A Brief History of Mastering

Everyone is talking about professional mastering services. You’ve heard all sorts of buzz about how important mastering is. You probably heard that mastering is required to get that radio-ready sound.

Why is mastering so popular? What I have to say about mastering will certainly change your outlook!

Mastering In The Early Days

To understand all of this, it’s important to know the roots of mastering.

latheIn the early days of vinyl records, after the audio was recorded and mixed—before it could be pressed and copied for sales—a master disc had to be created on a lathe. That master disc was aluminum coated with nitrocellulose lacquer, which was then electroplated with nickel.

It was the mastering engineer’s job to operate that lathe and make sure that the master disc was the best quality possible for mass reproduction.

Early Mastering EQ & Compression

In the early days, the goal of the mastering engineer was to create a clean master copy. The job of the mastering engineer was NOT to improve the sound beyond that which was given to them.

However, it was quickly recognized that some recorded material wasn’t reproduced very well on the consumer vinyl record played back by the listener, due to a large dynamic range, too much low-end energy, extreme stereo width, etc.

Some of those elements mastering were subduing could be good, right? Yes, of course, but let me explain.

If the audio material had too much bass, too much dynamic range, or was too wide, it was at a dangerous risk of pushing the needle out of the groove on general listening.

Additionally, the more dynamic range, the more low-end, and the wider the stereo image, the wider the groove on the vinyl record had to be.

These wide grooves ate in to play time, reducing the number of songs that could fit on an album and still sound good.

As a minor solution to this problem, it wasn’t long before simple bass and treble controls were added to early mastering equipment, and compressors were introduced to deal with the dynamic problem.

If a mix was too bassy, it was easy for the mastering engineer to reduce some of that low-end.

Soon, ballsy Mastering Engineers could reach for those bass and treble controls and tweak them to improve dull mixes, brittle mixes, and more—it was forbidden territory since the mastering engineer’s job was [no more, no less] simply pure reproduction—not improvement—but the door was beginning to open up to create a new art; the art of mastering.

In 1959 Rein Narma designed the Fairchild 670 tube compressor while developing an 8 channel audio mixer for Les Paul.

The Fairchild compressor soon became the standard for top-class mastering facilities, due to it’s clean and transparent signal, robust features, and ability to process stereo material with mid/side processing.

The Fairchild 670 tube compressor was 65 pounds, had 14 transformers, and 20 vacuum tubes.

The mid/side processing in that Fairchild compressor allowed a mastering engineer to compress the mono center—and the wide stereo field—separately.

Finally, by combining this compression technique with basic EQ, it was now possible to control the dynamics in a way that did far less damage to the mix and create a master disc that didn’t produce vinyl records that jumped out of the grooves.

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