I can still remember the phone call.
“I think we have a problem,” said the nervous voice on the other end, who was the leader of a band whose album I had just sent back for final approval.
“I wanted to listen to it one more time in the van, and that sounded good, but now I notice that the songs don’t sound very good on my phone.”
“… Through your headphones?,” I asked.
“No, just out loud on the phone. It’s like, getting distorted when I turn up the volume near the max.”
“Was it distorted in the van?”
“So we’re talking about a 1/2-inch speaker in your phone? Buddy, this bird is cooked. It’s not distorted. Let’s go to bed,” I implored, weary at the end of a long but fruitful mastering process.
This scene is not out of place when you’re the last stop for the music train before publishing station. In last week’s column I introduced the role of the modern mastering engineer a bit, but this week I want to go a little deeper with a little more background.
Originally, a mastering engineer was responsible for creating a “Master.” This was the definitive record pressing or tape reel with which other records or tapes would be made. It needed to be perfect, so some of the mastering engineer’s job was cleanup, volume fades and adjustments for general volume evenness across the whole record.
Because bass is taken out of vinyl records (don’t worry — record players put it back), it was also the mastering engineer’s job to remove it and make sure everything else would go smoothly for finicky record player playback.
For example, bass isn’t the only thing that can make a record player’s needle jump out of the groove. If the overall average loudness of a song is too high, it will make the needle rest higher on average in the groove during playback, and can cause the same problem. The mastering engineer solves this by making a separate mix for pressing to vinyl, which is slightly quieter and more dynamic.
At some point along the way, the mastering engineer started caring about the overall sound cohesiveness and feel of the record. The very end of the recording process seemed a fitting place for any “global” changes, which would affect everything in the same amount, so mastering engineers began to give the whole album a “shine.”
This eventually begat the piles of fancy tube gear with large knobs that inhabited mastering studios up until the rise of computer-based editing. Today, software emulations of the sound of exquisite electronics from audio’s history are available at the click of a button. The “how” sure has changed over time for mastering engineers, but the bird’s-eye view and last-stop-before-publishing perspectives have not.
One thing about mastering hasn’t budged an inch. The mastering engineer has always been the one with the best playback system. She’s got the biggest and best speakers, the best room with the most advanced room treatment, the fanciest digital converters and tests and studies and charts and graphs to prove the honesty of her monitor system.
A mastering engineer is the closest thing to an audiophile in the process, and there will always be a need for the truth. In my experience, if it sounds good on the best system, it sounds good on all systems.