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 ?


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.


  • 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. 


  • 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


  • 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 !

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Rise and Shine recording and writing a new song for Earth Hour - TODAY

Good news interactive music lovers - Rise and Shine is on-air today, composing a new song to support Earth Hour - with your help, if you'd like. The essence of the show is feedback from the viewers - suggest ideas, help write the lyrics, or just keep an eye on the fun.

I'll edit this post when the show is over - it will be running on and off throughout the day, so if you're reading this - click on the link below to join in via the live video stream and chat ! If there's nothing happening, Dean & Dan are probably having a cup of tea, so pop back later :-)

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

10 Rules For Achieving Outstanding Music Mixes

Some of you may be interested in my latest post over at the new Production Advice site:

Please head on over and take a look !


Thursday, 12 March 2009

Do the kids prefer "mp3 sizzle" ? Bullshizzle !

In the last week there has been a lot of attention paid to an informal study made by Jonathan Berger of Stanford University, which he claims shows that some young people (a) prefer the sound of mp3s and (b) that this is becoming more true as time passes.

To be quite frank, Professor Berger should know better.

He says that he:

tests his incoming students each year in a similar way. He has them listen to a variety of recordings which use different formats from MP3 to ones of much higher quality. He described the results with some disappointment and frustration, as a music lover might, that each year the preference for music in MP3 format rises. In other words, students prefer the quality of that kind of sound over the sound of music of much higher quality. He said that they seemed to prefer "sizzle sounds" that MP3s bring to music. It is a sound they are familiar with.

Leaving aside all the reasons there are to doubt the testing methods and results of an "informal study" like this, even if it's true that more and more students are choosing the mp3s, that doesn't necessarily mean they prefer the sound overall, especially for longer-term listening.

Why not ? First, the short version:

MP3 encoders typically don't have enough headroom to handle the very high peak level of modern CDs, and so introduce extra clipping distortion as well as all the encoding artefacts - this is the so-called "sizzle".

In a short-term A/B test, I can believe people would respond positively to the extra high-frequency distortion, just as they do to small level increases and quantisation distortion.

But I want to hear long-term testing.

Play those same students the same music for 2 or 3 hours straight - in CD and in mp3. Then, don't ask them if they can hear a difference or which they prefer - ask them how they FEEL.

My prediction is that there will be more irritable, edgy people with headaches in the mp3 pool.

Just like over-compressed high-level music, typical mp3 encodes are fatiguing to listen too, less involving and sound less "real". 

So, even though Professor Berger has observed a short-term preference for mp3-encoded audio, I don't believe it's possible to conclude from this that they would genuinely choose to listen to mp3s rather than CDs - or lossless audio formats like FLAC, for example.

Now, a little more detail:

It's been known for many years that in short-term A/B comparisons of otherwise nearly identical audio, people will prefer the version which is a little louder and as a result seems to have a fraction more bass and treble. This is because of a psycho-acoustic effect known as the Fletcher–Munson or "Smile" Curve, and may be an evolutionary process to make us prioritise sounds which louder and therefore nearer - and might be a predator.

What does this have to do with mp3s ? In a nutshell - encoding an mp3 from a modern CD release which constantly "maxes out" the level results in an mp3 which is more distorted than the original.

This is a result of "intersample peaks" in the decoded digital signal adding extra clipping distortion in the mp3 encoder - and possibly even more being added by the player itself. Couple this with the swirling, squelchy high-frequency artefacts caused by the data-reduction process of mp3 encoding, and you have the "mp3 sizzle" Professor Berger is talking about.

So the students may well choose this slightly toppier, fizzier-sounding encoded version in a short-term A/B test, especially since modern mp3 encodes have fewer obvious artefacts than a few years ago.

But we shouldn't underestimate the acuity of the human ear and brain. A typical mp3 encode discards 90% of the original signal - and it's harder to listen to as a result. Even without intersample encoding distortion and obvious artefacts, mp3s don't sound as good as the originals in other, more subtle ways. There is a loss of "3D" stereo imaging, a blurring and flattening of the audio. Often mp3s sound as if they have less reverb than the original. Complex sounds lose their interest, the audio overall is less rich and involving - the result is harsher and more crude.

Especially with today's over-compressed, heavily processed music.

As a result, the brain has to work harder to "decode" the music. Listening to music in "real life" is an almost effortless process - listening to a CD requires a little more concentration. Right at the other end of the scale, listening to music squawking from the tiny speaker of a mobile phone, it's often a struggle to even pick out the tune. mp3s lie somewhere in the middle of this - thankfully, closer to CD than mobile !

Here's an experiment you can try yourself, though. Spend a day listening to your favourite radio station. Next day listen to the same station, but streamed on the internet. (The data-compression here will typically sound like an extreme version of mp3.)

How do you feel ?

Personally, listening to heavily data-compressed internet streams makes me feel nauseous. Literally - I don't mean that in some namby-pamby audiophile sense - an hour or two of internet radio and I start to feel slightly car-sick.

The same applies to mp3s, to a lesser extent. 

Now obviously not all mp3s are that bad. And some data-compressed audio sounds pretty good - the Ogg Vorbis streams from Spotify, for example, or Apple's AAC codec . (Ironic that everyone blames the iPod for mp3's ills, even though the iPod's own compression codec sounds substantially better than straight mp3)

But just as mp3 lies somewhere between CD hi-fi and a mobile phone, it also lies somewhere between 24/96 PCM and 64 kbps internet radio - however in this case, closer to the bad end of the scale.

To summarise:

In a short-term test, the distortion/artefact "sizzle" may be appealing to some people, but give them the chance to use a lossless codec like FLAC for long-term listening, and I'm confident they will settle for the better quality.

The great news is that even of I'm wrong, mp3 is already on the way out - it won't be long now before player drive space and internet bandwidth make the requirement for data-compression a thing of the past, and we can all get back to appreciating good audio again.

I mean - does anyone remember how "great" AM radio sounded ?!?

Monday, 9 March 2009

Production Advice Launched

OK ! As promised, I'm posting this here first - I'm delighted to announce the launch of my new website - Production Advice. It's live now, please head over and take a look.

The idea is to offer anyone access to the opinions of professional producers - to give expert, impartial advice on recording, mixing and production issues to anyone who needs it, via a brand new blog, carefully selected resources and a unique package of affordable services.

I think many Mastering Media readers will find it interesting - I'm going to relish the opportunity to talk about a much wider range of subjects than I do here, and I'd love to hear from you, too - please give me your feedback in the blog comments, or come and say Hello on Twitter.

This doesn't mean the end of the Mastering Media blog though - I'll still be posting regularly here on mastering-focused subjects. I see the two sites as complementing each other, and I hope you agree.

So, please take a look and let me know what you think - sign up to the RSS feed and if you're recording or mixing yourself, maybe even give the free trial a shot. And please pass the word to other people who you think might be interested.

See you at Production Advice !


Sunday, 1 March 2009

Video interview for The Manchester College

Today I was interviewed by Pete Whitfield from The Manchester College, via iChat. We talked mainly about mastering - what it is, how I got started and what gear I use, and what skills are necessary, but also a little about music and social media - blogging, Twitter etc. 

I will also be answering questions (if there are any!) from students at the college all this week on their forum. Thanks to Pete for inviting me.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Does Rick Rubin Deserve the "Producer Of The Year" Grammy Award ?

It just had to happen.

I knew it would happen.

And then it happened, about an hour ago, right there in my Twitter stream:

What may surprise you, though, is that I'm perfectly happy with this decision. 

Even though Rubin produced Metallica's "Death Magnetic" - arguably one of the worst-sounding records ever made.

Even though some may use this as evidence to say he was right to do so, or that "Death Magnetic" actually sounds OK (It doesn't).

And even though he also produced albums for Weezer and Ours, both also pointlessly loud and crushed, in the mistaken belief that this sounds better on iPod headphones, in cars or on computers. (It doesn't)

Why ? Because being a Producer is much more than deciding how an album sounds.

A producer also works with the band on:
  • Composition
  • Performance
  • Arrangement
  • Subject, Feel, Mood, Motivation, Pace, Atmosphere...
- and many many other, less tangible aspects of the recording process. 

I'll be talking about issues like this in much greater depth on my new site (coming soon !) but as far as this particular producer is concerned, it's also worth saying that Rubin is not an engineer. It has often been commented that his input into a record is much more about things like those in the list above, than how the record actually sounds. (In fact, the engineer responsible for actually pushing "Death Magnetic" into the red is Greg Fidelman, chosen by the band, not Rubin.)

On these musical terms, fans and critics alike are unanimous that "Death Magnetic" is a huge success. Rubin coaxed some of the best songs and performances in years from Metallica, making it a true return to form, and a huge commercial success for them as a result. In this sense his award is fully deserved.

And clearly he knows Good Sound when he hears it - he is a self-professed audiophile who listens to a startlingly wide range of music. Just take a listen to two other albums he produced in 2008 - Neil Diamond's "Home Before Dark" and Jakob Dylan's "Seeing Things". Both sound fantastic (not at all distorted!) and are also highly acclaimed - along with a string of other albums through a long and very successful career.

So I would like to take the opportunity to be one of the first to congratulate Rick Rubin on his Grammy, and to say again that I fully support the decision to award it to him.

I just hope his next album doesn't sound like "Death Magnetic".

Edit to add - I just noticed that Nigel Godrich was also up for this award, for his work on "In Rainbows". Did Rubin deserve to win over and above Nigel ? Hm...

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Ten Most Distorted Tunes In Music History

Distortion is the Jekyll and Hyde of recorded music. Strictly speaking it's a fault, but the terrible truth is - we love it.

Don't believe me ? Open your ears and listen around - the evidence is everywhere.

Here's a list of ten highly distorted songs -
 some sound great, some don't. Some are deliberate, some may not be. What is certain is that not everybody will agree about which is which...

Where possible I've linked to online previews of each song, so you can hear them for yourself.

The Beatles "Revolution" - The Beatles didn't invent distortion, but they sure as hell brought it to the masses, most famously in this scorching track from the White Album. Instead of mic-ing up an amp as they usually did, in this case George's guitar was plugged straight into the desk - a technique now commonly known as direct injection, or DI-ing. However it overloaded the sensitive input and distorted wildly. This fantastic, powerful sound combined with Ringo's heavily compressed and limited drums, drives the song along at a frantic rate. Listening to it, it's hard to believe that the same band had released "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday" only two years before.

Oasis - "Some Might Say" - From their massively successful album "What's The Story Morning Glory", which is one of the first heavyweight casualties of the modern so-called Loudness Wars - in fact, some might say (hah!) it was the tipping point at which the trend for loudness at the expense of audio quality began to accelerate out of control. Ironically, even though at times it is just as loud as Metallica's "Death Magnetic" - arguably the current benchmark of crap sound on CD - it often sounds less blatantly distorted.

Primal Scream "Accelerator" from "Xtrmntr". This is the most distorted song I know. If you know better, please tell me ! It's incredibly, unbelievably, fantastically, extraordinarily distorted. And it's great. It's a deliberate, inspired artistic choice, (as you can tell from the relatively clean vocals) and the way it actually gets even more distorted as the song progresses. Many will find this unlistenable - it just makes me giggle.

Iggy & The Stooges "Search and Destroy- from 1973's "Raw Power". Often cited as the loudest CD ever made, the 1997 re-master of this classic album divides opinion - Iggy was unhappy with the sound of the original 1989 release and supervised this one himself; critics say it's worse than the original. What's certain is - it's very loud and VERY distorted.

John Mayal & The Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton - "Key To Love" from "Bluesbreakers". This album is often cited as the first time anyone heard what has now become an "industry standard" guitar sound - a Gibson Les Paul, heavily overdriven through a Marshall amp. In fact we are so used to the sound of distorted electric guitars these days that many people simply don't realise the sound is distorted at all - but the beautiful crunchy, warm valve amp sound is unmistakable, and still impossible to emulate by other means, even today.

The Wildhearts "Why You Lie" from "Endless Nameless" - Legendarily nasty-sounding, the reasons for this album's distinctive sound are unclear. Every interview with the band seems to bring a different explanation, ranging from claiming it was "the sound of drugs [and] frustration at how dysfunctional our band was", through through stories that it was deliberate sabotage as revenge on their record company, to a simple "we were sick of hearing limp-wristed rock albums, and ...we went completely over the top". Certainly it's true that they "destroyed a few when mixing, and usually used the f**ked up tracks "...

Underworld "Rez" (Single) It was only when I heard the rendition of this track on the live DVD "Everything Everything" that it hit me - the signature lead synth sound of this track, the thing that makes it what it is - is pure distortion. Right at the end of the live version, the amazing, fuzzy, glittering sound gradually softens, smooths and clears into a pure, soft, flute-like synth sound, bearing no relation whatever to the rest of the track. They've turned it down, so it stops distorting. Without distortion, this tune would be nothing.

Metallica "The Day That Never Comes" from "Death Magnetic" What, you thought I wouldn't mention it ?! I've already written and said far to much about this album and it's heavily distorted sound - suffice to say it's not big, not clever, and sounds rubbish, in many people's opinion. Moving swiftly on...

Take That "Patience" from "Beautiful World". Pointless. Just ridiculous. "Death Magnetic" was a production decision, and in my opinion a bad one. I've no idea where the level was pushed too far on this album, but it's just inexplicable. Take That make polite, well-crafted, clean, classic pop tunes. So why does this album sound thick, fuzzy, and smushed ? [Shakes head]

The Beatles "I Am The Walrus" From the frankly ridiculous back to the simply sublime, and also where we started; with the band whose output almost forms a textbook of production techniques and creative recording for modern music, and another example of how distortion can be exactly what a song needs. As Ian MacDonald describes in his outstanding book "Revolution in the Head", this apparently playful nonsense song can actually be seen as desperate, defensive satire, and the distorted lead vocal fits this perfectly - even though it is probably mic distortion and so may have been a mistake. But there is other distortion here, notably on the electric piano at the start, backing vocals later and finally the gorgeous, quintessentially analogue detuning fizz and sweep of the live radio overdubs during the outro...

Distortion can literally make or break a track, but in the right hands it can be a delicate, beautiful thing. What songs are are your favourite distorted tracks, and why ?

( Thanks to the people who helped with suggestions and info for this post way back in November - Simon, @robgoldie, @fakesensations, @solarosa, @dperis, @ihatemornings and others. If I've forgotten you, remind me ! )