Audio MasteringAudio Mastering

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 not true.

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.  Not good.

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 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 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 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 listening experience.

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 ago.

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  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.

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 are true.

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.

Here's why.

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 distribution sites.

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.