Back to the Studio Master

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.


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 thoughts on “Back to the Studio Master

  • Since you’ve heard the unmastered Sgt. Pepper’s album, is there a version of that work commercially available to us mere mortals that you would deem closest to the unmastered version you’ve heard? Might iTrax make Sgt. Pepper available for download in the near future (please, please, please)?

    • Admin

      The Sgt Peppers recording is truly amazing. Listening to the individual tracks is like being in the vocal booth with John and Paul as they sing behind Ringo during “A Little Help From My Friends”. The dynamics are well worth 24-bits but the frequency extension is not really that great. Obviously, I can’t make these tracks available for download. But I may plan an all day seminar at my studio for some special listening and discussion.

  • What I would like is for studios to release 2 versions: one say for CD and mp3: it can be heavily volume compressed etc.

    Another version in hi-res for audiophiles. With superior SQ as goal and without volume compression added just to make it louder. The hi-res/audiophile market should not be part of the Volume Wars.

    I recently bought a remastered CSN album at HDTracks in 24/96. They used the original master tapes, and did a great job in making a low noise remaster that reveals lots of detail. But I don’t like listening to it. They added enough volume compression to make it hard to listen to and even annoying in some places.

    I guess that volume compression is okay if your target is mp3 files that someone is going to listen to walking down a city street. But it really doesn’t belong in a hi-res audiophile release. There are at least some artists (Paul McCartney, Green Day) that have released hi-res remasters where they puposely left out the added Volume Compression.

    • Too bad this isn’t likely to happen. I got an email this morning from the engineer for one of the biggest stars…they will only allow one version of their albums to come out.

      • Except for vinyl, you mean? Which doesn’t get all the clipping and over compression? Not fair! If they allow a second version (on vinyl), they can hardly insist on only one!

        • True…but vinyl LPs are seen by artists as “cool” not as essential…certainly not for sound. I’m pushing back but am doubtful that decades of standard operating procedures will be changed by the demise of compact discs.


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