Oasis Mastering’s chief engineer Gene Grimaldi has a list of blockbuster clients that include Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Ellie Goulding, Carly Rae Jepsen, Lana Del Ray, Nicki Minaj, and many more. In this excerpt from The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook 4th Edition, Gene describes some of his techniques for mastering “in-the-box.”
Bobby Owsinski: “How has mastering changed for you in the last few years?
Gene Grimaldi: The process is basically the same. You get your files or tapes in, and you still have to balance out the mix and make it sound good. As far as the way the industry has changed, at times it seems a lot more amateur than it used to be because so much of the mixing is done in home studios. It’s harder to get it to sound good, and you’re dealing with the client more to help them get their mix in a better place before I can work on it. They appreciate the help, too.
Are you getting more unattended sessions?
I have more unattended than attended, but a lot of that has to do with the number of foreign projects that come in from Asia and Europe.
You don’t use a limiter so much anymore, do you?
I have always tried not to use a limiter if I’m not hearing any distortion. When I run into situations when I need to use a limiter, I’ll just use it on the portions of the song that need it. Perhaps one day we’ll get back to normal levels.
What I do is go in and slice up a song and just smooth out only the rough edges. If it’s an open track that has to be loud, I’ll just cut all the tiny pieces that need limiting and limit only those. Those sections go by so fast that your ear can’t hear the slight audio differences between the fixed limited sections as they fly by. It gets rid of any overload crackles and keeps the kick hitting hard. It’s time-consuming, but I don’t mind doing it if it comes out better. It actually goes a lot faster than you think once you have an ear for what to listen for.
I notice that you use a lot of processing plugins, but just a very little of each.
I just tickle them, because I look at it like it’s all cumulative, especially when adding EQ. I get most of the impact from when I set up the gain structure, because once I get the loudness to where I want it, the mix starts getting into that window where I know what balance adjustments to make. If it’s way off from the get-go, I have to get in there right from the beginning and start balancing the bottom or the top end right away, and then I will increase the gain.
What’s your typical plugin signal chain?
I would probably go multiband compressor, EQ, limiter, and sometimes I put the de-esser at the very end, because the limiter can add a brightness to it that the de-esser can catch. If I’m not using the limiter, then I’ll put another compressor after the EQs. That said, there are some times where I’ll put the de-esser at the front of the chain; it all depends on the song and how much it all needs.
I flip-flop between the different EQs and compressors and drive them all just a little to increase the gain. Sometimes one will color more than another, but that’s how I give the client different choices. I’ll take the gain away from one and add it to another, and it will sound different—either more transparent or smoother.
Are most of the songs that you get crushed level-wise?
It’s really all over the place. If it is crushed, I try to talk to the mixer and ask him to take any mastering plugins off before he sends it back to me. You can put your compressors and EQs on the two buss to get your sound, but give me some headroom to work with.
Some of my clients really insist on having the maximum level possible, though. In that case I give them multiple choices. I give them one that I think is loud but sounds good, another that’s pushed a little more, and one where you’re getting to where you don’t want to go any further. It helps them see the light. When you compare them in real time, you can really hear the difference. I do have a limit to how much I push it, though. My name’s on it in the end, so it has to sound good. It can be loud yet still have some dynamic range and sound good.
That’s kind of what you get when you don’t use a limiter. As soon as you put that limiter in, a lot of it starts sounding really soft and smoothes out. I’d rather have it hit you. It does depend on how you set the limiter and how hard you hit it, but it does soften it up.
Then again, the artists trying to do it at home don’t have the advantages of hearing it like I do. The studio here is really like a giant microphone, and you can hear every little thing. There’s a big difference between an artist’s or a producer’s home listening enviroment and listening in our designed and tuned rooms.
How long does the average mastering job take per song?
About half an hour. If I feel like I’m not getting it, then maybe 45 minutes at the most. Once that’s approved, then I’ll just drop in any alternate versions, which are usually the TV mix for a single and maybe a 48k version for any video that goes along with it.
How much MFiT or high-res do you do?
The major labels ask for MFiT with every mastering job. The indies aren’t quite there yet. If a project comes in at a high-res rate, I’ll do it that way for them if they want it. For vinyl, I try to deliver a 96k/24-bit file and drop the level much lower from the CD version.
Do you do any different processing for MFiT?
I try not to deviate too much from my original CD master. The level will get dropped a little, but that’s about it. It’s pretty much the same as MP3. I drop it through Apple’s MFiT droplets to listen to the way it’s going to sound after it’s encoded, just to be sure it’ll sound good.
What kind of masters are you delivering?
We hardly make CD-Rs anymore. It’s all DDP that’s FTP’d directly to the client, although we do WAM!NET delivery for certain record labels, like Universal. It’s a lot easier than it was, although we used to get paid for all the extra work we had to do. Those old 1630s worked, but they were a mess, so I’m glad we’ve moved on since then.”
You can read more from The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.