Whilst discussing the making of “Tasogare” in our initial interview, the subject of mastering records came up, and prompted a long discussion that bears repeating here. Taylor has been recording and producing experimental music for over 20 years, and his insights into sound engineering are illuminating and practical...
How long have you been mastering for professionally, and how did you come to it?
I used to do some very basic mastering back in the early 90’s for Instinct records. It involved an important part of the mastering process, but not all of it. Basically, I was often hired to put together compilations from existing albums. It was my job to sequence the songs and get consistent levels and sound throughout the compilation from all of these different albums. It was a great learning experience because this is a really important part of the overall mastering process.
Since then I have done a lot of reading and learning about mastering. It’s a very technical practice and it suits me well, so it seemed like something I wanted to get into. Also over the past few years I became more and more interested in quality analogue recording equipment. I was tired of buying mid-level gear that I’d only sell one day for something else, so I began focusing on buying fairly top-of-the-line gear that I knew I’d never need to sell. I have also been doing so much computer-based music that I was getting tired of the computer sound. My music has gotten more analogue, more acoustic and organic over the last few years. And the last piece of the puzzle is the fact that this niche of music that I float around in is often made by bedroom producers in not such great acoustic environments, or with computer sound cards or gear that actually hurts the sound more than helps. So I sort of made it a mission of mine to build up a really nice analogue mastering chain and work primarily in my own genre, in order to try to elevate some of these recordings and give them a proper mastering job to help make up for the monitoring environments they were created in. The music my peers make is so much about sound and the quality of sound. The sounds themselves are the art, the focus; this isn’t pop music. So it seems natural that if the quality of sound is so important than we should be making it sound as nice as we can.
It’s really been a successful journey so far, because artists who might not have a collection of high-end outboard equipment can come to me to give their computer-based sound a nice, analogue feel and I can help bring out details in their music that perhaps their soundcards were really masking.
I remember doing some shoot-outs in my studio between low, mid, and high level digital to analog convertors and soundcards and the difference was quite stunning. I had a cheap M-Audio interface in my closet at the time and decided to hook it up to a spare computer running a software synthesizer. When I began to play it I thought something was wrong. The sound was clouded and veiled, muffled. I realized I was so used to the sound of high-quality convertors that this cheap interface was completely ruining the sound of the synthesizer. It really became clear that this is such a basic but so important part of someone’s signal-chain in the studio. So another reason for starting the mastering business was also to educate people about their recording environments, which I do a bit on the forum that I run at 12k. I’ve been in this business long enough that I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit over the last 20 years and should share what I know.
So the mastering business became a great way to help people’s sound as well as teach them a few things. Of course, I get plenty of mastering jobs as well that were done with fantastic equipment in great studios. It’s a whole range, really, but I feel like if I keep my prices low enough for the experimental musician and target my own niche of music then I can get a business model that benefits everyone.
How much of your work is based around the label and how much comes from outside 12k?
I don’t master everything that comes out on 12k, but I do master a lot of it. Some artists have it mastered elsewhere or sometimes it’s a lighter mastering job, such as the Live In Tokyo CD. I also don’t charge the artists on 12k for me to master their 12k releases. So, really, the business is completely funded by outside work. I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up some labels who like to use me for almost everything they release and also have lots of repeat customers. Word-of-mouth is the only way this business can survive and grow so it’s important for me to establish good relationships with my clients.
How long on average does it take, from the moment you get the job to the minute you sign off on it, to finish a release?
From the moment I actually start configuring the audio chain and starting the work I can typically get an album done in a day. I don’t like to rush it and I also leave myself another day so I can go back and check what I did with fresh ears. Ear fatigue is an extremely important thing to watch out for. After a long day of listening you just aren’t hearing it like you should anymore and you start to make the wrong decisions. Mastering is all about decision-making and you have to make sure your head and ears are clear so you can make the right choices. However, it’s very common for a job to go on longer due to the client wanting to supply a different mix, or me finding something wrong in the original audio such as distortion or something that I’ll either get permission to remove or request a new mix from the artist… so it’s typically a week or so from start, to mastering, uploading, approval, final playlist and disc burning… there’s a lot of steps involved.
You mentioned in your Japan interview that you are not a “transparent engineer”, and that you tend to try to add analogue love to your work. Could you explain that process to a layman such as myself?
Mastering, by definition, is sort of about “doing no harm” and that is totally true. You don’t want to do anything to someone’s music that makes it worse. What this means in a real-world situation is you don’t want to process anything for the sake of the process, or run something through a piece of equipment for no real reason. You want to make sure you’re doing a minimal of processing, a minimal signal path, for the goals that need to be achieved. What this often translates to in many mastering studios is a really transparent job, where the process is hardly noticeable. And yes, I get many jobs where this is the best choice of action, however, I also get many jobs where running the song a little hot through a tube compressor or tweaking the stereo field or applying Mid/Side EQ just really sounds great and gives the song a real vibe and, yes, changes it a bit.
There are sort of two categories of analog outboard equipment: “transparent” and “colored”. Mastering engineers often lean towards the transparent gear just because it can make corrections without being heard. I have a couple of pieces that would fall into this category, but I also really love the tubey and saturated gear that impart some sort of vibe or “color” to a recording… and I’m not shy about using it. It’s important for me to make this claim because if someone is looking for a really transparent mastering engineer they may not want to use me. Not that I can’t do jobs like this, and I’ve done many, but there are so many places to have your music mastered that I want to make sure that my own business is true to myself, something I’m passionate about and something different to the guy next to me.
I’m lucky because I’m working with experimental music primarily, so there are less rules. With ambient music people love a big, expansive sound field and I have a particular piece of equipment that is absolute magic for this. You wouldn’t use it on a modern pop song, or hip-hop or anything, but for ambient music it’s absolutely beautiful. And sure, it doesn’t always work, and I don’t always use it, but when I do it’s great… and this is the sort of reason I love not only mastering in these genres but also making the kind of music that I do… there are just less rules than other kinds of music. We can try things that may seem “wrong” to other people and they really work.
Are there any projects that you’ve worked on that have come out at the end completely different to how you were expecting it to sound? Have any records surprised you in that way?
As I just mentioned, I’m not shy to apply some noticeable saturation or warmth to a mix, but these are still, for most people, very subtle changes. It’s not my job to totally alter a mix. There have been, however, some jobs that I actually impress myself with that make me a bit nervous about having the client hear. I keep coming back to the artist The Green Kingdom. He does fantastic music and there’s something about my process and gear and his music and mixes that just make an amazing combination. I remember the first time I mastered one of his albums I was able to bring out some amazing details that were buried in the mix and then I thought to myself “well, maybe he doesn’t WANT these details brought out!” because, again, it’s not my job to alter the music a great deal, so I was a bit nervous sending them to him in fear he’s say it was too bright or he wanted it more buried… fortunately, he loved it as well and it was just a great moment of seeing mastering really, really work. To be able to take someone’s recordings and bring them to the next level is what it’s all about for me. A similar thing happened when I mastered Marcus Fischer’s “Monocoastal” album for 12k. We were both really amazed at the results and Marcus said was like he was hearing them for the first time again.
Mastering is funny because sometimes the results can be really noticeable and sometimes they can be hardly noticeable and the latter also makes me nervous. As a mastering engineer you want the client to say “wow, you really made these sound great!” but, you know, it’s equally as important for a mastering engineer to be able to say “your mixes are already really fantastic, there’s not much more I can do to make them sound better.” And this is when the client is happy to have a 2nd set of unbiased ears to check his mixes, maybe fix a few slight things, and make sure the sequencing and consistent levels are done. It’s like a final quality check and less about processing or changing their audio.
Is there a different consideration to mastering for CD as opposed to digital? If music has been specified to you as just for download, are there ways to enhance it to sound better after it’s been compressed?
I don’t make any differences when mastering for CD or digital. The idea is to give the best quality sound up front. The better you go in with, the better it will sound after MP3’s compression. As well, once a track it out there, whether it’s on CD or MP3 or whatever, there’s no telling how many times it’ll change hands and formats. It would be impossible and highly impractical to make different masters for different compression formats. You’d hope, that in an ideal world, people would want the best quality sound to listen to themselves so they’ll get the CD or at least a high quality digital file.
There are differences when mastering for vinyl, however. High frequency sounds tend to distort more on vinyl and low frequency sounds eat up a lot of headroom and out-of-phase frequencies can really cause problems with the cutting needle. So, these are all issues I have to address when I do masters for a vinyl release and, in the case where something is being put out on CD and vinyl, I will make two separate masters. The delivery format of a vinyl master is also a bit different than CD, so I have to make different types of master discs.
Is there one particular issue in mixes that you come across that you think could be fixed by some advice in advance?
I’d like to stress the importance of volume maximizing and audio quality. Everyone here may have heard of the “volume wars.” it’s something that’s plagued the music industry for a decade or more now as artists are making their music louder and louder to “compete” with other artists on the radio or on their iPod. It’s like the arms race, constant escalation of volumes. The guy next to you is making their song louder, so you think you have to make yours louder. Without getting into pages of discussion here… the way this is done these days is with a process called “limiting” or volume maximizing. Basically this pushes the volumes up higher and higher but the problem is that digital audio has a cap. The audio can’t go louder than 0db. So, in order for people to make songs appear louder they cut off the top peaks of their music in order to bring up the quieter parts to the same levels. What you’re doing here is ruining the dynamic range of your music. You know, the quiet parts vs. the loud parts. Dynamic range is often heard in the form of passion or movement. Quiet to loud, swells, ups and downs… all the things that make something sound alive. Once you squash the dynamics down to nothing in the sake of loudness you ruin that feel and the song becomes lifeless and very tiring to listen to. All of the sudden you have the loudest song on the block that no one wants to listen to. And the problem if taken to extreme levels this can actually have the effect of making your music sound quieter.
It saddens me to know that people, even after all the buzz in the music industry about this, are still after louder and louder. In the electronic music world these volume wars are very much alive in the techno community and made worse by the use of Beat port where everyone on Beatport wants to be louder than the next person. It’s totally ruining this music.
What people need to remember is that there’s a volume knob on your stereo and on your iPod for a reason. If something sounds too quiet to you, turn it up! If it sounds too loud, turn it down. Why are those classic recordings from the 60s and 70s so coveted? Dynamic range! If you take a mastered song that’s quieter with a lot of dynamic range and play it next to the same song that’s been made louder by limiting and volume maximizing, but turn it up on your stereo system to match the level of the squashed recording it will sound so much better. It will be just as loud but still retain all of those dynamics because you’re turning up your speakers, you’re pumping more volume into the air, which sounds lovely and not pumping more volume into the digital file that has a maximum cap on itself.
The reason I’m talking about this now is that I still get a lot of tracks to master that have been maximized. When I get these there is very little I can do to save the quality of the music and it doesn’t leave me any headroom to make other changes or corrections. If you DO want your music maximized and loud, and I WILL do that for a client if they want (after I advise them against it) then let the mastering guy do it. He will have better equipment and know ways of maximizing your music by doing less damage.
But, really, remember the volume knob on the listener’s playback system and remember that your music is going to sound better and louder if it has more dynamics.
Ok, my rant is over, but it’s really important for people to at least be aware of what’s going on in our industry. I’m fortunate enough, again, to be working with experimental, ambient and generally quieter types of music that isn’t after a smashing volume. I do master techno and other forms of dance music and these people DO want it loud, so I’ll do my best to make it loud without sacrificing quality. But, again, if you’re after that sound and having the music mastered, leave your maximizing off of your mixes and provide mixes to the mastering engineer that still have the dynamics and headroom intact.
Those interested by Taylor’s approach would be advised to further investigate the process at the 12k website.