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Chris Athens Breaks Down Mastering, Part 1

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Sterling Sound’s Senior Mastering Engineer Drops Jewels; Mastering Still a Worthy Step in the Recording Process

Interview by AMIR SAID (SA’ID)

BeatTips: What is the fundamental concept of mastering?
Chris Athens: Mastering is the last creative step in the record making process, prior to an album being sent to a pressing plant for mass production. In general, the process of mastering usually includes the sequence of songs, the spaces between the songs, fades, any last minute editing that has to be done. Then of course, the last minute flavor, which usually has to do with EQ—compression, leveling.

BeatTips: What’s the primary difference between mastering and mixing?
Chris Athens: Mastering is an interesting stage, cuz when you’re a putting a record together, typically a mastering engineer is very objective about what you’ve done. Mix engineers tend to get involved really deeply into a record; it takes a long time. Mastering engineers usually come with a fresh perspective, and sort of a very immediate sense of how things should sound. So it’s opportunity for the record to be fine tuned, and really the best of the record to be brought to light. That’s the main function of the mastering engineer.

BeatTips: Is there a different skill set required?
Chris Athens: Yes and no. It’s hard for me to say specifically because I’ve done both. But I would say that what you’re looking for in mastering is to maximize the things that are best about the mixes. In general, I don’t know if the skill set is all that much different. Mix engineers have to have great ears, they have to be very creative. So the art of listening and evaluating tracks is really not that different from mixing and mastering. The techniques are a little different.

BeatTips: Is it generally understood that the mastering engineer should be someone separate from the mix engineer, or if a person could do both, do you recommend that they do both?
Chris Athens: The end result is all that really matters! But by and large I’d say there’s two advantages to hiring a mastering engineer that is a professional at doing that specialty: one, you get the aforementioned objectivity; the other is, from a technical standpoint, most mixed environments are compromised sonically. So when you’re mixing in a control room in a mix room, there are certain anomalies acoustically that usually happen that aren’t normally present in a well designed mastering room. And there’s a number of reasons for that. Usually it has to do with the quality of the acoustics and the focus on monitoring. Mix rooms focus on functionality, how to blend that many tracks into whatever. Mastering rooms tend to focus on the quality of playback sound. So it’s easier to evaluate something. So just as a quick for instance, a lot of mix engineers prefer to work off of small two-way systems—Yamaha NS-10s or your typical two-way monitors. My monitors are very high resolution three-ways with a really good sub system; I use Dynaudio C4s. So it can be really to difficult to be objective when you’re mastering a record on the same speakers you mixed it on.

For more information on Chris Athens or Sterling Sound, visit Sterling Sound


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About Author

Amir Said (aka Sa’id) is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of BeatTips. A writer, publisher, and beatmaker/rapper from New York, Said is the author of a number of books, including ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ ‘The Art of Sampling,’ ‘Ghetto Brother,’ and ‘The Truth About New York.’ He is also a recording artist with a number of music projects, including his latest album ‘The Best of Times.’ Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual