Many audiophiles believe that mastering plays an absolutely decisive role in the sound of recorded music. I don’t know how this belief came about, it bypasses all other elements of record production. It’s like saying that a chef can save a poorly prepared meal by making the food look good on the plate.
This is only my opinion, so I called a mastering engineer friend of mine, Dave mcnair, and ask him the question: “What are the main factors that determine the sound of recorded music?” Without hesitation he chuckled and said, “Mastery matters.” less anything in the whole process. “
So I followed up with what matters most? McNair, “Mixing is the most important thing, it can turn a reasonably good production.” Even though the band’s performances weren’t exceptional and the recording sounded just passable, a very talented mixing engineer can make the music sound great. McNair added that it’s like that now, in the days of analog, the skills of the sound engineer could make or break the sound of the final product. McNair again, “Recording in analog is a real pain, you have to work really hard just to overcome the limits of the medium.”
Until the mid-80s, the quality of the basic tracks was crucial as the mixing tools were quite limited – there was EQ, compression and reverb – that was it. Back then, sound engineers usually mixed songs. By the time automated consoles were introduced in the late 1980s, mixing engineers began to specialize.
Today’s mixers can turn skilled players into virtuosos; the engineer could, for example, create entirely new drum sounds that did not exist during the recording sessions. Sound engineers no longer have to worry about having the right microphone for vocals, because when vocals are mixed they are going to be so massively manipulated, automatically tuned, and spewed out of a computer that the quality of original sessions don’t really matter.
McNair took a breath and said, “The best sound recordings are those that have simple arrangements, well played by the band in a great sounding studio.” In these cases, the role of the mixer is smaller, it just balances the tracks, adds some nice reverb and you’re good to go. If the sound was good to begin with and didn’t require production tricks to help it, the mix engineer will have less repair work to do. Taylor Swift and most artists in pop music rely heavily on the production for to create their sound, the mix engineers make the magic happen.
When I asked McNair what the “ingredients” of a good sounding album are, he said, “Starting with the most important are the songs, the musicians, the production, the mixer, the sound engineer, and ultimately, Master it. ” McNair’s resume includes credits as a producer, mixer, recording engineer and mastering.
My take is that great sounding recordings have always been scarce, but in 2015 the quality of the average rock album dropped dramatically, they sound more compressed and crispy than ever. I agree with McNair, and don’t blame the mastering engineers, it’s the total output that’s responsible for how good or bad the music sounds.
Dave McNair has worked with David Bowie, Beck, The Derek Trucks Band, Maroon 5, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Los Lobos, and many more.