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?