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.

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