Dr. AIX's POSTS — 06 July 2014

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What type of individual does it take to be a mastering engineer? Is it more important to be a musician, an audiophile with golden ears or a highly skilled audio engineer with extensive knowledge of audio hardware and software systems? When I’m counseling incoming audio students at the university, I try to layout some of the career opportunities available to audio professionals and I always ask how much musical training they’ve had in their lives. Did they take private lessons or maybe they played clarinet or trumpet in the junior high school band. If they answer that they’ve always loved music but have had no formal training in it, I try to steer them towards audio careers that don’t require knowledge of music. In our program, the students have to augment their audio studies with a “minor” or 12 additional units in digital graphics or music. Almost all of them choose digital graphics because it’s easier.

It’s not essential that a mastering engineer know what a key signature is or the notes of a dominant 7th chord in the key of E major but it sure doesn’t hurt (B D# F# A). However, the ability to carefully listen to a selection of music and identify individual timbral characteristics AND make adjustments to change them is essential. It takes lots of experience to know what makes a bass guitar “tubby” or “tight” or how to pull a male vocal forward slightly using the formant inherent in the male voice’s harmonic structure. Being a musician lends certain credibility to a mastering engineers resume and does provide a degree of sensitivity.

A mastering engineer’s primary job is to listen with the ears of musicians and makes adjustments with the skill of audio engineer.

So I was very intrigued when I received an email from a new company called LANDR, which sells a subscription online “mastering” service. They define mastering as, “Mastering is the art of refining and polishing finished stereo mixes by making subtle adjustments to equalization, selectively adding compression, limiting, stereo enhancement, and other psycho-acoustic tricks like aural excitation. Are you excited yet?”

MixGenius did the development of the site and the service. They claim to have, “incubated and refined algorithms developed over eight years of university research, testing and tweaking based on feedback from trained audio experts. Our team is composed of music industry veterans – award winning mixing engineers, top-level DSP programmers, musicians, producers and label owners – who know exactly what the mastering process needs to deliver.” Clearly, this company believes that the way to better sound is to let their algorithm work its magic.

If you want your tracks to sound punchy, louder and fatter, then LANDR may just be the cost effective way to achieve your goals. If you purchase the professional level service, you get to choose between “Light”, “Medium” and “High” level of mastering. In my analysis of their service (yes, I signed up for the profession plan) and the results of their processing, each successive level increases the amount of compression applied.

We’re headed in the wrong direction with regards to mastering. Suddenly, all you have to do is drag your mixed track over their drag-and-drop site and in a few minutes you can download the finished master track. “LANDR revolutionizes the mastering process with drag-and-drop simplicity, achieving results that rival professional studio work in minutes.” I’m not sure that Bob Ludwig, Steve Hoffman or Steve Marcussen would agree that an algorithm could accomplish mastering tasks with the same quality they do.

But this trend does take us one step closer to having every piece of music we hear sound dynamically flat and juiced in the low and high end. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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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.

(10) Readers Comments

  1. This is in response to the discussion on Dr. Aix of marketing high resolution and the absence of 3 X benefits of hi res over standard CD. Recently I acquired some CDs produced in 1994 as Vanguard Classics discs from 1959 and 1960 35 mm Everest Recordings source material. Not being all the knowledgeable about technical issues, I read with some interest (and less comprehension) that these discs were made by digitally transferring from the 35 mm sources via “Sony 20 bit super bit mastering.” Somewhat sceptical, I took a listen. I was amazed to hear startling fidelity, superb sound staging, subtle dynamics … in short, all the things I want to hear from a recording. I know enough to believe that the 35 mm source tapes would not be considered high resolution by Dr. Aix. I also believe that when I listen with appropriate playback equipment to a high resolution vs. lower resolution version of the same material, I can hear a difference in favor of high resolution. But my issue is that I suspect that once CD level of resolution is achieved, it could very well be that the sources of variance that contribute to the overall aural quality of listening material stemming from sources other than the resolution of the end output could very well be greater than that of the resolution itself, once a minimal, say CD level is achieved. I don’t doubt that a high resolution version of the Everest product would be even better, if one were available. But in the absence of this, there seem to be many other factors contributing to the listener’s satisfaction, to the fidelity of the recording, which may contribute as much or more to the listener.

    Certainly this is relevant to the marketing discussion. I’d be interested in thoughts about these subjective reactions.

    • The track width of 35 mm film stock used for audio recordings is actually much better than traditional two-track analog tape…but the specs for speed fluctuations and wow/flutter are completely unacceptable. There were some sprocketless machines built but this was much later. A digital process could restore them quite well. It all comes down to the best production processes over the format.

  2. Hi Mark–I receive your posts, and enjoy them a lot. I recently came across–( Devialet amps and Architect of Sound Recordings ) If you have not heard about this you will want to look at the site. I would love to hear what you think–Thanks for all your good work –Christos

    • I’ve listened to a few of the demo tracks…nice. I need to download the full res files to get a real taste.

  3. Hmmmmm? Reading Sunday July 6ths post prompted an idea. The part about your sales and marketing skills triggered an idea. You need help with promoting, marketing and sales of your recordings. See if you like this idea.
    I’m 62 and now retired due to health issues and have enough money coming in to sustain myself which means that I can put a full effort into this project. I don’t work by the clock. Whatever amount of time and work, that it takes to succeed, is what I do. In the movie Amadeus, Mozart said to the Emperor of Austria, “How can there be too many notes, that is preposterous. There are not too many notes or too few notes, there are exactly the right amount of notes for, (this piece of work)”. I was in sales and marketing most of my adult life. Of the 20 various sales positions I performed, I set sales records every time. The products were quite varied, from inexpensive to the opposite end. I won’t list all these things but will be glad to discuss same with you. I have a very simple philosophy that works for me and it goes like this. Honesty is beyond reproach. Listen 85 % and sell15 % of the time. Never work for money but work to succeed, the money will follow as a by-product of success. Know your product and competition. Kenny Rogers “The Gambler” track, “You never count your money, while sitting at the table, there’ll be time enough for counting, when the dealing is done”. I have a fairly extensive knowledge of computers as well. Here is an offer. I am willing to setup, market and sell your recordings, which are really good by the way, for no cost to you except for an agreed upon commission on new sales paths only so as not to interfere with what you already have in place. If you can’t lose and can only gain if I, we succeed it is a virtual no-brainer, to me, but then what do I know?. I really need a project to occupy myself. I’m currently living in Los Feliz which helps for access to you as there will be some brain picking and input necessary of course. Know your material and competitors. We talked for a bit at your booth at the Anaheim show recently. I do enjoy reading your daily letter and actually look forward to same every day. For me, this would be a good project because I believe in your views of audio recording and playback and the subject is really interesting, and fun. If your work is work, you are doing it wrong. Besides, I need a way to generate the funds for those JBL m2s. Please contact me, if only to tell me to jump into the ocean. We have a great match here, if you are willing. Thank you, sincerely, Walt Prill. Ph. 707-408-2699. Email prill.g@gmail.com.

  4. I hope Waves doesn’t catch wind of this, or they might build a tweak to their dynamics plugs that charges extra for lowering the threshold below a standard value as per the “range” of the package we originaly paid for.
    We will all need to pay into our WUP for the “Premium, Low Threshold, Super Slam Package” to continue to compete. 😀

    It amazes me that destroying the dynamic range, the very magic that helps evoke excitement and add to the emotion beyond that of harmonics, arrangement, etc. is so desirable.

    To me this is akin to skydiving at terminal velocity, having removed the thrill of the acceleration, it mostly becomes a lovely view from a great vista, but the thrill is gone.

  5. Mark,
    What would be your feelings on a more minimalist approach to “mastering”. IMHO there just may be TOO much being manipulated between the mic’s and the recording format.
    In my 40+ years of music collecting the absolute best sounding recordings I own were done by David Manley of ViTaL records and VTL/Manley electronics.
    http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue65/manley_recordings.htm
    People can make what they will about what all his custom built equipment added to the sound of the recording but I believe it’s more a result of the minimalist signal path and microphone technique that makes the few recordings done in his ViTaL studio such standouts. All that need be done is to listen to the first minute of the first track on the album The Doctor by Doc Powell, as it opens with the drum kit most listeners at my digs heads snap around. I’ve never heard the cymbals sound so much like real vibrating brass instead of a open air hose.Then the bass kicks in and the realism that follows has never been surpassed to my ears.
    I can’t help but wonder what a recording using your state of the art digital equipment and a Manley style minimalist path/ideals would produce. The results could be EPIC!
    RIP David

    • Sal, David Manley was an amazing designer and uncompromising audio engineer. In spite of the fact that Teresa wrote the PFO article and the fact that I have not heard any of his recordings, I can believe that a great minimalist recording done with uncompromising attention to details would result in a very good recording. I used to record exclusively using a stereo pair to my Nagra IV-S machine. My preference is for a closer and more present sound these days.

  6. Back on topic, if you will. A few months ago I received a gratis invitation to try LANDR’s MixGenius but, in spite of (or perhaps because of) teaching an audio class at the time, never got around to putting it through its paces. Which I would’ve done with great skepticism, once I got past calling a computer algorithm a genius. Thank you, Mark, for confirming what I thought all along – it’s merely more of the same that I’ve also avoided all along.

  7. I have the Kate McGarry tracks in 24/96 from Linn, they are very good.

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