Watch a track being mastered by a pro from start to finish

MASTERING WEEK: How exactly does a world-class mastering engineer work behind closed doors? Metropolis Mastering’s Stuart Hawkes mastered Goldie’s Timeless, along with countless other DnB bangers, and has sprinkled his magic over huge hit albums from the likes of Avicii, Disclosure, Amy Winehouse, Rudimental and Ed Sheeran. To put his A-list credentials to the test, we set him the challenge of mastering a thumpin’ bass house track (Aristocrats’ Fantasy) in one take, live on camera.

In the video above, you can watch Stuart at work in his purpose-built mastering studio as he dials in expensive EQ settings, adds analogue flavour with subtle compression, and brings our track up to commercial-standard loudness levels with choice limiting. Read on for a summary of his workflow...

0:00:52: Stuart’s first impressions

To kick off our attended session, Stuart gives us an overview of his studio’s signal flow. “I’m going out of SADiE into the D-A (digital to analogue) converters: the Prism DA-2s. Once it’s in the analogue domain, it comes up in the desk, and we can select a number of EQ or compressor units, or there are various processing options to choose from. Once done in the analogue domain, it goes back to digital via the A/D convertor here, into whatever sample rate or bit rate I want, then through any limiting, and then we capture it again back into SADiE. I can also A/B with the reference the client might have given, just so we can hear the idea the client had for the track, to make sure we’re in the same ballpark.” 

After scanning through the track, Stuart has a gameplan. “My first impression is that we need to get it a lot louder. The [artist’s limited] file has headroom and dynamics compared to the reference version, so we need to think about how loud we can get the track, and any first impressions with EQ - it sounds a bit dull to me, it needs livening up. So we’ll try adding some top end, getting the volume up, a bit of compression, and see what works.” 

0:03:35: Adding loudness and brightness

A big part of Stuart’s job is to make tracks loud. In-your-face loud. Limiting the track’s peaks will increase the track’s perceived level, so he quickly sets up the all-important final limiting stage first, to help influence EQ and compression settings earlier in the signal path. After considering both in-the-box and hardware options, he settles on his Waves L2 hardware limiter.

Stuart’s next move is to add brightness to the track with EQ. As his various equalisers differ in character, he carefully dials in identical boosts across his go-to hardware devices. “I’m A/B-ing between the same settings on two different units. I’m looking at adding some 10kHz, a bit of hi-hat, a bit of excitement to the track. +4dB on the Sontec vs +4dB on the Avalon, then also on the Maselec as well. See what works, and also if that’s the right frequency. If I go any lower, it gets ‘coarser’; if I go high in frequency, it’s going to become ‘airier’. You don’t want it to become too ‘airy fairy’; you want a bit of aggression to it as well. So it’s messing around and seeing what works, then A/B-ing to see what we come up with.”

0:08:33: Refining treble with EQ

After careful switching between his two EQs, Stuart reveals his thoughts. “To me, the Sontec just sounds a lot more natural. As soon as I switch to the Avalon, it just sounds coarser; not as comfortable and balanced. So I’m ruling the Avalon out, and now I’ll try a similar thing on the Maselec.”

Stuart sets this up, then evaluates. “Again, the Maselec sounds a lot coarser; not as refined - but then you might prefer it a bit grittier. That’s a decision you have to make. Or you might want a bit of both!”

Ultimately, Stuart combines his settings across two EQs. “I’m going to go for +3dB on the Maselec and +1dB on the Sontec.”

0:11:15: Applying analogue warmth and mojo

Stuart decides it’s time to give the track a tickle of analogue flavour. “Now I’m looking to put a bit of compression across the whole thing, but I’m not actually looking at compressing it - I don’t think the track needs squashing much, but it’ll just sound more ‘together’ by going through a compressor. In particular, the Shadow Hills might work nicely on this, because it’ll glue the track together.” 

Once again, Stuart A/Bs the same settings with three different units - the Shadow Hills, Maselec and Elysia - but settles upon his first choice. 

0:14:45: Adjusting limiter settings for optimum loudness

Stuart’s final move is to increase loudness levels. “At the moment, the L2 is hitting about -6dB of limiting. But until you try different settings or a different limiter, you’re not sure if it could sound even better - so you have to rule out a few other options.”

Stuart records the L2-limited track into SADiE as audio, so he can then try a different limiter and A/B between them.

After perfecting similar settings with his TC Electronics M6000 limiter, Stuart prefers the ‘soggy’ sound of the L2 over the M6000’s ‘pokiness’.

0:19:20: Final steps

Once Stuart’s happy, he records the mastered track back into SADiE, leaving time for the all-important final admin. “Now I’d get the artist and track name correct. I’ll ‘top-and-tail’ it, remove any hiss at the start, make sure it’s tight, so as soon as you hit play it starts, get the fadeout/endings right, and smooth out any chopped ends. Then I’ll bounce it out as a 16-bit/44.1kHz file, and send it to the client for approval.”

As the track prints, Stuart waxes lyrical about album sequencing, mastering for iTunes, vinyl cutting and more - watch the video for his nuggets of wisdom!

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