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In The Studio: Watch Out For The Tall Tale —“We’ll Fix It During Mastering”

The downsides to the "fix it in the mix" approach...

Over the last few decades, before the average musician even knew of the mastering process, the most common lie we heard was “we’ll fix that during the mix.”

While we all know that although this statement can be true, it’s often used as an excuse to keep the talent moving along or for the engineer to avoid recording yet another take.

Of course with the invention of digital editing “we’ll fix that during the mix” took on a whole new life, being as that one could easily chop, slice, dice and mutilate a “less than stellar” performance until it became usable, thus making the statement somewhat true. However this was only after much effort that could have simply gone into recording another round of takes.

But, I digress. This isn’t about yesterday’s misguided catch phrase, but about the plague that is upon us today, FDM syndrome (fix during mastering syndrome). Let’s start off with a brief description of what mastering can include.

Mastering is where the final dimension of sound quality is brought to a recording. Experienced mastering engineers with specialized audio tools work at bringing each project to its maximum sonic potential.

Mastering is the step between mixdown and manufacturing. In the mastering studio each project is critically evaluated on a high resolution monitoring system. Any deficiency in the sound is then addressed and careful processing is applied to make the project sound bigger, warmer, clearer, punchier, louder, more three-dimensional, more natural – or whatever may be appropriate to that particular recording.

Some processes that might be applied at the mastering stage include:
— Dynamic enhancement
— Transparent limiting
— Equalization
— Stereo width expansion
— Multi-band compression
— Harmonic enhancement

Additionally, mastering is where the final assembly of the album occurs. During this process, songs are placed in their proper order, gaps between songs adjusted, fades performed, noises and glitches removed, and so forth.

Most importantly, all changes and enhancements in the mastering process are done in close consultation with the client to make sure that the end result that fits the vision of the project.

I will attempt to lay out what I have continually seen as common misconceptions of what mastering is, and how I feel we can put and end to FDM syndrome once and for all.

Misconception 1: Many mix problems can be fixed during the mastering process.

This is the biggest lie being spoken these days in regards to mastering. Although certain overall mix issues can be helped or controlled during mastering, the only way to truly fix a bad mix is to re-mix or re-record the problematic track.

A bad mix is a bad mix, period. You can’t expect your house painter to fix foundation and framing problems. You can, however, expect him to make your house more presentable.

Misconception 2: Professional mastering will make my home studio project sound professional.

This is very common and probably the most absurd misconception of the lot! A professional-sounding recording will contain many things over and above a great mastering job. Solid material, well executed performances, great mics, pre-amps and recording gear, and a stellar mix are all more important than the mastering process.

Don’t get me wrong, mastering is vitally important, but if these other things are not in place, no mastering job, no matter how brilliant, will amount to a hill of beans. Of course, this also doesn’t discount a quality home recording. Just do it right.

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