By Jake Wood Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s June 2009 Issue
Masterers Of The Universe
What really happens inside mastering rooms is a murky mystery to most. Ask around, and responses will vary from blank guitarist-lost-in-sheet-music stares to vague open-ended definitions. More imaginative types may fathom darkened dungeons with cloaked engineers chanting in coded tongues and conjuring the spirit of Apollo to impregnate albums with inaudible mystic spells of listener enchantment. The disenchanted opposition, however, simply believes it to be an outright sham.
In actuality, mastering isn’t as convoluted and discrete as many fantasize. The engineer’s fundamental purpose is to prepare an album for duplication by dancing a delicate tango of artistic and technical maneuvers. Various technical tasks include aligning the volume levels of each song to consistency, arranging the order and spacing of the songs, and creating the PQ codes necessary for duplication. The artistic half, aided by top-shelf equalizers, can fix bandwidth bogarting issues like separating kicks from basses, blending snares and guitars, and highlighting vocals from hi-hats. With these powerful processors, mastering engineers carry the burden of sculpting consistent “soundscapes” for entire albums.
In the lab, engineers work with two-track stereo files of the songs, not multitrack session files. Surprisingly, this limitation doesn’t prohibit the tremendous amount of control they hold over the presentation of a work. With compression, mastering can catapult a song from being a lifeless string of notes to an in-your-face, large-and-in-charge, Rosie O’Donnell–esque demonstration of sonic domination. It is at the compressor’s helm where most loudness wars are fought, with some engineers crushing mercilessly and others opting to preserve artistic integrity.
Mastering isn’t simply about making things sound better. It is the art of hemming together a body of work, not just a collection of songs, and optimizing it to sound best in any system. This task requires a professional-grade mastering suite with a room tuned for transparency, a stereo system built for accuracy, and an engineer who really knows the room and the system. These elements have a tendency to coax prices into alpine territory, but cost can directly affect fidelity. As uber-producer Ken Lee notes, mastering is just a means to making a record “sound more expensive.”