Where I’m At

So here it is – my first post – written while copying sources for a new Paul Weller box set one of our customers is putting together. Sadly it all comes from 16-bit CDRs rather than hi-res files or original tapes, but it’s still a pretty cool project. I probably won’t get to master it, unfortunately, since we have some DVDs coming in which need authoring and I’m commited to a large Interactive Whiteboard CD-ROM as of next week, but I know Simon will do a great job. On the other hand, once the sources are compiled in the right order they’ll get sent away for approval by Universal, and that will take a while, so perhaps I’ll be free by then. I’ll have to fight him for it…

Looking forward to Richard Durrant‘s session on Monday – it sounds very different to the bonkers “Horse” album he produced for John Douglas Clark, which we worked on before Christmas. ( “…half album, half sound installation… described variously as ‘Ivor Cutler meets Pink Floyd’ and ‘John Shuttleworth meets Prof. Stanley Unwin’ ” ) And, I’m really looking forward to working with Christine Tobin again next month – I was really pleased with the way her fellow artist and partner Phil Robson‘s album “Six Strings and the Beat” turned out last month, despite both of us struggling with the after-effects of flu. And looking forward to getting copies of the Opeth “Still Life” DVD – progressive Swedish Black Metal wouldn’t necessarily normally be my listening material of choice, but Jens at Fascination Street did such a great job on the new 5.1 surround mixes, the band play really well and the menus came out nicely, though I say so myself. Plus I’m sure the packaging will be highly decadent, which should be fun.

So that’s “where I’m at” at the moment – I think future posts will have updates on these and other interesting or enjoyable projects, plus ramblings on subjects like Mastering and DVD authoring – for example Blu Ray’s so-called victory in the “Format Wars” and what it means for our customers who want to release in hi-def – and indeed if HD on disc is going to be a success at all, or go the way of SACD and DVD Audio…

Currently I am listening to “Seventh Tree” by Goldfrapp and loving it…

DIY Mastering Part 1: Loudness Wars

Probably the hottest topic in mastering in recent years is loudness, and certainly one of the most important jobs for a mastering engineer is to achieve a satisfying, consistent level between all the tracks on an album. However the arrival of digital signal processors during the 90s, coupled with the perception that “louder is better” has led to the infamous “loudness wars” – a gradual increase in the loudness of albums over the years, to the point where some are hugely distorted and very fatiguing to listen to.

If you come to SRT wanting your CD loud, we’ll be happy to oblige, but my own personal motto is “Louder is better, but Too Loud is worse” – meaning I believe there is a “sweet spot” for every recording where it’s loud enough to “work” given the limitations of the original mix, but is not so loud that it suffers. Push something too far beyond this sweet spot and the effects are only negative.

Why is Too Loud bad ? Apart from problems like distortion, pumping or dynamic inversion, a great way to answer that question is to point you here:

Just check out the video for a great, simple demonstration of why louder is not necessarily better, plus a great selection of “loudness war” links at the bottom of the page.

In a later post I’ll discuss how loud is “just right”, and the best way to achieve it, but there’s other ground to cover before then.

SADiE in Receivership

We found out today that Studio Audio & Video Ltd, who make the industry standard editing and mastering workstation SADiE, have ceased trading and are in receivership. This is a huge shock, to us and thousands of other users around the world, and also very sad – SADiE UK had it’s headquarters just up the road from SRT and we have used the system from it’s very earliest days. We are all hopeful that someone will come through and save the company from extinction, but in the meantime I just want to extend my sympathies to Jim, Steve, Mark and the other staff members who are currently without jobs as a result of the companies’ difficulties.

Galactic Symphonies – Kaoss Pads and Poetry

So, Richard‘s session proved to be even more fun than I expected ! The project was a collaboration with unique 60’s poet-lyricist Stephen Kalinich, and comprised a fascinating improvised mixture of Kaoss Pad manipulated soundscapes, gentle acoustic guitar numbers and full-on almost-rap sections. Where things got really interesting is that the release is to be a double-sided disc – CD on one side and DVD on the other, so we had a studio recording to master, plus a live performance for the DVD.

Initially Richard had thought of the live version as more of a bonus to the CD release, and anticipated spending less time on a “rough cut” master. However since the recordings were made he had started to enjoy the live performances more and more, and decided to spend more time on them. At the end of mastering the studio version I gave him a brief demo of how the live performance would sound if we converted it to surround-sound using the System 6000‘s “unwrap” capabilities, and he was hooked. The processing he uses on the live guitars, especially the Kaoss Pad (*), worked fantastically well with the unwrap, creating a really convincing 3D soundscape. So an extra day was booked and now there will be 3 versions on the disc – studio stereo on the CD, and live stereo and surround-sound on the DVD.
(*) Richard uses two of these while performing – “playing” them with his toes !

DIY Mastering Part 2: Before You Start

Before getting into more detail, there are some ground rules to be covered. All of these are important guidelines for any mastering engineer. I’ll spread them over a few posts, but we’ll start with rules for before you start mastering.

1: Always use a fixed listening environment

Which means level, room, monitors – the whole thing. Mastering is the art of turning a collection of pieces, songs, tracks, into an album. (Or single, or EP…) We’re trying to judge impact, pace, atmosphere, dynamics and timing ( amongst others ) – in fact, as a professional mastering engineer I’m almost trying to second-guess the artist. To make a fair and accurate judgement compared with all those other discs, we have to be 100% confident we know what we’re listening to, which means eliminating variables in the listening environment. The same goes for any room used for mastering – it needs to be as good as possible.

I’m going to cover room acoustics and treatment in a later post, but the first and most significant thing to control is the level – ie. how loud you listen to the music. I have two levels I master at – one is 12 dB below the other, and I switch between them throughout a session. The exact level you use isn’t critical, but it needs to be consistent. (For the technically minded, use an SPL meter and generate pink noise at -18 dBFS. In my room this corresponds to a C-weighted SPL of 79 dB SPL.)

Then listen long and hard to some good CDs. Figure out which ones you consider to sound perfect, which ones sound too loud, which too soft, which too bassy, which too bright. You might decide to use a slightly higher or lower level than I’ve suggested to suit your comfort or taste, but there are very good reasons for sticking close to this reference level.

You’ll probably find that a large number of recently mastered “classic” albums sound absolutely fantastic at this level, and also that many of the newest sound uncomfortably loud – check out my first DIY post for more about loudness.

Once you’ve settled on a level – stick with it. If you work at it for long enough you’ll develop an instinct for the perfect level for any piece of music, and more importantly you’ll avoid being tricked by the Fletcher-Munsen effect; in a nutshell, quiet sounds appear duller and thinner – ie. if you master with your level too low the chances are you’ll add too much bass or top, and vica versa.

2: Use full-range, FLAT monitors

A CD is capable of reproducing a frequency-range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Your monitors need to come close to this – anything they can’t reproduce, you can’t hear, and may misjudge. In a pro mastering room this generally means the monitors will be big, and expensive. (In most mastering-houses they may easily cost more than a family car !) So try to choose neutral, accurate speakers, with a flat frequency response – perhaps bland-sounding to some ears, because that way you know it’s the music that sounds great, not the monitoring. B&W make some superb hi-fi speakers which could be suitable for DIY mastering.

Ideally you should master on different monitors than you mix on, and even in a different room. This is partly to get a fresh perspective on what you’re listening to, but also it means that if there are problems or limitations with the monitors you mixed on, you are more likely to spot this. If you’re going the DIY route obviously this won’t be easy, but the next best thing is to listen to your mastered audio in as many different places as possible. If it consistently sounds boomy, it probably has too much bass. But problems that you only hear on one system are more likely to be to do with the setup of that system.

One good tip is to setup your home stereo speakers in the mastering room, assuming they’re decent quality – since you listen to most of your music on these, you may be much more sensitive to mastering judgements listening to them. Even listening on a favourite pair of headphones can be useful. But remember the golden rule – pick two mastering levels (three at most) and only use these when mastering.

3. Use a loudness meter

As I said in my first DIY post, perhaps the most important thing a mastering engineer does (apart from put the right tracks on the CD, in the right order !) is to choose a consistent, musical level for each track. The most important tool for deciding this is your ears, but meters giving you an objective measurement of the level are invaluable. Most people will probably find it easier to use the digital metering offered by a piece of software, but I still have a soft spot for the analogue needle, or VU meter.

Whichever you decide on, the most important think to know is why bother to use a loudness meter ? Because the absolute and relative loudness’ of tracks on an album have an immense effect on their perceived sound and a peak meter is virtually useless for judging loudness. The classic example is the human voice – a very quiet voice can have an extremely high peak level. It “looks” loud on a digital meter, but it sounds quiet. A VU or digital loudness meter looks much more as things sound in terms of level. If you learn how the meter relates to loudness it’ll help you make good judgements in “mastering”.

More guidelines in a later post…