Jason messaged me the other day and asked me to master another compilation album, something I've done a few times for him before. He asked me about my process when mastering compilation albums. I've briefly written about this subject before but here are some more thoughts.
I hate talking gear on the web, so this post isn't about gear, it's about process. I'm a firm believer that gear and skill work hand in hand, but the internet leans heavy on the gear, which is easy to market and sell online, and ignores skill, which is harder to monetise. So let's try to redress the balance.
Listen, think, question, consider.
Often people think that they're not "working" unless they're doing something. Tinkering with settings, trying out different approaches, messing with new techniques they're learning. No. Stop that. Just be. Sit down, put the damn music on and listen. And don't get up again until the music has stopped. Have a conversation in your mind about the music, what the artist's intentions have been, who will be listening to the music, the formats it'll be released on, etc. Make some notes, then listen again. Listen in the car. Listen out on a run.
Fixing vs. Enhancing.
My mastering process has two parts - fixing things that aren't sounding great, and enhancing the work to make it release-ready. If there's a nasty booming frequency, or a brash sounding cymbal, it's pointless working on the finished whole, until you've solved that issue. Sure these things should have been picked up sooner, but fix all the things you find problematic first, and only then start looking at what you might want to add.
Know your place.
If you've been asked to master a release, chances are it's because your client likes your work and your sound. But remember, it's still their release! Have a chat about what their expectations are, how you'll meet their goals but know that you're completing a small task near the end of a long process. Make it sound like them at their best, not like you.
Okay, Dalai Lame-o, enough with the philosophy. What does your mastering chain look like?
*sigh* I'm not sure this'll help, as every recording is different, but I usually look at every individual track's volume, loudness and EQ first. I then do some multi-band compression to hopefully get it all gelling nicely. Occasionally I'll add a little ambience. Next I work on the stereo field to get it tight and interesting, but without phasing or distracting elements. I then look at enhancing and distortion, and finally it goes through a limiter. How I render the final files depends on what they're going to be used for, and I always try to provide files in the format they're most likely to be played in.
Once I've finished a master I rarely sling it over to the client straight away, and only do that when I'm super-tight on time. I usually spend a couple of days, and listen again with fresh ears, make a few tweaks and then leave it a couple of days, listen again, make a few tweaks... you get the idea.
I'm currently mastering "Solstice, a Lines Community Project", a compilation album that will be out on or around the December Solstice.