Nick Litwin – Director and Chief Engineer of Mastering Mansion – has 24 years of experience in the audio business and more than 17 years of experience mastering in countries such as Argentina, Spain and UK – where he spent several years perfecting and investigating in this field and working with a large variety of artists, besides graduating in Recording Arts at Middlesex University in London, until he decided to settle definitely in Madrid.
Up to this day, Nick has mastered more than a thousand albums, EPs, singles, vinyl recordings and various references, from which around 600 were mastered during the last 5 years at Mastering Mansion, largely exceeding the barrier of 100 mastered references during the same year, starting in 2008; a tendency that keeps growing since then and specially now that he has built the biggest Mastering Room in Europe and the only one in the world made entirely from scratch (the whole building following the shape of the room!) Nick approached the writing of the following article with the same thoroughness and passion with which he approaches his mastering projects!
“I truly believe that the mastering engineer’s roles are many and are becoming more and more important in modern day recording due to the lack of a standard production process (and producers!) like in the pre-digital era.
“The main goal of a mastering engineer is to make the artists’ music sound the best possible way in as many different systems as possible. More and more, we do have to take into account that reproduction gear has changed and widened a lot, making the reproduction outcome completely different when one reproduces something in an “old school” home stereo system, a car, a club or a PC, an iPod, iPad, iPhone or other telephone devices (not even to talk about Vinyl, Radio and TV!).
“To get a sound that fits well on all (or most) of those systems – and excells on some – is a very hard job.”
“And to do this respecting the artist’s wishes, even more so.”
“Therefore, a good Mastering job make a certain piece of music not only more competitive but also should help to bring the music’s artistic message closer to the listeners, helping that record to withstand the test of time.
“But a professional Mastering Engineer should also be able to solve most of the many problems of a project deficiently mixed or with a low budget tracking and mixing process – happening more and more unfortunately – shortening the final quality gap between a high budget musical release and a self-produced, home studio record.”
“For me as a music lover as well as a Mastering Engineer and an audio geek, it’s extremely sad to hear how bad sound got in general in terms of music production during the last couple decades, accentuating exponentially with the advent of the mp3 era and the hypercompression/limiting trends (what we mastering engineers call the Level Wars). It’s still striking to listen to how good many of the records of 1970’s (and even before that!) through beginning of 1990’s sound (in terms of general sound production…. not talking about musical trends or tastes here…) in comparison to most of the records made during the 21st century….. it makes you realize that quite possibly the biggest change in music technology and trends of the last 20 years was that recording technology got easily available to most everyone and this fact has had a terrible effect on sound quality (yes, it also gave access to the musical creation processes and opened a whole new musical scene for a lot of people that before that could not get their music recorded or published, but that’s another story which does not involve sound quality).“And this has to do directly with the lack of real audio engineers and real producers involved in the pre production – production – recording – mixing (and many times even Mastering!) processes nowadays. Not to mention the lack of real recording and mixing studios with great room acoustics and fantastic gear available worldwide. In contrast to that, most music started getting created and produced entirely by the musicians themselves in what we could call a Home Studio – more and more a small room with a PC, a basic Digital Interface, some mics, a preamp, a DAW full of plugins and possibly nothing else – by someone who lack the audio knowledge, experience, studio environments and great tools of many of the audio specialists involved in this Industry, when previously you could only go to a ‘real’ studio to make a ‘real’ record (call it the “Old Times”)
“On the other hand, this same detrimental sound-fact has also made the role of a professional Mastering Engineer with a great Studio even more important than it ever was, as many, many times nowadays, we become the ‘only’ sound professional involved in the whole production process, and the artists have to rely on our experience and skills to help them fix many of the problems that had occurred during these somewhat unexperienced recordings.”
“Because of this, to the many artists wanting to record, my advice is to put themselves into the hands of professional engineers (and a Producer if possible!) and real recording studios.
“The main thing that I’m missing in many productions nowadays are good recording spaces…. Due to the crisis of the industry, most of the best recording studios (with great recording rooms) have closed down, leaving a gap difficult to fill…. Not many really good rooms to record are still available…
“I recommend you get the best possible recording room you can afford, an engineer who knows what he/she is doing, with an ample choice of outboard equipment and microphones of great quality….. most people would be surprised how affordable it can be to get these services nowadays, due to those studios having to compete against Home Studios…. so, if possible, do it the old fashioned way, with new fashion prices and gear!
“So for many artists, I’m sure that you can save money, by not buying (or renting) audio gear which you then have to spend a long time learning to use well and ultimately will still not get you the same quality of result that you’d get from recording and mastering with experienced professionals and their pro facilities.”
“After that, you only need to get great mastering for those mixes and to be able to help with that, you really need the best possible Mastering Studio that you can get……
“In my opinion, the three fundamental elements that determines the quality of a Mastering Studio – and make up its structure as if that of a building – are : The Room, The Gear and of course, The Engineer. If one of these fails, the building is in serious danger of falling down!
“Having listened to dozens of rooms (many of which are some of the best known mastering studios in the world) I always had the feeling that most Mastering Engineers were doing some “guessing” work… to clarify, what I mean – and we all had to do that at some point in our careers and most are still doing so – is that all the rooms I visited and listened to had distinct problems that could never be completely solved due to acoustical compromises or plain bad design, although the engineers who worked there may well have the experience to mentally compensate for those limitations (or at least most of them).
“So, for many years I had this dream of constructing a room that had no acoustical compromises whatsoever and worked hard to get that dream come true.
“Finally, in 2009 I started the planning, contacted some of the best Acoustical Engineers in the world, and finally chose Markus Bertram from MB Akustiks-Germany to do the best possible design – the ideal room with no acoustical limitations at all.
“When that room was already designed on paper, we searched for the piece of land that would allow us to recreate that design with precision. The result: a room with a volume of 220m3 (about 7945 cubic feet) and an area of 50m2 (538 square feet) – although the whole non-visible room comprises a staggering 440m3 (15538 cubic feet) and 73m2 (785 square feet) of area – that thanks to its ideal design, unique geometry, great size and customised building materials, guarantees a near-perfect behaviour, with a transparency, linearity and a spaciality impossible to achieve at studios made within already constructed premises, with all its acoustic limitations.
“So, in an unprecedent effort in today’s mastering world and after about 2 years of planning and construction, we built the biggest Mastering Room in Europe – 2nd biggest in the World – and the only one built entirely from scratch.
“This room not only allows us to hear absolutely everything that happens within our artists’ mixes (and their masters afterwards) but also is a total pleasure to work in, thanks to its natural light and beautiful surroundings, including a private garden.
“Our monitoring system has been installed by Andrew Lipinski himself, who adjusted and fine tuned the Lipinski Grand’s crossovers while our acoustical engineer – Markus Bertram – measured in real time to confirm the best possible configuration for the room.”
“Apart from this dream of a room and our ears and experience, for our job, the gear is the last foundation.
“I specially love my Lavry Gold set of mastering converters (AD122-96MKIII + DA924 + LE3000S Digital Optimizer and sample rate converter), which are still the best converters I have ever tried and give me a neutral but exciting sound that fits fantastically 99% of what I usually master.
“If I ever feel the need to use a different sounding converter (every project is unique and receives a unique approach) we have a Cranesong HEDD 192 and a warm Mytek 8×192 ADDA converter.
“On the digital side of things, I couldn’t live wthout my Weiss EQ1-MKII LP/DYN, which is in my opinion the best and most versatile digital EQ on the planet and serves me perfectly every time I have to deal with resonances or difficult, precise cuts or boosts without adding a timbre change.
“As I’m such a picky audiophile, I’m very happy with the improvement on soundstage and definition that I have gained since acquiring the best masterclock ever developed to date: the Antelope Audio Isochrone 10M Rubidium Atomic Clock – combined with Isochrone Trinity – the only one in the world employing atomic technology, 64-bit DSP and 100.000 times more stable than quartz crystal clocks. T his technology is only in use in satellite and military applications.
“But to the previously mentioned gear, I should add some of the pieces I use to give a certain sound to mixes whenever I feel it’s needed, like the AnaMod Audio ATS-1, the highest fidelity tape simulator (it’s analogue!) made to date, including modeling of the most famous 2 track recorders in music history…. virtually indistinguishable from an original 2 track master tape (Studer 800, ATR102, Ampex 351, etc…). I used to have a mint Studer 800, and I sold it when I got the AnaMod…. fantastic sound shaper for rock and some pop music….
“I’m also very much in love with our Buzz Audio REQ 2.2 Resonant EQ Mastering Version, which was customized according to our specifications and offers a level of detail that no other EQ I have heard.
“Also, our heavily modified Manley Massive Passive EQ Mastering Version – different tubes plus a heavy external PSU offers a kind of sweetness and warmth that I never heard on any other “colour” EQ. And for very special EQ effects, I love my Cranesong IBIS Mastering EQ, being the one with a “colour” control that can have spectacular results on certain frequencies and instruments.
“And my last beauty boutique toy is the impressive Shadow Hills Industries Mastering Compressor which has many different colour possibilities….
“Along with all of these, we have many other fantastic pieces that we use a lot but I do not want to enter into more details or I would never finish writing :- )
“Enough to say that we count with an AnaMod AM670 fairchild – serial number 000001 -, a Cranesong STC-8 Mastering Version and our matched pair of Chandler Limited ‘LTD-2’ mastering version (a modified Neve 2254), and the fantastic Weiss DS1-MKIII (digital). There’s nothing related to compression/limiting that we couldn’t do.
“All this wonderful pieces are centralized on our Dangerous Music Master and Liaison mastering console which allows us to use only what we need at each moment and to keep the shortest and most transparent signal path, besides offering the possibility to work with MS and parallel processing with any of our analog devices.”
“Regarding the mastering process itself, we have seen many new challenges and trends due to new technologies.
“One of them is mastering for the Internet or the new reproduction formats (e.g. mobile phones) and some of the main aspects that we Mastering Engineers keep an eye on when mastering for new, compressed formats, are conversion schemes and final listening results on certain digital media…. With so many new coders, compressed formats and so on, we are always trying to find the best way to adapt our mastering techniques to best fit these new types of data files…. There are loads of things to look for if you want to get a good sounding streaming file. Normally, the kind of masters we usually do for CD’s don’t sound very good once compressed for the Internet, so we usually master special versions with several changes.”
“Almost opposite to that is the come back of Vinyl – we are getting a lot of mastering jobs for Vinyl release -, which is a blessing for us… not so much for it’s inherent sound quality, because vinyl has so many limitations, but thanks to those same limitations, we can often do what we really think needs to be done for the music ONLY…. It’s a medium where you need to respect dynamics and timbre much more than you need to with CD or any other digital format, because the vinyl itself will not allow certain excesses on frequency response and especially regarding level.
“In a sense, I feel it let’s me concentrate more on the absolute sound of the music and how I feel it should sound because I don’t have to be that aware of the final level of the actual encoded material, and also most vinyl lovers will have no problems if they have to turn their level knobs up…. They are expecting a certain sound quality, a certain texture and analogue warmth that 95% of digital masters nowadays don’t have, although they could if the people producing them would be more careful with the (digital) media….. I really believe that the beginning of the death of the CD is that it is so easy to overdo…. to stretch its formal limits, while you cannot do that on vinyl, because that would cause the vinyl cutter to destroy the lacquer (in some way or another) or even the needle.”
“But the Vinyl comeback didn’t come alone. A lot of artists are now trying to come back in time, making use of Tape during recording or mixing (and sometimes Mastering).
“Regarding this topic I think there are a lot of misconceptions …
“It may definitely be desired for some artists with a certain type of sound and if they are taking into account all the dynamic and spectral changes that tape will introduce into their recordings/mixes…… but there are many times that those same characteristics are definitely not desirable and we are nevertheless finding ourselves into situations where the band decided they wanted to record on analogue and ended up with a very flat kind of recording….. we also have to take into account that not every tape machine out there is performing the way it should (maintenance) and not every engineer really has the skills to drive those machines correctly to set up a desired sound…. It’s a tricky task.
“On top of this all, and although conversion quality has improved big time in the last couple years, the added D to A and A to D conversions will cause some undesired changes to the sound. So just be carefull and study thoroughly if you really want to work with Tape and what would the consequences may be.
“What I do recommend is to try to record and process with the best possible outboard processors that you can get. Old or new, I don’t care! It’s just a matter of good sounding and bad sounding to me, and many times, not even that, because you may be looking for a desired sound and although the gear you may have on hand may be wonderful, they may not give you that exact desired sound…. It’s, as usual, a matter of production goals (certain type of sound) and taste…. There’s really a lot of fantastic gear out there (old and new) and it’s sometimes really difficult to choose the right tools for this or that song/album.
“And yes, sometimes tape is awsome… But not always….. that’s why we can add that in mastering too, in my case even avoiding bouncing into real tape, through the use of the fantastic AnaMod ATS-1 Tape Simulator that I talked about before, getting the best of tape with non of the drawbacks…. And only when we feel it’s needed!”
“If you are sending mixes for Mastering try as much as you can to comply to these recommendations. They will help your mixes to get a mastering process with no problems, more easily and therefore with generally better results than those projects where (many of) these recommendations are not followed.
“Please prepare beforehand all possible information about the material you’ll be sending to the mastering house, to set up the session the right way and avoid finding problems in the middle of the job. That includes dates, format type of your files, song’s order, total time and number of songs. Please clearly label each track with its correct name and add its order number for the album (for instance: 01 – The best sound).
“Other than that, knowing how the mastered audio is going to be played (if on Radio, TV, or if it’s for DVD or Vinyl) will help to determine the sampling rate, delivery formats, etc …
“Most of us accept files at every regular sampling rate up to 192 kHz and at 16, 24 and 32 bits of depth resolution. That said, we recommend you to make your recordings and mixings at 24 bits and 88.2 kHz because they will offer you a higher resolution and definition throughout the whole production process and an excellent conversion after mastering (24-96 is also great but the conversion to 44.1 is more complex and therefore less accurate).
“Remember that nowadays it is nonsense to produce at 16 bits and that converting sample rate is counterproductive. If you start at 88.2, stick to it through the whole production…. Avoid any type of conversion and leave that to us.
“As long as it’s possible, please, don’t pre-master or compress the final mixes in your system because that gives us less room and possibilities to introduce changes, once the Mastering Engineer evaluates the mixes.
“Beside final mixes, send us any other listening references that you want us to keep in mind when mastering your material.
“Lately, we have been working with many artists from all over the world, which is always a nice challenge, as you have to try to understand the many kinds of sounds that are particular to certain types of music and even certain areas in the world.
“So making a Pop-Roots album for a nº 1 act in Spain like “Macaco” is completely different than some of the jobs we are receiving from the USA (mostly rock and pop variations) like “WalkFunk” or most countries in Europe (Indie rock, pop and electronica mostly) like Robert Solheim (Norway), Ana Free (Portugal), Isabelle Sabrie (France) ”, or even an Argentinean folk album (Julián Mourin) or a Venezuelan Pop song (Septimo Cuadrante) and many, many more….
“But as I always say, every single job should make you feel like you have to overcome some challenge, something to get better that is not always obvious how to do…. otherwise, you are not doing a good job.”
Mastering Mansion, Madrid