Eclectic Blah: On Mastering

This blog article is by Thomas DiMuzio, head of gench studio, who was the mastering engineer for the project.
Read on about the challenges he had to face, the technology used, and how we arrived at the result.

Rainer initially contacted me via Gench Studios on January 30, 2014 with a series of questions regarding the mastering of his Eclectic Blah record. The project embarked a few days later after providing some general feedback to him about the state of his mixes. The record consisted of 10 tracks that were recorded over a variety of dates and places, with some material recorded live on stage. One of the many goals of the mastering process is to unify the material so that the tracks belong together and feel like an album. (Remember those?) In this case Rainer felt that that material should be highlighted as two distinct album sides: one with a more ‘70’s vibe stylistically, and the other “cold/crystallic/light-blue-with-a-touch-of-grey vibe”. An analog signal chain of equalization and dynamics processing helped to achieve a consistent, unified and open sound across the entire record
Note: we did experiment with all-digital processing on a couple tracks, but ultimately opted for the analog sound.

Here is a description of the mastering chain:

gench analogue mastering chain
gench analogue mastering chain
  • 24-bit WAV file
  • DAC
  • passive EQ
  • fixed broadband parametric EQ
  • variable-mu compressor
  • ADC
  • digital brickwall limiter
  • 24-bit WAV file

Rainer’s music is instrumental ensemble-based with a prog rock-jazz feel with guitar, keys, bass and drums, and sometimes a horn or other solo instrument. Low end heaviness is a general issue in most mastering projects, and my initial review comments described a heavy low end presence, some muddiness stemming from lower mids, sharp midrange frequencies, and a muted high end. All common problems that can typically be addressed during mastering.
The first mastering pass of the record occurred on February 9. Let’s take the track The Porcupine as an example. Here are my mastering notes:

  • hair of a cut @ 47 Hz
  • sharp cut @ 270 Hz to tighten up the bass
  • medium broad boost @ 3.3 kHz
  • just a hair of a hi shelf boost @ 3.9 kHz to bring out the highs in general
  • minimal “air” boost to complement ultra highs, but not emphasize the synth’s sharp presence
  • -3-4 dB variable-mu compression
  • -3 dB brickwall limiting

The notes are straight-forward and the end-result was aesthetically pleasing to me both as a listener and as an engineer. Rainer’s review comments about the track described the bass drum being too loud, as well “This should rock, and if you get a hint of soft tube distortion or compressor pumping, then so be it.” He also had some feedback about fades and the track spacing, which are minor tweaks by comparison.
Rainer also requested to move the ceiling of the digital limiter from -0.3 dB to 0 dB. This was a surprise to me as it could result in clips which might cause a CD master to be rejected by the manufacturing plant. I countered with my concerns and strongly suggested leaving the limiter as is. Rainer was insistent and said that he was not pressing a CD, but rather posting the tracks to Bandcamp. Always striving to please my clients, I relented. We had also agreed that I would send him a set of alternate masters that contained no limiting so that he could apply limiting on his end, if desired. Based on our notes and the result of the first pass of “The Porcupine”, Rainer felt compelled to revisit the mix and then asked that we apply the same mastering settings to his new mix, with the exception of dynamics processing.

analogue gear requires analogue notepad
analogue gear requires analogue notepad

The next revision pass entailed the following changes:

  • applied new mix to settings of the first pass
  • -4-5 dB variable-mu compression
  • overall volume increased by +2.2 dB
  • -7.2 dB limiting applied (I normally don’t go above -6.0 dB)
  • limiting ceiling adjusted to 0.0 dB
  • changed gap between previous track to 8.950 sec

Rainer’s feedback was positive after the revision pass, however the mix needed to be revisited once again in order to make an edit to remove a percussion hit at the head of the track. Another revision pass ensued, and with the exact settings of the previous pass. It was a keeper.
A similar process occurred for each of the tracks on Eclectic Blah. The mastering process is iterative, and with detailed notes and intensive listening we were able to complete the project on target and on schedule and to the satisfaction of Rainer. His informal review was “I fucking love it!”

—Thomas Dimuzio/Gench Music, February 25, 2014

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