Dance music is split into a number of genres and sub genres so it covers quite a wide range of music such as house, garage, trance, dubstep, drum and bass, techno, breakbeat and electropop. A good mastering engineer should be capable of mastering music in any genre. His or her experience should be all encompassing, being able to understand enough about all genres and how they should sound. Most mastering engineers will have their own internal references and intimate knowledge about their mastering set up. This gives the engineer a high chance of satisfying clients needs across a wide range of genres.
Dance music is often characterized by it’s low, deep electronic bass usually comprised of a combination of the kick drum and bass line. It is very important that these 2 individual parts marry nicely in the mix. There is often a track for ‘bass’ (which is really mid bass) and one for sub bass as the 2 are blended so the low end is shaking peoples body in the club and the ‘bass’ is audible on a smaller system that cannot reproduce the deep lows on the sub track.
The low end is a very important aspect of dance music as it is a big part of the forward driving rhythms and bass has a tendency to elate people. Great though booming bass is it is a fine line between well controlled, driving bass with a punchy, deep kick and an uncontrolled ill defined over blown mess. Fortunately the speakers (and room acoustics) I am using allow very clear decisions to be made during the mastering process with regards to low end equalization tweaks and filter settings (if required). Once in a while it is best to tackle a low end problem in the actual mix where the producer can effect targeted track based tweaks. It is a common problem because judging bass on small speakers in rooms that do not have remedial bass trapping (low frequency acoustic treatment) means an element of guess work is required on behalf of the producer. Many people these days are working on electronic compositions and will have difficulty knowing how much 30 and 40Hz for example actually reside within any give synth patch. This is always at the forefront of the dance music mastering engineers mind.
The problems in dance music that can be fairly commonly uncovered in mastering can be bass as we discussed above and also vocal sibilance. The ‘upfront’ bright vocal in a dance track has become a trademark but care must be taken to keep that brightness on the right side of harsh by using careful equalization and competent de-essing. If you are remixing a track then you might not have any choice in vocalist microphone selection but make sure the vocal is singing into a complimentary microphone. Both of these aspects are best taken care of during the mixing stage (equalization and de-essing) so I have no qualms about asking for this tweak to be made if required. Ultimately it is for the benefit of all to understand where the problem originates and fix it there.
Novice producers need to take care with their stereo images. It is not that uncommon to find synth sounds with ambiguous phase properties which can render a sound inaudible when summed to mono. My advice in this situation is to consider sound source selection with care, nothing wrong with some stereo enhancement on a track here and there but using a stereo enhancer/widener on the stereo output is not best practice. It is often better to work on the stereo image of a mix on the basis of the tracks and instrumental sources rather than adding ‘faux’ stereo width across the stereo master bus. Always check the mix down in mono every know and then to see that the mix balance holds up still.
Barry Gardner operates SafeandSound mastering studio based in London, UK.