Posted by Aaron Davison on Monday, May 13, 2013 Under: May 2013

Today's post is part three in a three part series on the topic of mastering from producer Gary Gray.  Gary and I recently created a course together all about mastering which we'll be releasing later this week calle "Mysteries Of Mastering Solved".   Here's a sample video from the course that features an actual mastering session:

Over to you Gary.....


Recently, while taking notes during a personal mentoring session with Quincy Jones, I stopped writing.  All of a sudden, something he said hit me so hard I knew I would never forget it.

He said, “Gary, we’ve got to put Industry back into the Music Industry.” 

Quincy was talking about a world-wide cultural trend he has observed since the mid 1990’s. A trend of declining hard work. A trend of less and less apprenticeships and mentorships. A trend of lowered work-ethic discipline.  A trend which has taken root in, amongst other industries, our very own Music Industry. Ironically, the downtrend is exactly opposite to the uptrending innovations of the high-tech computer industry, which has seen astronomical product growth and previously unimaginable technical achievements during the same time period.

Quincy also pointed out that the declining trend within the Music Industry is not something that has taken hold of everyone; it is not so bleak that everyone is trapped within it. There are plenty of examples of people who work hard, who work ethically and who are excellent teachers and excellent students within our industry. It’s just that the overall international downward trend is undeniable.

Basically, he was describing a phenomenon I had already researched. And something I already knew.

Or did I?

The moment I realized that I didn’t really, fully understand what he was trying to get me to see – was the moment I stopped writing and started thinking hard about what he was saying. 

My realization?  If I really fully understood what he said, then I myself would more consistently

a. be working harder

b. be maintaining an even higher level of work ethic

c. be reaching even more aggressively for wisdom and education from those whom I admire and look up to in the industry

d. be sharing that wisdom even more with others and more effectively be helping the industry improve. (Which is one reason I decided to create the new course on Mastering with Aaron Davison)

And right here is where the power of a mentorship – or any form of effective education -- is invaluable:  Being inspired to act on knowledge and acting on it effectively, consistently and with success out of personal pride and/or in order to show your mentor/teacher that you appreciate his or her efforts -- and especially to be able to share with others what you have learned.  That is the true power of effective education. It can transform an entire industry, nation or world, one person at a time.  When effective education is in place, the results speak for themselves.  And that’s when a student can demonstrate that he or she actually understands a subject.

And truthfully, there is always room to learn more.

So when I sat down to write this Blog for on the subject of Mastering Music, the first thing that popped into my mind was the word Industry.  Here is the dictionary definition of Industry that Quincy was talking about:

1. The habit of working hard and steadily.

The word Industry comes from the Latin word Industria; which means active, diligent.


Mastering isn’t someTHING that you do, it is a process of THINGS (plural) that are done, with a specific purpose in mind, to a recording. That process is broken down into two main areas:

a. The Scientific Process and

b. The Artistic Process

– both working hand in hand.

The PURPOSE is to create a pleasant listening experience for the end-user, and to enhance not only the quality of the sound of the recording, but even more importantly - the emotional impact of the music itself for the listener.   

And in order to carry out those processes, one must be Industrious. If one is to achieve the highest quality Mastering possible on any particular recording, there is an attitude, an approach – a WAY of mastering music that you will find is shared by all great Mastering Engineers.  It’s a very professional and thorough approach to both the Scientific and the Artistic Process.

It can be summed up in two words: Quality Control. Quality Control is an approach of how you work.  It can be developed. It can be taught. It can always be improved in an individual. And if you make it your priority, something very interesting will happen to your career. Though it will seem counter-intuitive, you will find yourself getting more done faster – and with much higher quality. Seems at first like it would slow you down. It doesn’t.

What slows down careers and people is a LACK of quality control.

I found this common denominator 100% prevalent amongst successful Mixing and Mastering Engineers. In fact, I found Quality Control playing a much larger role now than in the pre-digital recording era, back in the analog days. Why? Because of the number of choices available to anyone in any single digital mixing or mastering session are astronomical. So the need for Quality Control has increased tremendously. How much Quality Control does the pilot of a single engine Cessna airplane need to exercise.  Quite a bit. But now – compare that to the amount of Quality Control needed to fly a 747. With technology comes not only freedom, but a greater need for discipline and control.

And so, in putting together this Blog, I realized that our industry is lacking an up-to-date definition of Mastering itself.  Because what Mastering actually is has changed – even over the last 5 years.

In the real world today, there are four different approaches and applications of Mastering, but currently there is only one definition.  I realized that a new definition was needed to clearly define each separate approach and application. Note: For the purpose of Licensing your own music, pay particular close attention to the fourth approach to Mastering.


Mastering in the audio recording domain is a set of actions taken by the Mastering Engineer (or not - if the recording has passed his standards without Mastering) that governs the final outcome of how a recording will sound, with the final goal being to create a pleasant listening experience for the end-user, on any medium and to enhance not only the quality of the sound of the recording, but even more importantly - the emotional impact of the recording itself for the listener.  Every action taken by the Mastering Engineer falls under one heading: Quality Control.

Mastering can be broken down into four separate activities all aiming for the exact same final goal: A pleasant listening experience for the end-user, listening on any medium and to enhance not only the quality of the sound of the recording, but even more importantly - the emotional impact of the recording itself for the listener. The four divisions of audio Mastering are:






“Mastering is the last creative step in the audio production process, the bridge between Mixing and Replication (or Distribution).” – Bob Katz “Mastering Audio – The Art and The Science” Second Edition. Focal Press.  Traditional (Final) Analog Mastering is done in the analog domain as compared to the computer driven digital domain.  In analog mastering, all (or most) of the gear used is tape-based and analog driven. This form of mastering is actually on the increase throughout the word, as the number of Vinyl records being manufactured, distributed and sold increases every year.  In the U.K., the Mastering process is viewed more as the first step in distribution, whereas in the U.S., it is viewed more as the final step of recording. This term includes the word “Final” to distinguish traditional mastering approaches (done as a final step) from newer approaches of Stem Mastering and Independent Mastering.


“Mastering is the last creative step in the audio production process, the bridge between Mixing and Replication (or Distribution).” – Bob Katz “Mastering Audio – The Art and The Science” Second Edition. Focal Press. Traditional (Final) Digital Mastering is done in the digital domain as compared to the tape driven analog domain.  In digital mastering, all (or most) of the gear used is digital-based and computer driven. This form of mastering is done by professional Mastering Engineers who receive stereo files of mixed sessions from Mixing Engineers and returns fully mastered files to the client. This form of mastering also includes adding meta-data, codes and tracking information to industry standards that helps identify and follow a recording through the international system of digital distribution and sales. This form of mastering can also be used as part of the process of creating a Vinyl record, and often is.  In the U.K., the Mastering process is viewed more as the first step in distribution, whereas in the U.S., it is viewed more as the final step of recording. This term includes the word “Final” to distinguish traditional mastering approaches (done as a final step) from newer approaches of Stem Mastering and Independent Mastering. 


Stem Mastering is actually a combination of both Mixing and Mastering. Stem Mastering consists of the Mastering Engineer receiving stem files (in this case the stem files, rather than being each individual instrument and/or vocal track exported separately, would be grouped stem files; that is – submixes of groups of instruments and/or submixes of groups of vocals pre-mixed by the mixing engineer, with each stem file starting at the exact same point, making it easy for the Mastering Engineer to quickly line them up and get to work) and taking those stem files and first Mixing them, and then Mastering them.  Examples of stem file sub-mix groups would be: VOCALS (sometimes broken down into LEAD VOCALS and BACKING VOCALS), GUITARS, KEYBOARDS, BASS, DRUMS, ORCHESTRATION; or another example of stem file sub-mix groups would be: VOCALS and INSTRUMENTS. When the Mastering Engineer receives the stem files, he loads them up into his workstation and the first thing he does is Mixes the tracks to his taste. The Mastering Engineer may export a final stereo Mix of these sub-mixes prior to Mastering, or he may Master the stem files separately and export the combination of Mastered stem files as the final master of the song.  The advantage of Stem Mastering for the client as well as the Mastering Engineer is that if the Mastering engineer hears something such as a problem with a vocal performance in the second chorus, let’s say – he might cut and paste something from the first chorus and use it instead – or if he hears a problem with the relationship between the guitars and the drums (let’s say the guitars were mixed too loud) – with Stem Mastering, he can bring the level of the sub-mix group of guitars down exactly where he feels they should be – rather than trying unusual situations to bring them down if he only had a single stereo mix down of the entire song. Rather than have to give the mix back to the Mixing Engineer and asking him to fix something and then send it back, the Master Engineer has more control over the final product, because, though he cannot mix individual items such as the Kick Drum or one particular Guitar, he can adjust GROUPS of instruments and/or vocals and achieve a product overall closer to his liking.  The possible disadvantage is that the artist and/or mixing engineer might not like what the Mastering Engineer Mixes/Masters compared to their own tastes. 


Independent Mastering is so named due to the fact that a new form of Mastering has evolved in the Music Industry; Mastering in Project Studios and Home Studios by Independent Musicians/Producers/Engineers. Due to various reasons; such as economic limitations (not being able to afford a pro Mastering Engineer), or perhaps due to personal pride in do-it-yourself workmanship, and perhaps due to the joy of learning and executing a new science and art form, or any other number of reasons, a new discipline has emerged – where Recording, Mixing and Mastering are done by the same person on the same equipment. Rather than trying to say that this is not a workable and successful assembly line for sound recordings (it very much IS) or that it violates the Traditional definition of Mastering, this newer approach -- which grows in members every year, has organically created its own niche and so requires its own definition. By observing this approach personally for more than ten years now, and by doing it myself for thousands of hours, I have been able to distill its essence down to a workable definition: 


Independent Mastering is a set of actions, starting even before recording begins. Each action taken by the “Independent Mastering Engineer” (as compared to the “Traditional Mastering Engineer”) follows the same over-riding principal and approach as does all audio mastering: Quality Control. In this case, since the Recording Engineer, the Mixing Engineer and the Mastering Engineer are one in the same person, the Mastering procedures can be separated from Recording and Mixing procedures by purpose: when the engineer is initially capturing a sound on a medium, he is fulfilling the actions of a Recording Engineer. When he makes important adjustments that will majorly affect the final quality of that recording during tracking, he is carrying out the role of both “Recording Engineer” and “Independent Mastering Engineer.” When he is initially balancing the recorded sounds that have been captured, he is considered the “Mixing Engineer.” When he makes important adjustments that will majorly affect the final quality of that recording during mixing, he is carrying out the role of both “Mixing Engineer” and “Independent Mastering Engineer.” And finally, as in traditional Mastering, when he applies the final processes to a recording prior to sending it off for licensing opportunities and/or distribution, he is carrying out the role only of “Independent Mastering Engineer.” (Note that some “Independent Mastering Engineers” also employ the procedure of “Stem Mastering.”)

Examples: Before you start recording, you should carefully check the actual inherent noise floor levels of each instrument, mic, plug-in (that’s right plug-ins that you predict you will be using on that recording, if not already tested before in previous projects) or pre-recorded samples you are using for your project. Many times you will find some fascinating MASTERING problems that exist BEFORE RECORDING EVEN BEGINS!   For instance, I was checking the optimum setting for a microphone before I recorded a vocal session the other day.  I tried two different microphones to see which one would suit that project better.  I found the one mic that sounded best for that job.  I then test-recorded vocals with that mic (without the singer around, as these tests can take time and you don’t want a vocalist wasting their time on your job). By test-recorded I mean this:

a. I adjusted the input gain knob on the pre-amp slowly while test-recording, noting down where the settings were at any given moment by talking into the mic, stating what exactly I was adjusting at that moment, so I could listen to the effect of any change or adjustment during playback and know what was causing any good or bad effect on the signal being recorded.

b. Recording the mic without any vocals at all – just the “silence” of the room, while making both major and fine adjustments on the pre-amp; while noting down in writing what was being adjusted and how (including any numbers or readouts of the equipment or meters) at any given bar on the track.

c. I then played back the “silence” and listened very carefully for the quietest noise floor by turning the volume up considerably, paying very close attention that no sudden spikes of signal are sent to the speakers.  I made a final note of where the “silent” mic signal was the quietest, with little or no noise being recorded onto that track.  This revealed to me the best settings that would translate into the best Mastering for that recording.  This is an example of carrying out the role of “Independent Mastering Engineer” PRIOR TO RECORDING. 

You can find out about many more examples and exactly how to apply them in the course.   

All four applications of Mastering utilize tools such as Compressors, Limiters, Multi-Band Compressors, Multi-Band Limiters, Soft Clippers, Maximizers, etc. A very clear and thorough definition for each along with visual graphics, videos and animation are included in the course so that you will UNDERSTAND what you are doing when you are preparing a Mix for Mastering, and if you so decide, when you Master yourself.

The upcoming course “Mysteries Of Mastering Solved” is so titled because

a) Mastering Music, as it is actually practiced in 2013 (and priorly) has not been codified and standardized in our industry, and so, the subject of Mastering presents itself as an ethereal cloudy mist of “secret knowledge” as it were. I guess another way of saying this is: the subject of Mastering Music hasn’t really fully presented itself ever. There are several pioneers who have done an incredible job of giving us glimpses beyond that mist; with two good examples being Bob Katz and Steve Massey.

b) As you will learn on the course itself, even amongst top Pro Music Industry Mastering Engineers, there are no set standards of 1. Loudness. 2. Monitor Levels and 3. Standard Step-by-Step Guidelines or Checklists for How To Master. (The course “Mysteries Of Mastering Solved” does contain both Guidelines and Checklists for How To Master). Each Mastering Engineer in the past was taught differently with a different philosophy, different goals and different priorities.  Some are more workable and some less. This course standardizes the workable approaches to Mastering. You will also learn on the course that a certain related industry DOES have set standards for 1, 2 and 3 above – and you will learn why the Music Industry missed out and was not forged and maintained with the same standards.  The good news is, and you will ALSO learn everything there is to know about this on the course – the industry is changing.  Certain standards of loudness and monitoring levels and guidelines are beginning to arrive to our industry. Though it may take some time to implement them, one of my main goals through the release of the course, is to speed up that process internationally -- so that you no longer feel like you’re the only one who is frustrated, in the dark and has no clue as to what all the tutorials and articles are really trying to say. Believe me, you are not alone. Though the standards differ between the U.S. and Europe at this time (and a third independent standard is also taking hold) my belief and vision is that the world will see one International Standard of Loudness in the not-so-distant future. In fact, the U.S. and European governing bodies which are beginning to implement the two main standards are both finding that adjustments and changes need to be made – and they’re making them – towards the end of arriving at a fully workable system.

c) The word “Solved” is used because a few years ago the “Aha moment” hit home hard for me.  It was when I discovered that I, like you, was a small part of a larger international community; a community plagued by chaos and a lack of standards, that I could actually start putting the puzzle together and separate the truth from the myths and help crack the “Mystery.”

Mixing and Mastering

The best news about the course for you is that whether you choose to Master yourself (actually not hard to do when you can cut through the “Mist And The Mystery”), or whether you decide to send your mixes out to be mastered, learning this material will make you a far better mixing engineer than you could imagine. So I should post that as a warning: Side Effects – you may experience intense loss of fatigue, worry, frustration and depression with a noticeable acceleration of speed, feelings of relief and more free time (more sleep!) while the quality of your mixing goes out the roof! So there, consider yourself warned.

You will soon learn how closely related Mixing and Mastering are.  A lot closer than you may have thought previous.  And you will also learn something very valuable and very close to home – you may not realize right now how much you already know about Mastering. Even if you only have a rudimentary grasp of digital recording, you are already well on your way to becoming a great Mastering Engineer.  In fact, those who have more experience may find a need to “unlearn” a few things first in order to match and exceed the quality of Major Label Mastering. 

We live during a very exciting period of Audio Recording history.

Both Aaron Davison and I are extremely fortunate in being able to connect with you so that we can help you navigate your way to success.


Good Luck!


Gary Gray

Los Angeles, California

May 2013

In : May 2013 

blog comments powered by Disqus