When it comes to mastering, people often ask, "What goes on?" While many have a general idea, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding the process. While I heartily recommend Bob Katz's Mastering Audio: The Art and Science [Tape Op #64], I feel that book better serves a more experienced reader. So I was delighted to buy a copy of Audio Mastering: Essential Practices. This book pulls back the curtain to expose the specific, hows, whens, and whys of a mastering session.
Despite a full client queue at his M Works facility, mastering engineer Jonathan Wyner (David Bowie, Aerosmith, Richard Thompson) somehow finds time to be an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music, as well as the Education Director at iZotope. Audio Mastering was born out of his lecture notes and materials for the online mastering course offered by Berklee. This 136-page text includes many graphics, illustrations, and audio samples to make digesting the topic much easier.
Early chapters in the book cover what mastering is and provide a tour of gear, software, and purpose-designed studios. What's the real difference between mastering gear and regular gear? Why are different speakers and software packages used in mastering versus mixing? It's all here. An added bonus is the brief historical coverage of the evolution of mastering during the digital age, which includes some neat details about CD manufacturing. (And given the way vinyl failed to "die," I suggest the publisher leave all the CD info in place for another decade or more).
Chapter three is why we're all here. There's a complete walkthrough of the mastering process, including project assessment, file setup, processing, making revisions, and output practices. Although some parts of the workflow are specific to Wyner's M Works studio, the overarching theme is universal. Mastering requires certain creative and technical steps to be completed, and the text sets forth a methodical way to go about them. Avoiding pitfalls, keeping the client's vision intact, and conducting self- checks are also topics that are covered.
Subsequent chapters provide additional detail regarding concepts such as fidelity, level-matching, compression, equalization, fades, de-noising, and final deliverables. Beyond a textbook explanation, each section includes real- world suggestions and best practices for both mastering and mixing engineers. The suggestions go beyond "making the mastering engineer's life easier." The insights regarding compression, metering, gain-staging, and creative versus corrective EQ are useful across the board. For this reason, I recommend this book to all recording engineers.
The book closes with two case studies: a sample song, and dealing with continuity among songs. Many of us learn better through experience, and these case studies offer real-world audio examples of before and after processing. Load the audio files and listen on speakers you trust. Can you hear the differences? If not, why? Do you agree with the decision? If not, why? Which changes were subtle and which were drastic? Can you articulate your position? Answering these questions will transform you from being a passive recipient of information to an active user of real- world engineering skills.
Mastering Audio: Essential Practices is a valuable addition to any recordist's library. Jonathan Wyner covers technical matters in a clear and direct manner. If you want to know exactly what goes on in a mastering session, or if you've been thinking about becoming a mastering engineer yourself, this book is for you. Mixing engineers can also benefit from the hints and tips. Hearing the before and after audio samples makes the book come alive — and could only be bested by traveling to Boston to study with Professor Wyner. I wish this book had been in print when I was starting out. Take advantage of it!