Desktop Mastering: A few moments with Steve Turnidge

Each semester, the number of students in my recording classes who are interested in mastering increases. Yet few, if any, understand what a mastering engineer does. Many are under the misconception that mixing and mastering are done at the same time, and that the latter simply involves the use of a compressor that maxes out the levels on the output bus. Consequently, they are very surprised to discover how the two aspects of the recording process differ, and that they can learn to do both.

Desktop Mastering (2012, Hal Leonard) was written for aspiring engineers who want to develop the skills required to enhance a recording after it is mixed. Author Steve Turnidge walks the reader through the various stages of mastering, explaining the terms, technology, and working methods involved. He even offers tips on creating a mix that won’t make the mastering process a nightmare.

In addition to running a studio, Turnidge has worked in nearly every facet of the music business, and he currently designs audio products that combine analog and digital circuitry. So it’s no surprise that Desktop Mastering includes sections on business as well as the fundamentals of audio and electronics. The following Q&A was conducted via email.

What made you decide to write this book?
Initially I was hoping to write a different book about Social Networking—my working title was “The Social-Digital Ecosystem.” I was talking to Bill Gibson, author and editor with Hal Leonard Books, about the idea. At one point he visited my studio and evidently I shared a few novel techniques about mastering with him, and that stayed with him.

A few months later, it turned out that Desktop Mastering, already in progress, had an AWOL author. A memo went out to the editors asking if anyone knew a likely candidate and Bill thought of me right away. One quick phone call—”Can you write a 50,000 word book on Desktop Mastering by July?”— and I said yes.

The universe makes the set list, and this was appropriate for me to do. It has been a great learning experience: for example, what actually matters when you are writing a book?, and what can you rely on others for? Evidently, it worked out OK because I’ve been asked to write an 80,000-word follow-up called Beyond Mastering: A Conceptual Guide, which is slated for release in March 2013.

What advice about mastering would you give to students that they can put to use immediately?
First, make a distinction between hearing and listening. We hear all the time, but listening is a conscious event. Bring attention to your listening.

Second, work to get an accurate listening environment. Investigate speaker placement, especially, and work toward accurate frequency response from your system. Tuning your listening position sweet spot with a Real Time Analyzer and room EQ is a great start. You wouldn’t operate on someone without an X-Ray to see where the internal organs are, and you shouldn’t make critical changes to audio without knowing that what you are hearing out of your system is closely equivalent to what went in to it.

Third, work at a consistent level. You can check things softer or louder, but find a position for your volume control and only work there. Train your ear for a given output, and your decision making process will receive a consistent input.

Lastly, I’d make sure that the students have a clear view of the stage of music production they are working on at any given moment. There are generally four stages of production: Tracking, Mixing, Mastering and Distribution. These stages closely reflect the stages of baking a pie.

Tracking is like getting the ingredients together: the fresher and cleaner the source material is, the better the pie will be.

Mixing is like, well, mixing. This is where all the components are blended together and placed in the pan. It is important to realize that the freshly mixed and prepared pie is not yet ready to eat: it still needs baking.

Mastering is the baking phase. Among the most common errors mastering engineers see are half-baked pies. This is when compression, limiting, and high levels make the mastering job more about restoration than enhancement. If the mixed file sounds like it is ready to go on the radio, it is probably not in an appropriate pre-mastered state.

The last stage, distribution, is like the hot pie on the windowsill, drawing the audience and fans from far and wide.

It is important to know and work appropriately on the stage you are in.

What do you tell aspiring mixing engineers about avoiding over-compressing their work? Is there a particular way they can keep dynamics in the work, yet make it as loud as possible?
There is a very counter-intuitive aspect to the modern relationship between a mixing engineer and mastering engineer. The softer the tracks I get, the louder I can make them. Assuming they are 24-bit, there is plenty of resolution even with the peaks -10dB down.

When I get tracks that are half-baked and crispy right out to the edges, we start the mastering process as one of restoration. We only have the opportunity to work half of our craft: we can only turn things down.

On the other hand, when a track comes in that is emotionally balanced, and gentle and delicate—even if it is a hardcore track—I can not only turn parts down, but I can turn them up! This allows for the greatest dynamic range from my processes.

One way to think about this is to let the mastering engineer fight the loudness wars for you. You stay in the studio and get the artistic process right. Make the greatest song you can, the best you’ve ever done, and keep those master faders nice and soft. I can make that rock.

You have to get small to get big. I have a client that ran his master fader bus full on, all the time. He had no headroom to vary the mix: he always hit the limits and had to turn down the individual elements. I finally convinced him to turn the master faders down. When he learned to mix softly, he could vary the elements of the composition easily, without the constant compromises his overdriven system was demanding from him.

He could still turn up his monitoring amp, so the levels he mixed at could remain comfortable for him. Mix softly, and monitor with a big stick.

This was a conversion experience for this client. Every track that came out of his studio after that was a pleasure to master and peeled the paint off the walls (compared to starting with a screeching, sibilant mess from a maxed-out system).

That is the nature of the conversation. As a mixing engineer, once you hear the true, final outcome when you respect the larger world of gain structure, you don’t have to be convinced. You become good.

–Gino Robair

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