The History of "Mastering" Music, in most of its styles and forms that is targeting commercial distribution now undergoes a final process of transformation and quality verification known as Mastering. For those working within the audio industry, this process is an unavoidable step to pass through. The role of the mastering engineer is almost unknown and often unheard of.
This status of the mastering process has over the ears gathered itself an almost mythical status in the industry. The art itself is quite often misunderstood and in certain cases considered unimportant. Through this essay I hope to explore further into the role of the mastering process and the position it has held over decades with changes in styles, technology and mediums of media distribution. "Mastering is the set of activities in the audio chain between the final production of the music on an intermediary format and its transfer to a distribution format. (Dominique Bassal, 2005) During the early days, the process of mastering was not a separate discipline that as followed by a different engineer. A recording engineer's profile would involve recording onto a disc cutting lather. Before the year 1925, the tools used to cut records was unsophisticated and worked in a fairly mechanical manner without the use of electricity. By the 1930's the advent of electricity in the audio industry like many other markets changed the way media was recorded, processed and finally distributed.
The rise of the radio stations, microphones and the amplification of the stylus that was previously driven Just by a diaphragm into an acoustical horn has changed the way mastering works. The discs cut onto wax were used as stampers to press 78rpm discs using shellac-composite. This was the method of cutting/ producing records before the advent of tape. Mastering/cutting Engineer Post the second world war, the recording ot tape and micro groove LP were tlrst introduced. The introduction of tape recording changed the norm of master recordings almost always being cut direct to disc.
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This was the beginning of a separate engineer being in charge of using the session tapes to cut master discs. This person was not initially known as a mastering engineer but a "dubbing ngineer" or rather "transfer engineer". "mastering was a black art practiced by technical curmudgeons who mysteriously made the transfer from the electronic medium of magnetic audio tape to the physical medium of vinyl. " - (Owsnski, 2007) This change brought about the industrial belief that the process of cutting the master discs from recording session tapes was not a very different technical skill than the vinyl pressing operation.
The biggest problem as such with vinyl has been to safeguard the largest possible part of the audio fidelity of the master tape, by troubleshooting and working around he numerous downfalls and obstacles brought about by the medium itself. The technology of cutting vinyl from tape came with its own set of limitations to a huge degree. To explain the groove on the record, the thickness of the hair carries pitch and tonal information laterally and the amplitude information vertically. The problems brought about by this system was that the bass frequencies would drastically affect the total width of the groove.
This in turn would affect the determined length of the information being cut onto the vinyl. the thickness of the vinyl similarly affected the dynamic range available for each cut. The recording onto analog tape helped with these flaws to a certain extent through having a tendency to roll off the distinctly sharp high intensity transients. This tendency was due to the saturation that occurred when hit with too much level, which would result in the stylus Jumping out of groove or often burn the disc cutter head itself.
Around this time larger record companies dealing with pop music were prioritizing the automation of the tape to disk transfer as much as possible in the interest of production efficiency. One of the biggest advancements this brought about was the ossibility to determine the thickness of the grooves using analog computer circuitry. It eventually brought about the possibility of having record sides of up to, and in some cases beyond, 30 minutes. The equipment being used for the mastering process also had to be specifically developed for use in record production.
The idea behind this was to protect the companies from the expensive cutter heads blowing up as well as to ensure a more quality consistent product.! The birth of the Mastering Plant It was not long betore a tew engineers in this industry realized that there might me a arket out there for mastering that is done with superior care and skill. This brought about the birth of the first independent mastering lab in Los Angeles during the late 60's. The art of mastering became more about the attention to detail, skillful use of the highest grade equipment available and a devotion to artistic satisfaction.
This trend soon grew into a business where a master tape sent to a mastering plant run by a credible engineer such as Bob Ludwig, Doug Sax or Bob Katz would result in a disc that sounded phenomenal. lt was during this time that the name of the astering engineer was listed on to the credits of the albums. Mastering trivia: ! "A significant step in this extension of the role of the mastering engineer, even if ephemeral and exclusively linked to a specific musical style, was the dance mix fad, today devolved, in a modified form, to the D].
A rhythmic pop song is delivered to the mastering studio with, along with its official mix, a series of excerpts, sub-mixes of rhythm sections, solo voices, etc. The mastering engineer constructs an extended version of the song, destined for, among others, nightclubs, adding as required upplemental effects and even sounds from other sources. " (Dominique Bassal, 2005) Mastering today Mastering is still very much a part of the industry, although most of them no longer cut master discs from analog reel tape. The CD generation has definitely caused a huge change in the mastering process.
This process is now known as mastering where the recording in its final stage is brought in recorded on to a digital medium and is then sent for pressing. In the older days, each record company would have its own in house engineers working to a pre determined standard set by the company itself. These standards ere for the calibration of recorders, level and metering standards, interfacing and conversion equipment, etc. A number of engineers would also custom build some of the equipment used in their studio. This time saw that the tapes that were sent to these mastering studios could have a consistency to quality and fidelity.
The order of the songs on the record, short pauses between tracks and equalization would have already been dealt with. ! Today the mastering business is a very different market compared to back then. The material for an album made these days could have been sourced from a variety of ifferent places, ranging from large studio rooms to a bedroom studio. The mixing on the record could have been done using Just a computer and sometimes by the artist themselves. These changes make it a completely contrasting market to when the big record companies were around.
It opens a new realm of artistic space to play with as well. This treedom however also attec ed t the technical aspects ot the production. ! It is due to these reasons that mastering engineers began to expect their clients to provide them the recorded and mixed product with certain measures taken into account. The client is requested to not finish aspects of the process such as song spacing, fades and final master levels for each song. It is in the benefit of the client to trust the mastering engineer to take care of such detailed aspects with the necessary skill set and experience.
A fundamental point to remember in todays technological free market is that technical competence cannot be taken for granted. Todays mastering engineers are expected to take a body of work that is recorded, produced and mixed and transform it into a sonic piece that is well balanced and is aurally pleasing to listen to. It involves a meticulous binding, processing and reinforcing of sound to translate the artistic vision onto various forms of playback. Mastering Equipment The equipment used in the process of mastering is a range of extremely high quality units that perform very specific tasks in the overall chain.
The most important tool however is and will always be the attention to detail through years of experience and critical listening. Equipment used at this stage today is very relative to what is being achieved through the process itself. The aspects that are of prime importance through mastering are he conversion of audio information from analog to digital domains, the consistent but not squashed dynamic range, equalization and balance of the songs with respect to each other and the intricately combined amplification done using consoles, compressors and limiters.
Acoustics: Mastering is the last and final stage between the product and its dispatch for replication and distribution. This is where the sonic fidelity of the album or any other work is Judged technically to suite the various listening conditions and environments that audiences consume music in. Acoustics is amongst the most important tools to chieving a neutral space where the engineer can fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of the pre master. Monitors: Reference monitoring systems for mastering plants are very different from the ones used in the mixing and play back stages.
Monitoring systems for mastering rooms can be two way or three way systems that divide the trequency ranges to separate drivers so that they are individually emphasized to then pay special attention to. Plants usually run two or three sets of references. Adam audio, Barefoot sound and Earthworks are some of the biggest names in Audio reference monitors for astering. Amplification: Amplification is an important stage in the mastering chain and is integral to driving the sound clean and transparent through and out of the monitors.
Another reason for amplification is to have a palette of colors to pass the audio through. There are usually at least two different amplification systems in a mastering plant. Console: The console is the heart of the mastering chain where everything comes together. It is the Hub for the audio that is passing through the outboard equipment, convertors and the DAW. Manley, TK Audio and Maselec are highly renowned mastering console anufacturers. DAW: DAWS are the software environments within which the Audio is contained and worked with.
There is a wide variety of programs that specialize in different need of the mastering process, For example - Pro tools HD, DDP creator Pro, Sequoia. EQ's: Equalization is the process of treating specific ranges of the audio to strike a smooth balance that will translate the music onto systems that may not always reproduce the entire spectrum from 20Hz to 20KHz such as earphones and car audio systems. Buzz Audio, Prism Sound and GML are amongst the biggest names for EQ's with regards to
Dynamics processors: Dynamic range is an integral part of preparing music and audio to a level of industry standard distribution. These processors are categorized into Compressors, Limiters, Exciters, Expanders and Gates. They are used to gradually make the audio translate with a benchmark RMS and Peak level that varies in ratio across music, film, television and radio broadcast. Manley, Cranesong, API and Tubetech make extremely high grade Hardware Dynamics processors for mastering. Convertors: Convertors are arguably the most important tools in the mastering chain today.
The amount ot media that is generated completely in the digital domain is significantly huge. Converting this information to analog in order to be processed and worked with requires precision based high quality convertor components that can be very expensive. The conversion process also plays a huge factor in converting analog to digital considering the fundamental differences that exist between them such as hardware circuitry and software coding. Lavry Engineering and Apogee is at the forefront of building high quality convertors for mastering. Digital Processors:
An integral part of todays Mixing and Mastering is Digital Signal Processing. The tools available for use within a computer are much more cost effective and pretty close to replicating the results of analog gear and circuitry. The biggest names that have been developing the tools of this digital era are Universal Audio, Waves and McDSP, using modern technology and specifically designed chipsets to treat audio without losing its fidelity. Conclusion: The art of Mastering as a discipline was first considered to be a technical process within the larger process of making a record.
Over the decades this art form came to recognition when its artistic impact was noticed by people from the industry such as the artist and producers themselves. This brought about the Mastering Plant Revolution. The skill set and aesthetic value brought into the production process by mastering engineers have grown to be invaluable in this day and age of digital distribution. It is through this evolution across almost five decades that todays mastering studio serves as the last and final stage of technical and artistic quality control for most recorded media. References: Aud, R. (n. d. ).
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