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 a different picture emerges. To experienced engineers like the great Bob Katz, Emily Lazar, and Peter Doell, 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, Katz boasts a resume including the likes of Paquito d’Rivera, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and Emmylou Harris. 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, 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 excerpts 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.
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Meet the Masters
(Paquito d’Rivera, Dizzy Gillespie, Emmylou Harris)
The Orlando-based author of Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science, Katz boasts a resume including the likes of Paquito d’Rivera, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, and Emmylou Harris.
(Coldplay, Foo Fighters, Sia)
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.
(Miles Davis, Celine Dion, Etta James)
Based in Los Angeles, 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.
1: What should artists or mixing engineers always do to their tracks before sending them to get mastered?
KATZ: I suggest that, after artists finish the first successful mixes for a project, they contact the mastering engineers that they’re considering using and send in a mix for evaluation. You can learn so much that way. I offer all of my clients the opportunity to have me listen to one song for free.
LAZAR: 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. If you’re unsure about which mix will sound better after mastering, you should provide both. If you are unsure about certain things in your stereo mix, provide the stems! Using stems is a really effective way to address balance, EQ, and compression concerns.
DOELL: One of the most basic things that people need to do in order to have a happy, successful, and affordable mastering session is to have all files named correctly. Be organized. If you want to have TV or instrumental mixes done, in addition to the main mix, make sure that all of the files are correctly named — and bring it to the attention of the mastering engineer ahead of time. That way, someone in my position can run all of the mixes during the same mastering session. You get more consistency of sound that way, and it saves the client time and money.
LAZAR: 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. Instead of just making one up, there’s a great paper that includes the NARAS/GRAMMY-recommended naming conventions for delivery that you
can find online.
2: What would you advise against, mix-wise, when it comes to prepping for a successful mastering session?
DOELL: 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. That’s arguably the most hand-tying thing. When I see mixes come in like that, I have to raise my hand and say, “Do you have mixes that don’t have your peak limiter on them?”
KATZ: 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. What I mean is that a digital peak limiter, one that looks at the individual samples like bricks in a wall, should be avoided for the overall mix. I advise more traditional analog-style processors on the mix side. The brick wall units only multiply the distortion when it gets to us.
3: After you finish your master, do artists and mixers often hear things that they didn’t hear before?
KATZ: 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. During that process, though, noises and other stuff that artists and mixers hadn’t considered before can be brought out. That’s another reason to send a recording to the mastering engineer ahead of time.
LAZAR: Countless times, artists and mixers realize after the mastering is complete that there is an element mistakenly missing from the source mix that they provided. The prevalence of home recording and in-the-box mixing has provided incredible power and flexibility with a seemingly endless amount of tracks and buses — but the only downside is that, with all of that flexibility, it’s very easy to get distracted and leave a track, or it’s processing, inactive by accident. One last critical listen on the the artist’s and engineer’s end, before sending your tracks off to mastering, is essential.
DOELL: 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. The same thing can happen with the hi-hat. Sometimes mixes come in with the hi-hat way up, and de-essing that bad boy, as well as the voice, can be a smart move. The UAD Precision De-Esser is a very musical tool for that. It has the ability to filter the sideband, so you can be forensic and hone in on the offending syllables, if you’re working on voice, or the specific register where the hi-hat is living, if that’s what you’re tweaking. It’s very intuitive, clever, and good-sounding.
4: What are some of your go-to UAD plug-ins
DOELL: So many mixes come to me sounding a little brittle or thin, usually because they’ve been mixed inside the box. They need richness — meat on the bones. One plug-in that helps is the Helios Type 69 EQ plug-in.
Just passing the entire mix through the Helios warms everything up and puts some real beef on things. I’ll use its midrange band, just a touch, to bring the voice out, or just dial around to see if it makes the snare that much better. It has a bunch of really useful midrange frequencies and literally, just a hair on that thing can be amazing. It’s one of my favorite and most-used plug-ins. The Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveler Collection, SPL Transient Designer, TwinTube Processor, Vitalizer MK2-T plug-ins and the API 500 Series Collection EQs and API VIsion Channel Strip plug-ins are some more of the "frequent flyers" found in my workflow.
LAZAR: When I’m working with stems, I really like that UAD plug-ins are more than just functional in getting the basic job done. They can add missing flavor and color to enhance a mix.
For EQs and compressors, I seem to always reach for the Trident® A-Range Classic Console EQ plug-in, the Brainworx BX_Digital V2, the Pultec EQP-1A from the Pultec Passive EQ Plug-In Collection as well as the Legacy version, the Neve® 1081 Classic Console EQ, the API Vision Channel Strip, the Neve 33609, the DBX 160, and the Manley Variable MU Compressor/Limiter.
KATZ: I invented the UAD K-Stereo Processor, and I designed it specifically for mastering, so I’m a little biased on that one. [Laughs.] I use it on 30 to 40 percent of the material that comes in.
5: Do you reach for UAD’s Precision Tools often?
LAZAR: While mastering in stereo, my go to plug-ins include the Precision Maximizer and the Precision Multiband — as well as the API 560 Graphic EQ, the elysia• alpha compressor plug-in and the Millennia NSEQ-2. The Precision Maximizer can really help in achieving a natural sounding depth and bigness, without negatively affecting the dynamics of a track. It's pretty simple to use and results are immediate. That being said – a little goes a long way! Using the Precision Multiband's expander along with a little EQ finesse, you can open up and extend a closed-down high end or muddled midrange, or accentuate the power in the low end.
DOELL: Often, I’ll put the Precision Maximizer on the source DAW and dial up just a little of it to get some bootstrapping — rather than pushing stuff down from the top to get more detail, the effect is to pull up more of the lower-level stuff. It brings fullness and details out of the mix in the right way, without changing color or flattening the dynamics. I usually only use the first quarter of its range, setting it at about nine-o’clock. It’s a subtle but very helpful thing.
KATZ: The UAD Precision Enhancer has been a surprise tool for me in the mastering environment. I like to say that bass is the final frontier, and I’m sure that Emily and Pete would agree with me that getting bass right is a common issue. One big reason that it can be an issue really boils down to not having accurate monitoring in the mix room. The result is that the bass instrument loses clarity and you can’t really hear the notes as well as you should. It gets lumpy.
6: How do you feel about tape machine emulations?
LAZAR: Although I have a lot of amazing analog gear and tape machines at The Lodge, 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 am very lucky to have the analog version of the limited-edition Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor at The Lodge, and I absolutely love it. A lot of the albums I have mastered have been blessed with a stereo trip through that analog box but, that being said, to be able to manipulate certain stems digitally with the UAD plug-in version of that world class compressor, before hitting my analog chain, is nothing short of awesome.
KATZ: I use the UAD Studer and Ampex tape decks on occasion, though I have my preferences outside the box as well. We’re seeing more and more stem mastering situations and, for those, the UAD Ocean Way can be used to bring out ambience or space on vocals that are too small or too dry. I’m also fond of using the UAD EMT 250 when I’m working with stems. That’s an excellent re-creation and makes for good reverb, so why not use it for stem mastering?
7: How do you know when a track that you’re
mastering is done?
LAZAR: 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. That said, I like to give people options and truly don’t believe that there is any one way to be “done.” Most of all, I know I’m done when my clients are thrilled. My main goal is always to facilitate what they are looking to achieve in the best way possible.
KATZ: Experience helps and having a good perspective does let you know when you’re done. My monitoring system is so good that, if I try to do something that I shouldn’t do, it tells me, “Bob, don’t do that!” [Pretends to slap his own wrist.] It’s almost self-limiting, but not in the processing sense. I feel that dithering is important, for example. It’s a very subtle phenomenon, and if I find myself spending more than five minutes deciding on a particular dither, I know that I’m wasting my clients’ time. If we spend more than five or six hours on an album, there’s probably something wrong with the mix — or with us. We’re being neurotic or obsessive compulsive, which isn’t helpful. So the mastering system tells you when you’re done, like experience tells you.
DOELL: 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. If it sounds a little wanting or harsh, I don’t want to reach for the volume control to turn it up or down — that means that there’s still work to be done. But when you’re sitting in your mastering room, listening on your monitoring system, and it sounds like a million bucks without being too loud or too soft — that’s when you know it’s done.