From Mastering

Considerations Before Mastering

There is no one single approach to mastering. It’s as much a creative discipline as mixing. That’s why before sending your material off to a mastering engineer, there are some key questions you need to consider if you’re going to get the best out of your work.

Loudness

The first is ‘how loud do we want to go?’ The term ‘commercial loudness’ is bandied about, but the truth is, there’s no set level for this. And given the growing awareness of the often ridiculous levels reached in the quest for volume, scaling back the loudness wars is a legitimate choice that can (and should) be made.

So, do you want to just go as loud as technically possible, even at the risk of audible clipping? Or do you want to err on the side of caution and go for a nice balance between loud and sound?

It often depends on the genre you’re in. For example, dance masters tend to be a lot hotter than anything else so they can be the loudest cut in the club. But maybe you’re not aiming for the clubs so much and are willing to sacrifice a bit of level to keep a more rounded bass.

Dynamics

Inextricably tied up with loudness are dynamics. Take a listen to almost any recent commercial recording and compare it with something from the 60s or 70s. You’ll notice that the older material tends to have a wider dynamic range – they allowed for quieter sections to remain quieter far more than we tend to nowadays.

In truth, as listening habits have shifted away from hi-fis to portable music players, laptop speakers etc. we probably can’t afford to go back to the dynamic range of yesteryear. But if you want particular sections to stand out, then make it clear to the mastering engineer what those sections are, and that you’re willing to let the rest stay a little quieter for maximum impact.

Tone

Another tendency to come with modern mastering and the quest for ultimate loudness is incredibly bright recordings, with very little in the low mids. Is this what you’re after? Or do you want to go for something warmer, with more body and a better preserved low end?

The tone can really change how people react to a record and what it sounds like its trying to achieve. If it’s big and bright it’ll sound poppier, energetic and in-your-face. If you veil it in warmth and gentle harmonic distortion, it could sound a lot more underground, perhaps even more ‘credible’. This isn’t a value judgement, more about where you want to position your sound.

References

The biggest thing you can do to help a mastering engineer nail the sound you’re after is to take time deciding on reference material. After all, you haven’t listened to all your favourite records with a mastering engineer’s ear, and so may not be hearing what the engineer does. It’s not uncommon for clients’ notes to contradict the reference material they send.

The more you can offer as references, the more your engineer will understand the kinds of sounds you like, and the more likely you’ll get your record exactly the way you want.

Dynamic Range Metering and Loudness Metering

They’ve been around for a couple of years, but dynamic range and loudness meters still aren’t that widespread. We’ve recently starting using both for mastering and thought it was high time we offered up a primer.

Dynamic range metering

Dynamic range metering is specifically for use in mastering, although there’s no reason you shouldn’t use it earlier in the chain. TT dynamic range meter is the only such meter we’re aware of, which is brought to you by the Pleasurize Music Foundation (a collaboration between various plug-in developers).

The production of the meter is part of a broader mission to reintroduce dynamic range to recordings and make them more pleasurable to listen to following the hyper-compression of the loudness wars.

Dynamic range infographicIt can operate in real-time, but more useful is the offline meter which gives you a single number value of dynamic range. This is broadly similar to the crest factor of the recording (the difference between peak level and average/RMS level) but slightly different due to statistical weighting.

Obviously you have to use your ears to tell you if something is over-compressed or not, but the dynamic range meter is a handy indicator of whether you’ve gone too far or not, particularly when used in conjunction with their lovely genre-specific infographic guide to what you should be aiming for (right).

Loudness metering

RMS meters have been used for years as de facto loudness meters, by giving the average level rather than peak level they offered a much more useful approximation of loudness than PPM meters. However, when it comes down to it, something that registers at 0dB on an RMS meter can sound much softer or louder than a recording of an equal level.

Loudness meters measure the average level of a recording, but filter it with a specific frequency weighting designed to more closely mimic how we actually hear recordings. This way you get a much more useful method of comparing subjective loudness between recordings measured in Loudness Units (Decibels are so last year).

They’re more widespread in broadcast work where standards have already been set for loudness. Although the use of loudness meters isn’t mandatory in the UK as of yet, it will be within a few years, partly in an effort to control the programme/advert loudness difference.

We’ve started loading one of these up in mastering projects (using the excellent PPMulator + plugin) and they’re very interesting indeed. They will undoubtedly become more common over the next few years, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with one if you’re serious about professional audio work (particularly in film and TV). Audiocation have produced a free loudness meter that you can download here.

Naturally, if you’re curious, we’re happy to provide Dynamic Range and Loudness Unit values free of charge when you use us for mastering. Just tell us you’d like them when you contact us with your project details.

Have you tried dynamic range metering or loudness metering?