What is “Light Touch” Mastering?

This page explains the concept of “light touch” mastering and why I am choosing to offer it. CLICK HERE to see the rates, various options, and to submit a project for “light touch” mastering.

Each year, it seems I receive more and more material to master that has already been pushed to what we would consider a “mastered level”. Mix engineers often do this in the mixing process despite my best efforts to be proactive and prevent it. When a mix is submitted for mastering that has already been peak limited and/or clipped, this leaves me with very little headroom to work with from a mastering standpoint. While this is simple to explain and attempt in theory, it doesn’t always happen in practice, even with some of the top mix engineers I’ve worked with over the years.

I know how it goes though. The mix engineer decides to apply some degree of stereo bus processing and peak limiting on their working mixes so the mixes will not be perceived as “weak” or “dull” when compared to something that is already mastered.

Then, everybody gets used to hearing the mixes with this processing applied, and some mix decisions are possibly made with this processing applied and for better or worse, the mix just “falls apart” and isn’t the same without it. I’m not saying this happens all the time, but it certainly is not uncommon. It’s not always bad sounding either, but it does tread deeply into mastering territory whether intentional or not and complicate things.

I recognize that some mix engineers have the skills and monitoring environments to do a large majority of what is traditionally taken care of in the mastering stage and that for some projects, a traditional full-scale mastering project may not be required. However, some form of quality control and technical aspects still need to be addressed before it can be called a master. Mastering is far more than just the stereo bus processing and there are a myriad of boring technical aspects to consider after the stereo bus processing.

I feel strongly that it’s best to mix without any peak limiting and loudness processing on the master fader/stereo bus because the better the mix is without this “audio crutch”, the better the mastered result will be. However, I know that in the real world people are slapping all kinds of things including peak limiters on the master fader in their DAW, and they don’t always have an understanding of what they are doing when it comes to overall loudness and levels of their mixes.

When doing full-scale mastering jobs, I am very adamant and persistent about receiving mixes that have not already been peak limited or clipped so I have a clean and natural starting point. This is especially true when the client asks me to apply some analog treatment to their material as they often do, and/or if they are planning a vinyl release of the project.

In the old days, there was a very clear divide between mixing and mastering studios and engineers. Mixing studios simply didn’t have the equipment and tools needed for mastering due to the high costs and logistics. Also, prior to the 1970s, mastering engineers were more technically minded and were not expected to make any creative decisions. Mastering was originally a means of transferring audio from one source (usually analog tape) to lacquer for vinyl production.

These days, it’s extremely easy for recording and mixing engineers to acquire and use the same tools that many professional mastering engineers use today. This can easily blur the lines between the two processes.

There are also new “automated mastering” services popping up each week and while they may do a good or even great job of applying stereo bus processing and making things louder, they do not really provide you with a quality controlled final master that is ready for all potential release formats. Some detailed work still needs to be done.

One reason I got into mastering full-time is that more and more often, I was mastering (or so I thought) some of my own recording and mixing projects that didn’t have either the time and/or budget to hire a professional mastering engineer. As my focused shifted to mastering, I learned so much more about the details of mastering that go far beyond putting a limiter on the song and making it loud. It’s also a never ending learning process as release formats are invented, evolve and even resurface.

More and more people began hiring me for mastering (instead of mixing and recording) so I took the time to learn the less exciting but equally important technical aspects of mastering such as PQ coding, sequencing an album, noise reduction, and detailed spectral repair to remove clicks, pops, and other unwanted blemishes in the audio that are not always easily audible in a mixing or recording environment.

This was nearly 10 years ago when the target master format was still the audio CD for the most part. The “vinyl boom” was just getting started, and digital distribution was still somewhat of an afterthought, so the target master format was much simpler back then.

These days, nearly every day I will prepare a final master for a myriad of release formats such as audio CD, vinyl, basic digital distribution, Mastered For iTunes and high resolution digital audio, cassette, video, as well as other odds and ends. Each of these formats involves some unique settings and technical details that even the best mixing engineers are often not aware of or confident handling themselves.

This is where the “light touch” mastering service comes into play. It is designed to give your project a “once-over” and address any EQ or loudness issues, and then properly assemble and finalize the project for all the required release format specifications which when broken down, can be rather complex.
I also offer an option to scan for and repair any noise related issues using spectral repair tools. Even some of the best mixes by the best mix engineers I’ve done work for have contained blemishes and things that were best removed from the material as to not distract from the musical elements.

Many of these things require the focus and attention to detail that tends to come natural to a seasoned mastering engineer when listening in a very accurate and transparent environment, but can easily be overlooked by others in less than ideal listening situations.

So to summarize, this “light touch” mastering approach is designed to help qualified and skilled mix engineers and producers take their largely mastered material to the finish line and make sure all technical aspects are properly handled, so they can have peace of mind that the quality of the project is not compromised.

Mystery Room Mastering and/or Justin Perkins are not to be credited for the mastering of your “light touch” mastering project as in most cases, much, if not all the sound is already baked in before submitting the audio files. This service is intended as more of a quality control process with minor adjustments made as needed, and not a full-scale mastering job.