We’re pleased to announce the launch of a new Masterdisk website! New pages and features will be added in the days and weeks ahead, but for now the heart of the website is the engineer profile pages, including selected discographies that allow for listening on Spotify, or linking to iTunes. We hope you enjoy it.
Mastering can make a huge difference in the translation, emotional impact, appeal, and competitiveness of your music. Unfortunately, some people just look it as an obligatory expense between the mixing and manufacturing/distribution stages of a music release. But it’s more accurate to think of it as the equivalent of the photo retoucher for a magazine or the color correctionist for movies, both of whom work to create maximum appeal and translatability for their respective art forms.
So, before going into the mastering stage of your project, one question you should ask yourself is this: besides experience, does my mastering engineer have the tools necessary to properly work on my recording? This one question can raise further, more specific technical questions…
Analog, digital, or both?
Some people insist that for mastering, analog processing is superior to digital, while others use entirely digital or in-the-box solutions. I believe that having multiple options is best. Auditioning multiple methods can reveal the best way to maximize the music’s impact and appeal. Limiting yourself to a particular way of working can potentially cut off an option that would have made your music sound that much better. Therefore, in my opinion, your ideal mastering engineer should be equipped with an array of analog, digital, and plug-in options.
Is bigger really better?
The monitoring system of the mastering studio is the single most important piece of equipment in it. Bigger loudspeakers generally mean wider, fuller frequency response, and are capable of reproducing sounds that are lower and higher in frequency more accurately than smaller loudspeakers can. This enables the engineer to really know what is going on everywhere across the sonic spectrum. The same goes for room size. Generally the bigger the room, the lower the frequency that can be acoustically supported and therefore heard. Mastering on smaller loudspeakers or in smaller rooms means that there could be problems that you won’t be able to hear; problems that could be revealed down the line when the music is played in other listening environments. Why not be sure of this by choosing a mastering studio with true full range monitoring and adequate room size?
Bigger, however, both in terms of loudspeakers and room size, naturally comes at a price. The same applies for having an array of analog and digital gear and software plug-ins. Working with an engineer who is equipped in these areas is probably going to cost a little more, but it increases your chance of having a better record. Considering we’re talking about your music, the extra expense should be worth it.
Some things to watch out for:
You see a lot of engineers and studios online advertising mastering services, but the studio shots show a mixing console. Does a mixing console have a place in a mastering studio? No, not really. Most mastering studios will have a stereo or multi-channel surround transfer console which integrates outboard EQ’s, compressors, etc. However, the mastering console is not the same as a mixing console which has faders, EQ, dynamics, aux sends/returns, etc. Though they have similarities, each is equipped with functions suited for their respective tasks. If your engineer is showing a mix console in his studio pics, he’s not primarily a mastering engineer.
A mastering engineer is someone dedicated specifically to the craft of mastering, and does it day-in and day-out. Hybrid studios that offer multiple services can generate good work, but a dedicated, professional mastering engineer is going to bring something extra to the table.
Everyone is working on a budget these days, which is why making informed decisions is of utmost importance. If you go with someone who provides a cheap service, chances are you’ll get sub-par results. You know, you get what you pay for. Cheap might be the way to go when it comes to car insurance, but when it comes to mastering, don’t sell yourself short.
So glad to see French Montana’s album “Excuse My French” (Bad Boy/Interscope) at the top of the Billboard “Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart this week! Congratulations to French Montana, Bad Boy, and to Mastering Engineer Tony Dawsey and Assistant Mastering Engineer Tim Boyce. Great to see you at the top of charts where you belong, Tony!
All About Deadwax and the Origins of the Independent Mastering Studio
Record Store Day may be past, but the vinyl keeps spinning. Welcome back for a “bonus round” of vinyl trivia! It’s time to talk about “deadwax.”
If you look at your records very closely you will see a variety of symbols cut into the lead-out or terminal groove. This area of the record is nicknamed the “deadwax.” The numbers in the deadwax go by a lot of different names. These are the main ones:
The Scribe Number: the cutting engineer uses a sharp pointed tool to cut the numbers and letters into the lacquer.
The Matrix Number: essentially a “part” number. It’s called “matrix” because the metal parts that are made at the plating plant are referred to as a matrix. It’s an older term from the molding industry.
The Catalog Number: reflecting the record label’s catalog system.
Other marks and symbols are sometimes in the lead out area of the disk. The technical ones can tell you a little something about the quality of the pressing. But to understand their significance you need to know a little more about the history of the mastering process.
In the 50’s and 60’s, lacquers cut for a major label project were cut by a technician. Literally he was a white-coat lab tech. They might not have known much about the music (of course some would have known more than others) but they weren’t there to change anything. Their job was to take the tape and cut it on the masterlacquer disk. Hence “mastering.”
If there was a technical problem, like the record skipped or distorted too much, they would either turn the level down or apply a filter to the highs or lows to allow the disk to be cut. Also during this early vinyl age, when an artist and producer went into the studio to record a song they could only hear the master when it was played in the studio. No one privately owned master playback decks — they were as large as a washing machine. A few people had low-speed 1/4″ analog tape decks at home, but for the most part they could only listen to their work when it was cut onto a lacquer.
Most recording studios and all labels had a mastering room. In the mastering room tapes from that day’s sessions would be transferred to record. These weren’t for mass production — they were take-home references. That was how the producer could listen to the final mix outside of the studio. That’s also how the label would hear the record. And the mastering engineers in these rooms, most of them anyway, were not known for taking extra care with these “dubs.” They were just like cassette copies, made so that the music could be more portable. Occasionally you will find some of these in the collectors market. They are often called acetates (though they stopped making them from acetate years prior).
But as the music business evolved an interesting thing happened. People began to notice that records cut by certain mastering engineers not only sounded better, but they were less likely to skip. And — most importantly — they SOLD more copies. So now not only did you need a great song, producer, band and studio, you needed a killer recording and mix engineer and the right mastering engineer, too.
This was truly the golden age of mastering. I got to see the last 10-12 years of it and it was remarkable. Independent mastering studios popped up in every major music market. And even though the major labels all had their own mastering studios and engineers, they would always send their important projects to Masterdisk, or Sterling Sound (both in NY), Kendun or The Mastering Lab (in LA) or other notable houses in Nashville, London, etc. Forgive me because I am leaving a lot of names out, but you get the idea that this new independent mastering business was off and running.
Some labels devoted enough resources to their engineering departments to make high quality cuts. CBS, A&M, Capitol, Atlantic and others had great engineers and some of the best equipment, but their livelihood rarely depended on being the BEST. Whereas the independent mastering engineer was constantly in competition for any new release. There even used to be “shoot-outs” (and still are, often). A record company or producer would make a few copies of the master tape and send one song to different mastering studios. When the different lacquers came back, they would then compare the results, and only one engineer would win the job. It wasn’t about price: they were looking for the sound.
Artists and producers would come from all over the globe to work with their favorite mastering engineer. My mentor, Bob Ludwig, had a very consistent relationship with Hugh Padgham from the UK. Hugh produced many wonderful recordings, but the projects I remember best records by The Police, Genesis, Sting and Phil Collins. The production team would finish their mixes in England and that night would fly “across the pond” on the Concorde. They would master their record with Bob that day, and that night, with reference disks in hand, they would return on the Concorde. Wow. And it had to be perfect.
Today’s “Ask the Engineer” question goes to mastering engineer Randy Merrill.
Randy Merrill joined Scott Hull Mastering in early 2006 as Scott’s production engineer. Shortly thereafter he started building his own mastering clientele, and today he’s a staff engineer at Masterdisk. Randy’s approach is to be as attuned to his clients’ aesthetic and practical goals as possible. He goes the extra mile to make sure the finished product reflects how you want your music to sound. Randy’s credits include Bruce Hornsby, Bill McHenry, Tom Wopat, 3 Cohens, Perez Hilton, Darcy James Argue, Paul Jacobs (Naxos) and Chantal Claret.
Q: I’m recording my album over a span of about a year. Should I mix tracks as I go along or have them all mixed at the end?
A: It’s best when a project is mixed in a somewhat short time span. Things like relative level between instruments tends to suffer when songs are mixed apart from each other. Sometimes the vocal can be set “in” the mix on one song, and “on top” in another song, depending on what the engineer feels that day. Other considerations include how the drums sit in the mix, and how the bass sits. If there’s a lot of variation from track to track it can cause an album to feel disjointed.
Q: How much can mastering do to “tie” the different mixes together?
A: It can do a fair amount, but not as much as can be done in the mixing. Relative vocal levels can be approximated somewhat; same for bass. If one vocal is really “in” the track and another is upfront, it’s tough to get the two to sit similarly. Likewise with the drums: if they’re in a different place from song to song, it’s hard to get them to match.
If your project can’t be mixed in a short span for whatever reason, the previous mixes should be reviewed while the new ones are being done. This will help with the overall consistency of the album.
Photo: Randy Merrill (right) with Duduka Da Fonseca.
Hope you all had a great Record Store Day this year! We closed our favorite holiday out in style, with a listening party for about 30 new friends here at Masterdisk.
Two albums were played: Caravan’s “In the Land of Grey and Pink” in Scott Hull’s mastering suite…
…and Captain Beefheart’s “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” in Randy Merrill’s room.
We split up into two groups — 15 went to Scott’s room for some Caravan, and 15 to Randy’s for the Captain. Everybody got comfortable and the albums were played — both sides. And here’s the best part: no talking until the needle hits the side 2 runoff groove! It was a pretty fantastic experience to listen to both these records, on great sound systems, in a room full of quietly listening music fans. When the first listening session was done we all took a break before switching rooms to hear the other record.
Lights were provided by Curtis Godino and Chaz Lord of Drippy Eye Projections. The photo below is Randy’s room during one of the Beefheart playbacks.
Beverages were provided by our pals down the block (10th Avenue and 45th Street) at The Pony Bar.
We wanted something special for Randy’s room, so we talked to our friends at the downtown NYC hi-fi and record shop In Living Stereo and they graciously let us borrow a Rega RP1. Check out the In Living Stereo showroom:
I know. I want to live there too.
Expert cutting engineer Alex DeTurk did a show-and-tell in the lathe room before the needle dropped:
I’m pictured here with Mike and the evening’s listening selections:
We didn’t advertise the event very much beforehand because space was limited and the spots filled up very fast. The Listening Party will continue though, and maybe even at Masterdisk again. So definitely keep an eye (ear?) on Mike’s radio show (and check out his label too!). You can listen to archived shows here:
Extra special thanks to Jon Meyers at The Vinyl District for hooking us up with Mike and BBiB.
It’s Record Store Day! Hopefully you’ll find the list below “better late than never”. These are the RSD titles that were cut at Masterdisk. As you’ll see, some of them were mastered at the excellent Airshow, Kitchen and Welcome to 1979 studios, and sent to us for cutting. We often partner with other mastering studios in this way. I hope you find something below to seek out and add to your collection!
Artist,Title,Label,Cutting Engineer,Mastering Studio,Format
Big Mama Thornton,Jail,Vanguard,AlexDeTurk,Airshow,LP
Brendan Benson,Diamond,Readymade,Alex DeTurk,Welcome To 1979,7″
Buddy Guy,Hold That Plane,Vanguard,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Country Joe and the Fish,Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die,Vanguard,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson,Rattlin Bones,Sugar Hill,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
The dB’s,Revolution of the Mind,Orange Sound,Andy VanDette,Kitchen Mastering,LP
Various Artists,Blues at Newport 1963,Vanguard,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Various Artists,Newport Folk Festival,Vanguard,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Willie Nelson,Crazy: The Demo Sessions,Sugar Hill,Alex DeTurk,Airshow,LP
Dave Matthews Band,Live Trax Vol 1 Box,Bama Rags Recordings,Scott Hull & Alex DeTurk,Masterdisk,4xLP
Free Energy,Girls Want Rock b/w Wild Life,Free Energy,Jeremy Lubsey,Masterdisk,7″
The Atlas Moth/Wolvhammer,split 7″,Init,Jeremy Lubsey,Masterdisk,7″
Tift Merrit,Markings,Yep Roc,Andy VanDette,Kitchen Mastering,12″
How many grooves are there on a typical record?
The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) set all the parameters for the dimensions of the modern vinyl record. The parameters needed to be made consistent so that player functions would all work. So, as a mastering engineer, I need to know that the final locked groove on an LP (33 1/3 rpm) must be at a diameter of 3.875″ (give or take 1/32″). And lots of other details. (See the disk diameter chart from the RIAA, below.) Lets look at the parts of the disk surface.
The Safety Groove
The outermost grove is automatically cut a little deeper and wider than standard, and its purpose is to catch the needle if it’s manually placed on the record too near the outer edge. If you let the cartridge bounce off your turntable it will almost always cause some damage to the delicate stylus/cartridge.
The Lead-In Area
The lathe carriage — the part of the cutting lathe that moves the cutting head across the surface of the disk — moves at a fast rate in the lead in. There is some blank area there on the disk that must not have audio recorded. The reason for this is that automatic record changes would not always drop the needle precisely. The grooves in the lead-in and the safety groove did their best to keep the needle on the record.
The lathe carriage, driven by the lead screw, then slows down to standard pitch for about 3 seconds. Then and only then is audio supposed to begin. From this point on, the pitch of the grooves (how far apart they are) is controlled by the computer in the lathe. The pitch drive computer listens to a preview audio signal that comes 1.8 seconds before the audio. It’s that far ahead because that is about how long it takes the record to make one revolution at its outermost diameter. Between songs we press a “spiral” button which advances the carriage quickly for just a moment. This creates the visual band between the songs so you can see where to place the needle.
This part gets pretty technical…
Lets look at the process of cutting the groove in the first band of an album. And let’s assume for simplicity that the grooves of the left channel face towards the center of the record and the grooves of the right channel face the outer edge of the record. A modulation on the left channel moves the groove into the “virgin” area of the disk that has yet to be cut, while a modulation on the right channel moves the groove into the part of the disk that has already been cut. So to keep the grooves from colliding, the computer has to calculate how it has to turn the lead screw to avoid cutting over a previously cut groove. This happens very fast, and it’s hard to see with the naked eye, but we can monitor the progress of the groove by watching a meter on the front of the lathe. It’s calibrated in Lines Per Inch (lpi) (see photo below).
This, logically, is the number of grooves (lines) that are cut in an inch of the lateral record surface. The computer then has to store the left channel information into memory, and add that to the right channel information that is coming up on the next revolution. You see, the collision that has to be avoided is between the left channel of the first grove and the right channel of the second groove. If you make a little drawing of a disk and a squiggly groove you will see what I mean. In real time, the lead screw motor has to turn fast enough so that when the next groove comes around there is enough room to cut the groove and still leave a tiny bit of “land” between the grooves.
Level and Duration
Very early lacquer lathes cut at a fixed pitch. There was no computer control. With these lathes it was virtually impossible to cut a 20 minute side of pop music with a reasonable level. It took the variable pitch lathe to cut a better sounding record — as long as you didn’t let the grooves collide.
We align our cutting system with a basic geometry assumption. We adjust the cutting parameters so that a 2 millimeter-wide groove cut with 600 lines per inch should produce no land or open space between the grooves. From that baseline, any audio that is present causes the groove to wiggle and requires that the pitch be lower than 600 lpi. Does this make sense? Ok… More music = fewer lines per inch. So the louder the music the less space to record the audio. There is a direct relationship between level and duration.
A couple other factors cause us to increase the space between the grooves. If we have audio that causes a very challenging groove to be cut, we may need to momentarily increase the land between the grooves (thus lowering the lpi) to give the grooves a little extra space. This is only for insurance, but a good practice when it’s possible. Also there is a peculiar effect when cutting into lacquer. The disk is rather soft, and it’s being cut buy a heated stylus. But what happens after the groove is cut is what is interesting. Being a “plastic” substance, the lacquer partially springs back to it original shape after being cut. Not entirely, of course, but enough to cause the neighboring grooves to be affected. This “spring back” or elasticity can cause audio to “ghost” into neighboring grooves. This is referred to as groove pre-echo and it very hard to deal with when there are soft passages followed by very loud sounds or visa versa. The loud sound can be heard one full revolution before or after the audio actually happens. Sometimes even both. Many of you have probably heard this and probably wondered why echo would have been added in the production. It wasn’t added in the production studio. This groove echo was caused by the disk cutting process itself. To avoid groove pre echo we open up the spacing of the grooves right before any sudden loud passage and right after any loud passage that stops suddenly.
Analog Tape Print Through
There is one more complication. Analog tape recording has a similar effect called print through. This isn’t due to the tapes elasticity, but it’s due to the magnetic properties of the tape. One layer of magnetic tape laying against another layer of tape tends to give off a small portion of its magnetism to its neighbor. The louder sound will “travel” up and down the packed reel of tape. This effect gets worse with age. The longer the layers are sandwiched together the more of the energy is transferred. Fortunately for records, once that master lacquer is plated in the pressing plant, no more echo can happen.
As for the question at the top of this post: as it turns out there are TWO grooves on any record. One on each side. And if you stretched one of them out it would be 1600 feet or about 1/3 of a mile long.
Scott chats with master cutting engineer, Tony Dawsey.
This week I’d like you to hear from one of my master cutting engineers, Tony Dawsey. Tony, like myself, started mastering before there was digital recording of any kind. Well, we’re not that old. But at that time, everything we did was focused on producing the highest quality vinyl records imaginable.
I sat down with Tony and asked him a few questions about vinyl, and about his experience as a cutting engineer. Here’s a couple of short excerpts; I hope you’ll enjoy listening to the full interview below.
What lessons from the early days still stick with you today?
Good isn’t good enough when it comes to perfecting your craft. That’s equalizing somebody’s project or cutting it. A lot of things can go wrong in cutting and you want to make sure none of that happens. You don’t want to cut a 25 minute side with a worn stylus. That’s not cool.
What was your path to cutting your first record?
Well the shipping room was right next to Bill Kipper’s studio, so in between my responsibilities early on, I’d drift in there with him and just watch him. He did a lot of classical music as well as other things. He ended up showing me how to cut vinyl.
This week, a behind-the-scenes look at some of the challenges of producing good vinyl reissues, particularly remastered-from-vinyl releases.
Hey, where did my master recordings go?
Lets look at vinyl from a different angle. Let’s say you made a record in the 70′s or 80′s. You had pretty good success with the record. It might not have been a “top ten” but the fans loved it. Then in the 90′s your record label folded or was sold. Now today your exclusive deal with the label has expired, and maybe even the rights to the songs are back in your hands, and you want to put that old vinyl back into production. Except who has the masters? The original two-track master tapes. They should have been handed over to you, right? But you call and meet and ask around and no one really knows what happened to them. A few are found in a vault that has nothing to do with your old label, but by and large your original recordings are lost.
This isn’t fiction. This happens every day. During the “digital reissue” days master tapes were taken from the libraries, some orphaned at mastering studios, some taken by producers, others destroyed. They should have been returned to the label, but truthfully, few labels dedicated resources to keeping close track of their own masters. This sounds outrageous, but as labels dissolved and sub labels merged and staffs got trimmed, often there was no one left that truly cared about the music. I’m not saying this was all of the major labels, as there are several notable exceptions still working their back catalog with great care.
So what does the band do? They almost certainly hate the way their CD sounds. Unless it was expertly re-mastered with care it’s either going to sound thin or scratchy-bright, or it was made so much louder to “compete” with recently produced CDs that it’s almost unlistenable.
Sometimes a producer or artist will find a DAT recording that was made at the same time as the mixes, but most times it was made with poor quality A/D converters or it might not include all of the main mixes. If the band doesn’t give up entirely, then they start looking at their vinyl collection and think, “well these pressings sound pretty damn good… why can’t we use these to make our reissue?” And to be honest, if you’re careful, this approach works quite well.
First you have to decide if your fans are in love with the vintage vinyl sonically. If you think they are, then you might just hit a home run by re-doing your vinyl so it sounds exactly like the mint pressings. You can then decide if the digital audience would like to have it presented in a more modern sounding format for streaming and download.
But there’s quite a lot to getting a really great transfer from a piece of vinyl. As I mentioned earlier in this series, the cartridge has to be set up just so, and the playback curve correct, and the alignment of the phono preamp through the analog chain. The record also has to be ultra clean. If your record is mint and really clean then you’re almost there. Ideally, you have more than one copy of mint original vinyl, so you can transfer multiple pressings. This is so that if you have a “pop” issue or a noisy groove on one of the pressings, you can select the best disk to use for each track. I’ll often switch between copies multiple times within a track to get the best sound. Now, before you cry foul, remember we have the original pressing as a guide. This was exactly what the producer wanted the record to sound like. And if I can give the consumer exactly that same music with a better noise floor – not taking away any of the feel, groove, air, or warmth, then why shouldn’t I do it?
Once I have a high-resolution digital file that sounds like the vinyl, I can start cleaning any remaining clicks and pops. There are several tools for doing this. Some work better than others. To avoid choosing sides, I’ll just say that the one I use is the best. But again, the goal is not perfection. The goal is to make a pressing that sounds just like the original pressing. It’s my opinion that the original pressings will still be valuable collectors items, but with a reissue of this kind, the general fans can enjoy the sound of the vinyl. Even many collectors might enjoy having a “service copy” of a favorite record. This way they can maintain their collection and still play the record for friends and family.
In a Perfect World
Making a re-issue vinyl from the original analog masters is one of the most fun things you can do with non-adhesive tape. When the original sources are first played they sound “like a record.” Right out of the box, you can hear what went into making the original vinyl. My point is that 20 years ago or more, the mastering process was about getting as much of the original master’s sound onto the vinyl as possible. Mastering was more of a craft and less about “post-production.” Mastering now for CD or vinyl often involves extensive editing, complex fades, mixing in auxiliary elements and sometimes even mixing.
Vinyl cut from original analog masters just sounds right. The two were made for each other – literally. And the compression and smoothness from analog tape – when it’s not recorded too hot – makes all of the technical issues of cutting less of a concern. If you ever get a chance to listen to a favorite recording played directly off of the original masters you will be shocked at how wonderful it sounds. Everything that is good about vinyl is realized on the original masters. If you have any – guard them, catalog them, document them and store them safely. No digital archive format will sound exactly like them.
From CD Back to Vinyl
I have been asked on many occasions to take the CD master files and transfer them to vinyl. You might be able to sense me wincing through your screen. Doing this creates lots of issues for me. Technically, a hyper-compressed CD master will have to be lowered in level to accurately track on a record. Now let me explain, it’s not that the CD is such a low quality format. The issue is that the well known CD level wars have left us with a tiny dynamic range, drastically limited bass range and high frequency hash that is very hard to cut without distortion.
But what if our “heritage” band didn’t make vinyl, but only CDs in the 80s. And like our 70′s band they didn’t keep track of their masters. This happens all the time now that digital files and production techniques vary so much. Only the most responsible producers made backup copies of the original masters. And many of the digital formats of the 80′s are disappearing. We may be forced to take the existing CD master and try to make it sound whole again. Sometimes this can be done, but there are no magic tricks. Just hard work with EQ’s and manual level control to mimic what the dynamics might have been before brick-wall limiting. We never get it all back, but with lots of patience we can often find a much warmer, rich, organic feel by carefully processing the digital masters. The craft in this is making it rich with out being muddy, warm without being dull, and to somehow simulate the sense of space that was in the original. Sometimes I have rough mixes or outtakes to compare to. Sometimes it’s just my imagination. But if the mastering was done expertly, it will sound like I was never even there.
Thanks for reading. I hope you are enjoying reading these as much as I’m enjoying writing them.