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Audio Communication: Transition Mastering

The majority of people involved in the UK bass scene, whether they be producers, dj’s or heads at the dance, have heard of Transition Mastering Studios. At the very least spotted the infamous black and white label in the middle of some hot-as-hell dubplate being spun by the biggest dj’s in the scene. Some of the original dubstep producers and dj’s reliance on the one mastering house coming into focus in the heady days of 2005-6, as artists like Mala, Coki, Loefah, Kode9, Burial, Distance and Skream had some of their now legendary tracks cut by the mastering man, helping to crate a scene that was soon to take the world by storm. Taking the long journey down to Forest Hill, Alex Powis sat down with Transition founder and mastering engineer Jason Gosling to find out some of the back story behind transition and to discuss the basics of mastering and what it’s all about.

Interview & photography/ Alex Powis

Having not moved location since it’s creation back in 1998, you could feel the heritage at Transition HQ as you start thinking of all those iconic names that have passed through the doors to get dubs cut and tunes mastered. It’s been a backbone in the dubstep scene since the beginning and was a key part of the reggae scene during the soundclash days, often staying open 24 hours a day and all weekend for Notting Hill Carnival. Originally set
up to be a way of funding Jason’s personal studio and furthering his dj career, Transition was all about cutting dubs and nothing else, until one of the UK Garage pioneers offered him “X amount of pounds to cut a master” the same as he was cutting his dubs, and the rest was history. It wasn’t long before Jason had to quit his day job to take his career in the music industry full time.

The questions that almost all those who are involved in making music want to know at some point is “what exactly is mastering?” and “how can I make my tunes sound better, like home mastering?”. To almost all of us it seems like a vast and mysterious world hidden beyond those questions, one that most of us never truly get to look into unless your tracks get the luxury of visiting a mastering house. So naturally, it was one of the first topics I had to bring up with Jason, trying to encourage him to lift up the iron curtain of mystery that surrounds his profession.

And the answers weren’t too revealing. It would appear that the mystery surrounding mastering and what exactly it consists of is shared only with the mastering engineers themselves, or at least just Jason himself. It was hard to pry much out of him other than the concept that mastering was a process where “someone brings a track in and we make it sound good” or in a more technical way, “the last chance to make the track fit the end format”.

Questions answered? I thought not. But, personally, I needed to hear this in order to realise the truth behind that iron curtain; that there were no golden rules or secret tricks to mastering, that it was in fact almost completely down to the engineer, his equipment and his ears. Mastering isn’t something you learn as much as it is something that you refine over time. So in theory, mastering engineers are very, very acute mix engineers with some unique equipment and buckets of skill, and this is proven by Jason’s history with Transition, having never intending to master until someone told him he was essentially already mastering when tweaking tunes before cutting them to dub. One thing that was hugely evident was that mastering differs from track to track, from producer to producer. Jason has a way with words and his description of this is so brilliantly simple it makes it clear as crystal:

“It can be open heart surgery or it can be “yeah, little bit of bass, little bit of thing, little bit of compression and roll it out”. There isn’t a specific ‘this is what you do to master something’. It’s all about the master engineer listening to your track in a controlled environment to be able to make decisions on how that track is gonna sound to the end user. Whether it be on an iPod, wether it be in a nightclub or whether it be a lacquer for a vinyl pressing.”

This takes me on to a topic that intrigued me greatly; why you have to master differently for different musical formats. It’s something that a lot of people overlook, but it’s important. Quite simply, you shouldn’t ever be cutting a master for digital release onto wax; it’s that simple. Once again, this is one of the topics in mastering that can be broken down into a million small details as to why each format should be mastered slightly differently, but on the surface it’s down to how and where the tune is going to be played – “It’s about the restrictions of the end format and knowing those restrictions”.

When Jason mentions restrictions, he’s talking about having an in depth knowledge of exactly how the music goes from it’s recorded format to the listeners ears and what affects or pit holes this can have. For example, radio will chop up and compress a track before putting it back together at the other end to serve up to a listener, where as with vinyl you have to think about the playback stylus and how loud that can physically play the record. In other words, each format has its own wealth of complications, and all have to be known inside out by the mastering engineer and translated into the final master. Not as simple as you might think.

As a rough over-all guide, there are a few things to know when preparing a tune to be mastered; don’t process it on the stereo output whatsoever, EQ it and make it sound as good as possible, record at 24bit and keep the stereo output levels on/around/below -6db to give the engineer as much headroom as possible. A good master of a track goes beyond just the tune and how it is processed. Jason was very passionate about the relationship between the producer/label and the engineer, strongly recommending that people always attend sessions and create a strong rapport with their engineer for best results.

“It’s about communication, it’s about having a rapor, it’s about people being willing to embrace the fact that maybe their mix isn’t as good as they think it is and being willing to take on advice as to how to make it sound as good as possible. When I cut a record it’s got my name on it, so I want it to sound as good as possible, so that we ALL sound good.”

I think it’s fair to say that you can learn a lot from a man like Jason. Maybe not as clear a picture as I had hoped to unveil, but that’s just not mastering. It’s still a very mysterious and illusive world, but then that’s part of the appeal that allows you to rest at night knowing that people like Jason and companies like Transition will never not be needed in the music industry – with such a large percentage of the success of a final product resting on the skill of the engineer, that job isn’t going away any time fast. The simplicity of Jason’s view on production and mastering do raise a good point in today’s digital age where anyone can rip any plugin from the internet in the hope of benefitting their overall sound; learn your plug-ins, learn the basics of mixing, compare your tracks to those that you think sound good and keep practicing until you get there. There is a comfort in knowing that for all the newly found accessibility to software, the final hurdle in making a tune sound good still rests on the producer and their best piece of hardware – their ears.

For more information on Transiton Mastering Studios, head to their official website here.