Universal Audio sat down with 3 masters of mastering Bob Katz, Emily Lazar, and Peter Doell, and asked them to discuss 7 questions about mastering.
From the outside, mastering audio may seem like a strange and mystical art, one that somehow ties everything in a track together and gives recordings the exact bits of nuance, polish, and power that they need to shine.
Ask the sonic craftspeople behind the mastering desk, however, and Universal Audio found that a different picture emerges. To experienced engineers like the great Bob, Emily, and Peter, mastering is a meticulous practice, one equally informed by technical expertise, artistic instinct, and hard-won experience.
The Orlando-based author of Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science, Bob Katz boasts a resume including the likes of Paquito d’Rivera, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and Emmylou Harris. Emily Lazar is the founder and chief mastering engineer of The Lodge in New York City, where she has worked on projects for David Bowie, Foo Fighters, Santana, Linkin Park, and more. Based in Los Angeles, Peter Doell spent over a decade as a Senior Mastering/Mixing Engineer for Universal; his credits include the likes of Miles Davis, Celine Dion, Marilyn Manson, and Etta James.
Below are some snippets from Universal Audio’s roundtable discussion on preparing tracks for the mastering process, the trio’s go-to UAD plug-ins, and how they use those tools to bring the tracks that they work on that extra level of life.
1. What should artists or mixing engineers always do to their tracks before sending them to get mastered?
If you can’t commit, provide options. It’s simple to edit different mixes together in the mastering stage and sometimes this can yield amazing results.
Labelling your files is important. Pick a naming system that both works for you and will also be clear and translatable to the people you are sending your files to.
2. What would you advise against, mix-wise, when it comes to prepping for a successful mastering session?
Using a sample-style peak limiter on your mix just doesn’t help. That doesn’t mean that, maybe, some individual elements of the mix won’t benefit from a sample-style peak limiter.
Sometimes people send mixes where the level is so hot that there’s nothing for us to grab on to to make the music feel better — we’re already at the ceiling.
3. After you finish your master, do artists and mixers often hear things that they didn’t hear before?
Of course. That might be a statement to the fact that mastering engineers make things louder, as a matter of course. That’s not our goal, but during the process of mastering, we bring out the inner details of a track — and hopefully the artist agrees with this — we bring out the essence of the music as well.
One thing I’ve found that can creep into mastering, and not be apparent ahead of time, is sibilance. If mixes come in on the dark side and need a little lift or some brightness, the “s” sounds in the lead vocals can become an issue where they weren’t before.
4. What are some of your go-to UAD plug-ins for mastering?
- Helios Type 69 EQ
- Brainworx BX_Digital V2
- UAD K-Stereo Processor
5. Do you reach for UAD’s Precision Tools often?
While mastering in stereo, my go to plug-ins include the Precision Maximizer and the Precision Multiband.
The UAD Precision Enhancer has been a surprise tool for me in the mastering environment.
6. How do you feel about tape machine emulations?
Unfortunately, sometimes budgets do not allow for lengthy sessions and the extra cost of analog tape. In those instances, I rely on the UAD tape machine plugins. I frequently use the Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder Plug-In to add just the right touch of analog flavor and vibe.
I use the UAD Studer and Ampex tape decks on occasion, though I have my preferences outside the box as well.
7. How do you know when a track that you’re mastering is done?
For me, it’s a combination of hitting technical benchmarks that I’ve set for the track and getting that visceral response while I’m listening to it.
Experience helps and having a good perspective does let you know when you’re done.
As mastering engineers, we sit in the same spot in the same room, all day, every day, and don’t touch the position of our monitors. When I get music to sound as great as anything else I’ve ever heard when I’m listening in that monitor position, then I know that I’m done.
There are some snippets from the round table discussion with these 3 masters of mastering. You can read all their comments on the Universal Audio web site here.