Why Loud Records Suck Feb 6, 2013
Before I get into my default Mr. Cranky Pants mode, let me tell you
something I'm actually pleased about. Netflix finally has Aaron
Sorkin's brilliant tv series "The West Wing" available for
streaming...which I have been enjoying all over again. I love
that show for all the snappy dialogue, cutting-edge political topics,
and extremely well-drawn characters. But I love it most of all
because it made it possible to imagine a White House filled with
brilliant minds, masterful political tacticians, and unwavering
integrity. I like to think it helped lay the groundwork for
America to elect Obama...twice!
Anyway, one episode was titled "Post Hoc, Ergo Procter Hoc".
Because I studied Latin in high school and Logic in college; I
can tell you that the phrase translates as "After this, therefore
because of this". This is classic bad logic in action. For
example...the rooster crows and then the sun rises, therefore the
rooster's crowing CAUSES the sun to rise. I'm pretty sure that's
Here's why I bring it up. I have been a mastering engineer for
about 25 years now, so believe me, I have seen first hand the results
of the so called "loudness wars". Used to be not only good taste,
but physics dictated how loud a (vinyl) record could be. Too much
level and the grooves started banging into one another, causing the
needle to jump out of it's trajectory and interrupt the music.
When we first made the transiton to compact discs, we still had very
strict "Red Book" standards, and any record that went beyond zero level
was rejected by the pressing plant. Gradually, engineers starting
employing various tools to make the music more exciting and "in your
face", which is fine as far as it goes. I'm not against
compression and limiting used in the service of aural stimulation (see
what I did there?) and commercial appeal. But come on
people, this shit is out of hand.
Without mentioning any names, I was perusing iTunes the other day and I
couldn't believe how bad some new releases sounded. Even
singer-songwriter records that should be more about emotion than loudness feel like an
ear-bleeding bludgeoning. This is supposed to be about
story telling. If you've ever heard a great story teller, you
know that changing your tone, using dynamics, even whispering
sometimes, can be profoundly compelling. Some of the records out there
strike me as the musical equivalent of all caps in an email.
Which brings me back to "Post Hoc, Ergo Procter Hoc". My clients
often reference crazy-loud records when they come to mastering.
They believe that their record has to be as loud or LOUDER than the
latest nasty sounding hit record that is so popular today (and will be
completely forgotten by next week). In other words, "hit records
are loud and I want a hit record, therefore, my record must be
loud". That will be true when roosters cause the sun to
rise. Hit records are hits becaue they are great songs, or
because the artist has some special quality that resonates with the
masses, or because their record label spent a ton of money to promote
it. I would bet a six pack that most of these records are hits IN
SPITE OF being over-compressed, grainy, mushy, and distorted, not
becuase of it.
Here's what you lose when you play that "louder is better" game.
a) the music stops breathing...it loses any sense of being a living
emotional entity...some of us believe in the crazy notion that it's ok
to have softer and louder parts to a song...even silence occasionally.
b) transients go out the window...if you fill a bucket with water, then
keep pouring more water into it, the water starts overflowing...that
water is the subtlety of your reverb, the shimmer of your high hat, the
detail of your performance
c) you start to lose the distinctive separation of instruments and
voices...instead of a singer and a band..you hear an unfocused,
uninspiring mess of sound
d) clarity and resolution are early casualties of
over-compression...the music starts sounding grainy like a xerox copy
of a xerox copy of a xerox copy
e) this may be the worst part...the music is not pleasing to the
ears...so even though you may make an initial impression, the desire to
listen again and again, like we tend to do with our favorite songs, is
greatly diminished. That's why we all have great, sometimes
legendary records in our collections that we are never in the mood to
listen to. Something about them hurts our sensibility. That something is lack of dynamics.
I think I have a pretty good handle on how much loudness is appropriate for various genres of music
and I know how to get there without sacrificing too much good stuff in the
process. But invariably, no matter how much slamming I provide, I
find my clients saying someting like, "It sounds amazing, Ron, but can
you make it a little tiny bit louder?" The answer is yes, I can
make it louder. It's just a question of how much suckyness you're
willing to accept in the bargain. Gotta go, my rooster is about
to cause the sun to rise.
10 Ways to Optimize Your Mastering Experience Jan 3, 2013
You've been putting your heart and soul
into your music project, and now it's time to send it off to your
mastering guru to make it sound amazing and help you reach the biggest
possible audience. Here are 10 things you can do to make sure you
get your money's worth and reach sonic Nirvana.
1. Send your mixes ahead of time, so the mastering engineer can listen
in his room and give you feedback. We're all mixing with
automation these days. If that kick is 20 dBs too loud, it's
going to be much more effective to tweak the mix on your end than to
perform damage control in mastering.
2. Make sure you really are
finished mixing before you book the mastering session. Part of
the process in mastering is to create a coherent, flowing collection of
songs. If the mastering engineer has all the songs together in
one place, he can better compare, contrast, and create a seamless
3. This might be the most important tip. DO NOT OVERCOMPRESS YOUR
MIXES. There is no "add dynamics" button in the mastering
room. We have the tools and the experience to know how and when
to use compression and limiting, so PLEASE don't use your "maximizer"
on the master buss when you mix.
4. Provide your mastering engineer with commercially available
reference songs that you love the sound of. Be sure they are in a
similar genre to your music. It's also helpful if your refernce
music is current, unless you're going for a retro sound. Today's
music is considerably louder and more compressed than 10 or 20 years
5. Record and mix in the highest resolution possible. If
you can take advantage of today's higher sampling rates, you'll have a
better chance of keeping all that sparkle and punch you've worked so
hard to create. Ask your mastering pro what formats and sample
rates he / she prefers.
6. It can be very useful to print "vocal up" and "vocal down"
versions of your songs, as a safety measure. There is some
capability to finesse vocal levels in mastering, but usually at the
cost of changing guitar and drum levels at the same time. Less
than ideal. You might want to mix instrumental or "TV" mixes of
your songs too. Never know when you might be able to place an
instrumental version of your song in a tv show. Mastering those
at the same time as your vocal version is easy and cost-effective.
7. Organize yourself before the mastering session. Pull all
your final mixes together in one place. Decide on your sequence.
Write up notes for the engineer if you have any specific concerns about
levels, intros, spacing between songs, etc. Anything that will
help the engineer deliver the master you've dreamed of.
8. Learn about ISRC codes. Go here http://www.usisrc.org
It is optional, but recommended that you embed your songs with an
"International Standard Recording Code" to help you better track
digital downloads. The process of acquiring codes can take a few
days and this is your responsibility. Mastering can do the job,
but YOU provide the code.
9. Request a reference CD of your project from mastering and live
with it for a few days or weeks. Listen in several
environments. In the house, in the car, in earbuds. Make
sure you love it before committing to the final master. Most
mastering studios are happy to make a few tweaks at little or no cost.
10. Don't cut corners when it comes to mastering. This is
like the last gas station before you cross the desert. It can be
tempting when your mix engineer offers to "master" your record at half
the cost of a dedicated professional mastering engineer. But a serious,
full-time mastering pro has honed his craft over a period of years, and
specializes in this one, precise, crucial task, to make sure your
record is everything it can be and that it will stand the test of
time. (hmmm...maybe I should have made this the very first tip!)
Happy New Year...go make some music.
Why I Changed My Mind December 4, 2012
Many years ago when I was one of three top-tier mastering engineers at
the world-famous Precision Mastering in Hollywood, I wrote an article
that was widely published and read in the music community. The
title of the article was Mastering: What It Is — And Why You Shouldn't Do It In Your Garage. Here's a link to the original article. http://www.taxi.com/music-business-faq/home-recording/codetesting.html
I made some very good points about how quality mastering was
dependent on the integrity of the listening room itself, the gear
employed by the engineer, and the engineer himself, with his years of
experience and highly developed ears.
But mostly, I was slamming the guy in his home studio, claiming to be
a "mastering engineer" in addition to being a musician, producer,
recordiing engineer and mixer. I argued that mastering was a
specialized skill set that required specialized gear in a serioulsy
designed listening environment. I still believe all those things
But I have come to change my
mind about one significant point in this whole discussion. In
2009, I left Precision Mastering, and opened my own mastering studio IN
MY GUEST HOUSE. That's right, Mr. high and mightly mastering
engineer left the state of the art, high priced studio and re-invented
his career in a modest-sized knotty pine love shack 10 steps from his
kitchen cappuccino machine.
1. The near demise of the music industry as we knew it. The
major labels willing to pay $350-450 per hour for mastering has shrunk
down to, well, almost non-existent.
2. The rise of the independent artist, financing his / her own project
on a limited budget has necessitated a new way of thinking about the
role (and cost) of mastering. Many artists are not even
manufacturing physical CDs, but instead require multiple formats and
sample rates of their songs to be uploaded to various digital
3. The software and gear available to perform professional mastering
services has gone thorugh its own revoltution. No longer is it
necessary to have racks and racks of processing gear and control rooms
that look like the Starship Enterprise in order to get amazing sonic
results. In fact, I find that the shorter and cleaner my signal
chain becomes, the more sparkle and resolution I find in the music.
So, while I still believe that every project deserves the care and
attention of a professional, dedicated mastering engineer with killer
gear and a superb listening environment, I also believe in changing
with the times and adapting my business model to better serve the needs
of my clients and their pocket books. And, the best part of all
is the company of my two Goldern Retrievers, the elimination of my
daily commute on the Hollywood Freeway, and the aforementioned
cappuccino machine. Life is good.