As much as frequency response, stereo image, harmonics and overall volume are very important in mastering, to me, the most important part is compression, because nothing is more enjoyable and gives more power to a mix than the correct and dynamic interaction between all instruments.
Another important thing I want to tackle in this series of blog posts is the widespread myth that a specific processing unit is key or even important to choose a mastering studio or else, that your music will sound great if is passed by a given hardware.
That said, let's get on to the examples:
Here's the excerpt of the song that we are going to use for our demonstration exactly as it left the mixing studio, no processing at all.
This one is before compression, it has some frequency balance, harmonics treatment and a bit of tape saturation.
Now, onwards to compression
This compressor is regarded as one of the best mastering units, it has everything you could ask for signal control plus, being a digital processor it is as transparent as it gets. My personal favorite compressor ever.
As you can hear, the signal is absolutely under control but it doesn't sound too 'alive', something is missing , also, the low-end is present but not rich enough even though it has a side-chain control on.
Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor
This one is also regarded as one of the best mastering compressors and certainly many people choose a mastering studio just because it has one. To me, this is indeed one of the best units and arguably the best mastering compressor in the analog domain.
The sound is way better with this compressor, specially in the transients, but it masks those of high frequency like the cowbell so I wouldn't go with this either.
So far, these compressors did a good job on this specific song but they don't excel to deliver a great master. So I'll try a few more options to see if there's a better fit.
Tegeler Audio Crème
This one is a VCA mastering compressor that has very simple
controls but is very, very effective in both, taming a wild mix or smoothly controlling a gentle mix, plus it has an integrated passive EQ.
I feel this one has a more adequate response for this song, as you can hear, the low-end sounds really great, however when reaching the precussion section I feel it can't quite behave that great.
This one is very similar to the Crème compressor but with a more vintage sound.
The feel is more aggressive, specially in the high-end so I would say it is too harsh for this particular musical style.
Behringer Tube Composer (modified)
I had this unit modified for mastering applications changing the tubes to Telefunken and all circuitry to build a Vari-Mu compressor.
Whereas I do like how this type of compression works with this song I think it falls far from a great sound.
This one is also a Vari-Mu compressor and it can handle both gentle and aggressive mixes, but most of all, complex mixes, like this one.
As it turns out, this is the one, no question at all, the way it can handle the mix is absolutely great, nice and easy.
As much as I already made up my mind, I had to try this one because it is the only option I have not tried yet.
Well, no surprises with he sound, it behaves very much like the Varis but with a much harsher sound, cool but not great.
So far for this song, the mastering job is about half-way as it needs some frequency handling, stereo imaging work and a bit of limiting and final loudness calibration, but I wanted you to know a bit more about the options I consider to shape a master's sound and how much it can change from one processor to another.
As you can see, although having 3 legendary units to process with (Weiss, Shadow Hills and Fairchild) none of them were the best fit for this song, it was a handcrafted unit from an independent manufacturer, no fancy names, no big shots, only well-constructed processors. Of course there are a bunch of styles that fit better with a Weiss or a Shadow Hills but not for this one and certainly having this or that processor won't guarantee a great-sounding master.
If you want high-quality mastering, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org you may ask for a demo on one of your songs.