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After The Music’s Mixed, The Mastering Begins

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Mastering is one of the more little known aspects of the process of recording music. Most people are aware of overdubbing, editing and mixing, but comparatively few understand how critical mastering can be to add the final sparkle to a mix, how it can transform a pretty good mix into something amazing, or (sometimes, with a little luck) a poor mix into something tolerable.

In the professional world of record labels and recording studios, mastering is usually done using lots of very expensive outboard gear, as the final step before a master copy of a CD is sent to be duplicated into millions of consumer discs.

In the not necessarily professional world of home recording, mastering can done with a plug-in effect.

iZotope Inc., located near Boston, makes a remarkable plug-in called Ozone ($299, available for download at iZotope’s Website, along with a free demo version). iZotope produces versions of it for most PC-based recording programs, as well for Pro Tools, the most popular professional recording system.

Jeremy Todd, the company’s chief technology officer (and a musician himself–he was trained as a classical pianist) says, “Mastering in general is tough to put your finger on; I guess it depends on who you’re talking to. But for the purposes of Ozone, we talk about everything that you do once you’ve got a stereo mixdown, to when you when you actually have a master and you say, ‘OK, this is the audio, this is it, we’re not touching it anymore.’

“With Ozone, we try to include everything that someone would need, so that, while it’s not always the case, but in theory they could not use another plug-in; they could do it all in one.”

How was mastering done before the days of computers and hard disk recording? Todd says:

There were trends established way back when, that are still present today. We’re still seeing examples of these standalone hardware devices. Things were much more isolated, you wouldn’t see as much all-in-one gear, and you’d have these big, honking pieces of equipment that were just an equalizer-and a two or three band equalizer at that, usually just a finalizer, a loudness maximizer.

Obviously, if you go back far enough, mastering was dominated by analog equipment. So with Ozone, we’re trying to capture some of the flavor that people liked, which was a big challenge when it came to designing the DSP. It’s very difficult for people to explain why they like their two-band analog equipment. So it boiled down to a lot of listening tests, and asking people a lot of questions.

We tried to keep a little of the analog flavor in the sound, in our previous versions of Ozone. And in Ozone 3, the analog modeling was firmly established, but people have been saying that in some cases, they want something cleaner; they don’t want any flavor, they want to be more surgical with the tool. So we added a digital component to the equalizer and the multi-band crossover.

Getting A Home Recording To The Mastering Stage

Let’s take a moment to discuss how the mixing and mastering process has changed over the past 20 years for the average home recordist.

Back in the 1980s, when I recorded demos for my group on a four track, mixing was relatively easy…because there were only four tracks (that’s actually a bit of a simplification-in order to make those four tracks sound like there was more there than there actually was, I used a fair amount of outboard gear for reverb and effects). But I did all the mixes in real time and hoped for the best. They were pretty good demos, but nobody would confuse them for properly mixed and mastered track on a CD.

When I resumed recording demos in mid-2001, it took me about a year before I learned the software (Cakewalk’s Sonar) well enough to complete a song all the way through to mixdown.

Mixes on a computer are preprogrammed ahead of time. All of the fader moves that used to be done in real time as the mastering tape was rolling are programmed in ahead of time. The result, ideally, is a perfect mix.

But there’s less room for error. Analog distortion can be warm, wonderful stuff. But digital distortion is harsh and nasty.

I learned quite a bit, but never felt that I had something that was truly professional sounding. My first mixes were completed in the middle of 2002. I would spend hours and hours trying to get a professional mix that didn’t push the meters too far into the red.

At the end, all of this work pays off, when ideally, the completed track belays its homebrewed origins. But for me at least, getting there was a fairly steep learning curve.

Enter Ozone

Then I read about Ozone in an online music forum late last year, tried it, and was pretty amazed at the results–and I don’t amaze all that easily.

Probably the best introduction to mastering, even without Ozone, is the manual that iZotope wrote to accompany Ozone, which can be downloaded as a PDF file for free. It’s designed to be readable to even those who don’t choose to purchase Ozone. In fact, it may be the most readable manual to accompany music software that I’ve ever seen. If you’re a computer tech writer or software developer reading this post, you could do far worse than to copy the style of the Ozone manual for your product-it’s that good.

And the software itself isn’t too shabby, either.

You could easily spend hours tweaking the patches and presets in Ozone, and its unique interface. But some of those presets sound mighty tasty stock. I found myself using the stock “CD Mastering with Exciter and Widener” preset frequently, but dialing back the exciter a little, as stock, it seemed to make the high end sound of my mixes a bit harsh.

Todd says, “In the guide are a few references to some genres and presets to use as a starting point. We found that most of the newer users, maybe for the first couple of mixes, will stick with a preset and maybe tweak it just a little bit. But after a while, everybody tends to tune their ear to what they’re looking for. And eventually many users make their own presets, for their own styles of music.”

Is it a perfect program? Well, as I said, some of the presets can be a bit harsh sounding without any tweaking. And because it takes up a fair amount of RAM, it may not work in real time if you’re using it as an effect on a single instrument or track.

Also, I’ve noticed that because of the intensity of the compression and loudness maximizer and other effects, fadeouts that I’ve programmed on a track before running it through Ozone often need to be adjusted. Ozone hears the volume going down, and it’s first thought is “push it back up!” Since using Ozone, I’ve been mixing multitrack songs down to two tracks, processing it with Ozone, and adding the fadeout then.

But those are pretty minor faults, all things considered. Anybody who wants to take his or her songs’ mixes to the next level could do far worse than checking out the free demo version of Ozone.

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About Ed Driscoll

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Ed, extremely interesting and helpful! I love your recording series.