Into The Gauntlet: Machina Mastered
Welcome back to Into The Gauntlet, where I dive into each mastering session that was part of The Mastering Gauntlet Season 1: Electric Summer. This episode, I’ll be doing a walkthrough of my mastering process on Machina’s single: That’s Me. Afterward, I’ll provide an A/B comparison between Christian’s master and mine, as well as dive into some mixing tips for the song and share lessons I learned during this challenge.
The most essential takeaway from this challenge and episode, is that there are two distinct approaches to mastering between Christian and myself.
- Assuming the mix IS the representation of the song, and mastering is a transparent lift and “correction” of the mix, purely to translate to the intended playback media(s) and medium(s).
- Assuming the mix is in the “pre-master” stage and is designed to “drive” the mastering processors for an intentional sonic character. IE: the mastering process brings the mix to life.
I’m clearly of the latter. If you haven’t already read my previous article on Why Mastering is So Important, I highly recommend reading it, especially if you’re still struggling with what role(s) mastering plays in the scheme of making a record.
Into The Gauntlet
If your goal is to start learning how to master on your own, there are some must-haves that I cannot recommend enough:
Outside of that, you honestly don’t need to invest in “mastering-grade” plugins or hardware. Why? Chances are the DAW you’re using already has perfectly capable tools for the job. As you view the walkthrough timelapse, you’ll notice my most referenced tools are the analyzers.
YouLean helps guide me in terms of loudness and observing for things like true-peak “overs.” Span Plus provides me with a versatile and customizable suite of tools for understanding what’s actually in the signal.
Mastering is about the details. The louder overall perceived volume the more is revealed in the mix. Where this can hurt, and I’ve heard this many times from other engineers: “let’s fix it in the master.”
We cannot hide the flaws of the mix. If there is a flaw to those with trained ears, then mastering will amplify it. Imperfections will become more apparent as dynamic range is decreased.
I point out a critical section of the song where it could be easy to fool the average listener into thinking they hear lousy distortion. Right as the crash brings in the leading hook of the song, all of the white noise overlaying a buzzy synth layer that’s mixed (in volume) underneath the sub is adding harmonic content that seems to clash in the upper frequencies in a way that makes the kick and sub feel as if the mix is being distorted by the mastering process.
I am in no way saying the artist was “leaving it to the master to fix.” Instead, this would be the point where I would reach out to the artist for clarification on what their intent is with the result they’re looking for.
Did they set up their pre-master in a way that is meant to drive a mastering chain?
I should have asked myself that…
I ended up making two separate chains to quickly audition both approaches to mastering. What led me to submit my original signature chain version was ultimately down to my particular tastes and understanding of the particular genre and style of music.
The other chain just felt like it could not hit the loudness potential without creating noticeable artifacts in unpleasant ways. Perhaps, this is revealing of my experience as a mastering engineer. I’m leaning heavily on my two-stage multiband approach to provide the transparency and lift at some strategic cost.
Without input from the artist, I’m gambling on where I think my efforts could best be applied. Do I reach for being competitive in the marketplace, or preserving the artist’s original vision as it is?
I don’t think this came down to a time-constraint, either. The mastering process typically should not take an experienced mastering engineer more than an hour with proper resting periods to achieve a high-quality master. The Gauntlet Challenge provided 2 hours to have the masters submitted to the artist.
I believe this was more an effect of me getting in my own head and being subjective rather than objective. It’s a lesson I’m finding surprisingly harder to overcome in this challenge.
If I’m using all these 3rd party plugins, why is it I only recommend those two analyzers? I’m developing another series where I dive in and discover what DAW’s are truly capable of providing the tools for mastering. If you’re working in Ableton Live 10 Suite, you already have more than enough high-quality processors to accomplish commercial-level masters in your music!
I’ve spent thousands of dollars over many years on plugins chasing what may get an extra .1%. Just think how much you could save by learning the resources you already have, and invest in other aspects of getting your music and your career off the ground.
I’ve remade my mastering chain in Ableton using the stock modules. It’s available for download by clicking on the image to the right, or check out the vlog episode and article titled: “Can stock plugins in Ableton achieve high-quality mastering?“
Christian donated to the AFSP!
A huge shout-out to Christian for donating to the American Foundation for Sucide Prevention! Those $250 US Dollars are going to a great cause, and for good reason. We know just how serious mental health can be in affecting not just our own lives, but the lives of those around us.
I mentioned above that I am susceptible to failures caused by my own ego getting in my way. There are a whole host of complex factors that make up human psychology, which makes mental illnesses some of the hardest to diagnose. We are just barely scratching the surface of understanding the types of mental illnesses, how they affect us, and how we can overcome them or manage them.
Learning how to become successful involves learning about ourselves. This leads me straight back to the impetus behind this challenge, and my personal why on the matter. Hypebot recently published a great article on why artists who don’t cultivate sustainable lifestyles stop making music. As creatives, we get so singularly focused (at least, I know I do) that we can fail to manage other aspects of our lives. I highly recommend this read if you’re still struggling to identify what may be holding you back.
Your Burning Questions Answered!
I hope you found this episode and article helpful. If you have questions on production, mixing, or mastering, please submit them to TheGauntlet@neologicstudios.com and if you haven’t already visited my Patreon, please consider becoming a member or making a custom pledge!
Need your song mastered? I offer free mix critiques and mastering previews! Reach out to me with a brief description of your project, and what your goals are with this release and your brand! I’d love to hear from you.