By Noah Mintz
Last issue, I explained the different methods I tried out when mastering Your Boy Tony Braxton’s Adult Contempt, with the mandate of making it sound like it was released in 1990.
I sent the various test mixes to Shad (aka Your Boy), mixer Howie Beck, producer Matt Johnston, and Gurav, Shad’s manager. In the end, and to my surprise, they chose the digital master as their favourite. They were looking for something different and this was it – but not different enough. They asked for one more version with something that’s not normally done in mastering: reverb. So I added a Lexicon hall reverb with a short decay, sent this off, and the test-master was approved.
Approved “in theory,” that is, because I was told by the time the mixes were ready for mastering, the actual mixes would sound quite a bit different than the test mix. At least we had a methodology.
After I got the final mixes and did my first round of mastering, the list of revisions and delivery of new mixes was exhaustive, so I was glad it was all done in the box. It saved me from having to rerun it through the analog system every time.
Here are some of the highlights and more interesting signal paths:
For the whole album, I kept the UAD Ampex ATR 102 at 7.5 ips with 456 tape and used a UAD Pultec with 100 Hz and 20 kHz attenuation. I also used the UAD Lexicon large hall reverb and a FabFilter Limiter.
The FabFilter is my go to limiter. I sometimes use others, but to me, it’s the most flexible and can sound the most transparent. It also doesn’t have many settings, which is something I look for in a limiter. I want it to be as simple as possible so I don’t really have to think about it. I set the limiter to 3dB gain. This way I can have a lower level going to my plug-ins, and for vinyl mastering I can take it off and have a lower level (very important for vinyl mastering) and increased dynamic range.
I used a FabFilter C2 Comp with a bus-style compressor and a pretty high ratio (5:1) for mastering. Also some side chain filtering.
I used an Ozone dynamic EQ to dial out a bitey vocal at the times it was too much and to boost the kick a little. A dynamic EQ works similar to a multi-band but only applies to an EQ curve when it reaches a certain dynamic threshold.
I used a mid-side EQ, the FabFilter Q2. I cut the lows in the mid but put back in some of the kick frequency. I took out some 2 kHz in both mid and side.
I also felt this song needed some dynamic lift. I could have used an upwards compressor but it didn’t create the effect I wanted, so I used a transient designer, the UAD Sonnox Oxford Evolution, to bring back some lost transients. To be honest, I don’t actually know how transient designers work; I just know how they sound and for mastering, it’s usually not a desirable sound. It fits into that category of “effect that sounds pretty good until you take it out and realize how much damage it’s actually doing.” But in those rare cases, it does what nothing else can do and it’s exactly what a mix needs. The UAD Sonnox Oxford Evolution is the first transient designer that I think is flexible enough to be used for mastering.
This song needed a little widening. The Nugen Stereoizer is the only plug-in I like for widening. It has a natural sound and never pushes anything out of phase, which is a common problem with stereo widening.
There was a bit of demo-itis on this album, where they really liked the rough mixes from early on in the recording, so we ended up using a bunch of those. For those, I did almost no EQ or compression; I just shaped the EQ to compensate for how they sounded different with a louder level from the limiter. I felt these mixes were perhaps sonically inferior to Howie’s final mixes but the artist and producer were happy with them, and in the end, that’s all that matters.
When listening to this album, you get a sense it’s not a typical recording and that’s exactly what they wanted. The mastering reflected that.
I worry because this album is so atypical for Shad and doesn’t follow any current trends in audio recordings that it will get looked over, which would be a shame. It’s an amazing album by a very adventurous artist who assembled a fantastic team to make it a reality. I’m honoured and privileged to be a part of it. I hope you give it a good listen.
Noah Mintz is a Senior Mastering Engineer at Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto. With nearly 20 years of experience specifically and exclusively in professional audio mastering (and many more previously in audio production), Noah’s philosophy has always been “less is more.” With a strong emphasis on “vibe,” Noah’s sonic signature has been left on some of Canada’s most successful indie and major-label acts. www.lacquerchannel.com.