Randy Merrill was quoted in an article that ran on Sunday, May 9 in the New York Times by Joseph Plambeck called “In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back”. Here’s the paragraph that quotes Randy:
“Randy Merrill, an engineer at Masterdisk, a New York City company that creates master recordings, said that to achieve an overall louder sound, engineers raise the softer volumes toward peak levels. On a quality stereo system, Mr. Merrill said, the reduced volume range can leave a track sounding distorted. “Modern recording has gone overboard on the volume,” he said.”
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).
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.”
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 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.”
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.