Audio Mastering – Interview with Adam Matza

Adam Matza is the founder and owner of Magic Ears Mastering as well as being a talented musician and writer with a rich history in the art of sound. I recently took the opportunity to talk to him about his company and the subject of audio mastering in general. If mastering is something you’re interested in, then read on. And please post any questions for Adam in the comments section below.

Adam_Matza

Hi Adam, thanks for taking the time to chat. First of all could you let us know a bit about yourself and your company, Magic Ears Mastering?

Hi Stu. I’ve been mixing and mastering since 2003, but my involvement with music has been a lifelong love affair. My early training was as a trumpet and baritone player in middle school, and I’ve created, led and fronted bands since the early 1990s.

Known as a poet, a music journalist, a commercial audio engineer, a spoken word artist and most recently an experimental, improvisational ambient soundscape and noise musician, I’ve never stopped recording, mixing and mastering since the first time I sat in front of a DAW (it was Cubase) with absolutely no clue what I was doing.

I know my way around DAWs now, as I have become extremely effective with Pro Tools and other DAWs, including Auria on the iPad.

Since 1997, I’ve released six critically-lauded albums as both a solo artist and with my ever-changing band, The Weeds.

I’m a voracious consumer of music; my music collection consists of nearly 65,000 songs (and counting). If I pushed play on the first song in my iTunes collection right now, it wouldn’t reach the final song for more than six months!

What does this mean? It means I’m a musically literate, unlicensed musicologist; a walking musical encyclopedia and unabashed music geek. That autodidact musicality is the foundation for my mixing and mastering choices and is why I’m comfortable working with any genre and any style.

I see mixing and mastering as a collaborative, highly personal relationship; for my clients, I am a resource they can tap if they get stuck or just want to bounce ideas.

Magic Ears happened by accident, as I was mixing and mastering songs for some friends, as well as audio for commercials at a post-production house in Fort Lauderdale. One friend suggested that I consider doing it as a business because he loved what I did for his music. I’d never thought about it that way. I had always done it purely for the joy of doing it and had not realized that it might be something that could help others, and that they would want to pay me for it.

For readers who may not already know, what is the purpose of audio mastering?

Mastering is the essential final step in getting your music ready for consumption. You’ve recorded and mixed, and now you are ready to maximize your hard work. Mastering takes an audio mix and blasts it into the stratosphere! You have no idea how good your mix can sound until you master it. Even loud mixes pale in comparison to exceptionally mastered songs, although some might disagree.

Ultimately, it’s all about the music.

Mastering also gets your music ready for distribution, whether it’s for online streaming/digital distribution via Soundcloud, Bandcamp, iTunes, Reverb Nation or others online or whether it’s for a physical CD. Mastering makes sure tracks work together when played sequentially. Sound is consistent and levels are matched.

Mastering introduces character and cohesion, and tracks play back evenly so the listener doesn’t have to adjust the volume from song to song.

Mastering can fix mix balance issues and enhance specific sonic characteristics, taking a good mix and making it a great master. This involves adjusting levels and “sweetening” the mix by tweaking the EQ, applying compression and limiting, as well as other sonic techniques.

Mastering ensures consistency across all playback systems, from a smart phone to huge club speakers.

In a perfect situation, the mix is excellent and I just have to make some sonic tweaks and get the volume up to the level of commercial, major label releases. Often, the mixes I receive need more help than that. That is where my magic ears really come in, as well as my sonic know-how.

I can take a mediocre mix and make it sound far better. Sometimes a mix can’t be helped. In those cases, I do what I can and make mix suggestions. Almost every time, the artist comes back with something mixed far better and winds up happier with the results. In those instances, I become something of a production consultant. I figure the better someone becomes at mixing, the more tracks they will send me to master.

Ultimately, it’s all about the music.

There are three pieces to the delicious pie of producing musical recordings: recording, mixing and mastering. If you don’t master, your recording is just two-thirds baked!

When you receive a new mix for mastering, what is the first thing you do?

I check to see if it is WAV or AIFF file. It’s amazing how often people send me MP3s for mastering! Then I check the levels of the mix. I need at least 6db of headroom to properly master a track. I often get tracks mixed all the way up to 0db. There are things I can do to work with those kinds of tracks, but that is a sub-optimal mastering situation.

Once I have the right file at the right levels, I listen to the song a few times and then begin the microscopic process of mastering based on what the track needs.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate and ask… what’s wrong with mastering from an MP3?

MP3s are highly compressed audio files that have far less information and fidelity than WAV or AIFF files. There are varying levels of quality in the MP3 format, but even the highest quality MP3 pales in comparison to a WAV or AIFF. Eventually, most music will get distilled down to the MP3 format, be it in streaming or actual files downloaded after purchase (pretty certain people still buy music).

Think of an MP3 as a photocopy of an original. Unless it was the aesthetic you wanted to effect, you wouldn’t want to create a visual print from a photocopy if you have the original, would you? It’s the same with audio. You want your master to start with the most information, the most fidelity and the highest possible quality before squeezing it into an MP3 or it gets printed onto a CD (or vinyl record).

So, always provide a mastering engineer with a WAV or AIFF file. Can a master be made from an MP3? Sure. But unless you wanted that kind of incomplete sound as an aesthetic effect, why would you want to?

In general, which processes do you apply when mastering and in which order?

I master in the box. The most important tools in mastering are EQ and limiting. A really good mix doesn’t need much more than that. However, there are other tools I regularly use, including multiband compression, stereo imaging and tools that can bring a more analog sound to the final product. Each song is different and has unique needs. I let the song and the mix determine what kinds of processes I use.

Which DAW do you use and what do you like/dislike about it?

I use Pro Tools. I love everything about Pro Tools except the new subscription system they’ve initiated (it seems more than a bit convoluted). I started with Cubase in 2003 and also worked with an early version of Abelton. On the iPad, I am a fan of MultiTrack DAW for live recording and Auria for post-production. Almost 100 percent of the time I work in Pro Tools for mixing and mastering.

Why? It’s easy and intuitive. I love the results.

Which software plug-ins do you generally use?

I use quite a few, but I am always looking to limit my choices. I’ve often said I am a reducer, not a producer. It’s hard to say I generally use anything, because the song and the mix will dictate what is needed. But I really love the plug-ins from Slate Digital, Izotope, McDSP and Waves. I also really like the stock plug-ins in Pro Tools, and use them quite often. Most recently, I’m really digging the vintage tools in the new Ozone 7. The main thing for me is that I am always looking for a way to make things sound as analog as possible, both in mixing and mastering.

Which software plug-in could you not do without?

That’s a difficult question. Everything you really need comes as a stock plug-in within your DAW. Generally speaking, I could not live without a solid EQ, compressor and limiter. The rest are just choices based on what the song needs, whether I am mixing or mastering.

There’s nothing inherently wrong or right, better or worse, with doing it digitally or via analog hardware. The tools are only as good as the person using them.

What hardware do you use?

I am working in the box for mixing and mastering. When I track, I have a couple of really awesome Apogee MiCs that run into two iPhones through MultiTrack DAW. With the right mic placement, I love the results I get from them. I call them microscopes instead of mics. Otherwise, I am working exclusively in the digital realm.

So you believe it’s possible to achieve good quality mastering without using hardware?

Of course it’s possible. I do it every day, and so do a lot of great mixing/mastering engineers. Whether you are doing it in the box or with hardware, the only failings come from the choices made while tracking or later while mixing and mastering. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right, better or worse, with doing it digitally or via analog hardware. The tools are only as good as the person using them.

What common mistakes do you see people make when mastering?

Making their master too f*cking loud! Jeez, man. Everybody wants LOUD! In any genre prior to the loudness wars in the 2000s, go back and listen to those recordings. They sound so well balanced and dynamic. The whole remastering craze was just a way for the major labels to make money. Other than the Beatles and Bob Dylan remasters, I find that the original versions are far superior. They just aren’t as loud. If you want them loud, you can turn them up and they sound pristine. Today, recordings are loud even at low volumes.

I think this is because people are listening to low quality MP3s or streams on terrible computer speakers or crappy earbuds. Music seems to be the only entertainment medium where the delivery system has gotten worse over time. The whole loudness thing makes people think what they are hearing sounds better than it really does. Louder is not better. It’s a shame that most people hear music this way. There is an entire generation that has ONLY heard music this way. It’s sad.

That said, every day, on almost every mastering project, I am asked to make it louder. If that’s what someone wants, my job ultimately is to make them happy. But I do let them know what I think and that they should consider the lower volume, more balanced version.

Another big mistake I see is submitting mixes to an automated mastering service like LandR. It takes me at least an hour to properly master a track. There’s no way a general algorithm can do right by a song in less than five minutes. I’m amazed that so many people spend so much time and money writing, recording and mixing and then go cheap on the mastering.

They should either learn to do it themselves or go to a professional mastering engineer and get it done right.

I understand you’re offering a ‘first track mastered for free’ deal at the moment. Could you tell me more about that?

I’m always surprised that musicians will spend a lot of money on instruments, gear, software, hardware, recording equipment and mixing, but aren’t willing to finish the project by mastering it.

It’s like running a marathon and stopping at 26 miles and leaving the last 385 yards unfinished. Actually, it’s more like leaving the last 8.7 miles unfinished, because mastering is one-third of the recording/mixing/mastering triumvirate.

That said, I want to give music makers a no-risk opportunity to hear what Magic Ears can do for their music. I limit it to finished mixes of five minutes or less. In some cases, it’s the first mastering experience for a fledgling recording artist. In other cases, more advanced musicians want to compare what we do to their existing mastering engineer (whether it’s themselves, a professional or a crappy automated service like LandR).

It also gives me a chance to get to know an artist before diving into a full-length release or an EP. Mixing and mastering should be collaborative experiences. When I take on an artist, all that matters to me is making sure their recording sounds as good as it can possibly sound.

Click here to check out this special introductory offer.

Thanks Adam, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions and look forward to chatting to you again!

And there you have it

I hope you found this interview interesting and valuable. It’s always great to get the perspective of a professional. Please do write any questions you may have in the comments and, if Adam is available and able, he’ll try to answer.

You can find the Magic Ears Mastering website at www.magicearsmastering.com

And you can find some of Adam’s music at these locations:

Finished releases on Bandcamp

Tracks in-progress and unreleased stuff on Soundcloud

And you can go way back to his spoken word/music daze here.

Enjoy!

What do you think...?