Mastering Terror

Monday, 12 January 2009

I am coming to approach mixing and mastering with total dread.

It’s such a long, drawn out process for me, taking weeks… sometimes if I give up halfway & have to come back to it, it can be months.

I have learned that I cannot trust the way the music sounds through one set of speakers, the premix may sound ecstatic but if I burn a CD of that, if I listen to it on any other stereo I won’t hear the same thing that I heard when I was creating the piece originally…
…so I listen to the same piece of music repetitively, two to four times on different sets of stereo equipment while determining what kinds of changes I might need to make. Then I take my notes and remix and remaster, and then I’ll have to listen again to determine the changes I need to make. Then I’ll make those changes,
I’ll go through the listen/adjust/listen/adjust process again, and again and again… until I’ve hit that magic, blissful moment when everything sounds right on whatever stereo equipment I play the music through.

When I listen to an unacceptable master, it is simultaneously informative (too much hi-mid here… clean up that crackle at 2 minutes 43 seconds… oh! better mix down that part there… where’s the BASS?) and disheartening. DIS->heartening.
When I listen to a poorly mixed/mastered version of my music, I am FILLED with doubt about why I engage in this activity at all. I am confronted with the horror of my music’s dark side.
I’m already wont to doubt my own worth as a composer, but hearing the music again and again when it doesn’t sound the way I originally envisioned really gets under my skin.
Sadly most of the mixing/mastering process entails listening to unacceptable master after unacceptable master over and over and over. The psychological effect is something like staring compulsively at a slideshow of every single misstep, screwup and failure you’ve committed in the last couple of months. Eventually you start to think “Hey, I kinda suck!”

A well known professional mastering engineer can charge $500 for a single song which he or she will spend a few hours time on, utilizing very expensive professional equipment. Easy money. On the other hand, many amateur musicians seem to be able to stumble upon a good mix that sounds present and balanced next to professionally mixed music without any real apparent trouble at all.
There are CD repro / musicians’ services clearinghouses that offer mastering deals where you can get your whole album mastered for three hundred clams. Those hard-earned bivalves will buy you the time it takes for a brainless goateed fratboy to run your music through a pre-set bunch of EQ curves and compression designed to make all music “fat”. He won’t actually listen to the music while doing this, to be sure. 311 will blast through the monitors while your music is being “mastered”.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on the mixing and mastering for the second installment of the Electret Quintet, and a re-release of an early recording of mine called “ne quid nimis” and on a track for a compilation by the promising new label Droehnhaus.
I’m overwhelmed with that familiar mixture of hopeful promise and gut-churning doubt that comes with every mastering process. The sheer volume of WORK involved in producing a version of my music available to the public… much of it unpleasant… sometimes encourages me to fantasize a bit about alternatives, such as live performance.

To perform live, to create directly for a limited time and then let go… this seems like a very alluring alternative to the tedious sculpting of my recorded work, of living with one project for so much time before completion.

In my twenty plus years of recording experimental music, I have never once attempted to perform live. There is, truthfully, very little that is performance-based about my music. I record with a method that involves selection->manipulation->assembly->detailing. For every 10 minutes of performance in my recorded work there are untold hours of editing. I actually really like editing, it’s very joyful and natural for me. Through editing the small sounds become the big sounds.

So how do I do it? How do I step out – as one guy with limited equipment – and make a big, full sound that’s not monotonous and that I can be proud of?
I know I will continue to ask myself this question for some time to come. For me, it’s a “big” question.


  1. I have found some of the presets on mastering software to be pretty handy shortcuts.

    I’ve had opportunities to hear demos and un-mastered early takes of a few of what are considered the all-time classics of pop music (Beatles, Beach Boys, Doors, that sort of thing) and most of that stuff sounded like total, awkward crap until the producers and sound engineers work their magic.

    What perplexes me is how this came to be. I listen to a lot of music from the 20s & 30s and they didn’t have the tech yet for all that fine-tuning of recordings, but the music sounded great despite that.

    Posted by CP McDill | January 12, 2009 10:18 pm
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