Universal Grooves – Mastering an Album

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The new album from Translation Recordings – Universal Grooves – has just been released. As with all their releases, I was responsible of the mastering. I’ve been meaning to write a little bit about mastering here on the blog so what better time to get to it than now?

What makes mastering an album different to mastering a bunch of single tracks?

Quite a lot!

There’s a lot more to consider – especially when working with compilations with a lot of different artists/producers.

Next up I am going to give you a basic outline of my album mastering project workflow. I am not going into too much detail as it would take forever and I don’t think a blog post is the right format for that kind of thing anyway.

My purpose is to provide you with a general understanding of how the process works. I will also introduce some of my favorite mastering tools along the way.

Hopefully this post will help you out a bit in case you ever find yourself in an album mastering situation.

(Obviously you could always just have me do it.)

Really I think this should also be useful info for anyone making music. From a producer’s perspective, it’s good to know a little bit about what happens to your music after you hand the premaster over to the label.

Let’s dig in to it.

 

1. Basic setup

Once I have the premasters in, I like to lay them out into the sequencer on top of each other. This is how the Universal Grooves project looked like:

 

Then I just solo the one I am working on. This layout makes it easy for me to switch between different tracks and compare them.

I work on a two screen setup. I have one screen showing the arrange/waveform and another screen with all the plugins open for quick tweaking.

Looking at the picture above, you can see there are great differences between how loud the different premasters have been rendered. There’s a track towards the bottom where clearly a limiter or maximizer has been used to cut the peaks and make it louder (I never recommend you to do this to your premasters but in this case it luckily turned out to be fine). Some of the other tracks are on the verge of being almost too quiet.

So very commonly some tracks are louder than others by default. In order to achieve an unbiased listening experience, this is the first thing we must address.

I never touch the channel faders in a mastering situation, except for automating final fade-outs. I fix gains by inserting a gain control plugin first up in the chain on each channel.

For this I like to use the Sonimus Satson Channel which also works some subtle but nice console emulation magic on the tracks. It’s a simple and great plugin that sounds very good and does what it’s supposed to do with no fuss. Plus I love the big meter.

 

Simply adjust the gain of each track by ear so that everything seems evenly loud.

With analogue modeling plugins such as Satson you do have to be mindful about this though, as the plugin starts to color the sound when you push the gain harder. That said, with Satson it is also possible to turn off the saturation if you want it to function purely as a gain knob.

We are now set up to start listening, and eventually, working.

 

2. Listen to the premasters

It’s important to listen carefully before doing any work.

The first thing is to spot any possible errors or problems in the premasters.

In my experience, with compilation albums there always tends to be something, due to the high number of people involved. Often these are best fixed by asking the label/artist to “fix it in the mix” and send in a new premaster.

The most common reasons for requesting for a new premaster include audio dropouts, tracks cut short, tracks bounced too hot into a limiter/compressor or some mixing related issues.

If it’s not possible to get a new premaster, we make the best out of what we have.

 

Once the initial error spotting is done, I start focusing on how the tracks itself sound and how they relate to one another.

I listen to the frequency balance, dynamics, stereo image – nothing miraculous there.

It’s important to try to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the track, in other words not just hear it – but understand it.

My ears usually tend to pick one or two tracks that sound a bit better than others. These are usually tracks that won’t require a whole lot of tweaking from the mastering engineer.

These tracks I will use as benchmark for the rest throughout the project. If I can get everything else on par with these (or close enough), the project will be fine.

In this case, Anile’s beautiful tune “Lay Alone” stood a notch above the rest in my ears in terms of sound and general quality of production. It was pretty much good to go as it was (except for basic dynamics processing).

 

So benchmark was set. By this time I also had a pretty good idea of the album as whole and also the potential problem tracks (there’s always some that are weaker than others – luckily this time there were no real disasters so good job everyone!).

Time to get busy.

 

3. Adjustments

I nearly always start with the EQ. There are two aims to consider here:

  • Fix any issues within the track itself
  • Achieve a balance that works with the rest of the album

There are different ways to go about it, but I like to set up the EQ for each track before I do anything else.

This allows me to maintain a better understanding of the project as whole.

Please note I work in a fully digital environment which allows me to do that. Those with analogue equipment are more restricted to working on one track at a time.

PSP NeonMy workhorse EQ for mastering these days is the PSP Neon HR. Why? Loads of reasons. Smooth controls, linear phase operation, great resolution, transparent sound, M/S mode and frequency and overtone hunting modes to name a few features.

 

Once the EQ’s are set, it’s time to turn the attention to the dynamics.

It’s hard to give any general rules to live by when it comes to dynamics. Sometimes I barely touch them. Sometimes (albeit rarely) I make it pump like hell. Sometimes the dynamics need restoring. It really is a case of whatever the situation (and client) calls for.

Quite often I find myself using both multi-band and single-band compression simultaneously. Sometimes one or the other. Sometimes two single-bands in a chain.

One of my favourite compressors for mastering is the PSP Mastercomp (yes I am a big fan of their stuff).

 

Automation can be a powerful tool in a mastering situation. Even with up-front and loud dance music there are passages in the music that are meant to let the track breathe. If these don’t translate properly, I often do some subtle automation work to get the impact. This could mean anything from automating the gain to having different EQ or compressor settings for different parts of the track.

When the EQ and dynamics are set, there is still one major area to consider. That is the stereo image.

With stereo image it’s again a world of possibilities. But in dance music in general, you want a solid mono low end and a strong central core. There can be width, even lots of it, but you don’t want the main body of the drums to spread around all over the place.

The final link in the mastering chain is of course the limiter. I usually don’t set it up until everything else is ready. With limiters you have got to be extra careful. It’s easy to trash everything you’ve just carefully crafted with mindless limiting.

As far as loudness goes – there are many ways to do it and it also depends on the material you are working on as well as client’s wishes. I’m not going to dive further into the loudness war in this post.

It’s important to realize that on an album that is meant to be listened to from the beginning to the end, not all tracks have to be exactly equal in loudness. Remember it’s a journey.

Before bouncing out the final masters, there are still some final measures to be made. These include setting up the dither and auditioning the beginnings and ends of the tracks  and creating necessary fades and gaps.

 

4. Listen, compare & adjust

After the masters are bounced, it’s still not over.

The “Universal Grooves” project once again proved this: there turned out to be weird digital clicks in some of the bounced out masters. Apparently they had been caused by the fact that I had foolishly updated Logic in the middle of the project. Weird stuff, and my mistake, but we managed to fix things – another lesson learned.

So remember to check your masters after the final bounce.

Another thing to listen to at this point is the gaps between the tracks. The album has to flow properly from one track to the next. I often end up adjusting gaps at this point.

Once the masters are sent back to the client I urge them to keep listening, taking it to different environments and also testing the tracks out in the club if possible. Comparing to other music out there is important too.

I offer free revisions so sometimes clients like to come back to me about adjustments, and I’m happy to provide them.

 

Universal Grooves

Let’s finish this off with a few words on Translation Recordings and the album itself.

 

I feel very fortunate to have been involved with Translation Recordings from the very beginning – their first 12″ (Sounds of the City / Greedy Faces by myself) was released back in 2005.

Throughout my years in the scene I’ve seen how quite a few labels operate and I must say there are not many like these guys! It’s been a pleasure to work with such real people.

I am not only saying this to get more mastering work (lol) but also as genuine thanks & big up to my friends Brian and Steph over at Translation. I know how hard you’ve worked and despite many obstacles have managed to steer Translation Recordings towards what I believe is a bright future!

This album deserves to be heard, and bought, so have a listen and head to the Translation shop to grab the format that suits you best (a 4-track sampler on transparent blue vinyl plus CD & digital are all available).

Also if you ever need some mastering, mixing or production work done, have a look at my services. With the full money back guarantee, it’s a service that’s hard to beat.

 

  • Walter Cruz

    Nice. I’m a big fan of psp. Have you tried psp busspressor? Would you use it on a mastering environment instead of psp mastercomp?

    • Ilpo Kärkkäinen

      Haven’t tried the Busspressor. Seems like something that would work for that kind of thing for sure. PSP know how to make compressors.

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