We Hear More Than We’re Supposed To Hear: Mastering Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature

Steely Dan - Two Against Nature
Two Against Nature
I’ve had the pleasure over the years of working with many great artists. Watching some of the masters of our business do what they do best. It’s been a behind the scenes look, a close up, without the cameras and public attention. In this environment you really get to see who these creative people are. One of my experiences was with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan.

I was mastering their Two Against Nature CD with them in my mastering room. We had spent many hours over the course of several days getting all of the songs exactly the way they wanted them. Using the right equalization, the right level, fades and timings. There was one song that Donald was not content with. We experimented with EQ frequencies and such for quite some time. What was interesting about this was that even the most minute changes in EQ had a profound impact on the mix.

Steely Dan’s songs are mostly very sparse, carefully crafted sounds blended so that the individual elements aren’t immediately apparent. In this case the overall sound of the song needed to be a little brighter, as in more “present” compared to the other tracks on the record. But when EQ was added to make it brighter, one or more of the elements of the mix moved more than the other elements. In this way the EQ changes were more like mix level changes. We eventually came to a debate over whether we should add 0.2 db of EQ at 1,400 Hz or add 0.2 db of EQ at 1,250 Hz. The difference between these two settings would ordinarily be completely inaudible to most people, unless they had trained their perception. For Donald however, who was deeply aware of how his record sounded, the difference was huge. At the first setting one of the shakers in the mix seemed to sound louder and dominated the mix in a way it hadn’t before. At the other setting the snare seemed louder, which was the intention, but it was too much. He asked me if we could split the difference, but at the time 0.2 db increments were the smallest change available and there wasn’t another option. If I recall correctly what was finally decided was to not add the EQ. The track would be a tad less present than there other tracks, but the balance between the instruments would be what he wanted.

Be very aware of how a piece of music makes you feel. While manipulating sound with modern technology, perfection is often confused with better. Good, better and best are feelings inside that are linked to the emotional reaction of the listener. Perfection is often not the most emotional or compelling attribute of a recording.


“We Hear More Than We’re Supposed To Hear” is excerpted from Scott Hull’s extensive article “Ramblings about Music from a (Not Quite Yet) Mad Mastering Engineer” in the Tzadik/Hips Road book Arcana III: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn. Arcana III is available from Downtown Music Gallery and other online retailers.

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Randy Merrill’s Mastering of Darcy James Argue’s “Infernal Machines”

Infernal Machines
Infernal Machines
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).

Tracking room at Bennett Studios
Tracking room at Bennett Studios (Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
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.”

Darcy in the Bennett Studios breakfast nook
Darcy in the Bennett Studios breakfast nook. (Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
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 Merrill's mastering room at Masterdisk
Randy Merrill's mastering room at Masterdisk

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.”


You can purchase an Infernal Machines CD or mp3 download directly from New Amsterdam Records’ website, or through retailers like Amazon.

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.

Record Store Day 2010 Wrap-Up

The line outside J&R
The line outside J&R at 8:30 AM.
Well, it’s late afternoon on April 17, 2010 — Record Store Day — here in NYC. My feet are hurting and the limited Jimi Hendrix “Live at Clark University” is spinning on my turntable, so that means that it’s time to wrap up my RSD coverage!

I started out this morning at around 8:30 at J&R, way downtown. Since this was the store with the earliest opening hour in town, I figured I’d find a high concentration of the most fanatical record nuts there, and I wasn’t disappointed. The line outside (I estimate it was 100 people long by 9) was pretty mellow except for the occasional outburst of nervous anticipation. “What?! You got the Doors single? Doors?!” — that kind of thing.

And it was a pretty smooth operation once the doors opened — well, the first 20 minutes were a bit of a frenzy — and the stock of exclusive items looked comprehensive. (They didn’t have the Moby Grape 45 though — luckily I grabbed that later. It’s impressive.) It seemed like folks were getting what they came for. Store Manager Charlie Bagarozza said it was going to be a fun day; Record Store Day was off to a good start at J&R.

Brooklyn's Sound Fix Records
Brooklyn's Sound Fix Records.
Next up was Sound Fix in Brooklyn. I hadn’t gotten to cover the shop in the lead-up to RSD, but I would have liked to since it’s a nice place. It reminds me of Other Music; it’s got high ceilings, a similar shelving system, and carries predominantly indie stuff. But it does have its own vibe and is worth a trip. I didn’t realize that Sound Fix was as popular as it is — I got there about a half-hour after they opened and it was jam packed! It was all about the indie releases at Sound Fix, whereas at J&R it was more about the Springsteen, Stones, and John Lennon.

After some lunch I headed down to Other Music. They have their RSD down to a science there: lines around the block, because they were making sure that the place didn’t get too crowded. When I showed up ABC TV was in there. Crazy. I got to duck into the store for a few minutes and look around. It was mellow! Some soothing electronica spinning on the stereo, kinda quiet talking, everybody calmly looking through the racks… it was really well done. Other Music have been around for a while and they clearly know how to handle the big events. Kudos.

The line outside Other Music
The line outside Other Music.
I wrapped up at Academy Records on 18th Street which was doing some brisk business despite not carrying any of the limited releases. I usually find something cool in their bins — either CD or vinyl — and today was no different: a super clean Jeff Beck “Flash” LP, for $1. Now, Flash isn’t considered one of Mr. Beck’s finest moments (hence the price tag), but it IS Jeff Beck after all, and Epic pressings from the mid-70s to the early 80s sound real good in my opinion, especially when they have the MASTERDISK stamp in the deadwax like this one does.

Anyway folks, I hope you had a good time out there today and heard — and will hear — some good music as a result of Record Store Day. See you back here at The Masterdisk Record next week, as we get back to our regular programming with a story about engineer Randy Merrill’s mastering of Darcy James Argue’s critically acclaimed album Infernal Machines.

Limited RSD items at J&R
The limited edition wall 20 minutes after the frenzy.

Countdown to Record Store Day, Part 3: Other Music

The vinyl wall at Other Music
Vinyl at Other Music. Note Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music on the third shelf up, recently mastered here by Scott Hull.
Other Music is definitely the most photogenic of the stores I’ve visited this week in preparation for Record Store Day. It’s a small spot, but it’s got high ceilings, and it’s lit more like an art gallery than a record store. Not that aesthetics are the most important thing about a record store , but it’s an added bonus considering OM would still be a top 5 NYC record store even if it was a dump!

Other Music’s main focus is indie rock, plus significant sections on more obscure artists from the past 40 years, a nice international section, experimental, electronica (still don’t know what to call this genre), and the indie side of dance music. It’s probably an even split between vinyl and CDs, and they sell both new and used.

What Other Music can’t offer in selection they make up for with quality. The staff is plugged in to the music they carry, so what you get there is a carefully curated collection. They’re all about the cutting edge of the genres they specialize in, so it’s a good place to go if you want to bone up on what’s happening in music right now. Just take a look at what’s being featured on their shelves, and read the handwritten reviews taped up under the music.

CDs at Other Music
CDs at Other Music. Yes, I couldn't resist -- that's my CD Java St. Bagatelles in the bin.
As far as Record Store Day at Other Music — they’re doing it in style, with guest DJs taking over the store’s sound system for hour-long intervals (including Avey Tare from Animal Collective and Dan Houghland from Excepter), many limited RSD releases, gift cards and tote bags from Converse, and live in-store performances. The artists playing are The Drums and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and they go on at 9PM, an hour after the regular shopping portion of the day ends at 8.

Considering how small Other Music is, and how much cool stuff they have going on there, the place is going to be packed! So if you’re looking for one of the limited releases, you should probably get there early.

Special store hours for Record Store Day: 11AM to 8PM

Read more details about OM’s Record Store Day plans at their website.

Other Music Artist Wall
Photos of some of the artists that have played at Other Music.
Other Music Storefront
Other Music

The Mastering Panel at SXSW

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.

Mastering Panel with Scott Hull at SXSW 2010
The Mastering Panel at SXSW 2010: (L to R) Adam Ayan, Bob Ludwig, Scott Hull and John Merchant

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

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Scott Hull on Cleaning Vinyl

Weather Report 8:30
Weather Report's 8:30
A few weekends ago I was at a record shop here in NYC and a remarkable thing happened: I found the exact record I was looking for. It may not seem like a big deal, but if you ever hunt in the used record bins you’ll know that it’s a pretty rare occurrence. Anyway, the record was Weather Report’s 1979 double LP “8:30”. The price was right and the condition was NM (“near-mint” for you non-nerds); the only thing was that the vinyl was smudged with some pretty nasty fingerprints.

I’ve been playing vinyl since I was a kid (with a furlough through the 90s) but I haven’t had to do any heavy-duty record cleaning myself; occasionally I’ll bring a record into a shop and pay a couple bucks to have the record cleaned on a machine. But the fingerprints looked like a fairly simple job, so I thought I’d investigate some of online manual cleaning recommendations I’ve read over the years. I’m not talking about the solution-and-microfiber-brush combo for dust and light dirt — I meant to get involved in some water and soap.

The Smudged Record
A couple of the offending smudges.
Here’s what I gleaned from some online sources. Use distilled water to clean records. Some sites get crazy talking about super-duper distilled water. But that’s not for me — it would have to be plain old once-distilled water. As far as the solvent, there are some nutty ideas out there, but the one that kept coming up and seemed the safest bet was a drop of Ivory dishwashing detergent in a lot of water. But in case you’re rolling up your sleeves, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not going to go into record cleaning techniques or particulars here — you can find lots of info about that online. What I DO want to share with you is the following.

Working at Masterdisk I’m exposed not only to lots of cool stuff, but there’s also a wealth of expert audio experience walking the halls. And who better to ask about vinyl than Scott Hull? (who is, believe me, extremely knowledgeable about how records are made, played and preserved). Here’s what he told me when I asked him about cleaning records.

“I’ve got to emphasize: use very little soap! Too much soap makes a mess, can wreck the label, and doesn’t help clean anyway. You only need a drop of non-foaming soap to create a tiny surface tension in the water. And very little water is needed. A bristle brush, like a clean toothbrush, can help with super dirty records. I’ve seen dirty old pressings improve from double cleaning. But even new records benefit from a cleaning. It probably reduces their collector value, but it improves surface noise. Test pressings are VERY dirty and must be cleaned before evaluating for surface noise.”

The VPI Control Panel
The VPI Control Panel
“Though the DIY cleaning methods do work, with a little patience and clean cloths, the most predictable and professional results come from using a VPI motorized/vacuum record cleaner.”

“Occasionally I need to make a reissue from a vinyl source because masters get lost, damaged or stolen. Sometimes it’s just that vinyl sounds better than tape that wasn’t stored properly. Anyway, when I’m making a reissue from vinyl I’ll clean and transfer multiple copies of a record. I line each pass up in a workstation, then pick the quietest copy at each location; sometimes every few milliseconds. When you find a similar click in all the pressings that’s an imperfection in the stamper.”

Since we’ve got a VPI machine in the studio, I brought in my copy of “8:30” and a few other recent smudgy finds to give them a good cleaning. The basic process is this: the record goes on the platter and a special cap is applied to the spindle to hold it in place. The “turntable” switch is then flipped to get the record rotating. Cleaning fluid is applied around the record as it spins (making sure to keep away from the label). Then, as Scott mentions in his manual cleaning instructions above, a bristly brush is applied to the record’s surface. The brush evens out the fluid, and is used for some mild scrubbing. Lastly, the machine’s vacuum attachment (think of it as a fat turntable arm with suction power along the bottom) is spun out over the record’s radius. Flipping the “vacuum” switch on the control panel activates the suction. It only takes one rotation of the record to have all the fluid removed. As you can see from the photo below, it did a fantastic job.

Where has this machine been all my life?

Wet Record
The record in the VPI. The cleaning solution has been distributed with the brush.
The Clean Record
The finished record, after the solution has been vacuumed up.
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