Dr. AIX's POSTS — 07 March 2014

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Yesterday, I discussed the appropriate and beneficial use of equalization on the “flat masters” during the mastering process. Not every mix will require tweaking but it is very common to move the knobs by .5 to 1 dB at various frequencies across the spectrum. Most producers appreciate the efforts of skilled mastering engineers during this stage of the mastering session. It’s a different situation when the dynamics tools are brought into play.

I’ve mastered hundreds of albums during the 14 years I operated the Pacific Coast Sound Works. My Sonic Solutions DAW, Bryston 4B power amp and trusty B&W 801 Series III speakers on their anchor stands worked fabulously and sounded great. And I did projects from across the musical spectrum…The Allman Brothers, Bad Company, Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Todd Rundgren and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. It was great fun…usually.

Following the application of moderate amounts of EQ to a project, mastering engineers evaluate the relative volume of the sequence of tunes. Just how loud is one song as compared to the adjacent songs and within the entire album. The non-linear nature of current digital audio workstations makes it very easy to quickly jump from one tune to another or within a tune and compare the “perceived” loudness. I say “perceived” because there are some clever tricks that can make a tune seem louder than it looks.

These days the visual display of a tune as a plot of amplitude vs. time is commonly used to judge the relative volume of a sequence of tracks. Engineers use these waveforms to a point but ultimately it’s your ears that matter.

Adjusting the relative volume of an album’s tracks means they are either going to have their amplitude increased or diminished. Remember this is relative change not an absolute one. However, it is preferable to bring the lower level track up to the level of the higher tracks than the other way around. The reason for this is because attenuating a PCM digital signal means shifting the bits to the right in the processing buffer. If there aren’t enough bits in the word buffer then it is possible to lose bits (because they have nowhere to shift to). You may be recording and outputting signals at 24-bits but you need to have at least 48 bit of “internal processing”.

Once the mastering engineer has “leveled” all of the tunes, the next step is to adjust the overall volume of the record as a whole. This is where you can get into disagreements. Do you want the album to be as loud as all of the other albums being released in the same genre? Think about shuffle mode in your multi CD player or your music server. If your album comes on and is not as loud as the previous or next album, what does that say about your record?

And it’s not just about overall level. How much dynamic range do you think is appropriate? The radio and iTunes are not kind to dynamic range. A recording with “real life” dynamics doesn’t work on those platforms. So the artists say one thing, the producer says another, the management says still another and the label gets the final word…and it’s usually bad.

I’ve heard that some producers send their “flat master mixes” to 5-6 mastering houses and then compare what comes back. They ultimately pick the “best” one…whatever that means. Other projects get continually sent back to the mastering house for “just a little more volume” because someone in the decision making chain believes that “louder is better” even though that’s been shown not to help sales.

The world of “Ultramaximizer” and other plug-ins that make recordings more punchy has eroded the pleasure we get from repeated listening. The question is do we want “hits” that can only be listened to a few times before fatigue sets in or are we looking for repeatability?

One final note: I’m a huge fan of John Gorka. His “Land of the Bottom” is one of my all time favorite albums…I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. It’s warm and sonically pleasing…and I love the tunes. So I purchased “Jack’s Crows” another John Gorka album issued by Windham Hill. It’s almost unlistenable. It’s harsh, brittle and very tiring. Everything that was wonderful about the first album was gone in the other. The tunes are great but the sonics suck. That was the mastering engineers fault. Death can come quickly to a great record.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(6) Readers Comments

  1. What about R128 and the use of LU23? Then everything would sound subjectively the same loudness, *and* there would be plenty of headroom.

  2. I’m also a huge Gorka fan. I’ve seen him live many times in a small club, but the AIX “The Gypsy Life” Blu-Ray is better :-). I agree about the sonics of “Jack’s Crows”. On the other hand my favorite Gorka CD is “Temporary Road” which has marvelous sonics – it’s also on High Street/Windham Hill, but with a different engineering team.

  3. I saw a live performance of Sara Bareilles on TV and was blown away by her dynamics. I did some research and found out that her record, Blessed Unrest, was nominated for Best Album and Best Performance. I read a review of the record stating that Sara had no dynamic range in her voice which I thought was very odd. I purchased the album anyway and quickly realized what had happened. They compressed the crap out of it — unlistenable! The GRAMMY people liked it! I guess that’s what I get for buying a Pop Album.

    • Sadly, there just isn’t any place in commercial pop music for natural dynamics. The Grammy’s are not really about quality…but then what award really is?

  4. All these very honest and informative posts on the art and science of mastering has left me in a state of despair. If we woke up tomorrow and discovered that all music was recorded in high resolution our next problem to solve would be spotty practices in recording, mixing, and mastering. And if that problem was solved what would be our next bottleneck in the system? This is why I feel despair. Will it ever be possible to get only Lands of the Bottom Line and no Jack’s Crows? I feel like the industry needs to develop a quality system to which it adheres. I bet it would drive sales up if everything was all Land of the Bottom Line.

    • It’s tough to stay positive about all of this spin and hype…but I try. The big push has to be back to the artists and the labels. And sadly, they aren’t listening to us OR the records they put out.

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