Tuesday, 23 December 2008
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
"a live show, in which songwriters face the daily challenge of writing a song based on news and current events. The songwriters get to choose what song they are writing - but audience suggestions are always welcome. It’s a tough ask, writing an original topical song from scratch in under three hours, and we need all the help we can get."
Sunday, 14 December 2008
Everything you could ever want to know about mastering (*), all in one monstrous PDF mind-map file.
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
I was floored when I heard they decided to go with my full dynamics version and the loudness-for-loudness-sake versions be damned.
I think the fan and press backlash against the recent heavily compressed recordings finally set the context for someone to take a stand and return to putting music and dynamics above sheer level...
...I’m hoping that Chinese Democracy will mark the beginning of people returning to sane levels and musicality triumphing over distortion and grunge. I have already seen a new awareness and appreciation for quality from some other producers, I pray it is the end of the level wars.
- It will sell by the bucket-load (head?!) even though it hasn't been smashed to hell
- No-one will complain that it's too quiet
- It will sound fantastic (and loud) on the radio, because it's dynamic and punchy
- No-one will start a petition to have a crushed and distorted re-release made
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
- Think big - Mastering is about making an album from a collection of songs. Now isn't the time to agonise about the details - whether the vocal is too high in one song, or whether you should add another guitar part to another. Mixing is over - move on ! Think about how songs relate to each other, look for a "line" through them, so they flow convincingly. I often describe mastering as finding the "centre of gravity" of a collection of tracks, and helping them all sit right next to each other. Listen to the overall sound of each song, and work on that.
- EQ and volume are everything - The equalisation (broadly speaking the bass, middle and treble balance) of each track needs to be right before anything else will work. To choose the right EQ, the level needs to be right, but the EQ influences what level you choose. Sounds like a Catch-22 ? It is. So, set the level, adjust the EQ - repeat until happy. Of course dynamic compression is a crucial part of this process - see below.
- Have an open mind - Normally my advice to people is "don't try to master your own stuff". If you are trying to do it yourself though, throw away all the pre-conceptions and ideas you have inherited from the recording and mixing process, and start afresh. Be prepared to cut swathes through all the detailed decisions and reasoning you've put into the project so far - a mastering engineer gives an impartial, third-party opinion about what's best for your material - you need to try and do the same. Listen to the Big Picture.
- Match vocal levels - When choosing how loud each song should be compared to the others, it's easy to get confused. A great rule of thumb is to balance the vocals. If you can get the vocals for each tune to sound as if they're in the same ballpark, almost anything else will work around them. Where you don't have a vocal to listen to, pick the main melodic element instead.
- Work fast, be bold - Use broad brush-strokes; listen to each song and make big, instinctive changes. Set the level, choose an EQ and go for it. Instinct is important in mastering, and often your first thought is the right one. If you find yourself going around in circles worrying about the details, it may be best to move on to a different song and come back later.
- Keep it Dynamic - You can master a CD without boosting the overall level at all, and all the EQ and level adjustments will still be invaluable. However most people also want to lift the overall level to be closer to commercial releases as well, and so compression and limiting become important parts of the process. I'm writing a whole series of posts about this, but the main point to make here is - don't be tempted to over-cook it. Music needs light and shade - without Quiet, there can be no Loud. So strive to find the "sweet spot" for your album, where the benefits outweigh the problems compression and limiting can cause. If in doubt, check out my post How Loud Is Too Loud ? Don't let your CD be a victim in the Loudness Wars - no-one wants to be the next "Death Magnetic"...
- Good gaps - mix it up - The silence between tracks on your CD can sometimes be as important as the tracks themselves. If a gaps are too short, the album can feel rushed and exhausting - too long and the listener is distracted form the flow of songs wondering where the next tune is. Some people swear by two-second gaps, but my favourite rule of thumb is - make the gap equal to two bars of the out-going song. Times to consider breaking this rule are early on on the album, where you might want to build momentum, or after a song with a slow fade. Occasional longer gaps can give the listener time to catch their breath, or frame a change of mood or style, for example. Variety is the key here.
- Burn Slow, Burn Steady - So your songs are sequenced, balanced, boosted and spaced - all you need to do is burn a quick copy at 52x and listen, right ? Wrong. Different brands of CDRs work better in certain burners than others, and error rates vary widely depending on the write speed. Yet again this is a complicated topic, but on the whole we see the best results burning at slower speeds like 16x, 8x or even 4x. This isn't such a big issue unless you want to use your CD for replication, but avoid the very high speeds, and spend a little more on "name" brands like EMTEC, TDK or Verbatim. If you want to use what we use, these brand-names are no use, though - the company widely-regarded as producing the most reliable CDs of all is called Taiyo Yuden - but not all suppliers can offer them.
Tuesday, 21 October 2008
"It's anarchic, crazy, kind of rough-edged and raw, but it's got an amazing energy, and it embraces white kids, black kids, Asian kids, kids up to no good, boys and girls out on the street. It's a full length film, made low budget, so it's absolutely a gang of people getting together with great imagination and wit, and a bunch of talented actors. It pulsates with energy."
I will blog and keep a video diary of the whole journey. We will show the improvisation period that is often kept secretive, the madness of shooting on no money, the turbulent editing process and the possible festival circuit and uk cinematic release of the film. Everything you need to know on how to - or possibly how not to - make a no-budget feature film.
Thursday, 9 October 2008
Look for the "Listen Again" section on the right-hand side and choose Friday's programme. Drag the slider to around 42 minutes to hear the item.
Wednesday, 8 October 2008
Sunday, 5 October 2008
To cut a long story short:
- The mix - hard, raw, dry, with very litle reverb. This is Rick Rubin's signature sound on this kind of material, and undoubtedly is the way the band wanted the album to sound. Even the "Guitar Hero" mix that many fans prefer shares this sound.
- Distortion - the CD release is massively distorted, especially the drums and the bass. This harsh type of distortion is made by a process known as "clipping" - in this case it sounds like analogue or "soft" clipping, probably from overdriving valve circuitry, channels on the mixing desk or similar. This distortion is mostly absent from the "Guitar Hero" mix, but mastering engineer Ted Jensen's claims the "artistic" decision to make the record sound like this happened at the mixing stage.
- Digital clipping - caused by lifting a digital signal above it's theoretical maximum level. Although it is also a form of distortion, on a record this distorted to begin with, it's debatable whether this would actually be audible as such - it tends to have a more thin, "fizzy" quality which is probably mostly masked by the crunchier, cracklier analogue distortion discussed above. However it has other effects on the sound - in small quantities it can allow additional level boosts without major distortion and loss of punch. If overdone though, or used on signals that are already very loud, it can actually have exactly the opposite effect. Unlike the mix and analogue distortion, it's not possible to know with any certainty whether this clipping occurred at the mix, master or both.
- Because it was mastered (or "cut") for a different format
- Perhaps by a different engineer
- Perhaps from a different mix
Thursday, 2 October 2008
BUT as a mastering engineer I spend a lot of my time lifting the level of people's music so that it can compete with the high levels of other CDs out there. And, as I've said in a previous post, I feel that this is actually a positive step for most albums.
How do I reconcile these two apparently contradicting views ? The answer is something I've also said several times before here:
Louder is Better, but Too Loud is Worse
By which I mean - every track (and group of tracks) has a "sweet spot", where it's loudness (and by implication compression, level, EQ etc) is just right. It sounds the best it can be. If it's not compressed enough, then quiet passages won't have enough presence, the mix may not "gel" or have enough impact, detail may be lost, and loud passages will make you wince. Whereas if it's too loud and compressed it can sound squashed and dull (meaning bland and lifeless, not lacking treble) and ultimately fatiguing.
I wish I had examples here to play for you. If I knew we were going to talk about this I’d go through the library and find examples. Ultimately, if you listen on a car sound system or in the mainstream place where most people listen to music—cars, boomboxes sound systems you get at (chain stores), and if you “A/B” the less compressed version to the more compressed version, you pick the compressed version.
And he's right ! He also says, in response to a question about things sounding better on the radio:
Sometimes actually, if it’s too loud, it sounds worse on the radio.
Something is Too Loud when it starts to sound worse
-8.6 (-6.2) Oasis - "Some Might Say": Severe clipping distortion
-8.9 (-4.9) Metallica - "TDTNC" (CD): Massive distortion & clipping
-10.4 (-7.7) Feeder - "Pushing The Senses": Heavy clipping distortion
-12.7 (-7.7) Metallica - "BB&S" (Mystery Mix): Slight source clipping
-14.0 (-10) Katatonia - "Consternation": Awesome (clean) sound, massive choruses
-15.3 (-13.1) Sugar - "Fortune Teller": From 1993
-21.8 (-16.9) Metallica - "TDTNC" (GH3) Needs to be louder !
It's also interesting to think about what these numbers mean. The Katatonia track is only 2dB (RMS) quieter than the "Mystery Mix" of Broken, Beat & Scarred", but still has more punch, weight and impact, to my ears. This difference is vastly more apparent comparing to the Metallica CD, and looking at the numbers we can see why. Katatonia has maximum RMS of -8 dB, in the track, compared to an average of -14, giving it a "loudness range" of 6dB.
Tuesday, 30 September 2008
Monday, 29 September 2008
"Listen, there's nothing up with the audio quality. It's 2008, and that's how we make records... Of course, I've heard that there are a few people complaining. But I've been listening to it the last couple of days in my car, and it sounds fuckin' smokin'."
"The Internet gives everybody a voice, and the Internet has a tendency to give the complainers a louder voice. Listen, I can't keep up with this shit. Part of being in Metallica is that there's always somebody who's got a problem with something that you're doing: 'James Hetfield had something for breakfast that I don't like.' That's part of the ride."
"Somebody told me about [people complaining that the Guitar Hero version of Death Magnetic sounds better]. Listen, what are you going to do? A lot of people say [the CD] sounds great, and a few people say it doesn't, and that's OK."
"I will say that the overwhelming response to this new record has exceeded even our expectations as far as how positive it is. So I'm not gonna sit here and get caught up in whether [the sound] 'clips' or it doesn't 'clip.' I don't know what kind of stereos these people listen on. Me and James [Hetfield] made a deal that we would hang back a little and not get in the way of whatever Rick's vision was. That's not to put it on him - it's our record, I'll take the hit, but we wanted to roll with Rick's vision of how Metallica would sound."
Friday, 26 September 2008
"[The CD is] so raw that you cannot hear the nuances, the clarity, especially with James' amazing riffage""On this Guitar Hero version you can hear a lot of notes that Rob's playing that you can't hear on the standard album""to anyone's ears, it's pretty obvious"... "[the Guitar Hero version] just sounds incredibly comfortable, and if anything, normal""[The CD] kind of sounds as if a distortion pedal is over the whole band, instead of just the guitar""The band are striking, they're on fire, and the [CD] mix is letting down their ability""The band have not cut corners on the album, the sad thing is you can't hear the precision... of James' riffs, and even Rob's bass and a lot of Lars' tom work... these are really important elements""To my ears, [the CD] sounds way too overbearing""That's what I want hear - the precise riffs..." - "and on the album version it really doesn't show, it's doesn't pop out at you""We're just gonna go with the Guitar Hero mix, because honestly... (laughs) I think we prefer it"
"You're right it sounds so much better... I know nothing about Guitar Hero but I'm definitely going to pick up this one""I was shocked by the CD version, it sounded like my headphones had been transformed into a two-dollar set which had been broken by volume""I thought it was my sound system so I'm glad that it wasn't just me... what a shame such a great album came out like this, still a great CD in my opinion"
'98% of listeners are "overwhelmingly positive"... there's something exciting about the sound of this record that people are responding to.'
'I'm not sure I would have said quite the same thing if I was posting it to the bulletin board... [but] it's certainly the way I feel about it'
Thursday, 25 September 2008
Monday, 22 September 2008
Today the "Death Magnetic" saga took yet another strange twist, with the arrival of a "remix" of one of the tracks, allegedly by a "name" metal producer, according to the email which acompanied the file. This new mix of "Broken, Beat & Scarred" has been created by the mystery producer using "stems" extracted from the Playstation 3 game "Guitar Hero". The PS3 mixes in realtime to allow guitar parts to drop in and out as part of the gameplay, and this allowed the extraction of 3 stereo submixes - Guitars, Bass and Drums + Vox. Even with this limited palette, a new mix has been created, adding reverb, EQ and mix tweaks - even going so far as using a clever trick to add reverb to the snare.
- No distortion
- More bass - fuller & deeper.
- Richer guitars - reverb and EQ added. Maybe width enhancement ?
- Drums similar to GH but smoother and cleaner. The snare is lower level and has reverb - see below
- No stereo FX on the guitar solo - this will be a limitation of the stems
- Still too loud. This mix measures a long-term RMS of -7.7, whereas the CD has a punishing -5. However this mix is still mastered loud. Too loud ! It's clearly been limited hard, what was the point of shaving off those last few dBs ? Luckily:
- Comparatively speaking, it's clean as a whistle. (Bearing in mind I'm listening to an AAC file) Thankfully no trace of the huge distortion that masks the CD, bar remenants of the clipping already present in the GH version
- Overall impression is similar to the CD but cleaner, wider and fuller - more spacious. Maybe too polished.
- For me, listening on speakers, (this stuff is hard to judge on cans) the snare is now too low in the mix, and doesn't have enough weight - it's too tasteful. A compromise between this and the GH version would be better. Interestingly, lots of fans have commented that there is too much reverb added to the snare, but the reverb itself is quite subtle IMO - the big difference is you can hear the drum's "ring" much more clearly now - there is a lot of extra high frequency EQ on the drums. This is audible in the GH3 version too, but not in the same way.
- Overall it's a little too bassy, in my opinion
- It is unnecessarily loud - I wish it were a few dBs quieter. This may not sound like much, but when you're pushing stuff this hard, every little helps.
Finally to return to one of my points above - apart from the issues I've raised, this would still be my choice of mixes to listen to so far. BUT I can't "commit" to enjoying it in the same way as I could to a proper remix from the band. It doesn't feel authentic, because the band aren't involved. I think we as listeners look for statements from artists, and this isn't it... an official remix is still needed.