What is the main factor that determines the sound of your music: recording, mixing or mastering?

Dave McNair with some of his mastering tools.

Chris Henderson

Many audiophiles believe that mastering plays an absolutely decisive role in the sound of recorded music. I don’t know how this belief came about, it bypasses all other elements of record production. It’s like saying that a chef can save a badly prepared meal by making the food look good on the plate.

That’s just my opinion, so I phoned a mastering engineer friend of mine, Dave McNair, and asked him, “What are the main factors that determine how recorded music sounds?” Without hesitation, he chuckled and said, “Mastery matters. less of anything in the whole process.”

So I followed with what matters most? McNair, “Mixing is the most important thing, it can transform a reasonably good production.” Even if the band’s performance wasn’t stellar and the recording sounded just okay, a very talented sound engineer can make the music sound great. McNair added that it’s like that now, in the days of analog, the skill of the sound engineer could make or break the sound of the final product. McNair again, “Recording in analog is a real hassle, you have to work very hard just to overcome the limitations of the medium. »

In the mid to late 1980s, the quality of the basic tracks was crucial because the mixing tools were quite limited – there was EQ, compression and reverb – that was it. At that time, sound engineers usually mixed tunes. By the time automated consoles were introduced in the late 1980s, mixing engineers began to specialize.

Today’s mixers can transform skilled musicians into virtuosos; the engineer could, for example, create entirely new drum sounds that did not exist during the recording sessions. Sound engineers no longer have to worry about getting the right microphone for vocals, because when vocals are mixed, they’re going to be so massively manipulated, auto-tuned, and spit out of a computer that the quality of session tracks original doesn’t matter that much.

McNair took a breath and said, “The best sound recordings are those that have simple arrangements, played well by the band in a great-sounding studio.” In these cases the role of the mixer is smaller, they just balance the tracks, add a nice reverb and you’re done. If the sound was good to begin with and didn’t require production gimmicks to help it, the mix engineer will have less repair work to do. Taylor Swift and most pop music artists rely heavily on production to to create their sound, the mix engineers make the magic happen.

When I asked McNair what are the “ingredients” of a great sounding album, he replied, “Starting with the most important are the songs, the musicians, the production, the mixer, the engineer sound and, ultimately, Mastering it.” McNair’s resume includes credits as a producer, mixer, recording and mastering engineer.

My take is that great sounding recordings have always been rare, but in 2015 the quality of the average rock album has gone down dramatically, they’re more compressed and crispy than ever before. I agree with McNair, and don’t blame the mastering engineers, it’s the total production that is responsible for how the music sounds – good or bad.

Dave McNair has worked with David Bowie, Beck, The Derek Trucks Band, Maroon 5, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Los Lobos and many more.

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