Matt Agoglia is a mastering engineer with a deep love for the album format. Talk to him about one of the recent albums he’s mastered — he always seems to have one that he’s particularly excited about — and you’ll pick up on just how keen his attention is to the nuances of the long-player. Matt is passionate about the album as an art form, and it shows in his work: listen to his work with legendary singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, or the pop-punk group Sleeper Agent, or avant-pop composer Mikel Rouse and hear for yourself.
Since this is the first “Ask the Engineer” that Matt’s doing, I thought we’d have to start with that very ephemeral but all-important aspect of the album art form: sequencing.
First of all, when we’re talking about sequencing, we’re not really talking about song order, right?
That’s right; I don’t really deal with song order. That’s usually dictated. Often the spacing isn’t though.
Do you ever get asked to contribute to the song order?
Clients sometimes ask for my input. The important thing is to have a storyline, a thread. To have highs and lows. With the song order you play around with those feelings. Make a journey out of it because you know, some people still listen to records all the way through!
What’s important about the gaps between the songs?
In the mastering stage you’re taking your mixes and turning them into a listening experience. How each song sits and breathes can enhance a listener’s enjoyment of the record. And that’s what mastering is about. Enhancement.
So how do you do that?
A couple different ways. You get projects where the artist has a specific idea about how each song should go into the other. Crossfades and things like that. Sometimes it’s very elaborate and they’ll send me an mp3 mockup and I can recreate it.
Other times, if we’re not doing elaborate crossfades, I ask myself how much time my ear needs to settle before the next song comes in. A lot of people like these really fast-paced records and I don’t think that’s ALWAYS appropriate. You can rob a listener of a better experience of your album by smashing it all together. It’s nice to have a mix of short and long spaces. Take the listener on a journey, and make it a pleasant one. Maybe it’s quick in the beginning then maybe you need an intermission. It depends on the music, of course.
So it’s by feel?
Yes. And you can really enhance a listener’s perspective on the songs. Music still has energy after the last note has died off. Sometimes the emotional response needs to subside, you need to have that time between songs. That’s what sequencing can add to a project.
Is there any particular technique involved?
A lot of times when people are sequencing, they listen only to the last few seconds of a song before trying to determine the gap before the next one. It’s really not ideal; you want to feel the energy of the full song in order to determine how much of a rest you’ll need before moving on. So I’d say that ideally, you’re going to get the best sequencing by listening through the whole album while you’re making your decisions. You’ll spend more time doing it this way, but it’s worth it.
I thought we’d take a moment to highlight a particularly interesting release coming up that was mastered here in-house by Scott Hull: the 3 CD, 1 DVD Sting box set 25 Years (due out September 27 on A&M Records). I sat down with Scott and he took me through the process of mastering this ambitious project. Hope you enjoy.
James: Hi Scott. Can you tell our blog readers about the new Sting set?
Scott: It’s an overview of Sting’s solo career — a 25 year span! Considering how production styles changed over that time, it was a very interesting challenge to make it all sound compatible. And really, not only was there a difference in the productions, but there’s just about every genre except metal in there! Rock, jazz, classical, folk… a very wide range.
James: Who is the set for? Diehard fans? New listeners?
Scott: I believe the intent is that it’s for both, which makes for some balancing. The established fans want the music to sound like they remember it, but new fans might benefit from a fresh think. I can tell you that this is not just “louder, brighter” mastering. The set has to communicate the core elements of Sting’s music: the drama, passion, intensity, creativity, whimsy — all of it. Some songs are intended to be big and some are delicate. The box balances that so a listener can put it on and hear the similarity and contrasts of the music through all the permutations of Sting’s career. We took an enormous amount of time to make sure we stayed true to the music while putting it in a new context for today’s listener.
James: When you say “we” who else do you mean?
Scott: That’s the producer, Rob Mathes, and Sting and his team.
Scott: Rob was there at every step of the mastering, sometimes attending, sometimes virtually. He was very interested in source selection — in making sure we found the right versions of songs. The complete and final versions.
James: Was there some difficulty in securing sources?
Scott: Some. It’s something that I’m starting to see more and more: a serious problem with the documentation of lots of music created in the 1990s and 2000s. As artists moved to smaller studios and home studios in the 80s and 90s, documentation practices went downhill. So now, years later, we find ourselves looking for masters, in boxes that aren’t comprehensively labeled, and in digital files that have no metadata. Is it a mix master? A flat transfer? The remastered version? The word “master” becomes meaningless when it comes to sorting out the files. In the case of the Sting materials, there was a little difficulty in a couple cases. At those points we had to just listen, compare with our ears to determine what version we had, and come as close to the intended result as possible.
I’m going to get on my soapbox for a minute — and this isn’t related to the Sting set per se. But this metadata problem is a big issue. There’s 20 – 30 years of digital recordings made now that have no metadata associated with it to tell you what it was made on, the sampling rate, or the machine. digital You’ve got 24/96 files that you have to closely scrutinize to find out if that’s the native sample rate or if it’s been upsampled. The metadata is only as accurate as the person entering it.
James: Can you give me any specific examples from the Sting project?
Scott: We received many files from Iron Mountain for Bring On the Night (the 1986 2 CD album) — they scoured the vaults and we found that all they had was the remastered stuff. We had to compare copies of the original and remastered CDs against the files we received to determine what was what. Eventually we found what we needed but it took some sleuthing. And keep in mind that this is a very major artist recording for major labels. You can only imagine what we sometimes go through trying to find the best sources for independent artists or artists who recorded for small labels.
James: Can you mention any surprises for fans on the new set?
Scott: Some songs from Dream of the Blue Turtles were remixed, and even if you loved the original versions these make for a great new experience. And overall, I think the context of the whole set really makes for a surprising listen — you kind of get a new look at some of this music you may have known for years because of how the songs now sit next to each other. I think the fans are going to love it.
This is the third and final part of an article about the mastering process by singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien. Read Part I and Part II. Visit Kirsten online at www.kirstenthien.com. -James Beaudreau
Modern Mastering Miracles In my song called “You’re Not Mine”, I was the “engineer” (with my Mbox, laptop, and hard drive) for the electric guitar session (at my guitar player’s house). We got a great performance and it sounded clean at the time, but with the dump trucks and other outside noise coming in the window of the “monitoring room” (a.k.a. the living room), I had recorded a couple of short, but detectable, channel overloads that I never heard until we got to the mixing studio. At the mixing stage, we tried and tried to fix the distortions with Pro-Tools but just could not do it. Re-recording was not an option for us from a time/budget standpoint, so I had to live with it. When mastering time came, I wanted to make sure, at the very least, that Scott had heard the crackles so he could make sure that his mastering didn’t do anything to accentuate them. Of course I also asked, “is there anything you can do to make them less noticeable, or even disappear?” Scott zoned in to the track for about ten minutes to see if he could mitigate the problem. I stayed quiet as he worked in this weird “hi-frequency-only” mode that literally made me feel dizzy. He went to headphones and I was out of the loop, until he switched the mix back on and played me the two “crackle segments”. I was speechless. The crackles were simply gone! It was a miracle. Now that I know this little trick existed, my mind raced to all my annoying mouth pops, and a drum-punch clip that we could never fix, and I knew I had a few items to attack using this little trick later!
Miraculous Limitations Even though I was thrilled to have my channel overloads and a few other similar annoyances fixed, that type of surgery can be time consuming. Ten minutes here and there add up, so the best thing is to come in with the cleanest mix you can. However, when you’re mixing and your mixing platform and engineer can’t seem to fix some pop, click or momentary distortion, consider trying to handle it in mastering. Be wary of trying fixes if heavy reverb, delay or other effects are applied around the problem. That will make the fix more difficult, time-consuming and possibly not even feasible.
Song Order, Gaps in Between and We’re Done! The last thing we did was clean up the beginnings and endings of every song. We set the final order and began working on the appropriate time delay between each song. At this point Scott had a suggestion about switching the order of songs two and three, putting the slower “You’ve Got Me” third, and the more up-tempo “Thank You for Saying Goodbye” second. Having already decided, then re-decided my song order about seven times before walking in the door with my drive, I already knew that in the pre-mastering environment, putting “You’ve Got Me” after “Thank You” just wasn’t working. For some reason, one of my strongest tracks, “You’ve Got Me”, just sounded momentarily disappointing coming after “Thank You”. I thought it was the tempo, or going from one key to the other that was creating this little let down. But when we tried the order post-mastering, it was incredible to see that problem disappear and the song really represent well in that very same order I had rejected at home! I can’t put my finger on exactly what made it work, but something we did in mastering made those two songs work in that particular order.
We were done! We stayed pretty much on schedule after subtracting lunchtime and some extra chatting here and there. Scott explained that he would keep the “real-time master”, which is the best copy that can be made from the computer. His assistant would create four reference copies for me to pick up in a couple hours or the next day. I could then listen and “live with the master” for a few days or as long as I needed to decide if we wanted any touchups or to change a song order. When I was ready to pull the trigger, Scott and his crew would handle sending the best copy to the manufacturer. (And of course I asked him if there were any particular manufacturers he liked.)
After-Hours Chat I asked Scott a few questions I had been mulling over during the session. I wanted to know how much time he spent on a big-budget album compared to an indie project. His answer surprised me: unless there are major problems with a mix, he usually finishes any LP master in about the same time frame — a one-day/8-hour session. It’s the revisions and multiple mastering sessions that drive the prices up. At its most extreme, Scott divulged an experience he had with an unnamed Grammy-winning artist he worked with years prior. Having already re-mixed several times and re-mastered over the course of two weeks, the album was finally sent off to manufacturing. A few days later, during a mastering session to prepare singles, the artist turned to his producer and said “Why didn’t we put background vocals on this song?” He began singing a harmony part and it was clear that it was important enough to act on. Calls were made over the next few hours, and within days, the presses were stopped on the CDs at manufacturing; background vocalists, producers and engineers flown in and out of town quickly; and the background vocal track was actually laid over the mastered track right in the mastering studio before the master was sent back out for replication. That last-minute change cost them, but the song and the album went on to win several Grammy awards.
I hope to someday have a budget that allows me to follow my creative impulses at any point in the process, but that’s not today. If I want to win a Grammy on my budget, preparation, good research, and being willing to spend money on the important things are the only way. In the end, I got the same mastering treatment as the Grammy-winning artist — the same ears, experience, skill, equipment, and listening environment. My record sounds polished, ready to be heard anywhere, and I’m I’m proud to present them to my fans. Now, everything I’ve lived and breathed for over a year is sitting in my little hand, and I’m faced with the question that Scott says he hears often as the mastering session winds down: “So what the hell am I going to do with myself tomorrow?”
A FEW ARTICLE “BONUS TRACKS”
How Scott Fixed the Clicks Clicks and pops are mostly isolated to the high frequencies, so Scott isolated everything in the mix above 15k. He generated a soundwave of just that frequency range, so that he was able to see and manipulate the problem area in Sonic Solutions. His adjustments were done at a level of precision that we would never get in the Protools environment. Sonic Solutions and his other gear used in the mastering process are designed for this type of precision. At the same time, the problem has to exist in a pretty narrow EQ range and if there’s heavy reverb/delay on the problem, you can’t isolate it as well. In layman’s terms, average harmonic content is figured for the problem region and for a small region before and/or after the problem. Using mathematical algorithms, Sonic Solutions generates a mirror image of a specified range of the sound wave and reforms a single non-clicking wave using “interpolation”. (Get your old math books if you don’t remember that one.) The tool is very different from anything that is done in the recording studio environment and “should not be tried at home”.
Some Factors that Make Mastering More Important than Ever MP3s – Especially for indie artists, the first listen that many people will have of your recordings is from a super-compressed MP3 file, and possibly through computer speakers. If you do not master your tracks, you have less control over what will “pop” out in this format.
Home recordings and traveling hard disks – Many, if not most of us, nowadays do some recording or editing of our tracks in a home or project studio. We record and mix in a number of different locations before the project is done, adjusting as we go along. Drawing all these disparate sounds together into one cohesive unit is a major task of the Mastering Engineer.
More competition through greater access to recording gear – Almost anyone can come out with a CD today, with very little expense. The barriers are down, but the desire for the best quality music hasn’t gone away. People make decisions very quickly (like, in seconds) when it comes to judging new music. Don’t let some funky frequency, disparate volume levels, or a mix that sounds right only in your own studio be the cause of your music or artistry being dismissed too quickly. Other artists, producers and even industry folk may see through this to your undeniable talent, but the general public is not as forgiving. Make sure they want to buy your next CD too!
I hope you enjoyed our presentation of Kirsten Thien’s excellent article about the ins and outs of the mastering process. Check out the album which was the subject of the article, You Got Me, here.