Nialler9's How Music Works: does music mastering matter?

In the journey that music takes from the artist to the fan, mastering is perhaps the most misunderstood of all of the processes. Step up mastering engineer Fergal Davis from Camden Recording in Dublin

In the journey that music takes from the artist to the fan, mastering is perhaps the most misunderstood of all of the processes in the production of music. Once music is recorded, its various musical inputs are mixed to make it sound pleasing.

Once that is done, a piece of music is mastered, which essentially means prepared in post-production for presentation for a format, such as CD, vinyl or a digital file. Mastering is akin to polishing - adjusting volume levels, refining the dynamic range (the high and low frequencies) and enhancing sonic characteristics to give an album a uniform identity. Mastering is the final part of the production process and the first part of the manufacturing process.

Mastering is performed by a mastering engineer, and a name you'll see credited on many Irish records of the last 14 years is Fergal Davis,  who operates out of Camden Recording in Dublin, a studio complex run by Bressie and Cian Boylan.

Davis began his career in 1997 via a sound engineering course in the Sound Training College in Temple Bar, Dublin.  He credits this on-hand experience as vital.

“Learning how to deal with bands from different genres of music when you begin sound engineering is vital to building a repertoire of skills that can’t necessarily be taught in a classroom setting,” Davis says. “Troubleshooting problems that arise in every recording and mixing session is what makes a well-rounded engineer.”

Davis went on to work in Dublin's Temple Lane Studios which incorporates Apollo, Sun and Elektra Studios which was his training ground for mastering.

“I had no experience and no dedicated mastering equipment, but people started sending me mixes to master,” he remembers. “I convinced the Sound Training College to set up a room with equipment more dedicated to mastering and I brought in paying clients and gradually built of a great client base while honing my skills.”

The mastering process
Davis usually receives the mixed files from the artist or label, who either dictate what they want or leaves it to his experience. An artist sometimes sits in on the process in his studio.

“Most of the time when I hear a mix and I am familiar with the genre of music, it will be completely obvious to me what needs to be done. But every now and then, the client will have a different thing in mind, so we chat about what way they want it to sound first. They can also send me references of records they like the sound of which can give me a clue as to what they would like to achieve with their masters.”

Davis favours the analogue/digital hybrid approach to mastering which includes physical analogue EQ, limiter and compressor processors, analogue to digital converters in conjunction with Pro Tools HD software on a Mac Pro with various other bits of software.

“It gives me the best of both worlds and lots of flexibility to process any given song. I will use whatever it takes to get the sound that the client wants.”

Early clients included The Walls, Republic of Loose, The Redneck Manifesto, Sinead O’Connor, Aslan and The Stunning.

“In the past year, I’ve mastered a lot of great music,” says Davis. “I’ve worked on a lot of mixes of Hozier and Ryan Sheridan among others for Rubyworks Records. Wyvern Lingo’s last EP was fantastic too. I am also working on a lot of great recordings sent to me through Ensemble Music. Loah is great, as are Zaska, RiZA and Nova Collective. Last week, I mastered a new album for Girl Band, which sounded massive.”

And what's a typical day for Davis?

“Get my coffee and scone. Read and reply to emails while consuming my coffee and scone. Download any mixes I’ve been sent. Some days I could be working on maybe four or five different artists’ music. Other days I have an album for one artist.

"I normally spend about 45 minutes to an hour per song. I master all the songs for the album, which takes about seven hours, then I put the sequence together and prepare the files for all the different release mediums with any important codes or text. Those files can be for many formats. 24 bit Pre-Mastered WAVs for Vinyl. DDP files for CD masters. 24 bit WAVs for Digital release (iTunes, Spotify and many others) and sometimes MD3 Tagged MP3s. Whatever is required. Then I upload the files and send the links to the artist, label and manufacturers.”

The Loudness War
Maybe the best way to figure out what a good master is, is to look at what isn't. A trend in recent years in mastering - dubbed The Loudness War - came about when albums were compressed so much so they would sound punchy and loud on CD, with the effect that on even with the best speakers, the music sounded too busy, too loud and too muddled that it was difficult to hear individual instruments.

That means everything in a track is in the same frequency range and jostling to be heard in a crowded space with less dynamics. You can hear the effect when you play an older song against a new one. Play Steely Dan's Rikki Don't Lose That Number and hear it grow from a whisper to a crescendo at a pleasing volume. Now play a track from Oasis' What's The Story Morning Glory? Everything is loud and there's no room for nuance or space to build.

It's the equivalent of a film without a respite that never lets up from start to finish (hello Mad Max: Fury Road). If an album is mastered like that example, the lack of dynamics in the recording would mean your ears grow fatigued of trying to process the information that's blaring at it constantly. A famous example is Metallica's 2008 album Death Magnetic, an album which was mastered so loudly for CD that the distorted guitars themselves distorted the playback of the album.

“I think the loudness thing has started to calm down,  but the main reason people still ask me to remaster songs is that they feel it isn’t loud enough,” says Davis. “I, of course will always oblige and make it louder, but any mix will always sound better if it isn’t smashed to sound louder.”

Thankfully, the decline of CDs as a format along with the introduction of iTunes Soundcheck feature, along with in-built volume normalisation on Spotify and Youtube, has meant that the Loudness War has largely been won by common sense.

The recording industry as a whole as changed hugely, and as an essential component in the supply chain, Davis has felt it.

“It would be nice to see more 'big-budget' albums being made again in Ireland, but maybe that day has passed,” says Davis. “A huge proportion of my work comes from independent artists who have either recorded and mixed their own music or paid for it to be produced by the myriad professionals working from their own studios.”

Davis namechecks The Sound Training College, The Dublin Studio Hub, Windmill Lane Studios, John Hanley in Temple Lane Studios, Marc Carolan and Philip Magee as leading examples, while nodding to producers and engineers who he expects great things from.

“Ciaran O’Shea in Cork and Ciaran Bradshaw and Phil Hayes in Dublin are great,” he says. “Peter Meighan from Bay Studio in Wicklow, Stephen Dunne from Lamplight Studio and Mick Heffernan and James Darkin in Sun Studios are all making great sounding records too.”

As the last link in the chain of production, Davis' craft relies on the good work of others before him. There is only so much he can do in the mastering process. He can't make a song mixed too loudly sound good nor can he make a poorly written song better.

“Mastering can fix some mix problems but, as they say, 'you can’t polish a turd.”