Democratization of Audio: Blessing or Curse?
Updated: Apr 17, 2018
I am actually not going to post about the benefits of audio democratization, you can find that in almost every corner of the internet. People will sing its praises and embrace the instant gratification. I rather share a recent experience with a potential client and shed light on the frustrations of being a professional in a democratized world when it comes to craft.
The potential client needed #mastering work. Well, they needed “mastering work” I should say. They send me a snippet of the song to work on. The mix is really, not good at all. It’s super dull mixed with harsh tones and peaky sounds; the low end is out of control on the kick and bare on the bass; panning was not utilized essentially at all, making it not-quite-mono but absolutely not stereo and totally crowded. The worse part about it was these whistling, harsh upper mid range frequencies that just suck the life out of you.
So I get to work on it. My first rule is, if somebody comes to me for mastering, then they are set on the mix. Especially when they are adamant “this is the service we NEED.” So I work a bit on the stereo spread, I get the low end more balanced, and finally start very carefully taming the harsh upper mids. All in all, it came out pretty great considering. I mean, it was their mix but transparently better. I submit it after an hour or so after I do my thing. However! I also supplied a level matched version for a much, much easier way of comparing it to the mix.
Here’s the response I get:
“It’s rally too boxy and lacks punch so i think we need to keep looking.”
I was a bit taken back. I wrote back and said:
“Please keep in mind that I took the first-rule-of-mastering approach: to respect the mix as much as possible. The mix is really not that good. It itself is boxy, contains a lot of harsh, feral frequencies, isn’t well panned, has low end issues, and overall lacks punch. If you wanted a bit more drastic however, please mentioned that. I can give it a second try with some more detail from you if you like?”
But they weren’t having it. Couple of weeks goes by and I talk to them again. I asked how it turned out and if I could listen to it. They send it. I hit play and I can’t believe my fucking ears. It’s totally and utterly a different mix! Technical issues still abound. I asked what the hell happened? They said:
“Well we had another mastering guy try it and it was still boxy and wasnt punching us so I remixed it and mastered myself.”
At this point, I’m getting annoyed because it’s one thing if somebody brushes off your advice but another when they brush it off but turn-around and follow your advice and move on from it as if that was never the problem. So they didn’t need mastering, they needed a drastic change, not even “drastic mastering” but one in which can only be achieved at the mixing level. I wrote back and said this:
“I can only say it’s very, very different from the original mix. I’m not too sure you needed a mastering engineer but more so a totally different approach to the mix. Usually in a professional mastering situation your “master” based on the original mix would have been severely questioned because it’s so far away and different from the original mix. And so if “very different” is needed, communicate more clearly what you need for future interactions…with whomever! It’s important to know where the bottleneck is in a production and not merely blame professionals for doing the right thing. Any monkey can go crazy on a mix and “master” it so it sounds completely unlike the original. And still miss technical issues. That’s not mastering. And if that drastic change is needed, then you don’t need mastering. Respecting the nuance of a mix and making it better with a final touch is part of the mastering process.”
They wrote back saying:
“You are so right about this. The mix is different and we should have put more attention to it before sending it to mastering. We are not pros at this but we have alot of good audio software so we said why not. But we’re learning and will try to do better next time! sorry for the trouble.”
Audio democratization is not even a problem just because something can potentially turn out bad. The problem lies in not being able to identify what is needed and when, what is good versus what is different, and understanding the standard courses of action and what’s excepted at that given level of action. Real issues are confused for aesthetic choice and not only does this shift blame unnecessarily but also when a heavy-handed approach is utilized, there may be glaring technical issues that get by. This is a frustrating, recurring element in this craft and it replaces refinery and nuance with feral, broad strokes; a brute force approach to an artistic endeavor.