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Audio Mastering Engineer, Nicky Howard, gives great insight into the art!

Updated: Jun 4, 2023

Hi Nicky, welcome to Review Zoo First of all, please can you explain what mastering is? Mastering is the final creative step in the recording process. It involves critical listening, checking audio and communicating with the client to provide objective feedback on the project and bring it over the finish line.

  • Quality control for spotting and fixing technical issues such as clicks, pops, etc... ensuring no mistakes or off-putting artefacts are present for the listener.

  • Optimisation to ensure that the audio translates to as many systems as possible and the music remains consistent wherever it's played.

  • Enhancements to highlight the overall feeling and any areas that could better connect the intent of the music to the listener.

  • Delivery to create the final audio ready with the correct technical specs to be distributed to its final destination.

What got you into mastering? A love of music and technology. From an early age, I was fascinated by music creation and the way technology could influence this. While at university, I focused on the design principles behind studio equipment. After graduation, I spent years working my way up through the music industry, from producer to studio engineer, and eventually to the natural conclusion of dedicating myself to the art of mastering that encapsulates listening and technology perfectly. Please can you explain the benefits of professional mastering? A professional mastering engineer will bring a wealth of knowledge to your project to draw from, as mastering tends to be an area audio professionals end up in after years of working in the industry. Another advantage is providing the project with a fresh set of ears that are unbiased and trained. Mastering engineers also have access to very detailed listening and acoustically uncompromised environments. This all helps to ensure confidence that the final result will always be of a high standard that serves the music. What’s generally the biggest Mastering misperception? That mastering is all about processing with things like EQ, Compression and other gear/plugins. In reality, this is only a part of mastering. The area that takes the most skill is critical listening. For this skill, you need knowledge, experience and an environment suitable for making informed decisions that serve the music and client. Who are your biggest inspirations? I love people who have come to their own conclusions and are willing to push the boundaries, not just follow the crowd. In the mastering world, Doug Sax was the one that took mastering out of the label buildings and set up the first dedicated mastering facility. In music, Brian Eno did things with ambient sounds that were truly innovative and unique. When listening to music in your spare time, do you find yourself listening out for the quality of the mastering of songs? All of the time! It can be a blessing and a curse. When a song I hear sounds good, I make a note and give it a listen in the studio. Likewise, if something sounds a bit off, I need to check it. When you listen to an outstanding technical production, it can inspire you. Spotting mistakes is a great way to keep on top of your game. What’s your favourite piece of equipment you wouldn’t go without? My monitoring system. I class my speakers (PMC - IB1S) and room as the monitoring system. These two aspects interconnect and are calibrated to work as one. Accurately hearing the full spectrum of audio is essential for mastering. I also use a pair of Audeze - LCD-X headphones which are brilliant for details, like an audio microscope. What do you look for in a good mix/pre-master? A good mix is all about striking a balance that presents the piece in a way that allows you to fully connect with the intent of the music. An issue would be something distracting that makes you think about anything other than what the piece of music is trying to express. I like to work closely with the mixing engineer, allowing us to openly discuss any potential issues before the mastering session, ultimately achieving the best results possible. Which genres do you mainly work with? I like to work with genres I enjoy and listen to in my spare time. By taking this approach, I can ensure a personal understanding of the music I work with and bring this to each project. The focus in the UK is currently on electronic dance music, and I do a lot of work in this area. I also enjoy Pop music, and a large amount of this is seeing heavy electronic influences, which is a nice cross-over. I also love Ambient, Indie, Chillout and a rather eclectic variety. Who are your favourite music artists/bands? Too many! I love music. This changes from day to day. Fred Again caught my attention as the diary-based approach to his albums is interesting in the way it uses real-world samples and helps to make it feel personal. Although somewhat controversial, I love the lyrics in The 1975 songs. Metrik is creating some seriously good futuristic sounding Drum & Bass for when I want to hear pure energy. What hobbies do you enjoy doing in your spare time? I like to get outdoors with my best friend, four-legged fury-faced Bobby the Beagle. We love to take a stroll in the woods or at the beach. I find the quiet and stillness of nature is perfect for resetting my ears after a long studio session. Do you have any of your own music projects, if so, would you like to share them with us? The last music I produced was in around 2010. Once upon a time, I would create and DJ under the alias Trim The Fat. There is still some of my work available online, although this is slowly fading into the digital ether. It would be amazing to make something new, maybe one day soon! Thanks for taking the time out and sharing such great insight with us. Thanks Nicky!


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