What Is Music Mastering, Anyway?

Masters Of Audio is a recurring series where we ask the best in the field to talk about what they do and why they do it. Our first installment welcomes one of the most renowned mastering engineers in audio to discuss his art.

Steve Hoffman is an Award-winning Audiophile Recording, Mastering and Restoration Engineer. He has compiled, mastered and released over 2,500 records to critical acclaim. He has worked with such artists as: The Eagles, The Doors, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Crosby, Still & Nash, Roy Orbison, Cream, The Cars, Blondie, Jim Croce, Linda Ronstadt, Jethro Tull, The Doobie Brothers, Jackson Browne, Steve Miller Band, Elton John, Van Halen, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Pepper, Rod Stewart, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Wes Montgomery and the list goes on and on.

Hoffman is one of the few engineers music fans know by name. He is one of the most popular restoration and mastering engineers among consumers of reissues in America today. When consumers see his name on the back of a record (vinyl or CD), the first reaction typically is: ‘This must be good.'”

Steve Hoffman has brought his famous “Breath Of Life” to all of the audio productions he has ever worked on.

Masters of Audio

What Is Music Mastering, Anyway?

 

People, especially those under 30, tend to ask me: “What is music mastering, anyway?”

Well, mastering is…

Let me use an analogy that people can understand. Mastering is sort of like this: The Louvre in Paris, France is loaning me the Mona Lisa. OK. So they send me the Mona Lisa and I get excited and decide to invite all of my friends over to see it. Now, am I going to take the Mona Lisa outside and show it in the direct sunlight so it looks all old and crackly? Or am I going to set it up inside with the right kind of lighting? It’s all in the presentation. That’s what I do in mastering. It’s taking the original and polishing it so it can sound the best it can sound. And that involves making sure that the tape is played back correctly on the correct sounding machine.

I have to make sure that all of the things on the tape machine are taken care of and that the heads are in alignment and all that boring stuff. And also making sure that when it’s played the levels of the songs are relatively the same, there are no dynamic or impedance problems, and everything is running smooth. And while that stuff may not sound like a lot of fun, getting that stuff right is what actually makes something sound better than it actually has before.

To get a a bit more technical:

Back in 2004, one of our [www.SteveHofflman.tv] forum members asked about what a mastering console was and what it did. Forum member, owner of DS Audio, and friend Doug Sclar pitched in with this excellent primer:

A mastering console is basically like a recording console but smaller and designed for mastering. It’s basic function is to control and process the source material before presenting it to the master recording device, whether digital or analog

For stereo analog mastering, there would generally be a couple of faders to control the incoming level of the signal, as well as equalization, possibly compression, and sends and returns for outboard processors. One can bypass the console to eliminate it’s effect on the signal if desired. To do this means that the signal may have to be controlled by other means. For example, supposed the level of the master tape is deemed too low. Since the console is bypassed, there is no easy way to increase the level, so the output of the playback tape deck might have to be increased. Generally the input and output levels of studio equipment is pre aligned and not varied. Of course, this is not a rule etched in stone. The same would go for eq. If eq is deemed necessary by the mastering engineer, you either have to go through the console or patch in an outboard equalizer. 

This is the same concept as bypassing the recording console in search of better sound. Many people will take a microphone, run it through an external preamp, and hook it right up to the tape deck, hence bypassing the recording console. While this eliminates a lot of options for control, it also bypasses a lot of electronic circuitry which can have a degrading effect on the signal. Of course one has to go through the console for mixing. When you look at a signal flow schematic for a recording console you’d be surprised how many active components you go through. Some consoles might have 20 amplifiers or more between mic and tape recorder. Many audiophiles would cringe at adding 1 extra amplifier to their systems, so you can see why the premise of console bypass has appeal.”

 

Sometimes, I’m asked if my mastering techique changes if I don’t like the music I’m working on.  The true answer is that I try to fall in love with the music, no matter what it is. I find, however, that whether I like the artist when I begin, after listening to their work over and over, I always find something to like about them.

I always approach mastering in the same way, actually. Music is music, and it must sound the best it can (to me). What I do make a choice on is what I think is the most important element of the song. The drums, bass, vocal, strings, et cetera. I concentrate on giving the “breath of life” to one thing, and, if I’m lucky, other things start to fall into place. If I’m not lucky, I pick what I think is the most important thing and try to work with that alone. For example: Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Great band, but not every mix sounds wonderful. In some cases it’s impossible to get the vocals lifelike and the music lifelike because of the way most of the parts were mixed. Since the Fantasy folks chose to “crisp up” the music/drums on their regular CDs, I chose, on my versions of the stuff, to make the vocals less harsh and more lifelike. To me it works, but the percussion suffers. Oh well…  Heh.

My goal — and it’s been the same goal that I’ve had since I listened to my grandmother’s Zenith phonograph —  is that “breath of life.”  If it sounds like a fake approximation, that is not gonna work for me. I want it to sound like — and it doesn’t matter if it is Buddy Holly or Blood, Sweat and Tears or The Doors — the musicians could be standing in the same room where I’m listening. Sometimes I succeed more than others, depending on the quality of the original tape, but that’s what I want. I want it to sound “alive”.

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All the music I work on stays true to the master tape. Listen to live music. Listen to drums and cymbals. No sizzle whatsoever on the cymbal, but on the snare, yes. Live sounds are very complex and textured. They don’t have “one note” boosted top end. They sound rich and real, with overtones up the ying yang. Why should recorded music not sound that way? I am careful to never add EQ when it is not needed. I mean, why should I build that treble boost right in to the CD or LP like some other companies do? You can’t get rid of it after the fact. And believe me, someday, you will want to get rid of it!  (Most likely when your system improves!)

On the other hand, I never “mellow out” a master tape (as I have been accused of doing at times). That’s silly. On a good playback system, my mastering work should sound lifelike. That’s always been my goal. I can’t worry about what kind of stereo one will be playing it back on. That way leads to madness. I like to know about the wide range of gear people have from cheap to expensive. It’s a nice thing that people playing with both $20,000 and $500 stereo sets can say that a record I mastered sounds good, but there is no way to tailor a record to sound good on only $1k or $50k systems or whatever. Too many variables.

Sometimes I am asked whether I master loud or quietly in the studio.  I have no set “rule” for this, but I can tell when engineers have been mixing music too loud or too quietly.  I can instantly tell when a piece of music has been mixed too loud in the studio because at a “normal” volume, it is bass shy and unbalanced. The clipping of the playback amps actually influenced the mix to such an extent that it sounds crappy at an unclipped volume. I master at a comfortable volume, with a minute or two of “blasting” just to make sure that I’m in touch with that big sound. Of course, every case is different. For the most part, I try and make things sound good at lower levels but always check that they sound good screaming loud as well.

Regarding mastering for vinyl, I enjoy that as well. I have read that lovers of the analog black disk think that vinyl has it’s own “sound”, or rather, a coloration of sound that people find euphonic. Maybe that’s true, but when I cut a record, I get it to sound the way I want it to. I prefer the sound that I create. I know this sounds a trifle stuck up, but I’ve been doing this for so long, I have actually figured out how to make the LP cut and the master tape sound the same for the most part. (A few tricks that I have up my sleeve.) The “colorations” that you hear on YOUR turntable however, I have NO CONTROL OVER WHATSOEVER. That’s a little scary for me. Your table, your cartridge — either moving coil or moving magnet — your interconnects, your phono preamp, all of these things tailor the sound a certain way that I couldn’t even guess.

But, if it sounds good to YOU, that’s what counts.

 

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