Mastering Techniques

Bob Katz Leave a Comment

Here’s a question on mastering techniques with and without artist

I recorded 12 songs last winter in San Francisco. No budget to speak of, but good equipment and the prducer was as good as they get. He mixed everything down to stereo with the idea that I would get the tape mastered and release it myself with the idea of getting a distribution deal. But after listening to it for three months I decided it wasn’t ready for that and mastering seemed so final. I think we have six functional tunes.

I had one question about the mastering process which Richard couldn’t answer and your article doesn’t really answer either. Do you master with the producer and/or the artist standing over your shoulder giving input or is it more technical and private than that. Is it matter of your ears and calibrated hardware or a collaboration of taste? I mean, if I was to finally decide to press a CD, would you be able to do it as well or better without any input from me?


Jim Nollman

Hi, Jim. That’s an excellent question… In the many years there have been many mastering engineers, each one with a slightly different philosophy about mastering. There was once a certain type of mastering engineer who had a specific “sound”—if you went to that engineer, you would send your tape, and get his (her) sound. There are very few (if any) of those kinds of mastering engineers left, and the reason is quite plain: every piece of music is unique, and requires a special approach that is sympathetic to the needs of that music and the needs of the producer and artist of that music. An engineer who is so egotistic as to assume that he *knows* what the artist wants without asking for feedback will get little business in this day and age.

A good mastering engineer is familiar with and comfortable with many styles of music. He or she knows how acoustic and electric instruments and vocals sound, plus he’s familiar with the different styles of music recording and mixing that have evolved up to today. In addition, a good mastering engineer knows how to take a raw tape destined for duplication and make it sound like a polished record. Upon listening to a tape, a good mastering engineer should be able to tell what he likes and doesn’t like about a recording, and what he can do to make the recording sound better. Then, by sympathetically listening to and working with the producer, the engineer can produce a product that is a good combination of his ideas and the producer’s intentions, a better-sounding product than if the engineer had simply mastered on his own.

The best masters are produced when both the producer and the engineer solicit feedback, use empathy, courtesy, and understanding, are willing to experiment and listen to new ideas. My approach is to welcome the client (the producer) with open arms. You are the one most familiar with your music and what you want it to say. After all, you’ve been listening to it for much longer than I have!

If you cannot attend the mastering session, then you and I will have discussions prior to and during the session of how you perceive your music, how I think it sounds. Sometimes we may refer to existing recorded CDs that you like, in order to give me an idea of your tastes and preferences. Then, during the mastering, I will give you feedback of how the mastering is going, problems or successes with particular songs. And finally, produce a reference CD for your evaluation prior to the final mastering. Usually we are so much in sync that there is no need to produce a second reference CD. But sometimes we’ll do a second reference, making changes that you’d like to test or see done before I make the final master. That’s about it, without writing an essay on levels, equalization, spacing, fade-ins, fade-outs, segues, special edits and effects, stereoization , imaging, depth, width, separation, punch, clarity, transparency, warmth, fullness, tonal naturalness and anything else I might have left out!

Best wishes,

Bob Katz

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