Mastering engineer questions and answers

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This page is a mastering engineer question and answer session with Barry Gardner.
Can you give me a biog about yourself, how and why you got into music, a bit about your history? 

I had always been an avid listener to music since I was in my teens, I was fascinated by black music and loved to listen to pirate radio stations, I was completely in awe of the music the pirates played, soul, house, electro, hip hop, rare grooves. I worked in finance initially and knew pretty soon this was not going to be for me. I enrolled on an audio course and passed the course fairly easily. I started work in a recording studio that had a DDA desk working as an assistant engineer with all that entails. Whilst it was a learning experience I could not sustain myself financially so had to go back and do temp work elsewhere to earn a crust. Then I applied for paid work experience at a radio production company and got the job after a grueling interview. After 3 months the company was still very busy and I was kept on for 6 months and then was made permanent staff. I was trained in house by a former BBC studio manager. Within 4 years I was mixing many BBC radio programmes and recording music sessions for broadcast. My manager left and I was appointed head of engineering and continued to widen my experiences in broadcast and music recording. At the time I was managing two other skilled audio engineers. I have been very fortunate and have recorded quite a few big named artists along with some major outside broadcasts (Brits, Mobo's), it was a very privileged position to be in. The highlight was really the music recordings which were largely done direct to stereo (sometimes with a multi track back up) You need to have an ear for balance and get a good sound together quickly, pressurizing but great fun at the same time.  
How and why did you get into mastering? 

I was asked to do a job by my boss, I was a little apprehensive at first knowing the requirements.  A job came in working with Pogues producer David Coulter recording 8 or 9 buskers, 6 of which would be released on a vinyl run. I had to record the musicians in the daytime with David producing and pre master the tracks for a vinyl release in my home studio in the evening. I was pretty stressed out but I managed it all and it was a very successful arts project. I impressed myself and started to look into the techniques of mastering and realized all the years balancing concerts for the BBC broadcast of Jazz on 3 in SADiE (DAW) had stood me in good stead. I had to fit the dynamics of jazz concerts into that of FM radio and so fader rides, intro and outro fades, adding and editing applause and balancing commercial and live track levels for 4 years or so had really honed my skills. I did not know how this would feed into mastering until later on when I voluntarily left my full time job to go freelance. This gave me freedom to focus my attention on the work I was beginning to love whilst supporting myself with freelance work in broadcast, post production and music recording. SafeandSound Mastering  as  name grew from a catchy audio forum name I had given myself and over 3 or 4 years I have built it up and it has become my main source of income. I cannot turn down the occasional Jazz recording session though, I still love recording and afterall it feeds nicely into mastering in my opinion  keeps your chops together.  
Which high profile artists and tracks have you worked on and describe how these went? 

Well in my history as a recording/broadcast engineer I have been very fortunate having recorded, Ronnie Wood, Lemar, Craig David, The Rumblestrips, The Coral, The Hoosiers, Chick Corea,  Kano,  Avishai Cohen, Incognito, Martha Tilsden, Terry Callier,  Amp Fiddler, Billy Cobham, Marshall Allen and SunRa's Arkestra and quite a few others. All these recordings went very well I had the support of a fantastic and highly professional production team. I am still very thankful to be able to have been exposed to such artists, it has been wonderful.I recently mastered an album for Robin Beck an artist who was very big in the 1980's, classic power ballad rock and very well executed. I had to produce mastering previews for the producer/mix engineer and create a few changes to the versions over a very short period of time, the mix engineer was in Florida so the time difference made for long hours but it was a buzz and I was very into the work. Paul White is a hip hop/electronic artist whose work has a really interesting lo fi sound, quite challenging for an engineer to work with and yet very exacting. The job was difficult in the sense that every track had to cross fade into each other and the track start I.D.s were at very specific points in the intro of the tracks, the actual sonic work was matched in complexity by the PQing work ! I also mastered an album under a fairly short time frame for Scott Matthews who is signed to San Remo records. It was a pleasure from start to finish to work with the people there and I really enjoyed the project. 
What is the most common problem you encounter with an unmastered track and why do you think this is?
There are a few common issues, clipping, too much or not enough bass, tracks that are delivered with a limiter on and clicks in files. Clipping comes from not understanding digital audio metering and it's relationship between electrical level and that which would have been a typical nominal level on an SSL or NEVE desk. Remember  0Vu is approximately equivalent to -14dBFS so at 24 bit resolution there is no need to push levels much higher when recording or mixing. The bass issue is simply because it is very difficult to get a neutral response below 300Hz in an acoustically untreated room so it becomes very easy to misjudge bass content. Limiters can easily be removed and chances are most mastering engineers will have a selection to choose one that suits the music. Like all audio devices, limiters have a different sound and the mastering engineer can choose one most suitable to the material and the level required. Clicks can come from the export/bounce process or just bad edits. 
How does a typical mastering process work? 

There really isn't a typical mastering job as any processing is dependent on the music at hand. What is typical would be listening at a decent volume level, around 80dB SPL, eq adjustments, possibly compression and not necessarily for the gain reduction but for a tone, consideration of stereo image. Then depending on my instruction from the client I would be considering trade offs between level and punch, thinking about the genre of music and what does the track allows vs reference to it's peers in the genre, considering what the artists has suggested as pointers on how the music should sound and  comparison against supplied references. At all times it's about presenting the music in it's best light, enhancing and ensuring the music can translate as best as possible given the mix. Sometimes there is less to do and sometimes there is more to do.

Can you supply a step-by-step action plan of how you master a track? 

It might sound evasive but that is very difficult. Why? Because it really is different for every piece of music. To generalize you first need to have accurate reference monitors that you trust and know. Then you must be operating in a well controlled acoustic, otherwise you could be guessing, mastering is not a place for guesswork. As a mastering engineer you need to be sure of your tools and environment. To cover the processes that could be used in any given track I would typically use listening at around 80dB SPL, eqing, compressing, possibly M/S adjustment, stereo width enhancement  (which could involve reducing width), DA/AD conversion, volume automation, automation of filters or eq, fades, SRC, dithering, bit rate conversion and listening back for QC .In some cases I would use noise reduction, click removal software or manual click removal.  

What do you think the future holds for online mastering? 

Personally I think it has a great future. It is convenient, the client remains in control and it generally is not as expensive. I think there is a slight danger of some "mastering engineers" abusing the situation, there are many graphics and text only based sites popping up which do not list gear, recent clients, engineering background for these sites the future will not be so rosy because musicians and producers are clued up. People know when something is not quite right. There will always be a place for quality control and improvement so I am very happy to be working as an online mastering studio. 

Why do people use your services rather than other people’s? 

Ah..... blow your own trumpet time ! Well I have been fortunate in that I have had a wide exposure to the many varying tasks in audio engineering such as direct to stereo recording of a lot of well known artists. This gives me a very well rounded take on things. So audio engineering experience counts for a lot which helps with making good judgements, clients notice that quickly. In direct terms, experience, equipment and pricing matter as well. When it comes to communications I tend to treat people with similar respect, whether they are a well known artist or someone who is just starting out. I am also obsessed with audio often working long hours and I think that makes people feel they are a priority. 

Do you have any top insider tips or tricks to enable people to master their own tracks? 

I do, you must have accurate monitoring and acoustics otherwise there is no basis for action. It's a fact that unless you know what is in a mix or file then it is very difficult to improve or even assist it's translation to many different reproduction systems. Mastering is the one area within in audio engineering where DIY culture cannot apply.

What are your thoughts on the loudness debate? Should we be trying to lower volumes and why? 

My stance is that it is genre dependent, I would never condone bad sounding audio for the sake of loudness. I approach these things with common sense. An Indian classical music cd is not going to benefit from being heavily limited, nor will an acoustic folk based album. A heavy rock track can be tastefully limited. Limiting is not all bad it has some good attributes, but it does require good judgement and reproduction systems capable of showing up the signs of distortion and loss of transients early. I think genre sympathetic, tasteful processing sums it up. 

What have you got planned for the near future? 

More mastering work on many different types of music. It is very dynamic being a mastering engineer, you honestly do not know what is coming up next and I am never booked up for months in advance. I have a rock project from Italy, there are usually a few drum and bass and dubstep projects in the pipeline with my regular label clients and I am working with some Bhangra labels now which is great.  There are always albums and E.P's in the pipeline and long may that continue.

Can you supply a list of your favourite gear? 

PMC IB1 Monitors (these are wonderful speakers, the bass is incredibly accurate and they are truly high definition) 
Dynaudio Acoustics  BM6P  (I have used these throughout my engineering careeer and they are very valuable)

Hand Crafted Labs - VARiS Vari Mu compressor
Summit Audio DCL-200 Valve compressor 
Custom stereo ganged mastering eq inspired by SONTEC circuit.
TC Electronic 2240HS analogue equalizer (heavily modified) 
Customized MOSFET power amplifier (250W RMS per side) 
Plextor 700 series CD burners.  (the ultimate in mastering grade disk creation)

Selected software: 

SADiE Version 5  (High end professional PQ editing workstation for disk creation)
Ozone 4 (dither only) 
Nuendo 4/Wavelab7 
"What is audio mastering?" fact : Some online mastering studios offer free preview mastering so you can be assured of the quality, click the link below to visit SafeandSound Mastering and get your free preview.