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Bart Gabriel's Mastering Demystified

Hey people, I'm very lucky to call Mr. Bart Gabriel a friend. He's also my band's manager and producer. I've been with him on tour and in the studio and so far he's one of the most professional persons I've met in the Music Industry. He has produced and/or mastered countless of records and has a vast amount of experience on the subject (you can see all he's done on his website). A while he wrote a very interesting post about mastering, or rather, demystifying mastering. Here's what he wrote: "MASTERING demystified!!! Master vs. remaster, first pressings, vinyl vs. CD and so on. As mentioned before, I've recently seen a lot of articles and posts with very incorrect and inaccurate information, so I've decided to write what it's all about, what is happening during mastering, why, and what for. Hopefully this information will help both musicians and fans to understand what they are dealing with. Let's go.


To make long story short: mastering is a process, during which someone makes sure that the audio material will meet industry standards, and will sound enjoyable for everyone. I wanted to write "will sound good for everyone", but something like that is not possible, as we all have own preferences and personal taste. And by industry standards I do not mean that everything should sound the same, but that every single format, like CD or vinyl, carries the audio material in a bit different way, and some things that are OK for a CD format are not OK for vinyl, and the opposite.

I keep on saying that the best mastering is the one you don't hear. When you listen to music and you don't feel any discomfort, the sound is enjoyable, then most probably everything is OK. We of course need to remember that music is art, and that in most cases people that created the music we listen to, had some kind of vision, idea or plan, and wanted to achieve something. We are listening to someone's creation.

Except fixing potential issues with the overall sound and bringing it to industry standards and format standards, someone can make your album sound better/worse/different (again, we are talking about own preferences, personal taste, and the vision or plan) - more punchy, brighter, darker, cleaner, sharper, muddier, louder, quieter, someone can fix issues with the dynamics or level drops, and so on. Except that, the audio material will be edited - someone will do fade-ins and fade-outs at the beginnings and ends of the songs, someone will take care of the pauses between the songs (so the album doesn't sound like one 40 minutes long song), and - in case that the author or the band didn't already think about it - someone will take care of sequencing. This last thing is often ignored these days, but back in the day people were making sure that for example there are no 2 similar songs next to each other on the album (it would sound stupid to have let's say 4 super fast songs in a row, and then 4 ballads, right?), that each side of the LP starts and ends with a special song, and that the album "makes sense" as one big piece. We can compare it to making a movie, and making sure that the scenes are in right order.

Finally, someone prepares the material for the pressing, for reproduction. Back in the day we had master tapes, later most masters were on digital tapes, then on audio CD-Rs, and finally, these days in most cases masters exist in the shape of the DDP image. This is also where the mastering guy adds other things such as ISRC codes, that help to identify the recording, or the text which you later see on the screen of your CD player.

An important thing to add: I sometimes hear or see comments like "we can fix it during mastering". No, you can't fix sloppy playing, bad take or bad mix during mastering. It's like building a house: the recording is the foundation, the base. The mix, is the walls, and the mastering is the roof. Sure, you can put the roof on a house with damaged walls or foundation, why not, especially when the client pays, right? But will someone be able to live in that house, or perhaps it will collapse before someone will move in...?


Well, the question is WHERE your album sounds good, and where it should sound good. Does it sound good on studio monitors, when you play it directly from your studio gear or workstation? Awesome. But are you sure it will also sound good on your home stereo, on your iPhone, in your car, or while being reproduced on the CD or LP? Or when it will be streamed on Spotify, after they will treat it with their codecs and after it will be normalized? Are you sure it will sound good on a big stereo system with huge subwoofer, and on those tiny headphones you just plugged to your smartphone? This is why you need to do mastering: to make sure it sounds as it should sound everywhere.


There is this secret no one wants to talk about. Every single stereo system, amplifier, or playing device like walkman, discman, iPod or smartphone, even the online player you are using has... a volume knob. So if something is too quiet for you, just turn the volume up, or if something is too loud, you can turn it down! Seriously now. Lot of people think that "louder is better". Well, it's not.


Well, no, or better - only by definition. Original sound is analog, and a vinyl record is an analog recording. Digital recording takes "snapshots" of the analog signal at a certain rate, and measures each of those "snapshots" with a certain accuracy. But we can take these "digital snapshots", play them back, and press them onto vinyl, right? Look, an example. Let's take shitty sounding mp3 file, in let's say 128 kbps, and let's reproduce it on vinyl. So, will it start to sound better from vinyl? Of course not. It's still the same shitty sounding mp3 file, just played from vinyl, from different format. So it all depends what is being pressed on vinyl.

Some people say vinyl is worse format for carrying the audio material than the CD. I would say it's different, not better or worse. Quote from a cool article I found on the page: "Vinyl is physically limited by the fact that records have to be capable of being played without skipping or causing distortion. That both limits the dynamic range - the difference between the loudest and softest note - and the range of pitches (or "frequencies") you can hear. If notes get too low in pitch, that means less audio can fit in a given amount of vinyl. If notes are too high, the stylus has difficulty tracking them, causing distortion. So engineers mastering for vinyl often cut back on extreme high or low ends, using a variety of methods, all of which alter the music". In case you didn't understand that part: some low end frequencies, as well as some high frequencies that are OK for CD or digital format, simply do not land on vinyl.

So why in many cases old vinyls sound better? Because the audio material was pressed directly from lossless, original analog sources, like the super-high-quality master tapes, and they were made in times where not that many people thought that "louder is better". Let's also face it: we are talking about different generations. If you are older, most probably you used to and still listen to music on big speakers, on big stereo systems. Young people mostly listen to music through their smartphones, iPhones, or on small computer speakers, and what's quite ironic over here, they use small playing devices, but very often they listen to music louder, than people who have big stereo systems - how many times you've seen a kid with headphones, and you could hear what he is listening to being like 5 meters away from him? So there is a big chance that something that was produced and mastered 40 years ago will sound great for a guy in his 50s, but it will sound odd for a teenager. And the opposite: if you are in your 40s or 50s, you might have a problem with modern productions. Anyway, yeah, let's go back to mastering for vinyl. These days most labels walk an extra mile and try to use best possible source for the new LP pressing, be it original master or high quality copy of the original master. But it's not always possible, as some original master tapes simply don't exist anymore. It sometimes happen that what we hear on a new LP release is basically a CD master pressed onto vinyl. It sometimes sound OK (when the CD master that they use sounds good), and sometimes it doesn't (when the CD master that they use is not good)...

...and that takes us to this next, funny fact. Another difference between CD and the (old) vinyl masters we deal with every day, is that vinyl masters had wider dynamic range. They sounded deeper and more natural to our ears. But again, for some reason people started to think that louder is better. And how to make something louder? You squeeze the dynamic range of the recording - you decrease the difference between loudest and softest note or part of the song. You raise the volume of the softest parts, so they start to be at the similar level like these louder parts. But then, surprise: you can't raise up the loudest part as well, as every gear has its limitations. There is this border you can't cross, the threshold, after which the sounds will start to be deformed and distorted. Summary: you sacrifice the dynamic range, to make something louder. Is it better? No, it's just louder, and you just killed the dynamic range. It's less or more driving a car, and pushing the acceleration pedal and the break pedal at the same time. And why it's funny? Because the dynamic range of a CD format, is almost twice as big as this one possible on vinyl. So yeah, you can make super dynamic, deep and natural sounding master on CD.

Another important thing: for sure the same album will always sound a little bit different while being played from vinyl and while being played from a CD, or from a digital copy. First of all, the vinyl format gives kind of own saturation, the color, and so does the entire playing chain we use: the needle, the cartridge, the record player. One thing is also worth mentioning here: at least half of people I know never calibrated their record players. Sometimes it's not possible (in cheap record players), but in many cases people didn't even know they should do something like that. So yeah, you need to balance the arm that holds the cartridge and needle, you need to align the cartridge, set the right weight with which the needle (stylus) you are using is pressed to the surface of the vinyl, and you need to set the anti-skating, because the centrifugal force at the edge of the vinyl record is different than in its center. When everything will be set properly, you might notice huge improvement of the sound quality of the played record, not to mention the record won't be in danger anymore (it's not a myth: the record player which is not set properly, might actually damage the record).

And last but not least, thing that most of people do not realize. The magic of vinyl record, the ritual. Taking out the vinyl from the cartoon sleeve and carefully placing it on the player, sitting down in front of your speakers, checking out this huge beautiful artwork, reading the lyrics, chilling out. It's an experience that to a certain extent may take place when we deal with a CD, but which doesn't exist in case of streaming or listening to mp3 files. Imagine this: let's say you like coffee, or red wine. You are drinking it from a beautiful glass, it's the sunset, you're in the mountains, and there is this great view in front of you. You are relaxed, and you don't worry about anything. You enjoy the drink. Now, you have the same coffee or red wine in a paper cup, you are at a loud railway station, and you are tired, because you just worked for the last 8 hours. The same drink, but will the entire experience be the same? Of course not.


I explained a little bit why in some cases old vinyls sounded better, but it's not always like that. I know many examples when it was exactly opposite. Also, let's pretend that situations when someone doesn't know his job and simply fucks up the mastering doesn't happen.

I remember doing mastering of a classic album from the early '90s, where I knew every single sound, because I listened to it many, many times. Then I got the high quality copies of the original mixes, before someone proceeded with that mastering I knew so well. To my surprise it was almost like listening to a different album: the original, unmastered mix was so much better than what I knew from that "first pressing CD"! So, what happened there? Most probably someone was trying out some new toys, like digital boost, FX finalizer or stereo enhancer on that original mix, and without thinking too much if it's needed or not, turned it all on 10 during the mastering process. The album - and its first pressing - sounded how it sounded, it became a classic because of great songs, but that original mix sounded way better without all those weird alternations and special effects. And no one knew about it for the next few decades. So when I did new mastering, it sounded way better than what is known as the first pressing of that particular album. For the record: it didn't sound better because I did the mastering, it could be done by anyone. The difference was caused by the fact, that the original mix wasn't butchered by special effects no one needed and no one asked for. I simply worked with provided material without adding anything own.

Another example: I once worked on an album that had this loud hiss noise going on everywhere. It was super easy to remove it, without damaging high frequencies in the recording. So, why was it there? Well, the original mastering engineer was an older guy who played in several bands when he was young. His hearing was a bit damaged, and he simply didn't hear those frequencies.


As I wrote above, we need to keep in mind technical possibilities and character of the format we are going to use. Something that is OK for CD is not OK for vinyl, and the opposite. So the "special mastering for vinyl" is not a myth or lie, at least not in case of current productions. In most cases old albums didn't require special mastering for vinyl, because they were originally mixed that way to sound good on vinyl, they were mixed and mastered in times when no one thought about CD format. So in theory, the original LP master that sounds good, will most probably sound good while being converted to a CD format and reproduced on CD, as long as someone won't try to alternate its dynamic range or loudness level. It will be a bit quieter than the standard CDs we know, but in most cases it will sound good. It's of course necessary to double check if everything is OK every single time, but we are talking about "most" cases and some general rules.

I remember talking with one of my favorite sound engineers, and he told me he never did any special mastering for vinyl. But well, he had the same working methods for almost 40 years. Secret explained: he was doing "vinyl friendly" masters by default.


"Why it sounds so bad from Spotify or YouTube"... Well, most probably because someone delivered wrong master, or didn't think what will happen to his master. All these streaming platforms normalize provided audio files with their own codecs, and they actually decrease their volume. Without going too deep into technical details, mastering engineer should leave a bit of "space" (the so called "headroom") for those codecs to work. If you will deliver super loud master, the codecs will be doing their job right at the edge or very close to this threshold I mentioned before, the threshold after which the sound starts to be deformed and distorted. So it may happen that your song that sounds great on CD, will sound bad on Spotify or YouTube.

Frequent question: will my CD master sound good on the streaming platforms? Well, that depends. If your mastering engineer didn't make it too loud (remember about the threshold I mentioned) and there is some space for those codecs left, then everything should be fine. However, if it's one of those super loud masters, with tight and narrow dynamic range (very often referred to as the "brickwall" master - you surely heard that word before), then you might be in trouble.


In general, remastering is doing new mastering of material that was already mastered. There might be various reasons for that: either previous mastering wasn't very good or very precise and you want to fix something, you need to do different mastering for different format, or you want that new master to meet new, ehem, industry standards or new vision of your client. Except doing all those things I mentioned above, during remastering the audio material is very often cleaned or even restored.


Vinyl, CD, mp3 or stream, they're all just formats, and they all have their own possibilities, specifications, and limitations. But it's you, the artist, the client, or the mastering engineer who decide and determine what will actually happen and how they will be used. Because you can actually have super dynamic master in an mp3 file or on CD, or you can have painfully compressed digital master pressed onto vinyl. Most important is to respect the original vision, and original idea of the artist. At the end, it's all about the music.

/ Bart Gabriel, December 2019. Written with the first Metal Church album playing in the background." So, there it is. Don't forget to check Bart's website and social media, he posts some good stuff. That's it for today, see you next time! Cheers, Eric

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