Demystifying Mastering (Part 1)

unravelling the art of mastering with Simon Heyworth


MF: And how long do you spend mastering an album on average?

SH: “Well, certainly a day and then the second day is listening back and doing any tweaks that we want to do. It’s usually two days but I’m doing one at the moment which is going to be about a week.”   

MF: When an artist or record label comes to you with an album to master, what’s the first step in the process?

SH: “We listen to all the tracks all the way through in a running order and we just sit and make notes.  Sometimes we do things together and we both sit and listen.”

AM: “It’s good for focus and trains of thought.”

SH: “You get into the album and you listen to it until you know what to do. The idea is to create something that flows and has a similar kind of a quality to it all the way through. A similar footprint. You can hear immediately if there are problems between each track. Maybe the bass on this one needs to be less or the vocal’s a bit quiet on that one but, generally speaking, every time you play it you learn something new about the song so it’s not just a quick process.   We then look at different signal paths based on our notes.”

AM: “Let’s say the tracks were recorded digitally, then the first decision is choosing whether you want to go into the analogue domain or whether you want to do it digitally. If you are going to go for the analogue route, then you have to choose what D-to-A [digital-to-analogue converter] to use and, after that, you need to decide what [outboard effects] boxes to use and then what A-to-D [analogue-to-digital converter] to use.”

SH: “We have three different types of D-to-A and A-to-D and they all have different qualities and it always depends on the music. Just that very simple action of going through a good quality D-to-A can be enough to make the music better. It might already sound better than the mix they gave you in the first place.”

MF: Do you find there is always benefit in taking digital recordings into the analogue domain?

SH: “Well, maybe it’s so good that it doesn’t need to go into the analogue world.  Traditionally, mastering has always been about taking audio out of the digital world and into the analogue world because it is supposed to sound better but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is better. It’s different... but does it make it sound better?  You know, how much work do I really need to do to this?  Do I need to do anything at all or is it just a question of balancing the levels and it’s all done?   We have to make all these judgement calls. What analogue seems to do is to add humanity to the stuff and that’s the weird bit about analogue. It’s not necessarily warmth but it just seems to add space or something. It does something that’s hard to explain.”

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