mastering nov 22 2010

Mastering recorded music is one of those areas of human endeavor that defy logic.

It is speculative , often spurious and and without a doubt subjective.

Yet, the best mastering people keep getting calls year after year, through trends and changes in the biz, the gear and the way music is made and recorded.

With the exception of a few engineers in high end joints, the prices of mastering have come down.. way down in many cases, as folks with an ear and a desire and a DAW can become mastering houses and undercut the traditional mastering houses.

The buy in is low and who’s gonna stop you ?

What is mastering ?

Is it taking a stereo mix and keeping the DNA of the mix while refining timbre here and level there to make something that is nearly identical in emotional content to the original ?

Or is mastering a chance for the mastering engineer to “fix” the flaws in the mix and make the sound more listenable and/or ready for the marketplace ?

The next question might be ; What marketplace ? We’ll get to that in a minute. Maybe.

Is louder better ? Should the mastering engineer play God and run interference for radio programmers ?

Should the mastering engineer serve the mix that exists and respect the desires of the creators even if it seems wrong ?

If the bass is too loud for the engineer’s taste or the mix is drier than Death Valley, what can you do if that’s the way the artist wanted it ?

If the vocal is buried, maybe they wanted it that way, too. Do you dig it out so the words are audible, (which also makes the hi hat the loudest thing in the mix) or do you let it be ?

Do you “fix” it or do you take every cue from the intentions of the mixing engineer, producer and artist responsible.

These are the things that are everyday concerns in the mastering process.

As an artist, why would I spend the time and spill the love to make something I was happy with only to have a mastering engineer ask for “stems” so he could “make the drums bigger.”

I thought I mixed it already . Guess not.

I understand the needs of film mixers and that stems are part of our world.

But in stereo, the only reason for stems is to postpone decision making one more time and let the mastering engineer have the final say.

Of course, you can always reject work for hire and hire someone else and the cycle can go on until somebody decides we’ve had enough.

The saying; ” a record is never done, it’s just abandoned.”

Back in the ancient early 90s post Nirvana record biz days, when radio consultants ruled the roost, the loudness wars began, in order to satisfy the power minded industry pimps who determined what was proper for the youth of the world to have enter their tender eardrums.

Some blame it on one Stephen Marcussen, who is still a respected and well paid Hollywood mastering guy. I dont.

In truth, the flood gates of over compression and painfully loud CDs opened once people figured out ways to hot rod Sonic Solutions and digital overs could be handled by CD plants. ( A simplistic explanation but accurate enough for the non-technical) .

Nowadays we have plug-ins that will squish every element until the space and depth of field are

obliterated in service of having the loudest CD on the block.

And then the joke becomes about selling/giving away downloads so who cares how many zeros and ones get blood-packed onto a CD.

I get home demo cds that break up the amp on the cd player and force you to turn the i-tunes level down just to play the thing minus distortion. What the ?

I love distorted guitars and I enjoy messing up the overtone series and, well, distorting sounds for fun and profit.

Distorting the entire sound field for presentation/ archaic commercial reasons is not very satisfying. It’s tiring to the listener.

In 2010, many production techniques are based upon constant overs, every element “in your face”, dynamics reduced to

a constant flat line square wave of false sonic machismo.

Meanwhile, Piety Street has mastering engineers who give a damn, have no agenda, are not weekend warriors with esoteric gear and gold plated connections on their magic boxes.

Paul Marinaro came to our attention years ago as an intern who was also a decent composer. He made some good work at Piety then went off and got his degrees. He’s back now and has now become a good mastering engineer who will level match, take care with timbres and keep your dynamic range while adding enough level to make for a proper presentation of your mixes.

John Fischbach has mastered well for many years, won a Grammy last year for something he mixed and mastered.

He can take projects that need help and make them fly or he can barely touch the mixes and retain every bit of air and nuance.

Neither of the mastering engineers at Piety are of the “squash first/listen later” school of mastering.

Piety Street Recording now offers competitively priced mastering. call or e mail Shawn Hall or call John or Paul directly to

talk about what you’re doing.

Mastering Gear list at Piety Street:

Sonic Solutions HD

Weiss EQ1 Dyn LP

Weiss DS1 mk II

B & W 801

B & W subwoofer 800ASW

Manley Massive Passive

Manley Vari-Mu compressor

Cranesong Avocet Monitor Controller

Cranesong HEDD AD/DA

Avalon 2044 Compressor

Avalon 2055 EQ

Avalon 747

Apogee PSX-100 Special Edition

ProTools 002 rack

Alesis Masterlink ML-9600

(2) Namaichi PA-7 Amplifier

(2) Namaichi PA-5 Amplifier

Studer A-80 1/4″ and 1/2″

Headroom,The Max

Exabyte Eliant 820

Mytek 603 digital meter

Plextor Plex Writer

Sony PCM-R500

Z Systems Z/16 Detangler

Night Pro/EQ3