Demystifying Mastering (Part 1)

unravelling the art of mastering with Simon Heyworth

Demystifying Mastering (Part 1)

MF: With analogue mastering, what can be involved with different signal paths?

SH: “Well, we have various different analogue boxes [including high-end gear manufactured by Avalon, Manley, Millennia, Thermionic Culture, Chiswick Reach, Maselec and SSL] which mean we can add various EQs, compression, limiting and other effects. Each will give a footprint or a sound, although we try to keep the signal paths as transparent as possible. All these little boxes do things and we say, you know, ‘Does that bring anything to the party? Does that make it better?’ We use the word ‘glue’ quite a bit because these analogue boxes that we use do provide glue. I mean, we have one piece of kit called the [Maselec] MTC-2, which is actually a mastering console but I put it in the way of my mastering console [an SPL MMC1] and I use it as an effects box. It has stereo width, elliptical filter, it has gain in and out, it has inserts, it has a summing device and it’s got lots of little ways of providing this glue. It just kind of sticks it all together and it’s weird. You can run everything flat through it without any controls at all and you still get back glue. It’s wonderful.”

MF: Could you explain the use of compression as far as the mastering process is concerned?

SH: “Well, people use audio compression to decrease the dynamic range in order to squash it to make things sound punchy. By squashing it, it sounds like it’s trying to get out of a box.  It sounds like it’s pushing against the lid if you like and, depending on how much compression you add to it, you can also bring up the low level information.  Depending on what ratio of compression it is, you can bring up lower level things within the mix and hold the things that are in the top of the mix from getting any louder.  So, you bring up the low level stuff and you can sort of fit it all in and it gives this more compressed sound, which is a bit more present so things like all the low level reverbs and atmospheres and so on and so forth will all come up a bit.”

MF: How about limiting?

SH: “Limiting is about limiting the peaks. You get transient peaks that are really fast and you need something that reacts to that and so limiting is all about holding it, limiting the peaks so that you can get more level. You can raise the level up without it going over the top or over zero, as it were. What you must do is take care not remove the transient or to over-limit, unless you are looking for that effect and the audio demands this processing.”

MF: And EQ?

SH: “EQ or equalisation is basically adding treble or bass or taking it away if it’s too much and even-ing it out so that there’s not too much of either. If it’s a bit honky, you might take out some of the low-mid and if it’s too hard, you might take out some of the mid. If it’s too bright, you might take out some of the higher-mid frequencies, just to kind of smooth things out.  Equalising is basically adding treble and bass essentially or taking it away. But you can have just as much effect by taking out than you can with putting in and taking out can be more effective.  With taking out, you can unmask something. You can find that the frequency is masking another frequency so, if you pull the one that’s masking out, suddenly everything comes clear in the mix.”

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