An Introduction to Sound Effects Mastering

2012/09/05

Sky and Clouds

I’ve received some great reader emails lately. A few weeks ago someone asked about sound effects mastering. I enjoyed explaining what mastering means to me, and how I do it.

As I responded, I realized I often write things here and assume everyone knows what I’m talking about. One of these things is mastering. Well, today I’m going to take a step back and talk about sound fx mastering, starting with the basics.

Do you want to polish your sound effects? Planning on releasing them to the web? Completely new to mastering? Not sure what tools to use, or the steps to take?

I’ll explain the broad strokes of sound effects mastering. I’ll also share my own personal spin on cleaning field recordings and publishing them to the Web.

Music Mastering

When most people in audio hear “mastering,” they assume you’re talking about music mastering. I’ll briefly explain how this is different from sound effects mastering.

Wikipedia has a good description of music mastering. It involves shaping albums on a global level, or balancing audio between tracks. It involves a bit of restoration and “sweetening” of songs. This contributes to the “feel” and structure of albums.

The actual work shaping each song and creating the final “mixdown” is done by different engineers during the mix.

Sound Effects Mastering

Sound effects mastering blends these roles. It involves editing raw field recordings, cleaning them, processing them through plug-ins, mixing them together, and organizing them. They are then published, either to the Web, or simply to your own library hard drive.

I’ve organized the process into these broad areas:

  1. Organization.
  2. Editing.
  3. Processing and Sweetening.
  4. Naming and Metadata.
  5. Publishing.

A Personal Approach

Each sound effects editor masters clips in separate ways. They may swap items on the list above. They may omit some.

Why?

Each sound effect is mastered differently. For example, if you are designing sound effects with plug-ins and samplers you’ll likely blend the editing and processing steps.

Your goal also matters. You may be cleaning tracks for your facility library. You may just need to rough them in for a quick edit today.

For instance, since I record atmospheres, I may master radically different than someone who focuses on wild studio effects, gunshots, or thunder.

Because of this, a step-by-step guide with a shopping list of plug-ins isn’t useful. I’ll share the broad concepts with you. I’ll also describe my workflow and technique to give you some practical examples. Draw from them to build your own mastering technique.

Not sure what your personal approach should be?

I wrote earlier about the value of knowing your audience. This helps. Use it to inform your mastering technique so you will produce tracks with personal style, and greater impact.

Stages of Sound Effects Mastering

  1. Organization
  2. LIst of Files

    Mastering sound effects involves working with hundreds of sound clips. They’re edited into thousands of regions. Because of this, it’s important to organize your work. It keeps your sessions tidy. This helps you find stray clips, compare tracks and names, and revisit sound effects when you must.

    My approach:

    1. Organize. I divide my raw recordings into categories and create a session for each type of sound. I’ll arrange all traffic sounds in one session, and crowd sounds in another. Editing, organizing, processing and describing similar sounds I find improves their quality. It also makes editing quicker.

     

  3. Editing
  4. Pro Tools Edit Screen

    This is the biggest job. It involves the hard labour of cutting audio, shifting it and tweaking it. It is the stage where you begin to construct your final tracks from raw field recordings.

    How I edit:

    1. Trim and mark. I perform a “trim” pass on the sounds. I remove slating. I add these notes in the region name, or in session markers.
      This is important. Since I take a long time to master sounds, I don’t want to forget important session details. I trim the sounds to a rough length. Sometimes I perform basic processing that doesn’t require finesse, like normalizing or simple equalization.
      I also delete obviously useless sounds at this stage.
    2. Editing. I perform an “edit” pass. This takes a lot of time. I cut out errors, crossfade regions, and add fades. I’ll experiment with detailed EQ’ing in the mix desk, but won’t apply it. This helps me see if a sound effect has potential to be enriched in the processing stage (below).
    3. Check fades. I usually make a quick pass through the tracks immediately after editing to ensure the head and tail fades are smooth.
    4. Write raw names. I perform a “naming” pass. I give the regions rough names, mostly so I don’t forget details that occurred to me while editing.
    5. Bounce raw tracks. I bounce the clips within the session. I do this to create a new, self-contained draft copy of the sound effect to work on. This means I won’t have to worry about redrawing fades and keeping track of regions. It also allows me to retreat back to the original file if I make a fatal mistake later.
      Depending on the sound effect, I may apply processing while bouncing. This is mostly basic EQ roll offs, etc.
      This step can also involve mixing many tracks together to create a final, composite sound effect.
    6. Step away. I leave the sound effects for days, sometimes weeks. I do this to gain perspective on the sounds. It helps me hear them freshly later. This is invaluable for spotting errors I miss when “too close to the work.”
    7. Delete weak sounds. I return to the tracks and perform a raw “delete” pass. I listen to the tracks again and ruthlessly delete uninteresting or similar sounds.

     

  5. Processing and Sweetening
  6. Pro Tools Mix Desk

    The processing stage uses plug-ins and samplers to affect your tracks.

    Processing is used either to clean or improve damaged tracks. It can also be used to enhance tracks creatively with sound design.

    Basic examples are equalization, noise reduction and compression. You can tweak sound further with stereo tools, harmonic exciters, or sweeten tracks with a bit of reverb.

    Creative processing can be used on your tracks, often building entirely new sounds. Doppler plug-ins, pitching, and time-stretching are cornerstones. There are other, limitless possibilities to colour sound with tools such as Iris or Metasynth.

    This diverts a bit from mastering and publishing into sound design. I’ll write more about creative processing later. For now, let’s look at how processing affects conventional mastering.

    Here are my steps:

    1. Apply processing. I perform a processing pass on the draft bounced versions. I apply detailed EQ if it is required. I’ll also apply restoration at this stage: de-noising, de-clipping and sometimes de-crackling, etc. I invest a lot of time taking great care not to let processing harm a sound.
    2. Create alts. At this point I may create an alternate “sound design” version. I usually prefer my sound effects “natural,” but sometimes I may enhance frequencies for emotional effect, adjust stereo image, or apply compression. I process this as an alternate file and keep the “natural” sound separate. I label each.
    3. Step away. I leave the sound effects a few more days.
    4. Delete weak sounds. I perform a final “delete” pass to remove any poor sounds. It’s important to do this again after processing. Processing is sometimes used to fix or enhance substandard files. Often it doesn’t quite do the job. I don’t use processing to merely fix a file. It must make it superior. If processing diminishes the authenticity of a file, even in the slightest, I delete the entire track. If I can detect even a hint of processing, I delete the sound.

     

  7. Naming and Metadata
  8. Metadata in SoundMiner browser

    This stage organizes tracks and prepares them for publishing.

    1. Research and write final names. I give the sounds final names. Often this requires research to find out models, brands, details and history of the subject. I take great care creating good, unique and descriptive names. After all, names are the way others find your sounds, so they must be accurate and useful.
      I compare the names of the sounds so that they are consistent. I ensure they relate or “stack” well together in a region list.
    2. Bounce final files. I bounce out the sounds to a final copy.
    3. Write metadata. I apply about 15 fields of metadata to the sounds in Soundminer to add richness, details and notes not provided in the name itself.

     

  9. Publishing
  10. FTP App

    1. Add to library. I join the sounds with the rest of my library. I usually sort them into folders based on year and library type (foundation sound effects, or special, signature sound effects). Others organize by category. It’s up to you and the workflow you choose.
    2. Backup the library. I back up the sounds, and upload them to the website server.
    3. Ingest the sounds. Much later I ingest the sounds onto the Airborne Sound website itself.

A Note About Processing

Other than EQ and normalizing, I usually avoid processing.

This is a personal choice.

I do this because I primarily record atmospheres. I want to convey realism. I find that stereo imaging, restoration and various sweetening bundles are crutches for poor sound effects. Often a plug-in effect can consume the character of the sound itself. If I find myself struggling with plug-ins, I’m better off recording a new, superior version of the sound. I prefer spending more time field recording sound properly to using software to fix a file afterwards.

I sometimes use compression. I’m not fond of it. Partly this is because it affects the flexibility of the file. I also don’t prefer the “effect” it can create on sounds. I’m also not very good at it.

Some editors use elaborate arrangements of enhancers and exciters to enrich their sounds. The effect can be quite dramatic, and can create incredibly expressive sounds. I personally don’t do this since, again, I aim for realism in atmospheres. However, it’s up to the taste of the editor, and the needs of their audience.

Sound Effects Mastering Tips and Tricks

If you find these ideas interesting, you may like an article I wrote on the Airborne Sound blog.

It’s a list of tips for mastering.

Read 9 Tips to Improve Editing and Mastering Sound Effects.

Your Influence

Developing your own mastering style is important.

It places your own, personal mark upon the tracks. Famous engineers such as Trevor Horn, Flood, and Mutt Lange have their own unmistakable affect upon songs. Bob Ludwig, one of the most famous mastering engineers, has his fingerprints on thousands of important albums. You can feel his influence across 1990s music.

Aim to do the same with your mastering technique.

Good luck!

How do you master sound effects? Do you have favourite plug-ins? Are some essential to the job? Share your ideas below.





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4 responses to An Introduction to Sound Effects Mastering

  1. Mikkel Nielsen 2012/09/05 at 14:57

    Hey Paul

    What a great and informative article. You really clears up alot of aspects.
    Well done!

    • Many thanks, Mikkel!

      Please let me know if there are any other aspects of mastering I can help explain. Cheers!

  2. Thanks Paul great article. I would like to know more about how to organize a database of sounds.
    Maybe another article?
    Thanks again!

    • Thank you, Cesar!

      Fantastic idea. Database organization is definitely a critical part of the mastering process. It helps find the right sounds quickly. I will certainly address it in a future article.