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Record-Producer.com to be sued over article on mastering

A Record-Producer.com visitor is so insensed over something he has misread he says he will sue Record-Producer.com! Can you believe that?


A message recently received by Audio Masterclass...

David mellor, I've just had a quick glance at the piece on mastering - I've read some garbage in my time - you get the award for the some of the worst I've read - no wonder CD's are sounding worse. with info of that standard, there's little chance of getting better results - you are obviously not aware of the real issues with mastering. it's of no consequence weather someone is mastering in their bedroom/lounge-room or professional mastering suite - if the person has the right professional mastering equipment and a well designed room it should fulfill pro mastering needs - I've heard some great results in big houses. I master all my own mixes, I'm glad I do. Real issue is lack of understanding of the damaged caused by trying to achieve louder CD'ss - It's interesting to go back and listen to CD's LP's mixed and mastered mid 70's thru to mid 90's - ask yourself do contemporary CD's sound better - they may sound louder but do they sound better, not withstanding musical quality. this issue is about the real mixing and mastering skill, to be honest if you have a great sounding mix it's quite likely to be destroyed at some of the best known mastering houses here, states and UK. listen to Radio - mastering engineers are asking me how is it when they hear their tracks on the radio they sound totally different on the radio - few mastering engineers really understand the issues that impact on radio station processing, thats another story.

typically, band arrives at mastering studio - says I want our CD to sound as loud as new 'Green Day or their fav CD. There are few mastering houses anywhere in the world that understand the technical issues involved - maybe Bob Ludwig or Bernie Grunnman, one or two others in Abby Road have a good grasp of the problem. Please stop this crap. Feel free to make use of material for better education. the notion that mixes need 2 levels of eq followed by compression/limiting, multi-band limiting and compression, width enhancement, more compression then brick-wall limiting at 0dbfs, it's not that simple. If a mix required that amount of processing it's most likely it should be mixed again. If you think listening to shit loads of compressed, distorted bass, flattened top-end, no transients - is cool - you have a problem - maybe you could think about plumbing !! If you publish my response I'll sue you. This may cause you to feel somewhat uncomfortable - I'm sorry - you put it out there, maybe you could have done a little more research. Cheers, Keith Walker

[The emboldening of certain text above has been done by Audio Masterclass. The writer attached third-party technical papers to his original message, references to which have been edited out as it is not possible to include these papers here.]

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Response from David Mellor...

So sue me.

I don't think I have ever been so misheard or misread. I thought it would be crystal clear already what my views on mastering are, from everything I have written on the subject over the last nearly twenty years. But here goes again, in summary...

Mastering has two main purposes in the compilation of an album...

  • Optimize the level of each track so that there is no wasted headroom on the CD.
  • Make all tracks comparable in terms of EQ balance and subjective loudness, particularly adjacent tracks.

There is one further function that applies to individual tracks, whether or not they form part of a CD compilation - no matter how good the mix engineer is, there is almost always room for improvement by subtly and sympathetically tweaking the EQ and dynamic range of the final stereo mix.

The problem is that the many and varied arts of mastering also include a voodoo art - maximization of subjective loudness.

It is possible through the techniques of mastering to increase the subjective level of a track, without increasing its peak level. This has resulted in a 'loudness war' where every recording that is released needs to be subjectively as loud as the next recording, or preferably louder since raw loudness grabs attention.

However, you can only go so far with this before sound quality suffers. Unfortunately, the results of overdoing subjective loudness maximization are all around for us to hear, on just about every CD you can buy. It's an arms race leading to mutually assured destruction, of artistic sensibility at any rate.

The processes of mastering are as I said, and they would apply whether mastering was done sensitively and artistically, or for maximum subjective loudness. To recap on these...

  • First EQ. There is likely to be some scope for the improvement of the EQ balance of a mix before dynamic range control. If the dynamic range is compressed without EQ, then the compressor will be making its gain changes based on information that in part is spurious.
  • Next, compression. The demands of the buyer's listening environment dictate that the dynamic range must be controlled. To understand this in a simple way, try listening to a classical music CD in a car - you won't be able to hear the quiet parts. The dynamic range might already have been adequately controlled in the recording and mix. On the other hand, there may be work remaining to do.
  • Thirdly, EQ again. If the first EQ was for corrective purposes, this can be for creative purposes. There are massive benefits in two stages of EQ. But you don't have to if you don't want to.
  • Finally, limiting. It is very likely that the very few highest levels are occurring infrequently. This means that the rest of the mix is quieter than it needs to be, in effect wasting headroom. Lopping 2-3 dB off the highest peaks is likely to be inaudible and benefits the rest of the track. Once again, there is no compulsion here.

All of the above can be done with as much artistry and sensitivity that you can muster. Anyone interested in absolute maximum subjective loudness can go one stage further and allow the highest peaks to clip very slightly. The extra slight distortion this creates in itself creates a feeling of loudness, and of course the levels that are lower than peak are raised too. Personally I have never recommended this, but just because I don't recommend something doesn't mean that other people don't do it. And it's a free world, musically speaking. If people want to do this, there's nothing I can do to stop them.

The above summarizes my opinion on mastering. All I can add is that I have written many times how I have the greatest respect for mastering engineers, how the mastering process should be done with great care, and how it has the power to completely ruin your mix if you don't get it right.

So, Keith Walker, I will be waiting for legal papers to arrive soon. The address of Audio Masterclass is published at the bottom of this page.

David Mellor
Publisher of Audio Masterclass

By David Mellor Tuesday August 23, 2005