What is a reference standard music experience and where can you experience one? Is it sitting in the sweet spot at a professional studio during the playback of a newly mixed Led Zeppelin or Foo Fighters album? Or do you have to wait until the same flat master is manipulated by a talented mastering engineer in a reference two-channel playback environment? Alternately, you might get the best playback in your own highly tweaked system with Wilson speakers, VTL monoblock amplifiers from a Clear Audio turntable? It might also be that the best playback you’ve ever heard was delivered from an automobile system.
As a person that has spent my entire professional career in audio studios (both recording and mastering), I’d have to say that the engineers, artists and producers are making their aesthetic judgments in profession studios NOT the high-end consumer spaces that we have at home. It is true that standard operating procedure in music production includes a reference disc or file being played at home or in a car to make sure that everything that’s been done to the sound will translate to the consumer environment. I can remember walking out to the parking lot with a cassette or CD-R of a particular mix to verify the sound of a work in progress.
But the music that we consume is deemed complete when the mastering is finished and approved by everyone involved with the project. The artists, the producer and the record company have to all agree that the album is ready for the target market…the commercial music marketplace. It has to be able to play on the radio, in your car, through ear buds and headphones as well as at home. Can you imagine how difficult it is to craft a single master recording that will work equally well in all those environments? It’s very difficult and demands that sonic compromises be made. The master is NOT optimized for audiophile systems and golden ear listeners. We’re not getting all that we hope for.
As I discussed previously, there have always been multiple masters of the same record. And when people say they want the “Studio Master” they really don’t know what that means. It assumes that there is a single ultimate quality analog tape or digital file that is the definitive statement of fidelity for an album or track. The music production world just doesn’t work that way. But what if we could shift the model now that radio and compact discs are diminishing in importance? Maybe the high resolution digital download business can become the conduit for what we want?
It was a reader that suggested I tailor the refurbished iTrax.com site to be the “Reference” standard for delivering the highest quality digital music downloads available. Rather than simply be another site that offers the same digital transfers as other high-definition download sites, iTrax should continue to be a boutique shop that handles each project personally and without compromise. We’ve already seen that Qobuz and other sites don’t really care about the quality of their downloads as long as you buy them believing that they are “Studio Masters” and high-resolution.
So here’s my plan. I will reach out to the major labels and request that they license a few very highly regarded albums to iTrax. I won’t allow them to supply the digital master but will require the flat mixed master. I will do the transfers to 192/24-bit AND prepare the tracks a couple of different ways. As an experienced mastering engineer, I will master the new transfers in my room to my own taste (which tends to avoid heavy processing and timbral modification) AND offer the flat mixed masters on the site. Customers can choose which version they prefer.
I believe in giving people that care about audio quality the choice as to which sound they want. Chances are you haven’t ever heard the unmastered Sgt Peppers record. I have…and it’s amazing! Now I have to see if what I’m proposing is possible.