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.