I was in the middle of writing my post this afternoon (I usually write in the mornings but I have university commitments on Mondays and Wednesdays.) when the phone rang. An engineer friend of mine called to chat for a few minutes. Last week, he had heard the sentence that I contributed to the NPR piece on Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records.
My friend is a very skilled and experienced mastering engineer at one of the major record labels. He’s been working there for 12 years and was recently put in charge of their mastering studios. As we got talking, he mentioned that he has been doing a lot of work for “one of my main competitors”. It’s his job to process the master tapes that are being licensed for their high-definition digital download site. What he and I talked about was the nature of the masters that are used to generate the high-end digital transfers that customers purchase on the site.
So first I need to provide a little background information.
We did talk about this stuff when I went through the notion of what’s a master and what’s a copy of a master. Well, there’s actually more to it than that. It turns out that there are flat masters, EQ’d masters, vinyl masters, CD masters, cassette masters and archive masters as well. That’s why the engineers that work in the mastering rooms are so busy…they have to keep track of many different versions of the same record. They are all different.
A flat master is the mix as delivered by the artist, producer and mixing engineers. In the past, it was a 1/4″ stereo analog tape at 15 ips (on rare occasions it might a 30 ips master). This is the master that the artist approved. It gets handed over to the mastering house and processed for whatever delivery format is to be included in the project’s release. This might be a vinyl LP, an analog cassette CD or iTunes…or now a high-resolution download website. The processing for each of these formats is different.
The EQ’d master is a transfer of the master tape that has had it’s timbral characteristics changed through the use of equalizers. An equalizer is basically a fancy set of tone controls. There are parametric EQs, 31-band graphic EQs, three-band EQ and a few more types. A mastering engineer also has a variety of filters that they can use to change the “color” of the flat master. There are notch, high-pass, low-pass and bandpass filters.
In preparing a flat master for release on vinyl, the mastering engineer makes alternations to the flat master in order to accommodate the technical limitations of vinyl. He specifically mentioned the regular need to collapse all frequencies below a certain frequency into mono. This is done to prevent the large low frequency undulations from causing the cutting head to move into negative space…above the surface of the lacquer master disc. You don’t have to do this for a CD release…the two channels are complete discrete (not so on vinyl LPs…this is the crosstalk specification).
Another very common adjustment made to vinyl releases is the extreme elevation of all frequencies between 12-15 kHz. According to my friend, “vinyl can’t physically deliver much higher than 15 kHz” so they push the high end to get as much brightness as possible onto a medium that has difficulty in that register. The folks that are all about vinyl LPs being the best representation of a recording are kidding themselves. They get a particular flavor that is unique to that format. It is NOT the same version that you would experience on another format. And it’s not best representation of the album.
But it just might be the version that is transferred to a 192 kHz/24-bit soundfile because it’s convenient, inexpensive to produce and doesn’t require any artist approvals.
Stay tuned…more tomorrow.