Mastering the Master

A studio legend details the crucial final step in the recording process

Between the final mix and the finished record lies a mysterious final step: mastering. But what is it? Why is it important? Is it necessary? In fact, mastering is vital to the recording process. Imagine having to lunge for the volume knob every time a new song came on the radio, each with a vastly different sound level. Or, consider why your favorite music sounds perfect on every system from a digital player to a car to a home stereo. Mastering plays an essential role in raising the quality of the listening experience.

Few know more about this process than renowned mastering engineer Bernie Grundman, whose credits include a star-studded roster of iconic albums including Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain, Carole King’s Tapestry, Steely Dan’s Aja, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Willie Nelson’s Stardust. Grundman has worked on countless recordings in a vast range of genres and brings a half-century of experience to his craft. Understanding the importance of feeling the emotional impact of music is fundamental. “If I’m not open emotionally to everything that comes in, I won’t know which knobs to turn,” he says, “because I won’t know if I’m making it better or not.”

What does mastering do?
I call mastering the last creative step, and the first step of manufacturing. One important thing we do is iron out any inconsistencies that happened during mixing, because the mixing process can go on for a long time—sometimes a number of months. We try to pull it all together and make a project comfortable to listen to from tune to tune to tune, so you don’t have to keep adjusting your level or tone controls.

What’s the main goal?
A mastering engineer’s responsibility is to deliver what the client brought in—but improved. If something comes in and it’s incredibly well done, we don’t want to do anything. It’s vital to know when it’s best not to do anything. Most of the time the changes we make outweigh the slight losses. We have to manipulate the sound a certain amount before we finish our work. We have to do equalization, compression, limiting, and maybe implement some digital devices to give us what we want. But when you apply all of these things, there’s a price to pay. So you have to be sure you gain more than you lose by using them.

Listening environment must be critical.
One thing that’s different about mastering engineers versus mix engineers is that we stay in the same environment all the time. Mix engineers often have to move from studio to studio. But we get used to our environment, our system, our way of listening—and develop a way to know where balances and the levels should be. Your environment provides an accurate reference.

Why is a loud mix often not a good mix?
There are some who go too far to make things loud and don’t realize they’re taking the musicality out. I call it “cheap thrills”—it might get your attention when it comes on the radio because it’s loud, but it’s annoying after a while. It definitely changes the sound. And it becomes less musical because it creates all these other artifacts and degradation due to the devices you use to make it loud. It might attract a listener’s attention initially, but they likely won’t want to spend a lot of time with it. Promo guys at record labels throw on a disc and boom say, “That’s great!” without spending a whole lot of time with it.

A lot of music is mixed to compete at radio.
Pop music isn’t always about pristine sound quality. It’s not all about music—it’s about attracting attention, and sometimes you don’t want it to sound natural. EDM, for example, is made really loud and edgy to create excitement. When it comes to jazz or classical, you simply want the recording to sound exactly like those instruments and that’s it. But with pop music, it’s more wide open. We work on a wide variety of stuff, so as mastering engineers we have to get on the wavelength of whatever comes in. We have to try and understand what the artist or producer is going for. What helps make it exciting and what connects emotionally with the listener? That helps us make a joint effort with the producer and the artist, because we’re helping them realize their vision, not ours.

Do you have any thoughts on your high-profile projects?
Michael Jackson’s mixer, Bruce Swedien, is so good—it was always just a matter of giving it an extra little push in a few areas and it’s there. Sometimes a record is so well done, and the mixer is so good that the mastering engineer has to be very careful—because it’s already pretty much there. Prince was that way, too. And there were some that ended up quite a bit different. Even with the best mixing engineers involved, I could get a recording where the whole thing sounded uniformly dull. The balances might be reasonably good, but the detail just isn’t popping. It may have been that the mixer had the wrong monitors. That kind of project is easy to fix—I can just make some uniform changes to make the recording open up and come to life. That happens all the time.

Any projects require a lot of work?
Sometimes the way people work gets complicated. There was a Beck album that took us three months to do—that’s very unusual for me. It got complicated because we were trying to intercut mixes from two studios. He had worked in one studio for a while, then moved to the other, and had mixes from both—and they didn’t match. But there were certain things he liked about each. We had to make some radical adjustments so they would fit together well. A lot of things can be done in mastering, and we can change the sound substantially.

Advice for preparing a mix for mastering?
If you use a lot of devices like compression or EQ during your mix-down, the recording will end up getting double-processed after mastering because we’ll be using those tools as well. Plus, we might have to do even more processing to compensate. Also, when you’re recording and mixing, try to get as good a result as possible without relying on equalization or compression. The fewer devices you have in the chain, the better. It’s amazing how good digital can be if you don’t do a lot of manipulation. That said, I’m not saying, “Don’t use plug-ins. Don’t manipulate the sound.” A lot of pop music wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t manipulated or adjusted in some form. But I am an old audiophile so when I hear something that sounds real and natural, I’m impressed. Now if I hear a well-produced pop record, that’s impressive, too. In the end, we’re all trying to serve the music and make something people want to listen to.

—Mark Hutchins

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