La Plebe is one of the pillars of the bilingual community in the Bay Area. Their most recent album, “Brazo en Brazo” (“Arm in Arm”) was released on Koolarrow Records in 2010 on CD and vinyl, and mastered by Matt Agoglia.
La Plebe was formed in 2001, “among friends who liked to listen to music, drink beer and smoke things,” says trumpeter Antonio Cuellar, in an interview in AMP Magazine (American Music Press).
The interesting thing for me is the music, the angst-y-ness of it, the horn-driven lines, and it’s easy to imagine a mosh-pit with this music; Mick Jones of The Clash even appeared on stage at a concert in London in 2008 to sing “Guns of Brixton.” What could be better?
Their songs also have a social awareness aspect with titles like “Siempre Unidos,” (Always Together) “Guerra Sucia” (Dirty War) and “Venas Abiertas” (Open Veins). And then there’s the song “Been Drinkin'” which speaks for itself. Because these guys have experienced discrimination in their lives, they champion the cause of La Raza against ICE raids in the Bay Area and around the country, and they also have something to say about border politics around the world. With the influence of their producer Billy Gould, a lasting member of Faith No More, who has traveled extensively in the Balkans, the union of musical influences is actually electrifying (no pun intended).
Cuellar says that “the fact that we have the ability to express ourselves in two languages… has definitely allowed us to reach a wider audience. However, I will also say that we have often played in places where the spoken language was neither Spanish nor English and still received a gracious response from the locals at the show. So hopefully, it is the international language of music, along with our deep love and appreciation for what it means to be part of a group, that makes us stand out.”
La Plebe seem to really enjoy what they do, and this is a good parameter for success in my book. Cuellar says he especially enjoys playing in small towns in California, such as Chico, Oxnard, Watsonville and Salinas, and some of his favorite cities around the world include Mexico City, Belgrade, Berlin, Skopje (Macedonia), Pozega (Croatia), Bucharest (Romania) Sofia (Bulgaria) and the area of Brittany in France.
The band’s writing process is an exchange of melodies, riffs, rhythms and lyrics thrown around between members.They never know if the song will be in English or Spanish until they write the lyrics; and they’ve even attempted to write lyrics in Italian.
Tips for other bands now trying to survive and thrive? Cuellar says “work hard and try your best to be earnest in what you do. Don’t take gestures of kindness for granted and don’t encourage any feelings of entitlement. Mix all that with a few parts vodka and make sure that you all stay alive on tour. That should be a good start, or continuation, for any functioning band.”
Around the same time that Vlado Meller and Mark Santangelo came on board the Masterdisk roster in September 2011, another mastering engineer — perhaps more low-key but no less impressive — joined the team: Ellen Fitton.
Ellen has worked for some of the top studios in the New York area: Right Track, Atlantic, The Hit Factory, Sony Music Studios and most recently, Universal Mastering Studios-East. She learned so much about engineering in her early days at Atlantic Studios, working with legendary producer Arif Mardin, and his long time engineer Michael O’Reilly. Years later she would continue to refine her skills recording classical music, working with the late Bud Graham, and producers Steve Epstein and David Frost.
In her last position at Universal, Ellen’s main focus was the restoration of the famed Motown catalog. Her work on The Complete Motown Singles box set series gave her the rare opportunity to remaster every (yes every) A and B side ever released on the Motown label, from its beginnings in 1959, through its heyday, and ending with the hits of 1972. This work, which was released on the Hip-O Select label, won her a MOJO award in 2007. Ellen was also nominated for a Grammy for her work on Sony’s 100 Years Soundtrack for a Century box set.
I sat down with Ellen and asked her about her experience with Motown.
JB: Thanks for taking a moment to discuss your work on the Motown catalog. If you don’t mind, I’ll get right down to it: the sources! What did you use for these archival releases?
EF: The goal was always to get as close to the original master as possible: the original 2 track or mono masters. If they weren’t available — or if the master was damaged or missing, we’d use whatever the next best source was. But I had the original masters for most songs.
JB: And what was the condition of the tapes?
EF: They used Scotch tape, so overall they held up well. Though there were some years that fared better than others — primarily due to how much action the tapes saw. The main challenge was finding the correct master versions. Luckily I had a great team of Motown historians to work with, who understood the cataloging system of that era. Motown had an usual way of storing their masters. There wasn’t a dedicated artist on each reel like we have today — there would be many artists masters co-mingling on the same reel. Often multiple versions of a given song as well.
JB: That’s unusual!
EF: Definitely. They were very cost conscious, I think. Tape was expensive so they wanted to use every inch. When the master was done, one copy went to the plant, and another was kept in-house. These in-house masters (called DM’s for Duplicate Master) were very unusual configurations. Initially, they used a half-inch 3 track tape running at 7.5 ips. They would print on track 1 from top to bottom (different artists and songs), and then they would go back and do the same thing on tracks 2 and 3 until the reel was full. Imagine what the label on each reel looked like! I had never seen anything like this before.
In later years, when they had stereo masters, I might find a mono master on track 1, and the stereo master on 2 and 3. Often the mono track would be at 7.5 ips but the stereo tracks would be at 15 ips. All on the same reel, it was pretty crazy.
JB: Did you do a lot of processing for the CD releases?
EF: No, very little. A primarily analog chain — with Sontec EQs, minimal compression — and then we’d do a 96 kHz conversion. Sometimes I would do a little digital work, but not always. And then we’d re-capture at 44.1khz.My goal was always to stay true to “the sound” of the period, using the technology to restore it so that it could be heard through today’s equipment the way it was meant to be back then.
JB: What was it like listening to every Motown single? Are you an expert now?
EF: It was like listening to history being made, it was amazing to see the progression. And, in terms of how to handle that catalog, I guess I’m probably one of the foremost experts at this point! (laughs)
We’re having a contest over at our Facebook page! In cooperation with Mom+Pop Records and Rolling Stone “band to watch” Sleeper Agent, we’ll be giving away 5 copies of the band’s new CD “Celabrasion,” each with a numbered, hand made (and in some cases, signed) 11×17″ poster!
Sleeper Agent is a young band from Kentucky who play an ecstatic brand of rock-pop. Spin magazine called their album “Celabrasion” “a dozen deliriously catchy gems… it’s the sound of high fives and Maker’s Mark spilling from the speakers.”
Celabrasion was mastered at Masterdisk by Matthew Agoglia. In the video, Matt discusses the process of mastering the album and his approach to mastering in general.
To enter to win one of the 5 CD/poster packages, all you have to do is to name your favorite energetic rock/pop song — from any era — and the artist that recorded it in the comments on the Facebook post. We’ll choose 5 winners at random on Thursday, 11/10 at 1 p.m. (New York time). At the end of the contest I’ll create a Spotify playlist with all the song entries.
These are the posters we’re giving away:
Masterdisk Presents is a new blog series spotlighting some of the incredible artists we work with. Each episode will be a behind-the-scenes look at all the different aspects of music making in the new “Indie” music industry, focusing on the technical, creative and business decisions of the artists. We’re thrilled to celebrate these artists and we hope that you will find the insights into their motivations and methods interesting and useful.
This Masterdisk Presents post features New York-by-way-of-Philly band ZELAZOWA, whose new album Love is Lunacy was recently mastered by Matt Agoglia.
As Matt put it, “Love is Lunacy is a strong record, with great songs and performances — and it was recorded and mixed really well too. The kicker is how they have woven some of their musical influences through the record while keeping the sound fresh and exciting. It’s a record that you can listen to and discover a new layer with each spin.”
I spoke with ZELAZOWA’s lead singer and guitarist Bryan Weber, as well as recording and mix engineer Steve LaFashia, via email.
BRYAN WEBER – ZELAZOWA LEAD SINGER AND GUITARIST
Masterdisk: Hi Bryan. Give me a little background on the band.
Bryan: ZELAZOWA came together as a band around 2000. The four of us basically grew up together in the suburbs of Philadelphia and were always playing music together in some capacity. Kyle (the lead guitarist) is my younger brother, Terry (the drummer) is one of my oldest friends, and Ian (the bass player) is actually Terry’s cousin who I met years ago. It wasn’t until we officially created ZELAZOWA though and struck out on the road that things really started rolling (in my personal opinion). Since 2006 we’ve pretty much been touring all over the U.S. and Europe, releasing our own records, and having a ton of fun along the way. We even made it into this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue for our song “You Say Love”, which is pretty cool. [“Say You Love” was chosen as the official song for the 2011 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue online video teaser. You can view it here. -JB] Continue reading “Masterdisk Presents: ZELAZOWA”→
Great news! Out today: RUSH’s super-classic 1981 album Moving Pictures, in high-resolution stereo and 5.1 surround mixes! It comes in two formats: CD + DVD-Audio or CD + Blu-ray. Mastered by Andy VanDette at Masterdisk.
At Masterdisk we don’t just master releases by bands from big labels, though that is an important part of our business. As the years have gone by, we’ve seen our independent clientele grow steadily to the point where independent artists are now a majority of our business. The music industry, despite all the doom-and-gloom, is a really interesting place to be right now.
We’ve had this idea kicking around for a while: why not write about some of the independent bands that come through our studios? We hear a lot of great music on a daily basis: quirky, intense, beautiful, heavy, slick, rough, you name it — it comes through here. So we’re going to try out our idea by highlighting a recent project that came to us via our Indie program. It’s the Russian neo-progressive rock group Quorum, and their album Klubkin’s Voyage, mastered by Graham Goldman.
Graham is one of our younger, up-and-coming engineers. He’s recently worked on a number of sucessful albums for the Relapse label, by bands like Tombs, Rabbits, Broughton’s Rules, and Kill the Client. When Graham isn’t busy (which is becoming more rare) he occasionally takes on a client that comes through our Indie program. That’s how this particular gig happened: Quorum contacted us through the Indie website, and requested a free mastering sample. Graham had some time in his schedule and took the assignment.
We thought the Quorum project would be interesting to talk about because of its unusual qualities. First, the band wanted their album to have a lot of dynamic range — they didn’t care whether it was loud or not. Second, the album is essentially one long piece, which was later broken up into individual tracks. Third, it’s a concept album — essentially one long story — which, in true prog fashion, makes use of recurring themes and other classically-derived techniques. And lastly, the band’s from Russia, and we don’t have a ton of Russian clients (we’d like to have more!) — it’s interesting for us to hear what bands are doing there.
I interviewed both Graham and Quorum member Dmitry Shtatnov for this article. First up, Graham Goldman.
Masterdisk: Do you listen to much progressive rock yourself?
Graham: I listen to all kinds of stuff, so this project wasn’t really that far-out for me.
Graham: I did do a sample for them. But they sounded like they were pretty sure they were gonna come here before I did it even. We didn’t end up using the sample on the album though. I did a different version of it for the record.
Masterdisk: Why didn’t you use the sample?
Graham: Well usually when we do the samples, you’re really trying to catch their ear and give them what they want — we know from experience that most bands want it kinda loud and maybe more heavy-handed than I would end up doing on the rest of the project. A lot more heavy-handed actually.
Masterdisk: But they liked it.
Graham: They thought it was good — they liked the general sound of it.
Masterdisk: You’ve mentioned that the band wanted the record to be very dynamic.
Graham: The main challenge with the record was to keep it listenable — where you’re not having to adjust the volume all the time, but it still has a huge dynamic range. They weren’t concerned with how loud it was compared to other records.
Graham: Yes. That’s really unusual. I find that most of the time, even when people say they don’t want a loud record, they do. You know, you send them a record that’s not loud, and they want it louder. You’ve got to figure out what kind of music it is, be a little bit of a psychic as to what kind of volume they’re going to want. You can usually tell from the way the mixes sound.
Masterdisk: So how did you pull off the balance?
Graham: I didn’t do a whole lot of compression. There’s some mild compression on there but basically it was just a matter of trying to control the loud parts a little bit and also adding some make-up gain to bring up some of the softer parts a little bit. But it was a delicate balancing act to not crush the loud parts at all and not make the soft ones too soft.
Masterdisk: Did it take a long time to do?
Graham: Yeah, I spent some time on it. He [Dmitry] had already sequenced it himself at home, so I had him send me an mp3 showing me exactly what he wanted [in terms of transitions]. I got kinda stoked once I started working on it — and really wanted to make it perfect for them. In the end they didn’t have any revisions at all — just a couple little things. The only thing we messed around with was moving some of the crossfades.
Masterdisk: As a mastering engineer, having this kind of detail come from a client is a plus?
Graham: If an artist has a very specific set of goals they’re trying to accomplish, then it’s really helpful for them to spell it out in as much detail as possible.
Masterdisk: How did you decide to use Masterdisk for your mastering?
Dmitry: When it came time for mastering, our mix engineer contacted his friend at a local studio who referred us to Masterdisk. I decided that it was the right place when I saw Genesis and Rush albums in the discography.
Masterdisk: What features were important to you in the mastering?
Dmitry: Our goal was to make sure we preserved the dynamics. Many modern albums including our personal favorites make their sound closer and closer to white noise because of the “loudness war.” It’s hard to listen more than an hour of highly compressed rock or metal. Actually I think it may even cause headaches or toothaches. Our album contains a continuous story and we wanted to make sure it would be comfortable to listen to from the beginning to very end. Of course, all other industry standards like field widening, normalization and spectrum equalization is implicit.
Masterdisk: Could you name albums that served as models for the sound of your record?
Dmitry: In the very beginning of the mix process we were influenced by some classic records of middle/late 70’s: Trick of the Tail, maybe some ideas from ELP, Zeppelin and Rush, but the final mix moved away from that.
Masterdisk: What are your plans for the album now that the mastering is complete?
Dmitry: We plan to release it as a CD but also plan to offer downloads. After the first two weeks of release even the least famous albums appear on torrent trackers. After that your tracks appear as paid (what a paradox!) ringtones or pseudo-legal mp3s automatically by some php-scripts. Our real goal in making a CD is to make material evidence of our existence and give some collectors something new to put on their shelves.
Masterdisk: What are your plans and goals for Quorum?
Dmitry: We plan to record some old songs, most of which will be in two languages, then make a non-conceptual but more sophisticated and dark album, and then try to write an opera or other large form. We already have detailed plans for all of this — seriously!
A to Z Media is a small New York City-based company that’s facilitating some of the best music packaging and manufacturing in the world today. I recently sat down with A to Z’s Sarah Robertson and Scott Pollack to discuss the state of physical media in 2011.
James: Tell me a little about the company.
Sarah: I came over from England in May of 1994 and set up the business. There was a need to serve as the conduit between large and impersonal printing and optical media plants, and small-to-medium size music companies.
Scott: That’s very much why brokers exist, to fill that gap.
Sarah: I worked from my apartment for the first year or so, and since then we’ve been in this NoHo neighborhood for the entire time, and in our current space for five years. A lot of the clients we have now are people we’ve had relationships with for many years. They may now work for different record labels, or have set up their own labels, but it’s very much been an organic growth. There was Michael Dorf from the Knitting Factory, who introduced me to John Zorn, and we still work with John’s label Tzadik today. We’ve done close to six hundred releases with them. It’s all been word of mouth.
James: As we all know, physical media is said to be in its “death throes,” despite the fact that people are still buying a good deal of CDs and records. What’s good about physical media? Why should we stick with it?
Sarah: Well it gives you the whole story. With a CD or an LP you don’t just get the music, you get the whole vision and story of the artist behind it.
Scott: The thing is, you’ve got to give people a compelling reason to want to purchase a tangible music item today. How are you going to make it compelling?
Sarah: It doesn’t have to cost a ton of money to make something compelling. I mean, when you’re talking about something really out there — if you’re printing stuff on plastic, things like that — it’s going to be expensive. But we’ve been able to do smaller, hard-bound books that are four color — really beautiful hard bound books — in a run of 3,000. This is something we’re going to be sourcing in China. We’re trying to meet two needs. People want to have beautiful packaging, but some of it, made domestically, is very, very expensive. You just can’t do it. But there are other options, and I think that’s where we see the market moving. So we’re trying to be positioned to be the resource whether you want to run 1,000 or you want to run 300,0000.
James: What would you say are the main things that people can do to improve their music packaging?
Scott: As many great packaging options as there are, there’s no substitute for good designers. We help source out the packaging materials, configurations, how it works, how it fits together. But honestly we’ve never really gotten involved in the graphic design. Packaging design, yes. But graphics no. Art direction is really important.
Sarah: It’s good for a label to have a go-to designer.
Scott: Like Tzadik. John [Zorn] was very visionary in how he wanted the music packaged, and he’s been able to maintain it.
Sarah: And he does very different things. Like in the Archival series (which is his own stuff) he’ll come up with ideas where I say “how on earth do you come up with that?” It’s taking something that is simple, and making it beautiful. Some packages are “template” but some of them are completely out there.
James: I’m always impressed with the quality of the printing of the Tzadik releases — some of the lines are so fine, yet they don’t look jaggy.
Sarah: Especially now, some of Heung-Heung’s [Tzadik house designer] things are very very fine. Did you see the Interzone release they just did? It’s really cool: a very simple black image printed on a foil stock. And embossing and debossing — it’s a very clever thought process.
Scott: Heung-Heung is getting more and more intricate.
Sarah: I’ll always say to them, honestly, that’s not going to work, you’re going too small. And John will say “trust me, it’ll work.” And then it works, miraculously. They did a tip-on wallet — an old school jacket, but a little one — and he was doing very thin type on the spine. All hand assembled. I was concerned that it wouldn’t work — and it did.
James: We just started doing vinyl with Tzadik at Masterdisk.
Sarah: Yes, we have it right here.
Scott: The artwork is absolutely beautiful. this is an old style tip-on jacket. There’s literally only a few folks who can print those. And it’s a picture disc, and it sounds really good. Beacuase picture discs don’t always sound that great.
James: Scott [Hull] worked hard on this with the plant to make sure it would come out great.
Scott: Whatever he did it sounds really really good.
Sarah: We just did some shaped vinyl for The Sword. It’s hexagonal.
James: Do you talk to the plant and they’re like, “what?”
Scott: There was one vendor in the world that was able to do that one.
Sarah: We want the record labels and the individuals to come to us and say “I want to do this,” and we say “sure.” and we find out how to make it happen.
James: What are your thoughts about the trend of super-deluxe packaging? Releases that come with both CD and vinyl, and books, and alternate albums, and headphones…
Sarah: Well, we did that with Matador [the 21st Anniversary box set]. It was an expensive package. It’s an example of a record label giving something back to the fans.
Scott: Though I think what James is talking about is the far extreme end — this uber deluxe “let’s package it with an amp” trend. We’re not really dealing with too many artists on the Springsteen and Bowie level, so our thought process tends to be how we can do something nice at a 5, 10, 20,000 piece run — and bring it in at a competitive price. If anyone can successfully do that, that’s how you’re going to be able to keep packaging relevant for the indie community. Whatever Sony’s doing for Springsteen… that’s a whole other universe.
James: OK, and what about the other end of the spectrum: indie artists starting out with a small number of fans.
Scott: I think we’re talking about runs of 1,000 or even 500. We’ll do it.
Sarah: Maybe they run a little more print on it. You get a price break as soon as you move up to 1,000 units and more on the print, so you save some money that way. But even for small runs, it’s still spot varnishes and other more expensive-looking touches.
Scott: The threshold for your basic band used to always be 1,000 pices or more. It’s now dipped to 500, and quite honestly we’re getting a lot of requests for less — people want to do 300 fully packaged items. We can do it, as can many other people in the marketplace. I think the quality is a bit iffier at that number — it’s not quite the same as the 1,000 piece run. For the price you’re going to pay per unit at 300 or 500, you might as well run 1,000. But people are saying, “I know it’s more expensive, I know the quality is not quite on par with 1,000, but I just don’t need 1,000 pieces sitting around my apartment.”
Sarah: They’re moving away from jewel boxes too. It’s much better to take wallets or digipacks on the road instead of schlepping jewel boxes.
James: So how is the CD doing in general?
Sarah: I’ve been doing optical media for probably over 20 years now. When I started, you were selling just the CD for over $1.60. Now it’s a fraction of that. The market has changed enormously. The question is how to sustain the CD as a relevant product in the marketplace. Our clients are people that still embrace a finished product.
Record labels are still getting product in the stores, even though we’ve been hit by the changes. In a way, I think it’s been a good thing. People re-evaluate how they’re going to package; how they’re going to reach the consumer. A lot of companies are stronger financially through digital sales, and any money coming in helps. I’m happy for somebody to make 3,000 CDs instead of 5,000 and be able to pay their bill because they’re doing 2,000 units in digital sales. It’s changing, and you change with it.
Scott: If digital music makes the companies that we’re working with healthier, that’s a good step for everybody. Even if they’re ultimately going to be running less physical product.
James: It seems to me that physical releases won’t go away if for no other reason than to have something to sell at shows.
Scott: Though we’ve done download cards for that purpose, too.
Sarah: Almost everyone’s putting download cards in with their vinyl. I think that’s fair enough. You’ve bought the product, you should be able to have it. You can’t ignore the digital marketplace, you’ve got to embrace it. Many of our clients are smaller companies, and, being small, they’re a bit more sprightly on their feet. The independent community are much better big-picture thinkers — they adapt, because they’ve always had to be scrappy. It’s been the same way with us. We need to think of the next thing we can do for our clients. And we do lots of different things.
Scott: We just did our first cassette in many years. It was only for 150 cassettes but it was cool. We can do 8-track, and flexi-discs are coming back. People have been clamoring for flexies for a while. I think they’re kind of expensive at the smaller run, so i don’t know if a band’s gonna sell them but they’re great for a magazine.
Sarah: I don’t think flexies are going to make some kind of big comeback though.
James: They don’t sound great.
Sarah: No, they don’t — it’s more of a novelty thing. But if magazines find that they’re able to get labels to contribute exclusive content, flexies could provide a way to introduce value back into their printed editions.
Scott: And they look pretty cool. You can do them in different colors; we spec’d one that was almost like a picture disc. But back to your question, I think the CD had a really good run. And i think it improved on the previous generations of media for the most part. You can argue about the merits of the audio — someone like Scott [Hull] would be the expert on this…
James: CDs were very convenient.
Scott: But you know what’s more convenient? The iPhone. To have a micro device that has the ability to encapsulate your entire collection and does 15 other really cool things. That’s what’s undone the CD. And it’s a natural progression. We can’t hate on that. You can’t get away from the fact that you could buy any record on iTunes at 3 o’clock in the morning from the middle of nowhere, and you can’t do that with physical media. Especially because there’s no stores. Although I have to say that I think the CD has now reached a point, price wise, that it’s on par with digital for the most part. I think labels should lower their pricing a little bit — the cost should be on par with a digital release. And if you’re introducing just a modicum of interesting packaging or content into that release, I can’t see why physical media won’t live for an indefinite period of time. It’ll keep getting smaller and smaller, but that physical pie, between CDs and vinyl, maybe cassettes, maybe a hybrid where you’re still getting the downloads — it should continue to be viable.
Sarah: I think a bigger problem is getting more people to legitimately start purchasing music again in whatever the format. I think that’s been the real shock of the last 10 to 15 years. People don’t seem to want to buy music in whatever form it’s coming. It’s partly a generational thing. When you say what’s killing the industry, digital versus finished goods, you have to look at the generational impact — how many kids are buying music? When you look at the tween to early twenties, there’s less of a frame of reference for physical media. If you appeal to a 17 year old about beautiful packaging and interesting liner notes — I don’t know if they care.
Scott: They’ve grown up in the era of free music. Why buy a physical something? The question is how can everyone in the industry get physical sales back up to par to sustain operations, pay the artist, and really make it so it could be a career choice for people all down the line in whatever facet of the music industry that might still exist.
Sarah: You can still be in a band and play out and make a living. It’s hard but it’s done.
Scott: Touring is not going anywhere. The live touring industry is pretty healthy. And that’s something you can’t replace.
James: So how long do you think it’ll be before we get CD nostalgia? We’ve got vinyl, and now cassettes…
Scott: I think a few more plants would have to go out of business. When you won’t be able to make a CD, people will say, “I like those CDs!” Well, there’s only 4 CD plants left, so it’ll take 2 months to get your CD. Remember you used to get it in a week? Now it’s going to take 2 months. I think we’re a few years away from that.
Sarah: I think we’re a few decades away.
Scott: I don’t know if there’s 20 years left in the CD business. We sure as hell hope there is. I think there will be some nostalgia for it, but it’s a few years off. But you’d be surprised. Everybody talks about “the death of the CD.” I gotta tell you, from our little perch, the plants that we work with are very very busy. You walk through these plants and all sorts of companies and industries are running CDs.
Sarah: You think of the CD as music — and certainly from A to Z’s point of view, 70% of our business is music. But we do corporate stuff. We do DVDs, CD-ROMS for the corporate market. But you walk around the plants and it’s things you’d never think of. They’re making loads and loads of CDs.
Scott: I think you could say that the reports of the demise of physical media have been greatly exaggerated.
Masterdisk and A to Z have worked on a lot of projects together, including the Loudon Wainwright III, Lou Reed, and Tzadik releases pictured above. They’re pretty much our number one referral when our independent clients ask us what they need to do to get their product finished, once the mastering process is complete. And the reason we refer them is because of the high quality of their work, and their personalized service; we know that our clients will have a good experience. To check out more of A to Z’s phenomenal packaging work, head over to their website.
“I have worked with him a few times and he really cares. All you want is someone who can go the extra mile, and he has an affinity with the music. He’s a perfectionist — I once saw him discard a whole vinyl cut because he could get another half dB out of it — and I really trust him. — Steven Wilson discussing Andy VanDette, Tape Op, Sep/Oct 2009
Porcupine Tree is one of the premiere progressive rock bands working today. They came up in the 90s along with bands like Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard, carrying the prog torch into what could be seen as the third wave of the genre. (For the sake of argument, and I’m sure there will be some, the first wave would be represented by bands like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson; the second by Marillion and IQ; and the fourth by The Mars Volta. And yes, this is a gross oversimplification which leaves out dozens of important bands and sub-movements!)
Two of Porcupine Tree’s biggest albums, In Absentia [Lava/Atlantic 2002] and Deadwing [Lava/Atlantic 2005], were mastered by Masterdisk chief engineer Andy VanDette. I spoke to Andy about his work on on these two very different records.
How did you get the Porcupine Tree gig?
Luckily my friend Andy Karp — who became president of A&R over at Lava/Atlantic — whenever he could throw my name into the ring for mastering he would. A lot of artists have a mastering engineer that they’ve worked with before and that’s where they go. But Andy would get me shootout gigs for certain stuff — I got to do the Simple Plan demo that got them signed. I did a few records on Atlantic that never saw the light of day… and Porcupine Tree came along that way.
What can you tell me about In Absentia?
The thing about In Absentia is that was a record made the way that records used to be made. You had a big major label debut where they recorded in big studios, they hired a quality engineer to record the basic tracks, and then a mix god, Tim Palmer, to mix it all to half inch tape. I heard the first few seconds of “Blackest Eyes” and I thought, “OK, this is going to be a good day! this is going to be a day where I figure out ‘a half dB of what’ instead of “where’s the kitchen sink?”
Was Steven [Wilson, of Porcupine Tree] here?
Yes, Steven was here for the record.
He’s a pretty hands-on guy?
Oh yeah, definitely.
Was there much collaboration or back-and-forth in the session or did you work alone?
I think pretty much they let me work. You know, Steven liked what he was hearing so… we seemed to like the same things, so sometimes you just click that way with clients. I don’t really remember too much back and forth, there was more of that on the next record, Deadwing.
What was working on that record like?
Well, in contrast to In Absentia, Deadwing is an example of how records are made today, where the band doesn’t go into any studio, they record and mix it at home. Steven mentioned they were working this way pretty early on, and so I sent him an email and said ‘Well, if you’re going to do work that way, the hip thing to do is to mix in subgroups. We’ll rent a nice analog summing amp and we’ll put it all together once you get here.” So he ended up sending over his Mac with his Logic [Apple’s suite of recording programs] sessions on them, and then I rented the Dangerous Music summing amp and we put it all together that way.
Of course Murphy’s law says that if you send your Mac to a foreign country a week in advance it’s going to arrive at the END of the first day of the session you booked. So it was evening before I ran through a couple songs and mastered them quick, keeping the same kind of hands-off mastering mentality that I had with the first record. Because the first record… the mixes were so great that I didn’t have to do much.
But when I heard what I had done the next morning in my car I freaked out. I thought “oh my god this is horrible… is my system broken?!” When I got to the studio I checked it out in the other mastering rooms and I found out that nothing was broken; it just plain sucked. I didn’t roll off enough bottom. Once I started listening to the individual parts [in Logic] I thought, “gee that bass is awful thick… what’s going on there?” There were like five layers of kick drums going on [laughs] — too much to get the kind of clarity we needed. Since we had the option to change the mixes in Logic, that’s what we did.
That day we pulled out In Absentia because we knew that people were going to compare the new record to it — and we could use it as a reference, even though the new stuff was recorded so differently. The new one would be its own entity — its own art — but it did have to compare on some kind of level. Once we did that things went much better and all of the changes that we made to the stereo mixes held up through the surround mixes.
How many stems did you output from Logic?
We broke it out to 8 channels, probably 4 stereo stems and stuck that through the analog summing amp.
And what does the summing amp do?
The final squish to stereo is done in the analog domain as opposed to the digital domain.
What’s the effect of using it?
It’s the depth thing. When you close your eyes how deep is the sound stage? I had done comparisons both ways [through the summing amp and not] and switching back and forth I could hear a much deeper sound field than the mixes that had come straight out of the digital domain.
And out of that you went into your…
My standard mastering rig. Because the mix issues were taken care of in Logic, that meant I didn’t have to do as much — there were no contortions anymore because anything that I would have struggled with were ironed out.
Do you know why they decided to record Deadwing like they did, rather than do another record like In Absentia? Was it budget?
I think that they were just so adept at recording themselves. Gavin [Harrison, the group’s drummer] had his own studio — why not do drums in his room where he has them all set up just the way he likes them? And Steven is very adept at recording himself — he had done it all those years before Atlantic. And yeah it was partially budgetary because the budget wasn’t as big for Deadwing as it was for In Absentia. The record companies had started tightening their belts by then and… although In Absentia was a great critical success I don’t think it sold numbers that turned heads at Atlantic records.
Deadwing was the last Porcupine Tree record you did?
Right, and then they did Fear of a Blank Planet [Roadrunner Records, 2007] which Steven mastered himself. And then I submitted for their latest record [The Incident, 2009].
But you didn’t end up mastering it?
No, I didn’t. I did master Steven’s solo record Insurgentes  though.
What was the process of mastering Insurgentes?
It was about wrestling with the loudest sections of the record. Which are only 5% of the record but the 5% that I hold the most dear. The quiet parts were all nicely dynamic but when those really ultra loud sections come out the mixes had a screechy distorted quality that made me want to turn my monitors down, not up. So I worked on warming those sections and treating those sections so that they sounded raucously loud, but not abrasive.
Is that EQ work?
Some EQ work, some cutting different settings together. Sometimes you can make one setting and it works for the whole record. But we can get more forensic than that and use different treatments so that when it goes to the ultra loud section you can’t really notice that I’ve changed settings — or at least you’re not supposed to!
And Steven was happy with it?
I think so.
But you didn’t do the next Porcupine Tree record.
Well, one of the guys in the band was very concerned about compression — he wanted to make sure the new record didn’t have too much compression on it. So the group felt that they needed to be there for the mastering, but they weren’t going to be able to come to the States, so that was that. But Steven let me submit, which was cool. So I listened to a lot of In Absentia because I still say it is the Porcupine Tree record by which all other Porcupine Tree records will be judged… and I made something that was just a little lower [in level].
And what happened?
And pretty quickly I got word back that it was way over-compressed. So then I did one that was hardly compressed at all, but I guess I went too far in the other direction… In the end they were right, they needed to be there at the mastering studio so they could find the exact balance they were looking for.
The two albums you did for Porcupine Tree are big ones as far as fans are concerned. Do you get artists that come to you because you did those records?
Have you been doing much in the prog rock area lately?
Oh sure. The Heart of Cygnus CD that’s on my wall [Over Mountain Under Hill] is a recent one… it was named on Mike Portnoy’s [former drummer with Dream Theater] Top 10 list for 2009. And I’ve been doing some things more recently that aren’t out yet.
Thanks to Larry Crane of Tape Op for getting us the Steven Wilson quote when none of us could find our Sep/Oct 2009 copies of Tape Op! (Murphy’s law again.)
It’s Friday, and that means there’s a new Downtown Music Gallery newsletter in my inbox! Have you heard of Downtown Music Gallery? It’s a great NYC record store currently based down in Chinatown. They carry all kinds of great experimental, eclectic, and creative avant-garde, classical, rock, jazz, prog music and everything else that doesn’t fit in to a regular category. They’re also the distributor for John Zorn’s Tzadik, a record label with which we’re closely involved — Scott Hull has mastered all the Tzadik releases since 2001.
This morning’s newsletter announces three new Tzadik albums, all of which were not too long ago playing very loudly in Scott’s studio. Here they are, along with the press releases from the label, copied directly from the newsletter. Links and more info below.
JOHN ZORN//MOONCHILD: MIKE PATTON/TREVOR DUNN/JOEY BARON + MARC RIBOT – Ipsissimus (Tzadik 7386; USA) Weaving sonic dramas around the legacies of Magick and Alchemy, Moonchild is one of Zorn’s most intense and powerful projects. Active since 2006, Moonchild has released four CDs speaking directly to young, open minded and curious music lovers around the world, and their newest recording is the most varied and driving to date. Nine new duos, trios and quartets swirling with melodic and rhythmic invention featuring the searing guitar of Marc Ribot, the magical vocals of Mike Patton and Zorn’s manic sax with the astounding Dunn-Baron rhythm section. Ipsissimus is the fifth surprising installment in the remarkable Moonchild legacy. TZADIK ARCHIVAL SERIES
JESSE HARRIS – Cosmo (Tzadik 7635; USA) One of our greatest songwriters, Jesse Harris, is a Grammy Award winning composer whose songs have been recorded by Norah Jones, Smokey Robinson, Solomon Burke, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and many others. Here he returns to his roots with a fabulous group of friends to present an instrumental program of his classic songs and some brilliant new originals composed especially for this CD. Blending folk, soul, Brazilian and rock music into his own unique and personal world, Jesse’s new CD is a joyous celebration of life, love, melody and mystery. Instrumental pop in the tradition of Burt Bacharach with a 21st century twist! TZADIK KEY SERIES
OMER KLEIN – Rockets On The Balcony (Tzadik 8156; USA) Omer Klein is an exciting young pianist out of the Israeli-New York jazz scene. Born in Israel, he studied at New England Conservatory and now tours extensively with his own ensembles. Exotic and lyrical, his work blends Middle Eastern sounds with the spontaneity of jazz. Here he works with two of his closest collaborators in a free wheeling trio setting. Alternately driving and touching, Rockets on the Balcony is a beautiful example of how new generations are taking Jewish Music to profound and unexpected new places. TZADIK RADICAL JEWISH CULTURE SERIES
Each disc is $14 and can be ordered from the shop online. Dig in to some new sounds! Visit Downtown Music Gallery here.
“The first choice is clear. I’m confident that La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano will receive little competition as the most important and beautiful new work recorded in the 1980s. Young’s achievement is unique, the recording a technological triumph.” — Kyle Gann, FANFARE November/December 1987
“…this marvelous recording of a landmark piece in contemporary music and the work that probably coined the categorical term Minimalism is born. The Well- Tuned Piano is an extremely insular, calming and personal work and a masterpiece at that. Listening to the entire five-hour-plus composition [one] discovers something new each time.” — Brooke Wentz, DOWN BEAT August 1987
The 1987 edition of La Monte Young‘s The Well Tuned Piano on Gramavision records (full title: The Well-Tuned Piano 81 X 25 6:17:50 – 11:18:59 PM NYC) is something of a holy grail for experimental, avant garde, and minimalist enthusiasts. The multi-album set was released in CD, LP and cassette editions, which, as of this writing, go for hundreds of dollars on the used market: the set is out of print.
The Well Tuned Piano is a very long (approximately five hours on the Gramavision recording) piece for just-intuned piano. Its construction is part composed and part improvised and involves series of cycling themes and sound clusters (called “clouds”).
Bob Ludwig is credited with mastering the Gramavision recording of The Well Tuned Piano, and his then-assistant (and current owner of Masterdisk) Scott Hull is credited with digital editing, which was no small task in the case of this particular recording. In fact, it was rather epic.
One July afternoon I sat down with Scott and asked him to go back to the days he spent in 1987 editing this storied recording.
THE WELL TUNED PIANO
JB:What was your role in the production of the album?
Scott Hull: Digital editing would have been my title though the task took on a life of its own. It was very unusual to take so many days to edit an album together.
The deck they used to record The Well Tuned Piano was a Sony PCM-F10 — one of the first digital recorders. The piece was a five hour continuous performance and the only recording medium that was capable of doing that in 1987 or 1988 was Beta 1 F1 — a slow speed video deck capturing 16 bit 44.1 digital.
The first part of our process at Masterdisk was getting the F1 transferred to a professional format. Because you can’t edit the F1 [tape]. There’s no method of doing digital tape editing and the music ultimately had to be cut up into sides: the ultimate destination was for CD, vinyl and cassette. Each required their own side splits and it’s a continuous performance: no breaks, no intermissions. It is a continuous performance that creates a meditative sort of atmosphere continuously.
The first problem was to transfer all the F1s to a 1630 tape system, which is professional digital audio that could be edited. But the F1 didn’t want to play particularly well. And we also had a problem because this piece was so continuous and repetitious — the themes come back again and again in cycles — that it was very hard to tell where you were in the piece just by listening. Even the composer would have trouble telling where he was in the piece unless he could listen to a significant portion of it.
We needed to find a way to time-stamp the thing. And the beta tape that was used had time code, but my professional 1630 Sony audio machine wouldn’t read it.
Bob Bielecki was the recording engineer on the project. He was known for doing some pretty wild and interesting performance art recordings, so he knew the kinds of editing challenges involved. He’s an astute technician as well — so he understood that the time code that was coming off the beta tape wasn’t clean enough for my editor to read it — and he figured he could fix it. He asked me if I had some parts he could use. We went into the shop. “Well what do you need, switches or something?” I said. He says “I need an op-amp or a transistor or two and I need a couple resistors and something to attach it all to.”
This was the evening — the session didn’t start until 7 or 8 at night — and the technician was gone. So I showed him the drawers in the shop. He rattled around for about 20 minutes and came back out with a little board that had standoffs on it, he had wired a cap around a transistor, put a couple resistors on there, attached an input connector, a volume control and an output connector. He made a time code reshaper in the shop while I wandered around wondering “what are we going to do next?”
I plugged it in and tweaked it a little and the damn thing worked. I suspect that it still sits in a drawer somewhere around here because I didn’t throw it out. I thought it was a marvel. [Ed – we did in fact find it, in July 2011; now pictured below.]
So we got the time code reshaped. It was necessary because sections of the tape had to be transferred more than once to get a proper playback. And now, thanks to Bob, each time you played back that same stretch of tape you’d get the same code so we could line it up.
JB:Why would you have to have multiple transfers to get a good playback?
SH: The slow speed beta format liked to drop out. If there was a drop out, we’d have to go back and change the tracking manually — basically fiddle with the area of tape that it was having trouble with — and figure out a way to get through it. You couldn’t generally get through the tape in one whole pass.
So, the first night was sitting with this piece attempting to get the F1 beta tape transferred to 3/4″ digital. That took many hours. I don’t recall whether we even started editing it that night or whether that was another night.
Eventually we created a running master of the entire show, split across 3 or 4 U-matic tapes with overlap. I had to recreate the F1, basically, but smooth out the overlapped edit bits. Each one of these edits had to be acoustically scrubbed-to. The time code would get me close, but I’d need to be more accurate. So I was using room noises — chair squeaks and stuff — in the recording to tell definitively if it was lining up exactly. It would have been possible to do edits in the music, but it was easier if you could find a steam pipe squeak or a bang. Because there were some occasional steam pipe bangs — you’ll hear them in the recording. We were able to seamlessly remove a couple that were in spaces where there was no music. But in the midst of the performance when somebody shuffled around or a chair moved or something there was no way to get it out with the technology we had then. Now, you might be able to get it out. Maybe you wouldn’t want to anyway — we were going for authentic representation of the event.
By the way, at the performance people were invited to bring whatever they needed to make themselves comfortable for several hours because the piece was very long. So they were sitting on pillows and blankets, some were curled up… I assume some of them fell asleep at different times, coming in and out of consciousness while listening to this thing. Because even the engineering team fell in and out of consciousness while listening to this piece! (laughs) It was very difficult to remain completely engaged for, you know, 5 or 6 hours at a time. It was just exhausting.
I don’t believe LaMonte came in for any of this. I think it was just Bob Bielecki and I doing the assembly. It was very technical.
Next we got word of where the side-breaks were supposed to be. Like how long each LP side was going to be, and where in the performance we should break for the CDs. We all needed to make sure it didn’t break in the middle of a sequence of musical events.
From the three tape running master we created three tape sets of LP, three tape sets of cassette and 3 tape sets of CD masters. Each with the appropriate fade-down at the end of each side, and fade back up.
We created the CD master first, and then we put one additional fade in the middle of each CD to create the album. I think we found the CD breaks first because we didn’t want to create more than we absolutely needed to. So after the CD masters were made the decision was made where to make the LP breaks.
I really have no idea how many days and nights were spent on assembling this thing. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. It would have been impossible even with the foundation that was funding it to actually bill for the time and the equipment that was being used for the durations that were really needed. There was only one way to do this well, and it required completely tying up a room that was normally booked for $200-250 an hour. And this is back in the 80s!
The technology today makes this so simple to pull off that it’s really easy to forget how hard it was to do this digitally. But they really wanted to guarantee that the performance was captured the truthfully. They wanted a running master from top to bottom.
After we got all the running masters together La Monte came in to listen to them with Marian Zazeela. He wanted to listen through the whole thing to hear the fades — to listen to it as a consumer would listen to it.
I got them comfortable, got the music playing back in the room, and asked them if they needed me to be in the room. They didn’t, which was good! Quite frankly at that point I’d heard this piece in its entirety about twelve times. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sit through it again and show the respect it, and they, deserved. I didn’t want to be in there looking bored! So I waited outside.
Shortly into the playback, La Monte came out to find me, looking worried. He said there was something wrong, and asked me if there was some way that the music could be playing at the wrong speed. I was immediately very concerned because of all the work we had done up to that point — we were essentially done with everything!
But there really wasn’t any way that this could have been running off speed because it’s digital, and all locks to clock, and everything about that is pretty stable. So I came back in and La Monte asked me to play a section of it, and then it got to a spot where the piano was holding a tone. And he said “There! Right there! Like that — that’s a spot I mean”. And I was very confused because I didn’t know what he was hearing. I was expecting him to be talking about something that sounded like it was warbling — you know, changing pitch.
So I stopped the music, I asked him to explain what it was that he was hearing, and we talked about it a little bit, but he suddenly stopped talking. “You hear that?” he said. I didn’t know what he was hearing. He said “I’m hearing beats NOW! There’s something in the room, even without the music being played.”
So I started shutting off equipment until I figured it out. The Sony 1630 tape recorder we were using was a big, professional video deck with a significant motor inside it. And a fan to keep the motor cool. I had two of them in the room. And these fans were running at ever so slightly different speeds. With the two machines running there was a very slight modulating sound, and it was affecting the way that La Monte was hearing the beats and the relationships within his music. The fans were effectively superimposing additional “beats” on the top of his music! His hearing was that sensitive.
I didn’t need to have both decks on while we were doing the playback so I shut one of them off and I covered the other deck with acoustic foam to cut down on the amount of noise. And then I played it back for him and he said “That’s it! It’s perfect!”
JB:The “wrong speed” question must have confused you initially considering that in digital, tape running at the wrong speed would not effect pitch.
SH: Right. It’s something we just believe in: word clock is word clock. We know now that information that’s been converted to analog and back to digital can show some microscopic drift, even with digital. Especially with workstations. But this was digital audio on video tape so it’s all referenced to video sync. Word sync is derived from the video interval sync so there’s just no way that it’s running off speed. Well, I should say that when everything’s working properly there’s no way for it to be running off-speed. La Monte was just trying to guess at what could possibly be causing the reaction he was having; this unpleasant feeling that he had.
After La Monte’s approval we went on to make running masters for the cassette, the vinyl and CD. And each one of them had to be listened to in real time; proofed for dropouts and for any other problems.
And we had one other problem through this whole process — a technical problem. During these years CD run time was generally 65 to 70 minutes. But albums started getting longer. That’s when the reissues were happening and people were trying to put out longer and longer CDs. So they came up with longer tape formats because the original 1630 tape format was a 60 minute format. Then they came out with one that was 74 minutes, and then 75 minutes, and finally these 80 minute tapes which gave you a bit of buffer at the head and tail.
Well those 80 minute tapes didn’t play so well in machines that hadn’t been modified for them. And so one out of five of all these tapes I’d pull out of a box to try to use on The Well Tuned Piano would fail. Sometimes after we had already done the whole process the tape would get a crease — it was very thin Mylar. So many of our sessions were interrupted with me lifting the cover off the tape machine and taking a crinkled tape out of the thing and figuring out where it had been damaged, monitoring it up to that point and then doing an edit in the midst of some abstract tone cloud. So there was a lot of time spent just fighting the technology to get it done.
Then I assisted the cutting engineer who was Bill Kipper I believe. Bob [Ludwig] was credited with mastering on it, but it was essentially transferred with Bob Bielecki’s sound and EQ. And the vinyl I believe was cut by Bill.
JB:What would you say is the main thing you took away with you from your work on The Well Tuned Piano?
SH: It was one of my first experiences with an artist where I learned that just because you don’t hear something you can’t say it’s not there. I mean La Monte’s hearing was absurdly accurate. Even if you can’t measure what an artist is hearing, they’re hearing something. So I learned that my first reaction can’t be “oh, you must be hearing it wrong.” That’s definitely the wrong approach.
Scott Hull has continued his work in experimental and avant garde music throughout his career. He regularly masters albums for independent artists and labels in the experimental music field, and has mastered all the releases on John Zorn’s Tzadik label since 2001.