Randy Merrill on Mastering: Analog or Digital? And Is Bigger Really Better?

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?

Photo of Randy Merrill and Carl Barc
Randy Merrill with mix engineer Carl Barc
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?

The Caveat:

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.

Conclusion:

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.

Ask the Engineer: Should I Mix as I Go or All at Once?

Masterdisk Ask the Engineer graphic

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?

Photo of Duduka Da Fonseca and Randy MerrillA: 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.

BBiB Record Store Day Listening Party Recap

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.

Photo of attendees at Beyond Beyond is Beyond listening party at Masterdisk

The party was one of a continuing series of listening parties organized by Mike Newman of the East Village Radio show and just-launched record label Beyond Beyond is Beyond. And it was a blast.

Two albums were played: Caravan’s “In the Land of Grey and Pink” in Scott Hull’s mastering suite…

Caravan album cover

…and Captain Beefheart’s “Lick My Decals Off, Baby” in Randy Merrill’s room.

Captain Beefheart album cover

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.

photo of lights by Drippy Eye Projections

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:

Photo of 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:

Alex DeTurk demonstrates the lathe

I’m pictured here with Mike and the evening’s listening selections:

Photo of Mike Newman and James Beaudreau

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:

Beyond Beyond is Beyond radio banner

Extra special thanks to Jon Meyers at The Vinyl District for hooking us up with Mike and BBiB.

Ask the Engineer: Randy Merrill on “How Loud Is Too Loud?”


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.

Photo of Randy Merrill and Tom Wopat
Tom Wopat and Randy Merrill
Q: How loud is too loud?

A: We’ve been hearing about the “loudness wars” for a long time now, but one point people don’t make is that “loud” can be done badly, and it can be done well. I’m not somebody who’s going to say that everything today is too loud. There are some great sounding albums that are loud, dense, exciting, and punchy.

The first thing to keep in mind, when you’re talking about loudness and mastering, is that the client ultimately sets the target. When I’m mastering, I’m serving the client’s vision for their project. That said, just because a client wants a loud album doesn’t mean it can’t still sound great. It can.

The first thing you need if you’re going to make something loud AND sound good is the skill to do so. That, plus effort, experience, and the ability to scrutinize your work in a finely tuned environment.

There are entirely different ways to get things loud. There are good ways and not so good ways, and are often dependent on the qualities of the actual mixes. Every approach has its caveats. I may do it differently from project to project depending on a lot of factors, like how the mixes come in; what the music is like; what kind of intensity the music needs.

But to really answer your question, it’s too loud when the music is fatiguing and unpleasant to listen to. In this case, it’s either too loud or it was done badly.

If a client wants a very uncompressed, dynamic recording then that’s the direction we go, of course. I have clients in classical, jazz, and even singer-songwriter stuff where that’s the right approach. But if my client wants their project louder, then its a matter of finding a balance. On different resolution playback systems loudness can sound either good or bad. If it sounds good on an iPod dock it doesn’t mean it’s going to sound good on an expensive hi-fi system. And the opposite can be the case too: it may sound great on the hi-fi but it doesn’t sound as impressive or alive through the dock. So you have to find a balance; the music has to sound good however it’s played.

So even if you want a loud record, you can still have a great sounding record. You and your mastering engineer will find the right balance.

Ask the Engineer: Randy Merrill on Managing the Bass In Your Jazz Mixes

Header graphic for Ask the Engineer
Ask the Engineer is a new series here on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production.

Our first “Ask the Engineer” question went to Tim Boyce. This time we had a question for Randy Merrill.

Q: In your experience, what is the most common mix or recording issue you’ve seen in jazz projects?

Photo of Randy MerrillA: Upright bass. It’s absolutely the hardest instrument to capture with any sort of even-ness in tone. It’s an enormous instrument. There’s always some range of the upright bass that’s louder than other parts. Unfortunately, the problem is usually in the lower register of the instrument, so unless the people who are mixing have a really great monitoring environment where they can hear the low end of their mixes clearly, they mix the low end entirely too hot or don’t get the low end of the instrument entirely dialed in. This can range in severity from really bad to not that noticeable. But it’s mostly due to the listening environment of the mixer.

Q: So how can that problem be avoided?

A: Try to reference your mixes on a system with a really full bass response. If you have a set of speakers in your car with a nice deep bottom end, you can bring the mix there and it will usually tell you what’s going on in the lower register — as opposed to small studio monitors. Or if you have access to large studio monitors, that’s ideal. But those are definitely not the norm these days in smaller studios where there’s just not enough space. Anyway, for those who don’t have that, and who have a decent car system, definitely reference on those for some insight onto what’s going on with the bottom end.

Your mastering engineer should be monitoring on full range monitors so that he or she will hear these problems. Sometimes a simple EQ in mastering fixes the problem. Other times the EQ to fix the bass causes another element of the mix to lose focus. Sometimes the best answer is a simple recall mix with an EQ on the bass instrument to control those ultra-low frequencies. The end result we want is a mastered mix that is balanced with power and definition.

Inda Eaton’s “Go West,” and How To Choose a Mastering Engineer

Photo of Inda Eaton in ConcertInda Eaton is a globe-trotting singer-songwriter-performer-bandleader now based in eastern Long Island. Her music has found favor with fans of rock ‘n’ roll, country, and acoustic music all over the world since she started touring behind her first album “Thin Fine Line” in 1996. Her latest album, “Go West,” was recorded by Cynthia Daniels at Monk Music Studios and mastered by Randy Merrill and is set for release on June 15, 2012. Inda took some time out of her busy pre-release schedule to fill us in on some of the details of her new project.

Hi Inda, thanks for taking some time for The Masterdisk Record. That’s a great video you have on your site on the recording of your new album [below]. I like how you’ve talked about the music as illustrating a feeling of anticipation — of something new coming up “around the bend.”

I try to be in the moment – but I can’t help but think that there’s something greater around the corner…it’s quite possibly an American thing.

You worked with (engineer and studio owner) Cynthia Daniels on “Go West” — how did you choose to work with her on this project?

Cynthia is a good friend and kick ass engineer who had just finished her state-of-the-art John Storyk studio in time to track “Go West.” Cynthia and Eve Nelson (piano/co-producer) had worked together on Chaka Khan’s ClassiKhan album and have a great working relationship. “Go West” has Cynthia’s fingerprints all over it. A great engineer cannot be overlooked: the vibe, the room, the competence. Cynthia has seen it all. We were in great hands. Beyond that – we had a great time.

How long have the songs on “Go West” been around?

“Go West” was written in three writing chunks with the last song being completed on the morning of the first day of tracking. Most of the songs had live “show life” to let them breathe. I taped every live show for the past three years to listen back for the cool stuff that only happens in the moment. I came to the conclusion that we needed to track all the songs live in a live room. There’s no substitute for musicians tracking together, looking at each other, feeling each other out and playing the energy. All of the songs were written with live, seemingly out-of-control performance energy in mind.

Cover art for Inda Eaton's Go West albumThat’s an interesting process — taping all the shows and learning from them. A very methodical way of seeking out something that’s very wild and hard to capture. Are you more methodical or spur-of-the-moment as an artist?

I’m more spur-of-the-moment improv with a great blueprint in the background. I prepare and analyze, but when on the stage – it will be what it will be. I didn’t know this when I was younger. Now I get it – it’s freeing. “Go West” is a direct result of controlled chaos.

How did you choose Randy Merrill to master “Go West?”

When I came back from mixing the tracks at Eve Nelson’s studio in LA – we needed a mastering engineer and didn’t know where to begin. The recommendations were flying around, but they didn’t fit the project. Other than sitting in on some sessions for past projects, I didn’t really know much about mastering and so I ended up charting the history of mastering since 1973 and came up with the coaching tree. I found out that many of the original mastering gurus are still working and the the history traces back to very simple roots. In an ideal world – I wanted someone from the 2nd generation of mastering engineers that I could relate to with a mutual understanding and respect for creating an album – not a collections of songs on a disk. I found Randy Merrill immediately on the Masterdisk website and then his name kept popping up on blogs/chats about mastering. From there we had a discussion about the intention of the music and our shared background of growing up with albums…I knew he was the right one. Randy knocked it out of the park. I truly believe that he is heading toward the path of mastering guru for our generation. I’m glad that I got in the door early.

I wish everybody approached finding a mastering engineer the way you did! Honestly, that’s one of the best stories I’ve heard. So what’s next on your schedule? The album release is set for June 15 — is there a tour? Promotions?

Currently we are about to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to sell pre-orders, house concerts and all kinds of value to get the promotion off the ground. Our next official date is June 15th for the release and concert out here in Amagansett at the Stephen Talkhouse. We were just out west in Wyoming for a sneak preview at the prison, schools, clubs and art council – the response was overwhelming. This summer is all about spreading the word with shows, radio, print, handshakes, hugs and barbeques. The ‘Go West’ release will be as organic as it was created. ‘Studio to Stage’…’Go West’ is all about the live interaction.


Visit Inda on the web at indaeaton.com.
Inda on Facebook: facebook.com/inda.eaton

Now Playing: “I Think of You” by Tajna Tanovic

Every once in a while, we have the privilege of working with an artist that really makes us think, “wow, she can do anything!” Such was the case when we heard one of Randy Merrill’s recent mastering projects, the self-released “I Think of You” EP by Tajna Tanović.

Photo of Tajna Tanovic
Bosnia-born Tanović began her impressive career as a youth, on Sarajevo National Radio & Television’s “Kids Cabaret,” and continued on to Germany’s Theater TAS, where she played leading roles for over a decade. 2004 brought Tajna to New York City, where she has continued performing and composing for theater, collaborated on visual art installations, performed in film, and developed her singer-songwriter career. 2011 saw the production of Tajna’s debut recording with our friends John Davis and Aaron Nevezie, at The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn.

Tajna shines on this 5-song EP, her soaring voice tugging at our hearts with vivid words and melodies over tasteful accompaniment. Enhancing this pinnacle listening experience is the musicianship of Davis and Nevezie, who perform many of the instrumental parts in addition to their roles in production, and Dave Burnett, who teases out the nuances of Tanović’s music with skillfully constructed drum parts. Although Tajna has been performing since 1990, this EP is proof that she’s just getting started. We can’t wait to see what she’ll do next!

(Photo by James Wrona.)

The Bunker Studio: Williamsburg’s Best-Kept Secret Won’t be Secret for Long

Photo of a tracking room at The Bunker.
The Bunker Studio 2.0
I stopped in at Aaron Nevezie’s and John Davis’s new-and-improved Bunker studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn earlier this month. Both Aaron and John have been sending projects to Scott Hull and Randy Merrill for mastering over the past couple years — projects which, we’ve noticed, consistently sound excellent. It was time to find out a little more about these guys — especially since they’ve just reopened their successful studio in a larger and beautifully designed space.

John and Aaron met while studying in the Jazz program at The New School in the late ’90s. Their primary instruments were bass and guitar (respectively), with engineering experience developing, as it does for so many of us, through recording themselves and their friends.

Before too long the space they were living in was accumulating gear to a degree that wasn’t conducive to normal human habitation, and eventually recording won out and the place became their first studio.

This converted basement spot in Williamsburg, where they worked for about eight years, saw The Bunker slowly aquiring experience, clientele and equipment. While at this location they recorded the track “Tighten Up” from the Grammy-winning Black Keys album Brothers. They also worked with Mike Stern, Charlie Hunter, Matisyahu, Chris Speed, James Iha, Moby, Ben Allison and many more. Label clients include Tzadik, Wind-Up and TVT.

Sometime in 2010 Aaron and John realized they might have outgrown the basement location. The way John tells it, they had some friends looking for studio space, and went along on their scouting trips to see what was out there. It was only after they saw the (now built) location on South 2nd Street that they realized that they did, in fact, need to upgrade.

Photo of the Studio A Control Room at the Bunker
The Studio A control room.
And what an upgrade it is; the new space is beautiful. I’ll let Aaron & John describe it — this is from their website.

The new space was opened in November 2011 and was designed by Rod Gervais. Studio A easily allows for live tracking of large ensembles with excellent sight lines and isolation. The huge live room with 25′ ceilings, string and rhythm rooms and iso booth each have their own unique character and provide inspiring acoustic environments in which to play.

Studio B is a great overdub and production studio with a large control room with natural light. The live room is 230sqft with 12 ft ceilings and is home to the Yamaha upright piano and is plenty big enough for tracking drums, a string quartet or anything else that doesn’t require multiple rooms.

Both studios, but especially Studio A, are aesthetically inspiring. You definitely feel like you’re in a special place — and that’s a tremendous plus when you need to focus and get creative.

Not mentioned in the description above is the control room, which also has a pleasant, inspiring atmosphere. The room features a Custom 26 channel Auditronics board (heavily modified by Joel Hamilton and Purple Audio). The sound is great — controlled, but alive.

It’s very impressive that in a time when studios are supposed to be struggling, Aaron and John have dug in to create a clearly expensive space like this. They kept the costs down by pretty much doing everything themselves. They know how many nails got hammered. And they pretty much do everything on a day-to-day basis too. From opening up in the morning, mopping the floors and paying the bills to booking the sessions, setting up the mics and pressing “record” It’s usually either John or Aaron doing it.

Photo of John Davis and Aaron Nevezie building the Bunker.
Ah, the glamour of the music biz. John Davis (left) and Aaron Nevezie in the thick of it.

Does it get to be a bit much? “Sometimes I’ll get home from a session at 10 p.m. and I’m looking forward to getting some rest when I realize that some emails have come in and I need to handle some booking. So at that moment, yeah, it can be a little tiring. But for the most part we split the work load really well between us. And at the end of the day, it’s worth it. That we have this place is amazing. And there really isn’t any other way we could pull it off.”

Aaron and John both stressed that they aim to keep the place affordable — and it is, very much so. Booking Studio A costs $750 a day, and Studio B is $450, both including engineer — really incredible, especially when you consider the kind of sound you can get, and the atmosphere you get to create in. Artists and labels clearly know what a good deal it is, because both rooms are well-booked through April.

So, don’t sleep on the new Bunker studio — we can’t recommend them enough here at Masterdisk.

MORE INFO
The Bunker Studio website: http://www.thebunkerstudio.com/
Gear list: http://www.thebunkerstudio.com/gear/
Bunker profiled at Sonic Scoop: http://www.sonicscoop.com/2012/01/25/brooklyn-2-0-the-new-bunker-studios-offers-next-level-recording-experience/

Congratulations to the Grammy Nominees!

The nominees for the 53rd Grammy Awards were announced last night in Los Angeles, and we’re thrilled to see our clients up for honors!

Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint 3, which was mastered by Tony Dawsey, is up for Best Rap Album, and two of its songs have been singled out for honors too. “Empire State of Mind” is up for Record of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and Best Rap Song. Another album track, “On to the Next One,” is up for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group and Best Rap Song. We did a brief podcast about Tony’s work on The Blueprint 3 back in June, you can listen to that here.

Laurie Anderson’s track “Flow,” from her album Homeland (mastered by Scott Hull) was nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Competing with Ms. Anderson for that award is “Orchestral Intro” from Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach album, mastered by Howie Weinberg. Can they both win, please?

Finally, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is up for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album award for Infernal Machines, (mastered by Randy Merrill) which was released on the non-profit-model record label New Amsterdam. We’re thrilled about all of the nominations, but this one is especially satisfying because New Amsterdam is a relatively small operation and it’s great to see independent work recognized. And because it’s a darn good record! We took an in-depth look at the making of “Infernal Machines” back in April. Check it out here.


Read the full list of Grammy Award nominees: http://www.grammy.com/nominees

The Making of Ike Sturm’s Jazz Mass: Interviews with Ike Sturm and Randy Merrill

Jazz Mass Album CoverIke Sturm is a bassist, composer and the Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peter’s Church (the “Jazz Church”) here in Manhattan. His remarkable Jazz Mass, a work for voices, strings and jazz ensemble, was commissioned by St. Peter’s, recorded in 2007-08 at Avatar Studios and mastered by Randy Merrill at Masterdisk . It was released in October 2009 and received a 4.5 (out of 5) rating from the venerable jazz mag Downbeat — an extraordinary achievement. Below is an interview with Ike, followed by an interview with Randy Merrill, on the subject of the making of Jazz Mass.

TMR: I assume the project began with the commission from Saint Peter’s. Is that true or do its origins go back further?

Ike: I heard a lot of film and symphonic music while growing up in a musical family and I am always reaching for ways to express the vocal and orchestral sounds that move me so much. I was asked to write a mass for Saint Peter’s, where I work as the music director for the Jazz Ministry, and I dreamt about putting all of these sounds together. I wanted to write something special, as the piece was dedicated to my friend, Pastor Dale Lind, who has served the jazz community in New York for over 40 years. I wanted the music to sound free and uninhibited by the form or religious context, hopefully offering a new and creative means of expression in worship.

As a musician/composer/musical director, when did you find the time to compose — and what tools did you use?

I remember spending many late nights at the piano during that summer, searching for harmonies and drawing melodies on sketch paper. After motives settled and emerged, I transferred them to Sibelius on my mac laptop, which helped me explore textures and counterpoint beyond the limits of my piano chops. I sent midi files to my dad, who is an amazing composer and arranger, and he opened my eyes and ears through his brilliant thoughts, questions and ideas.

How did you choose Avatar as the recording venue?

I first recorded at Avatar in 2003 as I was finishing school and was knocked out by the sound of the studio. We were there for my friend Ted Poor‘s record with Ben Monder and had the good fortune of working with engineer Aya Takemura, who ended up mixing my first record, “Spirit,” at Avatar in 2004. I knew Aya had engineered there for years and had worked with one of my favorite bassists, Dave Holland. Along with her gracious spirit, she has incredible vision and skill and I looked to her when deciding on a studio. The initial tracking involved septet with horns and rhythm, which required good eye contact, yet isolated sounds, making Avatar an ideal choice.

Ike Sturm
Ike Sturm

The recording sessions took place in November 2007, and then resumed in April 2008. What was the reason for the five-month gap?

Time flies! This was a busy time for my young family, my church work and my playing schedule. Aya and I met a number of times to carefully plan before each session, as we had very limited time in the studio and were working with a lot of musicians. I wanted to choose and prepare all of the takes before every recording date, allowing the strings and voices to be affected by the musical choices of the soloists.

What comprised the “additional tracking”?

Strings and my solo bass piece were tracked at Systems Two in Brooklyn.

Was there anything notable / challenging about the recording sessions? Looking back on them, what part of the experience stands out to you now?

The entire experience was unbelievable. I was surrounded by amazing musicians that brought joy to each session. The band had a great personal and musical dynamic and laid down most of what is heard on first takes. I remember asking Donny McCaslin to try out an unwritten section to shake things up and then hearing his masterful solo without hesitation.

Recording Session
The Recording Session

I conducted strings and choir in the sessions and I will never forget how it felt in the room when those sounds came to life. We did three passes of each take for strings and choir with the intention of triple-layering the chamber groups for large ensemble effect. As Aya had guessed, we ended up preferring the single passes without layering; 10 strings and 14 voices gave us a clear texture that could blend beautifully with the band. All I had to do was put the musicians in place and their gifts took everything to a new level.

What were your requirements when it came to the mastering stage?

Finding the delicate balance between preserving the organic, natural mixes and compressing just enough to make the recording accessible for diverse listening environments. Due to the orchestral nature of the piece, I wanted to maintain as much dynamic range as possible.

Was the mastering process difficult, or did it require any kind of special attention?

Randy, like Aya, dedicated himself fully to the project. We first met about 12 years ago at the Eastman School of Music, where Randy was working as an engineer. I think he must have absorbed a lot from that time, balancing the demands of diverse musical styles every day. He had a very intuitive sense of how to approach my music and we listened to records that excited me from a production standpoint.

We experimented with a few things that made me feel as if we left no stone left unturned. Any thoughts I had about subtle EQ or compression were met with a willingness to try it along with a helpful response. I’ll have to leave it to Randy to explain the technical side of what he did to make the mastered version so polished.

What was the mastering session like?

It was great to have our friend and guitarist Ryan Ferreira with us for the mastering session. Ryan played a huge role in the sound and shape of the project and can hear anything. I think he had a blast seeing Randy at work and the three of us exchanged ideas about the mastering. Ryan had very specific ideas about the EQ on his solo guitar track and Randy gave him the flexibility to discover exactly what he imagined as he played the piece.

When you look back at the process of creating the Mass and the recording of it, what would you say was the most challenging period?

The summer leading up to the first performance and recording was unquestionably the most challenging time. The dates approached and I was staring at empty paper, desperately trying to find sounds that could relate to the powerful text. Composing renders you completely vulnerable at times like this and it is simultaneously the most frightening and wonderful thing in the world.

An interview with Randy Merrill

Randy Merrill
Randy Merrill
TMR: How did you come to master Jazz Mass?

Randy: I did a test mastering for one of the songs. My mastering was halfway between a straight-forward jazz record and the sound of a modern pop record, and I guess it’s was what Ike was looking for.

And what were the sessions like?

Well, the album was done over two sessions, with Ike and the guitarist Ryan Ferreira attending. The first of which obviously was doing the bulk of it and then the second of which was doing revisions. It was a pretty interactive session — we were kind of all working on it. It was another overnight session. [Randy is referring to mastering Darcy James Argue’s album Infernal Machines — see this post.] At that point I was still working out of Scott [Hull]’s room in the evenings. So I didn’t start until 7 or 8 o’clock at night.

Looking at the graphic representation of the music on your screen, I can see that there’s some peak limiting in sections but the waveforms are still shapely. And you can hear that there’s a wide dynamic range.

Yeah. We found that we had to master this in sections.

Why?

Throughout the course of one piece the tone would change and we’d have to make adjustments in the mastering. So a lot of times I’ll print, say, the first part of a song, and then if I need to make an EQ move or level move or something I’ll take another pass and we’ll splice the two versions together to make the final mastering.

That’s interesting. Can you give me some examples?

Let’s say you set your EQ to sound good on one of the louder sections. Remember, instruments tend to get a little brighter when they’re played with more force. So if you center your EQ around the louder spots — making them sound good without being too bright or too aggressive or whatever — sometimes your quieter sections start to feel a little dull by comparison. So you have to trim a little low end out of it or add a little more upper end to make the lower sections speak a little bit more. Not that you’re trying to defeat the dynamics — because that still comes across — but you also want intelligibility in the quieter, more intimate sections. These are not big changes I’m talking about — they’re very slight EQ adjustments. There were also spots where we were adding reverb to different sections too because maybe the choir part was a little dry for a particular section and yet it was intended to be really full with a big room sound. That’s another reason we’d do a separate pass. And different solo instruments. You might EQ a track so it sounds great for the whole track but then you get to this one solo section and the horn doesn’t sound quite right or the bass is too big or something.

Is this common practice in mastering?

It’s useful in more dynamic kinds of music. Though in can be used in more dynamically consistent music like rock, too. Maybe a mix engineer has done some pre-limiting and a mix comes in sounding flat. Maybe the chorus doesn’t quite “hit”. You might make a little bit of an EQ change just to make it pop out more. Or at the beginning of a song the bass feels loud but when it gets to the chorus it’s perfect. You don’t want to trim the bass on the entire song, you just want to do it in the sections where it’s too much. But I’d say that it’s more the exception than the rule in rock.

It seems like it’s a technique especially suited for large ensemble jazz. It probably doesn’t happen much in classical, because you figure they do want those extreme quiets and blaring louds.

Not totally. Some of the classical stuff that I do, people want a little more of a balance. It wouldn’t be as much tweaking as you’d put into a jazz album. But there are times where classical artists want the quiet spots to speak a little bit more. It all boils down to the listening environment, and what the normal listening environment is for most people today. It’s usually not a hi-fi situation where you’re going to hear every bit of detail, and it’s usually not a quiet, isolated room where the listening is an event and an experience. In those settings, having all of those dynamics is really great because you can actually appreciate it. But if somebody’s got a CD on in their car on their way to work, they’re not going to hear the quiet spots.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a client that has wanted to leave every bit of dynamics in the recording. They usually want some kind of adjustment between quiet and loud. It’s not even that they’re competing with anything, like for radio, or being concerned about the track showing up on an iPod shuffle. They just want to be able to hear the quiet parts in their usual listening environment.


The photo of Ike and the photo of the recording session were sourced from Ike’s website. Visit for the latest news on Ike’s musical activities.