Exactly That The Artist Wanted You To Hear…

I’m on a Linn binge here but I watched their very nicely produced 2:00 promotional piece for the “Exakt: The Source Is In The Speaker” and felt a few more words might help clarify their rather confusing message.

The final paragraph of the article, “What is a Studio Master?” asks why a Studio Master is the “best” quality? Remember that they started the piece with a misguided definition that a “studio master download is the highest quality music file available anywhere”. While that can true…the unfortunate part of the story is that it is usually not.

This gets us back to the production process…the magic that happens in an audio studio that is equipped to handle the mixing phase. In my building, I have a very large studio and control room BUT in the middle of the building is a smaller control room that is designed for mixing. There is no isolation booth to record additional parts.

A recent White Arrows project was recorded in the larger AIX Studio by producer Jimmy Messer. All of the drums, the bass, the guitars, vocals and percussion were recorded through an analog console to Pro Tools running at 88.2 kHz and 24-bits PCM. Jimmy gets a really warm and detailed sound but it’s his ability to craft exactly the right music feel for each song that kept the band in the studio for 6-8 weeks. Then the project is ready to be mixed.

The smaller mixing studio was employed. Mixing engineer Greg Morgenstein works with the tracks and carefully blends them together into the final stereo mixes. I stopped in his room yesterday on my way out and he explained that he used a lot of classic signal processors (both physical and plug ins), distortion pedals, an Echoplex and other clever tricks to craft the final sound of these tunes.

The artists, producers and label people all make comments and additional revisions are done until everyone is happy. THIS is what the artist “wanted to hear” as the folks at Linn stated in their promotional piece. But sadly, it’s not what YOU get to hear. This is NOT the “Studio Master”.

Following the mixing sessions, there is one more step that is required before the new tracks are ready for release. That step is mastering. A different kind of studio is involved and the process is completely different than the tracking or mixing stages. It’s got a reference quality set of amps and speakers, ideal acoustics and a simple mastering console.

When I was actively doing daily mastering sessions, the job entailed sequencing the songs, establishing the gaps between the songs (or segues), adjusting the tune to tune AND overall amplitude (which might involved some compression), equalizing each track to establish a consistent “color” across the album and then running it down (listening from top to tail). There might be some final tweaks but the final step is to enter all of the metadata (ISRC codes, P&Q data, CD-Text information etc) and produce a CD Master.

The mastering process has evolved over the years. It’s not the same as I remember it. The goal is not to maximize the musical experience any longer. The goal is to maximize sales…and that means make it louder. Get that special “punchy”, in-your-face quality that last week’s hit record has. That led to the “loudness wars”, which despite Bob Katz’s prediction are far from over. The mastering of the White Arrows record is NOT what the artists or producer wants…but it is what the label wants.

Then the mastering engineer goes to work on the “other” masters. There’s one for the vinyl LP release that is completely different than the one for the CD (radio promotion etc), there’s one that’s “Mastered for iTunes” (different again), a normal “reduced fidelity” version for Amazon and there’s one for the special edition that’s going exclusively to WalMart or Best Buy (it has a couple of unique bonus tracks).

So to say the “Studio Master” is the “highest quality” is just not true. People unfamiliar with the recording process might believe that there is a single ultimate fidelity “Studio Master” tucked away in a vault somewhere…but there isn’t. We’re given what we’re given.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was one for the audiophile market?


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.

12 thoughts on “Exactly That The Artist Wanted You To Hear…

    • Interesting…I’ll have to sort through the non-linearity position of this article. But it does on first read make sense.

  • Barry, Thank you for sharing. This very exciting article goes a ways towards explaining why we ought to look seriously at the need for a 50- or 100-kHz response to reproduce music in nature: It comes to us in thwacks and bursts as often as sinusoidal tones. It is the thwacks and bursts that are hard to reproduce. Getting it right is a missing piece in the audio quality puzzle, I believe.

  • Steve Lees

    And the irony here is that to produce the Audiophile version we all crave so much, costs, nothing as it does not require that ‘final’ step….

    • I’m pushing really hard to get the real “Studio Masters” before the final step…we’ll see.

  • Robert McAdam

    This is one sad story.

    I once owned 3 original Elvis mono Lp’s from the early 50’s recorded direct to master tape, vocals through a valve microphone with guitar. Sub masters were copied from this master and vinyl lp’s manufactured. According to writing on the Lp cover no mixing or altering of the original recorded sound was undertaken.

    These were the best Lp’s for natural sound I ever owned. They were so startling that non music people(HiFi) easily recognised this natural sound over anything else I owned.

    I sold these for $300 each but now I would hate to guess what they are worth.

    • It is certainly possible to capture actual musical performances and then get out of the way. The current music business is not interested in this style of record making…but I’m hoping there’s a place for it. I’ve recorded about 100 projects this way.

  • OK…. What you described as the Final Stereo Mix is what I think some of us call the Studio Master. From this, one might make a CD Master, someone else might prepare a Vinyl Master, someone else a MP3 Master, and 20 years down the track someone might make a Remastered CD Master. etc.

    • That’s right. We’re not getting what we think we’re getting.

  • Blaine J. Marsh

    This is the post I’ve been waiting for! Absolutely hate the fact that the label jumps in to the mastering effort. In my mind the Studio Master is the final mix that is turned over for mastering. That is what the artist and producer were satisfied with. That is what I want.

    • This is not going to happen. Mastering, done well, is a required step for the commercial release to a music project. But I hope that there’s room in their release plans to allow people like me to offer up a less compressed version. We’ll see.

  • Blaine J. Marsh

    Don’t you just love the fact that the new Beatles vinyl mastering eliminated the compression that was applied to the CD masters! I think that six really has turned out to be nine…


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