside the quiet and isolation of a recoring studio. Why do you think guys like Bob Ludwig are so sought after?

  14. HOWEVER, that being said, the careful use of the right mastering software can take an otherwise lame sounding mix and do wonders for it.

    Not once have I ever heard this occur and I listen to mixes on Bash This Recording daily. I’m talking about thousands of mixes. That’s my experience anyway.

    It’s not always possible to record really good instrument sounds, especially when you’re working with musicians who simply don’t understand the process and are impatient to begin recording.

    I agree. However, that recording will never sound good.

    a monkey could mix Nirvana.

    Using your Bob Ludwig argument, so why is the usual going rate for major label rock mixing $4k / song? I find that the people who undermine the skill of rock production (in any stage) usually don’t have experience doing it. It’s no easier than any other genre.

    Let’s see you do that with an 8 piece band and layered vocals.

    The process is exactly the same. If the 8-piece band is well arranged there will be no problems. If the aim is mega major label production, it should be just an issue of pulling up the faders, boosting the exciting stuff, and pulling back the not-so-exciting stuff. I often do MIDI productions just to see how many things I can get going on at once. My record is 12 fully independent instruments doing different things. The additional pieces / tracks / whatever are a non issue if the music has been arranged right. Some would argue that 3-piece minimal music is tougher because you have to create a sense of excitement that is normally delivered by additional instrumentations.

    Without mix automation and a tremendous amount of time adjusting it, you’re going to need to go through a mastering process if you want the final product to be fit for listening outside the quiet and isolation of a recoring studio

    I’m not sure how volume automation (or a lack of it) has anything do with the mastering process. It appears that you are implying that a mastering engineer can just compress your 2bus to fix bad levels. I would NEVER EVER EVER even attempt that one. That’s a wasted trip because the mastering engineer will send you home.

    99% of the mix translation problems that home recorders face is in the tracking/mixing process. A song that sounds great here and terrible there won’t change much in mastering.

    Brandon

  15. I’ve often wondered about the importance of mastering, having always thought that if it sounds good in the daw and in a mixdown it should sound good if its mastered or not.

    Some unmastered songs that some of the local bands here put out sound as good as any pro mixed/mastered song so i agree that mastering is generally overstated in that context, but having never been part of a pro production process i cant say, maybe they go about it diffrently and it needs mastering.

    I have heard if a song is to be played on radio it needs to be mastered, maybe people should see mixing as the final stage if needs be and a mastering engineer to give the song a more radio friendly sound?

  16. I have heard if a song is to be played on radio it needs to be mastered

    I don’t feel there is anything in particular about the radio that necessarily requires mastering any more than listening on a cd.

    Audio is audio in that regard.

    With that said, this article is not an anti-mastering article. This is a get-the-tracking-badass, get-the-mixing-bad-ass, and then think about mastering.

    With a good mastering engineer there is no reason to assume that you wouldn’t benefit from letting him take a listen and maybe catch a few problems. With that same logic, there is no reason you wouldn’t benefit from having a commercial for the album’s release on TV either. The limiting factor in both examples is money.

    Brandon

  17. a good mix for me means, every single instrument is tracked well, that is they sound as i want them in studio and tape. and i hear them in the mix as clearly as i want them to be. on top of that, their frequencies do not clash with the other instruments which in other words means that i can hear them as clearly as i want them to be in the mix.

    Mastering (big M not small m) will do a few things: make it a bit louder thus enhancing certain subtle dynamics; when played at a high level/volume, the bass/kick will not distort or crack; and will make sure that each track of the album is at a consistent level/volume. it is not meant to enhance a mix.

    great sound engineers would always want to push the envelope, expand creatively. that is why they are great.

  18. Erm… don’t want to bring this down or anything, but it occurs to me watching the video that whenever we hear the full band mix they’ve probably swapped it with the finished and mastered mix we all know and love. That’s probably what I’d do if I were the dubbing mixer for the documentary. They’re trying to show the band in the best light possible right?

  19. I thought I’d just proved my little theory to be flawed then when I watched the video again ‘cos of the bit where we hear the guitar solo feedback over the verse, but listen, at that point the track does sound more raw and un-mastered, a moment later after the cut we’re back to the huge sound again (I know it’s the chorus).

    By the way, I’m not trying to bring down the blog at all, totally agree with what you say.

  20. it occurs to me watching the video that whenever we hear the full band mix they’ve probably swapped it with the finished and mastered mix

    So how do you explain at 0:07 when Butch Vig solo’s just the vocals. This is impossible without having access to the real tracks, but a testament to how close the tracking is to the real mix.

    Brandon

  21. Hi Brandon

    Think you’re misunderstanding me. I can see they have the tracks there, I just wonder if when they punch out the solo’d tracks and back to the full mix the video dubber has swapped the desk mix we think we’re hearing for the finished record. Wouldn’t be difficult would it? And just listen to the difference between the section where he fades out the solo and the following shot after fade to black where we hear the full band again, quite drastic to my ears.

    I’m totally down with your blog man, I just think this video has had a bit of trickery applied maybe.

  22. I gotcha. It would be very possible. The only thing is this clearly isn’t the final mix. The snare is quite a bit different. The cymbals are different. I could probably find other things about the mix that were different, but this is clearly a more raw version.

    Brandon

  23. Oh ok, I haven’t checked it against the final mix. I bow to your better judgement :)

  24. Hi again Brandon

    Sorry I must seem like a dog with a bone, but this has got me intrigued. I’ve just been listening to the audio from this clip and the finished song together in Protools and found some interesting stuff.

    One thing I just noticed so I thought I’d write, listen to the video, between 1:36 and 1:38 there’s some phasing followed by a major change in sound quality, like a crossfade from the finished mix to the desk mix. Following that point the sound becomes duller, quieter and less produced sounding. Maybe they faded up the mic ready for Butch to speak, but I reckon the studio monitors must have been very low or we’d really hear them considering how quiet he’s talking, so I don’t think it’s just that.

    I think at times the sound is very similar to the finished mix considering the poor quality of the YouTube audio. At other times it is very different as you say. I tried nulling them which was partly successful, in the low and mid frequencies at any rate. Interestingly the YouTube track is a bit slower, not lower in pitch, but it gets out of sync. Don’t know what that’s all about, but God knows what it’s been through by the time it’s been video’d, DVD’d, YouTube’d and Audio Hijacked from a browser.

    Maybe we’re both right eh?

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