PBM Mastering Workflow

The PBM mastering workflow has been in development for over 15 years. In that time I have done a lot of equipment evaluation – and I’m pretty sure that I now have a settled inventory of top-notch equipment that enables me to do anything I might be called on to do in mastering projects.

Here’s the set-up. The computer screens are off to one side, next to the equipment desk which faces the main monitors – ATC SL50 active controlled by a Viva valve pre-amp and fed by a dCS DAC – and my main listening chair is in front of that desk. It has been like that since my early classical days: I have tried (very hard) to work behind the desk, Starship Enterprise style, but I simply can’t. It’s not just a matter of wanting an unimpeded sound-path between ears and the speakers, it’s also (perhaps principally) because even at the best of times I have a dreadfully butterfly mind – I’m more easily distracted than Nemo’s Dory – and so when listening critically I need to safeguard my fragile attention from any interference whatsoever. So I listen to the track to be mastered, and make some mental notes on what I can hear that might need some work. I then rise and go to my processors – generally just EQ on the first pass – make some settings, come back and listen again; process, rinse, repeat …

I think it’s a fairly unusual way of working – most mastering engineers I know sit behind their desks to make their adjustments – but it suits me better to move around, and I find that the preliminary decisions I make from the first listen are generally in the right direction. I suffer from a literally visceral sense of sound: I feel physically uncomfortable if I can hear resonances that are muffling detail, or if certain sounds are too strident or sleepy, or if the whole things sounds muted or lifeless etc (it’s a bit like the experience of riding in an underpowered car going up a steep hill, feeling yourself urging the car on with small physical movements). And so if the decisions I make in the first listen are more or less correct, the changes I make should make me feel more comfortable, and generally they do. Just because this is an unusual way of working I used to check my choices by tweaking them in one direction or the other, but after a couple of years it seemed that this was just a waste of time. For whatever reason (years of experience, a musical ear, an extraordinary run of dumb luck) I can usually tell what a track needs on the first listen, and so even though I’m moving around except when sitting to check the changes, the total time taken is probably about the same as the engineer who sits at the desk and makes changes and listens at the same time. Of course once in the ballpark I then have to finesse the choices, but generally after three listens I’m done. There’s no magic, tricks or secrets involved here: it’s simply a natural human capacity that can be developed by experience and/or exercises of listening, and knowing (and hearing) your frequencies, and knowing your equipment.

The DAW is Sequoia and the processing workflow itself is an analogue chain, with digital processors at either end if needed. I use digital EQ at the front of the chain to make major corrections – either the Sonoris Mastering EQ plug-in or the Weiss EQ Mk2 outboard. If using the Weiss with a 44k project I upsample to 96k using a dCS D-D converter as that sounds better to my ears than the internal upsampling of the Weiss itself. The signal is then routed, if necessary, to the t.c. 6000 De-Esser, then converted to analogue via a Forssell MADA-2 and sent to a long analogue chain from which I select whatever is need for the particular track, but which in its entirety reads:

Maselec MLA-3 -> Maselec MEA-2 – > Pendulum OCL-2 -> Knif SOMA EQ -> Knif Vari-Mu II -> Grace 801 pre -> Thermionic Culture Pullet passive EQ -> MADA-2 (a/d conversion) -> t.c. 6000 (sometimes for the Massenburg EQ and always the BW2 limiter) -> Sequoia

The t.c.6000 limiter is used to add gain but rarely for heavy-duty limiting before the signal is re-captured in Sequoia. This gives me the flexibility of having a moderately loud master which if need be can then have further gain added, generally via the Fab-Filter Pro-L limiter.

Once all the tracks are mastered I run off a set of 320 mp3 for client approval and send them using a WeTransfer channel (clients send their mixes to be mastered using the same channel). Once approved I burn a DDPi (with CD text and ISRC and UPC codes if needed) and send that and a copy of the Sonoris DDP player to the client for a final check (we check it here too, but belts and braces and all that …) and they then forward the download link to their replicator.

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