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.
If your mix isn’t already turbo bad ass, mastering isn’t the solution.
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.
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?
- Way too few people have any real understanding of what mastering is. Speculation and overemphasis on audio recording forums seems to run rampant.
- 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.
- Good mastering costs money. I’m not against that. I am, however, against people who suffer from #1 and #2 shelling out the bucks.
- 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.
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.