Mastering engineer muses on sound of music

Mastering engineer Dave McNair unravels some of the mysteries of how he makes music sound good over iTunes and MP3s played over $20 computer speakers.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
Dave McNair in his Sterling Sound mastering studio in NYC. Steve Guttenberg

Dave McNair has been playing, recording, mixing, producing, and mastering music for more than 30 years and has worked with a wide range of artists including Los Lobos, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Patti Smith, Miles Davis, Willie Nelson, Angelique Kidjo, and John Mayall. He now works for New York City's top mastering house, Sterling Sound.

I interviewed McNair for Tone Audio magazine, this is just a small part of it.

Q: How has the mastering engineer's work changed from the days when analog audio ruled the roost?

When they were cutting records from analog masters, mastering engineers were caretakers of rather fragile analog signals. It wasn't an easy thing, trying to get it from Point A to Point B without losing the music. Back then the mastering engineer didn't compress or limit the signal all that much, you wanted the end user to hear all of the punch and leading edge dynamics. But now that things are so clean on the recording end mastering is a bridge from mixing to the duplication process. You might be adding the color that might have once been added by analog processors or mixing consoles.

Q: 'Color,' is that the same thing as sweetening?

Right, I'm chasing this idea, I want to make CDs sound like LPs.

Q: By adding complementary distortions?

Not always, but sometimes. I want to get more of the effortless sound of vinyl on CDs.

Q: It's pretty complex, but I agree, analog distortions can sound more musical than digital, even high-resolution digital.

Right, they add flavor, texture, and harmonics, but I'm not speaking for all mastering engineers; many still use a very simple path and stay away from enhancements.

Q: Like compression, you guys love compression. But the music was already compressed during tracking and mixing, why compress it again?

 Not always, maybe 20 percent of the time I get stuff that's not compressed enough. That's only because there's so many more new-to-the-game, semiamateur engineers making records these days. They're recording some really great, artistically valid bands, but it winds up sounding like a documentary style of recording. They leave it to the mastering guy to make it work, so I need to make the sound more dense, gluing the elements together.

Q: I'm guessing that 99 percent of the stuff you master is going to be listened to as iTunes or MP3s via $20 computer speakers, freebie earbuds, or car audio systems. You have to make music sound good for the real world.

I have never consciously made an audio decision thinking this would sound better on MP3, or a small speaker. Somebody figured it out a long time ago that if you judge the overall EQ, dynamics, and the things you can alter in mastering over a really full-range, low coloration system it will naturally sound better in a wide variety of systems. I occasionally monitor over headphones, just to hear the music from another perspective. And I also listen to things I'm working on in my car, to see how the bass sounds, but I don't ever really tweak it that much based on what I hear in the car.