The photograph below is one I took through a near-frozen rain-splattered window. To me it says a lot about audio mastering. At first glance it has a sense of dirtiness, that it has a need to be cleaned, cleared up, similar to many of mastering's goals. But on the other hand, it has a raw beauty. It has detail, scrapes, imperfections and mystery, all things that are the basis and soul of good music. Things that shouldn't necessarily be cleaned up. Mastering should respect the intention of the music: clean when it should be clean, dirty when it should be dirty, but always with a soul and with appreciation of the art. Beauty takes many forms and often lies within the imperfections.
AN ARTISTIC APPROACH
One point that many mastering engineers tend to agree on is that mastering is generally transparent work, that a mastering engineer should not influence the sound with any artistic judgement. Mastering should be a clean and clinical practice. This is not my approach. I don't claim to be a transparent mastering engineer. Typically, quite the opposite. Because I am an artist myself I cannot help but to approach projects from that vantage point... to explore different paths and to bring forward the artistic concepts inherent in the music.
It's important to clarify, however, that every mastering job is taken with the best approach needed for that particular project. Sometimes its a very rich, warm, analogue process and other times a very precise, clean, digital process. Sometimes transparent, sometimes colored, very often, some sort of combination of the two.
ANOTHER SET OF EARS
When you have spent months or more obsessing over the final details of your music, you need another set of ears to give an unbiased listen to your mixes. A mastering engineer with high quality speakers in a good room can hear weaknesses in your mixes (or tell you how good they actually are!) that can be addressed and corrected during the mastering stage. An un-biased opinion is usually a great thing to have at this stage of your project.
CORRECTION, ENHANCEMENT, & BEAUTIFUL GEAR
The first thing I often listen for when I begin mastering is what, if anything, needs correcting in the mixes. Common problems include resonant frequencies that poke out and cloud or cover a mix, an imbalanced stereo field, phase issues, or excessive build-up in common problem frequencies such as bass or muddy low-mids. Every song is different and has different needs and I approach every song on its own terms.
I usually begin with the previously mentioned correction stage and then, with the aid of some of my favorite analogue gear, listen for the best ways that your mixes can be enhanced. I pay close attention to achieving a sense of space and detail in the mastering. My style could be described as one of clarity and a sense of physical, tactile sound.
A COMPLETE PICTURE
One of the most important stages in the mastering process often gets overshadowed by the glamour of fancy equipment, and that's making sure that your album, from song to song, flows like an album. The building of the final playlist pays attention to relative track volumes, spacing between songs, and creating an overall flow from start to finish to present your complete story in the most natural way. It is in this stage that details such as track crossfades, ISRC coding, CD-Text and other subcode editing can be applied.
PROPERLY FORMATTED PRODUCTION FILES
The final stage of the mastering process is the creation of your production master for the replication plant or cutting engineer. For CD manufacturing this can be in the form of a CD-R or, more commonly now, a DDP file set. For vinyl cutting masters are often delivered as single, per-side .WAV files. Whatever formats are needed can be delivered. Additionally I can create any individual high-resolution or MP3 files for your digital distribution or press needs. I am also certified by Apple to provide Mastered for iTunes (MFiT) formatted masters, if needed.