Luke Gilfeather from TheMasteringStudio.com was recently interviewed by an online audio journal. Please find the interview below.
1. Tell me how you start. What is the first thing you listen for when you get a record to master?
I spend a while listening to each of the tunes for just about everything. What I tend to hear first is spectral balance. I also listen for consistency of the mixes to see what I am up against. Each tune will get individual treatment and settings, but I will work on the mixes that are similar in groups and arrive at average settings that I will tweak among them. It is great when all the mixes are consistent, but still musical arrangement alone will dictate variations in equipment settings.
This initial listening stage is when I start to choose my tools. I will setup a signal path with the least amount of processing possible. I will push and try and only break out another processor if I just can’t get there without. This is also the stage where I start to get a feel of the album as a whole, not just a group of songs.
2. Tell me about the gear you use, a rundown of the basics including any software.
I run Wavelab 6 as my DAW. I use two Apogee Rosetta’s as my converters. One Rosetta is for monitoring and one is for sending and returning to outboard gear. I use an RME AES card to interface to the computer and use an Antelope Isochrone clock to tie everything together.
Wavelab 6 allows you to insert external gear as a plugin through ASIO. When you render files they are rendered through the outboard gear (if inserted) in the order you choose. This allows me to run one DAW rather than two.
I often use the TC Electronic multiband compressor and brickwall limiter from the System 6000. Often I only use the multiband’s low frequency compressor and bypass the other bands.
I have a Manley Variable MU compressor and a Cranesong Ibis equalizer. I have a pair of hand built custom mastering towers that are painfully unforgiving and accurate.
3. Why do you use what you use gearwise? Is there one or two pieces of gear you use that you feel you cannot live without for mastering?
Because a mix is so harmonically complex and so broadband compared to individual tracks, the smallest weaknesses of processors become clear when used for mastering.
When I first started mastering several years back for friends, I used Izotope Ozone, Waves Plugins, and no external gear. As friends told friends, I found myself mastering for strangers using just Waves and Ozone. When the mixes were good the results were pretty good. But I had several projects in a row that were technically and aesthetically un-sound. I found that even running these mixes through plugins with the lightest of settings made them sound worse. That is when I started realizing mastering gear should have a natural tendency to enhance or at least preserve audio quality rather than slightly deteriorate it. That has directly influenced my purchasing decisions.
Both the Cranesong Ibis and the Manley Vari Mu seem to enhance audio, even when they are zeroed out, but not bypassed. I guess I could not live without those two pieces. They allow me to correct or enhance often with no penalty. I am planning on modifying both pieces when I have time. I never have boosted nor cut more than 5dB on the Ibis and would like to modify the gain knobs to be plus or minus 6 dB (rather than 12 dB) with stepped attenuators. My VariMu needs stepped attenuators on its outputs too.
The TC Electronic algorithms from the System 6000 are as clear and neutral as digital can get. That’s why I use them. The Apogee Rosettas are smooth and versatile. When they are self-clocked, they have an analog quality that can sooth and soften high-mids and warm low end. When they are clocked from the Antelope Isochrone, they are ultra transparent, have a tight low end and a slightly wider stereo image.
I have been considering a Cranesong Hedd to replace the Rosetta that feeds and returns external gear. The Hedd does excellent conversion and tape emulation that can help serverely digital or hard sounding recordings. The Manley VariMu can help with that too.
I use Wavelab because it can do all the un-glamorous stuff that is part of the mastering process like album assembly, cd marker placement, cd text, IRSC code entry, etc… Wavelab also allows you to work with files of different sample rates and bit depths. Therefore you can hold out to the very end to do your sample rate conversions and dithering, as one should.
4. Do you use tube gear or software or a mix? Why?
I use both. I feel that a look-ahead digital limiter is necessary. So far there is no analog equivalent that can dig as deep and do the amount of gain reduction often called for by clients. Perhaps one could chain analog limiters together, but I feel that would amount to too much processing. Maybe it is better to kill the task with just one device: an excellent quality digital limiter.
The Vari Mu is a wonderful tube device. Though not perfect for everything, I use it often. A lot of times I’ll hit it with the threshold as high as it will go, with less than 1 dB or no gain reduction occurring. The harder you trim the input the more colorful it becomes. You can run it clean, fat, or disgusting just by setting the input and output levels. For a lot of material there is a magic setting here that you know is right. It can impart a tape like effect that I attribute to its transformers rather than its tubes. It can add legitimacy to a recording that makes it sound classic but not old fashioned in the least.
The Cranesong IBIS is a solid state equalizer that is incredible too. My experience is equalizers are particularly hard to do well digitally. I was never getting what I wanted from plug-ins or digital EQ’s. Sometimes they caused more problems than they corrected. I bought a silver faced Manley Massive Passive to help out. It was the older version that was incredibly colorful. It was legendary on the right material, but was too colorful for day-to-day mastering use. I found I wasn’t using it often enough and got the Cranesong Ibis. The Ibis has been awesome and is seeing much more use. It imparts a clarity that never sounds hard and somehow seems to add depth of field to everything that passes through.
5. Give me a rundown of the process you use…I asked what you listen for first…after that how do you proceed?
It is common for mixes to have build-ups. I try to untangle build-ups first. Be it in the spectral balance, the stereo imaging, or depth of field. When I can effectively treat them, one can hear deeper into the mix and hear its elements as more distinct and separate.
I may treat a buildup of low-mids or lows with a low band compressor maybe a very slight eq cut into the problem area. I feel compression is a better solution than eq for controlling low frequency stuff. High-mids and ess build-ups can be treated with a de-esser or dynamic equalizer on the whole mix. It is a last resort and I often recommend it be corrected in the mix. But some clients don’t have the time or money for a remix. If I am already using the low band of a multiband compressor, I may activate a narrow high band to use as a de-esser to avoid adding another processor.
The great thing about dynamic equalizers (and narrow band compressors) is they are only on when they have to be. They treat and then are gone. In a mastering room and because a mix is so broadband, you can pretty much hear a static eq curve just sitting on a mix. Many times a static correction sounds too obvious. However, a static enhancement isn’t always so obvious.
Digital “in the box” mixes can stack center-panned elements up like a deck of cards, with little depth of field. I have noticed in mixes that are summed analog, the elements become three dimensional (no longer cards) and are further apart so you can kind of hear their fronts and backs. Sometimes simply passing a mix through outboard gear will give it more depth of field. Sometimes a micro delay of the mid frequency band can un-stack the center too.
With stereo imaging, a center channel subtractor or widener can give mix elements more separation too. If the center channel is ill-defined, compressing in mid-side mode can line-up the center channel and really clean-up the imaging.
Once the corrective process is allowing me to hear into the mix, the enhancement process begins. I start listening with the limiter engaged. I start pushing the mix into a form that can tell the story musically and still fit with the other mixes. This is a very intuitive process that literally comes from the heart. You sit there and push and tweak and re-tweak. You feel it getting there, your heart is kind of racing. Eventually it takes a form that is right. It feels like a mix can only take a certain number of mastered forms to be right. If a client asks for a revision, the master will take on one of those other forms.
Once a mix is there, it gets rendered and its settings get written down and saved. I will render all the files first and assemble the album after. Sometimes I will have to go back and tweak a master or two when I hear them all lined-up. Usually the ones I have to tweak are the first one or two I rendered.
While mastering the first one or two tunes, an incredible groove or zone takes over for the rest of the songs. This is probably where I do my best work. The results are remarkably consistent even if the mixes are not.
The album assembly is a very important step that turns your collection of songs into an album. You set the time between the songs so they flow and breathe. You level the album so the songs appear equal in loudness or flow in perceived loudness as desired. This is when you enter CD text and IRSC codes. This is also the step where you can add hidden tracks and cross-fades between songs. Once the album is assembled you dither it to 16 bits and make Redbook CD’s, DDP files, timecode reports, or whatever the replication house requires.
6. Other folks have said that the most important gear in mastering is a pair of good ears? Do you agree? Is there anything you would add to that?
The trouble with getting into mastering is you have to do it a lot to get it. The problem with doing it a lot is that no one wants to hire a new mastering engineer! I think the most important gear is the experience of having done hundreds of masters. Your ears and thinking will rise to the occasion.
I have been a working professional tracking and mix engineer since 1993. Though my hearing is probably worse, my ears have never been better since I started mastering. A lot of this comes from reverence to my customers. I feel so responsible for the outcome of their projects, that I put my hearing into â€œmicroscope modeâ€. Spend enough time there and your ears stay. I used to be hard pressed to hear the difference between digital converters, dithering algorithms, equalizers, etc. Now that stuff is clear as day. I clearly hear the difference in my converters when I change their clock source. I would have told you that was a bunch of audiophile bologna about seven years ago.
As your hearing becomes tuned for mastering, you will start to understand the need for mastering gear. So the right physical gear is important too. Of course an accurate listening environment and monitoring situation is paramount.
7. What are some misconceptions that artists–especially new ones– have about mastering?
One thing I notice is people tend to mix in a way that sounds mastered to them. Mixes will come in overly bright or already heavily limited. Good studio mixes have a sound, but it is not the mastered sound. When I was younger, I had the privilege of watching some very famous engineers mix. I sat there and was expecting to be blown away by the sound of the mixes. I walked out saying to myself, that’s it? Nothing about the mixes stood out. Not too bright, not bass heavy, not too dynamic, not too compressed, good balance, nothing sticking out, not too anything… But not lacking for anything either.
Those are the type of mixes that master the best. Mastering a mix like that is not a corrective process, but a pure enhancement process. The less corrective the mastering process has to be, the better the masters come out.
8. Tell me a bit about you…things you have worked on, bio ,…website…location…all that..
I started out with a synthesizer when I was a kid, and started compulsively practicing and playing piano in my teens. I was always torn between electronics and music. I found myself in electrical engineering school for three years. Then I up and left and went to Berklee College of Music for Music Production and Engineering. I got hired in my last semester as a staff recording engineer and graduated soon after. I have been working as an audio engineer ever since.Â
I currently manage and maintain the recording studios at Miami Dade College in Miami, FL and teach sound recording and music production. Several years ago I started Professional Audio Group LLC out of a local need for low cost independent mastering. Business has grown and I have had the pleasure of creating hundreds of masters for independent artist, signed artists, and record labels all over the world. You can look me up at www.themasteringstudio.com.
I thank you Patrick and Gearwire for giving me the chance to share my thoughts.