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Masterpiece Techniques and Tips
by Billy Stull
The modern mastering engineer faces many exciting challenges. More and more recordings are being made with a wide diversity of recording equipment and locations. A client can present a project from a high-end studio or a "did it at home with a digital recording studio in a box." project. Awareness of the value of professional mastering has grown tremendously, which has propelled the mastering business. New tools and techniques are needed to deal with this diversity of recordings. The Masterpiece equips the engineer with powerful tools to provide excellence in mastering. Following is some of the effective techniques for using the Masterpiece for mastering or mixing.
As noted the modules are easily removed and placed into different positions for a different cascade of the signal chain. The main two issues to consider are:
Where in the sequence do you want to apply the dynamics or compression?
A common and effective location for the dynamics is last in the sequence. This allows the user to apply EQ, special features, saturation etc. prior to the compressor/limiter so as to "catch" it at the end of the chain. This levels the output for protection and maximizes the gain of the ultimate CD by smoothing the sonic peaks. Lower peaks allow the overall level to be raised on the final CD product. However the capability of using the 1900 Dynamics Module with the input filter feature, and the ability to interface outboard compressors through the auxiliary feature, and the ability to use the sidechain with either onboard or out-board equalizers may dictate a different configuration. Different projects may require a different approach.
What texture is appropriate for the project?
Are you going for clean and pristine or fat and "in your face?" The order of the module chain gives the engineer the ability to drive the individual modules by the previous ones. For example, placing the Tape Texture feature before the Classic feature will allow more overdrive into the classic circuit for a different effect than if the chain was reversed. Also, placing the compression first in the chain may control the input so as to keep the input levels contained for a cleaner sonic texture. Obviously, the configuration can tailor the "Masterpiece" for individual projects and preferences.
Use of the Peak and Shelf EQ
The sonic spectrum can be re-contoured and shaped by the 1515 and 1517 modules. Low or high regions can be increased or decreased with the shelf EQ 1517. For example, if the project was too bright, a high shelf could be lowered to compensate for this problem. This keeps the same sonic relationships in the high region, but lowers all the frequencies somewhat equally. If, after doing this, a certain frequency needed to be increased, such as the range of cymbals, or vocal presence, the peak equalizer can be used to overlay a specific frequency band. For instance, 10K could be increased using a narrow "Q" on the 1515 Peak Equalizer. If the project needs more bottom end, it could be brought up overall with the low shelf equalizer on the 1517. Overlapping the peak EQ 1515 and cutting a small frequency band corresponding to the resonant note could then lower a single resonant bass note. The bottom end has then been increased and made more consistent. The peak equalizer 1515 is surgically precise and is effective in attacking offending frequencies, or strengthening deficient frequencies. Use of these powerful, precision tools can even help enable the engineer to "remix" the project. Individual multi-tracks are not available, but the use of specific frequency bands can allow the increase of decrease of different instruments, sounds, and tonal characteristics. Small EQ shaping in the vocal range can even model different microphones and proximities.
Use of Input
FilterMany times the use of processing or coloring the sound is desirable on part of the sound spectrum, but not on other parts. For example, you may want to compress the vocals but not affect the bass or you want to compress just the high band, but not the mid range or bass range. You want to add some "silkiness" to the highs, but not to the rest. All of these things and much more can be done with the input filter feature. Input filtering divides the frequency spectrum into three sections: low, mid, and high. The mid-band is adjustable by choosing where the low and high bands start. (100 or 200 kHz, or 1.2 kHz or 2 kHz). The possibilities are endless.
Choose Classic for the highs
Choose Compression on midrange
Choose Tape Texture on low-band
Choose Classic for highs and lows
Choose Vari-phase for highs
Choose outboard reverb for midband (for snare and vocals
Sometimes chorusing or flanging is added to the overall tracks. This generally weakens the bass causing the bottom end to have adverse phasing. With Input Filtering, these effects can be adding to the mid and/or high band and not affect the low range.
Live recordings (and sometimes studio recordings) are prone to phasing problems most evident in the mid range. Reversing the phase of one side may fix the midrange but wipes out the bass. With input filtering and the Vari-phase feature, the engineer can alter the phase relationship of the mid range incrementally without adversely affecting the bass. The combination of the Auxiliary and input filtering allows the use of outboard equipment to be "spotted in" on selected frequency bands.
Use a favorite compressor on low, mid, or high band
Use a delay/reverb unit on low, mid, or high band
Of course any 1, 2, or full range combination is available. The impact of Input Filtering is the ability to achieve a sound spectrum that can't be achieved in the studio. For example, "spotting in" the true Classic sound on the highs only or adding Tape Texture to the low bass is not available except with the Masterpiece.
Interface with Digital Converters
The Masterpiece is an analog system, which requires analog input. Digital source recordings must be converted to analog to interface into the Masterpiece. Of course, tape source or even straight from the mixing console analog output need no conversion. If conversion from digital is required, use the highest quality converter possible for best results. (Tip = the analog output of many digital devices many times gives superior results over the digital output converted with an outboard converter. The designers of the digital source device may have matched the internal conversion to that specific unit. A comparison is worthwhile). Using high quality cable with short lengths is advantageous.
The output of the Masterpiece must be converted to digital for interface into the digital audio workstation. Again, use the highest quality converter for best results.
Engaging the Image Control feature allows manipulation of the ambient environment and sound stage. The Engage switch activates the Ambience control and in addition enables the selection of the Image control and accompanying Depth control. The ambience control allows the subtraction or addition of ambient information to the stereo field. Subtraction makes the program material less "wet". Addition increases the ambient field and makes the program material more "wet." It can have much more ambience than it did originally using the same inherent ambience in the program material. Or the ambience can be "magically' removed. This can be used to adjust the stereo "spread" as well.
When the Image switch is selected in addition to the Engage switch, the sound stage can be altered from front to back. The vocalist and other centered program material can be brought forward or back on the sound stage. This allows repositioning of key elements in the mix. In many instances the vocalist can even be eliminated without adversely changing the music bed. Image Control is a very powerful tool. Small changes can make drama results in the final product.
Some common challenges for the mastering engineer are the presence of overbearing sibilance (hot s's), resonant bass frequencies, offending or harsh frequencies as the gain or intensity of mix elements are increased, and the intermittent buildup of too much information in a specific frequency bond. These problems can be attacked by the use of the sidechain. The sidechain signal is sent to either the internal or external equalizer. The problematic frequency region is then increased in gain so as to trigger the compressor at a designated level relative to the gain structure of the total mix. In other words, as the target frequency starts to get louder, the compressor reduces the amount of level increase of that target frequency. This keeps that frequency contained but allows allof the other frequencies to be unaffected. (tip: use some drastic EQ to pinpoint the target frequency. For example, use a small Q with a large cut to eliminate the problem area. This will temporarily affect the overall sound adversely but will identify the correct region to boost on the sidechain.
Some recent applications on actual mastering projects include these tips and tricks:
A recent project had 9 live songs recorded at the same time and place, and the client requested that a tenth song be added to the project from another live session that was recorded earlier. The 10th song had a great deal more ambience than the other 9 songs. By using the Image Control feature on the Masterpiece, I simply reduced the inherent ambience on the 10th track to match the rest of the project. Only took a minute to accomplish the "impossible".
I mastered a bluegrass project. They were happy with the mastering, but not with their performance on an acapella intro. They returned to the studio and re-cut the intro. They brought the new intro to me and asked me to edit it on the front of the song and replace the old intro. Well, the new intro had less reverb on it than the old intro and song.
With a small turn of the ambience control knob, I increased the inherent ambience to match the old intro and song.By selecting the low option on the input filter of the Tape Texture feature, you can make the bottom end huge. I usually prefer the 100 Hz setting but sometimes the 200 Hz option is preferable. The low frequency range [usually bass guitar and kick drum] gets big and fat, but the overall output is not effected much, if any. It doesn't react like EQ; It is more of an increase in density.
Another project was a live to 2-track tube Ampex recording for a well-known alterative rock band. During mastering it was discovered that on one short section, there was some over-modulation and accompanying low mid distortion that was unpleasant and unexpected. Only one take was available and no remix option as it was recorded live. Panic was in the air! I said, "Let me try something". On the next pass the distortion disappeared. What did you do? they exclaimed! I used the Sidechain to duck the offending frequency band. The Masterpiece saved the day!
Using the Input Filter section on the Vari-phase feature select the midband only. Reverse the phase of the midband, and turn the Rotation controls all the way to the right. At this setting there will be no apparent change when the Vari-phase in engaged. As you rotate the Rotation controls to the left, the program material is "scooped" without using EQ. In other words, it is thinned out especially in the low mid region where things get too crowded at times. It can add just the right amount of clarity to the recording in an unusual way.
Another project, done in a small studio, appeared to have some problem with the high end. I suspected some phasing discrepancies. I selected the high range on the Vari-phase feature, and did a small adjustment. It sounded better! To check it, I did a mono playback and when I engaged the Vari-phase with the setting that I thought sounded better, the volume increased. This proved that I had corrected some high end phasing problems in just a few minutes without meters or special tools-just the Masterpiece.
In September of 2004 I mastered a CD that was recorded on a Roland 2480. It was 70's rock style Christian project with a great singer/songwriter with a "Rock Star" voice. I did not have the Masterpiece at that time, but they were happy with the end result. Recently the producer called and said that another song had been written and recorded and they want to master it to be included as the title cut on the CD before it's release. I mastered the new song using the Masterpiece and "tweaked" another song that we had mastered previously. Upon hearing the two newly mastered songs, the difference was so dramatic, that they now want to re-master all of the CD using the Masterpiece before it is released.