Focus on Artefacts Mastering

When i went to the Artefacts Mastering studio and joined my first mastering session i understood how useful it is to be in touch with the person finalizing your music… read the following chat I had with Giovanni Conti.

Joachim Spieth: Can you us a bit about the reasons that made you dive into mastering?

Giovanni Conti: It all started around 2009 by a series of coincidences, when Daniele from Dadub moved to Berlin he introduced me to Lucy who had just launched Stroboscopic Artefacts. Lucy wasn’t happy with the mastering he got for the first release of the label and asked me and Daniele to give it a try for the second release, compared our master with the one he got back from a big studio and he preferred our masters. The ball started rolling and since then we have taken care of all the releases on Stroboscpic Artefacts and many other labels from all around the world.

Joachim Spieth: Artefacts mastering is offering a combination of digital and analog mastering. Can you explain how you realize it and what are the advantages in processing it like that ?

Giovanni Conti: I usually take care of the corrective part of the job using a plugin equaliser, DMG Equilibrium, and dynamic equaliser, DMG Essence, so that the signal fed to the outboard chain doesn’t have any major issues, like resonant peaks or excessive sharpness. Then I use the outboard chain to add some harmonic saturation and achieve the desired tonal balance and dynamic range. My outboard chain is composed mostly of equalisers: API 5500, Bettermaker 232P, Avalon 2055, TFPRO P9. I’m not a big fan of gain reduction to achieve loudness but still I have two compressors in the chain, HCL Varis and Drawmer 1973 multiband. First piece in the chain is a bit unusual, a Drawmer 1962 tube preamp, which I use for the variable tube stage and sometimes for the enhancer when the material requires a heavier hand to compact the bass and get the percussive transients more upfront. During the outboard pass I try to push the track to its maximum potential in terms of detail and perceived loudness, increasing density by a careful use of EQ points. I use each EQ unit in the frequency range where it’s giving the best result: for example, the API 5500 and the Pultec section of the Bettermaker 232P are great to give punch and focus to the percussive elements in the lows and mids, but not appropriate to enhance the harmonic content of pads, layers and softer elements, a task more suited to the Avalon 2055, TFPRO P9 or the parametric bands of the Bettermaker 232P. The Vari-Mu HCL Varis tube compressor is a great tool to increase the perceive loudness by using its gain stage, which imparts a sweet harmonic saturation in the mid-highs, gives a kind of 3D holographic presence to the sound and makes the harmonic content bloom and shine in a way that it’s difficult to recreate using digital plugins. I often use it without doing any gain reduction, purely for the box tone of the saturation.

After recording the outboard pass back in the computer, I apply the last pass of processing composed by EQ, dynamic EQ and limiting, pushing the track dynamic range to a value which is appropriate for the genre and for the loudness potential of the material. I love to approach the limiting task with DMG Limitless, it allows to precisely tweak the action of the limiter and make it very transparent, avoid distortion and pumping, keep the bottom end wide and deep. Man I may sound like a DMG Audio fanboy but I swear the quality of my work has improved a lot since I started using those plugs, and I haven’t found any other plugin or hardware unit which can replicate the efficacy of those tools.

Joachim Spieth: You’re mastering all releases of labels like Stroboscopic Artefacts, Informa, Telemorph… and since a while also the music released on Affin.

Giovanni Conti: Apart from the obvious Stroboscopic Artefacts, I’m working regularly with A Sacred Geometry, Informa, LET, MM Audio, NX1, Portals, Reclaim Your City, Rhythm Büro, Semantica, Suburban Avenue, Telemorph, The Gods Planet, Time to Express and many other labels and producers from all over the world.

Joachim Spieth: When i was preparing my recent 12”s I realised how important it is to work with a mastering engineer during the the production process. Mistakes are to avoid or correct much more easy than sending an EP and just waiting for the master waves without any communication about the sound and the idea of the record. It seems you prefer this way of working, don’t you?

Giovanni Conti: Having a clear and honest communication between the producer and the mastering engineer helps a lot to avoid misunderstandings or wrong assumptions related to the desired target loudness and tonal balance. As much as i can try to second guess the intention of a producer listening to the mixdown and reading between the lines, there is no doubt that having some clear direction during the mastering process makes the whole experience more streamlined and allows me to focus on the details and the general character of the track with more confidence. AS a producer, you should always send some information together with the premasters, explaining what you would like to achieve during the mastering process, if there is anything in the mixdown that you would like the mastering guy to target, and possibly send some reference tracks. I’m working on my mind reading skills but still need some time to get there ahah.

Here are some tips for producers, it’s a post Giovanni wrote some years ago on the Gearslutz forum (for those interested):

  • Get the unnecessary peaks under control with compression (snares, synth stabs, nasty hihats), they’ll sound like broken if you leave them for the final maximizer and will take dBs you can devolve to the lovely kick.
  • Take care of loud hihats, when you maximize they’re going to stick out and bite your ears, those nasty bstrds!
  • Don’t use maximizers to give loudness, but just to control 1-2dB of peaks, if there are any that compressors didn’t manage to control. If you need the maximizer for loudness, go back to the start and do it better!
  • Maybe in the Side there’s something interesting to be enhanced, something that can make company to that lonely kick…
  • Layer layer layer, did I say layer?, parallel channels of comp and eq, some for details some for perceived loudness.
    If you have a 1178 at hand, try it on ALL, then be aggressive with attack and release, and mix to taste: I HOW CAN YOU MAKE YOUR MIXDOWN AND MASTER LOUDER AND STILL KEEP DEPTH AND SEPARATION.
  • The dynamic range value by itself is not telling the whole story, as many factors can influence the DR number that your meter reports depending on: the kind of sub and bass used in the song (sine – square – tri – etc), the length of decay and sustain of the sub, bass and kick sounds, the global frequency balance of the track, the use of sidechain between kick and sub.
    You can push the song up to 5dB of DR without destroying the transients or the bass or the depth and separation between the different elements. Cleaning the subbass area will give you some dBs of headroom that you can re-distribute to frequency areas that are more efficient in perceived loudness. Parallel upward compression may help you to increase the DR by working on the inverse principle of limiting : you push up the body of the track from down up, raising the level of the bottom content instead of clipping the upper louder transients.
  • As a rule of thumb, don’t push the threshold of your limiter beyond the point where it starts clipping the kickdrum transients, or do it with extreme care when adjusting the attack and release times of the limiter, it’s much better and natural sounding to achieve loudness by using parallel layers and get there in small steps, instead of trying to squash with the limiter.
  • Also, different meters will report different values, the Dynamic Range meter plugin from the DR foundation shows a value that is around 2dB less than the one given by Voxengo Elephant: different algorithms and interpolation times will give you different readings.
  • Finally, it depends on the track, some are mixed and arranged to be loud, other tracks may use depth as a narrative and expressive device, so by reducing the DR you’re actually destroying useful information that should be kept intact. As always, there is no fixed rule, each song has its own needs and affordances…

Joachim Spieth: You were a half of “Dadub”. How did your mastering work influence the production and presentation of your own music (studio work and live gigs) ?

Giovanni Conti: Being a producer has always been a big plus during the mastering process, even though it took some time learning to take my own taste out of the equation. On the other side, working as a full time mastering engineer definitely took a heavy toll on my ability to enjoy and produce music: by the time you are finished with the day at work, after 6-8 hours of techno, the last thing you want to do is listening to or making more music.
I recently realised that I’m not listening to music in my everyday life as much as I used to do before, it’s sad but no rose comes without spines, I feel blessed and grateful for being able to earn a living doing something I love, even though it has disrupted my relationship with music itself. I often struggle finding time and focus to produce my own tracks, so I only do it when I feel inspired, taking some days off from mastering and focusing on production. The knowledge and experience that came from mastering has been useful in the production process, directing the decision making process toward a more efficient approach to sound design and mixing techniques. Right now I’m working on my solo project, ATRXIA, preparing an EP to be released next year.

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