In this weeks Journal Entry, we sat down with Dark Star Audio‘s Lead Engineer and owner, Bruce Mac Vaughn and discussed the world of mastering.
How would you describe mastering in a few words?
“I always like to explain it in two ways:
Mastering is the process of taking one’s finished music and making it sound polished and refined. It’s the last step in the creative chain before sending it out into the world. Mastering not only makes your music louder, but also adds extra dimension, colour and depth that will help your music translate well on multiple sound sources.
“I would also equate mastering to taking a finished painting or art piece to a professional framer to have it put into a picture frame. The artist trusts the framer to use his best judgment to emphasise the right parts of the artwork. The right frame can drastically affect your artwork’s final appearance, and a professional will have excellent recommendations based on their experience and knowledge of what is available.”
How long have you been mastering records and what got you into it?
“I’ve been mastering now for over eight years. When I first started producing my own music, it was clearly audible that I was not achieving the results of a commercial track, no matter how good I made my mix. As I studied further, I realised that mastering was the key I needed to unlock that door. My personality is such that instead of passing my music to another engineer, I embarked on the painstaking process of learning to do it on my own. I started mastering for my minimal/techno label, Fierce Animal Recordings, back in 2009. Shortly after, another label asked me who was doing my mastering and I told them I did my own. They hired me to do their mastering and the rest is history really. Word spread quickly that I did mastering and people loved the results. I had never advertised, and grew Dark Star Audio into what it is today essentially by word of mouth.”
Your company, Dark Star Audio, has an impressive clientele. Explain a little bit about what goes into the mastering service you offer.
“I am constantly asked what my secret is, and honestly it’s this: My ears and musical intuition. Before I was a mastering engineer, I was already producing my own music. Even before that, I was a full time DJ who worked in a record store in San Francisco. During my time DJing, all I did was listen to and study electronic music all day, including how it sounded on different systems. Many engineers learn the science of mixing and mastering, but don’t take the time to train their ears to how music sounds at festivals, clubs, raves, outdoor parties, pool parties, etc. I’ve gone to and played at just about every type of venue there is. I now translate that knowledge to each track I work on, and know what music needs to sound great at those events.
“At Dark Star, we use a combination of hardware and software, depending on the needs of each individual track. We always master using Ableton Live, and love our sound card’s phenomenal converters. Our experience and aesthetic give us our unique sound, and we have spent over eight years perfecting our mastering chain. It’s always a work in progress, as we continually learn and adapt to our clients and current audio trends. We always recommend finding an actual engineer compared to online ‘drag and drop’ mastering. We have experienced that the micro changes we make based on artistic judgment calls can’t be replicated by an algorithm, and are important to the depth of the final track.”
A lot of bedroom producers nowadays master their own records. What are your thoughts on this growing trend?
“It’s definitely possible to master your tracks at home. There are pros and cons to this, so it really comes down to the tools and training of the artist, the mastering environment and the expectations for the final quality of the track. A producer can get a good master by following certain rules and doing a lot of checks and balances. There is a lot that goes into mastering as it is just as much of an art as it is a science. Nail down the science part of it and then apply your own art to it.
“The science part of it can be grasped if one has the drive and determination to study and learn it. The art part really just comes with time and experience. I’ve mastered thousands of tracks at this point and have definitely done my 10,000 hours. I will say that learning your environment is the most important part of doing home masters. Not all rooms are created equally and some are way worse for mastering than others. Eventually, as you learn your room and practice, I believe mastering can be achieved nearly anywhere. Also, one must be willing to make the investment in the proper hardware, software and listening devices needed for the process. In many circumstances, even a skilled mastering engineer will want their own track to be reviewed by another engineer. Artists can become emotionally attached to how their song sounds, and as the saying goes, love is blind. Sometimes, it is important to let another engineer review the track to find issues that the artist may not be hearing.”
The Loudness Wars have been a common topic in mastering circles for over the past decade. Do you feel music is getting louder, and if so, is that a bad thing?
“I love this question because the truth of the matter is, it’s already as loud as it’s going to get! The war is over and EDM won. However, there are LOADS of artist, labels, producers and engineers who still fight the good fight to preserve the dynamic range in their tracks. One growing trend that I love can be seen in house music. Here, producers and engineers are opting to not use heavy limiting, and are actually leaving quite a bit of room for the their tracks to breathe. When confronted with their tracks not being “as loud” as their counterparts, the response I get is always “Well, then the DJs can turn up the gain on the mixer!
“For me it really just depends on the track. I prefer to leave more dynamic range, but I don’t mind a ‘squashed’ track as long as it sounds good. EDM as a genre is doing quite well and I hear plenty of tracks that are squashed but still illicit an emotional response that’s positive, which is what music is supposed to do. Squashed or not squashed, if music makes you feel, then it’s don’t it’s job.”
Let’s say I just finished a track, and want Dark Star Audio’s treatment. What are some tips that will make the your job easier?
“We have a detailed list of how to prepare your track for mixing and mastering on our website. In general, all we really ask for is anywhere between -3 to -6dB of headroom. We also prefer that the mixing engineer or producer remove any plugins from the master/mix bus, as we like to assess the track without any processing.
“Some slight compression to glue the track together is fine but never any EQ, multi-band compression or limiting. Lastly, the biggest tip that we can give is to always make sure you fix any issues during the mixing stage, and do not send it in for mastering if it’s not perfect yet. Mastering will not fix your track, and even has a tendency to emphasise issues like a magnifying glass. Get your mix right, and the mastering process will create a full, balanced and colourful track that you can be confident in as the optimal expression of your art.”
For more information, please visit www.darkstaraudio.com