Too many times I get the question whether the master I just delivered is loud enough. But what is loud enough? Or: when is loud loud enough?
On the one hand there's the easy answer: it must compete with all those millions of songs on Spotify and the other platforms. However, there's another side to the story. If a song needs to be louder than the others a battle is on its way, and we've already been there: the loudness war. We just have to accept that there will always be a song louder than yours.
But is volume really that important? Yes and no. Yes, as human hearing is extremely sensitive to volume (and changes in volume). When we play two identical masters right next to each other and we play the second one 0,5 dB louder, chances are that the majority of listeners will choose the louder one as best sounding. It all has to do with perception of energy.
Energy and volume walk hand in hand in the land of music. Fortunately a master consists of more than just volume. It's a balancing act between dynamics, feel and some healthy energy to make the connection to your listening audience.
Too much energy on the other hand causes a much less healthy connection to your listeners. Overstimulation is lethal since it causes listeners to skip to the next song on their playlist or to lower playback volume. Exactly the things you don't want to happen when people are playing your precious baby. I always compare overstimulation with the hairdresser on a filmset who cannot cease to dress the hair of the actor/actress, even when they're starting to shoot a scene. Ever so many times taking a step back leads to better results.
Furthermore, it sounds better when a not too loud song is cranked up. Your amp has to work harder to turn up the volume, resulting in more perceived energy. The same principle applies to speakers or headphones, resulting in a more relaxed but loud and energetic sound.
And then there's the dynamic range of a song. The higher the dynamic range, the greater the difference between softer and louder passages and the more musical details are revealed. This is tricky business as the dynamic range of music has gotten less and less during the last few decades. We've actually gotten used to listening to less dynamic music. Especially when listening while riding your bike or in other places with background noise, the softer musical details are easily drowned in all that noise.
This was tackled by decreasing the dynamic range of music. Now it really gets tricky: how to determine the right balance between dynamics and loudness? This is one of the toughest tasks in mastering. It's where the boys are separated from the men. Experienced engineers know exactly what's needed to reach that ultimate musical connection!
Frequencies are odd creatures. The lower ones take a lot of space and are responsible for the foundation of a mix, while higher frequencies provide presence and air.
Frequencies have a couple of characteristics. For instance each frequency has some sort of opponent, a brother or sister or yin & yang. What’s up with that?
Imagine a perfect sounding master. All frequencies are nicely balanced and it sounds excellent! But today you’re in a bass heavy mood and you decide to cranck up the bass. You turn up the bass control on your amplifier and there you have it: more bass.
But at the same time something different stands out. There seems to be less high end in the sound. Even though you didn’t touch the treble control, the highs are not as present as they were before. This is what I call the principle of yin & yang. You want more lows? Turn up the bass. Or: turn down the highs.
Less highs means more focus on the lows. Less lows means more focus on the highs. Even more so: less sub-bass means more focus on the highest frequencies. Or: less lower mids means more focus on the higher mids etcetera etcetera.
With this knowledge in mind I started looking at equalizers differently throughout the years. There are two options to acquire more or less the same effect: you can boost frequencies but you can also cut them in the opposite range. So basically there are two angles to work from.
In my previous column I mentioned the light sounding low end of classic rock albums from the nineties of the previous century. I also mentioned that this is related to the amount of high frequencies. If we take the example of Rage Against The Machine (Killing In The Name) the presence and treble range seems to stand out, without sounding harsh. Because of that focus on the higher frequencies the low end has a certain lightness to it with a nice sense of definition.
The above shows a perfect example of the yin & yang principle of frequencies. Andy Wallace, the mix engineer of the Rage Against The Machine album knew that if he’d put focus on the treble and presence range, the low end would sound light with just the right amount of energy.
The light low end provides definition; the kick and bass guitar are perfectly audible while the guitars (mids!) stand out nicely. It’s a rock record and guitars need to cut through a mix without being overly present causing hearing fatigue.
All this leads to another very important asset: I want to turn the volume up ‘cause it sounds so good! Good sounding records sound even better when the volume is turned up. Records that lack a good sound will not sound any better (or even worse) when the volume is turned up.
I always turn up the volume when I’m finishing a master. If it still sounds good (or even better), the master is fully approved!
The summer is far from over but many people are gradually returning to their daily lives. A perfect time to release a new column. The title implies a non-fiction story as a movie or a book but no. Connoisseurs know that the low end is about the bass range of music.
The lower notes of music. The same notes that cause a cars’ headlights to start flickering as soon as the music is turned up to 10. It's an important frequency range as it impresses listeners. Nowadays the low end seems to be more pronounced than it was decades ago.
Let's have a listen to a sixties record. Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, for instance. You'll notice there is definitely low end but it's fairly moderate. After that let's have a listen to a record from 2020: Bitterzoet by Eefje de Visser. A Dutch-Flemish production with a pronounced low end, which is also caused by the lack of any cymbal on the whole album.
You'll notice considerable differences between the two albums. There are several reasons for these differences. First of all, the origin of the bass region is totally different. The bass notes from the Beach Boys album are played by bass guitars. The low end on the Bitterzoet album on the other hand is generated by synthesizers. Those electronic synths are capable of reproducing tight sounding bass while the notes from a bass guitar can only get as low and tight as dictated by the laws of physics.
At school I wasn't very good at physics but I do remember that steady vibration of a bass string becomes more difficult with lower frequencies and heavier string gauges. An electronically generated sine wave lacks these irregularities and can get as low as the human ear can hear. This explains a great deal of the difference in low end on both albums.
Another reason for those differences is genre or more specific, spirit of the age. The Beach Boys were a guitar-oriented pop band. Eefje de Visser's music is about 50 years younger. A lot has changed over the decades with a whole bunch of technical developments. A good example is the introduction of the digital polyphonic synthesizer in the eighties.
When we look at other genres, rock seems to play an interesting role. My guilty pleasure of rock music is Killing In The Name by Rage Against The Machine from the early nineties. When I listen to that track I'm always surprised by the lightness of the low end. It's there but it's punchy and not overly full sounding. When I play a more recent Black Keys song after that, I'm stunned by the differences.
There is less low end in (rock) productions than you'd expect. This is not only caused by the low frequencies. Just have a listen to both tracks and pay attention to their treble range. I'm pretty sure you'll hear what I mean.
You wouldn’t expect a title like this when it comes to columns about mastering. Actually, coaching is an important aspect of mastering. For instance a phone call after having done mix checks or after receiving you masters. It happens more often than you’d think.
Often a call like that is related to expectation management. Mastering is the final step in the production process and the expectations about the end product are pretty high. It’s also the final step where you have some influence on the sound of music.
Realistic expectations are the most difficult ones. Of course you’d like to directly compete soundwise with that last album of Adele. But how realistic is that? Albums by Adele are made in fancy studios with even more fancy equipment operated by some very fine craftsmen.
We can expect that mastering elevates your mixes to a higher level. Actually, that is exactly what mastering does or should do in my opinion. Your mixes should translate perfectly into our streaming world as well as on vinyl or CD or music cassette.
What’s not fair to expect is that mastering elevates your mix that has some minor flaws straight to the sonic level of the last album by that famous British singer.
Like I said in earlier columns: the better the mix, the better the end result! Or to put it another way: the less I have to twist my knobs, the better it will sound (this only works on extremely good mixes). Exactly this forms the basis of many of the coaching sessions I have done so far.
Perspective is one of the main objectives during coaching, I bet any professional coach will agree with me. In this case the perspective of the listener is the most important one. As an artist you’re making music for the listeners. Hearing music like your audience does is very difficult but it certainly helps to put many things (including mastering) in perspective.
Another subject are the technical challenges we engineers are bound to solve. During mastering we’re expected to perform some kind of voodoo magic to the song. Even though we can do a lot tricks nowadays, our magical toolkit has its limitations.
And ever so many times it’s just a small conversation about a client wanting their songs to have a tad more air or low end. Clients are your dearest friends and having good contact with them is pretty essential. As mastering is the final step before releasing your songs to the outside world, it’s better that I squeeze every bit of sound out of your mixes, resulting in that big smile on your face as you take your freshly made masters home with you.
I really enjoy those talks on the phone. Sometimes a conversation is not an easy one but with each conversation I learn something. I see it as a part of my job. People ask me all kinds of stuff about mastering and I’m more than willing to provide them with answers. The mastering coach!
This is my 50th column and I regularly get to hear how nice it is that I turned my hobby into my profession. And exactly that is what I don’t understand. Why is my mastering career a hobby that has gotten out of hand?
The definition of a hobby is an activity done regularly in one’s leisure time for pleasure. Well there you have it. So because I take pleasure out of tweaking mixes until they sound at their best, my “work” has the characteristics of a hobby.
Well, I do my work on a regular basis and yes, I love it. But there are more jobs out there that people love and do regularly. Perhaps the difference lies in the line of work. Mastering is part of the music industry. People tend to listen to music as a pleasant pastime. Pastime is a synonym for a hobby and bingo, this could very well be the main reason why mastering (and other jobs related to the music industry) are so connected to being a hobby.
But where lies the boundary between a hobby and a profession? Is money the only thing that counts? Of course, many people look at their job as income. But having fun doing it and taking pride in it and pleasure out of it are equally important. I simply cannot imagine going to work while I’m not enjoying it.
Okay, I have the greatest job in the world. Mastering to me is a form of art. Gently tweaking, rubbing and scrubbing those incoming mixes with a fine set of tools until they become shiny like a diamond. It’s basically the same what an artist does. The only difference is that mastering does not create things, it only emphasizes that what’s already made.
I take pride in being a mastering engineer and I spend most of my time doing it. But I do have another job on the side. Actually, I’ve always had more than one job. Sometimes taking the mind off of things like mastering deadlines (or any other deadline) can be very relaxing. It’s like taking a break and having a walk outside the studio when you’re stuck and you can’t seem to get any further. When you return from your walk everything just seems to go easier.
Besides, being a mastering engineer can be a bit lonely at times as I mostly work solo. Attended sessions only take place in about 20% of the times. At my job at the museum I have colleagues and the works of art seem to have the ability to put my focus on other things than mastering only. It’s actually very refreshing. After a day at the museum I cannot wait to crawl behind my desk and get to work on fresh mixes.
So I have two jobs that both qualify as hobby. Or do I have two hobbies that both qualify as work?
PS Writing 50 columns about the most beautiful profession in the world is a milestone for me. Both mastering and writing about it has something magical about it and I feel fortunate to call this my job. On my list I have many more topics within mastering to write about in the near future.
Music is a strange phenomenon. Objective perception is also a strange thing and the combination of the two makes music a rather strange and complex experience.
How can it be that the feeling you get when you listen to a song can vary strongly from moment to moment? Perception can hardly be objective this way.
Imagine being at a party (you know, a gathering of different people together in a room, often accompanied by some drinks and food) and you hear this great song blasting out of the speakers. At that very same moment you look into the eyes of your soon to become husband or wife. You couldn’t be happier!
You’d imagine that the next time when you hear that same song you experience that same euphoric moment the night you met your dream prince or princess. But truth is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be like this.
On the contrary, the next morning you’re experiencing a hangover. You turn on the radio and there it is, that same terrific song as yesterday evening. The music sounds flat and dull due to broadcast processing (compression!) and your hangover is not contributing to a joyful listening experience. Finally, the absence of your dream prince or princess puts a last penny in the bag. So actually, that great feeling you had yesterday couldn’t be further away.
The above explains why mastering can be a complex profession at times. Our job is to let music sound better. But what exactly do we mean with “better”?
On Tuesday “better” has a different meaning than on Wednesday; not a single day is the same. So, our job is to stand above all this and to deliver that great sounding master. You’ll probably understand why mastering is not the easiest job in the world.
When in doubt during my work I catch myself grabbing some lunch, a cup of coffee or to go outside for some fresh air. And every time when I return to my desk any trace of doubt vanishes like snow in the sun. It’s fascinating how this works. As if my brain (perception) is in need of a different opinion (lunch, coffee, fresh air) before it can make the right decisions.
Mastering is so much about feeling the music. Feeling the client’s feelings and emotions to translate that in a great sounding master fitting the music like a glove. It’s not very difficult to let music sound nice and balanced. The real challenge is to actually feel what is needed (or not needed) and how to move and shape the music in just the right direction.
The above also explains why mastering is such a great profession. It’s a fascinating interaction between perception, feeling the client’s needs and letting the music shine at its best. The gear we use and the knobs we twist play a minor role in this mission. Well okay, except maybe for some gentle colouration…
Mastering is the final stage of a music production. During a session everything seems to come together to a point where we decide how your song(s) will communicate to the outside world. Objective or rather subjective perception is a vital part of it, and it couldn’t be more different each and every day.
The term colouration might not ring a musical bell. However, it is indeed possible to add a nice sheen of colour during recording, mixing and mastering.
But what exactly is colouration? There’s no easy answer to this but I’ll give it a try. Let’s start at the beginning. Imagine a band consisting of five members: a drummer, a pianist, a vocalist, a guitarist and a bass player. They decide to make a recording and book a studio.
In the studio microphones are placed in front of the instruments. The mics are then connected to mic-pre’s. These preamplifiers are necessary to raise input levels coming from the mics before going into the DAW. And there you have it: the first colouring station.
In a mic-pre the signal is fed through a transformer or tube stage. Both transformers and tubes colour the sound. The music tends to sound a bit rounder or deeper. Sometimes the sound gets richer or more 3D or the highs and lows are slightly boosted or attenuated.
So actually music is often recorded with more colour than the original performance. There are however many types of preamps. Mic-pre’s without tubes or transformers sound cleaner to accommodate classical or jazz recordings that could probably do with less colouration.
In a DAW all channels are mixed together using plug-ins or outboard equipment to again colour the sound. And again the sound gets richer and more spacious. After mixing the mastering studio comes into view.
During mastering the (stereo) mix is fed through another set of outboard gear or plug-ins. It takes no scientist to conclude that mastering is yet another colouring stage. Actually many mastering studios use their extensive analogue chains as their secret weapon. In many cases those machines don’t even apply much processing. Just feeding the music through them is enough to add a nice sheen to it.
I hear you thinking: with that much colouring, what will remain of the original recording? The amount of colour strongly depends on genre. Classical music and jazz could probably do with less colour than rock or hip hop. Your ears decide if and how much colour the music needs.
And besides, colouring music is a subtle process. You can check this easily in the box by putting a series of plug-ins on the master bus. Choose plug-ins that emulate analogue gear and don’t let them apply any processing. Spot the differences when you hit the bypass button. Try using headphones if you can’t hear the difference on your speakers.
You’ll probably notice that the differences are quite small. But even small changes in the timbre or colour of a sound can have a huge impact, especially when you listen at a higher volume. Colouration is a beautiful way to add character, depth and vibe to recordings. Have a listen to an average album from the seventies. Chances are that the recordings were done using a big analogue console, the ultimate colouring tool.
The effect of colouration is cumulative: the colour of all those channels adds up to the nice sheen and sonic imprint those Neve, API and SSL consoles are famous for…
Midway the eighties a revolution took place in the music industry. Digital audio was introduced and by now we’ve fully adapted to music being digitally recorded and mixed. Analogue techniques like recordings done on tape machines only exist in the far reaches of the audio spectrum. Luckily we still have vinyl and music cassette as completely analogue playback media.
Since digital techniques were still at an early stage back then, we didn’t fully comprehend the possibilities of digital audio. A standard had to be made, just like vinyl and music cassette are based on a standard. Standardization is necessary because you don’t want to end up with a record player made by a manufacturer who decided that 28 r.p.m. sounds a tad better than 33.
Technicians gathered together to come to a standard for a soon to be launched digital playback medium: compact disc. Based on the knowledge and science of human hearing and sampling (the process to convert analogue music into digital) they chose a sampling frequency of 44.100 samples per second (44.1kHz) with a resolution of 16 bits per sample.
Technical developments are always continuing and since the introduction of digital audio many steps were taken to make it sound better. This also included the use of higher resolution files. 24 bit audio (hi-res) was introduced in studios and soon it became evident that a higher resolution led to an increase of headroom causing music to sound better. Besides, the many D.A.W.’s (software music engineers use) operate at internal resolutions up to 64 bits per sample.
Nowadays we know so much more about digital audio and human hearing. Research led to the conclusion that our ears are able to distinguish higher resolutions than the 16 bits chosen in the eighties. 17 or 18 bits are possibly audible, provided being a relatively young person whose ears did not suffer from loud (il)legal rave parties.
And there’s another factor involved why 24 bit resolution is preferable to 16 bits. The technicians who determined the 16 bit standard did this because they knew that every CD that left the factory was to be used as a playback medium only. (Although it’s perfectly suitable as a coaster to prevent stains on your brand new table.)
This differs from the studio situation where music is being digitally recorded, mixed and mastered, all with 24 bit resolution. Thus a lot of processing steps before music is actually put out. If you were to apply all that processing on 16 bit files, the end result would probably not sound as good as intended due to a lack of headroom. 24 bit files supply you with enough headroom to comfortably apply the processing you want during mixing or mastering.
So here’s the moral of the story: since the 16 bit standard was made in the early beginnings of digital audio, I’d like to call for the abolishment of 16 bit resolution files.
Many aggregators (party between the artists and streaming services) already accept 24 bit uploads and slightly larger file sizes don’t really matter nowadays. And besides: more streaming services offer lossless streaming at higher sample rates with 24 bit resolution. Getting rid of that old 16 bit standard seems no more than logical to me.
Since the end of August I have a new working place. My mastering studio has moved to the other side of the street (literally). Relocating a studio is quite a challenge so I was facing an intense yet exciting period.
First there’s the new room. How does it sound? I could hardly knock on the door of the former habitants and ask them if I could carry in my speakers to check out my new room.
So on the same day we got the keys to our new house (I work at home) I immediately moved my Amphion speakers into the room that's supposed to be the new studio. I made a small setup to test the acoustics. An exciting moment because I had no idea how the room would sound. Any empty room with only a set of speakers will not sound excellent but I did this solely to get a rough idea how the new studio would sound.
The only thing that's acoustically really important to me is whether the low end of the sound spectrum is able to leak away from the room. If that doesn't happen it will be necessary to place some bass traps in the room to absorb those high energy low notes. A well-constructed bass trap acts as a vacuum cleaner for the low end. The excessive low end is somewhat shaved off to obtain a well-balanced presentation of the entire spectrum of sound.
I'm not a measuring kind of guy. I'm not really interested in numbers. My measurement tools are located at the sides of my head. My ears told me that the low end of my new room is remarkably even sounding. I was presented a well-balanced low end without those nasty frequency bumps found in so many rooms. The acoustics of an old house built in 1928 never cease to amaze me. Leaky as a sieve, perfect!
Anyway, after my listening session the real work started. The ceiling of the studio was plastered and I painted the walls. The existing floor is made of solid oak wood, excellent! After plastering and painting the acoustic treatment started. This is an ongoing process taking a couple of weeks depending on the progression. I had some panels coming from the previous studio that I could reuse. I started with some absorption panels between the speakers and on the ceiling, followed by some diffusion on the ceiling right above the listening position.
Listening is key. Without listening you wouldn't be able to properly evaluate any acoustic changes made to the room. Every time I placed a panel I listened carefully to the change it made in sound and presentation. And yes, it is indeed possible to overtreat a room, resulting in a somewhat half dead room which to me is far from ideal. Especially for mastering I like my room to be as live as possible to represent a real life situation.
My approach to acoustics is actually not very complicated. I listen (a lot) to music I really know well. No mp3's or other lossy formats. Only wav's at full resolution. I focus on stereo imaging, the low end and last but not least: does it sound great? After that it's time to get a drink to celebrate the steps made that day. The next day I follow the exact same steps until the room is sounding great. This way it takes about a week to build an acoustically treated room.
At this moment the studio sounds even better than expected and I couldn't be happier! The relocation has been quite a challenging journey but since I started preparing the relocation over six months ago, I didn’t stumble upon insurmountable problems. It’s been a lot of work but with better focus and above all better presentation of the low end it was all worth it.
Actually, let’s do another relocation next year! (no, just kidding)
Nowadays we listen to music differently from 20 or 30 years ago. The classic hi-fi set is somewhat expelled by soundbars, portable Bluetooth speakers and most of all earbuds and headphones. Fortunately the resurrection of vinyl has become the salvation of this classic listening experience.
Because we mostly consume music through earbuds or headphones, the way we listen to music has also changed a bit. Previously we listened to albums on CD or vinyl. You had to actually listen and put up new music as the record is spinning and comes to an end. Today we mostly listen to playlists with a continuous flow of new songs through music streaming services. This allows us to do all kinds of other things while listening to music. We don’t need to actually pay attention because the playlist ensures there’s always music playing.
But salvation is on its way! Many youngsters pay regular visits to local record stores to get a hold of that fancy album on vinyl. Vinyl is actually booming. I see it as the salvation of a high quality music experience. And besides there is another vast difference when listening through earbuds or headphones.
Imagine playing a vinyl record in your living room. Warm analogue sounds are coming from your excellent speakers (at least, I may hope so). Your ears perceive those sounds with goosebumps as a result (at least, let’s assume so). Of course, the same can be achieved while listening to music via headphones.
And yet there’s a major difference: when listening to music via speakers your ears perceive the music from both speakers (left and right) with both ears. This works different with headphones. Since the ear pads from your headphone are in direct contact with your ears, the left ear only hears music played in the left channel, while the right ear only hears music played in the right channel (assuming you wear your headphones properly; L on left, R on the right).
But what’s the difference? When listening through speakers your left ear also perceives music coming from the right speaker and vice versa. In short: the stereo image is becoming diffuse (strictly speaking). The 100% channel separation achieved with headphones and earbuds is being released when listening through speakers. That’s not a bad thing. In our daily lives we also hear things simultaneously with both our ears.
We could say that listening through headphones doesn’t do right to a realistic listening experience. But still we experience music through headphones or earbuds as intense. This has to do with another essential difference between listening through speakers and headphones: listening distance. While listening your favorite record through speakers your ears don’t sit very close to the speaker drivers (at least, I may hope so). You’ll need some distance to perceive a proper stereo image when listening through speakers.
When listening through earbuds the distance between the driver (sound source) and the (inner) ear is only a couple of centimeters. This causes an intense listening experience as well as some extra low end perception. The extra low end is caused by a phenomenon called “proximity effect”. The proximity effect is regularly used by tracking engineers to achieve extended low end when recording vocals or other sources with a microphone. As a microphone is placed closer to the sound source, the low end increases. This effect also applies to headphones. The closer the driver to the ear, the more low end is perceived.
But which of the two is better? There are no winners or losers here. Anyway, vinyl cannot be played on a mobile device (at least, I’ve never seen it before). After all it depends on the mood you’re in and how you’d like to listen to your music. With stereo image on which I’ve worked effortlessly (vinyl) or with extra low end (on which I’ve also worked effortlessly), through earbuds. I do get a little nervous when drivers are that close to my ears (that’s probably me), so my preference is listening through speakers. And with speakers turned up your neighbors can also thoroughly enjoy your excellent taste in music...
It sounds like an episode of Willy and Wanda but “The mix and the stereo bus” is about processing that takes place on the stereo bus of your mix project, be it digital with plug-ins or analogue with outboard gear.
I’m not a mix engineer but having heard stories from people that are, quite a few things are happening on that final station towards mastering. In fact, stereo bus processing can be seen as some type of premastering. A chain of equalizing and compression (or other fancy tools) to glue the mix. The famous SSL-type compressor is a good example of such processing.
The goal of both mix and mastering engineer is mutual: it has to sound great. The road towards perfection is different though. A mix engineer brings all the instruments and sounds together using the channels and busses of the mix with effects like compression, equalizing, reverb, panning etc. A mastering engineer only works in stereo to translate the vision of the arEst into a wonderful sounding end result.
Something I noticed during the last couple of years is that more processing seems to be taking place on the stereo bus. I use the word seems on purpose, as I’m not a mixing engineer. I only listen to the mixes that come in the studio. More processing tends to lead to more dense mixes. Mixes with more compression, less dynamics and in many cases less transients*. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. As long as it sounds good, we’re okay.
However, there is some danger when (too much) processing is applied on the stereo bus. An effect like compression is irreversible. As soon as a mix becomes too dense, the mastering engineer can try to tackle this by using equalizing or some kind of upward expansion. However, eliminating compression effects and restoring the original dynamics is virtually impossible.
The music industry is a market of supply and demand. Listeners ask for great sounding music and the artists do exactly that: they indulge us with beautiful music. During the past few decades music has slowly become less dynamic. On the other hand, the listeners have gotten used to listening to dense sounding music: compact songs with a lot of energy and impact and often mastered at higher volume levels.
Have a listen (at equal volume) to a song by Billie Eilish and compare that to a song from the sixties, Jimi Hendrix for example. Pay attention to the openness, the energy and impact, the softer sounding passages versus the loud parts. You’ll be amazed by the differences. Both songs have their own particular qualities but the difference in dynamic range is remarkable.
Let’s be honest: if Jimi Hendrix was still alive he would undoubtedly be making pretty modern sounding music. Recording techniques are a continuously evolving thing, not to mention mr. Hendrix himself.
Back to the stereo bus. The only thing I’d like to give to mix engineers is to be careful about your dynamics and transients. By using slower attack Times on your compressor you’ll notice that those snare hits seem to be getting more punch and impact and that the overall energy of your track is actually getting higher. Who wouldn’t want that?
Just my two cents, use it to your advantage.
*Transients: short pulses of energy. You can compare it with the moment when a drummer hits a tom or cymbal. That very first snappy attack translates into more vividly sounding music with more energy. Fast attack times on a (digital) compressor/limiter are pretty destructive for transients.
Just like an instrumentalist a mastering technician uses his instruments. Often those pieces of gear are seen as single operating units, each with a unique sound and character. During mastering equalisers, compressors and limiters are used to supply a mix with a gentle but pristine sounding layer of audio varnish. Sometimes to add some extra colour and vibe but ever so many times as natural as possible. All to connect your music to the listening audience of the world.
Before I got intensely engaged into mastering I was a guitarist. At the age of 16 I had a pile of Hi-Fi brochures under my bed but I also got my very first electric guitar. It was a white Washburn, a variation of the well-known Stratocaster, accompanied by a very heavy 100 Watt EL34 tube amp (brand unknown but very clean sounding), a 4x12” speaker cabinet and the famous Rat distortion pedal by Proco.
Not long afterwards I had my first band: “Fast Fingers (Happy Girlfriends)”. The name suggests otherwise but I was as green as grass and particularly nervous about our upcoming first gig in neighbour centre “De Velder” in my hometown Ede in the east of Holland. Of course the gig was extremely successful.
What followed was a career as a professional guitarist, including a study electric guitar at the conservatory here in Rotterdam.
The instrument never let go of me. After I made the decision in 2015 to focus solely on mastering, I kept seeing my gear as instruments. Apparently people are born musicians? The instrument is the tool you’re working with. I was (and still am) in love with my guitars and by now I cherish warm feelings for the gear I use during a session.
But still it remains a static set of tools. Actually the best tools available for a human being are very nearby: our ears determine the decisions we make. Without these experienced audio tools our expensive equipment would be useless. What good is a set of expensive tools when you don’t know how to operate those machines?
Nowadays I look at my gear as being two instruments. My two chains provide me all kinds of possibilities to enhance mixes to a professional level. The first chain is the transparent basis that comprises two equalisers and two compressors. The EQ’s and compressors are opposites of each other. One EQ applies global processing and sounds very musical. The other one is analytical and sounds more neutral. The same applies for the compressors: one compressor is slow and offers a choice between a valve or class A solid state signal path. The other compressor is much faster and offers another set of colouring options.
The second chain consists of two equalisers filled with valves, input and output trannies and discrete op amps. So, these are the units that provide your mix with subtle colouration. Don’t expect large changes but a rather delicate change of sound. Will your mix sound better with these tools? Sometimes yes, but in other cases a mix sounds better without these colour boxes. I found out that especially bass heavy electronic music (synths) doesn’t particularly match with valves. Valve colouration tends to make a tight low end a bit muddy.
My two chains now go by the names “Chain 1” and “Chain 2”. Perhaps I should give them real names. Ideas? Anyone?
Please allow me to plunge in: Why do remasters exist?
You could say that an older recording or master should sound better using modern techniques. That’s definitely true, but what exactly is the meaning of better? More bits? Higher sample rates? Better sounding converters? In short: better gear?
There is a reason that certain recordings were made in a certain era. It turns them into timeless pieces, because of their unique sound, and because of their imperfections. A remaster is a re-release of older material using modern techniques to make it sound better. In practice this generally means a louder (and often more brighter) sounding remaster. But why? Does that fresh remaster sound genuinely better? Or is there more to it?
To reveal the only legitimate reason for a remaster we need to go back in time. Back at the roots of popular music (the sixties and seventies) until the eighties, the job of the mastering engineer was to transfer the mix from tape to a playback medium. During those analogue decades those were vinyl, music cassette and reel-to-reel tape machines for domestic use.
So, the mastering engineer was merely a transfer engineer. In the course of the years the function of mastering has shifted slowly towards that what artists, producers and mix engineers tend to do: Build a sound. Exactly that caused the remaster to become more popular. Hence: How wonderful would it be if an existing recording was to sound even better and fatter than the original! This is not a bad thought, but allow me to rephrase what I said earlier: There is a reason that certain recordings were made in a certain era.
Many remasters were done in a time where digital techniques were newly invented (and thus not sounding at their best). This resulted in hotter remasters that also suffered from what we call “digititus”: an overly cold sounding remaster. I leave the decision if this is better than the original to the listeners ears but I wouldn’t bet my money on it. And besides: the ongoing loudness war* played an important role in the many issued remasters by letting them sound much louder than the original recording.
And something else was going on: Because a lot of money could be earned by issuing remasters, those re-releases had to sound fresh and modern to boost sales figures. All of this had very little to do with music and quality, which leads us to the following question: Does a remaster have a right to exist? That’s not an easy to answer question.
The only reason I can think of to do a remaster is that certain transfers done in the early ages of digital could benefit sound wise from a remaster done with more modern techniques.
We’re on thin ice here; a remaster should never affect the artistic message of the original recording. And if the artist is no longer among us, the situation becomes even more complicated. Who’s to determine if a remaster is to be done and who’s in charge of quality control?
A nice example of a successful remaster is the album “Brothers In Arms” by Dire Straits. Released in 1985 this album became the standard bearer of the compact disc. The album was recorded digitally, mixed on analogue equipment but edited and mastered digitally (DDD, remember?). It sounded cold and near harsh but sold millions of copies worldwide. Renowned mastering engineer Bob Ludwig decided to do a remaster of the album a little over ten years later because he realized the album could sound better.
My suggestion is to delete the word remaster. Let’s invest our energy in great sounding recordings, old or new and on whatever playback medium, and without putting a commercial label on them. A good mastering engineer knows what it takes to deliver a great sounding, integer and timeless master.
*The loudness war began in the mid-nineties. Influenced by decreasing cd sales and ongoing digital techniques major record companies released progressively louder sounding cd’s. Digital limiters were pushed beyond their limits causing many of the records released at the end of the nineties and the years after to sound distorted. Since the introduction of loudness normalization by music streaming services the need for loud sounding masters has decreased immensely. By using loudness normalization all songs in a playlist are played at globally the same perceived loudness level.
While working on my previous (40th) column I stumbled upon a question within a question.
The above might sound a bit cryptic but while answering the fourth question (What is mastering worth to you?) the following question came to mind: “When is your mix finished and do you proceed to mastering?”
This question came from working with so called package deals, in which the mix and mastering engineer is the same person. But when do you decide that your work as mix engineer is finished and you’re ready to continue working as a mastering engineer?
The way I see it is that both mixing and mastering are two individual crafts. The mix engineer does something a mastering tech can’t and vice versa. Genuine allrounders do exist but it rarely happens that one single person is able to deliver both mix and master on a high level.
While there are many similarities mastering requires a different set of skills than mixing. As a mix engineer you work with many tracks simultaneously and effects are used differently than during a mastering session. Mastering is, just like mixing, producing and tracking, a craft of experience. The more you do it, the better you get at it. So why wouldn’t you aim to be extremely good (a master!) in one job?
And besides the monitoring environment is vastly different. From a mixing point of view you’d like to crawl into your mixes using nearfield of midfield monitor speakers. Mastering requires more of an overview of the entire song using full-range speakers to let your songs sound great on any sound system.
And finally: if I were a mix engineer I’d be very happy to have an extra set of ears to professionally judge my mixes, while delivering a sublime sounding master. A win-win situation!
Especially when dealing with a production on a high level working with a package deal wouldn’t be my first logical choice. (But I’m a mastering engineer. I would be burning my own bridge if I’d be promoting such a deal.)
A good couple of engineers (mixing and mastering) form a power duo for your production. In an ideal world the mix and mastering engineer think alike and they share some kind of musical connection. Combine the above with a great song and some good musicians and you’ve struck gold!
As a mastering engineer you build some kind of relationship with the people you work with. Artists, producers but especially mix engineers are important people in the life of a mastering engineer. From experience I know that the level of a production gradually rises as you work longer and closer with someone. It’s like chemistry, like it is with (good) relations in real life.
To return to the first question (When is your mix finished and do you proceed to mastering?): a good mix engineer knows when his or her kick-ass mix is ready to be sent out to the mastering engineer to become an even more kick-ass song!
In my previous column I asked you five questions. Five questions about mastering. Five questions in which I try to get a clear picture about how you producers, mixers and other music fanatics deal with mastering in your workflow.
And now, in my 40th (!) column for Rotterdam based music platform Popunie, I’ll share the results with you. You’ve supplied me with quite some answers, for which I am very grateful. Thank you all!
The results give me an insight in when you consider mastering, how you rate good mastering and -even more important- what high quality mastering is worth to you.
Here are the answers:
Question 1: When does mastering come into view?
Over 65% of you starts to think about mastering during the recordings. The other 35% include mastering in their preparations prior to recording. Hardly anyone considers mastering as a “problem solver” trying to save recordings that didn’t turn out so well.
Question 2: Why would you choose for mastering?
Almost unanimously you chose for answer A: You’re precious recording has to sound great on every sound system everywhere! Although more than half of you find the technical aspect equally important: Proper file delivery for a release on vinyl or via streaming services (answer B). Actually these are the ideal answers for us mastering engineers. Letting records sound great is the core of our business and it’s even nicer when our technical skills are well appreciated.
Nobody gave the answer stating that mastering is something necessary without knowing what it actually is (answer C). Very reassuring!
Question 3: Why would you choose for a certain mastering engineer?
Answers A and B both received about 50% of the vote. This shows that networking is important (answer A) but that the genre in which a ME (Mastering Engineer) seems to be specialized in is equally important (answer B).
About 25% relies on the power of almighty Google (answer E), while in few cases mastering for vinyl is regarded as being important (answer C).
Question 4: What is mastering worth to you?
The answer to this question was completely unanimous: All of you find quality to be of much greater importance than the costs for mastering (answer C). A single individual even sent an e-mail to Bob Ludwig! (D) Few people indicated to master themselves, whether or not commissioned for others.
Fortunately almost nobody indicated to work with so called “package deals”: Recording, mixing and mastering, all at the same studio. I’m not so keen on that and it’s nice to know that you share my opinion on this. A combination of recording and mixing is fairly easy to comprehend because there’s a clear border between these two processes: When you’re done recording you start to mix your tracks. Piece of cake.
But when are you done mixing and when do you move on to mastering? Or do you start with a mastering chain and mix backwards from there? These are some not easy to answer questions. Perhaps I should write a column about this…
Question 5: Does mastering gear play a role in your choice for a certain studio?
Of course I saved the best for last. The answer to this final question was also unambiguous: Except for one you all relied on trust. Trust and confidence in the ears, experience and skills of a professional ME. Exactly this answer is what we engineers like to hear!
The gear: Obviously this plays a role in choosing a studio. Gear is fun. They form the (fairly expensive) toybox a studio uses to work with and to impress future clients and I would be lying by saying gear has no influence on the sound of the end product. But it’s important to rightfully turn those knobs, faders and switches. It’s ever so important when working on full mixes during mastering.
These were the answers. I’m exceptionally thrilled that you took the time to share your thoughts with me.
I will probably come back to the answers in future columns but for now: Thank you so much and I hope to see you in my studio sometime!
PS: I serve a delicious cup of coffee prior to a mastering session, made with freshly roasted coffee beans from Rotterdam. Just so you know…
Now that we are all sitting at home in an ultimate attempt to defeat the corona virus I thought to myself: Can I find anything to write about that requires some involvement from my readers.
After contemplating with myself and Pippa, my cat I soon found the answer. Column number 39 has to an interactive one, a… what do you call it, a… poll!
Right, a list of smart questions you also run into while scrolling those Instagram Stories. Just because we can, because it’s fun and most of all because I’m really curious if mastering lives among you. If mastering plays a role in your life, in either way.
Well here it is, my first poll. Five questions, each with different options. I’d like to ask you to indicate what applies to you most. When in doubt, just give me multiple answers where the first answer is the most important to you.
1. When does mastering come into view?
a) Before the recordings begin
b) During the recordings
c) My recording and mix doesn’t sound as good as I hoped for. I’m aiming for mastering to save my recordings.
2. Why would you choose for mastering?
a) Because the record has to sound great on every sound system everywhere
b) Technique: It’s nice to know my files are in good hands when it comes to my release on vinyl and digital streaming platforms
c) On advice from others, it seems to be a necessary thing
3. Why would you choose for a certain mastering engineer?
a) Through my network
b) Based on what an engineer has mastered in the past
c) I’ve heard this studio has a good reputation in mastering for vinyl
d) I have a package deal with a recording and mix studio
e) Google is my best friend
4. What is mastering worth to you?
a) I have a package deal with my recording/mix studio: it’s cheap, easy and fast
b) I master my own recordings, it can’t be that hard
c) Money doesn’t play such an important role, I want quality
d) The sky is the limit, I just emailed Bob Ludwig
5. Does mastering gear play a role in your choice for a certain studio?
a) Yes I admit, I’m a gear nerd
b) No, I trust the engineers’ ears and experience
An example: Jane has supplied the following answers: 1a, 2c, 3abc, 4c, 5b. With the third question Jane chose for a, b and c. First her network plays a key role in choosing the right mastering studio. After that she looks at what that studio has mastered in the past and finally she wants to release her album on vinyl so that also plays an important role in her choice.
In next month’s column I’ll present you some results. It’s fun, I look forward to it and I’m very much looking forward to your answers!
In my previous column I mentioned the three-dimensional listening experience when playing a record on vinyl on a decent stereo set.
I can’t put my finger on it but everytime I play a great record on vinyl I tend to hear some kind of 3D-effect. When I play that same record on cd it lacks that effect, or at least the effect is present to a much lesser degree. Goose bumps are the directly visible effect of such a 3D listening experience.
I wil ignore music streaming services, since they almost always play lossy file formats like mp3, Ogg, AAC etc.. In this discussion I’ll focus on music played at its highest fidelity (Hi-Fi).
Some albums appear to be made for vinyl and yes, in these cases vinyl does tend to sound better, provided the album is properly mastered, has had a healthy cut to vinyl and is played back on a decent turntable. If we add up the fantastic artwork of a release on vinyl, the popularity of this medium suddenly becomes a lot more obvious.
Almost all vinyl records are made by cutting the music with a diamond needle onto a lacquer. The lacquer consists of a coated aluminum disc and serves as the mother of which the stamper is made.
The stamper in turn is used to press the actual vinyl records.
For classical music, jazz and some singer-songwriter albums DMM (Direct Metal Mastering) is often used as a way to make records. DMM uses a copper disc on which the music is directly cut.
This copper disc serves as the stamper of which the records are pressed.
Another method to cut vinyl is called “direct cutting”.
With direct cutting the music is directly cut onto the vinyl. This makes direct cutting more useful for smaller runs.
In the land of music the human ear is king. While I may find that a record sounds better on vinyl, someone else might have a totally different opinion. Luckily there’s no right or wrong here. If someone is very familiar with a record on cd (or another digital medium), a vinyl record would only detract the energy and focus associated with that digital record. In this case the digital record sounds better to his/her ears than the analogue one on vinyl.
Besides, listening music is a rather subjective activity. The mood you’re in, the time of listening, your listening environment, whether it’s winter or summer. All factors that can influence your musical opinion.
After reading the above we can only conclude that vinyl could very well sound better. Not taking into account that some people’s ears are not going to hear the difference between analogue and digital or between vinyl and streaming, even at its lowest quality settings.
Whether the above applies to you? That’s a good question. Buy yourself a record player and a couple of great vinyl records with your favourite music and start listening. You’ll soon find out you’ll embrace this beautiful medium or that it’s not your thing. If not? Not to worry, the artwork of your favourite albums will probably do great as wall decoration.
A fine glass of Scotch single malt whisky is supposed to help you decide in favour of vinyl, but all that aside…
Vinyl is back from never being gone.
The vinyl record has a long history going all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century. These were the 78 rpm shellac records made of secretion from lice(!)
Before the era of the 78 rpm record others records were made with various playback speeds but in this column I’ll leave them aside.
With the arrival of digital audio back in the eighties, the market share of vinyl got smaller and smaller and the vinyl record seemed doomed to extinction.
Until the dance scene discovered the sonic advantages of vinyl and its user friendliness.
User friendly for professionals that is. I’ve once tried it, but getting the tempo of two tracks aligned to make a transition proved to be a sheer impossible task for me.
There are no bass tones on a vinyl record. The technique behind vinyl cutting doesn’t physically allow for those tones to be cut on a record. If you want to play a record, you’ll be needing a phono preamp or make use of a special phono input on your amplifier.
The preamp compensates for the lack of bass. Also the higher frequencies are compensated but in the opposite direction (high frequencies are cut, see the image below).
This allows for a nice three-dimensional soundstage when a record is played on a decent HiFi set, resulting in a completely analogue listening experience.
The RIAA-curve. When both curves are combined the result is a flat line. Both high and low frequencies are compensated by the phono preamplifier.
The secret of the sound of vinyl lies in the phono preamp. A well-built and good sounding phono preamp compensates the highs and lows of a vinyl record in such a way that it translates perfectly to the outside world. You can compare it with the use of a mic preamp. A good preamp will elevate the sound of a mic. That same principle applies for vinyl and its phono preamplifier.
When hooked onto a big PA system the great sound of vinyl is amplified right across the dance floor (or football or soccer field) and there you have it: a rave is born. It’s a bit of a simplistic comparison but it definitely shows the power and impact vinyl is capable of.
The same goes for spinning vinyl in a living room. You’ll need to relax and to sit down to enjoy a good vinyl record. It’s a medium that needs a little attention (especially after 20 minutes or so), but you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful three-dimensional listening experience.
There’s one “if” however. You’ll need a decent record player with a proper stylus. There are portable record players on the market, equipped with a stylus that can be easily used to put a tattoo on somebody’s arm. They are very much capable of doing serious harm to your precious record collection! In short: don’t buy those things or change the cartridge immediately for a better sounding and less harmful one.
So, does vinyl sound better? The answer to this is not an easy one. It greatly depends on what you compare it with and how critically you listen. There are people that have a hard time distinguishing the differences between a 64kbps mp3 (a very low quality setting) and an uncompressed (lossless) 24 bit wave file, while others claim to hear the differences between 16 and 24 bit (both lossless wave files).
You know what? I’ll take another month to think it over. First things first: let’s play a couple of vinyl records. In next month’s column the definitive answer to the question: does vinyl sound better?
In this month’s column I will elaborate on why I’m a big fan of older (vintage) HiFi amplifiers.
To be frank I find it hard to explain exactly why I like them, but I’ll give it a try.
An old amp is like an old man (or woman) with lots of life experience and knowledge. Wisdom comes with age.
With gear this works quite the same. When properly serviced, vintage equipment can be very valuable because of their unique sound. It’s not without reason that large amounts of money are paid for vintage equipment from the glory days of pop music in the previous century.
The condition of the equipment is a key element here. Nobody in HiFi or studio-land gets excited over poorly performing vintage equipment.
Good vintage equipment lives and it’s exactly that what makes it so pleasant to listen to and to work with. It’s kind of the same with the HiFi amps I use in my studio. I really like working with them but I like listening to them even more.
It’s like they want to tell me a story. Each day a different one. It’s a bit romanticized but I genuinely believe it works this way.
And besides: my choice for this type of amplifiers will undoubtedly be influenced by my previous career as an (electric) guitarist. For many guitarists a vintage (tube) sound is some kind of holy grail and I too look at myself as being a “tube-ish” guy.
But wait, why don’t you use tube HiFi amps in the studio? Good question, here’s the answer: downstairs in my living room I have a set of vintage Philips HF-309 power amps. Two mono blocks, handmade in the late sixties and each capable of delivering 6 Watts of tube power.
6 Watts seems little but trust me, once you pump up the volume and combined with the right speakers “Killing In The Name Of” by nineties cult band Rage Against The Machine can be severely loud!
Below some images from the Philips archives. Building your own HiFi equipment was normal in those days.
Philips, for hobbyists aged ten to eighty.
The Philips DIY kit.
So, they sound great, those Philips tube amps. But still I’m not using them for mastering.
This is because they can sound absolutely great at times. But there are times that they sound somewhat normal. I cannot put my finger on it but to me they seem to live and just like in real life good days are alternated with less good ones.
This makes them less suitable for mastering since monitoring consistency is a big thing in mastering. You monitoring environment are the ears you listen to and rely your judging upon so it’d better be constant.
What I do use are vintage HiFi amps from the nineties, all made in Japan.
First up is Mr. Sony. The TA-F570ES integrated amplifier is capable of delivering lots of power. Ideal for powering the lower bass cabinets of my custom built speaker system.
Next up is Mr. Marantz, more specifically Mr. Ken Ishiwata. His rendition of the PM-66SE amplifier shines in subtlety and finesse, making it a perfect companion for the mid and high cabinets of my custom speakers.
Finally there’s Mr. Pioneer. The A-676 from the Reference line combines power with subtlety which makes it a perfect match with my Amphion Two15 speakers.
Well, I’m drooling all over right now. It’s time to power up the amps and let some great music pass through them. Enjoy!
In my previous column I talked about the loudness button, found on many HiFi amplifiers.
In this month’s column I will elaborate on the amp itself.
Nowadays the amplifier as centerpiece of a stereo set is not as common as it used to be back in the days of music on CD, vinyl or music cassette. Many people (youngsters) listen to their music on their phone via earbuds or headphones.
But still I’d like to stand up for the HiFi amp as an important element of a stereo set. A current set looks a bit smaller than it used to in the previous century.
While music streaming services offer listening to compressed(!) music we started to listen less to physical sources like CD, vinyl and music cassette.
But thanks to the revival of vinyl and, to a lesser degree, music cassette physical music sources are on their way back to our homes. Attention and focus to actually listen to a record instead of music being a way to kill time.
Back to the chain. The chain of the centerpiece (amplifier) and sources like a CD Player, turntable and a cassette deck to deliver music to the most important piece of the chain: our loudspeakers.
There are different design options for building a HiFi amplifier. Older designs (being Class A or AB) are less efficient and generate more heat while newer designs (Class D or higher) are highly efficient, produce less heat and are much lighter in weight.
But do those newer amps sound better than vintage amps?
It’s probably not a matter of better or worse. Music has everything to do with connection and musicality.
I’m not so much interested in the efficiency and weight of an amplifier. I just want it to sound good and to be able to connect music to the listener in the best possible way and vintage HiFi amps seem to deliver exactly that (at least for me).
I like the way they look and feel with their hefty weight and luscious Class A (or AB) tones. It probably has something to do with my past: I played (electric) guitar through vintage tube amps because of their rich and musical tone.
One thing must be cleared out: there’s nothing wrong with a well-constructed modern Class D (or higher) amplifier. It’s just that since the glory days of HiFi in the eighties and nineties many shitty built and designed amps of questionable quality have been put out on the market.
Fortunately the quality of current HiFi amplifiers is getting better again. A modern brand like Hegel produces some fine HiFi equipment. People seem to pay more attention to the actual sound quality of the music they are listening to and are more willing to invest in a decent stereo set.
In the meanwhile, have a listen to your favorite record without streaming compression on vinyl, CD or cassette or digital via a music streamer. You’ll be amazed how good it can actually sound.
You’ve probably seen it before, that button on your amplifier that says “loudness”. Some manufacturers call it “contour” but it means exactly the same.
But what does that loudness button do and why is it on the front panel of your amplifier?
First of all some words about those shells on the sides of our head. Our ears represent an ingenious but beautiful system that enables us to hear sounds and music.
This perception of sound happens through transmission of vibrations via our eardrums. Those eardrums react differently to softer vibrations (low volume) than to more intense vibrations (higher volumes).
The sensitivity of our eardrums is far from linear. This means that a given tone at low volume is perceived differently than that exact same tone at a higher volume.
Scientists Harvey Fletcher and Wilden A. Munson already demonstrated this phenomenon way back in the thirties of the previous century. They researched the sensitivity of human hearing at different frequencies and sound pressure levels (intensity):
The image shows that the red lines representing the loudness curves are far from straight. But what do we see exactly?
The y-axis (from top to bottom) shows the volume in decibels while the x-axis represents the frequency in hertz. We can particularly notice that the loudness curves start at a fairly high intensity (volume), subsequently go down to a lower intensity between 1000 and 10.000 Hz to ultimately end at relative high volume levels.
This shows that our ears are less sensitive to lower and higher frequencies at lower volumes. Lower and higher frequencies have to be played louder to perceive the same intensity as the midrange (where our ears are most sensitive). While the volume (intensity) rises the curves are getting flatter, meaning that this effect is less noticeable at higher volumes.
Fully straight horizontal lines would imply complete linearity of our hearing: at any given volume every frequency is perceived equally loud. But we humans are far from linear so:
Back to the knob.
You might have already guessed: the loudness button compensates for this reduced sensitivity of our hearing at lower volume levels.
When you push the loudness button you’ll notice an increase of bass and treble in the sound.
Actually, the loudness button can be seen as an equalizer with fixed settings of frequency and gain. Some manufacturers use a variable loudness contour on their amplifiers.
This loudness contour does come with a price however: like any type of equalization the loudness contour induces phase shifts in the signal, making it less “pure”.
It’s a bit far-fetched but this is partly reason for some high-end manufacturers to skip the loudness button on their products. You just have to turn up the volume to avoid the need of a loudness button.
By the way, this loudness button is not very accurate. At what volume is your music played linear when it’s engaged? And what about the influence of our speakers and room? Do we actually enjoy listening to linear played music?
And do we rely on the loudness button on a daily basis at any volume level or is life better without it?
All these questions can be answered with one simple action: Push the button!
A little while ago I ran into my column about attended mastering sessions (#26). In this turbulent time I could not imagine that there would be a time that I could no longer offer attended sessions.
And all this because of this bug (or whatever it is) that nests itself into our innocent lungs and respiratory tract.
The c-crisis (let’s not mention that word…) has a lot of impact on our lives. Impact on the economy, to great dislike of certain political parties.
But above all the crisis has impact on ourselves! Weeks in a row of home isolation does something to a human being. We’ve been devoid of the so important social release for quite some time now. To mention a few places and activities we’ve been deprived from: the bar/pub, the festivals, the coffee bar, the restaurant. In short: The Life.
But at least as important as our social life is our craving for cultural activities in a broad context.
We’re craving for art, for seeing a theatre play, for reading a book (although that goes pretty well now), for watching movies (also fairly easy) and above all listening and watching MUSIC!
We really mis out on the social connection by watching a band play while holding a beer in your hand, that hurts.
But, every uncomfortable situation has an opposite (and more positive) side. To be able to listen to music we don’t have to leave our houses. The internet nowadays makes it possible to stream millions of titles and while many of those great musicians are mandatory sitting at home they make some great music.
Music that has rather a story. Musicians are having a hard time. In one swipe almost the entire agenda has been wiped clean. All the more reason to work on this great record that you’ve always wanted to make but never had the time for.
A record about despair, hope, winter, autumn and other seasons but also a record about resurrection.
We will prevail, together, as we are social mammals. Connection has never been more important. I just heard UN-chief Guterres talk on the radio. He stated that this crisis is the most severe crisis for human kind since World War II. World War II was initiated by humans. Is humanity to blame for this virus? Maybe we’ll find the answer to that question in our history books in the year 2040.
The year in which we seem to be more peaceful than ever. The return of the hippie, including pot, weed, incense and the Summer of Love.
And how cool is it, to actually use music as the driving force behind that Summer of Love?!
As soon as the crisis ends we will all start to like each other more. It will be good for every, a bit extra compassion and love in troubled times. Music is timeless, so why not celebrate that lovely summer with some great music!
Okay, first I’m gonna listen to a record on vinyl. Talking about timeless: the unnamed debut (and only) album by Buckingham Nicks from the great year 1973. A bit warmth in these times won’t do any harm…
Vision, a nice word for looking forward while mesmerizing about your work. And it has definitely got something to do with that certain dot on the horizon! In my previous column I mentioned the differences between mastering engineers. And also differences in vision between those engineers.
The vision of an engineer says something about how he or she works. Of course, this quality is unique for every engineer and (partly) explains the differences between them.
I can imagine that a vision can have quite some influence on how we approach our work. When I speak for myself I can easily lay awake for an hour during two or three nights in a row, thinking about and pondering on room/studio acoustics and the consideration of getting that new piece of outboard gear. (Why should I buy it? Will it benefit my business workflow? Of course, it will. It’s outboard!)
A big part of the way I (and my colleagues) work has to do with reflections on what we’d like to achieve by means of sound and impact of our work.
What is necessary to get there and to let music really connect to the listening public?
Can it get better? Can I work faster without compromising quality? Two major visionary points!
I could make this a tad more abstract by asking the question what it is that causes so many records to sound so darn good. I could easily zoom in on this and keep zooming in until I start wondering if the use of a certain power cord perhaps could induce a certain quality to the sound. There are no limits to this.
Actually, the longer I think about it, the more I’ll tend to zoom in on the details and the more possibilities arise. As you’ll probably understand: lying awake for an hour or so per night suddenly makes a lot more sense.
But for my own wellbeing that dot on the horizon has to stay clear and focused on my radar. I don’t want to lose time while going round in circles without getting closer to my target, even though I know that the moment I reach my target, the next target is already on the radar.
In this way target and vision are more or less inseparable: I’d like to master more albums, ep’s and songs (target) to get better at it and to get closer to the ultimate sound (vision).
I’m afraid that our learning curve will never end and exactly that is what makes mastering such a great profession. I’m free to focus on my vision on a daily basis, without losing sight of my target(s).
So that would make me … an audio nerd! Yes indeed, and I’m proud of it!
In Holland there are quite a few mastering engineers (ME’s) who work professionally. Besides those professional engineers there is a vast range of musical styles to master.
Do engineers have preferences? And do they excel in certain styles of music and in what way do they project their vision on masters they deliver?
These questions are hard to answer individually. The vision (sound wise, that is) of an ME says something about his or her profile and it’s this profile that speaks to a group of people (artists, producers, mixing engineers) who work in specific genres of music.
In this way there’s some kind of free enterprise going on. Different ME’s serve different parts of the music market. A market based on networking and promotion, but also a market based on vision, appearance and profile.
The appearance starts with Google (for those customers who don’t know you yet). Mr. G is one of our best friends when it comes to exposure on the internet. After some research people looking for great mastering have narrowed their choices to a couple of mastering studios. They take a look at our website, they search for reviews and listen to some music mastered by those studios and they’re ready to make their final decision!
The music market actually works quite simple. Most engineers or studios get chosen by their track record. And ME’s always have some differences in their track records. An engineer who has a focus on natural sound and dynamics will probably be asked sooner to engineer a jazz recording. An ME who’s vision/focus is to use colouring to get to the desired (fat) sound will more likely be asked to master hip hop or other urban styles of music.
Of course, this is just an example, the market is much more complicated than that. An engineer needs to continually grow to expand his or her focus, vision and -technical- skills.
And besides, an engineer needs to have a wide profiling focus. Saying no to too many jobs isn’t gonna help your business to grow. And it’s just so much fun out there with all these different music styles and their spin-offs. Especially since the last 2 decades there is a lot going on in the music industry. A lot of those developments also apply to mastering.
Something that I regularly encounter is that the more specific the music genre, the more profiling is required from an engineer. In other words: a niche part of the market like jazz music asks for a very well skilled engineer, specialized in… jazz music.
Are you an engineer who works on 10+ jazz albums per month? You’re probably most likely to master more of that genre. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. There’s a word for it, let me think… Ah, yes: experience!
One thing connects all of us engineers. It’s our aim and commitment to make recordings sound as good as humanly possible. I say humanly on purpose, I’m convinced that only a human being is able to evaluate a recording and to do (or don’t do) the thing necessary to make it shine. Music is about connection between humans, no machine can be in charge of that.
We’re a bunch of audio nerds and we’re damn proud of it!
Why is it that some recordings are so good, so engaging and so intense? The short answer: those recordings tell a story.
Well, this concludes my final column of this decade. Let's head into the roaring twenties!
But since every short answer has its longer version, I give you the long answer in this column. The long answer as to why some records are so darn good.
To answer this question we should ask ourselves another question first: why would an artist or band want to record an album or EP anyway? Imagine a starting band. All members of the band practice for hours a day and together they write some beautiful songs in their too small rehearsal space, accompanied by that typical sweaty band odor. But beware: there’s something beautiful happening here!
After three months the doors of the rehearsal space open and we're about to witness the birth of 12 rock songs. Twelve pieces of music about love, happiness and grief including head and tail and some power riffs. And of course: those songs are asking to be recorded, mixed, mastered and released into the great wide open!
But what is it that causes an artist to feel the need to capture his or her songs onto a recording? It’s actually a kind of flaunting with yourself. You want to show the world that you know how to play your instrument, that you know how to write beautiful songs or you want prove that you as a band are able to get this all done.
And how cool is it to share this with the outside world? Just open Spotify, browse your name, click the play button and there you go: your very own songs stream right into the great wide world! A more intense feeling of satisfaction hardly exists. Besides that a physical release has the advantage of cover art (vinyl!) and when you play live shows you can sell your albums after the show.
And when you sign your records or CD’s they might even be worth a lot of money afterwards.
So, now let’s go back to the initial question: “Why are some records so good?” When you write a song, it (hopefully) is about something. In that “something” lies the answer. You’ve been through something and you feel the urge to share this with humanity by writing a song about it. It’s like therapy: for once you don’t share your experience with your therapist but with anyone willing to hear your song about it.
And it’s this sharing that gives you a feeling of both pride and relief.
The more intense your shared experience, the more intense the song. It’s that simple and this explains why some records are so intensely good and had to be made. Of course, there are other factors that play a role in this but it’s a starting point and the tone is literally set.
An example: those of you who know me a bit know that I have a thing for “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac which was released in 1977. The story behind this -by the way brilliantly sounding- record is a story of multiple relations within a band, including accompanying perils and breakups.
All this made “Rumours” more or less inevitable. The record had to be made and released since all 11 songs on the album tell a piece of this immersive story.
So, do you have a thing or two to tell? Tell it with a song or with an EP, or take the high road and tell it with an entire album. Whatever it takes to get things off your chest, make your recording inevitable and to write the best song(s) of your life.
During the Meet The Pro session at the studios of Okapi Recordings in September of this year (2019) a very good question was asked by someone in the audience. The question was what would be the preferred sample rate for running a project and what would be the relation between a project and a chosen sample rate.
I’ve written a column about sample rates some time ago (column #17, The higher the better). Sample rate is just like dither one of those subjects that get quite some attention, while other subjects in the production process might benefit from some extra attention.
It requires good hearing skill to hear the difference between a mix in 44.1 kHz and that same mix in 96 kHz. I must admit that my attention doesn’t lie anywhere near sample rates. I find the things happening in a mix (energy!) a lot more important.
Of course, the choice of sample rate has an influence on the sound. It has an influence on the steepness of the digital filter in A/D and D/A converters to prevent aliasing. At a lower sample rate (44.1 kHz) the digital “anti-aliasing filter” has a more steep curve. The higher the sample rate, the less steep the filter is. And the more steep the filter, the more difficult it is to design a linear and phase coherent filter without any (or with as little as possible) aliasing frequencies within the human hearing range of roughly 20 to 20.000 Hz. For more info about aliasing in relation to digital filtering, I’d advise you to Google terms like aliasing and Nyquist. It has to do with sampling techniques. Choosing a sample rate is also part of the sampling routine.
According to some audiophiles among us a steeper digital filter could induce more stress and less focus in the sound. Well, I find that a bit difficult. First of all you need a very good listening environment to recognize the differences between different sample rates. Plus, a steep digital filter doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. It depends greatly on the style of music. Subtle classic piano playing or a nice jazzy muted trumpet are a different league than rocking and screaming guitars and drums with drops of water coming off the snare.
And besides all that, our human hearing doesn’t have a very linear frequency curve. So what to believe? Go check for yourself. Record and mix something in 44.1 kHz, subsequently record and mix exactly that same piece in 96 kHz and spot the differences. Are there any differences? Try listening on headphones or in another studio and most importantly: listen multiple times during a couple of days. Tests like the above done in the past show that a mix done in 96 kHz has a slightly different “presentation” when compared to that same mix in 44.1 kHz.
So, a less steep digital filter is easier to build and less complex. In that respect higher sample rates aren’t illogical. However, most of our streaming platforms only accept files with a sample rate of 44.1 kHz to subsequently encode these files to data-compressed AAC or Ogg file formats (like mp3).
And yes indeed, what goes up must come down. Somewhere in that chain we call mastering a higher sample rate has to be converted back to 44.1 kHz to meet the standards of Spotify. Would you choose 44.1k during recording and mixing, there wouldn’t be a need to convert the sample rate. It saves you extra processing.
But suppose you’re working on a nuanced project to be released on a streaming service like Qobuz. Qobuz is a French platform that supports lossless streams with sample rates up to 192 kHz. Qobuz plays FLAC1 files, offering the same quality as wav files with a resolution of 24 bits.
In that case it’s not a bad idea to look at the possibilities to run your project in 96k (or 88.2 or 48 kHz). One thing to consider is the processing power of your computer. Working with higher sample rates (88.2 kHz and higher) during recording and mix can consume a fair share of your computer’s processing power. You don’t want to be in a situation where pressing the space bar (play) leads to message stating that playback at this moment is not possible or that playback begins but the only audio coming out of your speakers is a severe stuttering sound.
So, in conclusion we can state that sample rates higher than 44.1 or 48k are not always the better choice. Choosing the right sample rate for your project greatly depends on which format you plan to release your music and if your computer is willing and able to work with higher sample rates.
I must admit that, without any technical foundation and solely based on my gut feeling, I have a slight preference for 48 kHz as go-to sample rate. Don’t ask me why but it must have something to do with a compromise: a less steep digital filter and a sample rate higher than 44.1k while still having enough computer-processing-power to spare. If we add up the benefit of supplying higher sample rates to the vinyl pressing plant, I must admit that 48k isn’t such a bad idea at all.
Well, I’m done for now and I reckon you’re a bit saturated with sample rates by now… Next month I’ll try writing about a lighter subject.
1 FLAC: Free Lossless Audio Codec. An audio codec to play music, just like AAC (Apple Music) and Ogg which is used by Spotify, without any loss of quality (lossless). AAC and Ogg are compressed (lossy, less quality) audio codecs like mp3. Codec stands for coding and decoding.
“We’ll fix it in the mastering” is not the best English, stating a problem that really shouldn’t be a problem.
The mix is the place where most crucial decisions are made after a recording is done. Decisions about the balance and atmosphere of a song are greatly determined in the recording or mixing stage.
Mastering is just the magnifying glass on the mix. All decisions made in the mix are being evaluated and brought up, amplified or attenuated when necessary. It’s that ear for detail what makes mastering such a great job.
A good mix needs little correction or tweaks. If a mix kicks ass, the last thing you want is to extract precious energy from it. Just a bit more volume or the earlier mentioned magnifying glass is probably all it needs to establish connection to the outside world.
The so called “problem” occurs when certain choices are being postponed in the mixing stage. It is this postponement that could lead to a situation where choices end up at the place where they don’t belong: the mastering session.
When for instance a mix lacks good vocal balance, it’s very well possible that this is caused by not choosing the right vocal balance in the mixing process. Should the vocals be on top of the mix or more in the mix? Serious questions that deserve serious answers!
If these questions are not answered in time, they might end up being postponed right into the mastering session. Exactly what we don’t want.
When this decision or choice of vocal balance ends up in the mastering session, it’s very hard to do something about it. Changing the vocal balance in a mix is easy: turning the vocal fader up or down usually does the job perfectly. Adjusting the vocal balance in a mastering context is a little more tricky. Tools like (dynamic) EQ, compression and other trickery have to be used to make corrections on a full mix, without sacrificing the energy present and without changing other elements in the mix too much.
Choices! Preferably choices made before the mastering session. It would make mixes so much better. A good answer to a mix question needs to be answered in the mixing stage, right before bouncing the mix to a stereo file to be sent to the mastering studio.
Of course we could revert back to the mix when a vocal balance needs correction. That certainly is a lot easier and better sounding than corrections made in the mastering stage. Unfortunately this is often not possible due to deadlines and busy times for mixing engineers, forcing us to work with the given mixdown.
So again: make choices where they belong, be it a recording or a mixing session. The end result will get better. More power, more connection and probably even more necessity or urge to get your record out there! There we go, yet another topic for a column about mastering: “The necessity of a record”.
So choose people, CHOOSE! It would make records so much better or even close to perfection!
“It all starts with a good mix, preferably a perfect one.”
To my recollection I’ve mentioned this before but it’s the whole truth and nothing but that whole truth.
So a mix should sound great, causing the end product -the master- to sound equally great. Even more so, I dare to state that the less knobs I’d have to turn, the better the master tends to sound. A good mix doesn’t need a whole lot of (unnecessary) corrections.
It sounds pretty simple, a good mix. Yet, the simple part depends on some critical factors.
To name a few: Experience: experience cannot be bought. Experience is probably the most important of all factors. To be fully aware and in control of the tone, ambience and sound of a recording. For a trained mixing professional these are pretty obvious subjects.
I’ve done some mixing once. Those so called “pretty obvious subjects” turned out to be not so obvious and simple. So many choices and possibilities. My ears and mind started dazzling and soon I decided to go easy on myself with working on just two channels: mastering. But an experienced and trained ear is priceless for both mixing as mastering engineers.
Monitoring: without a decent monitoring system your precious trained and experienced ears are useless. Good monitoring (your speakers and the room acoustics) makes it possible to translate your mix choices and decisions into that so desired result: a good mix, preferably a perfect one. Good monitoring is essential for both mixing as mastering engineers. Good monitoring establishes that what we all want to achieve with music: connection. Connection towards the outside world of listeners to your music.
The final judgements regarding sound and tone of a recording take place in an environment of utmost perfection in monitoring and connection: the mastering studio.
A great mix, it doesn’t come easy.
Let’s not forget to mention things like good playing by some good musicians or let alone a great song!
Without those pretty essential ingredients you can turn and twist all knobs in the world but the real beauty only shows when all of those musical factors are taken into serious consideration.
On Monday September 30, 2019 at 7:30 pm a “Meet The Pro” session will be held in the studios of Okapi Recordings here in Rotterdam. The session, organized by Dutch music platform Popunie is moderated by musician and engineer Budy Mokoginta.
Rogier Hemmes of Okapi Recordings and I will join forces to share our knowledge and experience in recording, mixing and mastering with the audience.
The main theme of this session is how to efficiently use studio time while recording and mixing. I will elaborate on the connection of a recording and mixing environment with the mastering studio.
More info can be found on the website of Popunie. (it’s all in Dutch)
The English language is strongly represented in mastering. Mastering itself is English, as well as outboard, gear, engineer, dithering and so on. Attended is also such a vastly used term in mastering. Attended means that the mastering session is being attended by the client (or its representative).
The biggest advantage of an attended session is that the client has direct influence on the end result of the mastering session. And because of that same influence there’s a lesser need for revisions of the master.
Another advantage is that a client can learn something by attending the session. Especially producers or mix engineers can benefit from attending the session in order to improve their mixing or producing skills.
Mastering is still surrounded by myths and many have no idea what’s actually being done to the audio during mastering. All that can be done to open the mystery curtain of mastering.
Mastering engineers can be split into two camps. The first camp like it when their clients attend the session. More influence and less revisions is their main reason to allow clients to sit in during mastering. Besides, the profession of mastering engineer can be quite lonely from time to time. Being all by yourself in a studio (sometimes without daylight) can sometimes be a bit alienating, so having people around you might enlighten this.
Right next to the group of pro-attenders there’s the group of mastering engineers that prefer to work completely solo. There’s also an advantage to this: when working solo, it’s easier to come to a complete and utter concentration and focus. No possible distraction by a client who gently points you to the sloppy bass area of the song, right at the moment you want to work on that specific area.
Communication is key in this case. When a client attends a session I’ll make a deal: only when I finish the first round of twisting and turning gear knobs I will get back to you and you can extensively comment or discuss the decisions made.
You might have already guessed: I’m a pro-attender. At my studio the client is welcome to join the mastering session. The influence and learning curve weigh more than the focus of working solo. The price of an attended session at my studio is exactly the same as a non-attended session. I find it strange to ask more when a client attends the session. As if I’d put in less effort when a client is not present.
Unless a client has eaten badly the night before and decides to fully use three rolls of toilet paper during the mastering session. In that case I’m forced to charge another three euros (excluding 21% value-added tax).
In the past two years I’ve written monthly columns about mastering. In these columns I try to shine a light on the subject of mastering. Mastering is still surrounded by myths and mysteries and when I look at the notes on my phone there are numerous items in the world of mastering yet to be talked about in a column.
So no, this is not the announcement that I quit writing columns for Popunie. Moreover, the amount of information about mastering that has to be shared with the public is overwhelming. Writing more columns about mastering is nothing more but logical.
One of the most essential items that came across in the past two years were the columns about loudness and more so the completely useless loudness war that shook up the music industry drastically from the nineties until the first decade of this century.
I also emphasized the contemplating side of mastering. Our consumption of music has changed dramatically over the years and I tried to set focus to mastering as the important final (and contemplating) step in the production process. Now that I’ve mentioned it; mastering as a contemplating step makes that we could also see mastering as a form of art. “Mastering & Art”, I feel the urge of a new column.
Besides “Mastering & Art” there are many other subjects that could very well end up in a column. Think about the necessity of a recording (contemplating) or an answer to the question why I strictly use vintage Hi-Fi amplifiers for my monitoring environment (technical).
I could throw in some humor. While organizing the notes on my phone, I came across a term that could very well be the title of my next column. Even though I’m not sure that I would win many new costumers if I’d put a sign saying “Clueless Mastering, mastering without a clue” on the facade of my studio. Maybe I’d have to think about it for a while.
Mastering, isn’t it a great craft. As a mastering engineer you more or less carry the end responsibility of a recording. The ME determines with what kind of tonal flavor the world hears a record. When a record gets positive feedback, it’s also to the credit of the mastering engineer to make an album, track or EP sound as good as it possibly can!
Of course, mastering is a technical craft. Great gear (knobs, sliders, switches and speakers) are all around and also in the computer there’s some processing going on. But mastering music is about mastering MUSIC. It’s all about you, the listener. We could describe mastering with over a thousand words but shouldn’t we let our ears be the final judges when it comes to listening to music. Listening to great sounding music that hits you hard. Music that hits your straight into your heart, there’s nothing that can beat the true emotion of music.
So let’s do more. More columns, more interesting topics, more contemplations and above all more mastering!
That’s a question I get every once in a while.
In a perfect world every mixer or producer would let his or her mixes be checked or verified by a skilled mastering engineer, before sending definitive mixes to mastering. Big chance (in case of a good mix that is) I’d say: “Okay fine, wicked mix. Bring ‘em in.”
It happens on a regular basis that a mix can make a big leap forward in quality, impact and musical connection with only some minor changes.
The quality of a mix is leading for the quality of the end product (the actual master itself). I get asked pretty often to turn water (a not so good mix) into gold (a great sounding master). A lot of things can get done in a mastering session but turning water into gold isn’t one of them. So mixers out there: get me a seriously kick-ass and wicked mix!
I think it’s time to throw in another statement:“The better the mix and the less needs to be done during mastering, the better your song will eventually sound!”
It’s not that we as mastering engineers don’t want to do anything with an already great mix. It’s doing exactly what’s needed that sets a great engineer apart from the rest. Impact, energy and connection, keywords of a great sounding master.
By listening carefully and critically to your mixes they will most definitely improve. It’s always best practice to thoroughly listen to your mixes before sending them to the mastering studio. It happens more than occasionally that a mix contains a small fault here and there.
A little checklist for checking your mixes: is it the right version of a mix? Think about (possibly confusing) names of your mix files. Is the mix “clean” from talking musicians at the end of a blistering solo or other unwanted sounds in the background. Are the fades all right?
And last but not least: does your mix level stay below 0dBFS? This also applies when you set the fader of the master bus to zero. If the master bus is overloaded and clips (everything above 0dBFS) when it’s set to zero, you’ll have to lower the faders of single channels or busses in your mix.
By just lowering the fader of the master bus it might look like you got rid of your (digital) overs but truth is that the clipping is still there internally in your DAW. You should look at your master bus as the sum of all parts; all single channels and busses are routed to the master bus. So mixers out there: keep an eye on those levels while mixing!
Happy mixing! :-)
Of course I cannot resist myself in writing another column about outboard gear. I will elaborate on the necessity (according to many of the mastering engineers) of those wonderful machines.
Nowadays there’s a growing group of engineers who master ITB. ITB stands for In The Box, meaning that no outboard apparatus or AD/DA converter is used to master the songs. Only plug-ins are used. Like I said in my previous column an analogue eq or compressor will most definitely lead you smoothly towards your goal. It’s the same with plug-ins. You “just” have to know your gear, analog or digital, they both are equally important.
A rack of great analogue outboard gear can be of great help to get the results you’re after. They look great, feel great, work great and many of us (mastering or mix) engineers regard those babies kind of as our own children. But what about their digital counterparts? Emulations of those exact pieces of analogue gear, very clever and very powerful and good sounding.
The person who would have said about ten years ago that you could master a recording using only plug-ins was declared mentally ill. Plug-ins made a big leap forward since the last decade or so. They have become good, actually very good! By now it’s sometimes hard (if not impossible) to distinguish a difference in sound between a piece of outboard and its plug-in counterpart.
So more and more mastering engineers get rid of their analogue pieces and master ITB. But still, turning knobs, levers and switches is fun! It’s that analogue feel that is irresistible. Plus the pieces look stunningly beautiful.
Well, technique hasn’t stood still: even for plug-ins there’s a device on the market that can control slides and pots within a plug-in. If you Google “nob control” you’ll find, logically, the nOb control. nOb is a beautiful small wooden enclosure housing an equally beautiful brass knob. It does its job without installing anything and works very easy: just place the mouse pointer on the knob or lever you wish to control, turn the big knob and you’ll see the value of the plug-in change while turning.
A fine piece of German engineering to bring the analog feel into the digital domain.
For me it’s still a long way towards the digital-only era. I’m a sucker for analogue pieces. It’s the same with streaming versus vinyl or cd. I just love to actually play a whole record, to hear the cohesion between songs and to hear the story an artist has to tell with that album.
I’ll end this story about outboard gear with the most well known line among the makers and producers of great music:“It’s the engineer, it’s not the gear!”
Doesn’t it sound great? Outboard gear. If you look at it closely it’s a rather strange term: gear that’s meant to be placed outside the board. Well, there’s certainly something special about it, when placed against plug-ins.
Even in other languages outboard gear is the go-to expression to point out analog (or digital if we look at the Weiss gear) pieces of gear with real knobs, pots and switches. We actually look at outboard gear as something special, as real toys for boys. Usually corresponding plug-ins are a lot cheaper than their analog counterpieces.
Is that for a reason? Yes and no. Actual metal boxes with real switches require research and design and a workshop or factory to produce and build them. Plug-ins require a different type of R&D and skills. It’s much more an ICT related job to build a programme that calculates algorythms to let music sound better.
A very important question comes to mind: does an analog outboard piece sound better than a digital plug-in? A decade or so ago the answer was easy: yes, analog outboard gear sounded way better than plug-ins. More depth, more space, more definition, more of everything. But technology hasn’t stood still. Nowadays their digital counterparts come awfully close to the original. In fact, many manufacturers of outboard gear also release a plug-in version of that same piece. This gives clients the option: go for the plug-in with all easy functions like recallability and the use of multiple instances of the same plug-in. Or do they choose for a more unique approach: the use of a single analog piece lacking the aforementioned ease of use.
If we look at it this way the choice would be an easy one. Why hassle with the extra space needed, no recall and only one piece to use at a time? But wait, there’s something special about these analog things. Sometimes they have tubes and/or transformers that do something with the sound. It’s that something plug-ins have a hard time getting done. It’s a kind of three dimensional feel and sound that sets a piece of outboard gear apart from a plug-in in a computer. We could actually say it degrades a plug-in down to a simple calculator. It only calculates numbers and algorithms to get to the desired result.
This effect gets amplified when using multiple pieces of outboard linked together to form a chain, a chain of fools, a chain of beautiful sound shaping tools, knobs, sliders, switches and pots.
And I haven’t even mentioned the most important factor of all: the humanoid operating all this and the ease of use of the physical apparatus. He or she determines the settings and decides what it should sound like.
In that light the automated online mastering services cannot be taken seriously at this time of writing. Perhaps in the future a custom made algorhithm will determine how certain types of music should or could sound. By that time the earth’s temperature has risen to a level where we wouldn’t be needing winter jackets anymore thus facing ourselves with serious other problems than the sound of a recording.
“An audio cable made for professional use costs less and is better constructed than a consumer cable.”
Well, now that is quite a bold statement. Okay, allow me to explain. In the land of high fidelity (Hi-Fi) a cable is a subject of almost mythical proportions. Like I mentioned in my previous column, many of the Hi-Fi cables on the market are equipped with heavy duty RCA connectors on top of the cable being treated with cryogenic technology (yes, here we go again). To go even further a Hi-Fi cable has triple shielding: it’s protected against (1) earth radiation, (2) inductive magnetic fields and (3) the neighbor yelling at his teenage son, who non-deliberately broke in the house of the neighbors last night while being stoned as a kite. A typical case of a door too far.
In short: your precious Hi-Fi cable is worth every penny. You’ve paid a vast amount of money for it, so it’d better be good! Isn’t it wonderful how smart marketing actually works and how this mechanism settles in our brains.
A professional cable lacks the cryogenic treatment and it also has no triple shielding. This type of shielding is unnecessary for this type of cable. A cable for professional use is balanced. I’m not very familiar with the exact technique behind balanced cables (Wikipedia must know how this works exactly) but a balanced cable has three instead of two conductors (+ [hot], - [cold] and ground).
This construction automatically protects the cable from exterior influences (radiation). A balanced cable is also capable of driving a signal over longer distances (more than five meters). As the icing on the cake a balanced cable is equipped with my personal favorite when it comes to connectors: instead of using wimpy RCA connectors this balanced studio cable uses XLR plugs.
XLR plugs are sturdy and as an extra advantage they actually click when they are connected. (A jack plug is also available as a balanced connector: the TRS plug. TRS stands for Tip, Ring, Sleeve; these are the three points where the plug makes a connection. This wonky plug is not my favorite. It’s suitable as a headphone connector but as a professional (mastering) studio connector it really lacks the sturdiness of XLR plugs.
But which cable is better? The expensive consumer Hi-Fi cable, with the inclusion of shielding and gold plated terminals or the relatively simple studio cable, equipped with non-gold-plated XLR plugs.
That’s a very good question. An answer is not easy to give. Both cables serve their purpose. A studio cable has to meet other requirements than a consumer cable. But wait a minute, in your last column you mentioned that a cable has to do two things: play some good music and stay put.
The consumer cable and the studio cable both deliver on these crucial points, each in his or her own way. Uncle Garth, who just spent over 100 euros on an interlink cable (an interlink connects two Hi-Fi components together), couldn’t be more happy playing his 180 grams vinyl of “Dark Side Of The Moon” on his vintage Thorens TD-125 MKII with an Ortofon elliptic diamond stylus…
1. a heavy, strong rope
2. a very strong rope made of strands of metal wire, as used to conduct electricity
In our universe of mastering there are two types of people: the makers and the users. The makers, that’s us, the mastering engineers, the ones who define what the user will hear, the masters of the universe! The users, that’s you, the listeners, the enjoyers, the consumers, the ears.
I could gracefully connect those two worlds with a beautiful amorphous cable. A cable free of oxygen, its strands surrounded by silver molecules treated with cryogenic technology. A true miracle of technique. The cable, no more than three feet long, is equipped with gold plated plugs, each weighing more than your average peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
But no, cable science is serious business. There’s definitely something going on in the world of cabling. Ok, let’s start at the beginning. A cable is made, as we can read above, to conduct electrical energy (music) from A to B.
Well, fair enough. But why, I repeat: WHY is there so much discussion going on about this type of transportation?
The moment you post something -on whichever type of social media- regarding audio cables is the moment a polemic storm breaks loose. Each and every person with an opinion about cables and audio (re)defines their own truth. This actually reminds me of a great one-liner from actor Clint Eastwood starring in a Dirty Harry movie: “Opinions are just like assholes, everybody has one.” Okay, so this subject most certainly stirs things up among people.
Let me try to shine my simple but (I hope) effective light on the subject. A cable has to do two things:
Of course I can throw all kinds of physical phenomena’s and formulas at you to test, measure and raise the quality of a cable to unmeasurable heights.
In fact only one thing is very important. A phrase that can be found on a little tile that once belonged to my great grandfather:
I’ll try to explain how this works. Unless you’re the owner of a hi-fi set with a value of a middle class car, a set using single-ended or push-pull tube technology, with a cryogenically (here we go again) treated atomic clock to drive the converter or a set with a couple of loudspeakers using the most expensive components and drivers (check out Wilson Audio) it is fairly useless to invest in expensive audio cables.
Balance is the magic word here. A fine mid-range hi-fi set with some fine mid-range cables brings balance and connects its components with only strong (inter)links.
Instead, invest in some good music, preferably on an all analog carrier like vinyl or music cassette. These are the things making us really happy people.
Next month I’ll elaborate some more on the differences between makers (creators) and users of audio cables.
Shakespeares Hamlet, who doesn’t know it. The fact that William S. back then knew what dither was is hardly imaginable nowadays. A wise man it was, Shakespeare. Dither cannot be seen, smelled or tasted and you can hardly hear it. But still it’s an important thing used by us, the mastering engineers. But what is that “thing” exactly?
In last month’s column I made the comparison between resolution and photography. Let’s just do that one more time. We again imagine this picture taken from internet being blown up to poster size. We see the picture made up of blocks and it’s not a pretty sight at all.
Okay, now it’s time to add some dither noise. Noise? Yes indeed. Technically speaking dither is a type of noise. What we see is that the corners of the blocks are tied together by the noise and as this is done, we’re looking at a completely different picture. It’s still far from perfect but because the blocks have been replaced by lines the image looks much better! (see the image below)
Okay, now it’s time to return to the land of audio and studio. The same principle is valid for music files (.wav or .aif). Like I wrote in my previous column the resolution of a CD is 16 bit. In a DAW (your computer plus software) we work with an internal resolution up to 64 bits (or even higher). Would we save our files as 16 bit all the bits above bit number 16 would be cut off. This means that also the information contained in those higher bits is being cut off and thrown away. This is no very pretty thing at all so instead we use 16 bit dither noise to mask the loss of those higher bits.
It’s quite difficult to hear but for some people cutting off those bits feels like a loss of depth and/or a deteriorated stereo image. Unfortunately back in the eighties the developers of the compact disc decided to use a 16 bit resolution (little did they know). But fortunately for us time hasn’t stood still. Nowadays the 24 bit resolution is widely used for recording and mixing but also as a final (Hi-Res) format.
When finishing a mix it's best practice to add 24 bit dither to your mixes as a final step during mixdown to reduce the bit depth from the higher internal 64 bits to 24 bits. Only when you render your tracks as 32 bit (floating) files there’s no need to add dither noise. When doing this, refrain yourself from using noise shaping. Noise shaping is being used to optimize the frequency range of the dither noise for the human hearing. This only works well if no further processing is applied so noise shaping is merely used when dithering to 16 bit resolution.
Be aware that dither only works when it’s applied as the very last step in processing. If you’d apply dither to lower the resolution to 24 bit internally and you would apply a small fade afterwards, the resolution will immediately rise to the high internal resolution of 64 bits.
Well, what a technical paper it turned out to be. I’m quite dazzled myself and in need of a beer. Next month a less heavy subject please.
Imagine, on the internet you find this great picture. You’ve decided you want the poster to hang above your bed in large poster size. You send the file to the store that makes posters and a couple of days later you receive a package containing your ever desired poster. You roll out your poster and what you see is not quite what you expect. All gentle lines have become grainy with small cubes making the lines sort of fluent, but only when you stand at a distance of more than 10 meters.
The tale above about resolution can be seen likewise to resolution in audio and studio land. I will already give away the morality of this column: use higher resolution files while recording and mixing, but also when working in mastering high resolution files (24 bits or higher) are very important.
But what exactly is resolution?
In last month’s column I discussed sample rates. I imagined the sample rate (for CD) as a piece of paper filled with tiny boxes, 44100 in total (on the horizontal axis). Now let’s imagine resolution as a working grid, displayed on the vertical axis on that same piece of paper. When the grid is too small (i.e. resolution too small) it could easily result in a negative influence on the sound. Since this effect is cumulative the negative effect only gets worse with increased processing.
Okay, hold your horses! Cumulative? Yes indeed, by cumulative I mean that one effect has an influence on the next effect etcetera.
It’s a bit hard to describe but losing resolution sounds like a sense of diminished depth in your sound. Your recording might also sound a bit “grainy”. When you use a dithering plugin capable of lowering the resolution below 16 bits you can do some experimenting and find out what it actually does to your sound.
Globally there are three resolutions that are being used in the land of music: 16, 24 and 32 bits. The latter exists, along with its bigger brother 64 bits, in fixed and floating point. To explain this I’d need a highly technical recital about internal processing (DSP: Digital Signal Processing). I won’t bother you with that extra info. It’s the understanding of music that counts. If you want to know more about DSP and fixed and floating point, use our big friend Google.
Here are the three functions:
16 bits: for CD. Music streaming services also make use of music files with 16 bit resolution. Please note that 16 bit files are not to be used for further processing. It’s an end format, it’s only used in mastering.
24 bits: for recording and mix. 24 bit resolution is widely used. It’s excellent when you make use of analogue processing via a digital to analogue and analogue to digital converter. The in- and outputs of these converters are 24 bits, so why not use those 24 bits. 24 bit files can also be uploaded to music streaming services.
32 bits: for internal processing. While working on a mix (with plugins and stuff), save your files as 32 bit (float!). This is the most classy option. This is the way I like to see mixes arrive at my studio!
If you choose to deliver 24 bit files, don’t forget to dither 32 bit files down to 24 bits (without noise shaping).
What all that means I’ll tell you in next month’s column!
Sample rate and resolution. Not everyone will know these terms but they are in fact important pillars in this current (digital) music age.
Let me start with the least important term: sample rate or sampling frequency. Long ago, the early eighties of the previous century, the compact disc was invented by Philips and Sony in Holland and Japan. From that moment our music experience would be changed for the better, since: Digital = Better! By now we know better. If only we look at the revival of the completely analog vinyl record. The technique behind this digital medium (and all other digitally produced music) is fairly complex and I won’t bother you with Nyquist, digital filtering and aliasing.
No, let’s imagine the process of sampling (yes, that’s what we call the chopping up of analog waveforms into digital pieces) simply as an A4 sized piece of paper filled with tiny boxes. On the horizontal axis, time, we have 44100 boxes (for CD). The vertical axis displays the level in decibels. Next we draw a sinus-like shape (see the image). The sinus is drawn over the 44100 boxes. Every time the line passes a box a digital image is made of the signal and here we have the process of sampling.
But why did we choose to take 44100 samples per second? Well, according to the sampling theory of uncle Harry Nyquist the Nyquist frequency is half the sampling frequency and is therefore also the bandwidth of the audible signal.
Okay, stop! Hold your horses! You were sayin’? Yes, sampling is a rather intelligent and complex process but in short this is what it comes down to: At a sampling frequency of 44100 Hz (Hertz are the units) the theoretically audible frequency range or bandwidth is 22050 Hz. Be aware, this is the theory. In practice this frequency is lower due to the artifacts of digital filtering to prevent aliasing.
To prevent aliasing of you readers you may quickly forget the previous sentence. The frequency range of compact disc is roughly 20 to 20 kHz (=20000 Hz).
The audio and studio world never stands still. During the nineties and beyond engineers started experimenting with higher sample rates, even up until 96000 Hz. That’s pretty high, especially when we take into account that if we’re lucky and blessed with great hearing we’re able to hear tones of 20000 Hz.
Roughly there are two camps. The first camp is convinced that higher sample rates (88200, 96000 or even higher) sound better and more natural and then there’s camp two: the camp of the lower sample rates (44100 and 48000 Hz). They find these lower frequencies to be sufficient and are convinced that the quality of music is much more than a couple of impressive high numbers.
I tend to place myself into camp two. The sampling frequency is merely supportive to a good piece of music, hitting you into your flesh and bones! There are other (also technical) issues related to sampling that I find equally important. What these are I will tell you next month.
In my last three columns I discussed dynamics and how we handle them in the mastering process.
But how loud should a track be to compete with the competition? And is there a need to make separate masters for different kinds of media? Think of a master for vinyl, a master for streaming or digital, a master for CD or a master for Compact Cassette. Well, some serious questions awaiting to be answered!
The first question is not easy to answer. Of course, measuring LUFS will tell us how loud a master actually sounds but it tells us nothing about how the track’s volume relates to other tracks from other artists in the same genre.
The “ideal” volume of a song depends on many factors. Is it a ballad or a very energetic or up-tempo song? Which genre are we dealing with? Is there much dynamic movement or is it a dynamically static song? Some serious stuff to take into consideration when determining the perfect volume of a song. And when it’s an album or EP, the flow of the songs is an important factor. Does the volume stay the same throughout the album/EP or is there a volume wave to enhance the impact of the album or EP as a whole?
During the mastering session I aim for a global loudness (volume) between -10 and -15 LUFS. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.
The second question about different masters for different types of media is a little easier to answer. Only when we’re dealing with a release on vinyl other masters could be necessary. Vinyl doesn’t like sibilance (those sharp S- and F-sounds you sometimes hear in -vocal- recordings). Also stereo information in the very low end of the spectrum is difficult for vinyl, as well as high volume (loudness). The latter is not really a problem nowadays. Since the ending of the loudness war volume is not that important anymore.
Some engineers believe that each type of media should have its own corresponding master. Unless there’s a need for an insanely loud (and less dynamic and more weak sounding) master for CD, I don’t see the advantages of separate masters for different types of media.
Online music services use loudness normalization and they are using it more and more by default. The goal is to let different tracks sound equally loud in playlists. In addition every service has it’s own method of measuring the loudness of a song. All this makes it irrelevant (for me) to produce separate masters for CD and for online music services (streaming).
Volume: fine by me, as long as it’s not too hard to handle!
Dynamics, it keeps our attention. We bring ourselves a mix and if we put a compressor or limiter on the 2-bus, the dynamic range is reduced but at the same time the music gets punchier, has more impact and energy etcetera. But only if this is done right. Hyper-compression doesn’t put a smile on our faces.
It may sound illogical: less dynamics but more energy. But if we zoom in on this particular phenomenon it’s not as illogical as it may seem. Look at the compressor as a tool that literally compresses things, more specifically music. It’s all starting to make some sense: the energy captured within a track is being pushed out of it, together with some extra harmonics and transients (see my previous column).
It all causes the energy levels to rise while decreasing dynamics. Quite a remarkable invention, a compressor. Although probably not every property has been developed consciously.
Is there another way to influence dynamics? Yes there is! It's tonally (sound, coloration) the most transparent tool to let music sound louder and thus decreasing dynamics.
It’s a phenomenon that has been discovered by accident by American mastering engineers back in the nineties. In order to make use of analog outboard gear the digital signal coming from the computer has to be converted into an analog signal. After the outboard machines perform their mojo the analog sound has to be converted again into a digital signal to be loaded back into the computer.
We call this process conversion: from digital to analog (D to A) and from analog to digital (A to D). Mastering engineers discovered that while performing this last conversion (A to D) they could send a pretty hot signal into the A to D converter without directly audible side effects (except for a higher volume). While loading the music back in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, in short this is the software you work with) the waveforms looked like they’d been shaven off. As if the music barber had been using a ruler while cutting the peaks.
This proved to be a golden invention. It appeared to be the method to let music sound louder without nasty artifacts. Back in the nineties this technique, together with the infamous Waves L2 brickwall limiter, was responsible for the loud masters made in that era.
Nowadays clipping (yes, that’s what this technique is called) is still being used to give masters just a little bit of extra volume. Together with the other leveling tools (compressor/limiter) it provides the final overall volume of a track.
One aspect has to be taken in consideration: the A to D converter used has to be of very good quality. Not all converters like it when their ass is kicked with a hot signal, resulting in some nasty artifacts. The Crane Song HEDD I’ve been using for quite some years easily takes a very hot signal without directly audible side effects. It’s very forgiving but as always: every machine has its limitations.
I thankfully make use of this technique to give my masters just a little tad of extra volume!
So here’s the end of this story about Clipper, the ultimate secret weapon among us mastering engineers!
In this second part about dynamics I will continue where I stopped last month: tools to influence the dynamic range of your music. Yes, I’m talking about the compressor. But also the limiter plays an important role in controlling dynamics, together with a secret weapon used by many mastering engineers. I think I’ll save the secret weapon for next month’s column, for the sake of rising the expectations.The compressor
The compressor is perhaps the most well known piece of machinery to influence dynamics. Probably because it’s also been used in so many mixing and recording situations. I won’t discuss how a compressor exactly works, that you can easily find on the internet (YouTube tutorials).
I will discuss the various effects a compressor can have on your music, especially when used on full mixes. There are a couple of these effects. First the softer passages get turned up louder and the louder parts (peaks) are being turned down. Yeah right, tell me something new.
Ok, another effect of a compressor is coloration. A compressor generates overtones (harmonics). These tend to fatten up your music slightly. An effect used generously by us, the mastering engineers to give our masters more energy and impact. A great benefit, but beware: too much of this will kill your music. A lot of music is actually being destroyed by using too much compression. Compression effects are irreversible! Once those peaks have been treated, there is no way back.
A third effect of compression is that it can ever so slightly change the balance between vocals and instruments in a mix. An example: imagine a mixed track where the vocals just don’t seem to blend in well. Try using a compressor on the mix bus. With the right amount of compression you’ll start to notice small changes in the proportions of vocals and music.
Don’t expect huge changes but it can be just that little bit of change a mix needs to feel great. Again: be gentle! An overcompressed mix is a real shame.
I can hear you thinking: “Okay great, but what type of compressor should I use? Optical? Vari-mu? VCA?” Well, it’s not easy to answer that question.
Perhaps that question is very well meant not to be answered at all. The different types of compression are all very different in how they change dynamics. It should suit the music. Does it need (extra) coloring? Maybe transformer input and output stages?
You can find lots of info about the various types of compression on the internet and how much fun is it to find out for yourself what compressor works best for your needs.
Send a whole mix through different compressors with the same global settings and be amazed by the differences!The limiter
The (digital) limiter, the famous machine behind the loudness war that started in the nineties (Waves L2, the hardware version). The L2 was/is capable of getting music insanely loud with relative few side effects. Flat like flatbread and sterile but used on many recordings made in that era.
When used moderately a limiter (plugin or hardware) can definitely add some extra punch and presence to a master. Without coloration because limiters are made to preserve transparency. Just a little extra volume, that’s all to it.The secret weapon
I’ll discuss that one next month, see you then! ;-)
Dynamics are a strange thing. When we look at the sixties and seventies our view on dynamics nowadays has changed dramatically.
Our hearing has become used to listening to compressed music. This is a process that gradually evolved over the years. By the end of the nineties the loudness war added an extra dimension to our hearing experience by introducing a phenomenon called hyper-compression. Because of this dreadful war music was mastered at continuously higher levels and contained less and less dynamics. Imagine being in a closed room that’s slowly filled with water. The ceiling is getting closer and your sense of space is reduced greatly.
By the turn of the century and the following years the dynamic range (difference between the loudest and softest passages) was reduced greatly. Have a listen to the Metallica album ‘Death Magnetic’, released in 2008. Listen to a vinyl record coming from the seventies after the Metallica album.
You can also listen to these albums on Spotify but you have to make sure that loudness normalization is turned off (advanced settings: something like ‘equal playback volume for every track’).
You’ll probably notice a couple of differences in sound between the two albums. The first thing you’ll notice is a huge difference in volume, followed by differences in energy, impact and placement of vocals and instruments. Pay attention to the space every instrument has and in particular the snare drum.
Limiting, a technique used by mastering engineers to make tracks louder, can cause a change in the impact a song has. When used sparsely a limiter can certainly contribute to the impact and energy of a song.
The limiting used on the Metallica record can hardly be called sparsely. Here we can hear the relentless and brutal effect of heavy brickwall limiting. Listening to the snare drum you’ll probably notice that the impact of the snare is somewhat covered by the other instruments. This is a common effect caused by heavy limiting. It causes songs to sound very loud but not often pleasantly loud. This type of loudness actually has a name: wimpy loud (courtesy of Bob Katz, an American mastering engineer). And as for the brickwall limiter: what’s in a name.
Heavy brickwall limiting has another effect: it causes ear fatigue. Because of the hyper-compression caused by the limiter our ears are being stressed out. Most people want to lower the playback volume when listening to hyper-compressed music. Dynamic music with a great sense of impact and energy wants to be played loud!
Like I said our hearing has gotten used to less dynamics in music. This has another cause: our hearing experience has changed over the years. More earbuds/headphones, more listening while being on the road and thus more background noises.
Actually these background noises were one of the main contributors of the loudness war. The loudness war itself is responsible for less dynamics in music. Et voilà: we got ourselves a vicious circle that keeps spinning round. Luckily the loudness war was ended by the introduction of loudness normalization by music streaming services.
In next month’s column I will elaborate on some more technical aspects of dynamics. Compressors, limiters (even more), clipping, ducking, fluffing, that kind of stuff. Very interesting. See you next month!
I promised that I would thoroughly discuss dynamics in this month’s column. I lied, how shameful. My editor pointed me to the use of images to make the technical subject of LUFS easier to understand. So, images! Taken from the internet, just like that.
Let’s start with an image explaining how a true-peak measurement works:
Image 1: True-peak versus sample-peak.
In image 1 we see a magnificent musical waveform. The blue dots show us what a regular peak meter will tell us. The white dots represent the inter-sample peaks (true-peak: the peaks between the peaks). Another aspect we see in the image is the use of oversamples (x4). Without making this read too complex, oversampling means that the sample rate of the original signal is being multiplied by the meter. By doing so, the measurement of that signal is four times as accurate, which we see as the white dots in the image.
Okay, measuring true-peaks is a lot more in the clear now, isn’t it?
And now for the LUFS themselves. I must confess: I’ve forgotten to mention something in last month’s column. Before the signal is being measured by the LUFS meter, a filter is being applied to that signal. The filter used is quite important for an honest measurement.
Before telling what the filter is about, I need to explain something about how our ears work. Our hearing is far from linear. This means that our ears are not equally sensitive to different frequencies. Our ears tend to be more sensitive in the midrange than in other frequency areas. Think about the middy sound of a telephone, made for speech. Of course this sensitivity differs from person to person.
In the thirties of the previous century two American scientists (Fletcher and Munson) have done intensive research on the sensitivity of the human hearing at various frequencies. Their research led to a schematic diagram, also known as the Fletcher-Munson curves:
In the second image we see the Fletcher-Munson curves. First we notice the threshold of audibility (the softest sound we can hear) and the threshold of pain (well, you can guess that one). The second we notice is that the lines in the graph are far from straight. If our hearing would be linear, the lines would be straight. The diagram shows us that our hearing is more or less sensitive at different frequencies.
Okay, now that we know all this. Nice, but what’s the connection to LUFS?
As mentioned earlier, a filter is applied to the signal before it’s being measured. The filter compensates for the lack of linearity of our hearing. This results in a far more accurate measurement of loudness, as our ears actually hear it!
Here’s the graph of the filter:
Image 3: K-Weighting filter correction.
In this third image we see the K-Weighting filter correction for loudness compensation and proper LUFS measurement.
Why the letter K is used for this weighting remains a little mystery to me.
Well, in this column and in the previous one I’ve revealed some of the secrets behind LUFS measurements combined with true-peak. Although these measurements are primarily used in the mastering stage, it’s valuable for mix engineers and producers to know how these measurements work. Should you have any questions about LUFS or true-peak, let me know!
Next month: dynamics, really!
Hearing this title as a rookie in audio land I would start to think this is some new talent, discovered by tv programme The Voice. Girl band LUFS conquers hearts from all over the world with their synthesizer pop influenced by eclectic trance from the middle eighties.
But no, LUFS stands for Loudness Units Full Scale. LUFS is used to measure program loudness and is measured in decibels (dB).
A (digital) volume measurement in a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, like Pro-Tools, Logic, Cubase) is often done using a peak meter and a RMS measurement. RMS stands for Root Mean Square. It’s another way of measuring average program loudness.
When loudness normalization was introduced, the only loudness measurement available was RMS. Soon it appeared that songs normalized using the RMS value only were not all perceived as being equally loud. Especially songs with a higher dynamic range were judged as being softer in volume than songs with less dynamics.
How can we prevent this? Measuring RMS provides us with an average level of a song, related to the digital maximum level of 0dBFS. Measuring levels using LUFS does exactly the same but consists of multiple measurements: Integrated loudness (this is the actual LUFS value and is identical to RMS), Momentary loudness and Short-term loudness. Each with their own dynamics (loudness range). It’s this loudness range that sets LUFS apart from RMS.
Integrated loudness shows the average loudness of an entire track. When determining the loudness range of Integrated loudness the lowest 10% and highest 5% of the total loudness range are excluded from the measurement to prevent short dynamic events from having too much influence on the measurement. Momentary and Short-term loudness show absolute values of loudness, measured in a time frame (400ms for Momentary and 3s for Short-term loudness).
Peak values also play a role in measuring loudness: a LUFS meter has a built in true-peak meter. True-peak is a measurement of absolute peak values and inter-sample peaks.
Inter-sample peaks? Certainly, inter-sample peaks are the peaks between the peaks. Let’s say we measure two peaks (A and B) with a distance of one sample between them. Theoretically it’s possible to measure another peak between these two points and there you have it: inter-sample peaks. Measuring true-peaks is important for broadcasting and for coding music to portable (streaming) formats like Ogg Vorbis (Spotify), AAC (iTunes/Apple Music) or good ol' mp3.
A little caution here: true-peak is just a more accurate way of is measuring. In compliance with the EBU R128 standard used for broadcasting a signal may not exceed the -1dBTP level. But for music your ears come first: when you feel you have to squeeze dynamics (limiting) too much to stay in range of the meters, trust your ears and say to yourself: “if it sounds great, don’t lose yourself in measurements and let music be music.”
Working with LUFS provides more accuracy than a single RMS measurement. Music streaming services like Deezer, Spotify and Apple Music thankfully use LUFS to let tracks sound equally loud in their playlists (loudness normalization, with a target level of -14LUFS). Also in broadcasting (radio, tv, internet) LUFS are being used (-23LUFS, in compliance with EBU R128). The EBU R128 standard was introduced when there were substantial loudness differences between program material like tv series or films and commercial breaks. Using EBU R128 prevents commercial breaks from being almost twice as loud as program material.
Should we all install (plug-in) and use a LUFS meter? No, measuring LUFS can be very convenient but it’s really a mastering tool. More important during mixing and producing are peak levels. Make sure your peak values stay well below the 0dBFS ceiling (or -1dBTP if you want to be 100% sure). The rest is up to us, mastering engineers. Level is not a big issue when you’re mixing.
Far more important during the production and mix stages is dynamic range and its influence on the sound of your final mixes. Also very important for the mastering process. And because it’s so important my next column is about: . . . . . . . . (eight letter word, it has everything to do with loudness, LUFS, mixing and mastering)
Until next month, I’m already looking forward to it!
Playlists versus albums, a comparison we could hardly think of 20 years ago. Single tracks were taken from albums or a special single edit was made. If there was any room within the budget a remix (and remaster) was made of that single. Back in the eighties twelve inch versions on vinyl were very popular: special single remixes, often much longer than the original. Whether that version was adding something musically remains to be seen but it worked wonders on dance floors in clubs.
Nowadays playlists dominate the market. Playlists are a collection of songs by various artists compiled by yourself, by others or by record labels.
I already discussed loudness normalization in some of my previous columns. A music streaming service like Spotify uses this to ensure equal perceived loudness for each song in a playlist.
For mastering this ongoing revolution means a different approach. If we look at an album, musical impact is what comes first (I’ll leave out the effects of the loudness war). After that to be followed by dynamics (or how loud the album is). When mastering an album the following rule should be taken into serious consideration: Let the album sound like an album, including all dynamic changes like the differences between ballads and up-tempo songs.
When tracks are mastered for music streaming services the thing that comes first is controlling dynamics. Tracks are being listened on various machines and in various locations. Think of the car, train, at work and most importantly think of earbuds! So actually mastering for Spotify is mastering with a sense of dynamics in mind. It’s a process of controlling those dynamics. Gently as we don’t want to cause a second loudness war by tackling tracks with fierce and brutal compressors!
When it comes to mastering for Spotify, the integrated loudness of -14 LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale) should be considered as a guideline for how loud the music should sound. But -14 LUFS is a bit soft for CD (even if we leave out the loudness war). This means that a master nowadays is a sort of compromise. A compromise between a master for music streaming services or a master for CD or vinyl. It’s not bad if the level for a master for Spotify is not exactly -14 LUFS. There’s nothing wrong with a couple of dB’s deviation in loudness. Spotify doesn’t even use LUFS to measure loudness. They use their own system, equivalent to approximately -14 LUFS.
The only medium very sensitive to level in general is vinyl. I always deliver separate masters for a vinyl release. A vinyl master is a special one and will always be double checked by the pressing plant to ensure good playback.
I currently deliver my masters at a level roughly around -12 LUFS. Roughly, since mastering a jazz track is a different cookie than mastering a vicious rock song.
I can imagine that you might have some unanswered questions like: “How do you control those dynamics for masters for music streaming services?” or “Who the hell are LUFS?” To answer all of your questions I’d like to refer to my next month’s column in which I will try answer
them. So if you have a question about mastering for music streaming services or loudness in general, shoot me an e-mail at renzo[at]masterenzo[dot]nl and I'll do my very best to provide you with answers.
See you next month!
A high quality music experience, what does that mean? If we take a closer look at the past five decades, a few things stand out.
First the setting in which we “consume” music. Back in the seventies and the beginning of the eighties we were mostly listening to music on our home audio systems. Portable audio was rare at that time (except for the 8-Track player in cars) and that leads us to the next big difference compared to nowadays: playback media. In the seventies and begin eighties we listened to music on vinyl or on tape (8-Track, compact cassette or a reel-to-reel machine). In 1982 the introduction of the compact disc started the era of digital music production and playback, leading all the way up to the use of music streaming services we use nowadays.
With the arrival of music streaming services another musical aspect changed: the amount of music we’re offered. Especially since the growing popularity of Spotify the amount of music we're offered has grown immensely. Spotify uses playlists and it’s these playlists that offer us a whole league of other artists related to the music you’re listening. This way you encounter lots of new and previously undiscovered music.
Music streaming services are causing another effect: nowadays we tend to listen to single tracks rather than whole albums. An album as a whole which takes us on a musical journey as intended by the artist. Luckily this effect is weakened by the revival of music on vinyl. A vinyl record is the number one medium when it comes to experiencing an album. You even have to give it some extra attention as you need to turn the record after 18 minutes if you want to keep enjoying the music.
And then there is music played on headphones or ear plugs. These devices have caused us more and more to listen to music on portable devices instead of our home stereo system, accompanied by a good drink, some nice nuts and … (you name it). Music on the bus, on your bike, on a train, on an airplane, during an important meeting and so on. It makes music become more volatile. When you’re on the road there are many impulses distracting you from your music.
This leads -not surprisingly- to the conclusion that listening to music at home on your couch is a totally different experience from listening to a single track through earbuds when you’re on the road. It’ll probably be a lot safer also.
There is nothing wrong with that and these experiences can very well exist alongside each other, but it’s a good thing to be aware of the differences between listening on a mobile device and on a stereo set. There’s also a significant difference between a whole album and a single track from a mastering point of view. I will elaborate on that in next months’ column.
To be continued!
During the last weekend of September a large audio show called X-Fi was held in Eindhoven. When hearing the term X-Fi you could very well be thinking of an event organized by the Dutch X-Men fan club. But no, the X-Fi show is a genuine Hi-Fi show.
The X-Fi show: during a weekend thousands of audio nerds are packed in big and small rooms while listening to exotic (and expensive, very expensive) audio equipment.
I was there last year. Yep. I was an audio nerd on location. Together with little old men with their hands on their backs I was strolling down the hallways entering the rooms wit hall kinds of exotic (and expensive, very expensive) Hi-Fi equipment.
That day I’ve had just one listening experience that I could remember. It was my listening experience with the Grimm Audio LS1 speakers. Grimm Audio is a Dutch firm run by Eelco Grimm and Guido Tent, a couple of true Dutch audio pioneers. Not completely fair because I already heard their units in a studio. But darn, these are some mighty fine speakers! Very exact imaging and stereo field featuring DSP controlled crossovers and built in amplifiers and D to A converters. And also very pleasing to listen to, not to be underestimated.
And it’s exactly that what’s confusing when paying a visit to an audio show like X-Fi. As I mentioned in earlier columns acoustics play a very important role in our listening experience. I made a little formula for this: monitoring = speakers + acoustics. It’s virtually impossible to maintain proper acoustics in a packed conference room. Each person has a different listening position making it very difficult to judge equipment on it’s own merits. For that matter the Grimm’s actually performed remarkably well.
For a serious evaluation of Hi-Fi equipment like speakers and amps a more controlled listening environment is needed.
Speakers, amps, streamers, D to A converters and cables. It’s all looking fabulous when displayed at an audio show but they can hardly perform well in such circumstances and that’s a shame. In fact you should visit a show like that to see what’s happening in audio land, followed by an appointment in a more controlled listening room at a dealer or retailer of the equipment. Or you make a deal to take the gear to your home which is even better if you want to know if those mouth-watering speakers really suit your taste.
Well, I’m getting closer and closer to the statement of promoting a good music quality experience. I think next month I’ll be finally ready to make that statement.
Right, I’m going to listen again. To a good ol’ compact disc this time, without any analog crackle but through my mighty fine custom built monitoring system!
After the loudness trilogy the time has come to tell something about sound, and by sound I mean the quality of sound, and even more specific the quality of the sound of music.
Quality has two dimensions: the quality of the music itself (or the artist) and the quality of the sound of the music. The latter is the subject of this month’s column.
Quality is something subjective. Mikey finds the EP by artist X absolutely fantastic: Lo-Fi, greasy, hardly any stereo information and most of all sickening loud! Little Pete turns into a sad vibe immediately when he listens to that same EP. He’s totally into the latest album by James Taylor: Hi-Fi at its best, fine quality and very sophisticated.
Actually this equation already says a lot. Music and sound, it’s all a matter of taste. But… Behold! There is a very thin line between intense, well produced Lo-Fi tracks and badly produced music.
Lo-Fi can sound really great. Just have a listen to those fine albums by this little band called The Black Keys. These albums are the opposite of sophisticated Hi-Fi but they sound extremely fat, energetic and intense. This has probably got something to do with the engineering and mix by a certain genius called Mr. Tchad Blake, but they are the evidence of very well sounding Lo-Fi music.
So well meant Lo-Fi music is made Lo-Fi for a reason. Badly produced music is a desperate attempt to let (great?) music sound good. Failing to do so is merely caused by the producer/engineer lacking the necessary knowledge and experience in music production. This causes unwanted Lo-Fi sounding music, terminology that could very well serve as a title for a new column about mastering music.
The moral of this story is as follows: producing good music in a good manner (Lo-Fi, Hi-Fi, Mid-Fi, Shit-Fi), is not easy. Recording, mixing, producing: these are all skills that require experience and craftsmanship.
For mastering the same rules apply: craftsmanship and experience are turning a mastering engineer into a complete person. It makes mastering the most beautiful profession in the world. The longer you do it, the more beautiful and more intense it gets. And most of all the better the music gets!
With this column I actually wanted to make a statement for promotion of a good music quality experience. It turned out a bit different, making it already clear what I’ll be writing about in next month’s column.
Okay, let’s have a listen to a great sounding record, preferably on vinyl with a bit of that analog crackling sound!
The loudness war began in the middle of the nineties and lasted until far in the century we now live in. Right about now in 2017 we’re getting rid of the evil force from the dark side which lets music sound louder than music from the competition, just because we thought it would improve impact and sales.
Audio quality nowadays can be seen as a beautiful thing again. Music is allowed to sound great instead of being a marketing driven tool to reach more people and to make more profits. The way we experience music has changed however. Walking down the streets it’s impossible to ignore the many ear pods and even larger headphones. Due to the rise of vinyl, music listening at home fortunately has not at all disappeared.
The end of the loudness war is caused by a combination of factors, just like the beginning of it.
By far the most important factor is called loudness normalization. This technical instrument normalizes music, letting all tracks sound equally in terms of volume.
Why master a track louder? In fact, the louder a song has been mastered, the more the algorithms used by services like Spotify and YouTube will let the music sound equally loud as the “competition” and degrade it’s audio quality and headroom by lowering the overall volume.
Loudness normalization, Apple calls it Soundcheck. A very simple way of putting it and not really faithful to the truth since the sound is not only checked for volume and loudness but also being adjusted accordingly. But still this is one of the great bringers of peace in times of war.
Another anti-loudness war-factor is the aforementioned revival of the vinyl industry. This is actually quite simple: vinyl has its technical limitations regarding volume. Overly compressed and limited tracks sound horrible on vinyl (if even they pass quality control). The grooves of a vinyl disk are becoming wider as the volume increases (increasing low-end) and playback time decreases. This causes the stylus having more difficulty following the groove of the record.
There are more factors contributing to the ending of the loudness war but I won’t bother you with technical terms like LUFS, LKFS, EBU R128 etc.
If you are interested in reading more on this subject, search for ‘loudness Camerer’ in Google and you’ll find a well written and clear to understand paper about the technical aspects of loudness (metering and normalization). Although it was written in 2010, I still find it very useful and relatively up-to-date.
Besides all of this, Dutch university teacher Eelco Grimm (HKU, Utrecht) has written a magnificent white paper containing recommendations for loudness normalization, including the benefits of album normalization against track normalization. Take a look at www.music-loudness.com where you can find this more than great document.
The loudness war has been torturing our music for over 20 years. An incredible fact considering the important role music plays in our daily lives. Fortunately the near future rewards us, hippies of sound, with some very positive energy. Lossless or even Hi-Res music streaming is coming into sight, without any of the hassle of how loud the song was mastered.
La vita è bella. Life is beautiful.
Let’s begin this second part of loudness in mastering by positioning the loudness war as the most horrendous by-product in this digital age of music.
The loudness war is nothing more and nothing less than the volume war between large major record companies made possible by the ongoing digital evolution in music. In this war the song of an artist at label A is mastered louder than the song from the artist at label B. The A&R manager (Artist & Repertoire, someone who vastly determines what an artist put out on the market and when he puts his songs out) of label B (the softer one) decides that the song of his artist needs to be mastered at least as loud as the other song from the other label and preferably a little louder!
You could say: why not simply turn the volume knob a little higher? No, way too easy. The song must be louder!
Without going too much into details the cause of the loudness war lies in a combination of factors:
First there’s the internet. Because of the fast rise of the internet and accelerating up- and download speeds illegal sites like Napster and The Pirate Bay become popular. CD sales are dropping and the aforementioned A&R managers take musically destructive measures to get most attention and exposure for their label’s music artists. Every measure can be accounted for as long as the sales figures are somewhat positive.
The continuously changing music scene causes the lumbering ship of the large major record companies having a hard time staying above the surface. Smaller labels are much more capable of changing course when the market asks for it. Unfortunately this hasn’t stopped the loudness war from evolving into the global volume war as we’ve gotten to know it.
The loudness war has made quite some victims: innocent recordings have been maliciously tortured during the mastering process causing them to be as loud as your mother-in-law yelling at you because you accidentely forgot to flush the toilet.
This has caused many records during the nineties and zeroes to sound bad, simply because they were mastered too loud using the infamous Waves L2 hardware brickwall limiter. If you take a listen to the low end of for instance ‘Sk8er Boi’ by Canadian singer Avril Lavigne you can hear the limiter in action with its searing and rattling sound of not only the peaks being limited but the whole signal undergoing the destructive limiting processing of the L2.
The brickwall terminology implies that we’re dealing with a machine capable of doing some serious harm to innocent recordings.
Well, if we stick to this plan the music industry would not have a glorious future ahead but: Thou shall have no fear. Next month I will publish the closing of the loudness triptych resulting in stereophonic salvation for us earthlings.
Salvation in order to correct this human made error in audio history.
On to the next war up ahead: dynamics!
I was born in the 70’s. It was the time of vinyl and the time of the 8-Track cassette player in big fancy cars. It was the analog era with analog made music on analog carriers.
Analog in the 70’s meant real analog. Digital audio did not exist at the time and there was plenty of space, time and budget to let music sound as good as possible without compromise.
Soft passages in a song were soft and loud passages were loud. Technically spoken the dynamic range of music made in the 70’s was rather large. The dynamic range represents the difference between the softest and the loudest passages in a song.
You would say that having a sensible dynamic range is beneficial to a good music experience. If we only knew what the musical landscape would look like 25 years later! The dynamic range has been diminished drastically in a quarter of a century due to a phenomenon known as the “loudness war.”
What the loudness war implies and what its effects are on the experience of music will be discussed later. This is a triptych so I have to leave something to talk about in my other two columns about loudness.
It all started back in 1984. Ironically also the title of the literary masterpiece by George Orwell which was written in 1948 and far ahead of its time. 1984 was the year of the introduction of the first car CD Player: the Pioneer CDX-1 which was released only two years after one of the very first CD Players for domestic use: the famous Philips CD-100.
When car CD Players were released on the market something strange happened: car drivers could no longer hear the softer passages in songs due to traffic noise. When they’d turn up the volume the louder passages became really loud! This had a simple reason: because of the technical superior CD quality the dynamic range rose to a (theoretical maximum) value of 96dB causing bigger differences between softer and louder passages. And exactly this was considered a “problem.”
This so called problem led to mastering engineers being asked to reduce the dynamic range of music using compressors and limiters. When used wisely and sparingly this can definitely increase the impact of music. Little did we know that the use of these compressors and limiters would lead to a global volume war in the 90’s. The war caused severe “damage” to the audio quality in general and its main victims were dynamics.
Next month the loudness triptych will be continued. It may sound unlikely but there’s a happy ending to the story!
And we lived happily ever after. :-)
As a prelude to the great triptych about loudness in mastering which will be published starting in June, this story is about concrete.
Concrete? Seriously? Absolutely, I’m dead serious. Let me explain.
In my studio there are four monitor speakers at my disposal. Two on the left side and two on the other side. The inner two speakers are placed on a couple of magnificent stands. There was only one problem: the stands were too low, ten centimeters to be exact. Tweeters placed on the same height as your ears, that’s the ideal situation.
In my search for a solution to the problem I ran upon a big bag of concrete at the home depot. 25 kilograms of pure concrete mortar. That had to be the solution!
In my workshop I immediately started constructing the formwork.
Formwork? Certainly, the internet told me I had to make a formwork in which the concrete could be poured. And that is exactly what happened.
What happened next could be described as nothing less than sheer joy. Constructing the formwork, preparing the concrete mortar and pouring the concrete into the formwork is actually great fun!
Fun? Yes, concrete and also cement has something magic to it. It’s easy to process and obtaining a good end result is not difficult at all.
A week after pouring the concrete it was time to release the formwork and to look at the final result: a pair of very heavy weight speaker risers made of solid concrete. It felt a bit like giving birth. It’s probably not a coincidence I bought biscuits with mice to celebrate the birth.
Okay, so now what? You’ll probably wonder what all this has to do with mastering and what the general benefits are. I had to think about that for a while but if we zoom in on the acoustic qualities of concrete, it all becomes clear.
Concrete has acoustic dampening properties and also serves as a decoupler.
A decoupler? Right! When we place a loudspeaker for example directly on a table, you’ll soon notice vibrations in the table caused by the lows coming from the speaker. If we place the same speaker on the same table with the solid concrete placed on rubber feet between them, you’ll notice that the vibrations in the table are greatly reduced and that the sound coming from the speaker is much tighter and focused. Much of the energy leaking away via the table is now being transformed into musical energy coming from the speaker!
So get out of your chair, off to the home depot. For less than five euros you’re a proud owner of 25 kilograms of concrete!
In my first column I described some of the facts making mastering such a special art. In this column I will tell you what the great advantage to great mastering is.
Mastering can be divided into three global parts. One: molesting the music. This might sound a little brute but it’s not that bad. When music is tweaked in either way, you could say the music is actually being molested. If it’s done right, there is nothing wrong with it.
Directly coupled to changing the music’s timbre is –here’s number two: musical editing. Think of cuts, fade-ins, fade-outs. In short: editing without altering (molesting) the sound of music.
Number three and the most important one: Listening! Being a mastering engineer it’s crucial to own a couple of very decent and well trained ears, telling you what the music needs (or in many cases doesn’t need) to get it to sound good or even better.
As I already mentioned in my first column, listening and the monitoring environment are among the most important tools of a mastering engineer. These tools are the biggest advantages to good mastering. A couple of fresh and well trained ears, without having heard the songs (mixes) over and over again.
It’s the true advantage to good mastering: a skilled engineer, listening objectively and able to read the direction the music needs to go to. Now that’s mastering!
Up to us, mastering engineers, to enhance and amplify that direction and to inject just enough energy to cause serious emotional tears in the eyes of the listeners, also a part of mastering.
A fresh set of ears. It’s a blessing for many productions, be it a singer songwriter or a full band. With a clear and skilled view it’s much easier to lift the music to a higher plan. Even if you don’t do any processing, being a mastering engineer with an objective view is priceless.
Every once in a while it happens that -for money reasons- a mixing engineer also does mastering. As a mastering engineer I’d very much like to see the master done by a skilled and trained mastering engineer. Mastering tracks you’ve also mixed? Now that’s a challenge. Where does the mix stop and where does the master begin? A fresh set of ears: Priceless!
Okay, let’s head back to the studio, molest some more music.
My first time was very special. The first time I delivered a master felt like a musical defloration. It was the year 2003; masters were delivered on cd, a shiny disk you can put into a machine. Press play and music starts to play.
Delivering a master, at the time it was quite a technical challenge. The physical disk had to be burned at slow speed (2x) and had to be listened completely to ensure perfect audio quality (no clicks or ticks). After a software error check, the disk was then sealed to be sent to the duplicating company. After another check at the duplicating company the glassmaster was made. The glassmaster (a disk made of real glass) is the mother disc, used to manufacture plastic cd’s.
Well, before the masterdisk could be burned the actual master had to be made through mastering. But what is mastering exactly and why is it still considered some sort of black art? Important questions around which you could easily write a book. Bob Katz, an American mastering engineer thought the same and wrote a brilliant book about mastering: Mastering Audio: The Art And The Science1. A very useful and educational book, discussing many of the relevant subjects regarding the process of uplifting a mix towards a higher level of quality and impact and thus making it ready for release in the outside world.
It’s a great skill: Mastering. Being a Rotterdam based masterer my journey started in my bedroom. A silent pc, software to edit audio, a soundcard, two pieces of outboard gear (a compressor and an equalizer) and a set of custom built monitors were the main ingredients of which the speakers were (and still are) by far the most important pieces.
The monitoring (speakers and the listening environment) can very well be considered the most important and influential weapon of choice of the mastering engineer. It’s the eyes and ears of the engineer. Decisions are made upon it. If certain details are there in the music, the monitoring will tell you.
If, for instance, your monitoring tells you the music contains not enough low end, you decide to use an equalizer to dial in the extra lows. You take your freshly mastered track to a friend to check it out on his stereo set. It’s a good thing the neighbors aren’t home at that time. The added lows cause a serious outburst of seismic energy generating some good vibrations in the room and beyond.
If the monitoring was of good quality this outburst of energy would still have taken place but without the major vibrations. Good monitoring lets you dial in extra energy instead of just extra lows.
Well, this was it. My very first column for the Popunie (Dutch music platform). My intention was –of course- to reveal all secrets of mastering in one single column. I only succeeded partly at this but fortunately I’ll be telling you all about my great job in the months coming.
Fortunately a story with a happy ending.
1 Katz, Bob, Mastering Audio: The Art And The Science. ISBN-13: 9780240818962