Chris Sonia Offers a Down-to-Earth Perspective on Mastering “For the Rest of Us”
Interview by Lorenz Rychner
Mastering engineer Chris Sonia owns and operates Dauntless Mastering in Keene, NH. Among his recent projects was the mastering of the album Farrago by Justen Cimino, a prize offered in a recent contest sponsored by Recording.
What is your niche?
Chris Sonia: Often I feel as though I am the “black sheep” of mastering. Great product, even though I don’t have a doctorate, and everything I know is either from books or real-world experience. For the most part I taught myself everything I know, and through diligence and trial and error I have a pretty good handle on the “dark art” (which is B.S.) of mastering. I learn new tricks and am always trying new things, and when it works it works, and when it doesn’t I go back to the original mix at no charge to the client.
I am proud of what I have accomplished on my own, and I have major-label credits as producer, mixer, and mastering engineer. My customers are usually the ones who have learned music and recording the way I’ve learned mastering. What I have to say isn’t for analogue purists or equipment snobs; the pro audio forum crowd would tell me it is impossible to do as well as I have with what I have. This is for “blue-collar” musicians (like you!) who want the best sound they can get for the little money that is left over after a gig, or a hard week at work.
If you have the means to hire a Grammy® Award winner, more power to you… as I hope to win a Grammy myself someday! But for the regular guys in the trenches, you have my respect, and I work for you.
What is it like at your level? Do you ever get tapes? How is the quality of the pre-masters?
I never get tapes. I have access to a DAT machine but it has never come up. It would seem the world is heading toward being all digital, and as the algorithms in DAWs get better, so will the sound. I used to do a lot of recording, and it’s helped me immensely in the mastering process, especially when giving engineers advice. I’ve been there.
Mastering is certainly more specialized and focused, and depending on the quality of the mixes that come in, it can be more demanding. Time is always a factor (“It took me a year and a half to record this, but I sent you those mixes at 2 AM last night, and I don’t see the CD in my mailbox yet”). The objective of every single project is to preserve the intended sound while enhancing what is great and massaging what is less than perfect. This is true whether the program was recorded in a spare bedroom entirely with SM58s and a Fast Track (sometimes with the native soundcard and GarageBand), or in a mid- to high-level studio on more professional gear.
A lot of great stuff is coming out of smaller recording studios nowadays. Technology rules! However, I am usually pretty impressed by what people are able to accomplish at home, and quite often I acquire a hugely ambitious album with great sounds and lush mixes with tons of interesting instrumentation.
Sometimes I get great songs with poor mixes. Sometimes people send me garbage, but it is rare. Certain things (ahem) can only be polished so much. I offer advice on mix/mic technique and walk people through the process, as the course of action and having a professional listen to your stuff can be daunting for a DIY musician, especially if you have never had anyone but family and friends hear your songs.
Do you master from just the two-track usually? What makes it harder to do your job?
The final two-track mix is what I work with about 3/4 of the time. The top five most difficult problems to fix (in this order) are quiet or lifeless drums, weak bass, masking, low or loud vocals, and phasing. The first thing I do is check mono (if it sounds weird or really wide) and listen to the mix overall. I try to be as objective as possible, and I endeavor to be like a physician in that I don’t judge by body type, just look at overall health.
If everything is up to snuff I begin to get level, eq etc. I do a little of both at a time in different ways. If the drums are nice and hot I usually compress first, it makes the eq less jumpy. If the vocals are loudest, I eq first and bring everything else up with other techniques to seat the vocal.
Usually in rock /alternative, the vocals are a bit quiet (depending on the engineer, but this seems to be the case 7 out of 10 times—probably a shy vocalist), and most of the time with rappers who buy industry beats, the vocal is either far out front or the beat is so squashed it has less room for the vocal. Nobody sends me more clipped material than the hip-hop guys because bought-and-sold beats are aggressively mastered, before the vocals are even layered on top. (A word of warning, I will bounce it back to the client if it is clipped. But I digress.) Every project is different, and sometimes it really helps if I have the stems to work from.
Do you like working from stems? What is your procedure?
As far as mastering from stems is concerned, I absolutely love it. Love it! I enjoy having the control, especially over vocals and bass, as I have digital tools that most are not using or privvy to. I use Cubase 5 or Pro Tools if there are more than five stems in the project, or if the client wants pitch correction on the vocals… and sometimes on violins; this has happened more than once.
I like the musicality of Cubase’s compressors and reverbs (but only on individual tracks, I would not use them for mastering) and I like the fact that you don’t lose much stereo image on either DAW like some other programs out there. I bring everything into Wavelab for mastering afterward, and I have some great VST plug-ins to work with there. I like editing certain things in Pro Tools.
The most difficult thing about stems is when things were just record-ed improperly, and it seems like it can be made better than it was, but not always as great as I would like it. When time allows, I will try to get the person to re-record. I will add reverbs, compression and/or eq to the original tracks, and I like to think that I have good taste as far as that is concerned. I always keep current trends in mind.
What about resolution?
To a DAW, it’s not music; it is 1s and 0s. A lot of people don’t realize that a mix recorded at 44.1 kHz will sound better when exported at a higher sample rate than the one in which it was recorded. The computer does less averaging, less math, and throws away fewer bits. I recommend exporting (or bouncing to disk) at double the recorded sample rate if the DAW allows. Wavelab will accept some pretty huge word lengths! Try it for yourself. Export a mix at 44.1/24 and without touching the dials, export (upconvert during bounce) at 88.2/32 bit. The difference is definitely there. High-quality plug-ins respond better to higher-quality files.
MP3s that are made from higher sample rates sound better as well. I always send out three forms of finished product: the high sample/bit rate master, a CD audio version, and MP3 singles. I can also add ISRC and make Disk Description Protocol (DDP) files for perfect replication. Let the mastering engineer make your MP3s for you. It may cost a little more, but they will sound better than a ripped CD, plus we can make “single” style MP3s without any crossfades from the other songs, clean starts and stops. You can offer CDs with track order and crossfades at your shows, and digital standalone singles for your social networking.
How do people deliver their pre-masters? Mail? FTP?
I have had USB thumb drives, DVDs and CDs hand-delivered as well as sent to me through the mail, but most people send me files for mastering via FTP sites—Dropbox, YouSendIt, Filezilla, etc. I have no problem with any method (just keep ‘em coming!), although the error rate with CD-Rs can be a bit unnerving, and I prefer high-resolution files.
I send the masters back to the client either by DVD or FTP, depend-ing on what the client wants. Everything is backed up on external hard drives. I have some very old projects still, and a lot of things where the bands have broken up and gone their own ways!
Some engineers work with the clients in person, some don’t. What do you think about attended sessions?
I enjoy and invite the bands to come for the session, especially if they have hot girlfriends! [laughs] However, since a lot of my work is sent from miles away (Chile, Malaysia, Hawaii, and sometimes Northern NH) it can be tricky to get the bands to sit in on the sesh. When they do, work goes a little slower, questions are asked, the band wants to A/B minor changes (to which their ears may not be attuned), but it is a lot of fun.
I always ask questions, whether the band can be there or not, to find out what they are looking for specifically, especially when it comes to loudness. Sometimes the engineers from local studios will attend the session on behalf of the client. That’s awe-some because I get to talk shop with other audio nerds. Developing those working relationships has been huge and really expanded my base. If you need a studio in NH I can direct you to some great people!
Speaking of loudness: What are your thoughts on the Loudness Wars?
Some bands, especially metal, hip-hop, some rock, and dance want the envelope pushed as far as loudness is con-cerned. If the music doesn’t warrant it, I show them Stone Temple Pilots (Core) or Cypress Hill (Black Sunday) to show that sometimes louder isn’t always better, but when even Modest Mouse is crushed pretty hard… I’ll do it, a mastering house can’t compete without being loud occasionally, but I prefer the middle ground. If the RMS for Metallica’s Black Album is –12 dB and for Mastodon’s Blood Mountain is –4 dB, I like it at about –7 dB. It still sounds loud by today’s standards but it is not completely destroyed.
Again, this is song- and mix-dependent. I will do whatever the client wants, to the best of my ability, and being completely digital, I can get it really loud more cleanly than a lot of the analogue guys, but the punch is still gone, a.k.a. “wimpy loud” (thank you Bob Katz for the term).
Advice for those mastering at home?
Try to avoid it if at all possible! My room is almost 30′ long and 19′ wide, with tall ceilings. I have nothing between the speakers and my head. Most home setups don’t have enough room to be accurate. Mastering is also a chance to have some-one else’s professional opinion on your mixes. That being said, here are a few pointers if you really want to try…
Use your spectrum meters to make sure your lows and highs aren’t overpowering, and that there are no frequency holes. Make small changes and check against pro CDs that closely match your genre. If you have to eq more than 3 or 4 dB in a certain range, go back into the mix. Use compression wisely: Recording has a ton of great articles on the subject of compression and limiting.
Read, get familiar with your monitoring, and make your room as dead as possible and you will probably have some decent results with time and practice… and it will make your mixes better as well.