Thursday, August 27, 2015

Mastering, Meh

I don't know that I care very much about mastering.
There's the part of mastering which is making sure all the tracks on an opus sorta sound same-ish, like they go together. That part of mastering I'm down with. That's cool.
As far as making records that "compete" in the marketplace I... I just don't care. I have nothing to do with any commercially viable music. I've never seen it. In my spare time I record Russian choral music, or I play jazz/rock in a bar in Brooklyn, or Gentle Giant - inspired prog rock in my living room with my friends. The "marketplace" has zero to do with what I do musically.
I've been wanting to put this picture on a blog post for a long, long time. It's not particularly related to this post, but it's a great picture.

So that's a thing. But furthermore:

In a way I am sort of a conscientious objector in the whole Loudness War. Records (and CDs) were getting louder and louder up through the late 90's and now have presumably sorta leveled off.
But personally I don't think that meter-slamming level issue is with the "loudness" at all.
Now, firstwise, "loudness" is a whackadoo thing to measure. The Beatles made some loud records*. No matter what mastered version you listen to, they're pretty freaking loud.
I think that what's been happening is we've been mixing drums louder and louder for the last 50 years until we have mixes which are just a mess.

Now, it's true, I'm not a fan of using multiband limiters or brick wall limiters generally. Because I do feel oppressed by compression when you can turn the compression up so hard -- way beyond what you're able to do with an old-fashioned compressor that would start "pumping" audibly.

But big, fat compressors like the LA-2A sound great to me (oddly, I've never really felt at home with the 1176 -- lotsa people love them but they've just never worked for me on drums or vocals or anything.)

In any case, the only other major tool available to the mastering engineer is EQ. Presumably one wants one's mastering engineer to do those final EQ tweaks in order to
  1. make the record actually fit on a vinyl album (there are a world of considerations native to a mechanical format -- like keeping the needle from jumping out of the groove during "interesting" stereo phase parts in the bass and the like)
  2. to make the record sound subjectively better
  3. to make the record sound competitive in the marketplace
But the thing is

  1. c'mon, a vinyl album is a novelty item
  2. if you really want to make the record sound better then you should do something in the mix. If there's too much 500 Hz in the drums then you should go back and take it out of the drums, not the whole mix. Mastering engineers are forever complaining about a certain frequency which is too much in one instrument and too little in another. There are workarounds to solve it but the actual objectively better solution is to reach back into the mix and solve the problem there with the multichannel recordings, not the mixdown.
  3. we've already established with my career that commercial considerations are irrelevant.

It's not that there isn't a lot of value in having a disinterested third party listen to your mixes on a very high-end monitoring system in an acoustically well-designed room, because there is. There is. There is there is there is.
Ian Shepherd has an excellent website on mastering and music production.

But you can also listen to your mixes a lot, and then (if you're mixing "in-the-box" as we do) make incremental changes in order to enhappify yourself with those mixes. And then, at some point, you have to stop.

In our world, mastering costs more than the rest of the record cost altogether. Or, in the case of more recent albums of mine, mastering costs and recording and mixing are nothing but time.

So my conclusion is that time/money is nominally better spent listening to mixes over a long period of time (on, you know, semi-decent sound systems) and making incremental changes in the mixes of those musical selections.

At least that's where I'm at now.

 §


The Home Mastering EQ Workshop.

Top 10 DIY mastering mistakes.

This is kinda strange. There's an automated mastering service called LANDR. Basically it slaps some multiband limiting and some sort of (maybe) program-dependent EQ on your tracks. Ten bucks a track.
This page has examples of their mastering.

LUFS and digital metering explained.

*You're gonna want to listen to post-year-2000 CD's of their stuff though, once George Martin was involved in the mastering the CD's are pretty good (meaning: they are in the canon of music, not just of the Western world, but in the canon of works created by mankind.)

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