This is our inaugural publication in our new Stereomojo University Educational Series. We will be bringing you articles by special guests who are at the top of their fields in high end audio design, invention and production. Why are we doing this? There's a lot of misinformation out there perpetrated by people who think they know more than they do. Opinions are a dime a dozen across the internet and in print magazines, often by audiophiles (or pseudo audiophiles) who just want to appear authoritative and important on their chosen audio blog or chat board. Unfortunately, there are many reviewers who also come up with their own theories or creative facts, often for the same reasons. While it is true that there a many areas where true experts honestly disagree, there are many other areas where those who are the true innovators who have decades of experience agree, but their experience is never published in a major audio journal such as Stereomojo. Other times, even seasoned experts can't help but indulge in too much hyperbole in order to sell their products. Many new "breakthroughs" are nothing more than rebadged old ideas with exciting new names that are nothing more than pure marketing crap.
These articles will be devoid of any marketing hype and will, in some cases, debunk some long held "truths" that have circulated like a computer virus. As much as possible, these writings will deal in facts aimed at helping you build a better and lower cost high-end stereo system. We want to save you time, frustration and get you off the endless circle of expensive upgrades that are often as bad or worse that what you had, or at best marginal improvements that cost several times what you thought you needed to get rid of.
The principle is, the more honest information you have, the better your buying decisions will be.
What you won't see is informercials masquerading as "helpful articles". I'm sure you've seen pages in Stereophile or other publications that have pages that look like regular columns or reviews, but if you look real close at the top you'll see "ADVERTISTMENT" in small print. Why would any publisher want to trick or mislead his readers? Think about it. The answer is money, of course.
Stereomojo University is not about products at all. Authors are forbidden to even mention their own products if they have any to sell. No promos. They will be writing to promote their art, science or a mixture of both. Yes, by having their name as author, they will be tacitly promoting themselves and their brand name if one exists, that's unavoidable, but not in the context of their subject matter. I'll go as far as to say this: If you honestly believe any article we publish under Stereomojo University is more hype than useful information, write me directly and if several of you agree, I'll dump it immediately. But trust me, no one hates misinformation and specious hype more than I.
It's all about learning and we will learn along with you. After all, we read the same crap you do on Audio Asylum, Audiogon, Stereophile and others. As always, no politics: audio or government. You've never seen names like Clinton, Bush or Obama mentioned anywhere, anytime in Stereomojo - and you never will.
As always, we want YOUR input for future articles. What are the biggest areas of mystery or quandry or competing opinions for you? What do you need or want to know for sure as much as possible? We do listen and respond.
Thanks for listening. Now on to our first course at Stereomojo University.
About the Author
Bruce Brown is Owner and Chief Engineer at Puget Sound Studios in Issaqua, Washington USA, just outside Seattle. A recent mastering project was nominated for a Grammy. Bruce's Puget Sound Studios not only does all the mastering for Winston Ma's First Impressions Music (FIM), but also supplies all the 96/24 hi-res tracks for the HDTracks site, so ifyou own any of those recordings you've heard his work. So at any time he has master tapes from Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson all the way up to big names in pop, rock and jazz. His equipment list is all state-of-the art from digital to analog. He does everything from CDs, DVD, DVD-Audio, SACD and even BluRay Audio in stereo and surround. Bruce and Puget Sound were recently featured in Mix Magazine, the premier professional recording publication in the world.
In addition, Bruce is also our newest reviewer and will be reviewing hi-end audio on a very limited basis because he is so much in demand. I don't know of too many audio review publications that have a chief mastering engineer doing reviews. All the better for you. When you read this article with Bruce's no-holds-barred comments and his obvious honesty and integrity, you'll see why he fits right in with Stereomojo.
The Art of Mastering
Yes, Mastering is an art form. The primary and essential process of mastering, which cannot be ignored, is the creation of the part from which all replicas or duplicates will be made. As such, it needs to comply with certain technical specifications (i.e. a lacquer which properly tracks, a CD-R master that is to Red Book specs, a properly encoded DDP 2.0 image, an SACD edit master, an mp3 with id3 tag including embedded ISRC at the requested bit rate, etc.) required by the manufacturer.
Beyond that we're talking about "pre-mastering" which is any process done to the final mixes that allows their sound to be subjectively enhanced so that a greater percentage of listeners over a wider range of playback systems will have more positive reactions to the sound of the tracks - and to allow the album to have a more cohesive flow so that a listener never feels compelled to adjust their playback system's volume or tone controls when going from one track to the other. As such the typical processes done to achieve this are typically proper sequencing, equalization, compression, limiting, and if needed fades on heads and tails - with occasionally other processes such as stereo image enhancement, reverberation, multi-band compression, noise reduction, click/pop removal, etc. done as well.
Listening objectively in an accurate environment and having the knowledge, experience and taste to know what processing should and should not be applied is essential to every mastering engineer. Listening is the essential key. The most important piece of equipment to a mastering engineer is their ears. Beyond that, the monitoring chain takes on the utmost importance. You can’t be objective and make an informed decision if you can’t hear what’s in the mix.
A mastering engineer’s room is like an audiophile listening room. It has to convey the music as it was recorded. Any room anomalies will just exacerbate the incorrect decision that you tried to subjectively make. That’s why you don’t see large mixing consoles in mastering rooms because it will induce comb filtering. Recording studios that offer “one stop shopping” are just doing an injustice to their clients and to the public.
Mastering is also all about a second opinion. When a mixing engineer spends days and weeks trying to meld everything together, he or she can’t subjectively make any decisions on the album. They’ve already “improved” it to the best of their ability. A Mastering engineer looks at the whole picture. He wants to make sure the mix is cohesive from top to bottom. He’s looking at the sum of the parts. When the tracks are put together, do they “flow” into one another? Timing is everything. If the next track is a slow ballad, the space may be a little longer. Two fast tracks may have a shorter space between them. After that slow ballad, you want to make sure the next track doesn’t make you want to run for the mute button. We want the tracks to have an equal average loudness. This brings us to another disturbing trend. Everybody wants his or her song to be louder. It’s a proven fact that people prefer the “louder” track. Audiophiles have been fighting for dynamics. Artists/Producers have been fighting for loudness! If an artist brings in a piece of music and their producer says make it louder or we won’t pay you, what do you do? In any service-oriented business, you have to satisfy the customer, even if it goes against your better judgment. You can educate the client how loudness kills dynamics and makes the instruments sound bad, but the typical starving artist will bend to the all mighty dollar. They don’t call them starving artists for nothing!
The typical mastering process goes like this. A client will bring in their music on CD-R, DVD-R or tape. As a mastering engineer, I do not want to compromise all their work at any stage. I need to get this digital information into my workstation the best way I can. Or if it’s on tape, do a transfer into one of our workstations from an optimized Studer or ATR tape machine.
We use PlexTools Pro XL. This is software that makes an exact bit for bit transfer of the disc to your hard drive. I use Sonoma DSD and Pyramix DSD/DXD workstations for editing and mastering. The first thing I do is just listen to their work. I also listen to the artist. I ask the artist, “What do you want it to sound like?” “What don’t you like about your mix?” I make little mental notes of anything that just pops out and needs adjusting. I make note of the cohesiveness or lack of, the spatial separation, width, depth and overall balance. I have many options at my disposal to choose from. Some of the processors I can use are peak and shelf EQ’s, compressors, tape emulators, ambience/depth controllers and multi-level editing tools. After I get the track to sound the way I think it should sound, I ask the artist what they think about it. Fortunately for me, I’ve had everyone say it sounded better. I guess “better” is subjective, but if it pleases the client, then I’m in the clear! Then it’s on to the next track.
After all the tracks are sequenced correctly, we make our corrections then. Unlike a concert where the better songs are at the end of the concert building up to a climax, on an album, you want your best stuff first. Just think about standing at the Border’s or Barnes & Noble kiosk with the headphones on. People just audition about 20 seconds of the first 1 or 2 tracks. If you don’t get their attention then, you’ve lost a sale!
I then make sure the fade-in and fade-outs are timed correctly. Does one song flow into another? Does the slow song start too quickly after a fast song? It’s all about timing.
Then when all songs are sequenced and there is cohesiveness about the whole album, the mastering engineer has to place start/stop, or PQ markers. The CD player has to know where the songs begin and end. If the markers are placed incorrectly, the tracks might not play or the timing can be off. Also the markers have to conform to the RedBook standard. This is the PQ coding.
Next comes ISRC coding. This is a code issued by the RIAA. It’s a 12-digit code that determines the country, registrant, year and designation. This code is imperative for copyright and royalties.
Now we add all CD-text and Metadata. This is the information that is embedded and can be read by the CD player. On SACD, it’s the “TOC” or Table of Contents.
Once you have everything finished, now comes time to make a “pre-master”. This is the disc that will be sent to the replication company. If so desired, the disc image can be sent via ftp. The disc image is a DDP 2.0 image (Disc Description Protocol). This is a protocol that was written to standardize the replication process. The pre-master is checked for C1, C2 and CU errors. I try and use the best media and burners to obtain the lowest error and jitter rate. Here is a graph for reference. This is a typical mass produced commercial release. Note the C1 and C2 errors!
Now this was a CD that I had burned for replication using Premium media and burners. The C1 error rate was 0.2 per second with a maximum of only 5 per second!
As you can see, mastering is not just making everything loud. Mastering is about getting the most you can subjectively and objectively out of a piece of art!
But, we are service providers. We give the client suggestions and examples of what we think sound good. In the end, it’s the artist’s or produce’s decision. If we don’t provide what they want, we don’t get paid. It’s as simple as that.
So the next time you hear some music that is crushed, distorted and unlistenable, don’t blame the mastering.
BUILDING A RECORDING STUDIO
Bruce talks about putting his studio together
The first thing we had to do was to remove windows and seal up every stud, joist and crevice with 27 cases of acoustical caulking. We knew a studio lives or dies on it’s infrastructure, so an Equi=tech balanced electrical power system was installed utilizing 800 ft. of high-end JPS Labs In-wall electrical cable and Oyaide receptacles. We thought enough ahead to separate the electrical system into Left channel, Right channel and Digital, into each of the rooms.
All rooms feature floating floors, ceiling and walls that are decoupled from the outside structure utilizing Kinetics Noise Control systems. About 2 tons of R-22 Roxul was used for all stud and joist cavities. Walls are hung on damped resilient channel by ASC with 2 layers of 5/8” drywall and Green Glue.
We wanted the studio to be as aesthetically pleasing as it was functional. All floors are Maple with solid surfaces being Birdseye Maple. Solid core Maple doors are used with Zero International seals and cam-lift hinges. Walls are covered with 1” O.C. 703 and fabric done by Snap-tex. RPG Diffractals, also in maple, round out the acoustical treatment. To tie everything together, Allen Larsen of Cascade Productions was called into service to custom build all studio furniture in solid maple with walnut inlay.
Symmetry plays an important part when dealing with acoustics and these rooms set the standard at +/- 1/16”. Separating the Post/Mastering rooms are 2 pieces of laminated glass at 1” and ¾” that are mitered at 15degrees at the center to keep from having parallel surfaces.
Not resting on our laurels, the equipment had to reflect the detail that went into the build. Starting in the Mastering room, Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy and WATCH surround system was called into play powered by Pass Labs XA-160 monoblocs. Note - Bruce has recently upgraded to Evolution Audio MM3's. These are the speakers that, with other Blue Light Audio products such as DarTZeel, won our Best of Show Sound at CES last year ~ publisher. All cabling was provided by JPS Labs, using their top of the line Aluminata and Super Conductor 3 series. For monitor control, a Crane Song Avocet Surround ed. ties everything together. Based around a Rupert Neve Masterpiece 2 by Legendary Audio, the room also features converters by EMM Labs and equipment by Manley, TC Electronics and Weiss.
The Post room is built upon a Pro Tools HD4/Accel workstation using the Control24 as a controller. Digidesign 192, PRE, Sync and Digidelivery system round out the ensemble. An Avid video workstation is used in conjunction with Pro Tools to create a seamless workflow. Monitoring is done using the new Focal Twin6 Be, Solo6 Be and Sub6 in a calibrated 5.1 configuration. Speaking of calibration, the renowned Bob Hodas worked his acoustical magic to round out a truly high-end operation. “