Garnish Music Production School in London

How To Master Music | Rob Mills’ Blog # 6

How To Master Music | Rob Mills’ Blog # 6

It was back to the Arthaus for the final session of the course and we were to look at how to master music. The class was taught by Tom Belton – a producer and composer with broad experience. Like everyone that has been involved with instructing the class, he was very easy to get along with, and he created a relaxing, pleasant environment for the class.

After introducing himself and providing a brief overview of his experience in the industry, Tom stated that this week was to focus on ‘demystifying’ mastering. Rightly, I think, Tom said that many people assume mastering to be beyond their ability and to be a hugely challenging, almost scientific process. He began the demystification by explaining about mastering studios and the kind of gear that you can expect to find. Of course, they generally contain an enviable list of hugely expensive equipment, but Tom stressed that what almost all of the gear boils down to is EQ and compression. Various pictures were shown of the kit – including the huge and intriguing piece of gear used to cut master vinyl. The importance and mechanics behind high-level analogue-to-digital conversion was also covered.

Mastering your own musicMoving on, the class shifted into how mastering can be done within a typical DAW, with Tom explaining the pros and cons of this DIY approach. He admitted that he mastered a great deal of his own music this way, and that he liked the control you have over the finished product. We were taught about how best to prepare our tracks for mastering, if done professionally or by ourselves.

After returning from yet another sunny lunchtime in the pub, Tom started to talk us through his approach to mastering, including sharing a trick he had been taught about how to quickly pinpoint phasing issues. The class were shown the best plug-ins to employ, looking especially at Izotope. Multiband compressors came into play, as did tape emulations and very subtle use of EQ. The class were also shown the best way of setting up a limiter for mastering. Tom stressed that it is fine to be flexible in how all these plug-ins are chained (excluding the limiter), stating that he tends to deal with the most prominent issues first, and to develop the chain of plug-ins accordingly.

After showing the class his process on two of his own tracks, those who had brought in mixes of their own had them played. Tracks that were more finished, Tom treated to a quick mastering job, and for the others he gave his advice about how the mixes could be tweaked. A large number of tracks were listened to, as everyone was eager for feedback. It being the final week, and the class now knowing each other quite well, it was nice to hear one another’s work (some tracks had been heard already, of course). It was also useful to listen to the strengths and weaknesses of other people’s mixes. And although the acoustics of the classroom aren’t ideal for critical listening, the advice that Tom gave from his experienced position proved useful to everyone – not only those whose tracks were being critiqued. It certainly seemed to me that particular tracks that had been mixed with more care and attention stood out, and the variety of music that everyone made meant that there was something new to take in most of the time. I think you can refine your abilities by working out what is wrong with an imperfect mix just as much as you can from appreciating the technical prowess of one that is highly accomplished.

Before doing this course, I had read-up quite extensively on mastering, had mastered my own stuff and had mastered things for other people. This experience proved to me that mastering to a fairly high standard is possible in the realm of the DAW. And for those that had never really encountered the world of mastering before, Tom did a great job of breaking down the subtle processes to show that it isn’t really the daunting process that most imagine it to be. Even though I have read about mastering and feel comfortable doing it (I actually prefer it to mixing), my experience thus far is very slight, and I found being talked through it by Tom useful. He answered my slightly tangential question about dithering knowledgeably, and quickly sourced a useful visual aid to show (in terms of pictures) how the process renders things more like the original source.

So, my six-week course in mixing and mastering ended. I have to admit that when I started the course, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d learn, as I had spent so much time tinkering away on my own music. And to be fair, I don’t think the mixes I did before I started the course are that bad. But the problem with things you don’t know is that you are generally unaware of precisely what gaps there are in your knowledge. That is why, even when I did know about things, it was pleasant to have the processes I had developed affirmed by an instructor with solid professional experience. And all the small things I had been doing wrong – mistakes with reverb, over-compressing, even over-thinking things – these are mistakes that can drag great tunes down. And the number of useful tips and pointers that I have picked up over the last six weeks have really added up.

As I said last week, this course has made it clear to me that the mixes I have of my last album really need to be re-done. A number of niggling things I put down to amateur equipment I now know were down to amateur mistakes. So, without wishing to sound disingenuous, I have to say that I am genuinely glad I did this course. Most of all, I look forward to re-visiting my old mixes and putting my refined skills into practice. I think I’ve some good tunes I haven’t made the most of yet…

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