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: 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.
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!
This week at The Vinyl District Scott Hull discusses the different ways that vinyl reissues get made, particularly when the original masters are lost. And for those of you who will be at SXSW next week, we’ve listed some notable vinyl events at the end of the post.
Ike 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
This is the second of a three-part article about the mastering process by singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien. Read the first part here: Part I. Visit Kirsten online at www.kirstenthien.com. -James Beaudreau
People Get Ready Preparation is key for staying on budget. When you consider the hourly rate you’ll pay for a good mastering facility, your preparation becomes exponentially more valuable than it was even when you were preparing for studio recording or mixing time. Even if you negotiate a day rate, you will pay more if you go over a certain amount of time — or you’ll have to cut corners when you run out of time. My biggest fear was running out of time or money because of things I could have avoided. Here are a few things I did to get ready.
Talk to the engineer: I found out his process for using alternate mixes. Could he work directly from my stems in Pro-Tools to create alternate mixes on the spot? Or is it better to have important alternates already bounced down to stereo mixes? What is the fastest way for him to get the files into his system? Tell them the bit depth and sampling rate of your highest-quality mixes. (If you’re mixing in 24-bit or higher, don’t compress to 16-bit for the mastering engineer. His equipment for doing this is much better than yours and he should do it after other mastering techniques have been applied.)
Prepare Files: I created a folder on my hard drive called “All Master Mixes” that would hold individual folders for each song. Within each song’s folder was a Pro-Tools Session of the master mixes of that song, along with the associated audio files. This is where all my alternate mixes were. All of these files and folders had already existed in different places on my hard drive, depending on when or where we mixed it. But I copied them all over to this one “All Master Mixes” folder so my mastering engineer didn’t have to search around the hard drive to find the files he needed. (This came in handy later, as you will see.) I re-named audio files to names that make sense, like “Vox Up”, “Bass Down”, etc. (Be careful not to accidentally disassociate your files from your session if you rename.) Finally, I also added one additional folder that had a Pro-Tools session with the choice mixes lined up in order on a single stereo track (45 minutes long), and copies of the choice mixes only in the session’s “Audio Folder”. This is where we would start off our mastering session and where the engineer could grab all my audio files to drag to his system.
Alternative: If you’re not working with a hard drive and have CD’s or DVD’s from several studios and mix sessions, try to at least make a screen shot of your various file structures and make notes on each alternate mix for each song. Give this to your engineer as reference so he’s able to see his options on each song as he masters and as “problems” present themselves.
Song Order: I’m a big believer that song order on an album is super-important. There are the commercial goals of the record to consider, but, more importantly, it’s your last chance to affect the flow of your tunes and how they affect listeners who hear the album as a whole. I spent hours listening through to different song orders and making notes. I also got some outside advice because by this time, I’m sure I had lost my objectivity! Even if I didn’t stick with the “final” order I came up with (we eventually did change the order), I was sure of why I picked this song order and its advantages and drawbacks compared to other song orders. Mastering would affect how each track sounds next to another, so anything was possible when we got to the end of the session. Nonetheless, we had a really solid starting point.
MASTER CLASS – DAY OF THE SESSION
I eventually chose Jigsaw Sound in SoHo because their new engineer, Scott Hull, came highly recommended. [Scott was at Jigsaw in 2005. -Ed.] My research on him made him my top choice in my price range. It turns out that the fit was more than serendipitous. I chatted with co-owner of the studio, Dave Ares, before the session and learned that he and his partner Mike Iurato started jigsaw in 2001 specifically to fill a need they saw in NYC. “We were seeing so many indie records that weren’t even being mastered b/c the budgets wouldn’t allow it.” says Dave. So they created a top-level mastering environment, and offered it in a price range that made it accessible to indie projects. Over the past 3 years, Dave has seen many an artist come through the doors with anticipation on their faces, and watched them leave, sometimes ecstatic and dying to get their product out, and other times devastated and wondering what they did wrong. I thought this was a good person to get some advice from, so I asked him for some tips on preparing for a successful mastering session. He came up with some great ones.
Inexperience with the process will cost you time (and money you don’t have): Even if it’s your first session, do some research ahead of time so you’re not completely surprised about how the process works.
Don’t be too attached to your mixes: You’ve been listening in your project studio, on headphones, on many systems. Be open to what the mastering studio environment reveals about your mixes and be prepared to hear EVERYTHING. It’s a vulnerable place to be, but you’ll have to quickly face your mistakes and work with the engineer to make your mixes and your album the best they possibly can be at this stage. That is, unless you have the cash to go back and do some re-mixing or re-recording.
Be open-minded, but don’t go with too many choices to make. Have your song order picked out ahead of time. Have your “choice mixes” decided on. Song order, or which mix you master from can easily change during the session but your familiarity with your choices will save you time (read, money) during the session, and ultimately, it helps you get toward the best product you can achieve on your particular budget.
Listen to your engineer’s advice. He knows this room better than you do, and he should know how masters from the room sound all over the outside world. If you agree on vision with your engineer, his input can be very useful at this point; so make sure you listen.
Keep track of time and the big picture of your album: “I’ve seen lots of artists get too zoned in on one small piece of the whole album in the mastering session”, Scott tells me. “You’re dealing with a stereo mix at this point, so there’s a limit to what you can fix without messing up other parts of the album”.
Get some rest the night before your session, and especially let your ears rest: I agree! If you haven’t attended a mastering session before, I probably cannot convince you of how draining and demanding it is on your ears and your brain. If you have attended a session, you know that at the end of the day your ears physically hurt and you’ll be more tired than after running 10 miles. So get some rest and don’t listen to loud music the night before your session.
SCOTT HULL –- Quiet Please. Mastering Session in Progress.
When you walk into a well-designed mastering room, the first thing you notice is that it is completely and utterly silent (except for the ringing in your ears). You almost feel like you’re in outer space, and the words you speak just disappear the minute they come out of your mouth. This environment is created to be the most unforgiving, transparent, and revealing listening environment on Earth. Be ready to hear every little thing when the music comes on.
Scott and I said hello a bit, plugged in my hard drive, and started the session off with opening up the tracks in my ProTools session. We started listening to the songs at a low-to-medium volume. While the music played, we talked a little about the goals of the project. “A lot of times, the music tells the story on it’s own, but one thing we have to talk about is the ‘volume question’.” Scott explained.
If you hadn’t already noticed, do an experiment and play (in chronological order) some CDs that you’ve purchased from 1995 to today. Especially in the last few years, you’ll hear a noticeable volume increase over time. Pop music, particularly music that is driven by radio play, is getting louder and louder. The loudness does not only affect the actual and perceived volume, but also the overall sound presentation because of the extensive compression and limiting that is used –- it’s crunchier, there’s less “space between the notes,” and there may be less overall dynamic range because it starts out loud so it only has so far to go. The “volume question” is one that even the big-budget producers and artists are grappling with. We indie artists who want to compete with the big boys need to give some thought to the question and work with our mixing and mastering engineers to make sure that our intentions for both commercial success and artistic expression are carried out.
After he had listened most of every song, Scott had a good idea of where the mixes and album were going as a whole. He found some areas he knew he’d want to work on to improve the overall sound. And then he got to work on Song #2. “As I listen through,” Scott told me, “the starting song sort of picks me.” It turns out that a lot of times, the 2nd song is a good place to start because it gives some guidance as to how far you can push the envelope on the first song. You want the first song to pop and attract attention, but if it pops too much and Song #2 doesn’t lend itself to that treatment, you could end up making it sound a little flat.
When we got to Song #3, I noticed Scott looking around on my drive while the choice mix was playing. Next thing I know he turns and asks me if I mind if he checks out the “Bass_Reg” mix. When he heard a “problem” with the mix I had chosen, he went straight to my drive to scan my alternate mix choices for the song. Since they were all in a folder named after the song, and had file names that told him what made the mixes distinct he was able to find his alternatives very quickly and keep us moving forward. I took a moment to pat my self on the back, feeling at the height of organization!
We mastered a couple tunes, and I could totally start hearing a major difference. As the end of Song #3 played, the bass was ringing oh-so quietly for what seemed hours after everything else died. I had never heard that before. Easy to “fix” in this case, but Scott told me that one of the most common mistakes made in studios is either abruptly cutting off quiet parts at beginnings and endings, or, alternatively letting something very quiet (chair creak, voice click) stay in the mix that shouldn’t. The mastering environment is unforgiving in its exposure of these little bits. In a recording studio, with computers and gear whirring, there is a limit to what you can hear through the speakers. Before you print a mix, make sure to listen through headphones or you might end up in mastering and find all sorts of little sounds popping up or disappearing inelegantly.
I’ve just been over at the Masterdisk website editing some of the text on our Vinyl page. It’s a good article that was originally put together by Scott Hull to highlight why a) a potential mastering customer might want to master for vinyl as well as digital; and b) what’s cool and different about vinyl. Though it has a more of a sales bent than what we normally post on the blog, the content is excellent and I wanted to share it with blog readers that might not normally get to our main site. So here it is: “Masterdisk: Over 35 Years of Vinyl Mastering”. I hope you enjoy it. – jB
Have you considered joining the recent vinyl revival? Masterdisk is one of only a few companies worldwide that has been continuously making masters for vinyl. We have more experience cutting masters than nearly any other facility. Before digital, vinyl record mastering was Masterdisk’s sole business, and we were at the top of the heap. Producers would fly to New York from England on the Concord Jet just to have their records mastered at Masterdisk. We are very proud of that heritage and master vinyl records with great attention to detail.
Not All Record Cutting Equipment is the Same.
Masterdisk has maintained one of only a few existing VMS-80 lacquer cutting lathes. It is quite simply the finest disk cutting lathe ever produced. With it’s “modern” 1980’s technology, a master cutting engineer can fit a longer side at a louder level than any other lathe. You will find that many disk cutting businesses that have sprouted up recently are not using this superior equipment. Even experienced cutting engineers can’t produce the same results on lesser quality lathes. Channel separation, distortion specs, bass quality and transient integrity are all vastly improved with our cutting equipment. And modern enhancements and modifications extend the low frequency response, improve high frequency tracking and allow us to cut a louder and more dynamic record.
Record mastering was and is an apprentice-learned craft that took several years to master. Young engineers and studios have to experiment with hundreds of variables to try to achieve a high quality cut. We’ve seen all of the problems and pitfalls that can beset a vinyl project, and we get it right the first time. Choose your vinyl mastering engineer carefully. We can make your records sound amazing!
Plating and Pressing.
Once your record masters are cut you’ll need to get them processed, plated and pressed into vinyl records. This too is a process where lots can go wrong, so choose a pressing plant with a great reputation. Give us some information about your project and we can help match you up with the best pressing — standard or any degree of “deluxe” — for your money.
What’s Cool About Vinyl?
People really cherish their record collections. Why? It’s because records provide a musical experience that you want to come back to. Vinyl returns us to a time when music was something to set aside some time for, not just something that you put on as a background to a day’s activities. Records are a very tactile and visual experience. Full-size artwork, combined with the hi-fi sound, makes vinyl a more immersive musical experience. And vinyl holds its value much better than CDs; on the collector’s market some vinyl trades hands for three figure sums. Whether it’s being spun on a high quality playback system or an inexpensive USB turntable, vinyl is resonating with people because it provides a rich experience and value for money.
Loud Records vs Loud CDs.
There are virtually no level wars on vinyl: the length of the sides and the depth of the bass in the recording dictate how loud the sides can be cut. In some music genres — like rock, hip-hop or pop — the compression and limiting used to “make it loud” can actually make the music sound small on vinyl. Interestingly enough, a heavily limited and compressed recording cannot be cut to sound as loud as a recording that has most of its dynamics intact. The cutting lathe needs the slightly quieter sections to help make longer sides fit better. If you know in advance that you are going to make vinyl, consider asking your mastering engineer to make a separate master for vinyl or at least making a second pass that has less peak limiting and allows the music to breathe. The vinyl will sound better, and it doesn’t have to be heavily limited to sound loud.
Cutting from Analog Tape.
Masteridsk is one of only a small group of dedicated mastering studios that can truly cut to vinyl directly from analog masters. Specially modified tape machines are needed to do this. There is a small computer in the lathe that needs to know what music is coming before it reaches the cutter head. This “preview” or look-ahead signal tells the lathe how much room to leave on the disk so that the next wrap (groove) will clear the previous wrap and not collide with the already cut groove. So, if you don’t have one of these specially manufactured preview tape machines, then you simply cannot cut from tape to the lathe. Many studios that claim they can cut from analog actually have to send the audio through a digital delay box, and send that digital signal to the preview and main converters. There is a lot wrong with this method, and because of that, most studios are not completely clear with their clients about their signal path to the lathe. If you have analog masters, you really should — if at all possible — plan on cutting directly from them. The record will turn out better.
Cutting from Analog Tape: Panic at the Disco
In 2008 Scott Hull cut the Panic at the Disco album Pretty. Odd. straight from tape. Scott says, “I did two distinctly different masterings for the record. One was only for the CD. It wasn’t terribly loud or compressed, but it had a competitive level and sonics for radio play and shuffling in iPods. For the vinyl, however, I re-mastered straight from the original analog mix down masters. This meant that I had to edit the heads and tails and splice the original master together. It was like it was 20 years ago! The bottom line is that the final product really sounds amazing.”
Expect the Best from Masterdisk.
Please call to talk with one our project coordinators about your upcoming cd and vinyl mastering. It doesn’t matter if you mastered your music at another facility or if you used one of our engineers. We will process your order, cut your record, and help you understand all of the details, with all of the quality, integrity and professionalism you would expect from Masterdisk.
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.
I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the Mastering Panel I participated in at the South by Southwest festival in Austin in March. It was a great opportunity to hear some opinions on mastering from some experienced engineers. The other panel members were Bob Ludwig, Adam Ayan, and John Merchant.
I’m glad to say that it wasn’t the now-typical rant about why you shouldn’t make your mixes really loud. Rather, it was a more creative look at what a mastering engineer thinks is important about the music — what really matters when you are tying to get noticed.
Bob Ludwig started the discussion with a brief history of the art of mastering, some photos and descriptions of equipment and philosophy from 30 years of experience.
Next, Adam Ayan discussed some of the mistakes artists make when preparing their music for release. He played several examples showing how an intuitive mastering engineer can extract more depth, emotion and value from a mix with a “just right” (as opposed to cookie cutter) approach.
I reinforced what Adam said, explaining that a first-class mastering engineer gets to know the producer and the artist, and is an integral part of the music creation process. An “e-mastering” approach will never achieve this. I asked the bands in the audience if their music has deeper meaning than just being “loud enough”. Of course it does! It’s important to look carefully at what’s lost when the primary focus is on competitive levels.
Then I played a few samples demonstrating that mastering can have a significant impact even on low-bit rate files. I played some 128K mp3 files of a tune with and without mastering. It was clear to me (and hopefully to the audience too) that even at these low bit-rates you still get more out of your music when it’s well mastered. For example, good tonal and instrument balances will translate regardless of the delivery format.
John Merchant, a well know mix engineer, kept us all laughing while showing us some very badly mastered examples to make the point — very graphically — that too much “mastering” is like too much hot sauce. The example he used was from Metalica’s “Death Magnetic” album. The CD version was played side-by-side with the much less compressed Guitar Hero version — showing just how ugly “loud” can get.
Unfortunately, the panel was very short considering all the opinions we could have unleashed! A lively Q & A was expected too, but time ran out before we could get to it. Hopefully we’ll get to do a panel like this again — it was a lot of fun. And I would have liked to have heard what questions independent artists might have about mastering. –Scott Hull