Mastering is often viewed as a precise science—a clinical last step in getting a song or album ready for release and distribution. This sentiment tends to bolster the notion that somehow, there’s no room for creativity in mastering. But ask almost any mastering engineer and they’ll tell you that they also view their work as the final creative step in musical distribution.
In this piece, we’ll take a look at how genre in mastering influences not only the decisions we make but also how our decisions can affect groove, feel, and more. To be certain, the tools and techniques used, and the degree of change achieved, tend to vary from what you might find in the production, recording, or mixing phases. However, that certainly doesn’t mean there’s no room for creativity here in the world of mastering!
The importance of context and emotional intent
Any time we sit down to master a song, we must keep two primary factors at the forefront of our mind: the context of the song, and the emotional intent the artist has envisioned for it. “Context” may mean anything from general genre, to other songs on the release, to other releases in the artist’s catalog, to even the intended listening environment—for example, is it destined for club or festival play, or more cerebral headphone listening? Emotional intent, on the other hand, may sometimes be explicitly stated by the artist, or we may infer it from context, lyrics, arrangement, and more.
When considering genre in mastering, we want to ensure that the moves we make also align with the broader context of the music. For example, let’s consider a reggae track in a few different scenarios. As you might imagine, getting the low-end balance right is going to be absolutely crucial in achieving the appropriate emotional impact.
First, let’s imagine the track is by an established reggae artist with an extensive catalog, on an album consisting entirely of other reggae tracks. In this scenario, we have two contextual judgments to make. Namely, we’ll want to consider both how the album relates to previous releases by this artist, and how the particular song fits within the album. Get this right and fans will feel like they’re spending time with an old friend.
Next, let’s imagine the exact same recording is by a jam-band and serves as a bonus track at the end of a more rock-oriented album. If the rest of the album has comparatively leaner, tighter bass, and a more aggressive, guitar-driven midrange, then the same master we used on our hypothetical reggae album might suddenly seem out-of-place and emotionally incongruous.
Instead, it would be important for us to use our emotional intelligence and creativity to appropriately balance the low end in the context of the rest of the album and discography. If we were just going through the motions and didn’t take a second to think creatively about context, we may end up delivering subpar results.
EQ and compression meet groove and feel
Now, let’s look specifically at how our main tools of the trade—EQ and compression—can manipulate not only the emotional impact of a song, but even how we perceive its groove. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking, “Ian, how are you going to manipulate the groove with EQ? And emotional impact? Surely that’s down to songwriting and production.”
With a few examples, we can see that, even if we don’t fundamentally change the foundational characteristics of a song, mastering can certainly push it just enough in one direction or another that it will impact how listeners feel. In the context of an EP or album, this effect is magnified.
As such, we must listen carefully to our processing decisions to ensure we don’t unintentionally shift the feel away from what the artist intended. Conversely, if a track needs it, we can also push a project in the desired direction by applying these techniques creatively.
Our example today comes from iZotope Software Engineer Marissa Barbato, a.k.a. Entangled Mind. First, let's listen to an excerpt of my master for “Pollywiggle,” a track off her Frog’s Lemonade EP. While listening, try to pay attention just to how it makes you feel, how it makes you want to move. Turn off your analytical mind if you have to.
Entangled Mind - Pollywiggle
I don’t know about you, but to me the track feels solid, weighty, like the downbeats are propelling me constantly forward. I find myself bobbing my head strongly to the kick and snare.
Now, let’s listen to the same example but with some EQ applied. Don’t worry about trying to figure out what the EQ moves were, just focus on what the song makes you feel now.
Entangled Mind - Pollywiggle
Did you notice a difference? For me, it felt more polite, a little less driving, and more floaty. Rather than bobbing my head strongly on the downbeats, I found myself nodding backward on the offbeats. By shifting where the energy is focused in the frequency spectrum, and therefore what elements our ear is drawn to, we’re able to change not only how it makes us feel but also how we perceive the groove. And since I know you’re wondering, here’s the EQ curve I applied.
Now, what about compression? By manipulating dynamics, we can achieve similar shifts in musical energy. This time though, they’ll be temporal rather than spectral in nature. Ultimately this means we can create similar changes in the perception of groove without the obvious timbral changes as well.
Let’s listen to another version of “Pollywiggle,” this time with some additional compression, again aimed at shifting the focus to the offbeat.
Entangled Mind - Pollywiggle
Notice how we still retained much of the weight of the original, but how the level rushing up between the heavy drum beats shifts our focus again. A lot of this comes down to dialing in your attack and release times, and making good use of the sidechain filter, so let’s talk about those parameters for a minute.
First, I want to recommend that you not think of attack and release times too literally. While it can be tempting to calculate values based on the tempo of your song, they may not correspond to what you think they will. These values are highly relative to everything from the specific compressor to the amount of gain reduction and more. The numbers can be a useful guide, but ultimately your ears should have the final say!
If you’re not sure where to aim when setting attack and release time, I’ve covered a good technique in this article. Broadly speaking though, when I’m employing a technique like this I’m thinking along the following lines:
- Do I want to suppress (short attack), enhance (medium attack), or ignore (longer attack) transients? For the latter case, RMS compression can also be useful but is less likely to alter the groove in as noticeable a way.
- Do I want to target or ignore certain frequency ranges? A detection—or sidechain filter—is our friend here. We can roll out or push specific frequencies to get more or less compression respectively. For example, if we wanted to focus compression on the snare, we might roll out low end and boost around the fundamental of the snare in the detection filter.
- Do I want a dense (shorter release), pumping (medium release), or smoother (longer release) overall sound? The timing needed for any of these effects is going to be highly dependent on just about everything else going on in the compressor, so it’s often helpful to start at one extreme and slowly work your way to the other, listening for the effect you’re after along the way.
So, still think mastering has to be functional and uncreative? Through this discussion, I hope I’ve highlighted just how important it is to keep musicality front-and-center when mastering. Certainly, the discipline has its functional and technical elements as well, and it’s important to be proficient in those too if you want to be a well-rounded mastering engineer.
Ultimately though, our aim must be to facilitate great art. Often that means finding just the right way to accentuate the underlying emotion or energy, and doing so can require a unique type of creativity where emotional intelligence and an understanding of genre, context, and your tools all come into play.
And if just staying out of the way, performing purely functional tasks, and prepping the track for distribution is what’s needed to facilitate a great release, then that’s our job.
Good luck, and happy mastering!