Before & After Examples of Mastering
…and here’s one we prepared earlier…
We occasionally get enquiries from potential clients who want to hear “Before and After” samples of our work, and wonder where to find such examples on our website. The fact is we have never considered publishing before and after audio clips, and we never would, for a number of reasons.
Mastering Is Not A Process, An Effect Or A Cure
Disappointed by your tan? Trouble with your weight? Well fear not; there will be something available online or on the high street to help you with that. The advertiser can demonstrate the effectiveness of their transformative product with a Before / After picture or graphic and the greater the difference shown the more impressed you will be by whatever product or service they are offering.
“You won’t believe the difference Barry X experienced in just two weeks and we can do the same for you!!!”
…but the thing is we’re not selling hair-restorer or anti-wrinkle cream. In fact you might not believe it but:
Mastering is not simply about feeding audio into some gear such that it comes out sounding different…
Wait, What?! Well, I guess that last statement may seem a little weird to you, especially since a lot of what we hear and see these days gives the impression that it’s normal to rely heavily on the mastering process to get mixes into a releasable state…
Don’t get me wrong; we’re not averse to bringing about a transformation where appropriate, but the important point to recognise here is that it’s not always appropriate to make a dramatic change to someone’s recording, and this runs somewhat contrary to the concept of a before / after sample.
Consider for a moment the scenario where mastering were all about taking something that sounds a certain way and then changing it so that it sounds different. If that were the case then you’d probably be forgiven for assuming that you should only pay according to the percentage difference achieved. That makes sense; “it sounds this much better, so I’ll pay that much“. By that logic, then ask yourself what would happen when the world’s greatest mix engineer (we’ll call him Joe) hands the world’s greatest mix over to the world’s greatest mastering engineer (who we can refer to as Sally for the purposes of this story)? Does Sally take this perfect sounding mix and change it dramatically in order to earn her fee? Or, as it sounds incredible already, does she transfer it flat (a 1:1 copy) for the world to enjoy in its perfection, and then charge nothing because she hasn’t actually changed it?
Neither. She does her job, which is to listen and use her judgement, and then charges for her time. The amount of “change” brought about by mastering is not what you’re paying for, and to not know this is to misunderstand what mastering is about completely.
After all, a truly excellent mix doesn’t require any kind of transformation, but it does need mastering.
That’s not the only reason we’re not fans of the before / after sample…
Taste and Context
As our valued client, your requirements and personal taste are a big factor in how we’ll master your music. If you happen to like stuff really bright and lean with not much bass, then that would be reflected in the sound of the master we do for you. Another factor in how we approach a particular track could be the context in which it appears; for instance the sound of the tracks to either side of it on an album.
So let’s imagine that we choose to publish a before and after mastering sample, and we pick track 3 from the last album we mastered by Oli and the Oligarchs (our favourite indie combo don’tcha know) because we think it sounds great. Now Oli likes a really warm early ’70s sound and most of the tracks on the album effortlessly fitted that vibe; it was mixed on a Neve 8078 and everyone says the album sounds lovely and organic, retro and vinyl-y. Oh, yummy. But with track 3, the mix just sounded a bit thin and reedy; slightly shrill and fizzy at the top. It was almost left off the album, but fortunately we were able to pull the rabbit from the hat in mastering and give it the smooth fat and warm sound it needed to fit right in with the rest. Oli was delighted.
Now, you come along and you’re not a fan of Oli and his oeuvre. But you’re looking for a mastering studio and you know that mastering makes stuff sound better, right? But you like a bright, lean sound. You listen to the before and after clip, and the “before” version sounds sprightly and clean to you, whilst the “after” version seems a little muddy in comparison. You’re not impressed because you’re not hearing it in context and it wasn’t mastered for you. In other words a mastering sample could lead you to an entirely incorrect assumption about what we would aim to bring to your music.
Ok then you’ve twisted my arm. Let’s do this… Here is a before and after example of a track both “before mastering” and “after mastering”. The mastering in this case was done by someone who shall not be named.
Go on; knock yourself out. Have a good listen to the two and see which you think is better…
As indicated in the previous section I don’t expect everyone listening to those samples to have the same reaction (to the sound that is; the music itself of course is bound to have prompted each and every one of you to mix yourself a mojito and take off all your clothes). I imagine that your preference will be influenced by two main factors: (1) your experience of sound engineering and understanding of mastering, and (2) the sound quality of whatever you were listening through (i.e. laptop or studio monitors). Oh, and (3) your personal taste. Three main factors.
If you haven’t already guessed where I’m going with this and were listening on laptop or smartphone speakers, then you might have preferred the “After” sample. Richer, wider, more upfront maybe?
If you did prefer the “After” sample, then listen now to the same audio again but from a different perspective by watching this video.
The example above hopefully demonstrates how a before and after mastering example can appear to show an improvement whilst masking the fact that the “mastering” hasn’t necessarily improved the sound of the track at all; in fact it may even have degraded it. For the purposes of demonstration in this case I used a track that had been mastered already as the “before” and this was to illustrate the point that had the client arrived with that track sounding like that already – which is entirely possible – then we wouldn’t have had any reason to change it. What I then did was to spoil it by adding unnecessary top and bottom end, increasing the stereo width for no good reason, and pushing the level to the point where the dynamics and energy were compromised. However, despite these degradations some of you will have preferred the “after” mainly because the increase in level not only masks the problems but actively makes you think you’re hearing something superior in quality. You might not think you could be so easily fooled, but this is a known phenomenon.
The Fletcher-Munson Effect
Fletcher and Munson were the guys that first researched the topic of how the ear hears different frequencies at different levels in 1933. Put simply, they found that we hear bass and treble more easily at higher volumes; however in effect we can say that the difference in perceived sound quality between two identical recordings played back at different volume levels goes beyond that and certainly beyond just volume. We as humans will tend to perceive the louder recording as clearer, brighter, richer and generally more satisfying in every way – all the while not realising that it is in fact the same – just louder. Amazingly this is often the clincher in a great many A/B or Before/After comparisons – you don’t think you’ll be impressed by someone just “turning it up” and yet in mastering situations people’s minds are frequently blown by precisely that. In fact what we often see with stuff that has been mastered badly is that the end result actually sounds worse than the source, but was perceived as better by the client because it was louder (as in our example). Consequently a feature of nearly all before/after examples of mastering that you’ll find online is that the “after” version is louder – thus making it impossible to really judge the difference in actual sound.
Now, in the hypothetical scenario where we did decide to post a before-and-after comparison, as reputable purveyors of quality mastering, recognising the masking effect of volume changes, we’d then have to decide whether to compensate the change in volume when we present the clips (as in our demonstration video). But having said that, I guess we have to look at the competition and see whether the other clips out there have been level compensated. Oh, what a surprise – they haven’t. The “after” is nearly* always louder.
(* I’ve encountered one exception to the rule so far)
Don’t Just Take My Word For It
While writing this post I started to wonder if my views on this might be considered out of line, so I browsed a few key websites to check out the approach of other reputable mastering studios, and I encourage you to do the same.
Presumably if you’ve read all of this then you have at least a passing interest in mastering, in which case you should recognise many of the following names. In case you don’t, these are the engineers and the studios (where they still exist) that mastered the vast majority of your favourite hit albums and singles worldwide since the industry began, so they’ve got a pretty solid idea of what mastering is all about (and apologies to anyone who feels left out): Gateway Mastering (Bob Ludwig), Sterling Sound (Ted Jensen, Greg Calbi, Tom Coyne, George Marino and others), Soundmasters, Abbey Road, Metropolis Mastering (Tim Young, Ian Cooper, Tony Cousins and others), Masterdisk Mastering, Marcussen Mastering, Howie Weinberg Mastering… I could go on but those are the main places. If you visit their websites you will see for yourself that none of those studios publish before-and-after examples. Now, I can’t say whether their reasons for not doing so are the same as ours but perhaps you can draw your own conclusions.