Events might be out of the question indefinitely, at least here in the States, but with their absence brings a silver lining: more time for creativity. Many producers, including Andreas Henneberg, have used this time of COVID-19 imposed restricted living to hit the studio, making club hits of tomorrow or taking the very first steps in learning how to write music electronically.
Upon completing a track comes a crucial next step: mastering. This is the process in which an audio engineer, or a trained artist, balances the mix out and perfects it by tweaking volume, frequencies, and certain aspects of the track to make it shine. Most if not all the music you hear today is in fact mastered.
This is where Andreas Henneberg comes in. The Berliner is a highly accomplished producer and label owner among the house and techno realm. Beneath the surface, however, his resumé is even more extensive. As a ghost producer, he’s crafted many a hit for others through his tenure. But more importantly, Henneberg is a veteran sound engineer whose mastering clients include the likes of Dubfire, Sharam, and labels like Desert Hearts, Yoshitoshi, and more.
If a mastering service is out of the question for now, there’s no one more qualified than Andreas to give some useful tips for doing it yourself at home. Having just released an EP of his own on Desert Hearts, ‘No Communication,’ the veteran selects his top tips on mastering for everyone.
The big magic is happening in the mixdown process, not while mastering. The possibilities to fix a mixdown mistake are very limited when you only have the pre-master file to work with.
Especially when you work with inexperienced producers you will run into weird problems and sometimes endless conversations. Imagine someone is working with a wrongly adjusted speaker setup and sends you a mixdown with way too much bass and basically no transients in the highs because it’s sounding well on their speakers.
Don’t even try to make corrections on that mix. It will sound bad and your customer won’t understand why you sent back a master with low bass and sharp highs. You have to tell him what went wrong and that the mixdown is not ready for mastering. In the end it’s important to have a good result. Always!
There’s a very big difference if you are working on electronic dance music, pop, rock, classical music or ambient stuff. These require totally different techniques and you need the skills, tools and experience to make the best out of them.
I specialized myself on electronic dance music and that’s where my skills and experiences are.
I’m pretty sure you can’t do it to perfection if you don’t adapt your studio, tools and ears to a certain kind of music.
It takes a while to build up your perfect mastering chain. It will change over the years, and you’re gonna have to adapt your tools to the genre you are specializing in.
It took me five years or more to find my perfect chain. Flexibility, control, quality and functionality are the keywords. You can own the most expensive speakers but they are useless if you don’t know them and how they sound.
The dangerous and most challenging parts while mastering are mostly the ones with very loud mids or vocals and heavy bass at the same time. These parts don’t have to be the ones with the loudest peaks at all. Just a kick and a pad sound can already generate a lot of problems.
No matter what kind of mastering limiter or compression you’ll use. They have limitations! Find the problematic parts of the track, use it as the reference and continue.
There are many ways to add a warm and dynamic feeling to the low-end. Especially for dance music, this is a very important thing. If you work on a mix with low levels between 40 – 80Hz it’s mandatory to amplify them a bit. It sounds like a quick fix to turn up the 50Hz frequencies a bit, but It can also generate a lot of rumble, resonances and mud down there.
I’m using a tool called “Voice Of God“ that comes with the Universal Audio UAD card. It’s a fantastic but very dangerous tool as well. It’s a subharmonic processor, adding dynamic and warmth to the signal. When working on a pre-master sum it will affect everything down there and if the mixdown person did not clean the lows of all the non-bass-stems it can get very messy. If you use it carefully between 40 – 50Hz in a clean mix it sounds fantastic and will add a solid ground to your masters.
Turning phases upside down is a great tool for mixing engineers to get a wide and rich stereo field for certain sounds within the mixdown. But sometimes it’s too much and if you hit the “Mono“ button once, half of the song suddenly disappears. Especially the lower frequencies are very dangerous. Always think of your mom’s kitchen radio that comes with a mono speaker or the sound system in a music club, which subwoofers are mostly mono as well.
If you detect antiphases on critical sounds you should always ask for a new mixdown. Check on antiphases below 300Hz, no antiphases on snares, or other important groove elements.
Especially in longer breaks with synths, strings and melodies only, it’s important to have at least a bit of normal phases around. Otherwise it would be gone on mono speakers.
Reverbs or Grain-Delays often turn the phases as well. Mixing engineers or producers should use these plugins in their send & return strips while mixing the track and not just load it into the inserts directly. Note: A vinyl is not able to handle antiphases physically! You simply won’t hear anything that comes with an antiphase on analogue sound carrier.
Take your time to check the pre-master. Are there any DC-Overheads or very strong antiphases? Is it clipping or sounding distorted at any point?
Sometimes the mixing engineer already put some dynamics like compression or limiting on the master channel to get an idea of the mastered product and then just turned down the master volume a bit. Make sure there is enough headroom to work. Make sure that the pre-master is not cut short at the end of the song.