The Mysteries Of Mastering

Posted by Aaron Davison on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 Under: May 2013

Today's post is a guest post from producer Gary Gray on the topic of mastering.  This is the first in a three part series of posts related to the topic of mastering.  Gary and I have been working on a new course all about mastering for the last several months.  I'll have more information on that course soon, but in the meantime, here is the first of several posts and videos I have for you related to the topic of mastering.

Over to you Gary....

This is not going to be a short blog. As many times as I tried to cut it down, make it shorter, edit and summarize it -- it just wouldn’t work. I mean I could have done it physically. But I couldn’t ethically do it.  

The subject of Mastering Music is far too important to skimp over. For anyone who wants to make a living with music; especially someone like you who wants to license your own music, the subject of Mastering Music is VITAL.  Simply put, you can’t continue to waste time knowing “just enough to be dangerous.” You will end up more frustrated, wasting more time and miss out on making money if you don’t learn this stuff right. It would be nice, but we don’t have a lot of time to waste.  Whether you choose to master your music yourself, or whether you want to mix your music so that it can be confidently turned over on a consistent basis to a qualified Mastering Engineer that you hire – with the result of getting back exactly what you want [meaning – tracks that will get accepted by Music Supervisors and other professionals in the Music Licensing world] -- then the subject of Mastering must be thoroughly understood.  Otherwise, its’ just more hit-and-miss, more frustrating nights, more questions than answers – all leading to a big cloudy, misty, foggy mystery; summed up in one or more of the following questions you constantly ask yourself:

“How the hell do I get this &$#* mix to sound like a commercial mix?!” or “I thought when I sent my mix to the Mastering Engineer that it would come back awesome. He won’t even master it. What did I do wrong?” or, “I got my mix back from a reputable Mastering Engineer but it just doesn’t sound like I thought it would,” or -- and more to the point, “How come I’m not landing more (or any) licensing deals?”

The good news is: It can be done. You can learn Mastering in a relatively short period of time.

How I Discovered Your Particular Dilemma

After spending 30 years in the Music Industry; with thousands of hours logged both on stage and in the studio, I sat down several months ago to do a “refresher course” myself on the subject of Mastering.  I gathered up all the notes I had been taking over the years and placed all my notebooks in a pile and went through every one.  I then spent approximately 200 hours doing new research and talking to colleagues of mine regarding any new trends or new advances in Mastering.

The main lessons I learned from my “refresher course” were eye-opening! NO WONDER you’ve been having trouble trying to crack the Mystery surrounding Mastering!

I found two surprises I was not expecting to find:

1. I’ve been Mixing and Mastering sound recordings myself and have done so successfully for some time, so I’m quite comfortable with the process itself.  I’ve also been teaching Mastering to students one-on-one. Private students start their studies under me with what we call “a blank slate.”  Meaning – regardless of the student’s previous experience, I teach all the basics from the bottom up very carefully, making sure all the definitions of important words are fully understood before diving in. Even if a student has previously studied with me, I still go through this process, because trying to skimp on the foundation of this (or any) subject is asking for big trouble down the road. I tell my students, “you cannot ‘over learn’ the basics of any subject. In fact the more times you study the basics, the better.”

So while preparing to teach this subject for members; a large general international audience of Indie Musicians, Singer/Songwriters, Mixing Engineers, Mastering Engineers and Home Studio & Project Studio Owners; I started out under the assumption (incorrectly) that the vast majority of people involved in the industry had the same thorough fundamental education regarding the BASICS of Mixing and/or the BASICS of Mastering that I had been fortunate to learn.  I discovered my assumption was incorrect by doing market research on initial drafts of the course, sending them out around the world to people involved in the music industry; as I said, Singer/Songwriters, Mixing Engineers, Mastering Engineers and Home Studio & Project Studio Owners – and asking for feedback.

The first indication that important basic fundamental terms and concepts regarding mixing and/or mastering were not universally fully understood became clear within the first week of Market Research.  I could see that my approach to teaching mastering online would need to parallel the way I teach my students face-to-face, one-on-one – start with a full and thorough education on BASIC terms and tools of the trade, and then teach exactly how to do each individual step of Mastering.  

2. The second indication was an even bigger eye-opener for sure. During the 200 or so hours of recent online and face-to-face research (including interviews with industry pros), I read many blogs, watched many videos, looked through various other courses offered on the subject of Mastering, and spoke to experts.  And then it hit me – some sources had very good material (and some not), but overall there was something BIG omitted.  Missing were thorough, easy to understand definitions of the BASIC terminology and tools of Mixing and Mastering, with clear concise visual examples and aids. Again, some sources had very good approaches and materials, but no one source seemed to cover it all in an easy-to-grasp form for anyone from beginner to pro. No wonder the feedback I was getting showed a lack of a full grasp of the basics – and this was not just from beginners.

And proof of #1 and #2 above was the intense interest in the course Aaron and I were putting together. The interest was so high, I had people offering to pay for the market research information I had sent them!  (Though I have bills to pay like everyone else, I am not motivated solely by money. My passion is to help others improve the Music Industry by researching and sharing workable approaches to achieving success.  As Quincy Jones taught me personally, “If you chase money – it’ll run away.” I have my own saying, “For every dishonest dollar you accept, it’ll cost you two dollars to clean up your mess.”)

By far, the best overall source of information that does exist on Mastering is a book by Bob Katz called “Mastering Audio – The Art And The Science - Second Edition,” published by Focal Press. If this blog and my course helps Bob sell more books, the industry will be all the better for it – and so will you.  That book is a bible. The only stumbling block to learning that book however, is if you are a beginner or if you haven’t had a LOT of experience in larger studios. Some of the concepts can go sailing over your head.

The fact that Bob Katz has taken so much responsibility for improving the quality of what we do and for helping to improve our overall industry, has inspired me to help him in that cause. If you haven’t had at least 5 years of experience in larger studios, I encourage you to read this blog (and if you can, take the course mentioned below) before reading Bob’s book.     

What’s this course I’m talking about? There’s an upcoming course that Aaron Davison, the founder of and I are presenting on the subject of Mastering – it’s appropriately called “Mysteries Of Mastering Solved.” Whether you’re able to take the upcoming course or not, the purpose of this blog is to give you enough information about Mastering to open up your eyes (and ears!) to the truth about Mastering, and to help you on the road to separating the myths and false information about Mastering from consistently workable Step-By-Step procedures and approaches to getting the job done right every time, so that you can learn mastering yourself.  Once you grasp for real the definitions and concepts of the BASIC terms and tools connected to the subject, you will find out that Mastering is actually far simpler than Mixing.  Just as much or more work may go into Mastering, but technically, it is far simpler than Mixing.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

There exists in all disciplines and in all industries purported authorities (those who present themselves as authorities but are not), and actual experts. A big barrier in learning can sometimes be how to separate these two. And even then, when an actual expert is discovered, another separation may need to take place – you must be able to separate the information from that expert – you must discover which information is empirically true (truth which holds up under any test), from information which is not entirely workable or even false.

Rather than claim to be an authority or an expert (which I am not), I DO offer this: I have a voracious appetite for research and experimentation. I have dedicated a portion of my life to discovering and teaching workable, empirical truths regarding music and recording to students within the Music Industry. You can call me a “sonic scientist” or a “pre-sorter of workable knowledge in the field of recording,” but I am not and do not claim to be an authority or an expert.  I would then have to stop experimenting and researching and I’d have to “defend” my philosophies and approaches.  While doing your own research, remember this: accept only logical approaches which stand up to consistent testing and need no defense.

The industry changes. Technology grows. Markets change. Workable knowledge evolves with it.

So, really, I am more of an eternal student in that regard than a teacher – and what I do is share my findings in a way that others can use that information to enhance their knowledge and further their careers.  

I constantly research videos, articles, forums, books, equipment and experts themselves, meticulously sorting the workable and truthful data from unworkable and false information.

I have many friends, students and clients around the world who are involved in the Music Industry. Almost all of them DON’T HAVE THE TIME TO DO WHAT I DO: Research and Experiment.  And there I have found my niche.

So, with that said, let’s continue. You’ll notice that the heading to this section of the blog is entitled “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Well, speaking of purported authorities and the Music Industry, let’s review the plot of that famous tale by the Danish author Hanz Christian Anderson:

The Plot

A vain Emperor who cares for nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for their position or "hopelessly stupid". The Emperor's ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretense; not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a hero (a child in the crowd, who has no vested interest in keeping up any pretense), blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession.    

You will see as you read this blog (and more so if you are able to take the course), that our Emperor (the collective heads of certain marketing machines within our industry), have been surrounded by a small handful of unscrupulous and/or uneducated consultants, sales people and various other purported authorities, who continue, to this day, the procession of deception – a procession of false information and unworkable approaches to Mixing and Mastering.  And, in my opinion, many people have become unwitting victims; not so much out of wanting to appear unfit or stupid, but mostly due to a lack of time to do thorough research and/or a lack of knowing how to do thorough research -- and especially due to a lack of simple, accurate, easy-to-understand educational materials on the subject.


I see Bob Katz as one of the heroes in the crowd, and I applaud him for it.  There are many people now taking up the cry that Bob initiated. He has done much for and is continuing to do much for improving our industry, especially in the area of standardizing metering, monitoring and loudness levels.  

And with all due respect to Mr. Katz, and in alignment with separating the workable from the unworkable, even within expert texts, there has been one particular area of Mastering which has thrown many a willing student flat on their backs and back to swearing at their DAWs in frustration, promising to just drop the whole subject of Mastering when they attempt to crack the code of a veritable maze of extremely complicated descriptions of this one particular area of Mastering.  Most people fail at cracking the code, scratch their heads and just keep doing the best they can at somehow learning the relationship between mixing and mastering. And some do try to apply this complicated tangle of instructions and a) either make sincere attempts to conquer it, or, b) like the tale of our infamous Emperor, they pretend to see the wonderful wardrobe that isn’t really there.

Part 2 Coming Friday....

In : May 2013 

Tags: mixing  mastering  music production 
blog comments powered by Disqus