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Insights into Mastering and Sound Design: An Interview with Mastering Engineer Chris Athens

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One of the Most Highly Regarded Mastering Engineers Breaks Down Mastering

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.

BeatTips: What are the fundamental dynamics of mastering?
Chris Athens: You mean in terms of what we exactly do?

BeatTips: Exactly, like if you go into a mastering lab anywhere across the country, what are the main things that you’re going to get?
Chris Athens: When you go to a mastering session, the first process will be the mastering engineer will generally ask the client what it is they’re looking to accomplish. Sometimes the clients don’t have a clear idea of what it is they want to accomplish, they just want their record to sound good. But sometimes they will say something specific, say like, they might describe where they did it and how they did it and what they were hoping it would end up sounding like. Then you listen to the tracks that they actually have in your environment, and that actually begins the process of evaluating the mix. Typically, the way I work, some guys like to work a bit more linear, I like to load up the whole record, listen to it, see where the record’s at as a whole, kind of organically. Then you start to make slight adjustments, some songs may need more bottom end, some songs may need more top end.

Some songs need everything, then you work from there. Once you sort of hammered the whole record into place, so it sounds like sort of a cohesive whole, then the process of actually putting the songs in order begins… spacing them out the way you want them. Most urban records you listen to tend to be almost DJ style, people want stuff to kinda come in on the one, or on a beat that makes sense psychologically when they’re listening to it. Putting songs in order is a skill all in its own essentially. Not really putting them in order, cuz usually the clients know what they want, but actually spacing them out, fading them properly, getting them to come in so they feel right. And because it’s a beat-oriented music, and because so many producers are DJs, then tend to be really sensitive to how the record flows, timing wise.

BeatTips: A lot of people’s misconception of mastering is that it’s basically volume boosting.
Chris Athens: Well, the truth is at this point, anybody can make a record loud! It’s gotten so easy that most people actually make records too loud. And I’m talking about producers, mix engineers and the mastering engineers. I frequently get records sent to me for mastering that are already louder than I would’ve made them when I was done mastering them; and sufficiently distorted and all these other things… Listening to records to evaluate their distortion and their dynamics is really a skill. Not everybody has it. You would be amazed at people that are actually really good at producing and being an artist, but are really terrible at listening to records, in terms of what they think sounds good. Lot of times people will evaluate stuff in their car when their car system isn’t really that good; or on speakers in rooms that aren’t set up that well and they think it sounds good and it actually doesn’t.

BeatTips: So in situation where somebody brings to you a project that is mixed particularly well, what do you bring to the stage, what do you add to that?
Chris Athens: If it’s an album, what I’m bringing to the table is evaluation. I’m sort of the last double-check that everything is cool…

BeatTips: Like quality control?
Chris Athens: Almost like a quality control, exactly. And typically what I do to a record that sounds really good is similar to what I do to a record that doesn’t sound good. I just do less of it. I use my level of taste and experience to not step all over it, to let it be what it is and to find whatever weak links it may be in the record and fix them.

For more information on Chris Athens, visit chrisathensmasters.com


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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