Mastering Engineer Maor Appelbaum has put the finishing touches on seminal records over the past 20 years. His impressive resume includes acts such as: Faith No More, Yes, Rob Halford, Sepultura, Yngwie Malmsteen, and many others. Maor did not have a Mastering mentor to learn from. His work stems from personal and lengthy trial and error, which leads to his unique approach.
Maor sat down with SoundBetter and shared some of his mastering tips, tricks and philosophies.
Do you listen to reference tracks as you work?
I don’t use reference tracks in most cases. Every recording is independent and unique. Even if a track is inspired by something else. I need to work on what exists, not on an imagination or comparison.
I find that sometimes comparing your work to another track can influence your own work in an unnatural way. Every recording has it’s own clues of where it should be taken sonically. The song pulls you in a certain direction, and it’s important to hear and understand which direction that is. A reference track can sometimes obstruct these clues. So for me it is most important to direct my attention at the original source, and find what it needs to sound best, as apposed to finding a way to fit it into a rubric of another song.
On the rare occasions when I do use reference tracks, I am usually using them to compare loudness. Another reason is if the client has a very specific vision that they communicate to me through referencing other records they like.
What are your views on loudness?
Loudness is greatly affected by the wishes of the client. Certain genres have a reputation of being loud, but this does not necessarily mean that all songs in that genre should automatically be mastered loud. It really depends on the client’s vision. I’ve worked on genres from light to heavy. In some cases the client wanted the masters to hit hard, and in other cases the client agreed to leave some more room for dynamics.
Is it safe to assume that you prefer more dynamic masters?
Dynamics, and a lack of dynamics are just two aesthetics. There are also many stages in between the two. Any of these can be appealing in different situations. The problem here is not dynamics as much as it is volume, or loudness. There are many great albums that are not dynamic, but are also not too loud. Those albums are pleasant to the ear. There were plenty of albums, even in the 80s’ and 90’s that were very compressed. That didn’t stop us from listening and enjoying ourselves, because these albums weren’t unbearably loud. And then there were albums that really were loud. This loudness dragged with it thing like artifacts, and ear fatigue. This sort of loudness stretched the sound to states that were less pleasant and enjoyable and led to many compromises.
On the other hand, more than a few great albums are filled with all sorts of clipping and are pleasant to listen to. This is because the clipping was done tastefully, and at certain times, as apposed to throughout the entire album.
I don’t want to take sides and say that the loudness wars were either good or bad. At the end of the day, the loudness wars didn’t prove much. Albums didn’t sell any more when they were louder. I do however understand that people like a certain impact that is achievable through loudness to an extent. Personally, I always try to find what serves the song best. If the song sounds better when it’s louder then that’s great. But I don’t lose any sleep over masters that sound better with a bit more dynamics.
It is always important to remember that we are service providers. It is our job to please the client and give them what they want. If a client prefers to takes the loud route, I could always explain my stance to them, but ultimately it is their choice. It is then up to me to make their choices work as best as possible.
I think it’s also important to note that not every mix can handle high levels. Some mixes can be pushed into the reds and sound great, while others don’t hold up. This is not an indicator of mix quality, only of mix "type" or "style". To go back to what I said before; this is another example of how tracks can give you guidance in the form of clues.
"I think it’s also important to note that not every mix can handle high levels"
Do you factor target demographics into your work?
Yes. Different audiences generally tend to prefer different sounds. These tonal differences are often different types of low or high-end, midrange treatment, compression, and even different types of clipping. Sometimes the genre, or even region, can affect the sound. European sound is very different from American sound. If a European band wants to sound American, or vice versa, then it may require a different approach during the mastering stage.
Could you describe some specific differences in sound through various regions?
Americans tend to favor low-end. A big Active Rock sound. Europeans usually like less low end and more attack. They still like lows, but they lean more towards subtlety in that area. Even within a region you will find a variety of audiences. Inside the boundaries of Europe: Scandinavian audiences tend to like faster transients, while the UK sound is often a lot warmer and rounder with less lows, but also less highs.
"European sound is very different from American sound"
Do you have any recommendations for Mix Engineers that could help them achieve higher perceived loudness without the use of limiters?
It starts at the source. Some sources and processes naturally sound big. A trio playing a certain way on certain instruments can sound far bigger than a 5 piece. It’s a matter of playing, processing, production, and sound choices. Certain guitars are just naturally bigger sounding than others.
It is also important to be weary of over-processing. When compressing, ask yourself if the compression is giving the song more meat, or if it is squashing some life out of the song and closing it up.
I find that mixes with complimenting rhythm sections can allow for more volume. If your drums and bass work together, they could go up in volume without causing problems.
Does this include timing and editing?
It does. Keep in mind that every choice has its pros and cons. Mixes with tight timing are often punchier, but can feel smaller. On the other hand, mixes with looser timing can fill up more space and feel bigger, possibly at the expense of punch. Attack and size are both different types of volume and are usually on somewhat opposite ends of the spectrum.
"Attack and size are both different types of volume and are usually on somewhat opposite ends of the spectrum"
What do you monitor your work on?
I do most of my work on my mains: The PMC IB1s. If I want to hear things in a different scenario, or if my ear simply wants a change of pace from the PMCs’ then I have my Neumann KH310s and a pair of Reftones. In some cases I may want an additional perspective so I will go and use other speakers as well. Certain things I even do on headphones.
The client also partakes in the referencing. They usually do this on systems they are familiar with. This varies from personal speakers, to headphones, and even ear buds. It’s important to me that the client listens on systems they know well. This is where the client usually listens to music, and where they are most objective.
What volumes do you monitor at?
It is very important for me to hear how things will sound on the outside. So I often raise the volume. When working at low levels, you may hear some details that stick out, but you don’t get to experience how the song bursts out of the speakers. This can sometimes be deceiving. I do change levels throughout the process, but I find higher volumes to be the most useful.
Do you take a lot of breaks to avoid ear-fatigue while working?
I do take breaks. But for me it is less about avoiding ear fatigue, and more about getting out of "the zone" from time to time. Sometimes when listening to a track for too long, your ears and brain get used to the content and start accepting it for what it is. Stepping away for a minute or two takes you out of the zone, and when you get back into the zone, you have a refreshed perspective.
Do you prefer taking these breaks in silence?
Not particularly. Like I said, the main reason for my breaks is to step away from a particular mindset. A phone call can also be considered a break. I don’t keep my phone on silent because I welcome the occasional distraction. I don’t like scheduling my breaks either. Sometimes you can be in the zone in a good way, and being pulled away because of a scheduled break can be unproductive.
Also, staying on one task for too long can give you tunnel vision. You can sink into a certain comfort zone where you may be more willing to take certain actions a bit farther than you usually would. Stepping away from the project and coming back to it could help you realize that that process you thought was really cool might actually be too much and needs to be backed off a bit.
This sounds like great advice for Mix Engineers as well
It’s important for everyone. It’s important to concentrate on what you are doing. But don’t disconnect. Give yourself some time to get out and come back in. If you are always in, you may miss something. You may lose objectivity.
"Staying on one task for too long can give you tunnel vision"
Speaking of Mix Engineers, are there any common mistakes you see mix engineers do?
One issue that is somewhat common, even with experienced Engineers, is a mix bus compressor that may sound great in the verse, but squash too much in the chorus or vice versa. This is usually a simple oversight. The whole industry and budgets are different then before, so its more about working fast and being competitive. As a result some people can miss some over-worked bus processors, especially in particular sections of the song during a final print.
Generally I have noticed a trend of over-processing on the master bus. Many Engineers today have a vast collection of plugins. Some of these plugins have a cool or interesting sounding element to them that can actually pull some life away from the track. Using these processors can be tempting and easy to overdo. It is possible to "overglue" a mix.
I am fine with the mixing engineer using bus processors when it serves the songs dynamic and sonic signature. Its a sensitive zone and can be overdone. In some cases not even having it produces better results.
Are there any particular processors or plugin types you recommend Mix Engineers and Producers steer clear from?
I recommend for people to build a mix that sounds good and balanced on it’s own, before mix bus processing. If you do want to use something like a tape emulator, make sure that it’s actually helping the song and isn’t just a cool thing to do. I usually recommend using processing like that on individual channels, rather than the master bus. This gives you much more control over the coloration of individual elements without changing the entire mix. Besides, leaving the master bus fairly untouched gives the Mastering Engineer more options and control.
I also recommend steering clear from using multi-band processing on the mix bus. Multi-band processors are extremely powerful tools. They can change the final mix drastically and be very difficult to fix during the mastering stage when comparing to a single-band processor.
That being said, each Engineer has a different set of ears and talents. I have come across amazing mixes with no processing on the master bus. I have also heard incredible mixes that had tons of processing on the output. There are no hard and fast rules.
"It is possible to "overglue" a mix"
What mistakes did you make 10 years ago that you don’t today.
I don’t know if I would call anything I did 10 years ago a mistake. Some sounds are an acquired taste. As you develop in your profession you learn more about what you like and how to listen to it. When I listen to older work of mine I love some of it and think, "I could have done this differently" for some of it. You always change both as a person and a professional. In some cases your tools and equipment change, which in turn changes your workflow, taste, and results.
Would you say you don’t let ego interfere as much?
I wouldn’t call it less ego as much as maybe more confidence. I am always learning, and so is everyone else. Ego doesn’t necessarily mean, "I did it the right way. Take it or leave it". Ego can mean, "What I think is important to me. I believe that it can make things better. So let’s work on it" or "I want you to be happy with the product and we will get there". The ego can bring a positive team-working element to a working relationship, when the engineer has the kind of confidence that comes from experience.
Faith No More's "Sol Invictus" was mastered by Maor Appelbaum. Pictured above: Matt Wallace, Maor Appelbaum, Billy Gould.
What are your thoughts on how the roles of the mastering process and the Mastering Engineer have changed over the past decade?
Even though musical trends and technology changes over time, we have to remember that all in all, mastering is an objective task. Its core purpose has not changed. At the end of the day, mastering is taking a mix, improving it, and fitting into to the artist’s aesthetic and stylistic vision. When working on a song, a mix engineer concentrates on the different elements of the song and on how to make them all blend. An engineer in that mindset isn’t always able to look at the big picture. Their mind has been preoccupied with individual components for too long during the mixing process.
A Mastering Engineer is an expert at looking at the big picture. They are like an objective listener, with control. This in essence, is all mastering is; a new and objective perspective. Mastering Engineers also make sure all songs on an album sound like they are part of one package, and that these songs sound good on all systems from hi-fi speakers, to ear buds. None of this has changed in the last decade, two, or three.
What did change over the last few years are the tools. Many of these tools, especially computer-related components, have become more affordable and accessible. Even people who are not Mastering Engineers suddenly have access to mastering plugins.
"A Mastering Engineer is an expert at looking at the big picture. They are like an objective listener, with control"
And how do you feel about mastering plugins being available to a more general public?
In all honesty, I think there is a reason why amazing albums sound amazing. It’s because talented and qualified people worked on them. And not just a single person, in many cases it was an entire team: Producers, Recording Engineers, Mix Engineers, Mastering Engineer, and more. Sometimes some of these people had multiple roles on a particular project. But in every case that an album elicited an emotional reaction from myself, or anyone I know, the Mastering Engineer was a separate person. A fresh set of ears.
You’ve mentioned the importance of a fresh set of ears a few times. Do you think letting a separate mix engineer master a song or an album could yield good results?
Work is work. If you choose to let another Mix Engineer master you work, you are still getting a new objective perspective. But in addition to objectivity, you should also ask yourself if said engineer is capable of delivering what is needed. If they can deliver, then why not?
However, the benefit of working with an engineer that deals with only mastering is that they are constantly doing it. They are always in the mastering mindset. They don’t think like a Mix Engineer. They work differently. Because of this, a bona fide Mastering Engineer can often take the song to an even farther and more exciting place. And I do think that when a song is more exciting, people connect to it more. Which leads to more listens and ultimately more sales. This is why the biggest Producers and Mix Engineers in the world choose to work with a Mastering Engineer, even though they all know how to use a limiter and a compressor.
"The biggest Producers and Mix Engineers in the world choose to work with a Mastering Engineer, even though they all know how to use a limiter and a compressor"
How do you feel about the new trend of 'algorithmic mastering' with either automated 'all in one' software, or online artificial intelligence mastering services?
We have to remember that we are dealing with art. Art is air. It’s not something you can touch or calculate. The decisions that go into art can be artistic, aesthetic, technical, historical, momentary, administrative, political, the list goes on and on. These decisions are often driven by emotions and other human elements. Artificial intelligence feeds on data and I still don’t believe we have enough of it. Analyzing, decoding, and processing all of this data may take us decades, and even then, I am not sure that it could ever be accurately done to elicit emotion. At the end of the day, a human can say, "I like it" or "I don’t like it". It’s possible that canned mastering will produce something that you like from time to time. But a big part of the mastering process is communication and the intellectual exchange between the client and the engineer. What do you do for the times when you don’t like the canned outcome? Who do you talk to about a revision? How do you explain your feelings and preferences? All of these human decisions are better made by a human. A computer can memorize EQ curves and dynamic patterns. But making a decision, especially an artistic one, is something incredibly personal and human.
What was it like to work with Faith No More?
When Faith No More started out, they created something very innovative for the time. Even today, even though some trends exist thanks to them, they always find a way to innovate and give their audience something new. Every album they have made is a world in its own. I worked directly with the producer, Billy Gould, who is also the Bassist in the band. He worked closely with Matt Wallace on the mix for this album. They knew what they wanted and they knew how to guide the process. In addition to the fact that these guys are incredible musicians, they have such a strong ability to bring so much energy to their music and always sound relevant. This is their first record in 18 years. When working with them, it was very important for me to make sure that I give them results that match their sound and spirit. It had to be innovative, but it also had to be Faith No More. I had to know who Faith No More are to know what I was doing. To understand their particular energy.
You have worked with many other classic acts such as Yes, Sepultura, Rob Halford, Walter Trout, and even William Shatner. What’s it like to work with a legacy artist?
It is always a positive but polarized experience for me. On one hand it’s always exciting for me to work with an artist I grew up listening to. On the other hand I know that these acts have an established sound, and I want to make sure that I help them get it again. When you are working with an act you have respected and idolized your whole life you really want to help them shine even more.
Working with legacy bands has taught me that some people have been doing this for a while and have a sound. This sound needs to be respected. You need to do your research of their past work and only do your job once you know their sonic background.
What advice would like to give aspiring Engineers?
Today many new and intermediate Engineers learn their craft through articles and tutorials online. I worry that some people may hear that a certain pro uses a certain technique or a certain piece of gear and think: "well if they do it, and I like what they do and how they sound, then I should do the same thing as well". This isn’t true. That pro has a different set of experiences and knowledge than your own. What they do may not fit your workflow or knowledge, not to mention the music you are working on. Use your ears and your judgment, and don’t just use a tool because of its price tag.
All advice, online or not, including mine, should be taken with a grain of salt. There are no hard and fast rules.
Faith No More's "Sol Invictus" was mastered by Maor Appelbaum. Pictured above: Matt Wallace, Maor Appelbaum, Billy Gould.