Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Mastering Media Has Moved


You may have noticed I haven't posted here in a while. That's because I started this blog several years ago, when I still worked at SRT. But times move on, and I now run my own mastering company - Mastering Media Ltd.

The Production Advice website and blog has also proven to be highly successful, and my readers there are very interested in my perspective on mastering too.

So, I've decided to make it official - from now on all my posts will be there.

But it's still business as usual - I'm still posting regularly, and about all the same issues (plus some broader topics) - here are some recent popular posts you might be interested in, for example:





So please, head on over and say hello, if you haven't already ! Feel free to sign up for the RSS feed, and if you'd like to get the newsletter, there's a free interview with me, all about... mastering.

You can also connect with me on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

See you soon !

Oh, and PS - I never wrote my follow-up post, but the Beatles Remastered box-set sounds fantastic - I'm glad to say my predictions were spot on ! Get hold of it to hear a masterclass in re-mastering :-)


Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Why Mastering Sucks in the 21st Century

Image by Ennor - Click here for more info
This is a rant. If you don't like rants, don't read it.

The first argument goes like this:

  1. Mastering is just a matter of balancing tracks with each other using EQ, compression and limiting
  2. I can get mastering EQ and compression plugins free with a pint of beer, nowadays
  3. Why would I pay someone else to do my mastering ?


The second argument goes like this:

  1. No-body buys CDs any more
  2. Nobody listens to albums any more
  3. Everybody uses mp3 players and crappy earbuds nowadays
  4. Why would I pay someone else to do my mastering ?


The third argument goes like this:
  1. I sent my last CD off to be mastered, and it came back sounding no different
  2. I sent my last CD off to be mastered, and it came back sounding the same but a bit louder
  3. I sent my last CD off to be mastered, and it came back sounding absolutely terrible
  4. Why would I pay someone else to do my mastering ?


Case closed, right ?

When I started out as a trainee mastering engineer, over 15 years ago, one of the toughest jobs was explaining to people what mastering actually was. In those days it truly was a dark art, costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear just to obtain admission to the club. Nowadays you rip a few tracks into iTunes, burn a CD and you're a mastering engineer, right ?


Hmm.


My first set of replies goes like this:

  1. That's some of what mastering involves, yes. I wrote more about it here.
  2. You can buy plugins that say they allow you to do mastering EQ and compression, yes. Why don't the top engineers use them ? Leaving that aside for a minute, do you know how to use the ones you have ? Are your speakers good enough to hear what you're doing with them ? Do you have the experience to know exactly what things should sound like in your genre ? Do you know when it's a mix problem and when it's a mastering problem ? Let's try another tack. As a musician or record label, releasing your music to the world is a bit like having a really important job interview, and you need a new suit. Do you buy the cheapest, or the best you can afford ? Given the choice, would you have one hand-made by a master tailor using the finest quality material to fit and flatter your exact build and body-shape, or would you order one over the internet and hope for the best ?
  3. Why would you want someone else to do your mastering ?

My second set of replies goes:

  1. Actually over 75% of the music-buying public still want CDs. And soon all downloaded music will be losslessly encoded anyway, so it will sound the same as (or better than) CDs.
  2. True, no-one listens to albums any more. Instead, people listen to all their music on shuffle. Before long, all albums will be played at the same average level, as it is on Spotify, so you won't have those annoying jumps in volume, except where you're meant to for loud or quiet tracks. So it will be just as important to have your music correctly balanced in comparison to everything else as it has ever been, if not more so.
  3. mp3 players will soon sound as good as CD players - see above. And, crappy speakers or earbuds make everything sound crappy. As did AM radio. As poor-quality vinyl and record decks did. As analogue cassette did. As does DAB radio, and as do mobile phones. What's your point ? If recording high-quality audio was important then, why isn't it important now ? Do you WANT you music to sound crappy ?
  4. Why would you want someone else to do your mastering ?


My reply to all three parts of the third argument is:


That's because lots of people who call themselves "mastering engineers" have absolutely no right to the title. Putting it bluntly, they don't have a clue what they're doing, and they fuck it up on a daily basis.

For the last fifteen years, customers from every genre and at every level of the industry have sat and watched and listened to me work, asked questions, and offered opinions. 99% of the time they are delighted with the results, and come back again and again. Some of them have ears every bit as good as mine, and the equipment and skills to do the same things that I do to their music. Why don't they ? Other times I have sent people samples, and heard nothing back. Months later they book in for a session because they found it wasn't as easy as they thought to get the results they wanted, even with my example to copy from.


Who am I, Derren Brown ? Is mastering really the world's most elaborate confidence trick ?


Why would you want someone else to master your music ?


This post was inspired by a thread on the Sound On Sound Mastering Forum. Thanks for listening, I feel better now.


Monday, 31 August 2009

The Beatles, Remastered - some hopes, fears and predictions

The Beatles' digitally remastered catalogue will finally be released, in it's entirety, in just over a weeks time. As a complete Beatles nutcase, I can't help but be excited about this - but I'm also slightly nervous. 

I've written before about why I love the Beatles' music so much - and, in particular, the way that they worked with producer George Martin.

So, the idea of lovingly restored re-issues of these classic albums, revealing even more detail and magic, is exciting - whereas, the thought of heavy-handed processing or fashion-led mastering (can anyone say "scooped mids" or Loudness War ?!?) makes me nervous - especially when spokesmen have said the new releases sound "louder and brighter" than the originals.


Will these re-issues reveal the original masters in a new, inspirational light ? Or, will they be yet another cynical re-hash of music we already own ? Here are some of my hopes, fears, and predictions for this release.


Hopes

  • Better transfers Digital audio has come a long way since the eighties, when many of the original Beatles CDs were released. In particular, analogue to digital converters have come along in leaps and bounds. So, there is a distinct possibility that even a flat transfer of the original tapes would sound significantly better than the original versions
  • Sophisticated restoration Even more than converters, restoration technology has improved immeasurably over the years. Without a doubt the tools used will be made by CEDAR, who effectively wrote the book on this stuff, and they can achieve quite incredible feats - fixing problems with the original sources like hiss and distortion, without any of the undesirable side-effects that some of the older technology involves
  • Sensitive enhancement Make no mistake, the original CDs sound pretty good already - but that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. Not massive changes, but great mastering should be constant proof that "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts", and I hope these releases will be perfect examples of this. 

Fears

  • Heavy-handed processing The last Beatles re-issue I listened to in the mastering studio was the "Blue Album" - which sounded great, and incredibly clean. So clean, in fact, that we hooked out the original CD release of Abbey Road, and compared the two. Sure enough, the track we chose ("Come Together") had been de-noised - ie, the hiss had been reduced. Which I found an odd decision. Don't get me wrong, it's not that there were any unpleasant side-effects (artefacts) from the process - it's just that it wasn't that hissy to begin with. As George Martin has observed, the original 2-inch master tapes of these albums are incredibly clean - the only noise really comes from tracks where multiple reduction passes have been carried out.
  • Too loud No surprises I'd be interested in this issue ! But, you may be surprised to learn that I've nothing against the idea of making them louder, necessarily - just not unnecessarily so. The fact is, a certain amount of EQ, compression and limiting would certainly have been used in the original vinyl cut of these albums, and the goal of modern CD mastering should be to achieve a comparable result on CD. In fact, another reason that the original CD releases are considered to sound "cold" by some people may be because they were made from the final mixdowns rather than EQ-ed production masters. This is a common problem with early CD releases - it removes a generation of analogue tape, theoretically getting a cleaner transfer, but also risks missing out on some of the positive benefits of the vinyl pre-mastering process along the way.

Now know you know the things I think might be in store for these releases - finally I thought it might be fun to make some predictions about we will actually hear on September 9th


Predictions

  • This will be a low-level, anti-loudness war release Despite some speculation to the contrary, I'll be amazed if the levels on these are high by today's standards. The original releases had plenty of headroom, so I'm sure they will be at a higher level than that, probably with some gentle limiting - but these CDs will sound just as dynamic as the original releases.
  • The sound work will be subtle & tasteful - perhaps not even going far enough EMI's mastering studios have a track record of appropriate, restrained work, and I don't expect the Beatles' remasters to be any different. In fact, if anything these may sound too close to the originals for some - for example, fans of the "Love" mashed-up versions may be underwhelmed.
  • It will have been extensively restored and de-hissed - too much so, for some tastes As a mastering engineer, this is the aspect I'm most curious about. I have little doubt that the masters will have been painstakingly, exhaustively restored - how else could they have spent four years working on these releases ? The question is, how successful has it been, and crucially, how necessary was it ? Have they gone to the lengths of re-making all the reduction mixdowns digially - for example in "Strawberry Fields Forever" ? Will it have been worth it ?

But my final prediction is simpler and clearer - these remasters are going to sound great. The original CDs sound excellent - these can't fail to sound better ! And personally, I can't wait to hear them.


What are you expecting from these releases ? How do you think they will sound ? Will we be able to even hear the difference, or is it just a cynical ploy to cash in on the release of the "Rock Band" game ?


Update #3 - Most reviews seem positive about the remasters - if all goes well I'll have some feedback for you early next week. In the meantime, here are some interesting links about the released CDs:

Beatles Remastered 2009 (from Mix Magazine)

Mono or Stereo ? Help ! (Nice comparison of the two box sets, with samples)

Beatles fans deserve more in the remastering department (A less positive take on the new versions)


Update #2 - Lots of requests for opinions about the final release coming through - I'll posts something as soon as I can !


Update - thanks for all the great comments on this post ! It turns out I was right about the use of CEDAR, but much more interestingly their ReTouch software was also used in a far more radical way - to remove entire instruments from the mix for the Rock Band game:


Using CEDAR ReTouch in creating The Beatles' Rock Band game


We use ReTouch for traditional restoration tasks, but removing complete instruments - wow! Hats off to Giles Martin for that idea.


Meanwhile here's an article about the making of the game from Wired magazine, if you're interested:


The Beatles Make the Leap to Rock Band


And, here's another article, this time from the New York Times


While My Guitar Gently Beeps


Thanks to Thomas Matteo, dk and Various for the links.



Thursday, 9 July 2009

Dinosaur Jr mastering fault - recalled for being too loud

This is NOT what you want your album to look like when assessed using the TT Dynamic Range Meter. This is what a dynamic range of 2dB looks like, and it sounds like shit. In my opinion. And almost everyone else's, too.

And with the new Dinsoaur Jr CD, "Farm", we now have another example - but this time, there's an interesting twist.

Mastering engineers are unanimous in their verdict that music sounds best with a dynamic range (DR) value of at least 1o dB

Both TurnMeUp.org and DynamicRange.de argue for DR14 or higher, for example.

In stark contrast, the song "Plans" from the European release of "Farm" by Dinosaur Jr measures... DR2. (2.1, to be exact)

"The Day That Never Comes" from "Death Magnetic" by Metallica is also DR2, (2.6) and to be honest, they sound quite similar in one way - both are massively distorted.

What makes the Dinosaur Jr CD different is that the record company have recalled it, saying the European release has been made too loud by mistake:

Dear Dinosaur Jr. Fans,
Please note that on the European CD version of the Farm album there is an audio problem. This occurred while duplicating the original master in a duplication studio. The problem occurred when the duplicate was produced, as the software program used for this duplication ‘doubled’ the sound layers. This resulted in a 3dB increase in the overall sound volume.
If you have bought a CD of Dinosaur Jr.’s Farm album in a European shop with the bar code number 5414939004926, and you would like to exchange it with a good version, please go to this site

So first of all - hats off to the label for coming clean and admitting the mistake, and offering clear and simple advice for swapping faulty discs ! 

Second, a collective European sigh of relief that the way this CD sounds wasn't deliberate. Don't get me wrong, it's still very loud, and would benefit from some more room to breathe dynamically - but it's not DR2 bad. (The US release measures DR6 - 6.3, to be exact)

But finally, some observations and questions. The statement above says that there is a level difference of 3dB between the European release and the intended level, but this didn't sound right to me, so I did some experimenting.

I had to clip the US CD version by a massive 6dB to get the levels (and distortion) to match those on the European release.

This makes perfect sense - a 6dB boost in level is exactly what you would expect if the "software program used for this duplication ‘doubled’ the sound layers" as the website says.

The number on the website is probably just a misunderstanding, since the label are being very upfront about everything else - or possibly a "rounding down" of the difference in DR values (6 vs. 2). But unfortunately the statement is already being misinterpreted - for example, in his Guardian piece, Sean Michaels says

though three decibels will make a noticeable difference, it is far from the realm of road drills or jet engines. Instead, the difference between good and "faulty" copies of Farm will likely be a matter of "loud" versus "a little too loud"

Personally I would disagree that even 3dB of hard clipping would only be "a little too loud", but the actual 6dB difference has resulted in a massive amount of distortion which is clearly audible and very unpleasant. The waveforms tell the story as usual:



(For those who are interested, clipping an already mastered track sounds far worse than clipping un-mastered mixes. Everything is already maximised and pushed to the limit, so 6dB of clipping is pretty much a sonic disaster.)

I just hope no-one chooses not to get their CD changed, based on comments like the Guardian one ! 

In conclusion, this can hardly be called a victory in the Loudness War, but at least it's not a backward step, as some European Dinosaur Jr fans must have originally feared.

If you think modern CDs are mastered too loud, please sign up at TurnMeUp.org and DynamicRange.de - and write to complain about any albums you think sound bad. And you are always welcome to sign up for free updates on any posts here, if you like - or connect with me on Twitter.


Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Twitter Interview - An introduction to CD Mastering


Yesterday I did a short Twitter interview with @DIY_Musicians about mastering - it was slightly chaotic but good fun, and the people reading seemed to enjoy it. It may or may not have been the second ever such interview in the UK, if @neil_mccormick's really was the first.

Here is the complete text, in case you missed it.

***

DIY_Musicians: Let's jump straight in, Ian. Q: What is mastering ?

ianshepherd: Mastering is turning a collection of songs into an album - by balancing them, not matching them. Also http://twurl.nl/m8bwvo 

DIY_Musicians: Great link, thank you... I was wondering how you would answer that in only 140 characters :o)

ianshepherd: [Grin] Cheating, technically, I suppose !

DIY_Musicians: Q: What do you actually do ?

ianshepherd: I listen to music, and change it so that I like it better :-) Luckily, my customers agree with me, almost all of the time ! 


DIY_Musicians: Q: What are the most important tools of a Mastering Engineer ? 

ianshepherd: My ears, my experience, the monitoring (speakers), the room, the audio equipment (EQ, compressors, DAW etc) 


DIY_Musicians: Q: What's your favourite piece of audio equipment ? 


ianshepherd: My monitors ! B&W 801s - and I use the TC Electronics System 6000 on nearly every job - great converters, great processing

DIY_Musicians :Anyone interested can find out more via... @tcelectronic

ianshepherd: B&W loudspeakers - @Bowers_Wilkins, More info on mastering monitoring here: http://twurl.nl/pr0hjm)

DIY_Musicians: Q: Why is it so important to have great monitors in a great room ? 


ianshepherd: Because you need to be able to hear *everything* - accurately. Otherwise you risk doing something unnecessary or detrimental 

DIY_Musicians: Knowing what you're listening for is essential. Q: Is DIY mastering possible ?

ianshepherd: It's possible, but hard ! It's difficult to be objective about your own material, and hard to get a good setup on a budget 


DIY_Musicians: Q: But, aren't there lots of mastering plugins now ?

ianshepherd: Yes, but it's all about hearing the music clearly and objectively, and having a vision. You need knowledge as well as tools. 


DIY_Musicians: Q: That's something you can learn, right ? 


ianshepherd: Yes, to a certain extent, but personally I think it's also an instinct. I wrote about it here: http://twurl.nl/gnkiki

DIY_Musicians: Thanks for the link - that's great 

DIY_Musicians: Q: Do you have any hints and tips for people who want to have their music professionally mastered ?

ianshepherd: Yes ! Never let digital meters clip (hit zero). Don't use too much compression. Provide 24-bit files where possible...

ianshepherd: ...leave the tops, tails (fades) and gaps for the ME. Always use dither when processing. Use high-quality converters

DIY_Musicians: Excellent advice. Q: Where can people find out more about mastering ?

ianshepherd: Follow me on Twitter ;-)  http://twurl.nl/b3aohf And, here are two great mastering forums: http://twurl.nl/xb2vhr & http://twurl.nl/xm57pc

DIY_Musicians: Some cool links to take away for further reading - we like that. Thanks for your time, Ian. We really appreciate your support. 

ianshepherd: You're welcome, thanks for asking me ! 

DIY_Musicians: @ianshepherd also runs the Production Advice site, helping you get a better recording & mix http://twurl.nl/jzxdde

***

If you found this interesting, you might also like to check out this interview I did with Pete Whitfield from the Manchester College.

Feel free to tweet me any questions you may have as a result of this interview, or in fact any questions at all about mastering.


Monday, 20 April 2009

Ten Top Tips for Reverb You Can Really Relish


There's a new post over at Production Advice today which you might like to check out - hopefully the title says it all !


We have also recently set up a new Tumblr blog for Production Advice - think of it as on "online scrapbook" where we'll be posting all the cool music production techniques, tips and commentary we find and link to on Twitter.

Finally, I now also have a Friendfeed profile, which pulls in everything I'm up to online in one place...

Friday, 27 March 2009

What "Death Magnetic" SHOULD Have Sounded Like


Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case. Not distorted, not clipped - sounds great. Make sure you click the HQ button...

(If you're not sure what I'm talking about, please listen to this:








- or click here.)

Actually even this version would benefit from some more dynamics, but at least it isn't distorted to hell and back !