Boris Saint Pierre is Funktasy’s in-house Mastering Engineer. In this Funktasy Spotlight, we talk with him about the art of mastering. Experienced with many genres of commercial music, the Canada-born engineer has made a name for himself working on hundreds of records particularly in the world of hip-hop, rock, and EDM. His strengths include identifying issues with mixes, years of dynamic analysis, careful enhancement of sonic signatures through characteristic EQ, compression and saturation. In 2021, Boris joined Funktasy’s team to offer his world-class skills and mastering service. Boris shares with Funktasy Magazine readers his invaluable insights and outlook on the highly sought-after art of audio mastering.
What is a mastering engineer’s job?
Mastering engineers are the last line of defence between your track and the consumer. While online distributors such as Spotify or YouTube can change how your track ends up sounding like, your mastering engineer is the last person in the chain that has any control over the sound of your record. Our role is crucial in quality-control and a good mastering engineer will always look out for deficiencies in a mix before starting his process. In addition, our job is to enhance textures that give “flair” to the record while ensuring that the track has carefully sculpted dynamics and peaks. This is a process mastered by years of work in the industry and decent mastering engineer will know how online distributors of physical replication of a record will affect the acoustics of the record. These are all crucial to the mastering process.
How did you choose “mastering engineer” as a profession?
Like the legendary Manny Maroquin once said, “It was the Jacob Colliers and the Oscar Petersons that drove me to the world of acoustics.” I remember hearing all the musical geniuses of my time and being both mesmerized and dumbfounded that there were musical talents far above my level. While I could only dream of ever reaching their skill potential, I started to realize that while their compositional and musicianship skills were incredible, their songs sometimes lacked a little definition which could be attained through the realm of acoustics. After working on a few tracks for local talented bands, I realized that I had a lot to bring to the table and that the masters I produced were actually improving their records by a long shot. And then I just knew it… “Hey you’re pretty good at this, maybe you could do it for a profession!”.
How has your workflow changed with today’s technology? Are you using plugins, analog, or hybrid?
I’ve always been a hybrid engineer as I think there’s good in both the digital and analog realm. It’s rare to find someone who disagrees (although I’ve met a few). For example, digital limiters have far surpassed analog limiters in almost every respect and the analog counterpart technology has become obsolete. The analog world though, can bring a lot of flavour to a track and I tend to favour those for EQ, compression, and saturation. Recent models have become good at “recalling” settings making them ideal in a mastering situation when clients would want to go back over a section. The ever-increasing growth in technologies has piqued my interest in particular towards converters. It’s one area which has seen tremendous growth in the past few years, and I’m always keeping a lookout for some interesting converters on the market.
In today’s ever-changing world of technology and digital age, most producers tend to master their own tracks using affordable software or using cheaper machine-based online mastering services. Do you think this has affected the quality of music out there? How essential is it for artists and producers to work with a real-life mastering engineers?
It’s no secret that mastering has been flooded with tools, software and AI services that have rendered the process less time-consuming and more affordable. AI services have and will become better in the future, but they will always lack the ability of forethought, constantly questioning their use of tools, and their effect. This accessibility to countless tools has allowed the common producer to master their own tracks for no additional cost. However, they are only tools, and one needs to learn not only how to use them, but also in which circumstance, in order to do a good job. In addition, just like AI, the common producer wouldn’t be able to tell what problems need to be addressed in the mix rather than the master. This means that mastering engineer, for the time-being, will always do a much better job than any other software and a really worth the time and price.
What are the benefits of an online mastering service?
First of all, it’s convenient. Clients can come from anywhere in the world and it allows everybody to work in their respective time-zones without delay. It allows you to work with people you wouldn’t be able to work with in person. Your mastering engineer isn’t pressured by the time of a session and can take the appropriate time to turn your record into perfection. It tends to be more affordable for customers and cost-effective for engineers as they can schedule their time more efficiently.
When is a mix ready to be mastered? Is it artist/producer’s own decision to call a mix final or are there requirements?
Any record can be mastered and be enhanced in the process. However, there are a lot of things that can be done in a mix that can significantly increase the overall quality of a record before the mastering stage. Typically, a good deal of compression should be done on individual tracks especially on dynamic records as a single problematic texture could make the whole track pump in the mastering stage. Part of the stereo-image needs to be taken into account in the mix as well as any enhancement done in the master would end up affecting the mono-compatibility of the whole track. It’s well known that mixed tracks should give enough headroom to the mastering engineer to do their work. I tend to agree with that although since every processing is gain-staged as long as I get at least 3db of headroom, then I can do my job with enough resolution.
How should artists and producers prepare their mix for the mastering stage, i.e. format, sample rate, etc.?
A mix should be sent to mastering as the highest possible quality file possible. That means lossless file formats such as .wav or .flac so that the file compression process isn’t destructive, and the mastering engineer receives the exact same musical information that the producer has on his end. Sample rates should remain identical to the project on which the track is based. Sample-rate conversion can devalue a record more than it can enhance it and up-sampling will have little to no audible differences. Artists should ideally prepare a metadata sheet with all information they want to embed in their track. Although online aggregators will often require the artist to resubmit metadata information, the actual digital file will carry the metadata imprint and ensure any transfer to carry that information. Additionally, files submitted for DDPi and CD manufacturing should include extra information about pauses and sequencing. This is because the mastering process will embed that information inside the DDP and PQ sheets that will be sent directly to the CD manufacturer. Cd manufacturing plants most often then not, require this information.
The Loudness War. Is it over? What’s your take on that?
It seems to be over in the old sense of the word. Since the advent of loudness normalization algorithms, streaming platforms will convert the loudness of our records to their standard. There is therefore no need to make tracks as loud as we did in the past 40 years since they will all end up at the same integrated loudness. However, most people today will say that this is the opportunity to have really dynamic tracks with preserved peaks with more “life”, and this is where my opinion diverges. If you analyze the dynamics of the biggest hits of the last 10 years, they tend to be really compressed and indicate that mastering engineers still master really loud. If anything, loudness-normalization algorithms seems to have had no effect on how loud charting tracks are mastered. Of course, I would agree that carefully sculpted dynamics are generally better than a flat overdriven cut by a limiter, but over-dynamic tracks are just as bad in my mind as they appear a lot softer than the more compressed track.
Is there a step in the mastering process that you enjoy the most?
I’m big on attention to detail and I tend to be a perfectionist so analyzing the demos is my favorite part of the process. I love to find textures to enhance and I find that I can identify mistakes fairly easily that end up increasing the overall quality of a track. Dynamics is also something quite challenging to deal with on the mastering process and having analyzed thousands of records I really enjoy carefully sculpting a “hit” out of a dynamic track.
Mastering for club, radio, or by genre. Pop/EDM/hip-hop. Do each have a method of their own or do you apply the same mastering technique and approach to all?
There’s definitely a different conceptual approach to mastering for different mediums and genres. Although most of the tools used in the chain will be somewhat similar, mastering engineers have set standard practices that generally make a lot of sense. Mastering for vinyl, for example, will be extremely different to a digital release as pressing of audio to lacquer creates distinct acoustical differences to a digital file. In every case it’s important for the mastering engineer to know how the intended release format will impact the “true” digital sound of the record and make adjustments so that the replication process is as close to the original as possible. Each genre of music tends to have unique EQ footprints and dynamic ranges dictated by classics in the genre. Although, being innovative has its merit, in a lot of cases there’s no need to re-invent the wheel, and borrowing these standards make a lot of sense.
Has online mastering exposed you to more international music and clients?
Of course and that’s one of its benefits. As a mastering engineer, you get to experience music from different sub-cultures, and even within the same genres you can get things that sounds so profoundly different. The majority of my clients come from the UK and Canada/USA, but you do occasionally get people from unexpected places and I think it’s really nice. It shows that music has no boundaries and it can really come from anywhere.
Regarding the Funktasy team, how do you enjoy working with the team and the record label?
The Funktasy team have been great to work with. They understand all concepts I bring to the team, and are super open to new ideas and different ways to work. One of the biggest joys is that they are super organized and are on top of their stuff. I value the client’s time and getting the customer’s product in the desired time is part of my moral code. They have also been part of the industry for a while so Funktasy knows what makes a record a “hit” and have made several priceless mixes in the past. I’m happy to be part of this awesome team!