As an audiophile and a mastering engineer and musician, I’m cursed with a mental pull from many directions when any music starts playing.
One of the first things my brain does with new music is identify it as an audiophile recording versus a “mainstream” recording. Beyond that, I can ask myself if the recording is good — good for an audiophile approach or good for mass consumption.
The two categories are miles apart in terms of process and precision, and audiophile recording scenes resemble more of a measured science experiment than a rockin’ good time. In contrast, recording for mainstream playback can emphasize the experiment at the expense of the rules, as long as it sounds “good.”
As I keep listening, my brain starts to care about whether the music is interesting or innovative as opposed to derivative or lazy.
All of these things can fall under the purview of a mastering engineer, which is a role that can be hard to understand when you’re starting out recording. If you’re happy with your mix, why would you need any further treatment to it?
Recording is a real job for the mind. You’re balancing 30 to 100 different things with a vague priority list that can change at any moment, influenced by any “cool sound” or idea.
Through the process, the direction comes from those that hired you — the band. They want to get to a certain place, and after weeks of work, tons of re-do recordings, lots of changes and plenty of uncertainty, you’ve got a product that everyone’s happy with.
But did you get to the place you wanted to be? At that point you can’t tell the band to go back and do something major all over again. You can’t very easily change the character of an entire song because it doesn’t sound the same as the others, chiefly because the band will hate you for it.
You’re in the trenches as a recording engineer, in it with the band to the bitter end, and trying to retain a sense of trust so the band performs well.
What you need is a mastering engineer — a set of fresh ears with a world-class, finely-tuned reference playback system to listen to everything and take notes. And make global changes. And suggest that, yes, you really need to re-record the drums on this track if you want to get to where you want to be.
A mastering engineer may use this or that expensive piece of gear to brush a subtle color on everything. She may pull up a famous track in the same genre and determine what’s needed to compete with it in the marketplace.
The job seems rather simple, yet setting up to be a mastering engineer is incredibly complex. It can be easy and fun work, but you have to make bold, confident claims. If you’re wrong, you’re out.
The art of mastering is often a subtle art. But mostly, its an art of confidence, and of knowing when to reject something and suggest starting over.
Somebody’s got to do it!