It should go without saying that some mastering jobs are easier than others.
For me, there are a few key things that can make a job more exacting: multi-artist releases, tracks with a wide dynamic range within them, and releases that have a wide dynamic range across all the tracks.
Step forward the always-excellent Broken20 label, who packed all three of these potential banana skins into a pretty tiny package! Luckily, the release in question, by TVO, is a joy and it was a pleasure to master too. (Plus bonus points for liberally featuring David Lynch’s superb ‘Lost Highway’ throughout.)
But let’s talk about what made it a challenge first. There’s a main track, (the Original Mix) which is fifteen minutes of beatless drone and noise that runs the gamut from barely-there to full-on, so that ticks the first box. Then there’s a clattering EBM remix by Logtoad, heavy and maxxed-out — so now it’s multi-artist too. And there’s another live version by TVO which really represents his polar opposite side, all lean percussion and driving meter — so across the piece, we had a lot of dynamic range to somehow marry up.
(As an aside, one of the things I had to learn the hard way in mastering is that a track can sound great in isolation, and also stand shoulder to shoulder with its reference tracks, while being somehow out of kilter with the other tracks in the same release. Nowadays I always A/B test a track with its immediate peers as well, and I find that it’s particularly important when the tracks diverge a lot from each other stylistically. Importantly, it’s not always about just levelling off their loudness either. Everything in mastering has to be about musicality and dialogue, and it can often make artistic sense to have one or more tracks that comprise a ‘breather’ from the others if that’s what the artist wants from your collaboration.)
One thing I like to do when approaching a new job is to find the locus, the one track or moment where everything in the release is at its apex. It helps to define the collection of tracks for me, and gives a useful reference point to work around. With ‘I Like To Remember Things My Own Way’, that was certainly the Logtoad remix — it’s so chunky and toothsome that it was clearly going to be the loudest and most energetic of the three, so I tackled that first despite it being track two.
Setting that bar allowed me to understand how the other two could relate to it. The Live version was next, and part of the joy of mastering this EP was in teasing out the bass in the track so it could hold its own against Logtoad. It definitely needed a different approach though, with faster attacks in compression to let the staccato percussion through and quite a bit of spatial enhancement to widen the stereo picture. A different beast altogether.
That left the trickest job to last, the epic drone track. For this, dialogue with the artist was essential, to understand how he wanted to play the trade-off between keeping it punchy throughout or giving a better sense of the wide dynamic range. There are no real right answers in this — it’s a spectrum, not a binary choice — but TVO definitely veered towards the latter and I think it was the right option. Using this approach, the EP could announce itself with some subtlety, allowing the natural crescendo in the opening salvo to build and then letting tracks two and three follow from the high water mark of the track’s coda.
It’s a great EP and I’m really pleased with the mastering on it, which I think hangs the disparate tracks together while allowing their individuality to shine.
You can buy the EP direct from Broken20 here.