In the first days of recorded music, mastering was a purely technical process. Early masters were often done without a second thought by the vinyl lathe operators themselves! Back then the only goal was to move a piece of music from the recording medium (analog tape) to the production medium (vinyl records).
But mastering today has come a long way.
It’s still a highly technical procedure, but it’s also become an important part of the creative process. As trends and styles have come and gone in music, mastering has kept pace and made its own contributions. In this article, I’ll show you how mastering affects the sonic style of music, and what it means for your sound.
Engineers can get pretty fired up when it comes to talking about mixing and mastering. That’s where all the weird mixing terms to describe sound come from. But for the most part, those terms relate to real sonic phenomena that you can hear in your mix. When you think of a song being airy, punchy, vintage, warm, modern or balanced what does it really mean?
From a technical standpoint, those qualities all relate to features of your track. I’m talking about things like overall EQ contour, overall dynamics, or the level and frequencies range of each element.
But mastering plays a big role too. The mastering process relies on the same types of tools you use in your mix. Mastering adds its own elements of compression and EQ to shape the overall sound of the track. The decisions mastering engineers make have a big effect.
Think of your idea of a well-produced track. What does it sound like? Do you think of booming, extended low end or, shiny, crisp highs? Punchy drums or larger than life vocals?
A music listener from fifty years ago almost certainly wouldn’t come up with the same answer. That’s because our idea of what a great track sounds like has evolved considerably over time.
Do you ever listen to production from a different era and wonder what they were thinking? Well the best engineers of the time signed off on all those decisions that sound crazy to our ears today. Mastering is no exception. From the questionable first fully digital masters to the peak of the loudness war, there’s certainly been some misses.
But there’s also been lots of great sounding masters from all eras. I’ll go through some of the differences between mastering styles from different periods in music history.
Vintage vs. Modern Masters
Vintage and modern are some of the first descriptors people throw out to make a distinction between sonic styles. But what do they really mean?
Here’s senior LANDR audio engineer Al Isler on the subject:
“Vintage means a somewhat band-limited frequency response (more midrange focussed with not a lot of extreme bass or treble) and a bit of saturation and possibly even a bit of a ‘lo-fi’ quality.”
Those qualities are generally associated with older equipment that imparted its own characteristics to the program material. At the time engineers were looking for the highest fidelity they could possibly achieve. To them, coloration was a negative side-effect of the recording process that they were always struggling to minimize. But today’s engineers go to great lengths to get the same warm mids and special saturation of vintage recording gear.
If vintage is soft, round, and midrange focussed, then what exactly is modern?
No matter how detailed and warm a vintage recording was, listeners and engineers wanted more extension in the highs and lows. After all, the sound of powerful bass and soaring highs from a great stereo is incredibly satisfying. Speakers, stereos and recordings slowly evolved to cater to this trend. Today’s tracks emphasize the high and low end considerably more than the midrange, resulting in a general trend toward scooped or “smiley face” EQ curves overall.
LANDR’s “warm” and “open” mastering styles reflect these two approaches. The LANDR mastering engine still relies on the same powerful AI. But now you can select the warm style to guide it toward vintage-y warmth, or the open style for a more modern master with more extension at the extremes.
The other major trend in mastering has to do with loudness and dynamic range. Musicians and producers have always liked it loud, but advances in digital technology during the CD era allowed mastering engineers to go further than ever before. Records got hotter and hotter as loudness turned into an arms race.
The loudness war has levelled off a bit now, but it’s easy to tell the era the track was mastered by the amount of compression and overall loudness. Put on a record from the late ’50s or early ’60s. It might surprise how dynamic they can be! That’s where LANDR’s intensities come in. Choosing the balance between loudness and dynamic range, as well as mastering style gives you an unprecedented level of control over your master.
Understanding where mastering styles come from is important. If you try to see past the trends, one approach isn’t necessarily better than the others. They’re just different stylistic options you can choose to help match the style of your master to the style of your music.
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Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.