The final decision has been made and the louder master won…it usually does. An up and coming band, signed to an imprint label under Capitol Records has a new album that was produced in a studio across the hall. For the last several months, the members of the band have worked with their producer and engineers crafting 12 new tunes. The tracks sound great because they used lots of real drums, vintage guitars and collectible amplifiers, classic microphones and lots of analog equipment in the signal path before heading to Pro Tools.
The console in the studio is by Tree Audio and looks like a throw back to the early days in Abbey Road. It’s full of tube electronics and doesn’t even have linear faders! The guys in the band should be thrilled that they have a team and studio that is capable of delivering very high fidelity.
And they did. I heard this project as it developed from initial rhythm tracks to full band textures with vocals and everything finished. While what I heard was only temporary mixes at the time, I was impressed. The producer and engineer records at 88.2 kHz and 24-bit PCM with standard analog to digital converters. The sound that he achieves is NOT in the gear…it’s in his ears. He knows what parts to add to the basic tracks to enhance the tune and turn a simple chorus into a memorable hook. Sure he makes sure that the air conditioning in the studio are turned off when he records and takes great care to keep thing as dynamic as possible, but the key to great recording is the right combination of music AND technology.
Next step? Send the multitrack files to another studio in the building for mixing. Weeks are spent blending and shaping the individual tracks into a final mix. And it’s not easy. And it’s especially difficult when you have 30-60 individual tracks to fit into just two speakers. A good mixing engineer carefully crafts the different parts into specific timbral and spatial areas. It’s important to leave room for the lead vocal and shape the overall energy throughout the tune. The mixes for this project sounded great…very open and dynamically rich. And I like the tunes too.
Then it’s off to mastering where sequencing and other adjustments take place. All of the careful judgments that have been made over weeks of mixing are subjected to compression and other “enhancements”. At the end of the process, the artists, producer, engineers, mixing engineer and management have to be happy. Can you imagine how difficult it is to get all sides to agree on the final sound of the record?
This is where the decisions stop being musical and start being commercial. The manager, labels and radio station program directors all chime in with their commercial concerns. In this case, just when everyone thought they had achieved a consensus…the manager compared the final master to other current CDs in his collection. His verdict? It’s not loud enough. Send it back to mastering and have the engineer pump up the loudness a little bit. Against the better judgment of the other members of the team…the louder master is what was released. True story from the trenches of today’s production machine.
Sadly, consumers and fans of the band will never get the chance to hear what I heard in the mixing room. You won’t even get to appreciate the first master that had some real dynamics in it. All you’ll never get to listen to is the final master that has a dynamic range of about 4. This is state of the music business today.
It’s not likely to change anytime soon.