Into The Gauntlet: I Killed The Upstart
In this episode of Into The Gauntlet, I share how I master Kill The Upstart’s Neon River, which was part of The Mastering Gauntlet Season 1: Electric Summer. In this walkthrough, I focus more intently on my approach to EQ; and inadvertently go into a loudness war rant.
I Killed The Upstart
There’s really nothing to say objectively this time, unfortunately, since the artist never chose which master they approved of. In this episode, the dilemma becomes apparent and thus, why I ask your opinion: can you hear a difference between the two masters?
If you follow me further down the rabbit hole, I illustrate the very subtle differences that start to shine light on our different approaches to mastering; but you have to listen very closely to the details.
- Low-end pressure: there’s a bottom-end presence happening in mine that seems to keep the low-end more uplifted, controlled, and present (dynamics are being compressed a bit) but also maintaining that synchronicity with the top-end in the kick’s transient.
- Christian’s, by comparison, feels a bit more “open” and transparently lifting the gain of the song overall, but doesn’t shape the low-end in quite the same way that I’m doing (,which, I cannot say is wanted or unwanted).
Where’s the bass?
This track is all about bass. There isn’t much else going on besides some clever sound design, a prominent bass wub, and the drums. The mix itself also accentuates the sample choices and mix design by creating lots of negative space (quiet places, rests between notes). This song is designed to get loud!
For the mastering challenge, Christian and I agreed to work to a standard loudness limit, not to exceed -9 LUFS. We felt that anything submitted to us should still sound good and competitive up to that point, and the emphasis on what mastering can do often doesn’t need to exceed that.
“We were wrong!”
If we look up to some of the top heavy bass and EDM productions out from the likes of Datsik, Excision, Virtual Riot, or Bassnectar, some of which have hit loudness levels of -5 LUFS, there’s one thing those extremely loud masters have in common:
They were produced and mixed to be intentionally distorted at the mastering stage.
Why is it, then, that they sound like they have dynamics? At that loudness level, clever things are happening in the mix and production that allow one element at a time to play independent of one another, at least, that’s true of the most important elements that get the highest priority – the kick and/or the snare. If you’re familiar with sidechaining, you’ll know that this technique has evolved into a whole diverse range of utilities and strategies that EDM producers will employ to craft the perfect envelope(s) for ducking elements around each other.
Thus, I feel like we both fell short of delivering on this artist’s intent for the mastering stage, because this track is designed to be pushed incredibly loud.
How can I tell without the feedback or direction from the artist? The kick sample choice, by it’s timbre and length, and the lack of low-end that leaves plenty of room to make the bass/sub the clearest focus for the song. Everything from the production (instrumentation and orchestration of the elements) to the spacious rests and contrast of positive and negative space in the mix.
Neither Christian nor I hit a loudness level that truly served this song. The mix still sounds impeccable and well crafted, but this circles back to my original question. There really wasn’t much of a difference at all between my master and Christian’s. Those subtle differences likely weren’t enough for any artist to discern which engineer they might want to work with more in the future, and thus you might start to see my point.
If you view the screenshot above, you can see the thickness of the kick’s sustain (white arrow) compared to the wub-bass chunk just before it, there really is less meat to that kick at the current loudness target I was hitting than might be desired. However, you can tell there is a clean triangular shape from that initial transient onward to the next transient, with very little sub bass getting in the way of creating a sustain issue if I wanted to start intentionally distorting the master to hit a loudness target of -5 LUFS.
Tips on EQ
I focus more on corrective EQ early in the mastering stage. With a track like Neon River, there wasn’t much corrective work to do at all, so this allowed me to spend more time focusing on the broader “shaping” of the tonal balance.
After the dynamics is usually where I tend to start applying these broad strokes to EQ to balance the lows, mids, and highs more appropriately to the intended loudness level of the song. I focus on where the artist might be intending to release the song, and where their greatest marketshare may lie. If that’s streaming (casual listening), CD, or any typical consumer outlet, that covers a massive range of playback systems, so having a master that provides a fairly accurate presentation for the song that translates well across as many of those systems and delivery formats as possible requires some knowledge about how those playback systems work and their limitations.
Where I can start to work really fast, is when I’m most familiar with tools that just do something specific that I know produces an expected result. Let’s take the Pultec EQP-1A for example.
Pultec has long been known for it’s simultaneous boost + attenuation configuration. Which seems counter-intuitive, why would anyone want to cancel out their boosts or cuts?
It’s because of the way in which the boost and attenuation components have their own, unique Q’s (bandwidth).
When a boost is applied, it typically has a much wider Q (reaches further in either direction from the frequency selector’s center frequency), and when the attenuation is applied, it’s Q is narrower than the boost.
This results in a “smiley-curve” that can be used in many situations. If I know the mix I’m working on would benefit from a boost in the ranges the selector knobs offer and I can get there more quickly by just throwing this device in my signal path, fiddling with a couple of knobs to hear a result, then it’s worth the time it takes to have a specialty tool in my toolbox.
Will this work on every track? no, it’s there for the occasions I need it.
How might it help me with this track? Let’s say I felt that lack of low-end in the kick, and the kick’s presenting a prominent bump just above the sub bass (which is sitting around 40’ish hz). The Kick might be presenting it’s fundamental up in the 70-100 hz range, and thus playing with the selector knob, and dialing in the cut and boost knobs may quickly reveal whether the kick has the oomph down in that range just above the sub bass that I can dial up, while proportionately sweetening the sub bass by a fractional amount. The contouring cut will ensure that the upper registers of those low frequencies remain less boosted so that I’m not over-exaggerating the harmonics that might be playing up in the 150-200hz range which could quickly make the mix sound muddy and dull by comparison.
The Producer Roundtable!
I hope you found this episode of Into The Gauntlet insightful. Here’s what’s going down, folks. As the end of the year creeps up, I’m cycling down on availability so I can work on the next year’s goals, and spend that precious time with family.
With that said, I’ve joined forces with Teknofonic to offer my mentoring and coaching services on their platform! For those of you who’ve already established a working relationship with me, you can continue to expect that I’ll take care of you directly. Moving forward, and into 2020, my prices will be increasing. There are still opportunities to get advice and coaching through The Producers Roundtable, though!
Producers Roundtable Virtual Meetup
Wednesday, December 4th
7PM (Pacific Standard Time)
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A massive thanks to Christian over at Envious Audio. He was the linchpin to The Mastering Gauntlet’s success, and together we helped over a dozen artists with free mastering! Whether you participated in The Mastering Gauntlet or not, we would love your opinion so we can grow it into something even more incredible next season! If you wouldn’t mind taking a quick 10-minute survey, your input matters to us.
The Mastering Gauntlet’s Google Forms Survey is open to all.
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.