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68 Mastering the technique
MASTERING THE
TECHNIQUE
Mastering is the final stage of the music produc- completely different listening environment to the One key skill when it comes to mastering drum &
tion process. A mastering engineer takes a track, typical bedroom. bass is managing this trade-off – pushing the vol-
listens with trained ears and applies processing to ume as high as possible without crushing the life
give the tune that ‘professional’ edge. Kmag ex- Near-perfect listening conditions mean the mas- out the tune. Amateur producers often misman-
amines why it’s important, who should do it and tering engineer can hear with accuracy what needs age this process and crush their tune by overzeal-
why it needn’t cost as much as you think. to be changed or corrected in a track – which ous limiting at the final stage. If you want your
brings us to the biggest advantage to using a mas- tune to sound its best, leave this to the profes-
A producer finishes a track and sends it to a label. tering engineer: the engineer’s ears. If a pro- sionals.
The label accepts it and a release date is set. But ducer has been working on a track for days, if not
before the tune is distributed it must pass through weeks, they can lose focus. It’s hard to tell if the Some of the best mastering houses in the world
a mastering studio, where a professional master- bass is too loud or too quiet, or if the mix as a have specialists with years of experience master-
ing engineer applies careful processing to ensure whole sounds balanced. The mastering engineer ing drum & bass. See the feature on the follow-
the tune sounds as good as possible when it gets brings a fresh pair of trained, objective ears into ing page about West London’s Metropolis studios
played by the end user. play, identifying quickly what tweaks to make to to read about one the most famous mastering
get the tune sounding at its best. houses in the scene. Readers should also turn to
This is mastering. But what exactly is it and why the competition on page 20 for a chance to win
do people do it? Most of the tools at a mastering Mastering is important in a genre like drum & a masterclass session with Metropolis engineer
engineer’s disposal are the same tools produc- bass because, as with all dance music, the suc- Stuart Hawkes, one of the best drum & bass tech-
ers use when processing the audio elements that cess of a tune depends on its impact. In a pre- nicians in the business.
make up a track. These include compression, or vious issue of Kmag, dance legend Claude Von
limiting, which allows the engineer to make tracks Stroke put it like this: “No genre is more reliant However, as well as world-famous mastering stu-
louder or punchier by manipulating the dynam- on tight processing than drum & bass… a lot of dios, producers should know about the impressive
ics of the track. The other key tool is EQ, which singer / songwriters say that a hit song is a hit song array of independent mastering houses out there
allows engineers to cut or boost the level of spe- no matter how it is recorded. This is not true for that cater for small labels and amateur producers.
cific frequencies, alternately giving the track more dance music, which must be upfront and sound Kmag talked to several independent engineers
bass, mid or treble. good on a massive PA.” who specialise in drum & bass. Like the producers
whose work they deal with on a daily basis, they’re
It is now possible to get software and plug-ins that The tweaks of the mastering engineer can make involved with the scene for love not money. Plus,
allow amateur producers to apply basic master- the difference between a tune with a modest im- they’re keen producers themselves and know the
ing to their tracks. Use of the Waves L2 limiter is pact and one that absolutely destroys the dance- scene inside out.
widespread, much to the annoyance of the pro- floor. To prove the point, consider that one of
fessionals, who claim amateurs often misuse it. the key duties of the mastering engineer is con- Bob Macciochi, aka Macc, makes drum-funk
There are also broader software packages that in- trolling loudness. Loudness is important because with an emphasis on crispy breaks and minimal-
clude a number of different mastering tools. Take the human ear perceives increases in volume ist, jazz-influenced arrangements. With close
a look at our review of the T-RackS 3 on page 64, as increases in quality. If one drum & bass song friend Ben Subvert he recently set up the Subvert
a comprehensive mastering suite aimed at both sounds louder than another when it comes on in Central mastering house, an online outfit offer-
amateurs and professionals. a club, it will not only grab listeners’ attention, ing low rates and personal service. Bob says the
they will actually perceive the louder tune as be- venture grew naturally from the work he was do-
However, there are a number of advantages to ing better. ing over online forums, for instance giving advice
sending your track to a professional engineer. to amateur producers on their mixdowns.
Firstly, the engineers are almost certain to have This is why there is what’s called a ‘loudness war’
better equipment. Mastering engineers have top- going on at the moment. Every producer wants “I got fed up of writing big essays to people try-
of-the-range mastering software, and often their to get their tune as loud as possible so it sounds ing to describe how to improve the sound of their
own treasured hardware units, and can achieve a better compared to others’ tracks. Unfortunately, track,” Bob says. “Eventually I just thought, sod
cleaner, warmer sound. They also have near-per- beyond a certain level, increasing loudness is a it, and started EQing people’s tunes and sending
fect listening conditions. As well as having pro- trade-off, as pushing the volume means crushing them back – much quicker, and much more to
fessional standard monitor speakers, which can the dynamics of the tune (if you compress a snare the point. It got to the point where I wasn’t get-
cost thousands, the engineer will listen to your drum too much, it stops sounding like a drum ting my own music done, so I started charging.”
tracks in an acoustically-treated studio. This is a and becomes abrasive white noise).
www.kmag.co.uk
K68-70_Mastering.indd 68 19/3/09 14:47:50
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