Saturday, June 13, 2009

FFW15: They’ll fix it in mastering…

For this First Word I tackled the gradual decline in engineering quality that began in the mid ‘90s, and its associated reliance on mastering to make the end result sound acceptable. The gradual decline in engineering quality, which we are stuck with today and are unlikely to be rid of, was due to a number of events. Firstly, a misunderstanding of the grunge movement lead novices to believe that it was all about letting the recording equipment distort – no matter what the gear was. Sound recording suddenly seemed so easy that even a novice could do it; just let it distort and call it ‘grunge’! Let me assure you that skilfully overdriving high quality vintage audio gear produces a much different effect than blindly slamming a piece of crap you picked up brand new for $200 – the former sounds rich in appealing attitude, the latter sounds rich in pathetic try-hard masturbation. Someone’s ears are sleeping on the wet spot…

Secondly, decreased recording budgets combined with the arrival of affordable recording toys (Digidesign’s MBox and similar shit) lead to the closure of many of the larger audio facilities that had been the benchmarks of engineering quality throughout the Western world. From that time on, calling yourself a ‘sound engineer’ no longer implied that you were a trained and seasoned expert. In fact, every wannabe with a soundcard and microphone was out there chasing recording work and getting it (unfortunately). If you talked the talk, novice musicians assumed that you also walked the walk. Sound engineers were replaced by sound entrepreneurs.

Furthermore, the pathetic acceptance of outrageously heavy mix compression as a fashionable requirement for popular music meant that the sound quality within a mix was of little importance. All you needed to do was make sure that the loudest instruments
were the loudest instruments, and let the mix compression take care of the rest, pushing the other sounds beneath the loudest ones and inadvertently hiding the inherent muddiness. It’s clarity through deceit, rather than clarity through skill. You can’t polish a turd, but if you can make it shiny enough someone will pay for the glossy exterior, oblivious of the shit within. And if there’s one thing that today’s mastering engineers excel at, it’s making shiny turds.

Here’s FFW15 from a decade or so ago, still relevant now.

They’ll fix it in mastering…
When I started out in the recording industry, the word ‘digital’ was nothing more than a promising dream – a magic elixir for the ailments of analogue. There were no modular digital multitracks, no hard disk recorders, no DAT machines, and no CD burners. In fact, CD hadn’t even been invented, let alone burnt. So I learned to work within the limitations of analogue tape.

Most of my early recording efforts were demos, destined for cassette. The process began by recording individual sounds through an analogue console onto analogue multitrack tape, mixing them down through an analogue console onto analogue two-track tape, editing with a razor blade and splicing tape to create a master, and dubbing that master onto analogue cassette.

With all of this analogue processing and transferring came certain degradations; tape hiss and console noise would build up, and there was the inevitable loss of high frequencies due to transferring from tape to tape.

To compensate for the noise build-up, I learned to keep the signal level above the noise floor by riding the faders and/or using compressors. To compensate for the loss of high frequencies, I learned to record my sounds slightly brighter than I wanted them to sound in the final mix.

Being a pedantic guy, I’d fuss over each recording until every sound was clearly defined. Separation and clarity were the key words. They were in my head from the beginning of a session, influencing my microphone choice and room positions for each instrument.

It was hard work, and that was just the recording side of it. Once I got all the sounds recorded, it was time to mix. I’d spend hours refining the balance, carefully juggling faders, pan pots, EQ and effects to ensure each sound could be heard clearly within the mix. With every sound and every effect I added to the mix, I’d listen carefully and make sure it did not adversely affect the other sounds.

It was time consuming and laborious, but I knew my mixes sounded as good as I could make them. I wanted them to sound like a record when played back off cassette, nothing less would suffice. Remember that these early recordings were demos, destined for cassette only. There was no mastering engineer to fix any problem areas; it was up to me to get it right, no excuses.

As my engineering skills increased, so too did the budgets of my clients. My recordings quickly went from demo tapes to independent albums destined for release on vinyl – which in turn led to my first session in a mastering studio. I strode in, full of confidence, and proudly handed my mix tape over. I was expecting Mr Mastering Engineer to be blown away by my mixes. But over the course of a couple of hours, he tore my mixes apart. He told me what was wrong, suggested numerous areas for improvement, and generally put me right in my place.

I left crestfallen, but I endeavoured to improve my mixes nonetheless. I learned the benefits of corrective and subtractive EQ, and how removing a little bit of low midrange from a bass guitar can work wonders for the clarity and presence of a male voice within the mix. I learned about dynamic perspective, and how to avoid turning an instrument down in the mix when the musician obviously intends it to be loud (and vice versa). I learned about spatial relationships, and how to create a sense of depth with just one or two carefully adjusted delays, instead of pouring on bucket loads of reverb. My mixes got a whole lot better.

My goal – and perhaps my revenge – was to hear Mr Mastering Engineer say, “These mixes are perfect, Greg, I don’t have to do anything to them”. Although I’ll probably never hear those words from that particular mastering engineer (he is now working in the USA), it is a goal I still aspire to. In fact, it’s a goal I thought all engineers aspired to...

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of teaching at Sydney’s JMC Academy. One day, I popped into a training studio where a local ‘big time’ engineer was guest supervising some student mixing sessions, and repeatedly heard him saying the following phrase: “They’ll fix that in mastering”.

Whether it was low-mid muddiness between bass guitar and vocals, a guitar track that got slightly thin and harsh at times, or a vocal that occasionally disappeared beneath the piano, his answer was always, “They'll fix that in mastering”. Session diplomacy prevented me from saying anything at the time, but all of these problems should have been addressed in the mix.

Pro engineers used to jokingly say, “We’ll fix it in the mix”. Now the catchphrase is, “They’ll fix it in mastering”. A simple tweak that takes a moment in the mix down becomes an hour’s work for a mastering engineer, and an hour’s expense for the client. And what if the mastering engineer can’t fix it?

Mixing is not about making each sound as good as possible on its own, then blending them all together and hoping the result will sound good. That is like taking 24 of your favourite colours and pouring them all into the same bucket. What do you get? A grey mess, every single time. Are your mixes a grey mess? Do you think a mastering engineer can extract the individual colours from that grey mess, and recombine them for you? If so, you’re kidding yourself.

Mixing is about thoughtfully combining a number of different sounds together to form a cohesive whole. It is a delicate balancing act in three dimensions – volume, tone and depth – using just the right amounts of EQ, effects, panning and fader settings to bring it all together. If something isn’t right, don’t leave it for the mastering engineer to fix. It is much easier to remedy most problems in the mix, while you’ve still got access to the individual sounds. Learn how sounds interact, learn how the equipment you’ve got assists with that interaction, and start making better mixes.

Ah, the futility...