James C. Hoffman Interview: Mastering EIDOLON
As I was listening to EIDOLON, Materia Collective’s latest titan of VGM, I was astounded by the cohesion of the album. Part of that cohesion was due to Joe Chen and Emily McMillan, the album producers who offered their thoughts on the album in a recent article. Another crucial component of the album’s cohesion was James C. Hoffman, the album’s mastering engineer. I had to know how he took an album with so many diverse and eclectic sounds and made it...whole. Here’s what he had to say.
I think the biggest thing is that most people don’t know what mastering is!
How did you get into mastering?
I started learning about mastering as a byproduct of my interest in recording and mixing, which I started learning so that I could record the songs I was writing as a teenager in the late 90’s. Ironically, I fell in love with audio production as much as I did writing. As I was recording songs for myself and the bands that I played in, I ran into the age old question of, “Why aren’t our songs as loud as everyone else’s?”, which led me to books and articles on mastering. While mastering felt like a very utilitarian process on my own music, it wasn’t until I started mastering other people’s albums that I realized how much I enjoy it.
How did you start mastering for Materia Collective?
The first album that I mastered for Materia Collective was SPIRA: Music from Final Fantasy X - Besaid Mix, which was also produced by Emily McMillan and Joe Chen. The album was shaping up to be a massive 100-tracks-long album, and I was asked to help the amazingly talented Stephen Froeber with the workload. Stephen and I had become friends through Materia Collective and were like musical twins. Emily and Joe wound up splitting the tracks into two independent albums—Besaid Mix and Zanarkand Mix—so Stephen and I each mastered one of the two albums.
How did Eidolon compare to some of the other Materia albums that you've mastered?
EIDOLON is similar to many of the Materia Collective community albums in that stylistically it’s wide open. Orchestral, metal, EDM, folk—anything is fair game. On top of that, most of the tracks are arranged and mixed by different people, which brings a wide variety of influences and taste to the album. I really enjoy mastering albums like this because it’s a very different experience than most of the other mastering work I do.
Were there any unique challenges for this album?
At 63 tracks, it’s definitely the biggest album I’ve ever mastered! The challenge there is maintaining a consistent balance and aural vision across six albums worth of material. Ideally, you should be able to shuffle the tracks and still have a coherent flow across tracks.
Did Joe or Emily give you any specific direction as to the sound of the album?
I don’t recall any specific, stated directions. I’ve had the privilege of working with Joe and Emily on several projects over the past few years, so I was able to approach EIDOLON with a good understanding of what they’re looking for. That said, I like to wait until the track order for the album is set before I start working because that tells me a lot about the ebb and flow of how they want the music to come across.
How did you balance an album with so much variety?
Context is important—having the mindset that each track is a piece of a puzzle that will fit together to form a larger picture. If I were at a concert, how would a solo harp sound followed by a rock band followed by jazz quartet? Sometimes concessions need to be made—I may not be able to give a classical or jazz piece as big of a dynamic range as is normal for that genre, and I wouldn’t limit an EDM track as loud as I would for clubs—but I can use the relative volume and balance of the tracks to give the impression that a rock band is louder than a string quartet, while still giving that string quartet the presence and clarity to sound full and appropriate within the context of the album.
Were there any tracks in particular that were difficult to master? If so, why?
There were a couple tracks that completely change instrumentation part way through, multiple times even, which can require big changes in EQ and compression. It can be like mastering multiple tracks in one.
What were some of your favorite tracks to master?
One thing I love about mastering is that I enjoy listening to near-finished music as I work on them. So my favorite tracks to master are usually the ones I love listening to anyway! There are A LOT on this album, but I’ll give a special shoutout to the four part “I Want to Be Your Canary” musical at the end of the album. Jeff Swingle and John Robert Matz are absolute master arrangers and the performers all did fantastic work.
This is a critical step because this short term loudness setting will become the standard of how loud the “loud parts” of the album get.
Describe your mastering process for Eidolon.
I like to master in stages, going through each track one process at a time before moving onto the next process, rather than completing an entire track at a time before moving into the next track. I find that this gives me the benefit of checking and re-checking my work.
I start by loading all of the tracks into my DAW and listening through the whole album. During this pass, I’ll do rough volume changes to make sure all of the tracks are at a good pre-master listening level, and I’ll be listening for any technical issues, since I’ll want to take care of those first. If I find something I can fix myself, I’ll go ahead and do that, or if it’s a deeper issue, I’ll reach out to the track producer to see if we can resolve it.
After my listen-through, I’ll start back at the beginning and do my saturation/EQ pass. Track by track, I’ll first decide if any type of saturation (tube/tape/etc. emulations) is needed since that colors the sound, and then I’ll EQ, often flipping back and forth between the track I’m working on and a few prior to it. I’ll also use this opportunity to add a multiband compressor if needed, which I effectively use like an EQ. This can be extremely helpful if, for example, the high end of a track sounds amazing throughout, but an overly bright cymbal hits occasionally. A multiband compressor can help tame that cymbal without darkening the rest of the track.
On my third pass, I’ll add compression if needed, and I’ll use this opportunity to double check my EQ.
On the final pass, rather than starting with the first track, I’ll find what I want to be the loudest part of the album and use that to set a master limiter that all of the tracks will be passing through, with Short Term LUFS hitting around -8 or -9. This is a critical step because this short term loudness setting will become the standard of how loud the “loud parts” of the album get. From there, I adjust the final volume of the other tracks, using the output of each track’s compressor to determine how hard it’s being driven into the limiter. I’ll use both my meters and my ears to judge relative dynamics from track to track, using that loudness standard as the upper end threshold, so that all of the loudest parts will be equal loudness, but something like a ballad or harp piece would be appropriately quieter. And, like previous passes, I’ll use this opportunity to check my EQ and compression settings once again.
Lastly, I’ll set timings for the start and endings of tracks, do any necessary fades, and bounce everything down for a final listen. At this point, since I’ve already heard everything multiple times, I’ll do a more casual listen-through, usually while I’m doing other non-music stuff, making notes of things that stand out or distract me as things I need to check. After any final tweaks, everything gets sent to the producers for them to hear.
If you had to describe the sound of EIDOLON in one word, what would that word be?
What is your mastering philosophy when it comes to large group albums like this one?
Listen, re-listen, re-listen again. It’s impossible to go through an album this big and remember where you started by the end. I’m constantly going back and listening to tracks that have already been worked on. So while I’ll use some of my favorite soundtrack pieces as reference tracks to start, it’s not long before the earlier tracks in the album become a reference for the rest of the album.
What are some resources that you would recommend to VGM artists who want to learn more about mastering?
The Mastering Show is an incredible resource. It’s a podcast about mastering with Ian Shepherd, who excels at making complex topics understandable. If you’re familiar with even the basics of mixing, the first six episodes will give you a great start. He talks about EQ, compression, limiting—things that are familiar to mixers, but you’ll gain new context for how they are used in mastering. If those are helpful to you, there are many more episodes that you can listen through or jump around to topics that interest you.
If you want to dive deeper, Ian also has some paid online classes. There are also some excellent books available like Mastering Audio by the legendary Bob Katz and Audio Mastering by Jonathan Wyner.
What's the biggest misconception about mastering?
I think the biggest thing is that most people don’t know what mastering is! And because of that, there’s a long-standing tradition of thinking it’s an unlearnable dark art. It’s not! There are wonderful resources and communities for people that want to learn about mastering, and the resources grow and get better all of the time.
Let the music dictate how loud your album should be mastered and don’t worry too much about what the streaming services are doing.
What's the biggest mastering mistake that you see in the VGM community?
It’s not specific to VGM, but one of the biggest mistakes I see in mastering is confusion around loudness and the normalization that streaming services do.
First off, I’ll say that I largely like that streaming services are doing loudness normalization. We live in a playlist-driven landscape, and I think that experience is better with normalization than without. However, when people hear that their music will be normalized to Long Term -14 LUFS, they try to make all of their tracks -14 LUFS themselves, which messes with the dynamic relationship from track to track. Loud parts should be mastered at the same loudness and quiet parts should be mastered quiet, and the Long Term LUFS should be dictated by what the music needs rather than a preset target. (This is exactly why I use Short Term LUFS rather than Long Term LUFS to determine loudness relationships, as discussed above.)
The nice part about most streaming services is that, if you are playing an album, they will keep the dynamic relationship as intended across the album. It’s only when tracks are taken out of the album context that the individual track volume will change, and that’s still to our benefit because a track with a high dynamic range will still stand next to a track that has been completely squashed.
TLDR: Let the music dictate how loud your album should be mastered and don’t worry too much about what the streaming services are doing.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you can talk about?
I just wrapped up mastering an original OST for a game called Miracle Mia, with music by SonikBuster. It’s a really fantastic instrumental electronic/hip-hop album. The game and soundtrack both come out this Friday, August 23, 2019 and can be found on Steam and Bandcamp.