Why Mastering Isn’t Needed In High-Res Audio
Steve Wilson is an artist and audio engineers that has contributed to a growing catalog of 5.1 surround music. He’s considered one of the strongest advocates for high-resolution, surround music and that makes him a hero in my book. Steve has been working with 5.1 surround music almost as long as I have…since the days of DTS Entertainment and their 5.1 DTS encoded CDs. You can find surround music from Yes, Jethro Tull, Tears for Fears, XTC and his own solo productions. This is an artist/engineer that gets it.
And he’s a fan of using 96 kHz/24-bit PCM instead of 48 kHz or any lower standard. He admits that the difference is quite subtle but says, “Even if the difference is 0.1 percent better, why wouldn’t you do it? There is information in those tracks that’s missing when you listen to a CD.” I’m in complete agreement. It’s easy to move up to 96 kHz/24-bits…that’s the bottom line for Steve these days.
There’s a terrific interview with Steve Wilson at Digital Trends that is well worth the read. You can check out Mike Mettler’s piece by clicking here.
The most important position that he talks about is how mastering is damaging the quality of music being delivered by artists and labels at all levels. He said this in the interview, “I know we’ve talked about this before, but I think it’s worth saying again that all of this high-resolution stuff is pointless if the mastering sucks. Bad mastering is more of a problem than things being released at CD resolution, or even MP3s. What’s nice about this move to 96/24 is the amount of things that are coming out in flat transfers — no compression, and no mastering engineers fucking up the sound. That is a very, very good development in the history of music.”
I’m not sure I agree that moving to 96 kHz/24-bits has actually resulted in less heavy handed mastering…it’s certainly not true in the commercial world of music production. But I’m encouraged that he avoids mastering entirely for his projects. When he’s happy with the sound of the surround mixes, he considers himself done. There is no need to visit a mastering studio and have modifications done to the timbre and dynamics of his work. I couldn’t agree more despite having spent 13 years as a mastering engineer. If fidelity is what you’re interested in, then mastering should be avoided.
“The simple answer is I don’t have any of my work mastered. It goes straight from my mixes — flat transfers onto the disc. And that applies to the mixes I do for the Yes reissues, the XTC reissues, the Jethro Tull reissues, and of course my own work too. And it’s amazing how many of the musicians I speak to, when I say to them, “I don’t want this mastered” — they’re initially shocked. But then they understand. Why would you need this mastered? You’ve approved the masters and you think the mixes sound great, so why would you not just release them as they are?”
This approach isn’t going to work with every project. And there are obviously occasions when mastering is required. But it’s certainly refreshing when a serious artist acknowledges that mastering is a problem and not a solution in record production.
23 thoughts on “Why Mastering Isn’t Needed In High-Res Audio”
Amen Mark. Musical inflections should be the domain of the artist. Listening to AIX cuts, my initial impression was a relaxed analog presentation. The dynamics were fluid, not contrived for whatever objective. Putting “slam” into recordings, is best described as marketing. Just give me the music.
WOOHOO, That’s music to my ears 🙂
I’ve been very verbal in the past for a return to minimalist recording and stand firmly behind it. The more crap between the microphones and final mix we can remove, the better the recording sounds.
Interesting article and it made me go search for his remaster of “Songs from the Big Chair” starting with download sites since I don’t spin discs.
HDtracks doesn’t have the Steven Wilson version, but I found this on their description about their version of the album:
“Songs From The Big Chair was originally recorded on 1/2″ analog tape in 1983 using a digital compressor that cut frequencies higher than 20hKz before being written to tape.”
So what’s the point of remastering it at 96 kHz/24-bit PCM? It can’t be any better than the CD or is his remaster so good that it’s worth the money even if it isn’t “hi-res”?
Chris…curious. The digital compressor probably couldn’t run in high-resolution and thus the output was 20 kHz down. Too bad. There isn’t any reason to remaster something like this unless they go back to the analog tapes.
Wilson’s work on “Song from the big chair” is fantastic. He went back to the original session tapes before any mixing and mastering took place. On some of the tracks frequency response goes high as 30kHz. I don’t own the HD Tracks version but I have the boxset with the DVD-Audio which I ripped to my NAS. Excellent stuff.
Thank you for yet another great article Mark.
“What’s nice about this move to 96/24 is the amount of things that are coming out in flat transfers — no compression, and no mastering engineers fucking up the sound.”
This is honestly what I want to hear when listening to music, I’m glad Steve works this way.
BTW, What a great interview that is with Steve Wilson.
Don’t neglect to read it!
Mark, could you educate one of the unwashed masses. What was the initial reason for mastering years ago, and in what situations would you still want to do it?
Mastering is tremendously important for compilations or albums that were done in a variety of studios. But the mastering process these days is all about maximizing the levels. All loud all the time.
If pop-rock CDs and been done this way from the start, there might never have been a vinyl resurgence among audiophiles. Hipsters yes, DJs yes, but not audiophiles.
And that’s a real shame. Because the reputation of CD was *ruined*, and I’m not exaggerating. And the reputation of digital audio was tainted by association.
THAT’s how much damage has been done.
I think you’re right. CDs can do a really great job…certainly better than vinyl LP but they suffered from “CD Mastering”.
All right, we all agree with what he said. Has anyone heard his new album “Hand. Cannot. Erase” yet?
Yep! ….pure genius… again! 🙂
Haven’t had a chance to sit down to the 5.1 bluray yet (got the delux edition) as I need my wife to take kids out for a few hours – I like it loud!!… But, listening to CD in car makes it very hard to leave the carpark 😉
All right, we all agree on what he said but has anyone heard his new album yet? Is it available in high resolution?
I got the Tears for Fears album, but did not read the info beforehand. Yep, I checked as soon as I had the album and was baffled to see the straight cut off at 22 kHz in Spek. But this is not the only album out there. More or less everything recorded from 1983 on that made money was recorded in digital 16-44.1. All those idiots that say the SACD of Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits) is the best sounding version ever are simply dreaming. I checked this one also and sure enough, at 22 kHz is Los Endos.
I have a couple of the Yes albums and yes (!) the sound is spectacular. Good work Steve.
I gotta disagree with you, Mark, on this one. Heavy-handed mastering makes pop/rock music sound better.
I recently bought a five-disc set of Soundgarden albums, of which one CD is a compilation of various concert performances. Wow, how pitifully limp Soundgarden sounds in concert versus how crushing, how monumental, how HUGE they sound on disc….. Chris Cornell’s vocals are the worst, buried so deep in the mix, but even the guitar, bass, and drums sound soggy and tired by comparison with their highly mastered and punched-up studio albums. I’ll take interventionist Soundgarden ANYDAY over “natural” Soundgarden.
For classical, though, mastering is unnecessary, though the dynamic range of some classical discs is almost absurdly broad to the point where I’m forced to ride the gain…… or risk (more) hearing damage.
There are some genres of music that benefit from heavy compression…but it happens most of the time in the studio prior to mastering.
Hi Stevie, gotta remember that Steven Wilson is a progressive rock musician and composer, and is remixing Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson et al, with the full endorsement of the likes of Robert Fripp. He knows exactly what is necessary for great pop-rock sound, and what isn’t.
I suspect that your anecdote about bad live sound was just that: bad live sound, and not related to what is needed on a mixing desk in the studio.
Totally agree that dynamic compression and other effects are part of the great sound that some songs have. The question being asked here is, once the ‘right’ sound for the music that the band wants to create has been achieved in the studio, is there any need to further crush it into the top few dB of the final release medium? The answer IMHO and the opinions of Mark (I think) and Wilson (I think) is, ‘No’.
“I gotta disagree with you, Mark, on this one. Heavy-handed mastering makes pop/rock music sound better.”
WRONG, and the proof is right there on that live concert performance CD. If crushed to the limit where no dynamic range exists any more is what Soundgarden wanted, that’s the way they would have it sound when performing live. It’s not Soundgardens intent to sound like that, it’s the mastering engineering, producers, and label exexs.
If you enjoy having your music sound like that fine, that’s your choice, but most of us don’t. Send a few letters to the equipment manufacturers and tell them you want them to re-introduce the LOUDNESS button they used to have on all receivers and pre-amps, and ask them to this time max the compression levels. Then we can all have what we like, Natural or badly distorted.
What I find distressing is that I would LOVE to have a copy of Steven’s 5.1 blu ray of Jethro Tull Aqualung. What I found is the only way to purchase it is to buy the Deluxe set that includes the 2CDs, 2LPs, a book, etc. Best prices I see is around $150 on eBay, bummer. Why am I forced to lay out all this $ for extras I have no interest in. I’d like to tel him what to do with his LP,s. I’ve seen this from other record companies, to get a 5.1 DVD SACD BLU RAY you have to buy a package inc LPs? Don’t make sence except to rape my pocket.
I didn’t realize this..time to look into it.
Mark, I’m just chuffed your talking about Steve Wilson… and glad to hear he has your approval …not that it would bother me either way – the music speaks for itself 😉