The art of mastering with Justin Drake | Features | MN2S

Mastering is the last essential step in the creation of a track. It’s the final 20% that can make all the difference between sounding limp or accomplished. In a day and age when countless mastering plugins and suites are available, there can be a temptation for dance music producers to attempt to master their own tracks ‘inside the box’. But as anyone who’s anyone in the scene will tell you, the results will never be as good as what an experienced mastering engineer can create.

As half of Peace Division, Justin Drake helped spearhead a deep tribal house vogue from the mid-90s to mid-2000s, paving the way for the future of deep and tech house in the process. He’s released on Tsuba, 8bit and Fear Of Flying under his own name, and has racked up hundreds of mastering credits over the years – adding those all-important finishing touches to tracks by some of the biggest names in the industry.

We asked Justin to give us the lowdown on the mastering process and for some good advice for producers supplying pre-masters – or those wanting to create a rough master themselves.

Getting into mastering

I’ve been an audio engineer for over 20 years so it was a logical progression to move into mastering.

I’ve never had any formal training. Luckily I’m someone that’s obsessed with music and studio equipment which has led me down this path. I briefly worked at RAK Mastering. The other engineer Doug Shearer was very helpful. He’s a great mastering engineer!

The most important thing to do when you get started is to learn your room. Don’t change things around too often, moving monitors adding new equipment and that sort of thing. Keep it simple. I’d say that you’re always learning but less so than as say a mix engineer. You generally only get one chance to get things right so there is less room for experimentation.

Inside mastering engineer Justin Drake's Bakehouse Studio

How to supply a pre-master

Supply your pre-masters as a 44khz, 24-bit WAV or AIFF. It doesn’t matter which.

The usual mistake is to over compress/limit the mix, so it’s classic mastering engineer behaviour to ask for clean masters with plenty of headroom (-3db is fine) and not to have anything on the master bus. I’d rather let the artist send over a mix that they are happy with then I can ask them to change things if there is a problem.

I find that most artists will get the balance between sounds right. Problems generally occur with the overall tone of the mix, too bright, too much bass etc. This stems from problems with the room or artist not knowing their monitors well enough. My advice would be to spend a decent amount of time listening to music that has already been mastered in the studio. Find some reference tracks that they like.

I would also recommend working with a frequency analyser plugin on the master. You can easily spot problems with the mix. Also play commercially released tracks through the meter. Take note of the bottom and top end and apply this to your own mixes.

Inside mastering engineer Justin Drake's Bakehouse Studio

What does the mastering process involve?

The aim with the mastering process is to finish with a track that has good tone, width and loudness.

The process I follow:

– Check for anything that needs fixing. Basically something that’s too loud.
– Get the overall tone right: top, bottom and mids.
– Check the low/high frequencies that are unnecessary or that may cause problem for vinyl transfers.
– Add compression for control or vibes.
– Check the stereo width and adjust.
– Add harmonics if necessary.
– Finally use a limiter. I’m looking for control but also to adjust the hardness of the overall mix.
– Digital mixes can often be quite soft sounding. Using a limiter you are adding more harmonics and ‘good’ distortion.

Know your format. Vinyl does not tolerate very low or very high frequencies well. Digital is more forgiving.

To tell a good master from a bad one, check the waveform in an audio editor. You would like to see the average signal level (RMS) somewhere between 9.5db and 11.5db. The EQ/compression is really a personal choice. You either like it or you don’t.

The Bakehouse Studio

Equipment for mastering

I use analogue EQ and compression – George Massenburg GML EQ. I have a customised Empirical Labs compressor, Lynx Audio and Mytek converters. I use various plugins. There are a handful of ones that I like to use. And my ears!

The most important elements of any mastering set up are decent monitors and a good sounding room. Get some good books on mastering, learn the basic concepts. There’s not one piece of equipment out there that will make you good mastering engineer.

People turn their nose up at it but the Waves L2 is the most transparent limiter in my experience if you are looking to do a rough master to play out and test. I tend to use something else, but the L2 will give you a good amount of gain. I wouldn’t recommend getting too into EQing on a rough master – you are more likely to make things worse. Limit your tracks, play them out or on other systems. If things are not right then go back and adjust the mix.

Want to get your tracks mastered by Justin? Contact at MN2S label services and ask to be put in touch to receive a 10% discount.

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