Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Helpful Hints from Mastering Engineer, Fred Kevorkian (Part II)

Here is a guest post by Fred Kevorkian as the second in the series of helpful hints for mastering.


QUESTION: How do you get the best mixes out of a project studio?

As technology gets better and more affordable every day, it is unfortunate that the overall standard for sound quality is going down.

Today everyone has the ability to create music. Anyone can be an artist... just like anyone can be a sound engineer! And that is our problem here.

Software companies are telling kids that their latest programs can turn their computers into world-class recording studios... and they can become audio engineers overnight!

Yes, home studios have evolved quite a bit since the famous 4-track cassette "Portastudio" days. It is also true that digital audio has come a long way since it's debut in the 80's. Combined with today’s modern computing speed and power, there is without a doubt some very impressive tools are available. (Even analog products have become more affordable, e.g. microphones, speakers, outboard gear...etc.)

At this point, technology cannot be blamed for poor quality audio. To me, it is simply “operator error.” The lack of experience, engineering knowledge and acoustical environment issues are the main causes.

I must say, once in while I get some amazing stuff coming from a "laptop studio." There are some incredibly talented young engineers out there working with practically nothing! They just have a great feel for the music and know their room so well that they can come up with some amazing mixes! Sometimes, I am very impressed but I don’t see (or rather hear) it every day.

Remember, you cannot buy or substitute experience but you can avoid making some basic mistakes. Here are a few suggestions I hope will help clients get the best possible mixes while working within a limited budget.

First, make sure that you are working in the best acoustical environment you can afford. You really need to feel comfortable with the space you are going to spend most of your time in. It all comes down to how good your room translates to the real world. If you need help from a professional to make some adjustments, this is the best place to spend your money.

Then comes the monitoring system. This process can be very complex and confusing. Most engineers rely on small, powered near-field systems. I think it is a wise choice because at moderate levels they take most of the room coloration out of the picture. But there are so many options to choose from. I would suggest you stick with what is popular in most recording studios. Try a few of these speakers and pick the one that works best in your space. I wouldn't experiment too much anymore with the NS-10s with tissue in front of the tweeters! There is only one Clearmountain, and it is time to move on! A subwoofer can be a nice addition but make sure it’s calibrated right.

Once the room feels comfortable, listen to all the records you're familiar with. Listen to them over and over. Get yourself to feel "at home" and make some more adjustments until you're happy with the results. Again no one has a perfect room. The key is to learn the room’s imperfections and work around them.

Next step is dealing with the metering system. Digital peak meters seem to be a problem in the wrong hands. Besides showing “overs”, they are useless and misleading unless you can monitor the average level of the program at the same time. Most software will give you that option but you might have to look for it. You can always get a nice pair of analog VU-meters. They always tell the "truth". (Nobody cares about what's going on at -90dB unless you're measuring noise)

Another important thing is when you start mixing, always reference your work to similar types of recordings you are familiar with. You can check the overall tonal balance, the vocal levels, and the dynamics.... anything that will tell you that you are going in the right direction. You will also become more familiar with your monitoring system as you go along. I am shocked to hear some of the mixes that I have to work with. I sometimes need to add 9dB here and cut 12dB there... how can someone be so off?

If you're going to mix in digital, try to use a high-resolution format like 24/96 or 24/88.2. The most important thing is to use all the bits available. I rather have masters with a few light overs than mixes that only peak at -18db or so!

Print multiple versions of the mixes (memory is cheap) - Main mix, Vx up, Vx dn, …etc. But please do not ask the mastering engineer to listen and choose from 8 different mixes. Pick the best one and save the alternates for emergency purposes!

Stems are great for recalling mixes in a flash but I don't think they belong in a mastering session. There are exceptions when they can be helpful but most of the time they are annoying and distracting. Keep the stems to yourself in case you need to recall a mix.

If you are going analog, make sure the tape machine is properly maintained and aligned to the desired calibration. Print tones and document them properly. Too many times I had to use the digital mixes instead because all 27 reels of 1/2" tape were unusable. What a shame and a waste of money!

As far as the equipment goes, choose what you like and what works for you. In terms of plug-ins, hardware … try to get a few good ones and learn them inside out. Avoid changing equipment all the time.

As you can see, this is not rocket science. You just need some common sense, determination, a bit of talent and of course a lot of passion!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Helpful Hints from Mastering Engineer, Fred Kevorkian (Part I)

It is very convenient to have mastering services located within the premises. In the past, our clients were able to master multiple tracks or a single from the album while mixing the rest of the album literally down the hall. After the initial mastering, the client was able to make fine adjustments in the mix and take it straight back to mastering without delay. It works out great if you have a deadline you must meet.

It also allows us to create a package deal where projects can be tracked, mixed and mastered in the same location. The first project we worked on this way was John Patitucci's solo album, Line by Line.

What we find useful sometimes is talk shop when we are all taking a break. Fred Kevorkian, who operates Kevorkian Mastering on the 3rd floor of our recording complex, is very easy going and extremely knowledgeable person we like to shoot the breeze with. He give us valuable insights from a mastering perspective on how we could do things better while tracking or mixing. We sat down with Fred to see if he could provide some helpful hints for this blog. (While we were having our discussion, the latest Mix Magazine, which covered mastering issues, just came out). This is Part I of that discussion.

QUESTION: In this multimedia world we live in, tracks are now repurposed for many different formats and media outlets – e.g. vinyl, iTunes, MySpace, ringtones, …etc. From a mastering perspective, what are your suggestions on how to process a track for these different purposes?

Of course having a dedicated type of mastering for each specific application would ensure the best possible playback. Mastering for CD implies that the final master should be at 16-bit / 44.1 kHz. Most commercial CDs are overly compressed to compete for loudness. In the case of vinyl it could be a little different. There is no limitation for the bit rate or the sample rate of the master. Either or both could be a lot higher to provide better audio quality. Because LPs have more of an appeal for audiophiles and purists, brick-wall limiting is often left out of the chain for vinyl masters.

For radio I am often asked to provide the "vocal up" version and control the low end more aggressively. Mastering for the Internet and downloads are fairly new to me. I don't get many requests in that area. I think a lot of people are still trying to figure out what the best approach is.

"Multiple mastering" makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately most of my clients are small labels or independent artists and they cannot afford that luxury.

Within the past few years I have seen a trend moving towards the “one mastering fits all” approach. It is indeed a very cost effective solution, but it is also very destructive. How is it achieved? Well as we know poor quality playback systems and noisy environment don't go well with high dynamic range content. By making things louder and louder, the overall dynamic range is reduced dramatically. The market has forced popular formats to become more similar.

The result is that you can listen to music on the go (extremely popular) without loosing too much information. In general audio quality and musicality have long been traded for portability and convenience. The consumer did not seem to mind the loss of quality as evidenced by the huge success of MP3s and iPods. This "trend" seems to be taking hold. The good news is that the market for LPs seems to be growing and I hope we will see less and less 16-bit PMCDs used as vinyl masters, which is the case right now.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Files On The Go

QUESTION: How do I electronically send large files to and from recording / mastering studios?

The quick answer is that we prefer to use our own ftp (file transfer protocol) server and provide temporary user accounts to clients who need access. The drawback to this approach is that not everyone is familiar with using ftp and some handholding (explaining ftp client software, dealing with settings & addresses, assigning username / password) is required on the client side and some IT administrative effort is required on the studio side.

As an alternative, there is a myriad of file transfer services online. A quick search for the top online file storage / transfer services yielded over 50 services with the ability to deal with file sizes ranging from 50 MB to 2 GB and having a "file life" of 7 days to unlimited time before the files get wiped. Based on our direct experience with clients, we have been requested to use swapdrive, ibackup and yousendit in the past. Fred Kevorkian, who has a mastering room at Avatar, has been using our FTP server extensively for most of his work. Once in a while he receives a request to use iDisk (service offered by Apple) or yousendit. Having looked through some user forums, other services mentioned includes megaupload and DigiDelivery. By no means is this an endorsement of these services. Consider them just a sampling of what is used out there.

It is surprising that we have not seen a dominant industrial strength online file transfer service in the audio industry. The most often talked about service was DigiDelivery. Introduced in August 2002 by Rocket Network and Digidesign, DigiDelivery was an easy to use secure digital asset transfer service. The service requires the sender, recipient or third party in the data chain to have a network appliance to facilitate the transfer. Rocket Network was later acquired by Avid (parent company of Digidesign). In the last few years, we have used DigiDelivery maybe once or twice so we cannot honestly provide any comments. In September 2007, Avid sold DigiDelivery to Aspera, who now maintains the service today. I am sure there are other services out there used by the film and post industries. We just have not come in direct contact with them.

Whichever service you use, security is the most important consideration. There is no way to be 100% sure, but you should talk to the service provider to see what precautions they are taking to insure that files cannot be accessed by unauthorized users including the administrators. Being diligent about wiping the files once you have confirmed that the recipient got the files is also very important.

If any readers know of services that they like or use often, please let us know. We're open to evaluating services that will make our clients' lives (and ours as well) easier. Until then, I think we'll stick with ftp. For large volumes of data, shipping drives is still the proven method, even if it is so 20th Century.