Masterdisk’s 18 in SPIN’s 125

SPINDid you see SPIN magazine’s feature this week (in the mag and on the web) about the “125 Best Albums of the Past 25 Years“? There was a lot of tweeting going on about it, as will happen whenever anything as contentious as a “best of the past 25 years” list appears in a major publication. I enjoy a good list myself, so I was all over it. And I thought it would be neat to figure out how many of them were mastered at Masterdisk. Just ’cause. So here’s a list of 18 albums from the 125 that were mastered at Masterdisk. There’s probably more, but some credits proved difficult to track down. If you spot one that I missed, please let me know!

125. Moby – Play (1999)
99. PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
92. Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)
88. Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)
79. The Breeders – Last Splash (1993)
70. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
67. Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (1985)
61. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)
44. Beastie Boys – Licensed To Ill (1986)
39. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
38. Run-DMC – Raising Hell (1986)
25. Nas – Illmatic (1994)
19. Jay-Z – The Blueprint (2001)
17. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
14. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)
13. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)
6. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
4. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

Randy Merrill’s Mastering of Darcy James Argue’s “Infernal Machines”

Infernal Machines
Infernal Machines
On Tuesday, May 12, 2009, New Amsterdam Records released a remarkable new big band album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society called Infernal Machines. Not a traditional big band album mind you, nor is it exactly like the updated big band sounds of, say, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Argue’s band goes one further than what was heretofore the most “modern” big band sound by adding loops and rock guitar treatments (among other innovations) to his palate. Argue has called it a “steampunk” big band, and it’s definitely fresh sounding.

The album went on to collect a number of honorifics, among them the Best Debut of 2009 nod in the Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll, a 2010 Juno Award nomination for Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year, and inclusion in over 70 Best-of-2009 lists including those from the New York Times, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal. Impressive in general, and especially so considering that Infernal Machines is a 34-year-old composer and bandleader’s first record.

Masterdisk engineer Randy Merrill did the mastering honors on Infernal Machines, and is proud to have been a part of a great project like this one. Randy has been at Masterdisk since he came over with Scott Hull when Scott purchased and took over operations at Masterdisk in 2008. Prior to the move to Masterdisk Randy had been Scott’s Production Engineer with Scott Hull Mastering, and prior to that he spent five years at the famous NY studio Avatar (formerly known as Power Station).

Tracking room at Bennett Studios
Tracking room at Bennett Studios (Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
Darcy chose Randy for the gig because of Paul Cox, the tracking and mix engineer on the album. Darcy said, “Paul had worked with Randy before on other projects and recommended him extremely highly. We did audition several mastering engineers, but most of them seemed to have an awful lot of trouble hearing the kind of sound we were going for. Randy offered to do a test mastering of one of our mixes, and from that it was clear that he knew exactly what this music needed.”

And it was a complex job. Actually, the making of the album was an intricate process from the beginning. The tracking was done at Bennett Studios in New Jersey. Of the recording session Paul said, “I’m used to larger ensembles, but the more mics, the more wires, the more wires the more room for problems. From a technical and production standpoint, though, the only real challenge was that at high sample rates (96k) with as many channels being recorded simultaneously (about 40) ProTools will not let you punch in smoothly.” The tracking was 95% live, according to Paul, with “some solo or patchwork overdubs here and there.”

Darcy in the Bennett Studios breakfast nook
Darcy in the Bennett Studios breakfast nook. (Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
The mix for the album took two months, mainly due to the fact that the individual musicians had been close-mic’d, and it took a lot of work to “balance those elements together in a way that sounded natural and open, especially considering the number of voices that occur in this music compared to, say, a four piece band,” Paul said.

The attention paid to the recording and the mix paid off though, and then it was down to putting on the finishing touches through the mastering process. Randy said that the mastering session, which both Darcy and Paul attended, was fun and productive, but he mentioned that it went all night. As Darcy tells it,

“Yeah, we started at about 7 PM at night and wrapped around 9 AM the following morning. This was my first record and it was intense and unbelievably stressful. Paul and I had basically turned our entire lives over to editing and mixing this record for the previous two months solid. There was a stretch near the end where I was literally living in Paul’s East Village project studio, working to the point of total exhaustion and then crashing on the floor in the isolation booth on a pile of blankets. We had already missed two previously-scheduled mastering dates because the mixes weren’t ready. The March 9th session with Randy was our Hail Mary session — as late as we could possibly push it and still have the CDs back from the manufacturer in time for our release date. Even then, Paul and I were tweaking stuff in the mixes right up until the last possible moment.”

I wondered what had taken the majority of the time — sequencing? EQ adjustments? Darcy explained,

I had settled on the sequencing long before going in, and there were only a few minor EQ adjustments required. What we needed from the mastering process was, for the most part, loudness. We (deliberately) used very little compression in the mix — a touch here and there on individual instruments, but for the most part we preserved the extremely wide dynamic range of the source material (a mostly acoustic recording of an 18-piece jazz orchestra). What we wanted as a final product was a sound that preserved the feeling of extreme dynamic contrast, but also makes sense when someone puts their MP3 player on shuffle and it comes up between tracks by, say, TV On The Radio and, like, Mastodon.

To pull off the right dynamic balance a number of the tracks were mastered in sections and then put back together. “It’s a tricky thing, because we wanted the compression to be basically invisible. There is a very small sweet spot between something that sounds powerful and something that sounds squashed. Thankfully, Randy was able to hit that consistently,” Darcy said.

Randy Merrill's mastering room at Masterdisk
Randy Merrill's mastering room at Masterdisk

Randy has a pretty even-keeled demeanor, a definite asset in a high-pressure recording environment. I asked Darcy about the tone of the session.

Randy was very chill but very focused, a combination I appreciate. I am sure he sensed how much blood and toil had gone into every stage of this record, how hard we’d worked to get to this point, and how much we were counting on him to bring us over the finish line. Despite the marathon 14-hour overnight mastering session, I never once got the sense that Randy was operating on autopilot, or took any shortcuts in order to try to wrap things up.

When you put as much into a recording as Darcy and Paul did with Infernal Machines, you need to make sure that the final stage is handled by a mastering engineer that’s going to do his damnedest to make every ounce of that work pay off. “At every stage, Randy’s only concern was about what was best for the music,” Darcy said, “It really felt like he believed in it as much as we did.”


You can purchase an Infernal Machines CD or mp3 download directly from New Amsterdam Records’ website, or through retailers like Amazon.

Darcy James Argue is a NYC composer, bandleader and blogger. Read up on all DJA plots and machinations at his blog, Secret Society.

Paul Cox is a recording and mix engineer based in New York. Paul freelances and owns the studio La Sala, where he does most of his mixing. Recent projects include the editing of George Crumb: Winds of Destiny for Bridge Records, which was nominated for a Grammy for best contemporary classical composition; the recent completion of the editing of all ten Beethoven violin sonatas performed by Gary Levinson; and the imminent launch of Metaphonic, a production company that will represent both Paul’s own work and the work of his colleagues.

Record Store Day 2010 Wrap-Up

The line outside J&R
The line outside J&R at 8:30 AM.
Well, it’s late afternoon on April 17, 2010 — Record Store Day — here in NYC. My feet are hurting and the limited Jimi Hendrix “Live at Clark University” is spinning on my turntable, so that means that it’s time to wrap up my RSD coverage!

I started out this morning at around 8:30 at J&R, way downtown. Since this was the store with the earliest opening hour in town, I figured I’d find a high concentration of the most fanatical record nuts there, and I wasn’t disappointed. The line outside (I estimate it was 100 people long by 9) was pretty mellow except for the occasional outburst of nervous anticipation. “What?! You got the Doors single? Doors?!” — that kind of thing.

And it was a pretty smooth operation once the doors opened — well, the first 20 minutes were a bit of a frenzy — and the stock of exclusive items looked comprehensive. (They didn’t have the Moby Grape 45 though — luckily I grabbed that later. It’s impressive.) It seemed like folks were getting what they came for. Store Manager Charlie Bagarozza said it was going to be a fun day; Record Store Day was off to a good start at J&R.

Brooklyn's Sound Fix Records
Brooklyn's Sound Fix Records.
Next up was Sound Fix in Brooklyn. I hadn’t gotten to cover the shop in the lead-up to RSD, but I would have liked to since it’s a nice place. It reminds me of Other Music; it’s got high ceilings, a similar shelving system, and carries predominantly indie stuff. But it does have its own vibe and is worth a trip. I didn’t realize that Sound Fix was as popular as it is — I got there about a half-hour after they opened and it was jam packed! It was all about the indie releases at Sound Fix, whereas at J&R it was more about the Springsteen, Stones, and John Lennon.

After some lunch I headed down to Other Music. They have their RSD down to a science there: lines around the block, because they were making sure that the place didn’t get too crowded. When I showed up ABC TV was in there. Crazy. I got to duck into the store for a few minutes and look around. It was mellow! Some soothing electronica spinning on the stereo, kinda quiet talking, everybody calmly looking through the racks… it was really well done. Other Music have been around for a while and they clearly know how to handle the big events. Kudos.

The line outside Other Music
The line outside Other Music.
I wrapped up at Academy Records on 18th Street which was doing some brisk business despite not carrying any of the limited releases. I usually find something cool in their bins — either CD or vinyl — and today was no different: a super clean Jeff Beck “Flash” LP, for $1. Now, Flash isn’t considered one of Mr. Beck’s finest moments (hence the price tag), but it IS Jeff Beck after all, and Epic pressings from the mid-70s to the early 80s sound real good in my opinion, especially when they have the MASTERDISK stamp in the deadwax like this one does.

Anyway folks, I hope you had a good time out there today and heard — and will hear — some good music as a result of Record Store Day. See you back here at The Masterdisk Record next week, as we get back to our regular programming with a story about engineer Randy Merrill’s mastering of Darcy James Argue’s critically acclaimed album Infernal Machines.

Limited RSD items at J&R
The limited edition wall 20 minutes after the frenzy.

Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 5: Academy Records and CDs

Academy storefront on 12th Street
Academy Records on 12th Street
If its used CDs or vinyl you’re looking for in NYC, Academy Records is your place. Or rather, it’s your three places — they have locations on 12th Street (all vinyl), 18th Street (CDs with some vinyl and a big classical section), 6th Street in Williamsburg (the very large vinyl annex).

Here’s a little further breakdown of the three Academy zones. Interested in digital? Rock/pop/indie? Jazz, classical, or international? 18th Street is your spot. I like visiting there often because they have high turnover in their bins — so you’re always looking at new titles — and their prices are excellent. Average prices for used CDs range from $4 to $8 a pop, with the emphasis on the lower end of the range. God bless. They have a pretty big “budget” section now too where you’re getting into the $2 to $3 range. You’ll also find tons of very nice classical vinyl, CDs and DVDs (if you’re into that kind of thing), and lots of rubber toy dinosaurs too, for some reason.

For your used and new non-classical vinyl you want the 12th Street spot on the East Side. Lots of jazz, plus a decent rock section, a little metal and prog, disco, soul and smaller bins for soundtracks, lounge and more. They carry a really nice selection of vinyl reissues too, from the latest African comp to classic rock. Plus jazz, audiophile labels, krautrock, brazilian, metal… basically if it’s indie vinyl, they carry it. (And a little bit from the major labels too — like the recent Hendrix reissues on Sony/Legacy.) The guys on 12th Street play good music in the store too — aside from Downtown Music Gallery, Academy on 12th is the place where I find I buy stuff because they’re playing it in the store.

Vinyl bins at Academy 18th Street
The vinyl bins in the front of the shop on 18th Street.
The annex in Williamsburg is sort of like the 12th St. shop on steroids, though the genre distribution is different. Proportionally, they carry more rock, less jazz, and less new stuff; and they have tons of international, disco, and soul. Some classical too, but you really need the 18th St. store if you want high quality there. The place is BIG, and as a result there seems to be less turnover in the larger sections than in the other locations. But there’s a LOT of mass here, so especially if you’ve never been, you’ve got to go.

As far as Record Store Day goes, the 12th Street shop and vinyl Annex are carrying some of the limited edition items — mostly from the indie side of the spectrum, though Ben at the Annex told me they’ve gotten some of the more mainstream stuff too. 18th Street — whose product is 99% used, isn’t carrying the exclusive items, but they’ll be having a celebratory day anyway, with some special stock coming out into the bins and an in-store performance.

Another cool thing about Academy is that they recently started their own reissue label, with a focus on very rare African stuff. They press both vinyl and CD.

For more information, visit their website.

Used vinyl wall at Academy on 12th Street
The used vinyl wall at Academy on 12th Street.
Some of the classical collection at Academy on 18th Street
Classical at Academy on 18th Street

And that concludes my pre-record store day blogging! There were some other stores I wanted to cover like Sound Fix in Brooklyn, which is a really neat store, but I didn’t have enough time. I will, however, be tweeting and blogging from the field tomorrow — so I’ll see you in the shops!

Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 4: Downtown Music Gallery

Downtown Music Gallery
The entrance to Downtown Music Gallery's underground lair.
If you’re in NYC for Record Store Day tomorrow and are into experimental music, prog, jazz, avant-garde and downtown sounds, you gotta go to Chinatown and duck down into the marvelous Downtown Music Gallery.

I’ve been a big fan of this store since I first happened upon it when it was situated on 5th street off the Bowery. In fact, I was so immediately smitten with their amazing selection of Canterbury prog, obscure European experimental jazz offerings and forgotten 60s psych outfits that a few months after my first visit I walked in one day and owner Bruce Lee Gallanter looked at me and said, “you know, you’ve spent a lot of money here over the past few months — I want to thank you!” And that, dear readers, is the story of what happened to my 2002 tax refund.

I kept up my few-times-a-week visiting schedule through their next move, when they were situated on the Bowery below 3rd Street. Since then they’ve moved to Chinatown and I haven’t been able, for a number of reasons, to get down there anywhere near as much as I used to — but the love is still there!

Bruce and Manny
Bruce and Manny, Downtown Music Gallery's primary movers. (Photo by Geoff Smith, from the DMG website.)
Downtown Music Gallery is a record store lover’s record store. They guys that run the place, Bruce and Manny “Lunch” Maris are extremely knowledgeable about all kinds of music, and they’re usually willing — if they’re not too busy — to chat about any kind of obscure artist or title you like, or make a recommendation, or even occasionally play a request.

Their main categories are Downtown, Jazz, Rock/Psych/Prog, and Composition, and they offer used as well as new product. And like I said they have lots of super-obscure product on hand. Recently they’ve bought a few large prog collections, so if you’re into the prog you really should go.

Masterdisk has an important connection to Downtown Music Gallery too, since they’re the distributors for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, and Scott Hull masters all the Tzadik albums. Certainly, if you want something on Tzadik, this is the place to go. DMG has also released some great albums on their own label, DMG ARC. (Check out the Raoul Bjorkenheim / William Parker / Hamid Drake CD called DMG at The Stone — it’s powerful stuff.)

Downtown also has a cool selection of weird music books, CD box sets, shirts, hard-to-find music DVDs and other interesting odds and ends.

Though they’re not carrying much, if anything, of the limited edition items on offer for Record Store Day (most of that stuff is more mainstream then their areas of expertise), pretty much every day is Record Store Day at Downtown Music Gallery. Stop by and you won’t be disappointed.

Visit Downtown Music Gallery on at their website.

Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 3: Other Music

The vinyl wall at Other Music
Vinyl at Other Music. Note Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music on the third shelf up, recently mastered here by Scott Hull.
Other Music is definitely the most photogenic of the stores I’ve visited this week in preparation for Record Store Day. It’s a small spot, but it’s got high ceilings, and it’s lit more like an art gallery than a record store. Not that aesthetics are the most important thing about a record store , but it’s an added bonus considering OM would still be a top 5 NYC record store even if it was a dump!

Other Music’s main focus is indie rock, plus significant sections on more obscure artists from the past 40 years, a nice international section, experimental, electronica (still don’t know what to call this genre), and the indie side of dance music. It’s probably an even split between vinyl and CDs, and they sell both new and used.

What Other Music can’t offer in selection they make up for with quality. The staff is plugged in to the music they carry, so what you get there is a carefully curated collection. They’re all about the cutting edge of the genres they specialize in, so it’s a good place to go if you want to bone up on what’s happening in music right now. Just take a look at what’s being featured on their shelves, and read the handwritten reviews taped up under the music.

CDs at Other Music
CDs at Other Music. Yes, I couldn't resist -- that's my CD Java St. Bagatelles in the bin.
As far as Record Store Day at Other Music — they’re doing it in style, with guest DJs taking over the store’s sound system for hour-long intervals (including Avey Tare from Animal Collective and Dan Houghland from Excepter), many limited RSD releases, gift cards and tote bags from Converse, and live in-store performances. The artists playing are The Drums and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and they go on at 9PM, an hour after the regular shopping portion of the day ends at 8.

Considering how small Other Music is, and how much cool stuff they have going on there, the place is going to be packed! So if you’re looking for one of the limited releases, you should probably get there early.

Special store hours for Record Store Day: 11AM to 8PM

Read more details about OM’s Record Store Day plans at their website.

Other Music Artist Wall
Photos of some of the artists that have played at Other Music.
Other Music Storefront
Other Music

Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 2: J&R

J&R Vinyl
One corner of the J&R vinyl department
Now that Tower and Virgin have vanished from the New York music retail scene (RIP), the only place in town to still get that old school multi-floor record store fix is J&R.

This is the place to go when you’re looking for new CDs and vinyl (they do have some used bins but it’s far from their specialty). J&R has three major strengths when it comes to serving the music buyer: selection, scope, and price. A pretty good combo if you ask me!

The main floor is mostly given to a very large pop/rock section. When it comes to classic artists like The Doors, Steely Dan, and Talking Heads, you’ll usually find their full catalogs plus some unexpected import items. Lots of lesser known artists too. Captain Beyond? Humble Pie? Free? Pretty much if it’s in print, you have a good chance of finding it here. They also carry a lot of indie labels, so you’ll find stuff from Relapse, Light in the Attic, Merge, Nuclear Blast, and on and on.

In addition to the rock/pop selection, you’ll find dedicated sections for oldies, rap & hip hop, a good sized jazz room and large classical and opera rooms, country, blues, and a sizable world music collection. There’s also a dedicated “audiophile” section (with gold CDs, SACD and DVD-A releases), folk and gospel sections, and more.

J&R’s regular prices are on the low side, and, even better, they always seem to be running some kind of sale. New releases in particular seem to go for sometimes surprisingly low sale prices.

Well, that’s a long intro. Let’s get to the Record Store Day stuff. J&R is definitely the place to go in NYC if you’re looking for the special limited releases, particularly the more mainstream ones like the Stones, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix items.

J&R window sign
Some of the items coming on Saturday.
I talked to Senior Store Manager Charlie Bagarozza and Marketing Manager Wayne Olsen at the store on Tuesday. Record Store Day has grown exponentially since it’s debut in 2008, so much so that in 2009, Wayne says, there was more demand for the special items than either record stores or record labels had expected. Customers weren’t able to get everything they were looking for. But this year both record companies and shops are taking extra steps to make sure that the demand is better met. Wayne said he’s feeling good about the stock they’ve been getting in in preparation for Saturday. That said, these are limited items, and Record Store Day is expected to be even bigger than last year, so get there early! The store opens at 9 a.m., but keep in mind that there was already a line formed outside before opening last year.

In addition to the special releases, J&R has a lot of fun stuff going on including free giveaways, autograph signings, and performances (including one by Judy Collins). Check the full list of goings-on here: J&R Record Store Day Events.

Did I mention that they’re running a sale all week on all CDs and vinyl in the store? Yeah, J&R is a pretty great record store.

Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 1: Princeton Record Exchange

Prex Storefront
Princeton Record Exchange
If you live on the East Coast you’ve probably heard of Princeton Record Exchange (or Prex as it’s affectionately called). Heck, if you’re into records, you’ve probably heard of it wherever you are; it’s a pretty famous spot.

I’ve known about it for years, being a dyed-in-the-wool record geek myself; but I never made the trip before this past Saturday. I can report to you now that the place lives up to the hype!

Prex didn’t look huge when I walked in (years of hearing the name had clearly charged my imagination) but my estimated browsing time of an hour easily ran over another 40 minutes and could have gone on well beyond that. They’ve got a ton of vinyl, CDs, box sets, DVDs (if you’re into that kind of thing) and who knows what else, in new, used, and budget divisions.

I spent most of my time with the rock and jazz vinyl and CD sections and trawled very fruitfully through the budget CD wall and “new arrival” bins. Then I spent some more time with the punk and metal sections, and marveled at the selection of box sets — including dedicated bins for out of print Mosaic boxes! That’s the kind of detail we’re talking about. But I didn’t get near the big classical section, or into the vinyl “recent arrival” bins, let alone all the understock — TONS of understock. So when you make the trip, be sure to give yourself lots of time.

Prex Mosaic Bin
The Mosaic Bin at Prex
Another thing that was interesting about the shop is that it was very busy the whole time I was there — and this was, I take it, a typical Saturday. The folks running the place were nice, and helpful, and there was a lot of upbeat talking and trawling going on in the shop. New stock streams into the racks fairly constantly. It’s a fun environment.

Aside from the ogling (and the purchase of a number of choice items), the other point of my trip was to get the skinny on the Record Store Day preparations from Jonathan Lambert, the store’s General Manager. Turns out that not only is this a big week for Prex because of Record Store Day, but they’re also kicking off a week-long 30th Anniversary celebration on Saturday. There will be live music (in Hines Plaza, a block from the store), raffles, freebies, and, of course, a huge amount of limited edition merchandise.

The raffles are pretty amazing, starting with T-shirts and gift cards, and culminating in prizes like a USB turntable and a grand prize of BOTH the Beatles stereo and mono box sets. The free raffle tickets will be available at the library concert and at the store throughout the week. There’s going to be Prex 30th anniversary stickers and even temporary tattoos too.

Prex Raffle Sign
The Raffle at Princeton Record Exchange
And then there’s Saturday’s main attraction: the over 150 limited edition titles released on Record Store Day, including 7″ singles from Elvis Costello (on Hip-O), Elvis Presley (on Legacy/Sun), John Lennon (on Capitol) and Peter Gabriel (one on Realworld b/w Stephen Merritt, the other on Jagjaguwar b/w Bon Iver), a 4 LP vinyl reissue Wilco box set from Nonesuch, and lots more. (You can check out the complete-for-now-but-still-growing list here: Record Store Day Special Releases.)

Jonathan said that he feels good about the diversity of titles and quantity of stock they’ve been receiving, and hopes that Prex will be able to meet customer demand for the limited edition items. But, considering how busy Prex is on a normal Saturday, I’d say you’ll definitely want to get there early if you have your eye on any of those special items!

Visit Princeton Record Exchange on the web: www.prex.com

The Mastering Panel at SXSW

I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the Mastering Panel I participated in at the South by Southwest festival in Austin in March. It was a great opportunity to hear some opinions on mastering from some experienced engineers. The other panel members were Bob Ludwig, Adam Ayan, and John Merchant.

I’m glad to say that it wasn’t the now-typical rant about why you shouldn’t make your mixes really loud. Rather, it was a more creative look at what a mastering engineer thinks is important about the music — what really matters when you are tying to get noticed.

Mastering Panel with Scott Hull at SXSW 2010
The Mastering Panel at SXSW 2010: (L to R) Adam Ayan, Bob Ludwig, Scott Hull and John Merchant

Bob Ludwig started the discussion with a brief history of the art of mastering, some photos and descriptions of equipment and philosophy from 30 years of experience.

Next, Adam Ayan discussed some of the mistakes artists make when preparing their music for release. He played several examples showing how an intuitive mastering engineer can extract more depth, emotion and value from a mix with a “just right” (as opposed to cookie cutter) approach.

I reinforced what Adam said, explaining that a first-class mastering engineer gets to know the producer and the artist, and is an integral part of the music creation process. An “e-mastering” approach will never achieve this. I asked the bands in the audience if their music has deeper meaning than just being “loud enough”. Of course it does! It’s important to look carefully at what’s lost when the primary focus is on competitive levels.

Then I played a few samples demonstrating that mastering can have a significant impact even on low-bit rate files. I played some 128K mp3 files of a tune with and without mastering. It was clear to me (and hopefully to the audience too) that even at these low bit-rates you still get more out of your music when it’s well mastered. For example, good tonal and instrument balances will translate regardless of the delivery format.

John Merchant, a well know mix engineer, kept us all laughing while showing us some very badly mastered examples to make the point — very graphically — that too much “mastering” is like too much hot sauce. The example he used was from Metalica’s “Death Magnetic” album. The CD version was played side-by-side with the much less compressed Guitar Hero version — showing just how ugly “loud” can get.

Unfortunately, the panel was very short considering all the opinions we could have unleashed! A lively Q & A was expected too, but time ran out before we could get to it. Hopefully we’ll get to do a panel like this again — it was a lot of fun. And I would have liked to have heard what questions independent artists might have about mastering. –Scott Hull

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Scott Hull on Cleaning Vinyl

Weather Report 8:30
Weather Report's 8:30
A few weekends ago I was at a record shop here in NYC and a remarkable thing happened: I found the exact record I was looking for. It may not seem like a big deal, but if you ever hunt in the used record bins you’ll know that it’s a pretty rare occurrence. Anyway, the record was Weather Report’s 1979 double LP “8:30”. The price was right and the condition was NM (“near-mint” for you non-nerds); the only thing was that the vinyl was smudged with some pretty nasty fingerprints.

I’ve been playing vinyl since I was a kid (with a furlough through the 90s) but I haven’t had to do any heavy-duty record cleaning myself; occasionally I’ll bring a record into a shop and pay a couple bucks to have the record cleaned on a machine. But the fingerprints looked like a fairly simple job, so I thought I’d investigate some of online manual cleaning recommendations I’ve read over the years. I’m not talking about the solution-and-microfiber-brush combo for dust and light dirt — I meant to get involved in some water and soap.

The Smudged Record
A couple of the offending smudges.
Here’s what I gleaned from some online sources. Use distilled water to clean records. Some sites get crazy talking about super-duper distilled water. But that’s not for me — it would have to be plain old once-distilled water. As far as the solvent, there are some nutty ideas out there, but the one that kept coming up and seemed the safest bet was a drop of Ivory dishwashing detergent in a lot of water. But in case you’re rolling up your sleeves, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not going to go into record cleaning techniques or particulars here — you can find lots of info about that online. What I DO want to share with you is the following.

Working at Masterdisk I’m exposed not only to lots of cool stuff, but there’s also a wealth of expert audio experience walking the halls. And who better to ask about vinyl than Scott Hull? (who is, believe me, extremely knowledgeable about how records are made, played and preserved). Here’s what he told me when I asked him about cleaning records.

“I’ve got to emphasize: use very little soap! Too much soap makes a mess, can wreck the label, and doesn’t help clean anyway. You only need a drop of non-foaming soap to create a tiny surface tension in the water. And very little water is needed. A bristle brush, like a clean toothbrush, can help with super dirty records. I’ve seen dirty old pressings improve from double cleaning. But even new records benefit from a cleaning. It probably reduces their collector value, but it improves surface noise. Test pressings are VERY dirty and must be cleaned before evaluating for surface noise.”

The VPI Control Panel
The VPI Control Panel
“Though the DIY cleaning methods do work, with a little patience and clean cloths, the most predictable and professional results come from using a VPI motorized/vacuum record cleaner.”

“Occasionally I need to make a reissue from a vinyl source because masters get lost, damaged or stolen. Sometimes it’s just that vinyl sounds better than tape that wasn’t stored properly. Anyway, when I’m making a reissue from vinyl I’ll clean and transfer multiple copies of a record. I line each pass up in a workstation, then pick the quietest copy at each location; sometimes every few milliseconds. When you find a similar click in all the pressings that’s an imperfection in the stamper.”

Since we’ve got a VPI machine in the studio, I brought in my copy of “8:30” and a few other recent smudgy finds to give them a good cleaning. The basic process is this: the record goes on the platter and a special cap is applied to the spindle to hold it in place. The “turntable” switch is then flipped to get the record rotating. Cleaning fluid is applied around the record as it spins (making sure to keep away from the label). Then, as Scott mentions in his manual cleaning instructions above, a bristly brush is applied to the record’s surface. The brush evens out the fluid, and is used for some mild scrubbing. Lastly, the machine’s vacuum attachment (think of it as a fat turntable arm with suction power along the bottom) is spun out over the record’s radius. Flipping the “vacuum” switch on the control panel activates the suction. It only takes one rotation of the record to have all the fluid removed. As you can see from the photo below, it did a fantastic job.

Where has this machine been all my life?

Wet Record
The record in the VPI. The cleaning solution has been distributed with the brush.
The Clean Record
The finished record, after the solution has been vacuumed up.
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