Four‑time Grammy winner Michael Romanowski is one of very few people offering mastering services for immersive music.
The term ‘mastering’ is rarely used in the context of immersive audio. Nevertheless, it’s a service that Michael Romanowski has been offering for some time, and he was among the first to build an immersive mastering room, at his Coast Mastering studio. “That was four or five years ago, and the studio was recently nominated for a TEC Award for studio design,” Romanowski explains. “We’ve been working with Dolby, Sony and other companies on their software, helped them develop the platforms, and were involved early on in the transition of Dolby from doing surround or immersive sound for film to music. I built my first surround room in 2001 and started mixing and mastering with height speakers in 2017.”
Romanowski’s career followed the “old‑fashioned way”, as he calls it. Starting out in live sound, Romanowski moved on to recording and mixing shows for records, then got into producing, mixing and eventually mastering bands in the studio. Although mastering has been his focus for almost 30 years, he still does mixing and even the occasional live show. “It keeps me fresh and informed about what’s happening, how people are mixing, what kind of tracks are coming in. And I still have fun doing it.
“I believe very firmly in the approach of having a different mastering engineer from the mix engineer. It’s helpful to have a second set of ears. It’s helpful to have somebody in a tuned environment looking at a 10,000‑foot view rather than a microscope. Someone who sees how the music presents itself, not what it is. My job is to know how the music is, not what the music is. In stereo, that’s huge. You’re putting your heart out into the world, you get one shot at it. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. If you don’t put your best foot forward, people are going to know it, and why should they be investing their time in you when there are a million songs a day released across the world? You better present yourself as best as you can because that’s your only shot. So one of the core objectives of mastering is to be as translatable as possible across all the different platforms, physical media, streaming, LPs, etc.”
Immersive audio likewise offers many different listening options. “There are so many different ways people are listening to immersive audio right now, from sound bars to headphones, from home systems and TVs to computer monitors. And with multiple formats, mastering to me is absolutely essential, because there are so many places for things to potentially go wrong. Most people have tuned their listening environments to their personal preference. But that does not necessarily translate to the commercial market. So if you don’t have a second set of ears listening to that to know how the music translates, you could end up with compromised sound that may only be good in that one particular environment.”
Mastering is about more than just translation, however. “The other part of mastering is cohesion. A lot of records are mixed by several different engineers. If you don’t take care of looking at the body of work, the entire album, then the collection of songs just sounds like a playlist and not an album. That doesn’t do the artist justice. It’s about going through the entire album and making sure levels work between songs, tonality is the same between songs.”
When it comes to immersive audio, Romanowski prefers to not interfere with the mix itself. “When I get the files for mastering, I have access to the individual objects and channels. I could adjust each of them individually if I wanted to. But if I’m hearing something out of a particular object that needs adjustment, I’ll talk to the mix engineer first. If they can make an adjustment on the mix, then I don’t have to do something on the master that could potentially compromise other balances. If you’ve got this setup around you, and there’s an object on one side, it’s part of the balance of the tone. Now if you realise that it’s too loud or too bright, and you do something to fix it, that can shift the whole feel.
“If I have the chance to speak with the mix engineer, I consider it an opportunity. There’s a dialogue, they get feedback on the sound of the mix and the presentation and it just improves the final material so much. Then I can polish, which is what mastering should be: that last little bit to make sure that it’s translatable, and eventually creating the correct master for delivery.”
The early days of stereo were a period of experimentation, when engineers toyed with radical panning ideas. To Romanowski, the current situation in immersive audio production is comparable. “You’ll notice that with the first few stereo records, there were two camps. There was one that said: everything needs to come out of the centre, it just needs to be a little wider to feel like it’s bigger in front of you. And then there were those who said: let’s put all these instruments hard left and put all those instruments hard right, and sort of create this separate field. And some of both worked and some of both didn’t work. What the Beatles did was amazing, but those were throwaway mixes. They worked so hard on the individual mono mixes, and then for the stereo ones the guys wanted to pan this and pan that and have some fun with it. Listen to ‘Are You Experienced’ by Hendrix. It has this swirly guitar that sounds really cool on speakers, but when you put headphones on, it doesn’t work as well. So, some things worked, others didn’t, and we’re in that world with immersive audio right now. The rules are: Try it. If it sounds good, do it, if it doesn’t, don’t.
“So far, we as an industry have been mainly focusing on back catalogue albums, things that are already done. Everything so far has been for the most part recorded and mixed to come out of two speakers. Parts used to be written, arranged, played and recorded to fit in a very compact left speaker/right speaker wall in front of you. Now that we have all these walls to go around, the instruments can live in different places, which means they can function differently in a composition. They can add to, they can talk about, they can have dialogue, question and answer that can be totally separate, or they can be completely the same.”