Mastering is a dark art. Some people don’t believe in it. Some people believe it’s magic. Others say it’s a straightforward science. However most people will agree that it’s a necessary step in bringing a collection of audio recordings to the listening public . If the public then chooses to listen to it on their phone, streamed, through cheap earbuds – so be it.
So what is mastering? It’s the sonic manipulation of a collection of songs to give them the same overall sound, in terms of dynamics and EQ so that the album is cohesive and nothing jumps out at the listener.
A modern album may have very different instrumentation from track to track. It may have been recorded in several studios under different engineers. It may have been mixed by a number of engineers. All these factors will stamp each song with it’s own unique sonic character. It’s the mastering engineer’s job to pull all the songs together an create an overall sonic character for the album. A mastering engineer should not be employed to fix a bad mix – that’s not a repair that can be done on a stereo mix.
A big budget commercial album will typically go to one of a small number of elite mastering houses. A mastering engineer relies on their ear and skill, as well as a proven and usually expensive mastering chain. Lurssen Mastering operates out of Burbank, CA and has earned a silly number of Grammys and Oscars. They’ve collaborated with IK Multimedia to emulate their famous mastering chain in software and put in in the price range of any recording engineer or band.
The software comes as a standalone executable and also in a number of popular plugin formats to work with any DAW on the market. I would suggest that it’s a good idea only to install the standalone. Why? If you slap the plugin on the stereo output bus of your DAW, you’ll be tempted to tweak the mix after you’ve mastered. This will change the balance of the mix and mean you’ll need to remaster. The process should always be: record, mix, master with each step finished and signed off before the next begins. Otherwise nothing ever gets finished!
The standalone software has a settings area in the top, a pretty graphic of the mastering studio below that, and the main controls at the bottom. The graphic can be replaced with the stereo waveform or with the signal chain controls (more on these later).
At the top left you manage your projects (albums) and load your songs. You can select from a list of presets which can act as a good starting point from which to build your sound. It’s useful to preview all on these when getting to know the software – listen how some warm up the bottom end, others add mix “glue”, and some are very subtle indeed but just seem to sound… better.
The waveform button shows the stereo waveform, but also allows you to automate some of the main controls, which can be great when you want to add punch to only the choruses, for example.
The signal chain shows you the flow of the audio through the Lurssen chain. The preset chain you select can change some of the components – there are a couple of different tube limiters, for example, each with their own character. Some components are tweakable, but only what you need – having too much control here would allow you to do things that would never be done in the Lurssen mastering process, so the decision has been taken to protect you from your compulsion to tweak everything. You can monitor the gain reduction on the tube limiter, set the gain reduction on the de-esser and solid state compressor, and set the makeup gain on the compressor also. That’s your lot – and really that’s all you need.
Moving down to the main controls, you’ve got left and right meters, a bypass switch, and a mono switch to make sure the master folds down without phasing issues. Then you’ve got big input drive and push knobs (both of which can be automated) as well as five bands of EQ at 60Hz, 120Hz, 3KHz, 6KHz and 10KHz. The input drive knob speaks for itself – use it sparingly. It can add or remove 15dB of gain which is silly for most projects – a decibel or two should be all you ever need on a decent mix, but it’s nice to have some extra headroom if needed. A nice feature is that you can decouple the left and the right input drive – handy for those lopsided mixes! The push knob is interesting – it gangs the 5 EQ bands and moves them all relatively. This means that you can create an EQ curve (e.g. smiley face) and emphasise or de-emphasise the whole curve to add bite to a bridge, bottom to a breakdown, or whatever the song needs.
I tried the software on a range of modern and vintage mixes. It worked better on the vintage mixes, as much of the modern material had been mastered so as to suck every drop of dynamic range out of it. To check out the plugin versions, and see how they worked on my mixes, I disregarded my own advice and slapped Lurssen on my stereo bus to compare it with my own best shot at mastering. I’ll generally use a linear phase EQ into a multiband compressor, finishing with tape saturation and a brickwall limiter. This gives them a character that is unique but is not necessarily optimal for distribution. I found I got a more polished sound more easliy with Lurssen, and it was much easier for me to make two songs gel when played one after the other. What I really liked was the simplicity of it. I’m not a mastering engineer, and the focused interface meant that I was only working with the main controls I needed to master the audio.
It’s available for $245.99 from http://www.ikmultimedia.com/products/lurssen/ but there’s also a free version for the iPad (I don’t have a fondleslab so I was unable to check this out).