Those of us old enough to remember when albums were actually albums will recall the joy at reading the liner notes: lyrics to the songs, what musicians played on which tracks, the thanks they gave to friends, family and industry people. Then there were the production credits: the studio the album was recorded at, the producer and the engineer. After that, there was something mysterious called mastering. Everyone knows what a record producer and a recording engineer does, but exactly what does a mastering engineer do?
Meet Maor Appelbaum, mastering engineer extraordinaire. With albums by Sepultura, Halford, Dokken and many others under his belt, he truly is at the top of his game. So, exactly what is mastering?
“It’s a final step, and it could be a both creative and a technical step,” Appelbaum explains. “It’s a new ear; a new person listening to the project, to make sure that it translates well on most systems. I try to make it as consistent as possible on most playback systems — small speakers, large speakers, headphones, and in addition to that, it’s also the place where you can add tonal character. Let’s say you want more treble; you can add that. You can add or lower the bass. You can change the midrange. Sometimes you’ll have a recording that has a lot of energy, but it’s not clear enough. You can clean it by taking out certain frequencies and making it sound bigger, maybe making the stereo wider, or narrower if it’s too wide; you can warm things if they’re too brittle or harsh. And of course level it up, level it down, compress it. In the case of an album, it’s everything I said, but also connecting the songs together so they feel like a coherent album. You can do fade ins, so it helps with segues, the sequencing. You can do cross fades, how songs relate to each other. You can do the endings, if it’s a slow fade, a fast fade, or a cut, or an entry to the next song.”
Wow. Obviously, mastering is something that’s not easy to categorize or quantify. It’s also something that doesn’t have a finite ending — it is a judgment call when “enough is enough.” Mastering can be both complex in the process, and critical in the results as to how the listener relates to the finished recording.
“I look at mastering in four ways,” Appelbaum continues. “You can do a lot that does a little, which means working a lot of processes that does a lot, but doesn’t sound like a big change. The other one is you’ve done a lot, and it sounds like it, like you’ve processed it for the good. Another way is you’ve done a little, but it sounds a lot, you just pushed a few things here and here but it sounds way different, and the last is you’ve done a little, and it sounds like you’ve done a little. If I get something that’s really, really good, I try not to ruin it. I try to make it better, if I can — sometimes just tweak it a bit to make it a little more consistent, but do no harm. If you can’t improve it, just don’t harm it.”
Not surprisingly, Appelbaum has a deep background in music. In fact, there are very few things music-related that he hasn’t done.
“I started as a musician, and then I was an engineer, and I was a music journalist, and I had a radio program. I was DJ’ing at clubs, so I got used to working with music and how it translates outside, how you perceive and connect to it. Sometimes being a musician helps you, but sometimes not. I think that being a musician helps me connect with the music on an artistic level, but at the same time, I need to be the objective person, the person who’s the listener or the fan, to make the right judgment call and understand how the listener is hearing it. I’m like a listener with control. There’s a lot of responsibility in this, because I’m the last process, and you don’t want to ruin what the artists did.”
As a mastering engineer, Appelbaum communicates closely with the recording artist and the producer, but more often than not he does the actual work by himself in his studio. “I like being in it all the time, but there’s a big difference between production and mastering. The producer has to be with the band all the time, there’s a lot of drama, there’s a lot of personal dynamics there. In my case, I need time off, and there is drama, but it’s not like production where it’s working with the band on a psychological level and a managing level. ln mastering there’s a small amount of that, just because it’s the end of the project, but it’s far from what you have during tracking or mixing or producing. There’s a lot of expectations of a producer, especially if he’s a big-name producer.”
“Sometimes the artists will come and sit in on the mastering sessions. In a lot of studios, the mastering engineer will sit with the producer, or the mixing engineer or the band, or a combination. In my case, sometimes they do, but in any event I try and keep in good communication with the client, whether it’s the producer, the mixer, the artist, or all of them together. I’m always open to changes, revisions, opinions, and suggestions, whatever. I’m very open to feedback. Sometimes it takes a few masters to get the right one. Sometimes it takes mix revisions. I’m open to the idea of going back and forth to get the exact result that you want. In the end, it’s a collaboration, and just like it sometimes requires a lot of takes to get the best vocal take, and a few good mixes to get the right mix, it’s OK if it takes a few masters to get the right one.”
If you look at Appelbaum’s website, you’ll see images of albums he’s worked on. Many — but not all — are hard rock and metal. “I work on stuff from world music to blues to industrial to progressive, all types of metal, country, pop, folk, singer/songwriter; I’ve worked on all of those. True, I do work on a lot of metal and progressive rock. Maybe it’s because I know the genre since I was a music journalist and I did a lot of writing about that, and also I had a radio program and I was a DJ for a lot of heavy stuff. A lot of people know me for the heavier music I work with, such as Sepultura and Rob Halford and Dokken, but it’s not the only genre.”
Appelbaum is asked what happens if he lands a project to master that he just doesn’t get — he can’t relate to the songs, the production is lacking, or he simply doesn’t like the music. “I try to attach to something; I’ll try to find something. Because I love music, in most cases I’ll find a riff or two that I like. Something to understand it, to feel it. You always judge it on a production level, a mixing level, a performance level, but you try to attach to the song as much as you can. Sometimes you get stuff you really don’t like, but it’s rare in my case because I really like music, and maybe there’s a natural filter, because often the people who come to you come to you based on what you’ve done. Sometimes you might listen to it and think ‘eh.’ But you try your best. You try to be artistic.”
“We are dealing with emotions, and how it relates on a subconscious level can change a lot. I’m trying to make the music appeal to the listener. Even though it may already, I’m trying to enhance that experience. If what I do makes the listener want to raise the volume, or listen to the song again and again, then I’ve done my job.”