What Does Your Music Say?

Photo of woman pretending to listen to giant ship horn. Berlin, 1929.What does your music “say”?

I find it interesting to allow the music to tell me what it needs. Here are a couple ways that I do that.

I let the producer or artist describe their thoughts about their record to me. Who was it written for? How was it recorded? What are the ideals, goals and purpose in producing this music? I find that not everyone has thought this stuff through. Sometimes the purpose of making the record IS the making of the record. How the producer describes their goals will give me a lot of foundation to base my decisions on. This is really the art of the craft of mastering. Listening with an imagination. Not as often about achieving specific ideals of loud or bright, but finding out what can and should be done to help the music communicate those goals.

Instead of asking “who do you want your music to sound like,” ask “Who is your music composed for?” And “how would you like them to react to it?”

Initially, everyone wants their music to be everything, for everyone. But if the artist is experienced they can tell you why they made the music, where the emotional references come from and how the listener should relate to these emotions. Deep stuff right? But the answers to these questions lead you to a starting point that preserves the musicality of the record, and makes it stronger emotionally and justifies all of the hard work getting the recordings to this point.

There really is no shortcut for experience, but if you ask good questions you can hope to get good answers. I find that these answers put me in a state of mind — ready to listen. Turning the knobs is the easy part. Determining where to aim, where the “target” is takes a lot of thought, an open mind and careful listening. It is very easy to substitute my goals for the goals of the music. Listening carefully and asking the right questions is step one.

If you haven’t thought much about what your music is saying, try to answer these simple questions. I bet it will help you make decisions along the path of making your music.

  • Who is your ideal fan / audience?
  • How will they listen to this music? Engaged and absorbed? Or while working out? On a dancefloor? While driving?
  • Is your audience tied closely to your live performances?
  • What would your ideal fan expect you recording to sound like?
  • Do you want to surprise your audience, either with variety of subject or sound?

And on the technical side:

  • Do you really understand what happens to your music when you compete for level (loudness wars)?

If your project needs to be loud and “shout” then you really must address that issue in the composition, and in the recording and mixing stages. Mastering alone can not achieve all of that despite what the ads and equipment designers claim. Any project that was recorded with the goals clearly in mind, will almost master itself and have a much improved chance at success in the long run.

Listen to what your music is trying to “say.”

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Ask the Engineer with Scott Hull: What Happened To My Vocal?


Today we’ve got a question from a reader about how her track was affected by mastering (at another facility). Scott Hull answers.

Q: I had a song mastered and the vocals seemed to sound harsher, with a loss of ambience. Can this occur from the mastering? — Sherri

A: Sherri, thanks for your email.

The effects of mastering can be very profound, both positively and sometimes negatively. An “average” engineer might have been taught or learned to brighten the midrange and high-end even if the music doesn’t need it. As a veteran of thousands of mastering sessions, I can tell you that the hardest thing to learn was when not to “master”.

I can help you get the sound you are looking for. I will give you a free song / mix evaluation ($99 value) — for free! Just for sending us your great question.

You don’t have to compromise. The right engineer can make a world of difference.

All the best,
Scott Hull

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Scott Hull on Vinyl, Part Two

Header image for Scott Hull on Vinyl seriesHow do we listen to CDs and MP3s? We hear them in the car, while jogging, over computer speakers while we blog (as I am now, listening to yesterday’s mastering project, Dave Matthews), and from the tiny little ear buds plugged into our iPhones.

How do we listen to records? We take the record out carefully, and often we’ll clean it. We double check the tone arm balance and anti-skate, we set the first side on the platter, cue the tone arm and sit back and listen,often playing an entire side, maybe even with our eyes shut.

Columbia Phonograph advertisement, Public DomainIt’s no wonder we have a different relationship with our records than we do with our CDs and computer files. The format engages us on many levels. Records have to be stored and handled carefully or the experience is lost. We’re rewarded with better sound when we spend a little extra time with an anti-stat gun or a record cleaner. The playback sounds nearly the same as it did years ago when we fell in love with music. And I haven’t even mentioned the larger graphics and interesting packaging.

So, I guess I am preaching to the choir, right? All of you understand why you are vinyl junkies. You can justify spending hundreds of dollars on a turntable and pre-amp since it helps you love the music even more. That really is wonderful and I hope all of you have had that experience.

We’ve all heard that the younger generation has rediscovered vinyl. I had a client in my room the other day who told me a story about a young man’s vinyl conversion. A son of a friend of this man was a huge Bob Dylan fan. In fact he believed that he possessed every single downloadable Dylan recording and was very proud of the history and folklore, which he knew by rote.

One day my client invited this friend and his son over to hear his very expensive and detailed record playback system. They left the room for a few minutes to talk, as the son was absorbed in listening to a familiar Dylan record. When they returned they saw he had been crying. And he told them that he had never really heard the album before. It was like everything he knew about Bob Dylan was only on the surface. He had heard the songs a hundred times before, but played back on vinyl it was mind blowing.

Next week I’ll get into the geometry of the record groove. It’s deep!

(Read all of the “Scott Hull on Vinyl” articles here.)

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Scott Hull on Vinyl, Part One

Header image for Scott Hull on Vinyl seriesMy name is Scott Hull — I’m the owner of Masterdisk studios in NYC. I’ve been mastering records and cutting lacquers since the early 80s.

In advance of Record Store Day 2013 I will bring you a series of articles just about vinyl. A new one every week until RSD on Saturday, April 20, 2013. I hope you find them to be a fun and informative look at many different aspects of making and enjoying records. We are going to talk about vinyl from all angles: technical, musical and historical. This behind-the scenes-blog will help you understand what goes into making exceptionally good sounding records.

Vinyl Basics

Let’s talk about some basic equipment. The most important piece of audio equipment in my disk cutting room is my ears. Because every single decision I make is based on what I’m hearing, and how that relates to thousands of other records I’ve heard and mastered. Gearheads might be a little disappointed with that statement, but musicians can probably relate.

Turning a recording into a record is very straightforward process. Back in the 40s, there were portable recording rigs that had a microphone and a platter that cut “field recordings” into plastic discs. The machine was marvelously simple. The microphone signal was electrically amplified and caused a cutter head coil to vibrate while it carved through the plastic. The disc was about the size of a 7″ single and played at 78 rpm.

I have one of these discs — it’s a recording of my grandmother and her six young sons outside a grocery store in Tippecanoe, Ohio. The interviewer was selling bread, and asked my grandmother what bread she liked best. Then each son said a Sunday School verse he had memorized. It must have seemed like magic to hear their voices played back on a record. I remember hearing this at a very young age, and marveled at the recording of my father as a 9 year old.

Postcard image of a SoundScriber
The SoundScriber (postcard from The Blog About the Postcards).

Many of these disks were recorded at home and sent overseas to servicemen in war zones. And many came the other way too — carrying the real live voice of their son or husband serving far away.

So, why bring up an obscure dictaphone technology from fifty years ago? I think it’s best to first think of making a record as a very simple process. A process that becomes more complicated as we try to make the recordings better, and longer, and quieter.

When you’re cutting a record, you start with a recording on analog tape, or as a digital file. This recording is converted to an analog voltage, amplified and sent to the cutting head on a lathe. The cutting head is very much like a speaker. When the signal comes into the voice coil, it causes the “speaker” section to vibrate. The Voice coil is attached to a cantilevered shaft and causes a small sapphire needle to wiggle. Each wiggle—left and right and up and down—is analogous to the audio signal being fed in. This sapphire stylus is allowed to contact the surface of a soft lacquer disk and the squiggles are preserved in the plastic. It’s magic.

The reproduction of the signal is just the reverse process—except that the cutter head is designed to dig a small trench in the vinyl, and the playback cartridge is much more delicate and meant to ride along in the groove without damaging it. As the playback stylus rides through the groove, the microscopic squiggles move a coil and the voltage is faithfully reproduced, amplified and routed to speakers for listening.

Next week I’ll take a step back from the technical view and discuss the experience of playing a vinyl record. Over the course of the next few months—leading up to Record Store Day 2013—I hope to touch on many different aspects of the art and science of vinyl. I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.

(Read all of the “Scott Hull on Vinyl” articles here.)

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Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange wins Grammy

Congratulations to Frank Ocean and Island Def Jam for winning the Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy for “channel ORANGE!”

Special thanks and congratulations to Karen Kwak and Scott Marcus at Island Def Jam.

“channel ORANGE” was mastered at Masterdisk by Vlado Meller with Mark Santangelo assisting.

Photo of Frank Ocean and Vlado Meller at the mastering session for Channel Orange
Frank Ocean and Vlado Meller at the mastering session for Channel Orange

Scott Hull at NAMM 2013

Back in NYC — I sure didn’t miss the weather. But the sad part was it was sucky LA weather too for the 2013 NAMM show. Now I have to admit — this was my first NAMM show and so I may make it sound a little unbelievable. But it WAS!

If your life has to do with music — then there were a bunch of people there you needed to meet. Guitars — sure, tens of thousands — but how about a bass ukelele with plastic strings and pickups being played in a prog rock fusion band? Trust me, it didn’t sound anything like a uke.

There were spectacles and impressive chops everywhere.

Photo of guitars at NAMM by Christopher Schirner

So what’s new? Everything! The music business is doing great. Everyone is full of enthusiasm and energy. New products were all over the place. Mics, pedals, amps, lights, software, brass, pianos, strings, you name it — I was blown away.

The attendance was off the charts — four giant halls, up stairs and down, demo rooms in all the neighboring hotels. And my feet complained about the schedule.

My top picks? Well, advancements at Avid and Universal Audio drew big crowds and had everyone’s attention. There was high tech and low tech. I met Bob Elliot, the guy who invented the Guitar Dock. Every guitarist and studio owner needs at least 5 of these nifty guitar neck holders to prevent drops in the studio and on stage. It mounts to anything! Hi tech wireless and DSP-controlled everything. You want fries with that?

Us pro audio/record industry folks have been prone to singing the same song recently… The good ol’ days of pro audio… When the work was lined up around the block… Budgets were bigger… More records we’re made… But something clicked for me. Its a mad mad mad mad music world out there and there are tons of things to be excited about — new opportunities — new tech — old tech — 192k 64 bit and vacuum tube ‘phone preamps… Pick your passion and go for it!

But the artists themselves became the show on Saturday. Impromptu jams in every isle. An electric bass soloist at a bass guitar booth had 50 people stopped in their tracks — with iPhones recording… Stevie Wonder was spotted… Trumpet wizards showing off what they could do in the brass isle… And a Mexican trumpet band a la Herb Alpert serenaded a birthday celebration in the Selmer/Bach booth with a hundred onlookers.

Way too much to see and HEAR. Exhausting… Next year I’ll have a plan… And maybe a Hoveround.

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