A Tale of Two Masters

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.


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.

11 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Masters

  • Total, complete, absolute despair. How can we develop a third path for releasing music, as opposed to product? How can we get more musicians to go through AIX Records’ process or similar? I’m hoping Pono restores an appreciation for natural music to a wide range of people. That will be a win for the owner and the readers of this blog.

  • headstack

    The loudness war has flattened the excitement of music for me, but in a world where people are supposed to be inundated by absolutely everything, what can be expected?

    In the mid 80 I worked at a studio in NYC where one of our clients used to bring me every piece of music he could get his hands on.

    My mission was to crush the dynamics at about 20:1 and print tapes so they would sound “Just like it does on the radio”.



    Do you think we will ever get past this mangling of the magic?

    Thank you,

    John Chase

  • So, what would all these program directors say if R128 was established in the industry? They *should* say, “Loudness is out of our control, so the one with the most dynamics is going to have the most impact. Pick that one.”

    Wouldn’t that be nice.

    Note: R128 is legislated in a couple of Euro countries and is getting well established as standard practice in others. All we have to do is get it rolling in the English-speaking world. Care to give it a push?

  • That account is truly sad; this may even be the reason I’d lost interest in a lot of new recordings. I thought I was just getting bored. I’ll just have to look for better recordings among the types of music that I like!


  • Édouard Trépanier

    Good for the radio stations. Good for the business.
    But this seems the right time to convince the artist in asking the label company to allow someone else use the master from the mixing studio in order to master an audiophile version. Isn’t?
    Once downloaded audiophile versions pick up sales, label companies will see another commercial interest and audiophiles will at last hear what the artists have heard and approve in the studio.

  • Phil Olenick

    I’m probably not the first person to suggest this, but maybe this is the time to get vocal about breaking away from the tradition of making One Mix To Rule Them All that’s “optimized” for everything from table radios to iPods, with a pair of lousy speakers being used to check the mix for “the masses” (a la Martin Mull’s song Why Don’t You and I Get Normal For A Change? – “Buy our records through the mail, get a pair of lousy speakers.”)

    Why not establish a counter-model of normally making different mixes for different distribution channels: one for compressed formats like iTunes and radio, and up to three – including audience and stage surround renderings – for Blu-Ray and high definition downloads. CDs would be a battleground, since they can be given less compressed mixes than they have been for decades, so maybe the HDCD route could resolve that – Joni Mitchell was commercially successful using HDCD encoding on all of her CDs.

  • Blaine J. Marsh

    If we were able to put Dolby B in the cheapest of Walkmen, why can’t we put a DSP in that will compress the music on playback? Surely the radio stations have no need for loud – they have had limiters and compressors for years. I know that iTunes has the feature of leveling recordings, but if I’m not mistaken, that is just a level shift not a change of dynamic range. I’ll buy the DSP (and not use it) if they’ll dial back on the compression.

    • Blaine, you have to understand the thinking behind the music industry. It’s not like you and I might want it to be…interested in the best quality music in the highest fidelity. There are people at the Grammy and labels that think that’s what they’re doing but they’re not. This is a business pure and simple with a few mavericks out there that actually care.

      I like you idea…but it will never fly.

  • It was always said that it was done so you could listen to it in a car! Most people’s hifi aint much better than a car stereo so they won’t notice if it’s a beautiful recording or a ‘loudness’ master anyway.
    When people like simon cowell tell us that ‘artists’ like kylie minogue and one-direction are true music then we have bigger problems than the loudness war, believe me.

    • Thanks a whole different topic! Cheers.

  • Hugh Lewis

    The “Loudness wars” are certainly a disaster in the current high resolution downloads. I have bought the Eagles Studio Albums from HD-Tracks 96K-24bit. They have been re-mastered.

    Having read this post and then done the rounds on the Loudness wars posting, I signed up to http://www.pleasurizemusic.com/ paid $30 and got their TT dynamic range meter.

    I converted my Flac files for the re-mastered “The Long Run” to 44.1K 16bit wav file and ran the meter and got a value of DR11. I then took my CD ripped wav files of “The Long Run” and ran the meter – DR15. I thought the new version did not sound as good. So there is absolutely no point in buying higher resolution digital downloads if they have been re-mastered. All the extra resolution of going from 16bits to 24bits has been wasted. I was hoping that the re-mastering to 24bit was going to improve the DR as there is so much more headroom. How naive I was! I will be looking for originals from now on and not waste my money on a bigger container.
    Buyer beware!!!!


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