All about producing and mastering audio for disc, the web and beyond

Friday, November 25, 2011

But really what IS loud

For years now my brethren in the mastering profession have been jumping up and down in defense of music and in self-defense, trying to raise flags about what is happening to music during the so-called Loudness War.

Indeed, the way that the RMS level have been creeping higher and higher as the dsp tools we have are better and better at hiding the distortions of limiting and compression, has caused immeasurable harm to the presentation of recorded music. It permeates all genres and affects pretty much ALL artists. It's frightening to think that we adapt to it, assimilate the new sound and begin to become numb to the effects.

There are developments on the horizon for creating a level playing field in the presentation and playback of music to the consumer that hold some hope that we might return to what Mastering folks might call 'sanity'....


I think that the story that has been told thus far about the loudness war, how it is motivated by the fear of A&R , PD's in radio and other decision makers might reject an artist, only tells one part of the story. I think there is something significant that is escaping everyone's attention. Perhaps it is being 'masked' the the gross issues of RMS volume, but beneath the surface I think part of what is happening is that the craft of producing recorded sound is suffering. I think the art of making a good, well balanced recording is eroding and I think that the real ART of making a truly loud record is being lost.

A couple of years ago I gave a presentation to my fellow faculty at Berklee entitled 'What IS Loud?'. I sought to deconstruct the idea of loud. Focused on frequency distribution, the art of arrangement in music, the art of dynamic control in mixing and it really looks like making a truly loud recording involves time, skill and even, yes, nuance.

I hope to slowly unfold this topic....especially if we end up with the new BS1770 standards for playback reference, I think it will become clear what loud and GOOD mean again.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Metadata, ISRC, UP and QC

What is metadata?

Any information that is included within a program, whether it is for a download or creating a disc, that is not the program itself. It is embedded within the digital file (as a download or when burned to disc). Examples are track IDs, start and stop IDs, ISRCs, UPCs, and CD Text information. One of the things that the mastering engineer is responsible for is understanding what these are and including all this information in a master.

What is an ISRC?

It stands for International Standard Recording Code. It is a number that is allocated to any publisher (record label, artist, or anybody that is owns a catalogue of music). It is registered in the USA with the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and in Europe with GEMA (a performance rights organisation) . The code is a unique identifier that gets attached to every single piece of music (each song within a record would have its own ISRC code). Any time that the music is played over the air, downloaded or streamed, the identifier is logged. This is vital in the payment process .

What is a UPC?

It stands for Universal Product Code. Is a number assigned to a product. Traditionally it has been a physical item, such as a cereal box in a grocery store, which has a bar code (and correlating number) to scan at the checkout to identify what that product is. The same is true of CDs or DVDs. But they are also used to track downloads in some cases, so you should register and include it in your product.

What is QC?

This is what is known as Quality Check. Mastering is the final process before distribution. As a result, it is the mastering engineer’s job to make sure that there are absolutely no flaws in the program (a dropout or a click for example). The mastering engineer should give the client assurance that there is no problem with the audio.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Stereo-Imaging

Stereo-imaging tools are often included in DIY mastering packages or equalisers with stereo spreading facilities (most commonly offering some kind of mid-side processing options), so it is important to acknowledge their purpose and their limits.

As with many of the specialist tools we have for processing audio, they are great at solving specific problems. If you have something mono or largely in mono, for example, and you need to try and widen it, you can add reverb or perhaps exaggerate the little stereo information that already exists in the track.

But what exactly is the ‘stereo information’?

Well, it has to do with the relationship between the ‘out-of-phase’ information, and the ‘in-phase’ information. Anything that is in-phase happens at exactly the same time in both channels, and that information will appear to be centered. If anything is slightly delayed off to one side or the other, compared to the center of the image, it is ‘out-of-phase’ and is one of the things that creates a stereo sense of spread.

So when you are mixing, you are using pan pots, delays and reverbs (etc) to create a stereo image of individual elements within an overall stereo mix. However, when you go in during mastering and increase the out-of-phase component, you are changing the relationship between the out-of-phase and in-phase parts of the signal of the entire mix. You therefore are able to radically change the sense of the stereo image and the placement of each individual instrument in a song, which can be very dangerous if not treated with care. And although you may increase the perceived wideness, this is at the expense of the in-phase components in the song. That is to say, the elements that are dead-center, which also tend to be the most important elements of most productions – vocals, snare, kick, bass – are weakened.

So sometimes – in its various forms – stereo-imaging can be used to good effect. However, one should err on the side of caution.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Analog Versus Digital Signal Processing (dynamics)

Limiters (peak limiters, protection circuits)

Most common is a digital plugin. Plugins tend to be much faster, cleaner, and have less overshoot than what you get in the analog-domain.


When you look at an equipment roster of a high-end mastering studio, a compressor will more likely than not be seen in any of the studio’s analog gear. It seems that DSP (digital signal processing) plugins do an excellent job of recreating the dynamic-range control that happens in an analog compressor, yet they don’t quite seem to sound just as good.

What could be the reasons for this? Let’s speculate a little.

When audio comes out into the analog-domain, you get added distortion and noise. These are not necessarily characteristics that will be programmed into the digital circuits (or, algorithms). As a result, you get a subtly different overall presentation of the sound.

The detection circuit (the device used to tell the compressor when to compress the audio passing through it) is what really drives the action of a compressor. Another possibility, which was proposed to me by George Massenberg, is that sample rate for the detector circuit in a digital compressor needs to be much higher than the typical sample rates we are using now, because of the nuances that you typically get at the output of a compression stage. 44.1kHz may be sufficient for the audio passing through the compressor, but it may not present enough detail for the audio that is feeding the detection circuit for the compressor to do as good a job as its analog counterpart. It is speculation, but it is an interesting point to consider.

A lot of the time you will find mastering engineers using an analog circuit not because they’re going to use an EQ to equalize, or a compressor to compress, but because there is something about the filtering that takes place when running audio through that analog gear that changes the sound in a desirable way. So, a great compressor may be used not to compress, but simply due to the tone-shaping sound that is imparted to the program. This seems to be a common factor missing from many current DSP equivalents.

Monday, August 8, 2011

CDR Quality - Or Lack Thereof

While we're on the subject of good sound (how's THAT for a non-sequitur?!) there's something that's slowly creeping into the world of music production, namely poor quality CDR's.

While I don't want to get into a long discussion of the CRC (error correction) that's built into the playback of a CDR, you should know that the CD format was built to tolerate errors. In some cases it will fix errors on playback perfectly. In other cases, if it can't reconstruct the data, it will 'approximate' the data. The implication is, when you play a CD you don't know if you are hearing exactly what was recorded to it. The difference is usually very subtle, and arguably fine for most consumers, but not so fine for those of us that work hard to craft recordings.

This problem is not so prevalent with replicated (pressed) CD's, but moreso with duplicated (burned) CD-R's....and it's getting worse. At my studio we routinely check every disc that's intended as a master, and in the last 6 months we have noticed a significant decline in the quality of the burns to disc. We can still get a workable master, but sometimes we run into a batch of discs that are unusable. We wouldn't know it if we didn't test, and that makes me wonder how many discs people make that are malfunctioning in ways they might find unacceptable....if they knew.

THe answer is probably a move away from redbook audio to full resolution data transfer from local servers for consumers and studios alike....but for now we check our discs carefully, and make ddpi masters when we can.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The hype in "Compression Rules! Rick Rubin Masters Red Hot Chili Peppers Just For iTunes"

If you take the announcement about a track being mastered specifically for itunes at face value the idea is intriguing. So we know fidelity and itunes are somewhat at odds with each other. mp3/aac just don't sound how could they make it sound better? Has Rick Rubin got some secret sauce?

So let's take a look at what might make an aac/mp3 sound 'better'. FIrst ff lossy encoders generate distortion, so to have a better sounding mp3, turn it down...what's the likelihood that that happened in this case? Also consider that RIck Rubin and his team are renowned for creating very very compressed masters. The comment from the audiophile website "...but considering this production Trio's history of sonic destruction it did not shock me." goes to the point. So do we think they would compress less, and turn the level down to make it sound better on itunes? What are the chances? It remains to be heard I suppose but really I wonder, Is this mostly an attention grab aka hype?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Should I (the Artist) Attend The Mastering Session

Should I Attend The Mastering Session

Having the artist attend the session can often be useful for both parties, and make for effective and fast communication. However, it is not absolutely essential that the artist attends the session and it is commonplace that mastering sessions and communications are dealt with via FTP (file transfer protocol) and email/telephone respectively.

What If I Can’t Attend?

As mentioned, it is not essential that artist attends the mastering session. There are certain things that should be provided to the mastering engineer, however:

· The sequence – This is the song order of your album. There are many possible orders and this should be decided and given to the mastering engineer before the session.

· Notes – any questions and concerns you may have. For example, perhaps you feel one song is too quiet, or the vocal is not quite bright enough, or you want a warm and darker master. Let the mastering engineer know this, as he will otherwise take lead from what he is hearing and assume that it is the creative intention of the artist and producer.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Learning From The Artist

Learning From The Artist

When working on a science experiment, conducting a poll or doing anything creative there is always a danger in beginning the process with the conclusion already decided. Not only will initial prejudice skew the results but it will often get in the way of discovering something more meaningful than you could have imagined or anticipated.

Where art is concerned, we usually look for a strong sense of identity and conviction in the creators or participants, and there lies a paradox. My clients want me to have a strong idea of how I think their recording could sound (or in some cases should sound), yet there have been instances where my clients have a strong idea and I learn from them. Just last week a client instructed me to NOT add any high frequency equalisation. He didn't want his project to be articulated, or 'opened up'. The texture he was after was murky and purposely distant. This is certainly not a choice I would have made, however the result was rather stunning. It evoked a feeling of warmth and melancholy, and allowed for a sort of intrigue that wouldn't have been achieved without his instruction.

It behooves us to always keep our ears and minds open, and to listen for those little nuggets that might indicate meaning or serve as a catalyst for new ideas. It allows the producer or engineer to do something different and out of the ordinary... and when has creating really been a place for the ordinary?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Cost and Value of Mastering

The Cost and Value of Mastering

What can one realistically expect to pay for mastering?

The range is huge and one tends to get what one pays for. Here is a good guide (for a 10-12 track record):

· $200-$300 - Cheaper options /mainly online

· $700-$2000 - An engineer with a fair amount of experience, and this usually allows for a full day in the mastering studio and a couple revisions.

· $2000 + - usually multiple days in the mastering studio, or one of the top mastering engineers around (Bob Ludwig, Doug Sax)

Fitting Mastering Into The Budget

Mastering is the final stage of the recording-making process, and it is by no means the least important. If one considers all the time that one spends making the record, the money for the recording, the mixing, hiring musicians, and the amount of CDs/downloads to be sold (etc), paying a little more for quality mastering amounts to not much extra cost per unit. One should try and budget for this at the beginning stages of the recording process, even though mastering is the final step!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Compression in Mastering (Part 3)

Welcome to Part 3: 'Compression' of the new video-blog series in which Jonathan Wyner of M-WORKS Mastering will be discussing various aspects of the mastering process. Let us know your thoughts, questions and opinions! Stay tuned for a new video and post next week.

Part 3 – Compression

How much compression to use?

Mastering engineers generally don’t use a lot of compression. If any compression is applied during the mastering process, it is usually very subtle. Low ratios (1.2:1 to 2:1) with high thresholds that yield around 2-3 dBs of gain reduction – at most – is common.

Compression and audio fidelity.

In an absolute audiophile sense: compression never sounds good! When compressing one loses depth, gains noise and loses dynamic range, all of which make a recording sound worse. To learn to use compression effectively, one should focus on whether it makes the music sound better. One needs to be able to differentiate between the music and the recording.

The idea of using compression – usually – is to reduce the dynamic range so as to make the different elements in an arrangement sound more clearly to the listener.

Should the mix engineer send a compressed or uncompressed 2-Mix?

If you are a more experienced mix engineer and/or you feel like you’ve got the compression sounding just how you want it, then print the mix with the compression and send it to the mastering engineer (M.E). Every compressor behaves and reacts differently, and those characteristic nuances that you (the artist and/or mixing engineer) have learned to love in the mix may not be so easily replicated by the M.E.

However, if you’re nervous that your compressor is ‘misbehaving’ or you are unsure whether you are using too much compression, it is a good idea to send two versions of the mix. Send the M.E the uncompressed mix and the compressed mix so that the he has it for reference. This way, the M.E will be able to decide if he can improve the uncompressed mix or work with your compressed mix and take it a step further!

Hope you enjoyed this. Please let me know your thoughts, and what you may like to see in future here on the blog.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Equalisation in Mastering (Part 2)

This is Part 2: 'Equalization' of the new video-blog series in which Jonathan Wyner of M-WORKS Mastering will be discussing various aspects of the mastering process. Let us know your thoughts, questions and opinions! Next week, compression.

Part 2: Equalization

Why were equalizers created?

Equalizers were invented to compensate for deficiencies in recording mediums (for example, to increase intelligibility over phone-lines). This idea of a corrective equalizer is very much at play in mastering.

An example is if a mixing engineer is perhaps mixing in an overly dull environment. In this case, he will produce overly bright mixes (to compensate). It is then the mastering engineer’s job to try and figure out the inverse EQ to get the mixes sounding more like the mix engineer thought they sounded.

To Cut? Or to Boost?

I think mastering engineers in general find themselves cutting more than boosting.

Listen for areas that sound cloudy, or that contain unpleasant harmonic content and don’t contain much of the fundamental frequency of the instrument. These areas can be gently and carefully carved out.

Older-style equalizers tend to have narrow-bandwidth cuts and broader-bandwidth boosts. This tends to sound better and is a safe, general rule to follow when EQ’ing.

Are there common areas you (the Mastering Engineer) find yourself working on?

There are no set-rules. However, if you find yourself doing the same thing for each master you work on – you may be compensating for a deficiency in your room/listening environment. So try be aware of this.

There are a few common areas that one can focus on, though:

· Usually some clearing out (cutting) can be done in the low-midrange (focus on the relationship with the bass and the vocal, or try to reveal the bass more clearly for example).

· Low-frequency information also tends to be a common area that requires attention at mastering (focus on the relationship between the kick drum and the bass, for example).

· Use small adjustments, and constantly check back with the original. The goal is simply to make the recording sound better! If you improve it, even slightly, then you are doing well!

Small EQ moves to make Big changes.

Most of the boosts and cuts that I am doing are no more than 0.5-1dB. The reasons for that are:

· You are working with a complex waveform that is a balanced recording. Thus, big changes are likely to alter the balance in a way that may not reflect the artist’s intention.

· An EQ filter sounds better – that is, it has less distortion and less ringing – if you use broad bandwidths (‘Q’s) and are making small moves (in dBs) with it.

So sometimes in mastering you will use up to 12 different EQ filters, but each one will be doing just a little bit. That is pretty typical of a mastering engineer’s use of an equalizer.

Join us next week for Compression!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Common Mistakes Mixing Engineers Make - From The Mastering Engineer's Perspective

Starting out it's worth making a general comment: I've often heard discussions where someone suggests that they have 'psyched out' a way to be sure that their mixes come back right after going through mastering, whether for vinyl, cassette or digital.

"Add more reverb, it'll come back drier"
"Keep it dark, it'll come back warmer"
"Don't compress at all, leave all compression to mastering"

Now in reality that sort of thing almost never gets you what you want. You can't possibly anticipate exactly what will happen fact if you supply a 'dark' mix the mastering engineer might assume you actually WANT it dark. And that's exactly the point. Get your mixes sounding as close as you can to perfect to the best of your ability. Then the mastering engineer has something to work with!

That doesn't mean make it loud, or to over compress or under compress or do anything that might be construed as mastering. Leave mastering to the M.E.....but do a good job mixing.

If you want the mastering engineers perspective beforehand, hire her or him for an hour to listen and give you feedback. If you make a good mix it makes for a better end result. If you can build into your mindset that you MIGHT need to adjust your mixes slightly, you should. Sometimes time, money, patience or skill argue against, but if you can do it....

Here, then, is a list of some typical foibles:

  • Mixes too loud: in case you didn’t know, leave 2-6 dB of headroom in your mixes. If you have been listening with a limiter on, turn it off and send the unlimited versions to the M.E..
  • Send the limited versions for reference so the ME knows what you have been listening to
  • Kick and bass out of proportion: The most common problem encountered in mixing rooms is inaccurate low end. Where music includes drums this often means the kick is too loud or quiet with respect to the bass (or vice versa). A room mode (that basically means the room exaggerates a narrow band of frequencies) can easily make a kick drumsound like it’s fundamental is loud causing the mix engineer to turn it down. A null ( a dip in frequency) can you might crank it up. Slight imbalances can be fixed in mastering, gross one’s need a remix. Cheapest cure....get a GOOD pair of headphones and learn what the bass sounds like. Don’t rely on headphones for your mix, but use them for a reality check
  • One thing dark and another thing bright: This is a really tough one. Let’s say the drums are bright and the vocal dull. Using m/s techniques and others the ME can fix small imbalances, but usually you have to prioritize one instrument over another and go for ‘fixing’ that one in mastering. Time for a remix!
  • Too much reverb....easier to add a little than take it away. No one has invented the de-verb!
  • Cutting beginnings and ending too closely: So often the first note or the reverb tail gets cut off. Leave them alone. The mastering engineer can often get rid of undesirable noise and edit the begin and end lickety split!
  • Phasing problems: It used to be you HAD to check mixes in mono to be sure they would pass muster for vinyl. Digital audio doesn’t care about phase, but you SHOULD. Too much out of phase information (experience helps you learn how much is too much) creates problems if you want a loud record, if you play music on the radio, and it will cause your mp3’s to sound pretty bad (quite important considering today's listening norms)! Always check your mixes in mono and make sure no important instruments disappear.
  • Not providing the album sequence: Assuming there are more than 3 or 4 tracks on your album, you should always provide a running order to the ME. You can always change it later, but an ME will pay attention to the relationship between the end of one song running into another in case someone listens through your whole record in sequence.

Well that’s a short list for now....happy mixing!

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mastering Mindset (Part 1)

Welcome to the first in a new video-blog series where Jonathan Wyner of M-WORKS Mastering will be discussing various aspects of the mastering process. In this first introductory video, Jonathan discusses the overall thought-process involved, the goals, the mastering engineer's responsibilities, different music styles, and more. Next week, equalization (EQ).

Part 1: The Mastering Mindset

What is mastering?

· It is the last creative step, and the first step in distribution.

· It’s the last chance to catch any mistakes. When it leaves mastering, there cannot be any flaws in the master.

· It needs to function well in all common formats: mp3s, CDs etc.

· Getting it ready for distribution in these formats is key.

What are the responsibilities of the mastering engineer?

· In the case of a whole album, to take all the disparate pieces and unify them sonically (level and tone-wise).

· Pacing between the tracks should reflect the mood of the songs and allow each one to breathe or run-on to each other, depending on the desired effect.

· Enhance the sound – create a more open sound, a deeper sound, a fuller sound or a warmer sound etc – in a way that benefits the sound of the record.

· Sometimes you can enhance the dynamic range by turning up some sections and turning down other sections, reduce the dynamic range to create a louder master.

· Thus, the mastering engineer has some creative input. However, there is only so much that he can do in mastering, so that the mastering engineer relies on the mixing engineer to do a good job and to get the mix as close as possible to the desired sound.

What mastering isn’t...

· Mastering is not about making everything bright and loud!

· In this overcrowded and noisy world, the temptation to create a louder and brighter mix in hope of drawing attention is strong. However, such recordings tend to be hard to listen to for a sustained period of time, so that people may be reluctant (consciously or subconsciously) to come back and listen to them again and again.

Knowing what the artist wants…

· It’s important to know what the artist wants, so that you don’t land up going in a different direction.

· Have a discussion with the artist. You are more likely to keep him happy and achieve his vision. Sometimes, indeed, you learn from doing something you may not have considered before.

· At the end of the day, it’s art. And there are no recipes for what it ‘has’ to sound like. Always try to support the song’s meaning and artist’s vision.

Different styles of music...

· There will always be similarities – there is such a thing as ‘too much bass’ or ‘too much treble’ regardless of the style.

· However, different styles of music will require a different approach. For example, you want the low-end to lead in reggae, you want a wide stereo-image with depth (hearing into the reverb tails) and aggression through guitars with metal, a wide and true dynamic range with a classical recording...

· So, it is important to be informed about different styles of music and what each style wants.

What are the prerequisites for mastering at a high level?

A great monitoring system.

· Relatively neutral – no part of the spectrum is exaggerated)

· It’s phase accurate – the sound arriving from each speaker is arriving at the listener at the same time)

· Low distortion – so that nothing is being introduced by the monitoring system that is not in the recording. It also allows for longer listening periods without much fatigue.

A room that can support the monitoring system

· A quiet environment – so that you can ensure what you are hearing is directly from the speakers, and not ambient sound pollution.

· Size – the room needs to be large enough to allow the low-frequency information to be heard properly, for the waves to propagate.

What if I’m mastering at home?

· Get a good pair of headphones, with good low-frequency response.

· Listen to a lot of recordings you know and like, and become accustomed to the way that those sound in your listening environment(s).

· Have multiple monitoring environments so that you can get different points of reference (computer speakers, headphones, studio monitors, car speakers etc).

· Different speaker-systems will exaggerate different parts of the sound differently – so at least you’re not hearing a single distorting of the sound.

Hope you enjoyed. See you next week, we'll be covering equalization (EQ)!