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The Dark art of mastering

Written By Rachael Kamara

Tucked away in the heart of Hastings, the 360 Mastering studios go mostly unnoticed by passers by. Inside is a cooler than cool interior, decorated with numerous wall mounted gold and platinum discs, and a state of the art Mastering suite. But it’s what happens inside that is really impressive.

Dick Beetham and Dave Turner are two of the UK’s best engineers, and are sought out by the biggest names in music. Dick has been responsible for mastering over 50 number one UK singles, and over 20 UK number one albums, as well as a multitude of multi-platinum albums worldwide. 

Dave has also had a successful career spanning twenty years, winning awards and working on many hit albums with huge diversity, covering anything from David Gray’s ‘White Ladder’ to the biggest Euphoria club mixes. See I told you it was impressive. 

From researching, and then speaking with Dick, I discovered there is no one definition of the mastering process by the industry. Finding it difficult to put concisely Dick explained it as, “The last stage in making a record, making the final adjustments before it is used commercially, it’s about the purity of the sound. It’s technical yet simple”… Right. 

The process of mastering is defined in a variety of ways by different studios, but perhaps the simplest way to describe it is - mastering makes music sound good wherever it is played. 

For those of you who would like a more technical answer Dick read a passage from Wikipedia, which made my face twitch: “Applying corrective Equalisation and Dynamic enhancement in order to optimise sound translations on all playback systems. A process which involves, a mixture of very high-tech, accurate equipment and the ability to listen objectively to the sound, not the music” Dick added: “Listening to lots of different music makes you better at it. The diversity of music we work with means you get better at what you do. I’m not really listening to the song I’m working on, so I don’t get bored of hearing it.” 

At this point I realised Dick was very good at making it sound very easy, and rather underrated. It can’t be as easy as sticking it on, listening to it and pushing a few buttons, so what happens to music when it is mastered? 

Cue the research - Mastering can involve adding volume, but not in the traditional sense. We’re talking ‘relative loudness’, it corrects frequencies, removes unwanted clicks and hisses, and levels out the bass. Something about the compression of equalisers, adding of markers, cleaning up fades, insertion of master track log, and the establishing of sonic fields for all tracks. Still with me? Finally details such as the spacing between tracks and track order, as well as track length, are all done in the mastering process, all in all it makes the music marketable.

Having come from a background as a recording engineer, Dick has now been mastering music for over 30 years, I asked how he got into mastering: “It was the advent of music technology that changed everything. It changed how records were made, which has been great for music, but the job lost its appeal to me so I decided to move into mastering.” His discography covers many genres, from Folk to Metal. 360’s clients range from musicians who want to self-release their first EP, to Indie and major labels. 

The studio is one of many in the UK, so I asked why people should chose 360 over anyone else. His reply was: “We are better than everybody else.” Well I wasn’t going to argue with that, but he laughed and brushed it off continuing, “You build up a relationship with people. There are some people who will always come to you, they pick a team and stick with it, others like to change it up, and will work with different people depending on the project. There is no guarantee that because you did somebody’s first album, you’ll do their next one, it doesn’t work like that.” 

Mastering is important for lots of reasons, one being that when music reaches a mastering studio it is listened to in the most accurate environment possible, it’s like quality control, where technical problems in the recording can be heard. Sometimes these issues haven’t been noticed before, because the listening environment isn’t the same in a recording studio. 

“Getting the mixing right before mastering is vital, if it’s not mixed well it’s hard to make it sound and as good as it can. Sometimes an album can be made by lots of different people. It’s by the same artist, but different songs are produced by different producers, and recorded in different studios. Mastering then becomes even more important, because you are taking those little things that can be quite different, and making it feel and sound like a record. 

Genre wise it’s really important to understand the differences. Although we would use the same equipment, we use it in a different way, depending on what we are trying to achieve. How the music feels is as important as how it sounds. No record company will put a record out before it’s mastered.”

So is there a difference in technique when mastering for CD’s, MP3’s, Vinyl or other formats? Not really, when the music has left the studio Dick has no input as to what format it ends up in. “My approach is just to make it sound the best it can, so that it works for all of them, I have no control over how it is converted.”

I’m told that when it comes to DJs, the ability to analyse, and understand the music is essential in helping select songs that can be mixed well together for a club environment, and for the continuity that is needed on a dance album. Dick told me that when it comes to mastering compilation albums and remixes Dave is the man to talk to. Dave regularly Masters the compilation albums for clients such as Fabric, and Ministry of Sound. 

Taking a break from the studio Dave explained: “Compilation albums are all remastered. Often DJ’s use tracks that have been through the mastering process but they are released in a different context, so are meant to sound a certain way. Sometimes the DJs put them through a sort of mastering treatment when they prepare them for live sets, but when the tracks are remixed for album release they need remastering to make sure the album sounds as smooth as possible.” 

Having initially thought that TV and Radio edits would be made at the recording stage, Dick told me that “often if it’s going out on TV or Radio, we would make the necessary changes. It could be taking out the intros and outro’s to shorten the track, remove profanities, or it could be something like taking eight bars out, but there are lots of alternatives.” 

Dick has worked in the industry for over 30 years, and has seen a lot of changes. With rumours rife that mastering is a dying art form, thanks to the digital revolution, I wanted to know if this had had any impact on 360, “I’m busier than ever. The internet has made everything easier, and everything can be done faster. We use file sharing software such FTP, so the artist can hear the finished product in their own environment as soon as it’s finished. People used to come to the mastering sessions, but now it’s pretty much all done online. 

“30 years ago if you wanted to make a record you had to book a recording studio, the internet now makes it possible for people to make music anywhere. Many people are now making records outside of traditional recording environments, sometimes with great results, but there are often short comings, and mastering has become even more important to enable people to get it right.” 

But what about the changes in music itself, has that had an effect on mastering? “I like it. It’s evolving, and it’s not like the old stuff is going, it’s just growing, it’s the nature of the job, it changes all the time, I think it’s fascinating. 

“You’re regularly meeting new creative people, and hearing new ideas. I love the fact that I get to work with so many different people. One day I could be working for an artist that has sold thousands of records, the next it could be for somebody that has never released anything before, which is exciting, because you never know what success they are going to have.”

Turning my attention to the vast collection of gold and platinum discs on the wall, I was curious as to whether Dick felt that a well mastered album was the difference between a hit record, or not, or whether it’s all about the artist? “Of course it’s mainly the artistic that makes a hit record, but the creative technical aspects play a vital part in how the music is presented as well. 

Good recording and mixing, finished off with some expert mastering are crucial to the record making process and my clients come to get their music sounding as good as it possibly can, no matter where it is played.” 

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