A Look Back With Scott Hull

Nirvana-Nevermind-coverHi, my name is Mike Cervantes and I am currently an apprentice at Masterdisk in NYC. Aside from learning mastering from my mentor Scott Hull, I get to connect with all of you on the various social media outlets and of course participate in the odd jobs that need attention around the studio. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to learn under someone like Scott. He has seen a lot of changes in the industry during his time as an engineer and has many “old war” stories and gray hair to prove it!

Masterdisk has a lot of history and there has been a lot of albums mastered under the company’s name that are considered a cornerstone in influencing many of the top artists in music during the last five decades. As someone who grew up listening to and was inspired by a small handful of these records, I of course came into this apprenticeship with questions to ask my mentor.

Scott and I thought these stories and past experiences might be interesting to others too, especially if some of them haven’t been shared or been told from the perspective of a mastering engineer who was involved. So this is the beginning of something new and hopefully frequent enough to keep your interest.

Recently I was with Scott while he was casually listening to the Rage Against the Machine debut album from 1992. Scott had mentioned the time of it’s release was around the same time that a few other sonically different and successful albums came through the door at Masterdisk. “NIRVANA!” is what I wanted to say out loud, but of course I kept my mouth shut so I could hear the man speak. The albums he was specifically referring to were Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream.

In 1990, Masterdisk had just moved into their new (now previous) facility on 45th Street in Midtown Manhattan. The typical albums coming in around this time were by artists like Sting, Hall and Oats, Phil Collins and many others that possessed a much cleaner sonic character. So when these early 90s grunge type records came through the door, they sounded very different compared to those latter albums coming into Masterdisk. Scott explained that these different albums were “technically crisp sonically, but intensely dark melodically and texturally where the songs jumped right out of the speakers”.

Scott remembers distinctly remembers hearing Nevermind the first time and it made him feel compelled to listen to it closely. “It sounded different. It had an attitude. Butch Vig was a sounds craftsman for that record.” Scott deeply dug in and studied the album “because of the production and sounds, and of course it drew you in by the music”.

Around this time in the 90s, Scott had built a small garage studio in northern New York where he tracked and mixed grunge type bands during his down time from Masterdisk on the weekends. “We’d start tracking on a Friday night and by Sunday night we’d have a full record mixed and completed”. A small number of the bands Scott was working with had previous experience working at Smart Studios in Madison, WI (Butch Vig’s Studio). One band had recorded at Smart with Butch and drove the masters tapes from Wisconsin to Scott’s garage studio to be mixed. When Scott heard those tracks, it was then that he really started to admire Butch’s sound and became a little jealous because it was so good.

Scott’s role on the Nevermind album was in the editing and post production as an assistant. After the album was mastered, it needed to be edited and put together with the gaps finalized. Back then it was done in the digital tape format and that process often led to spending time with the producer and possibly talking about what went into making that record. In this case, Scott didn’t get very much insight on how Butch had sonically made the album. At the time, Scott didn’t know “if it was a record that we’d still be talking about 20+ years later, but I knew that I liked it and there was something about it that was really appealing.”

Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream was another album Scott was drawn to (also produced by Butch Vig). Something Scott appreciated about Butch Vig was “the albums he produced didn’t sound like him, they sounded like the band. There was an aesthetic to it. There are times when artists work with certain producers where you can immediately tell what producer they worked with because that producer’s sound is reflected through the music. Butch never really had that effect on the music he produced for other artists”.

As most know, both albums had incredible commercial success worldwide and played a major role in launching each band’s career into the stratosphere. Since I first came in contact with the music on Nevermind, I’ve read and heard many stories about how it changed music and even popular culture. I find it interesting to ask *qualifying individuals what their first reaction was hearing Nevermind when it was released in 1991. To me, it was really cool asking Scott to share his experience, especially since he was involved in the album’s final stages of production and heard it before the rest of the world. There are definitely more unique albums that came through the door during the early nineties and I’m sure Scott has a lot more he could talk about. But these were the one’s Scott happened to mention right away.

If you’d like to share your first reaction to either of these albums, we’d love to hear it! Please leave a comment below.

*In reference to those who are old enough to remember that period of time, ha! I was only 4 years old when Nevermind was released, so I obviously have no memory of that period of time. But the intro of Smells like Teen Spirit was one of the first things I learned on guitar in the late 90s, so I was exposed to the album within the same decade it was released.

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Does The World Really Need Automated Mastering?

Mastering ConsoleIt’s here – Today – you can get your song “mastered” by a computer. Landr.com and it’s heralded as a breakthrough for starving artists and the reviews all sound something like: “It sounds great for free.”

It’s an, albeit, very sophisticated computer algorithm. That means that someone created a program that analyses the music and makes many thousand of assumptions about what would sound good. And then it chooses a few of those parameters to adjust your music without you having to even think about it.

Funny, as musicians making records, we don’t use free guitars or free drum sets (usually, except for the odd Junk Band :) ) We don’t re-use free bass strings, and a free bass player is just a bad bass line waiting to happen. So, why should we expect free pro-audio services to be anything better than the toy surprise in a cracker jack box? We know it’s not good or even fun, it’s just free. But we want so baldly for it to be good, so we call it good. And a whole lot of people then assume it must be good. It’s loud. But if you never hear what a really good mastering engineer can do, then is it good enough?

For any of you who have worked with me, you totally get how automatic-anything is just not the way I roll. I work on such culturally- and genre diverse-projects that nothing can be repeated.

I’m not saying this from the “the machine is going to take my job” point of view. I mean, how could the machine know what I’m hearing or feeling? If my thoughtful, enlightened mastering can “beat the box” every single time—and it does or no one will pay my fee—then, what we are doing is lowing the bar,every day, on the quality of our collective art.

So what’s so bad about automatic processing? We can match some of the recording parameters to known “good” masters, and, if it differs in some significant way, then make changes. And then ask the engineer or artist if it’s better or worse. Woa.. wait a second… that’s not automatic, you still need human decision making.

Or, you can send off a master to several different cheap or free mastering sites and see what you get back. That’s really just simple trial and error. That’s “I don’t know what to do with this recording, so I’m going to let the machine try something. And if i like it, then i’ll keep it.”

But how would you know it’s good if you don’t know what it should sound like? Did i hear someone say, “it’s good enough?

We as musicians emulate the rock/classical/blues legends from our past experience. We also create brand new art that is a blend of all that we know, and are striving to contribute and communicate. Do you really think that Eric Clapton, or Miles Davis, Mozart, Pavoroti, or Sting ever said, “That’s good enough”? I seriously doubt it.

So are we living in the shadows of legends, or just posers, doing the minimum we have to to make a song? Don’t you sweat the details when you arrange a song, and practice it, choose who best to play the parts? Isn’t that all done with great pride in the outcome? Why do we not consider the potential loss from a poorly executed master?

Because we have been conditioned to believe that it doesn’t matter all that much.

I think it is seriously past time for us to re-name the ubiquitous term “mastering.” The word master is so overused, and improperly applied. Mastering, done with care and professionalism, incorporates so many more elements than just making a mix loud or bright. Communication with the artist/producer is so important. Making expertly crafted masters, repeatable EQ settings, and a work flow that doesn’t rely on happy accidents. That’s Mastering and that deserves the term Master. Like, in it takes 10,000 hours to Master anything, or, as in a Masters degree.

The word mastering also has to be followed by the desired format and or configuration. Mastering for cassette, for CD, for download, for iTunes, and, now once again, for vinyl. But the term mastering doesn’t apply to the mix engineers finalization of the mix. You might think of that as “mix-plus,” when the plus isn’t a thoughtful or reflective decision, but one of “Is it loud enough so the artist won’t complain?”

Some mix engineers who have their own rooms that they have worked out of for some time, can and do Master in the classic sense. But I contend that on the projects that these engineers mix, it is nearly impossible for the mix engineer to be truly objective. This is not really what Mastering is about.

Mastering isn’t a commodity, there isn’t any equivalence when comparing $50 mastering with $300 mastering. They are different—as different as the individuals (or computer algorithm) themselves.

A young band member recently told me of his band finishing their record. “We were talked into using the name-brand guy who charges over $4,000 to master an album. We really shouldn’t have spent so much on mastering.”

There was no mention of the sound. Did it come back sounding a lot better? When they questioned the results did the mastering engineer offer to try again? Was advice given regarding how the mixes sounded? Did the experience feel like the M.E. (mastering engineer) was part of the team?

My guess is this mastering engineer didn’t do ANY of these things. So the only way to describe the mastering was by complaining about the cost. Since expensive is generally good, then this should have been great. But when the experience isn’t great, you complain about the price when you should be complaining about the quality of the service.

So, is automated mastering (or even mixing) coming to your project soon? If you really can tolerate the bar being that low, and you are convinced that whoever you are making music for won’t care enough to justify the difference, then I think you should go for it. It’s cheap and fast and there is no messy communication with other humans to screw up your virtually isolated day.

But, if you do care about the art, and you are curious about what mastering really means, then send in your track for an eye opening experience. If I can’t beat the box, you win…

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A Family Treasure Saved

Haynes_Victor1Some days I am working on a brand new recording to hi resolution digital.  Other days, a recent live to 2 track analog blues record. But today was an interesting experience.

I received a request to transfer records to digital.  Snore.. right that’s not so amazing.  But what I was sent was really cool.

I have transferred and cleaned many 78 rpm records.  They always are a challenge.  The playback turntables of that era were clunky, and since few people owned a lot of 78s, they were usually played a LOT.  This causes all sorts of playback issues, skips. distortion, scratches and pops, and that constant swish of a commercial mass-produced 78.  I have a restoration tool that can reduce many of these unwanted noises, but there is always compromises.  So much so, that I had actually forgotten what a virgin 78 sounded like.

Seventy-Eights are a handful to transfer. There was virtually no playback standard when they were new. Each label used a pre-emphasis EQ, and real collectors had complex setups with different EQs and curves so they could get an accurate playback.  Different width styli were used throughout the years, and if you didn’t use the right size stylus, you would damage the disk even more.

The process of transferring 78s is mostly trial and error, then adjusting the final tone for what appears to be normal.  You can’t guess at this; you really have to have a great ear and good EQs.

So, when I opened up this package I was pleasantly surprised. Inside was a near-virgin 78 record that had been cut on a lathe as a one of a kind record.

Back in the day, small record cutters (disk recorders) existed.  They were used like a tape recorder would be used: to capture a live performance so that it can be played back later.  These particular disks must have been cut and then put away for 60 years.

The transfer went smoothly. There was plenty of surface noise and quite a few pops, but a whole lot less than would be heard on a circulated disk.

Sample 1: Original 78 RPM Recording (1952)

 

Sample 1: Restored by Masterdisk

 

The story behind the story goes like this: After my client’s mother-in-law passed away, the family went through a storage facility where she had her “stuff”.  (George Carlin used to do a routine about how much we like “our stuff”.)  I’m sure there was a lot of mothballs and old lace. But they found in this room, these 3 disks.

What it was was a “studio “ recording of his mother-in-law at the age of 9, playing a series of difficult pieces of music on piano.  She was truly gifted at such a young age.  She announced each song, and at the end stated the year and date and her age.  I was floored.  Just to think that they had survived—probably a hundred different opportunities to be thrown out or forgotten about.

The good part is, these records cleaned up very nicely.  The tools I use to take light ticks and pops off LPs worked great. Then, when I sat back and listened down to the entire performance, I was again shocked at how high fidelity the recording was.  It was at least as full and rich as the best analog tape recorders of the time.

I had one other experience like this: My own grandmother had been shopping in a general store in Tippecanoe, Ohio in 1953, and as she came out, she was greeted by a man—a bread salesman—who had a portable disk recorder. He did a “man on the street” interview with my grandmother and pitched to her the breads from the company who sent him.

Each of her five sons said their Sunday school verse for the recording, and, like magic, years later, there was my father at age 9, and my uncle as an infant, crying in the baby carriage.

This record was cut onto a plastic disk with a thin cardboard core.  The plastic was worn and gave way in spots, but with painstaking care, I managed to put it together and clean it up. I played back the record at a slower speed (because the needle was hopping all over the place).  This disk had been played a lot and was in really poor shape.  I did this restoration about 18 years ago.  The tools for restoration have improved 100 fold since then and are much faster too.

So, even if you aren’t a hoarder, you just might find a funny looking little record in your grandparents attic. Treat it carefully, have it played by a professional, and treat yourself to the time capsule experience.  For fun, I just played this recording from 60 years ago for my two daughters.  They never got me meet my grandmother (or my father for that matter).  I think it’s pretty cool that these recordings have survived.

Sample 2: Original 78 RPM Recording (1952)

 

Sample 2: Restored by Masterdisk

 

 

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Deciding How Long To Make Each Side Of Your Vinyl Record

Photo: Echoes.in.side

A vinyl LP can hold over  40 minutes of music a side.  But, the sound quality isn’t good at all.

So, to make a great sounding record I have to be concerned about the playing time, and how the music itself sets the parameters for sound quality.  It’s complex, but I will break it down:

There are some guidelines, but it’s important to note that the length of the side, the level, and the bass response are all very closely related.

I have to look at the overall picture, and factor in many details.

Is the music very compressed or limited?  

Compression and limiting increase the average level, while lowering the peak level.  There are plenty of good reasons to do this for the benefit of the mix.  But, taken to the extreme—as is the case for most CD releases—that extra limiting increases the average level so much that I have no choice but to lower the cutting level.

Does the side have long passages of very quiet material?

It’s a numbers game.  You can make the louds really loud if you have soft sections where you can conserve space on the disk .  So, the more dynamic range you have, the louder the louds sound and the quitter the softs sound.  This isn’t ideal for high energy rock or pop, but this helps many other styles of music.

What is the overall bass “impression” of the side? 

If it’s a full bass sounding vibe, the record groves are literally deeper and wider, and take up more room. So I have to lower the level to make them fit. And there is “good bass” and “bad bass”  with regard to vinyl.  Bass that is dead mono and panned center doesn’t use as much space on the disk as “stereo bass”.   Keep an eye on the how much bass your mix has on the side.  Stereo bass makes the grove cut deeper. And, since deeper is wider (think trigonometry) that means that each groove requires more space.

How bright or aggressive are the high frequencies? 

Everything else being equal ,(and we know they aren’t, but for the sake of this discussion…) a record side that has bright vocal moments might not be able to be cut cleanly.  Let’s look at…

The Four Limiting Factors  

Compression (or, average level) 
The higher the average level, the lower the cutting level has to be. On vinyl, the effect of limiting the music is that peaks get lowered, but the average level can not be raised.

Bass level and Stereo placement
If a recording has loads of bass, that will use up space and cause us to lower the level.

High Frequency Content
If a recording has very bright moments, those will cause playback distortion and will cause us to lower the level.

Duration
If the side is “long,” then the level will have to be lowered to accommodate the extra grooves.

These four factors are always in play, working with us and against us in making an ideal album side. There are a few corollaries that can be helpful.

Vocals 
On a long side, the level will be lower. This means the high frequency vocal will not be a problem. Conversely, on a short side, bright vocals might not let me raise the cutting level to ideal.

Bass
Just a tiny compensation in the bass, either a sub bass roll-off or an elliptical equalizer, can be very effective at helping the cut.  They both affect the bass sound quality though, and must be used with good judgement.

Dynamics
Let the dogs run. Don’t use limiters on your mixes and masters for vinyl.  The effects of limiters on a vinyl cut are very different then they are on a digital master.  Hard to believe, but this is one place where softer is louder. Trust me on this one.

That said, here are your guide lines:

Under 18 minutes, I could cut almost anything.  As loud as wanted up to the groove distorting.  Full bass, metal, rock—it’s all good.

Between 18-22 minutes, I’m going to depend on a ballad or acoustic song to help with the length. If not, I’ll have to lower the level 2 or 3 db at 22 mins compared to 18 min.

From 22-26 minutes, I might have to lower the level more, or roll off a little bass. This depends on the client’s preference for bass/full/warm sounds vs level.

Over 25 minutes, it’s very likely—even for jazz—that i’ll have to lower the level, maybe clean up the low bass, and maybe more.

I can cut 30 minutes on a side, but the level is down 8db or more from the level I can cut on a 18 minute side. Thats a lot. But, the sound is still good (or can be) even though the record noise becomes more apparent since the music is quieter.  If pressed at a high-quality plant with careful consideration, a long side can sound really good.

The “right” answer to the question, How much music fits on a side of a record? comes from a decision made early on in the production. Are you making a nice sounding, good looking keepsake album? Or are you making a high-fi listening experience on vinyl?

If the prime purpose is promotional, don’t worry too much about the level. The result is, you will hear more click and pops, because the audio was cut at a lower level.  Put the saved money into great artwork or packaging.

If the purpose is a great sound and vibe, then keep the side below 22 minutes. Maybe 24 for traditional jazz that isn’t very compressed.

I hope this helps you make a great record!

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Vinyl: How To Listen To Test Pressings

Masterdisk VMS-80The record pressing plant will press 5 -10 copies (test pressings) and send them to you.  I strongly recommend that you send a couple of these test pressings to your cutting studio to review. Your cutting engineer is the only person who knows how your record should sound.  I mean, you know how your music should sound, but the cutting engineer knows how the record should sound. And even more importantly, what the test pressings should sound like.

Here’s the rest of the story.: Test pressings are not perfect.  Even when everything else in the process is done perfectly, sometimes test pressings will exhibit flaws.  You have to be able to tell the difference between serious defects in the process, and ordinary flaws that are associated with the test pressings.
Almost every pressing plant utilizes a manual type press to make test pressings.  They are not often made in  ideal conditions, and always seem to be more noisy than the final records are.  There are several reasons for this:  It’s a different press, the temperature might not be optimum, and the quality of the vinyl may not be the same as they will use for your final run.

So, with all these potential flaws, why are we paying for test pressings?  You must listen to your metal work before pressing up thousands of pressings.  If there is a serious flaw, it’s much better to catch it before the big press run and all of the packaging costs. The main problem is, it takes so many steps to get from master to lacquer to father to mother and stamper and shipped back to you.

So, when you get your test pressings what are you supposed to listen for?

1. Any major flaw that would ruin the record.  Skips, locked groves (repeats)

2. Other audible flaws that would detract from the listening experience.   Once around or swishing sounds.  Harshness,  excessive high frequency distortion called Sibilants.

3. Surface flaws that may be annoying, and may be part of making records.  Clicks and pops: Small ones are normal, but, really loud ones that are plainly audible need to be investigated.

4. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to check the running order, gaps and any inscriptions in the “dead wax.”

Here is the big issue:  All test pressings have noises. Making a super short run on a manual press, it’s just going to be noisy.  The good news is, your final records should be quieter than your test pressings.  But there is a catch, and this is why we want to have more than 1 or 2 test pressing available.

If a noise—even a loud pop—is not audible on every test pressing, then the stamper is likely good and the process can be continued.  But, if that noise is on every test pressing, then plant should be contacted, alerted to a potential flaw in the stamper, and you should wait their reply.

When you (we) contact the pressing plant this is what they are ask for:

1. Is the defect visible? If it is measured with a stick ruler from the center hole to the defect,  tell the plant “at 5 1/2 “ from the center there is a hashy streak that’s visible.  If it’s a visible flaw but doesn’t have any annoying sound associated with it, you can safely ignore it.

2. Is the defect a repeated or cyclic noise?  If so, mention when you first hear it and when it stops.   Some defect sounds are only audible between songs. A particularly bad one is a squealing sound.  It might just be one squeak, or it could be a sustained whistle-like sound.  This isn’t good and needs to be brought to the plant’s attention.

This is a good time to remind you that the pressing plant doesn’t listen to the records that they make.  There are exceptions, but I don’t think any plant listens to the entire record.  They spot check it only, and often miss some issues.  Also, the playback environment within a pressing plant are often too noisy to have good play back listening.

The moral of the story is, you (we) have to evaluate your test pressings to make sure that errors and molding defects are not going to spoil your records.  And, you did leave yourself some extra time in case the test pressings don’t sound right?   Add an extra 2 to 3 weeks to the delivery time in case you have to reject the test pressings.

To document the disk, this is what i like to do.  I sit down in a QUIET room without interruptions, and I have my headphones, a stopwatch and a pad of paper.   As the record plays, if i hear anything that is loud enough to be disturbing, I note the time.  I reset the stopwatch to zero and start it again at the top of every song.  So, your list might look like this (if the test pressing is bad):

Side A  (test pressing #3 of 5)
Noise in lead in – swishing sound. once around,  noise floor is not consistent.

Song 1
0:30 loud pop (this is also audible on TP 4 but not on tp 5 or 6)
1:12  5 quick clicks in a row.

(between)
Noise floor is steady – slight surface noise, not swishy

Song 2
1:02 – 1:19  several loud pops – these are all audible on all of the test pressings, but not all as loud as TP3.
etc.

Also, note the surface noise between each song and at the end.  Some noises are ok.  Only the cutting engineer and a trained ear at the pressing plant can truly tell if a noise is bad enough to be rejected.  Records have noises… we like that about records.  But they shouldn’t have a lot of really loud noises.

It takes practice to listen to test pressings and make sense of it all.  Try to not make any guesses about what is causing the defect. It may be impossible for you to know – it’s difficult enough for us to know. But use the best onomatopoeia words that you can think of to describe the noise or defect.   Scratch, click, pop, scrape, bump, thump, ring, sizzle, crackle, snap, rattle, rumble…   remember the sounds these words make when you say them resemble the sound you are trying to describe. :)

Compare notes with everyone that received test pressings. Call your cutting engineer  (you do know who cut your record, right?)  You didn’t just send off a digital file to the plant to be cut?  Your cutting engineer, if he or she is really dedicated to helping you make great sounding records, will review your test pressings for little or no cost.  This is just simply a service we provide to help our clients wade through the confusing and frustrating parts of making a record. There isn’t any way you are going to get a great sounding record without the assistance of a cutting engineer. Because we can talk “record” with the plating plant.

Be patient, you can’t rush a great record. And do yourself an huge favor and do not book your record release event until you have approved the test pressings and have a confirmed delivery date from your plant. Even then, add two weeks for problems in the plant, printing problems, and shipping issues.

There is a reason why mastering engineers and producers love great sounding records.  We know how hard it is to get everything to happen perfectly.  But, when it does, like magic, your music is transferred into a completely different listening experience.

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