Bob Katz Book Review: Mastering Audio - The Art and the Science

No home studio bookshelf would be complete without a book on “Mastering.” As the last step in the process of audio production, “Mastering” is the final quality check with the icing on the cake and is deserving of our attention and understanding. Who better than Bob Katz to explain the magnitude and majesty of this all-important last step.

Author : Bob Katz

Published : Focal Press ISBN: 978-0-240-80837-6

Williams Sound Studio Rating: A commendable 9.2 out of 10

Is Bob Katz’s ‘Mastering Audio’ useful for a Home Studio Owner? In short, yes. If you are serious about developing your ability to produce and release high-quality music this book belongs on your shelf or permanently open next to your DAW.

If you don’t know who Bob Katz is, check out his website, and look for his frequent posts on some of the big music audio forums. You’ll soon learn that Bob is a well respected, long term member of the modern music community. Bob Katz is a Mastering Guru.

Book Review of ‘Mastering Audio - The Art and the Science’ by Bob Katz

The good news for a small, low-budget, home studio owner is that it is totally possible to provide a high-quality master with the tools on hand, provided that you are prepared to invest “additional” time and effort, and follow the guidance that Bob’s remarkable book delivers.

The book is highly educational, technical, and informative. Whether you end up just mixing your own music, and getting your mastering outsourced, or whether you plan to master your own music too, you won’t regret investing your cash and time into Bob Katz’s highly detailed book.

Although this may seem like a book for professionals, and of limited use to beginners, nothing could be further from the truth. Even without understanding every part of the book, any beginner can benefit from the countless pieces of crucial know-how held within. This is a book that can give you a step up as a beginner, will strengthen your technical expertise as you progress in your home studio, and provides an excellent reference resource when the going gets tough.

This book indeed discusses some very technical details and some high-priced pieces of hardware and software, but don’t let that put you off from the value of the information provided. A keen understanding of how the professional mastering studios and engineers process mixes goes a long way to assimilating your own DIY mastering workflow in your home studio.

Part 1: Preparation

In part one of this book, Bob lays out the groundwork and ground rules for turning finalized mixes into commercially ready audio. The culture of listening to music has changed dramatically in the last few decades. LPs and cassettes have become novelty items, and music is now listened to by the masses at least, as a collection of isolated songs rather than a collection, like an old school centerfold album.

A lot of record company released music is mastered solely using analog equipment. Analog equipment, therefore, has a valid place in this book. For those of us who master in the box, the considerations of analog gear are mostly unnecessary. However, there is a great deal of technical crossover that cannot be ignored. Bob does a great job with his explanations, but you will accordingly need to be able to glean the crucial learning that you need for yourself and your own home studio setup.

Coupled with this shift in listening culture is a change in music production. These days anyone can record a song at home, produce it and release it. Platforms like Spotify and iTunes allow everyone, so inclined, to release their compositions to the masses.

Although the first part of this book pertains to a professional audience, there are numerous lessons, myth-busting sections, and plenty of details for a home studio owner. Bob rounds part one of the book out by detailing volume gain considerations and getting into the importance of accurate monitoring, room acoustics, and translation of finalized audio to other listening systems.

Part 2: Mastering Techniques

In part two, Bob gets into the details of the know-how of mastering. Following chapters on putting together an album, and using EQ in a mastering situation, is a trilogy on dynamics.

If you are used to using EQ for your recordings and mixes you will undoubtedly be familiar with the power EQ for problem-solving. In mastering, however, EQ is used in a much more subtle and smooth way. EQ is used in mastering the tonal shaping and “rounding out” the sound for a specific genre or “album sound”.

Bob’s coverage of EQ in chapter 8 goes back to first principles and makes readers away the psychoacoustic effects of how boosting ranges of frequencies at one end of the spectrum have an impact at the other. As you would expect all the usual suspects are covered: Parametric, Shelving, Bandwidth, Baxandall, High-Pass and Low-Pass EQs.

The trilogy looks at different times of dynamic modification and discusses typical compressors and limiters along with detection circuit characteristics.

Chapter 11 is particularly exciting (and essential!) as “The Lost Processes” of parallel compression, and upward expansion are looked at in detail. One constraint of mastering is that it should be a transparent process, and that is something discussed in detail when applying compression. The chapter presents recipes for compressor settings such as threshold, attack times, release times, and ratios, to achieve different setups for transparent or tonal adjustments.

Part 3: Advanced Theory and Practice

Part three of this book delves into “Advanced Theory and Practice” and covers gems such as monitor calibration, monitor setup, bass frequency considerations, mid and side processing, selling, and creating depth in mastered audio.

The nine chapters provide more profound levels of the science behind modern audio production as well as many pragmatic approaches to the day-to-day operation of equipment and processing.

Chapter 14 introduces the K-system for monitoring. As a home studio guide, this was probably the biggest eye-opener for me when getting my mixing system (monitors, USB audio interface, DAW). I had not realized the interaction between the various hardware parts and the connection to listening volume.

When you couple the above knowledge with that of Fletcher Munson (see the article here), your own mixes can go from good to great in the space of an afternoon - the time it takes to get K 20 and K-12 set up on your home studio. The information in chapter 14 is worth the price of the book alone!

Part three of the book includes various chapters on Mastering Surround Sound Projects, Jitter, Time Codes, and other techie stuff. While these are interesting for the reader, they are less important to new home studio owners.

Part three does, however, contain many serious discussions for us home studio owners. For example, there is a superb chapter dedicated to the sample rate and our ability to hear and distinguish different sample rates. If you want to learn about DA and AD conversion principles and the associated hardware, this chapter is for you. I particularly like the opening page of the chapter proposing an alternative explanation of why the “industry” is so focused on developing higher sample rates.

Part 4: Conclusion

You’ve read the book, but what next? You’re itching to master your first track, but how do you get going? In part four of “Mastering Audio,” Bob concludes “The Art and the Science” in one “seriously practical” final chapter.

Whether you are a seasoned audio engineer or not, a “sense of perspective” is the main advice given in the text. Use reference material from your own stock or look up Bob Katz’s Honor Roll and compare your master to those around you. A technique that should be familiar with those that do the same for their mixes.

Less practical for home studio guy who doesn’t have access to an audio professional, but worth pursuing if you can, is to seek the “ears” of another person. Try to find someone not involved or too familiar with the project but someone whose “ears” you can trust.

Review Summary

One of the biggest influences (for me) about this book is Bob’s no-nonsense approach to “loudness” and “the loudness wars.” The perspective of audio quality and dynamic range is restored, and readers can (hopefully) be confident with producing their own quality productions without chasing “louder is better” down the rabbit hole.

Unfortunately, many new home studio owners would likely follow the trends of the masses rather than the wisdom of the few.

Bob Katz is a giant in the audio world. This book is a testament to his authority, dedication, and technical know-how, and after reading his book, you have little resistance respecting his depth of knowledge and opinions on some of the controversial subjects in audio engineering today. One clue to Bob’s depth of knowledge, hidden in plain sight, is in the title of this book - the ART and the SCIENCE.

Audio processing relies on two crucial aspects. Communication and emotion to the listener (ART) and overcoming technical problems and issues (SCIENCE). This book leaves no stone unturned for both perspectives, and whether you are new to audio or a seasoned professional, Bob Katz’s book remains an invaluable resource and reference manual.