21st Century Mastering - EMusician

21st Century Mastering

The advent of new technology, in any sphere of human endeavor, has always created challenges to, and opportunities for, the established order. The Industrial Revolution in Victorian Great Britain made it the most technologically advanced country of its day and brought forth a new wealthy class of millionaire industrialists, but it also created a lot of very fed-up (and unemployed) weavers and spinners. Desktop publishing revolutionized the world of printing and graphic design, but much ink was spilt by disgruntled typesetters as the changes worked their way out. And in the world of music technology, virtually every new exciting breakthrough, from the invention of multitrack recording to the arrival of MP3s, has been greeted with predictions of impending doom and catastrophe.
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Although these glum premonitions of disaster have usually gone unfulfilled, technology has of course been responsible for huge upheavals in the music business, certainly in regards to how music is created, recorded, and distributed. And while record companies and commercial recording studios talk endlessly of cutbacks and retrenchment, modern equipment allows the average musician access to recording facilities that were undreamt of just a couple of years ago.

However, such changes have led to the elimination of many formerly secure careers for those involved in music production. As one industry stalwart moaned to me recently, “All these job titles are passing into history. Assistant Engineer, Balance Engineer, Mastering Engineer . . . they’ve all been replaced by a bloke on his own in a bedroom with a laptop.”

Of course, this is an exaggeration: It’s not hard to find people in these established occupations who manage to ensure that their experience remains relevant in changing times — often by harnessing the power of the Internet to make their expertise relevant to a wider market.

Enter the Soundmasters mastering house in West London. It’s run by Kevin Metcalfe, a mastering engineer for over 30 years, who has trained at a variety of major record labels such as RCA and Virgin (including a spell as Chief Mastering Engineer at London’s renowned Town House) and partner Streaky, an energetic former DJ and studio engineer who came to Kevin in 2000 to learn the business of mastering for vinyl. Soundmasters has faced the challenges of the modern music industry by making their services much more accessible via their eMasters venture, which allows potential mastering clients to send their music to them from all over the world via the Internet, while also staying true to the belief that, where mastering is concerned, it’s hard to improve on the sound of well-designed high-end analog equipment in the hands of experienced users.

ANALOG ETHOS

For those used to modern recording studios, the contents of the Soundmasters’ mastering studio can come as a surprise: “All our processing is analog, with good A/Ds and D/As on either side,” Kevin comments. In keeping with this philosophy, the studio’s Pro Tools system is used only to get digital audio for mastering into the high-end Prism and DCS D/A units, which handle the conversions into analog at the beginning of the process.

Soundmasters’ main processing comes from Fairman and Maselec compressor/limiters, and very accurate Massenburg, Summit, Neumann, and Maselec mastering EQs, which allow the boosting or cutting of very precise frequencies in a mix. These processors are located in the main Soundmasters console, and can be inserted into the control room’s stereo signal path by the Maselec MTC2 Master Control — a two-channel analog mastering mixer and router that lies at the heart of the Soundmasters studio (multitrack mixing capabilities are not necessary in a mastering studio, although the Soundmasters do have three MTC2s in their desk to enable them to handle 5.1 surround mastering jobs when required).

In addition to its own EQ and level controls, the MTC2 also offers control over overall stereo width and an “elliptical filter,” which allows precise control over the stereo spread of bass frequencies in particular by progressively removing out of phase bass frequencies as it is applied. These last two facilities are particularly important in vinyl mastering, where a well-centered mix and bass is essential if the playback needle is to accurately track the vinyl groove. However, Kevin and Streaky find the MTC2’s elliptical filter useful for tightening up bass even on non-vinyl projects.

In order to get an accurate idea of how playback will sound on a variety of systems, accurate, neutral monitoring is critical in a mastering suite. Kevin chose PMC BB5s after becoming accustomed to them at the Town House mastering studios, where he worked until the mid-’90s. For similar reasons, the studio also features industry-standard Yamaha NS10s — because as Kevin explains, he and Streaky have developed an innate sense of what consistent, well-mastered audio should sound like on them.

Once Kevin and Streaky are happy with the sound of the audio they’re mastering, it’s converted back into digital audio via Prism and DCS A/Ds if it’s for a non-vinyl release, where it can be assembled, ordered, and crossfaded if necessary in Sonic Studio HD, the duo’s digital editor of choice. Material for vinyl release is left in the analog domain and sent to the modified Neumann VMS82 vinyl lathe for disc cutting.

THE VOYAGE FROM VINYL

Most of the music mastered by the Soundmasters duo is now released on CD or as digital files, but vinyl remains an important part of their business, and more importantly, they still tackle all of their work as though they’re cutting it for reproduction on vinyl, even if the music is being released as an MP3. Streaky explains: “With digital recordings, you can do what you want, but if you’re still thinking as though you’re mastering on vinyl, then you can get a really nice, tight sound. The frequencies are so much more important with vinyl, because of its physical limitations; just making sure that you’re able to play it without the needle skipping the groove is an art in itself. You can actually get quite a wide range of frequencies on vinyl, but only with certain disciplines, and they’re good to know for all mastering. That’s why I wanted to learn to work with vinyl, because well-mastered vinyl records have a sound I like: with warm, controlled, tight bass, and everything nice and clear. Certainly the sound I was getting on CD before I came here was a lot thinner than the one I can get now, having learned the principles of cutting vinyl.”

Kevin elaborates on what the sonic limitations of the vinyl format can teach a good cutting engineer in the digital age. “The first key to understanding vinyl mastering is understanding bass, because it determines the spacing of the groove on a record, and the groove shape,” he explains. “The higher the level and the amount of bass, the wider the groove in the record is, and the more space on the vinyl you need to accommodate it. So it’s a balancing act between the volume you want on the record, the length of the track, and the fact that a vinyl disc only has so big a radius — if you have a six-minute track to put on a 12-inch disc, you can cut it hot. If you have 10 or 12 minutes to get on there, you need to rethink. And if you reduce bass and level, you can fit more music on the disc. But people don’t like that,” Streaky nods. “Nobody wants a quiet disc.”

Kevin continues to clarify the key issues for successful mastering on vinyl. “The other big concern is high-frequency transients: cymbals, clicks, and sibilance. Sibilance is the worst for a cutting engineer; it starts at about 4kHz and has upper harmonics forever. Of course, on CD, that doesn’t matter, except that it takes your head off if you turn it up — but it’s clean, whereas on vinyl, it distorts and sounds horrible. So knowing that, you tend to try to minimize sibilance at the cut. And that’s what you want for most records: You want to be able to turn it up nice and loud without it hurting, and for it to have a nice-sounding bass. And if you put that onto CD, it’ll sound great,” concludes Streaky, bringing us full circle.

THE MASTER’S CRAFT

After communicating with the artist and establishing a rough idea of how the track is supposed to sound and listening to it just a couple of times — Kevin says no more than three times at most, because he then starts to lose perspective on it — the pair get going. Watching them at work is fascinating; within seconds of hearing a track over their monitors, they’re reaching for limiter controls, boosting EQ here, or more frequently cutting it somewhere else.

A commonly asked question about mastering is what faults can possibly be left for the mastering engineer to correct after a painstaking mix session. After all, isn’t the mix supposed to take care of the major sonic problems? But according to the Soundmasters, there can be an awful lot left for them to do. Kevin says: “The old techniques for recording and mixing are being forgotten, and that shows. Like using good mics and preamps, and not EQing too much at source. So you get things like sibilance on vocals or drum sounds . . . cymbals, say. And often we just hear over-production — too much in the mix. Often it’s what you take out that’s more important than what you put in, because that can leave the rest more room to be heard. Sometimes, you get intermodulation between different instruments, producing a spike at one frequency. We can identify that and correct it, because we can be quite precise with our EQs.”

“Over-use of limiting is the worst,” says Streaky, “when people crush a track to death to make it sound loud. It means we don’t have any headroom left to do anything useful to their tracks. And if I lower the level so that I can recreate some sense of dynamics, then people say, ‘but it’s not as loud as my version!’ That’s not the point — it’s better that a track is mixed to leave some headroom, because then we can give it the sound of some nice equipment pushing it a bit, rather than your one mastering box or plug-in going mad at full scale.

“Bass end is also often a problem for people in their bedroom studios, because they usually can’t reliably hear what they’re doing down there through their monitors. If they try to do something with it, they usually mess it up; it’ll either be too compressed or there’ll be too much of it. And if you have bass interfering with what’s trying to play at the top end, that’s awful. You don’t have to put loads of sub-bass in to get it sounding big, either. A lot of people do that now, too, especially in dance tracks.” It’s not about boosting bass — as Kevin says, “you can even make bass sound better by removing bass frequencies, because then you’re left with more room in the mix and higher-end bass, which can sound better sometimes.”

“Another common mistake” says Streaky, “is when people are playing tracks too loud during the mix. You can really hear problems in a mix when you play it quietly. The louder you have it, the more top you tend to take off it. I know why people turn things up, because it’s exciting, and you get better performances out of people when you’re recording. But when you’re trying to mix or master, you need to concentrate on the fine details. Also, if you’ve got a badly treated room, as soon as you turn up the music, you start to excite all your room modes, and then you can’t really hear what’s going on in your music any more. The bottom line is that if you can hear the bass and all the important parts when the level is low — down at whispering level — that’s a good mix.”