Matthew Gray is one of the most sought after mastering engineers in Australia and all over the world. His client list includes: top Australian bands Drawn From Bees and The Middle East, UK artist Pixie Lott, Michelle Branch, Hillsong, and many others. Besides his world-class mastering services, Matt is also an accomplished musician. He has also earned national and international recognition as a radio producer.
Today, Matthew Gray shares with MixCoach.com some invaluable insights on the highly sophisticated art of audio mastering. We cannot express our gratitude for his kindness and generosity spending some of his invaluable time to share with our MixCoach.com readers.
For more information about Matthew Gray as well as his excellent and affordable mastering services visit: MatthewGrayMastering.com
Luis: What do you consider is your role as a mastering engineer? How important is the mastering engineer’s contribution to music production in general?
Matt: I believe the role of mastering varies depending on what’s required of the job. Some inexperienced clients often rely on mastering to complete the shortfalls of a mix. Sometimes this means stem mixing or using other techniques to get into the mix more. They’re also looking for a mix evaluation and advice on how they can improve the mixes for next time. Mastering in these cases can be quite a dramatic transformation and departure from the original mix. More experienced engineers generally don’t want a dramatic change. However the mixes are usually a lot better so less work is needed to make them sound good.
Luis: Technology has dramatically changed the music production business model over the years. Now with online services such as Tunecore, CDbaby, etc. and some of the popular and affordable mastering software, some home-recordists feel confident in doing it all themselves. Do you feel handling a project to a professional mastering engineer is still an essential step when a production is planned for commercial release (even if it is just for online distribution)?
Matt: I think you made a very important distinction there in your question. If its only going to be for fun it’s harder to justify spending the money on quality mastering. However if it’s destined for commercial release and you’re mixing on a budget, it’s even more vital to get professional mastering done. When you’ve worked on something for a long time it can be easy to lose perspective so it’s good to have a fresh set of critical ears on your production at the end to give it that final tweak. Most bedroom studios don’t have good acoustics or a full range balanced monitoring so the low end in particular can quite often be muddy or blown out in the subs or the EQ balance may just not feel right for the song mix. Professional mastering can correct the EQ balance, add the right dynamic treatment to tighten up the performance and help it to sit well on the radio or up against other big name commercial releases in terms of the overall balance and levels. It may mean the difference between an average product and something that can be considered commercially acceptable.
Luis: We know online mastering has become very common these days. Can you share some of the advantages and/or disadvantages (if any) of using such services?
Matt: The advantages are that you no longer have to live in the same vicinity as the mastering engineer of your choice to use them. I’m able to work with people all over the world. It’s a lot quicker to upload tracks than post them in the mail. I offer clients a free mix evaluation as part of the service to ensure that something isn’t overlooked. This ensures that the right mix is used for the mastering session to achieve the best results.
The difficulty of working with someone online is not getting instant feedback as you are working on their project. For this reason good communication beforehand is vital to know what the client is wanting or expecting you to do. Asking for references or notes can really help in this case. I also offer online clients one free revision should something need a little further tweaking.
Luis: When preparing a mix to send to a mastering engineer, what is the preferred format, bit depth, sample rate? Why?
Matt: I always ask for the highest bit rate. Usually 32 or 24bit (platform dependant) and whatever the native sample rate of the original mix session was. This maintains the highest fidelity from the mix right through to the final master.
Luis: Is there a maximum (peak or rms) overall mix level you prefer?
Matt: Keep peaks below 0 dBFS and try not to over-compress or limit the mix in a way which could compromise the mastering.
Luis: Some mixing engineers use some processing (EQ, compression, ‘stereo enhancement’) on the master fader (mix-bus), any advice on the use of such devices and how they affect the mastering engineers job? Should a bus compressor for example, be removed from a final mix even when the engineer mixed into it, making it part of the sound and balance he/she was trying to achieve?
Matt: Making a mix sound as good as possible without bus processing is a good general way to work especially when you know that it will be sent to a mastering engineer later for the final treatment, but there are no hard and fast rules: if it suits the track for artistic reasons who am I to say take it off?
However, I’m happy to provide advice and if I think something is compromising the mix or preventing me from getting a suitable result, I’ll definitely mention it. Talking from experience, personally I don’t like stereo enhancers because they’re artificially trying to create width, which can compromise the solidity and phase of the centre of a mix. It sounds far better to my ears when this is achieved in the recording and mixing process with the right balance of panning, stereo FX (reverbs, delays), multi-tracking, stereo micing and so on.
Bus compression is a tougher one. Providing that you’re aware of what it’s doing and how it’s affecting the mix balance it could be a positive thing especially with the right compressor: I prefer a quality analog compressor over a digital one for this task. However if you’re not confident with compression you could do far more damage than good. In this instance I would advise you to leave it off and just make the best mix you can leaving the final compression to the mastering engineer.
Bus EQ is a different matter. I don’t see a benefit for doing it over the whole stereo mix when you can EQ the individual elements within the mix. Working this way has less of a negative impact as EQ’ing the whole mix.
If in doubt, send a track to the mastering engineer for an evaluation. If anything has been compromised through improper bus processing it’s sure to be revealed.
Luis: I have heard through several recent interviews, engineers like Dave Pensado (Black Eyed Peas, Christina Aguilera…) and even mastering engineers such as Dave Kutch (Alicia Keys, Outkast…) very confidently stating that the loudness war is over. There are also several organizations dedicated to encouraging artists/engineers/producers to release more dynamic records. So, how do you feel about the loudness war?
Matt: I usually defer to the client with regards to final levels, educating where possible of the negative side effects of high RMS levels. Most people still ask for it to be competitive for level and may suggest a reference in this case. My job is to educate but also fulfill the client’s vision. Some clients like to preserve the dynamic range (lower levels) while others like it loud. Ultimately it’s my job to fulfill that criteria as best as possible even if it means foregoing my personal tastes.
There is definitely a skill in making a loud master that doesn’t completely destroy a track though. If that’s what the client wants, I’ll do it in a way that doesn’t sound overly squashed or distorted. Loudness is not all up to the final limiting. The right EQ balance can have a big effect on the perceived level. Careful dynamic control and the preservation of transients can preserve the feel and impact of a track more so than over-compression, clipping & limiting. It’s definitely a balancing act and there are good and bad ways of doing this.
Luis: There are times when mixing engineers ask themselves if their mix is ready for mastering. In some cases they even lack the confidence of whether or not the mix is where it needs to be!. This is especially true with new and less experienced mixing engineers. From a mastering engineer’s perspective, Is there any advice you could give to those learning the art of mixing?
Matt: If you’re not sure if your mix is ready for mastering, send it through to for a mix evaluation. Ask if there is anything you can do to improve the mixes before the mastering session. Attending a mastering session can also be a good learning experience too. It’s always educational to hear your mixes in a well-balanced space through detailed accurate monitoring.
It’s also good to reference other high quality productions while you are mixing so you can observe the balance, feel & overall tone.