We talk to Juno and Grammy award winning mastering engineer João Carvalho (The Sheepdogs, Death From Above, City In Colour) about what bands should consider when recording and mastering an album
By: TJ Liebgott
January 18, 2012
For most new recording artists, the process of mastering can seem elusive. The art seems so wrapped in secrecy and confusion you would expect it to be done by members of the illuminati reciting dark incantations in some Masonic back room. In reality it is the art done by a handful of audio professionals to create the best sonic enhancements and achieve an overall cohesive sound. To shed more light on the mastering process is the João Carvalho, the owner of Toronto studio João Carvalho Mastering.
Can you briefly explain the mastering process?
Simply put, mastering is the finishing touches made to your final mixes that ultimately make your mixes sound their absolute best. Proper mastering helps make your songs sound bigger, more present, louder and more musical on the average stereo system as well as other listening devices.
Professionally mastering your album starts with the mastering engineer doing a lot of listening to your mixes on the mastering studios very refined and accurate speaker system. Its important to get an overall picture of what the full album is trying to convey and thus listening to the record allows the engineer to get the “vibe” of the record. It also gives the engineer the opportunity to hear how your mixes are sounding.
Many sonic questions are addressed at this stage and so some experimenting begins. Is there too much bass? Is there not enough bass? Are the mixes bright enough? Is it as loud as it should be or does it need more dynamics?
Once the engineer feels they have correctly set the equalizers and compressors and other tools to make the first song sound its best, they will move onto the next song and continue this same process for the remainder of the songs. The goal being to bring out the best in each song while finding an average sonic soundscape between songs so they flow well from one to another.
Once this process is finished, the songs are then put into their correct song order and the spaces between the songs are set to create the pacing for the album. Then the artist is given a reference disc/file that they can listen to on a system that they are familiar with to make certain they like the way it sounds.
At this point, the artist might give the thumbs up to this reference disc/file and gives the go ahead to have a Final Master created so it can be sent off to vinyl/CD manufacturing plants that replicate your final albums.
Why do bands need their album mastered?
Most importantly, a band should feel that their album (once mastered) has reached its sonic best. Proper mastering will make the album sit alongside the great sounding albums of past and present and seamlessly integrate into a “mixed tape” playlist. A poorly mastered record (or not mastered at all) will sound low in volume and seem a little lifeless next to a professionally mastered recording.
Can mastering help with home recordings?
Proper mastering is even more important for home recordings. Home recordings are always made with the best of intentions but often might be hindered by the home studio not having much professional recording equipment and/or the lack of professional engineering experience. Experience is key! The difference after mastering a “home recorded” album is often very dramatic.
What can a band expect to pay for mastering?
Mastering comes in all shapes and sizes. You really do get what you pay for. For the sake of clarity, I will break it down into three categories. “Professional,” “Semi Professional” and “Home/Novice” mastering. There will always be exceptions, but generally I’d say these categories should apply.
“Professional Mastering” is typically done in a dedicated mastering facility. This makes it possible for the artist to attend the mastering session if so desired. In a dedicated mastering facility, a great selection of vintage analog and digital equipment will be available to help the engineer make excellent sonic decisions on behalf of the songs. The mastering will be done by an experienced mastering engineer with 1000’s of albums credited to their name. For “Professional Mastering” you can expect to pay $1000-$1800 for a 10-12 song full-length album and $500-$900 for a 5-6 song EP.
“Semi Professional Mastering” will come in many different shapes and sizes and will often be part of an existing recording studio or digital mastering suite that is not necessarily dedicated to only mastering. It usually does not have an extensive collection of vintage analog type equipment and will likely be done by an engineer that does not specialize in mastering but does do mastering part time. You can expect to pay $500-$900 for a 10-12 song full-length album and $300-$500 for a 5-6 song EP.
“Home/Novice Mastering” You can expect to pay very little here. This style mastering is usually being done on someone’s laptop/computer in his or her home. I can only suggest to use caution here as often it can end up costing more in the end as I have witnessed on many occasions. The artists spends some money doing the “Home/Novice” mastering only to find that they need to redo the mastering at a professional mastering studio afterwards thus paying for mastering twice.
What considerations/materials does a band need to get the best mastering possible?
Try not to skimp on the recording. Always use the best possible and creative recording environment that you can stretch your budget to afford. Try to make your recording decisions based on the studio/engineers experience. Make sure you listen to album projects that the studio or engineer you are considering has made. An album that has vision and great sounding mixes will make for the best-finished product after mastering.
Are there any common mistakes that bands make that can affect the mastering process?
Truly being prepared for your recording is your best recipe for a great sounding album. I highly recommend making all the right decisions from the start regarding your best songs, the right engineer and producer and the right studio to record at. If you feel you can’t quite afford your recording at that moment then it might be worth waiting for six months or so until you can. Once you are recording and mixing, don’t be afraid to call your mastering engineer and have them have a listen to your mixes before finalizing them at the mixing studio. I’m happy to do this with the artists I work with, as it’s really a great way to make everyone’s job a bit easier in the end. If I get mixes sent to me sounding proper after I’ve made some suggestions, it’s certainly easier to get it sounding it’s best while mastering takes place.
One other issue that’s been problematic recently is that many mixes have been severely “over-de-essed.” Many mix engineers set the de-essers while mixing and then seem to forget about them (not listening specifically for over de-essing). This can sometimes make vocals sound too “lispy.” Don’t hesitate to get in contact with me on this and I can further explain if you are not certain or concerned about it. There is a pretty easy fix on this while mixing.
Is there anything for bands to avoid when looking for a mastering engineer?
Avoid cheap for the sake of not spending money. An album is something you are going to listen to forever, so don’t sacrifice the mastering of your album for the sake of a few hundred dollars.
How do you personally feel with a lack of dynamic range in today’s recordings? Is always loud always the best?
I personally don’t have too much of an issue with “loud” these days. I think there are some ways of making it loud but still dynamic. I think we’ve developed some “tricks” that can help in the “loudness wars.” If treated correctly in mastering, the loud parts of a song will become quite loud and the quieter parts of the song should still be loudish while still maintaining their dynamic range. It’s a style of music we’re becoming used to and one that works on the modern playback format.
I’m not saying that all records are sounding good these days and that “always loud is always the best.” Discretion must be used on establishing the dynamic range of a recording. Experience on the part of the engineer would once again be an asset here.
There is definitely some abuse with limiters in mastering on cheaper home computer programs when mastering at home. And even in professional mastering studios as well. I’m only saying that I believe there is a way to make it loud but still feel dynamic.
Of course there are jazz, orchestral, folk etc genres that still maintain their full dynamic range and those are always a treat to work on.
How does one get involved in becoming a mastering engineer?
Make sure that you are independently wealthy, haha! If it really is the profession you are seriously interested in, you do need to have a very good intuitive sense and working knowledge of how Equalization is achieved. Ultimately understanding the root of the word “equalization” which is the balancing or flattening of frequencies. When applied, it should translate well to the ear or speaker systems we’ve created. There has to be a natural sense here. The mastering engineer should intuitively be able to pick out a balanced equalization curve. There are many schools that teach engineering but not too many that focus only on mastering. It is typically a field in engineering that most mastering engineers have stumbled into after being exposed to being a recording engineer first, which is how I started as well. And even still after recording many records as a recording engineer, it takes many more albums (perhaps 1000’s) before truly learning all the subtleties of being a mastering engineer.
I’ve mastered close to 3000 recordings myself but still feel like I’m learning every time I master a new album. However, it is the coolest job on the planet! What other job allows you the opportunity to listen to cool new records the masses haven’t heard yet, while trying to make them sound a bit better? It’s a pretty stellar job!
Recently I’ve had some requests for mastering tutorials or mini-seminars and have done some. Feel free to contact us on this if you have an album you would like to master and want to incorporate a mastering course into the process.
Anything else you wish to add?
Again, I can’t stress the importance of quality!
On a holistic level, it’s very important to maintain a high level of professionalism in all fields of making music. Whether its writing great music or mastering recordings professionally. We need to maintain higher standards on all levels or great albums as we have come to know them, will become a thing of the past.
About João Carvalho:
João Carvalho is a multi award winning mastering and recording engineer located in Toronto, Canada with more than 30 Juno, and Grammy awards credited to his name. With many credited platinum and gold albums, (The Sheepdogs, Death From Above, City In Colour, Sloan, The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, Olivia Newton John, Sam Roberts, Alexisonfire, Barry Gibb, Matthew Good Band, Sophie Milman, Protest The Hero, Lights etc) and over 2000 recordings credited as a mastering engineer, João continues to expand his horizons and has built Canada’s leading mastering facility, João Carvalho Mastering. This mastering house also located in Toronto, Canada boasts one of the most acoustically precise rooms in the world and has developed a worldwide reputation for absolute sound excellence.
João has recently finished a new project, creating a recording studio facility which will bring “old school” recording married with the latest in audio technologies to offer central Canada a much needed world class recording environment. The new studio, Revolution Recording, will be launched in the early part of 2012.
For more information check out: João Carvalho Mastering.