I hope to give you a lot of tips & tricks that can help you during the recording and
mixdown process. But before we go any further you should be aware of two
alarming trends in the grassroots recording world that is seriously degrading
the sound of many potentially good recordings.

The first trend is the increasingly common practice of the recording engineer
applying mastering processing during the mixdown, or mastering the project
himself using plug-ins in a shoddy workstation.

That is one of the issues to be addressed by the mastering engineer. If the
mix is to be compared heads-up to production CD's for reference during the
mixdown , the volume of the CD should be lowered to match the playback
volume of the mix. The mix should NOT be jammed through compressors,
limiters and eq's in order to make it as loud (or louder) than the CD. This is not to say that the engineer should not compress or eq the mix at all. Most good engineers have learned that a touch of compression (.5 or 1dB of gain change) or a little eq can help bring a mix together. But it is the abuse of these processors that is causing the problem. And, if the compressor and/or eq is not of the highest quality, you are ruining the audio quality of your mix. If you record on great gear using great mics, and then run the mix through a cheap compressor, the whole thing now sounds like the cheap compressor. It's the old weakest link theory in spades.

There are two major culprits to blame this trend on - one is the TC Electronic
"Finalizer", and the other is the Waves L-1 Ultra-Maximizer and other such
plug-ins for ProTools and that ilk.

TC Electronic is a fabulous manufacturer. D.E.S. uses their System 6000 Digital
Mainframe with the MD-3 mastering software as one of our main mastering
processors. Even though the Finalizer appears to be the mastering functions of the S6000 in a dedicated box, this is NOT THE CASE. The Finalizer does not
exhibit the resolution, nor does it offer all of the fine-tuning features of the
S6000 that are essential for proper mastering. Plus the eq on the Finalizer is downright terrible.

To compound the problem, the proliferation of cheap computer-based
workstations means that almost every studio now has a "Mastering Room".
This means that not only will your sound quality be degraded by low resolution
and unstable clocks in the workstation, but the use of the many "plug-ins" such
as the Waves L-1 or L2 Ultra-Maximizer means the signal can be trashed
beyond any hope of recovery if it is not used very carefully.

If sound quality is important to you DO NOT ALLOW ANYONE TO LOAD
! The Sonic Solutions SSHD
Mastering System
as featured at Digital Editing Services is the finest and
sonically purest workstation in the industry. In order to get the best sound
possible, our mastering engineer should be working from the ORIGINAL
MASTERr sound files or DATs that have not been subjected to any additional processing or digital copying! See our Tips & Tricks page for more details.

It is wonderful that technology is allowing processors to become more
affordable, but there are certain tools that are dangerous in the hands of the
inexperienced. Just because a person is a good (or excellent) recording
engineer, that does NOT qualify him or her as a mastering engineer!

Even worse, you are now seeing people who have never engineered a session, and have no knowledge of music, but they buy a cheap computer, a sound card, some plug ins and a CD burner and 'viola!', they're a mastering engineer.

Processors such as the Finalizer and low-resolution workstations with their
plug-ins do have a place; so called project, or demo, mastering. That is to
say, if the music is not for critical application - a demo for example, then
it will 'potentially' be better if it is mastered even through substandard gear.
But only 'potentially', because over- processing will trash the sound. Just a dB
or so of compression or limiting can help 'punch up' the sound. But not if the
material is to be commercially released on CD or a higher resolution medium.
Then the mastering job should only be performed by a qualified mastering
engineer through gear of the highest caliber. Both of which you will find at
Digital Editing Services.




Updated 9/27/01

Although CD and digital technology has fostered many wonderful improvements in our recordings, it has also spawned a trend that is absolutely trashing the sound quality of many potentially great sounding albums. And that is the current trend of LOUD, LOUD and LOUDER.

In many ways this is an offshoot of the "first alarming trend" as described above; mastering being performed by unqualified people. The human ear can be very easily fooled, and differences in "perceived loudness" is one thing that can most easily confuse our ear/brain mechanism.

Here are some interesting facts about what we hear versus what our brain actually interprets. (For more information do a web search on "psychoacoustics".) First of all, if given a choice between two altered versions of the same sound, we will almost always choose the louder one as the better sound. It's just a fact in the complex way that our ears work.

So, if a mastering engineer is compressing and limiting your music so that it is eventually 6 to 9dB louder than the original, and then he does an A/B comparison for you, you are going to say that the louder version sounds better. It will appear to be clearer, punchier and brighter.

The reason for this is quite surprising. Our ears (or our brain, rather) adjusts it's own internal equalizer depending on the volume of what we are hearing! (For more information, search out info on the "Fletcher-Munson Curve".) At low volumes, we lose our sensitivity in the lowest and highest frequencies, so the sound appears midrange heavy. As you increase the playback volume, the music appears to also increase in bass and treble content. At approximately 80 to 85 dB spl, we hear the signal as it truly is. (That is why 85 dB spl is considered the ideal monitoring volume for mixing and mastering.) As the volume increase above this, our hearing mechanism actually boosts the bottom and top end! So at loud volumes, we hear more bottom and top end than there actually is.

So, if you lower the output of the processed signal to match the "perceived loudness" of the original signal, then you will be able to hear the true difference. If the music was properly mastered, it will be noticably improved in clarity and punch. And it will almost always be from 3 to 9dB louder than the original. If the music has been over or improperly procesed, what you will hear in the processed version is a loss in clarity of the upper midrange, a brittle harshness in the high frequencies and a myriad of trashy artifacts in the quietest musical passages being caused by the compression, especially if it is digital.

Even with the very best mastering compressors and limiters, there is no free ride in this regard. A good mastering engineer using true master-quality gear can minimize the degradation of the signal, but once you go beyond a certain point in loudness, the signal will suffer in some ways. It's up to you to decide if the trade off is worth it for the extra few dB of level.

To compound the problem, so much mastering is being done now through sub-par equipment, whether it is the newest cheap digital box, tube gizmo or workstation plug-in. And it is often being performed by individuals who don't have the experience necessary to operate the gear properly or to be able to hear the problems they are creating.

So, the trend toward louder and louder CD's is pretty much an offshoot from this; the unqualified mastering engineer has learned that all he has to do to impress the client is to make the music louder. And by comparing it to the original signal without compensating for playback volume, it appears that a significant improvement has been made, when in fact the sound quality has been degraded. And the client is even more impressed when this mastering genius can actually make it LOUDER than the loudest CD you can bring in for comparison.

The result of an over-compressed/limited signal is what is called the 'loud tiny sound'. It has really hot average level, but listen to it at medium to low volumes, and it sounds small and wimpy. In fact, this is precisely why Muzak sounds the way it does. The Muzak signal is extremely compressed, but surprisingly not as compressed as a lot of current release music.

Now I will get on the soap box. We have control of this ourselves. Do not be drawn in by the seeming allure of loudness. It is up to you as a musician/producer to say "enough". Of course you want your CD to be competitive in volume when it comes up on the changer or juke box, but resist the idea of 'louder is better'.

Why do I consider these two trends to be so alarming? Simply this; we are right now ruining the sound quality of this current era of popular music. When all of this wonderful technology has made it possible for us to improve things, instead we have abused it and are rapidly going backwards in sound quality.

When I first got into mastering, I used to think that the saddest thing was that so much music outside of major releases went unmastered. If it had just sounded right, it may have been accepted. But these current trends are actually worse. The reason is simple: If the original masters could be found on the old, unmastered music, it could be properly mastered now. But if a signal is over compressed, limited or eq'd, the resultant loss in sound quality cannot be recovered! And the problem is, this is often now being done during the mixdown, so there is no unprocessed original master.

Potentially, we are going to start fresh with beautiful new media in DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD (SACD). With the surround-sound capability of these discs, hopefully volume will not become such an issue. Regardless, let's not allow it to become an issue. Otherwise, 50 years from now people are going to listen to this era of music and wonder what the hell was wrong with our ears. Let's turn it around and make them marvel at the great sounds we were capable of generating way back in the early 2k's!!

  Sorry, that's all for now. Check back soon. Last updated 9/27/01

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