Rare Form Mastering Studio

Rare Form Mastering Studio

A 2008  interview by Steve Mueske

Greg, you’ve mastered over 3,500 albums in the last two¬†decades (as of 2016 that number is 5,500 and growing); what are common mistakes clients make when presenting a final product for mastering?

Now that so many artists are recording their own music, it has become much more common to find problems with incoming mixes. I sometimes get mixes that are very bright or very dark, or mixes that have some bright elements and some dark elements – which is very difficult to address in mastering since the fix for one makes the other worse. I get mixes that have been so over-processed that there is no life left in them. I get mixes that are so wide they sound phasey and mixes that are completely mono. I get mixes with the vocal so buried that it’s very distracting and hard to hear. I get hum and buzz and vocal sibilance and tics and click-tracks and all sorts of extraneous noises. The most repeated comment in my studio is “I never heard that before….”

I think it all comes down to listening. In the heat of battle, sometimes it’s easy to get distracted by the process and not pay proper attention to what one is doing. We get into a habit or a routine and do things the same way so many times in a row that we don’t take enough time to cleanse the pallet and get a fresh perspective. Taking breaks and listening to other music while recording can help you understand what is going well and what is not. In the iPod age, your music is going to get played next to absolutely everything else out there. It needs to sound as good as the other stuff your audience is likely to hear. By taking extra time to critically listen to your own mixes in the context of other music, you will soon learn if you are on the right track.

I guess the take-home message is, make the mixes sound as good as you can, don’t worry about making them loud, and enjoy the process as much as you can.

You’ve mentioned that you’re not a fan of the current “make it as loud as possible” trend, and that in ten years we’ll probably look back on this era and cringe at some of the recordings. Why do you think many mastering engineers are taking this approach and why is it detrimental? Piggy-backing on this, are there other trends in mastering, and if so, do you tend to work against trends or incorporate these into your style?

Well, we didn’t start this fire! The push to make records loud isn’t as new as some might think. Go back 60 years and you’ll find that engineers were trying to cut records as loud as they could. Back then it was more a matter of getting the signal above the noise. There was also an argument for louder records sounding better on the radio. In the modern world of digital noise floors and heavy broadcast processing, neither of those reasons holds water. Now it’s become a matter of doing it because we can, and because that’s what everyone else is doing. When digital limiters and clippers became available they were used to raise the average level on CDs. One thing led to another and engineers and producers started to abuse the tools. Now we’re in a situation I call the triple forte of death. FFF (fear, fad and fashion). Artists, label execs, producers, engineers… they’re all worried that their product won’t be perceived as professional unless it’s LOUD. But somewhere along the way we forgot to listen to what was happening to the music. Every engineer I talk to says they hate the volume war, yet most of them participate in it. It’s even starting to affect genres like folk and jazz. It just makes no sense.

OK, that’s the rant. To answer your question, mastering engineers try to facilitate the artistic vision of their clients. While we are often asked to master extremely loud CDs, most of us will tell you that we don’t like it. There is just no musical reason to throw away so much of the sound so the listener can keep her volume knob at 3 instead of 5. I do think we will look back at this loud era as an experiment gone bad. Luckily there are signs of sanity with some groups releasing lower volume CDs and organizations such as trying to talk some sense into the industry.

To answer the second part of your question, yes, there are some interesting trends that have influenced mastering over the years. Before 1970, when independent mastering was in its infancy, most processing was tube based. Starting in the 70s and into the 80s, solid state equipment became common. Digital processing was also making an entrance and by the mid 80s, many of the top mastering facilities used digital based mastering consoles and work stations. The push back to analog and tubes and transformers in mastering coincides somewhat with the explosion of digital recording. Some argue that digitally recorded music lacks a certain quality that only analog processing can provide. Sales of analog EQs and compressors and vinyl records certainly support that theory. Ironically, even plug-in programmers are trying to sell ‘analog’ sound. Now that’s funny!

For me, whatever tool does the best job is the one I chose. I moved right along with everyone else from analog to digital and back to analog. I’ll even to go tape if it adds the right sound to a project. Aside from the loudness trend, which we all have to deal with, whatever best serves the music is the trend I like to follow.

There’s a lot of misinformation available about downsampling and dithering, particularly on the internet. Can you talk, briefly, about your ideas on dithering — does it vary by genre? Do you prefer one type of dithering over another?

Downsampling and dithering are important things to do correctly but play a minor role in the grand scheme of things. The most important pieces of the puzzle are the performer, the performance, the instrument, the recording chain, the mixing, and then the mastering – in that order! Things like what wire you should use or what dither is best are really way down the ladder of importance. Yes, use dither. Just don’t get too hung up on that stuff until everything else is as good as it can be.

Properly done, dithering from a 24 bit word to a 16 bit word will retain most of the sound which would otherwise be lost with simple truncation. It also reduces the quantization error inherent in the process. I use flat dither 90% of the time. It just works without introducing other problems. Some of the fancy flavored dithers interact with high frequency content in an unexpected way. OTOH, some times I find some of the more exotic dithers a bit more transparent for delicate acoustic things. I especially like POW-r dither ( as it’s implemented in my z-Systems z-Q2 equalizer.

Unless you need to convert sample rates to a common rate for mixing inside a DAW, SRC should really be left to the mastering stage. And then, it should be done just before the final dither. If you must convert sample rates, use one of the modern options like the Voxengo R8brain or iZotope SRC. They do a great job and are very inexpensive.

Mastering has been described as “the dark art,” often, I think, because the techniques used are very different from tracking and mixing, and are often misunderstood. One of the things I find amazing about engineers who specialize in mastering is their ability to make the songs sound like they fit together. A lot of this is based on ear and experience, but what things do you look at to make the songs cohere?

OK, I see we’re done with the easy questions… I think it’s been known as a dark art because it wasn’t an easily accessible process. Everyone got to see what happened in the tracking and mixing stages but then the mixes got sent off to some guy and it came back – hopefully better. What did that guy do? How did he do it? What gear did he use? Why didn’t my mix engineer just take care of it? It was sort of like some conspiracy going on in a secret bunker somewhere that only a few could observe. You had to have the secret decoder ring to get in.

Well, that’s changed! The process itself hasn’t changed that much but the knowledge of what mastering is and how it’s done has gone from almost zero to a pretty clear understanding for many people in just the last decade or so. Unfortunately, so has the misunderstanding. Sure, there are still some who will claim it’s voodoo and you need to hire this name or that name to have it come out right. The flip side is all of these ads for “mastering” plug-ins (that very few – if any – mastering engineers use) telling you it’s easy if you just have the right software – perpetuating the myth that mastering is just processing. The way I see it, it’s still a matter of specialized skill with specialized equipment but it’s no longer done behind the curtain. There are lots of guys who have been doing it for decades that aren’t household names. Many of them are just as capable of great results as the bigger name guys. You just have to choose wisely.

To answer the second part of the question, I guess it’s just a matter of listening to what you have, getting an idea of where it’s all going, and then pushing things this way or that way to make them all fall into line. A mastering engineer’s professional goal is consistency. We get mixes from basements one day and multi-million dollar facilities the next but in every case, artists want their music to sound good when played next to everything else out there. Mastering is really just about taking the time to notice the little details. What sticks out? What’s missing or underrepresented? Why does this song feel empty, or bloated? Why can’t I hear the bass on this song. Why is this song in mono? What’s that noise? Why doesn’t this song move me in a way that the others do? Once you have identified the differences you can begin to whittle away at them and work towards a unified whole. It’s not an overtly conscious thing. It’s like a race car driver heading into a tricky series of turns. He’s not thinking about his technique. He’s just making it happen. Like anything that looks difficult from the outside, if you do it long enough you just stop thinking about it. I guess that’s why I say it’s as easy as listening.

Mastering rates vary widely – from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. What should a musician / band / label look for while shopping for a mastering engineer? What should a musician expect to be provided when hiring a mastering engineer?

I think it all comes down to the expectations of the artist. There are three tiers of mastering facilities these days. The first tier is the Bob Ludwig / Bernie Grundman class of big name mastering facilities. They are well known multi-room complexes that cater to major label artists with large recording budgets. They charge anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 for mastering an album. If you can afford them it’s hard to argue against it. They do consistently great work and are the standard bearers of the industry.

The middle tier is represented by smaller independent facilities who have been dedicated, full-time mastering facilities for many years, often decades, but are more likely to be in smaller markets and serve independent artists. Their rates are in the $750 – $2,000 range for an album, which reflects their clients’ budgetary realities.

These first two tiers typically have very similar experience, equipment and capabilities. The real difference is often little more than name recognition. The quality of their work is generally very comparable. In fact, much of the work done at the first tier facilities is done by second engineers who used to work in the middle tier. There is only one Bob Ludwig at Gateway after all.

The third tier is local studios and independent engineers who have gotten into mastering in the last few years, purchased some “mastering” software, and sell mastering as an add-on service to supplement their recording business. They charge anywhere from $15/hour and up and you’ll get an engineer who divides his time between live sound, recording, mixing and mastering. It’s a reasonable option for demos and low budget projects.

Regardless of who an artist chooses to work with, consider this: if mastering were as simple as adding a bit of post processing to the mixes, every major recording engineer would also master the albums they record. But they don’t. They still rely on what a time tested mastering professional can bring to the process. So I guess the choice comes down to what the artist can afford and what they expect to gain from the process.

To answer the second part for the question, I suppose it varies depending on the facility. At the very least you should expect to get a great sounding finished product. In addition to that, make sure you’re getting honest feedback about the quality of your mixes. I sometimes send people back to remix when it’s a better option than trying to fix a bad mix. I’d rather their album sound good than just cash their check. Your ME should ask if you want CD text or ISRC (International Standard Record Code) included on the master. He should help you understand how the various on-line database systems work. For example, iTunes uses an on-line database called Gracenote. That’s how it knows what CD you’re putting in your computer. And when you’re done he should provide a replication master with documentation and a listening copy for your approval. You should leave with everything you need to hand the project off to the replication plant.

Prior to the eighties, mixing engineers often apprenticed to experienced, established engineers. Now there are schools where many engineers learn the craft. Are there similar programs for aspiring mastering engineers? Do you feel that it is best to work with an established mastering engineer while learning the craft?

I’m not aware of any schools pumping out mastering engineers for the simple reason that there just isn’t a big enough market for it. I don’t know the general ratio, but in my town there are about 200 recording studios, big and small, and only two full time, dedicated mastering studios. It’s not the growth industry the magazines make it out to be. Most MEs had some sort of apprenticeship with a more experienced engineer to learn the craft. I had two mentors early in my career. The first was a classical recording engineer who taught me many things about sound and listening, including the importance of knowing what real instruments sound like in real world environments. The second was a seasoned mastering engineer who taught me the mechanics of making transparent transfers and keeping the machinery running properly. That’s what mastering was about when I started. We were trying to preserve the integrity of the sound we were given while transferring it onto another medium. The introduction of heavy processing is a relatively recent phenomenon. Now we are asked to enhance the sound of the original recordings in ways we never imagined 20 years ago.

I’ve tried to return the favor to a few younger engineers and what I find is that it’s relatively easy to teach the things I learned from my mentors but rather more difficult to teach the things I’ve had to learn on my own. I guess one can teach creative techniques but I’m not sure one can teach creativity itself. I’ve certainly learned tricks of the trade, but how to make something sound better than when it came in is one of those ephemeral things that you just need to figure out for yourself after lots and lots of practice.

You are a musician as well as an engineer. Does being a musician help when you are wearing your ME hat or are they completely separate endeavors?

It’s not a requirement, and I know many MEs who are not musicians, but I definitely feel more connected to the music that way.

According to your bio, you are a member of a number of professional organizations including the AES and NARAS. How important is membership in a trade organization to furthering one’s career? Do you find that by being a voting member of NARAS you feel more “plugged in” to the industry?

I think the best way to further one’s career is to build a good reputation by doing good work. Belonging to a professional organization probably doesn’t bring in any work directly. They’re more about sharing ideas and building a sense of community. Being a member of the AES has put me in the company of some seriously smart people and if you hang around long enough, some of that starts to rub off. I have a friend who is fond of saying audio engineering was the NASA of the 20s and 30s. That’s where a lot of the foundational discoveries about audio and hearing were made. I’ve learned things from this group of people that I never would have stumbled upon on my own. That can only help one’s career. I joined NARAS to meet more people in other parts of the industry. We’re all connected in some way so it’s nice to see how we all come together to form the music industry.

Listening to music all day must be hard on your ears. Does working as an audio professional affect your personal listening habits? (i.e. do you like to listen to genres that are different than what you work on during the day; do you avoid listening to music for pleasure, etc.) Do you find that you listen to music critically outside of your mastering environment? If so, how do you find a personal sense of balance?

I don’t think it’s as hard on my ears as it is hard on my brain. The act of critical listening itself can be pretty taxing. That’s why most of my own pleasurable listening is in much more casual environments. I have a decent system in my car and the iPod is always near. I tend to listen to music that is off the beaten path. The more creative and eclectic the better.

I’d like to leave this last question up to you. I’ve enjoyed working with you and want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to partake in this interview. Is there anything I haven’t asked yet that you feel is important for musicians and industry professionals to consider when thinking about mastering their projects?

Thanks, Steve. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. If I had to sum it all up in a few words: Just serve the music.

Greg Reierson
Rare Form Mastering