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May 2001 was partly a hi-fidelity month here at the Stereo Society. Center stage in the interview seat is mastering engineer Scott Hull of New York who, among other things, mastered Steely Dans Grammy album-of-the-year and our own BETTYs Carnival. If you dont know what this esoteric but crucial part of record-making is about, read it here. In line with our dogma, this isnt an audio nerd discussion for cognoscenti/aficionados but is conducted in everyones language.
Behind the board. Scott Hull was interviewed Monday evening, April 9, 2001, by Mike Thorne at Classic Sound, New York City, during a massive thunderstorm.
Mastering is a complete mystery to most people. How would you define it for the layperson?
There are several one-sentence answers that kind of work. One that comes to mind is that mastering is the last step in the creative process and the first of the manufacturing steps in the making of a compact disc. It's the last creative step because it brings together all of the creative intent and ideas that were thought about when the project first started. It's about going back to all of these original concepts and trying to get that image on the disc. Then it becomes the first of the manufacturing steps. Here we address the issues of quality, gain control, precision, and repeatability - all of which have to do with things outside of mastering but in turn relate to how we interface with the CD manufacturing plant.
What do you do with the recorded sound and what are the primary concerns in doing so?
The sky's the limit. Your imagination is the limit. We have the standard tools typically used by a recording engineer, such as: equalization, compression and gain control, editing software, etc. When you apply them to the final stereo mix, there are some interesting things that you can (and can't) do, and the process is one of bringing things together into a homogeneous setting. You might think about being able to effectively lower or raise the vocal track or the rhythm track, for instance, but what you're really trying to get at is making things sound consistent and smooth.
When I say the sky's the limit, it's because it really depends on what the goal is on the recording. There were instances where we have done ludicrous things in the mastering stage but ended up exactly as the producer wanted. It will be hard for me to remember what track it was, but on a Mercury Rev record we literally took a sound wave generator and mixed it back with the music in the mastering stage for a sort-of maximum annoyance factor. On that same record there was another piece that was literally created in the workstation with a bunch of bad loops and samples and other bits done in a very different way from what was on the record. I've even seen tracks overdubbed - live tracks overdubbed - in the mastering session (not for very good reasons, but because it was the last chance to effect a change).
Most of the people out there listening to music just think of equalization as treble and bass. Whats the difference in the mastering studio? How much farther can you go?
There are hundreds of different steps, flavors and colors found in the equalization process. Even some of the most sophisticated home hi-fi gear has only ten or fifteen different equalization bands. Amongst the different types of gear that I have here, we have hundreds if not thousands of different options. In fact, even the same equalization band on one manufacturer's piece of gear will sound different on another manufacturer's piece of gear. What I am getting at is that there are lots of different colors of equalization.
I remember an amplifier that was put out for the hi-fi market not that long ago which assured you that this was the control you would move to raise the voice and this one would make the trumpet sound better. How much baloney is that, or is there a grain of truth?
Generally, the voice falls in a certain range and the trumpet falls in another. You might have seen the frequency chart relative to the human hearing sensitivity, and where the tenor (voice), altos and sopranos are in this chart. You can speak of raising a particular frequency in Kilohertz or in Hertz and having its effect an instrument, but it's the overall mix that we are concerned about. On the other hand, as soon as we get into a recording studio, start sampling things and recording electronic instruments, most of those analogies really go out the window. Mostly because the frequency component, or the area an instrument takes up in its frequency spectrum, can be adjusted dramatically at a recording studio. Therefore, it's quite baloney.
Record producers - pop record producers, in particular - will always come in and ask you to pull the voice out a little bit more. What is your take on this?
I'm always translating what the request is into what I think can be done with a particular track. Often I end up doing sort of the inverse of what's requested. If someone asks me to try to raise the voice up, I'll immediately start to think about what's competing with the voice and what instruments can be subdued. By using a slight touch of equalization or compression I'm able to make it sound like there's more voice. Occasionally, you can push the vocal range and increase the voice, but, in the mid-range, especially, that often means that you're bringing up lots of other instruments. It's not unusual to try to attenuate a cymbal or attenuate a bass frequency to make the voice sound louder. I'm always translating the request into what I think might be possible with the track. Sometimes subtle movements or changes are all that's needed. It's the whole composite of all these subtle changes that make mastering a notable and necessary part of the process.
Whenever you're making these changes, you have to be very much aware of the end environment in which the recording's going to be played. When you're making a recording that is going to be played in both the home and in a dance club, what sort of compromises do you have to make?
The compromise for the dance club is obvious - the bass has to be a certain character and in a certain range that will sound good in the club. These are the hardest two environments to match up because quite often there's a lack of deep low-end frequency in a home environment as compared with playback in a dance club, for instance. To bring the two together is sometimes very difficult. On a budget-less, [i.e. where there's enough cash to do the job] professional level, it is often done as alternate versions. For example, there's a commercial version and then there's a dance club (alternate) version. Knowing how everything translates into individual environments helps you make an alternate version. You need to understand how it sounds in the mastering studio and then how it's going to sound in the alternate and commercial environments. That's also a certain purpose of mastering.
There seems to be a convention in terms of the amount of high frequencies and low frequencies that we hear. All records-sub-consciously or consciously-tend to aim for the most impact. Now, how did that evolve? How do we know when there's too much treble or too little treble. How do we judge that?
There are conventions, but also a fair amount of leeway based on the style of the music. If we're talking about one style of music, for example, rock music, the yardstick there would be anything that's on the Billboard charts at a particular time. It's that particular sound that everyone's trying to shoot for. That's probably the simplest way to look at it. Occasionally, records come out and really twist your ear in a different direction.
Nirvana's Nevermind was given a lot of credit for turning people's ears in a completely different, direction. They weren't the first, but they were able to create an impact with this new sound, especially in the nineties. It was a sound oriented with not having the drums up front, having the guitars up front, having the guitar almost swarming the vocal right out of the picture - and that was considered unusual at that time. Many professionals in the business quoted that record as having an impact on the way they looked at music and the way they looked at radio. This rule of how much high frequency and low frequency change constantly. I've been doing this for roughly 15 years, and it's changed very dramatically from the very sizzling, very aggressive mid-range in vocals of the mid-to-late eighties. From Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, through Nirvana's Nevermind to a point now where the bass and rhythm section have really regained stature. It's constantly changing. There's also a lot of vocal oriented groups too. So there's a kind of a return to a very vocal-centric perspective on the radio. Some producers evolve with that, while some continue to stay in one genre or one concept. At this point, the styles either catch them or leave them, as it goes.
It used to be that with the mastering engineer half the skill involved was just getting the damn music on the damn disc. There were so many compromises involved with an LP. At this point with a CD, what compromises do you face?
Most of my day requires a decision about what the ultimate level of the recording should be. That's really the only obstacle. The physical limitations of vinyl were myriad, and the difficulty in getting them pressed and plated has its issues. The difficulty is really in the very smallest minutiae of the recording. Some of the recordings coming in are so well produced that they only need a tiny bit of fixing up. Then, every single record whether it's from a classical genre through punk rock and aggressive R&B, you need to make a decision about how compressed is too compressed, similar to my comments about the equalization.
Level, compression, and the yardsticks to measure them by are evolving constantly. The mastering community, as a whole, has been rather unhappy about the whole progression of it because it has taken the fidelity away from the mass CD market. However, in an alternative way, it has also added to the listener's excitement and enjoyment. Thinking about these things encompasses a large part of my day in determining what its level should be. It sounds like a simple thing, but it comes right down to the goal of the project and the expectations of the producer. Is this record going to give you immediate impact from the very start? Is it going to be something that has a little more space and allow you to come in and out of it? Asking myself these questions is probably the most important tool in what I do. It can really make or break what's going on by just a few dB of level.
What can go wrong if it is too loud? What does it sound like?
Well, let's get into a specific example of something going on
There was a record while I was at Masterdisk that Bob Ludwig mastered. If you put that record up against today's sort of "stadium Rock thing" or maybe Rage Against the Machine, the actual level of the two is unbelievable if you had them both on a CD turntable. When switching back and forth between the two, you wouldn't be able to listen to them without readjusting the volume gain control because there's an enormous difference. There are some other reasons for it, but now, the competitiveness of loud levels from a commercial standpoint is in many people's opinions ruining a lot of the potential impact of the music. There's a "loud" and then there's a "loud" that becomes hard to listen to because of the losses and the things that can be blown past the listener.
On the compression side there's one very personal example which you mastered: BETTY's Millennium Man. The assumption of old equipment/new equipment really tripped me up, and you rescued me. Millennium Man was an example of something sounding perfectly fine in a studio and in most homes, and yet something had gone wrong at the low end. How often do you find that, and how do you fix it?
It's happening increasingly because many projects are being done in informal circumstances. They are not small studios or home studios necessarily, but they're typically less formal or less technically constructed than where records were made five years ago. Anybody that is about to make a record is faced with the question: Are we going to spend all this money in a recording studio? Am I going to invest that same money in a recording rig and have it for a future use? The reason I make that discussion is because it's very hard to do in a studio and most recording studios take quite a bit of care with regards to gain control over bass frequencies.
The example of Millennium Man does bring up the purpose of mastering. I am often asked if a pair of my speakers comes with the mastering session so they can take them home to listen to their record in such splendor. I think it would be neat if people could listen to this in a way, but even I don't. This is my work environment and my reference environment. My listening at home is a much more casual, less technical environment. I use it occasionally as an alternate reference, but for the most part it's like every other person listening to music. It's one-third enjoyment; one-third background; one-third trying to drown out the traffic noise. Some of the details of what we do are certainly important and, ultimately, they make the project more cohesive.
How much do you think John and Jane Doe appreciate good or bad sound? Do you think they can rationalize it, or do you think they sense it intuitively-possibly to a greater extent than they are generally credited?
The majority of their appreciation is certainly geared towards the song and the mood - the feeling that they get from it. I don't believe they are quite aware of how much they are tuned into how it sounds. People that I've worked with that really don't know anything about the manipulation of sound I talk about it in very abstract terms. These people may be creative people but may not be used to talking in engineering terms. They tend to be very astute about the way it sounds and what they think isn't right about it. They're not accurate, and they are not technical in how they describe what the problems are, but they're often the ones that get to the heart of what's really wrong with something when we're discussing things. An interesting point that this brings up is that I usually take naive commentary very, very seriously. It's because I know they're not reacting to what they think is going on. I know that something is getting in the way of their enjoying the music and so those comments are usually very important. It's figuring out what they mean, and that's what my job is to try to drag that out of people in a way that I can understand it. Sometimes it ends up with a twist of a knob, and they shake their head and I twist a knob the other way and they nod yes and nod no because sometimes they're not able to put it into words. "Yeah, that's what I'm looking for." I take this very seriously because it is an awareness that enlightens me. In a way, I can see things after finally translating what they mean.
Whats an extreme example of a naive request and how did you go about fixing the situation?
They come in many forms. Some are things that simply can't be done. For example, "can we take out the vocals" on a particular recording. From a technical standpoint, some things have allowed us to do some very extraordinary things. Clients seem to think we can do almost anything now; why can't we just have "less snare" on this recording? Can't you just put it through a box to make there be "less snare?" When I deal with naive requests like that, I think we are talking about people being quite sensitive and understand what they are trying to get out of it, but they aren't quite sure how to phrase it.
Compression hits people in a funny way. Certain people hear the things that are made softer by compression; other people hear the things that are made louder by compression, and it's interesting trying to decipher that sometimes. I know the only difference between version A and version B is a little bit more compression. The way it strikes another listener is sometimes as if we are hearing two completely different recordings. I might hear it as being more punch in the bass and the vocal seems to be sticking out a little bit. They may be hearing that the mid-range has been sucked away, and it doesn't sound as exciting to them. So, we're hearing, presumably, the opposite things, but from the same recording.
You can do very drastic things in here. What happens if you get it wrong-not that you do, of course, but it seems as if the pressure to never get it wrong is enormous. Do you feel like an air traffic gain-controller?
That comes into play in larger projects where I'm trying to please maybe a few too many people. The label A&R person wants it a certain way. I've worked with the producer before, and I know they really want it a different way. The artist is starting to pout and soon gets angry because he or she's not getting their way, etc. etc. That's when things get particularly hard to handle and technically a lot is at stake to not mess up. Nevertheless, we have the one luxury, when people schedule a mastering session with me that there's a little bit of time before it actually hits the street. But sometimes we are working on a project that goes right out the door the next day.
I was recently working on a Vitamin C track, As Long As You're Loving Me. We got the call in the afternoon. Within a few hours, they rushed the masters over to the session. We EQ'd the track and made 300 CD replications for them that same day. Soon enough, they were in the radio station programmer's hands, and I literally heard it off the radio just two or three days later when I was at home in the garage. When it gets that crazy, the pressure to do it perfectly is somewhat insane. Under normal circumstances, the producer, engineer, and the artist all come in for the mastering session. Then, the producer and artist take that into an environment they are comfortable with. If it's a dance record, they might take it to a club. If it's a singer/songwriter's record, they might play it back on a Walkman or a boombox that they're familiar with. If it's a rock record, they might take it to their home or to their friend's stereo. Then, over the course of the next few days, they'll talk to me about things that aren't quite sitting right and how we need to get there. So, that part of the mastering process helps exercise all of the options in making sure all the songs are turned out as good as they can. It takes the pressure off because it's going through several sets of ears at that point.
It sounds like sometimes people really put you through the hoops?
Yeah. They can be some very well-meaning and fun -to-work-with people, but this is a process that it's not often understood. It's not just scary, but it's certainly creates apprehension for engineers and producers to come into this environment and listen to the work they've spent months, sometimes years - working on. An interesting conflict happens when the mixing engineer is sitting in the room listening to his work with the person who hired him and asking me whether it's good or not. You don't haul anybody on the carpet because it doesn't really matter how they got to where they are. I might say to the engineer in confidence next time, "if you have the choice, this really wouldn't have been a good way." "There might have been a better way to do this because I had to take some drastic measures to fix it." But, it seems important to be not just politically correct, but sensitive to people's involvement in their own livelihood in the project-make everybody look good and not make anybody look bad.
These sorts of social and business politics are endemic to every stage of record making.
Yeah, that's why many bands break up in the process of making a record and many producer/engineer duos are strained. All are due to millions of decisions, who's the leader, and who's actually going to say "we are spending too much time making this record." "We have to choose one of these two, and move on." It's difficult for people to make a record. It's even more so with people that are having trouble with their relationships with the other members of the group.
It's getting more difficult to make a record because of the proliferation of home studios and a certain dying out of expertise. Do you see that reflected in what comes through your studio?
Well, I work with a huge cross-section, right from the tiptop of the major label stuff to people that are just creating stuff in their basement. I work with all of them at different times throughout the year, and sometimes the very home studio oriented thing that's just going to be sold over the Internet is really interesting and takes a fresh look at some things.
What are your favorites out of the things you have been through?
I can think of one that wasn't exactly done in a basement, but I thought it was a creative effort. It was from John Stirratt, one of the members of Wilco, and his band the Autumn Defense. It's a singer/songwriter record that's a very earthy, somewhat honest record. It just sounded like it was fun to make and, in a way, sounded like somebody wasn't trying to find a commercial purpose for it when they created it. I'm sure there are several others that I can think of that will hit me the same way.
On the other hand, the label work that I've done seems to be all of one voice. Things have been sounding the same on the radio. There's not very much chance-taking in trying to break an act that's got a different sound or a different group of instruments. There have been a few exceptions through the years, but I guess that's even getting more so now. I've noticed that the major label artists are making fewer records and focusing more on promotion. There are more promotion dollars and more time spent on each of the records so there's even more concern that it'll be commercially viable from the start.
How do you find the record business's perception of what you do? It's a long, long way away from the actual music as far as they are concerned, isn't it? It's difficult to see from their vantage point.
There are many A&R executives keenly aware of how important mastering is. I would say, for the most part, they've seen records made successful and broken by the quality of mastering or the lack of. It's this second tier that worries me. It's the independent label and the smaller budgets that are looking simply at how expensive it is. Nearly every mastering session that I do, with the exception of some of the biggest major label projects, the engineer and/or the producer can really learn something about the way the mastering process works and the way they completed that project when they're done with it. That just doesn't happen in a $500 mastering session the mail order mastering as we sort of call it. You send off your tape and wait for it to return by mail and quite often, it's just louder and brighter.
The point being, they didn't have a discussion with the engineer and they never really get better at what they are doing. And, the independent labels I have worked with myself or with another mastering engineer, really use the process for what it's meant to be - as a way of flushing out final creative ideas and making sure that everything is together and sounds impressive as it needs to be. I think they are missing out on that opportunity to improve their product and to put it into a more professional arena. I like to think of bringing my clients from whatever level they are at into another level through communication and suggestions. So next time they might not use two different microphones to record the bass, and have it come out from odd angles in the room or something.
I've done a bit of mixing and a bit of producing, just enough to realize I wasn't particularly good at it. But in the process of doing so, I can at least relate to some of the problems and situations that come up. In addition, I've seen some of my clients really improve their work. There's an interesting observation about when I was starting with Bob Ludwig. Bob Clearmountain wasn't so much known as an up and coming engineer, but he was seriously working on some very good material - all top ten records. In fact, he had a very large string of them through the mid-eighties, most notably by Bruce Springsteen and Brian Adams and some remixes for a number of other major artists, David Bowie's Let's Dance and all these other huge records. He almost had a game out of it, as he would watch very closely at what his mastering engineer was doing from project to project. At that point, he was working so much that he was in about every four or five weeks on another project that he had completed.
At that time, I was also looking very closely at Bob Ludwig's notes and trying to learn what it was that he was doing, but each of the projects he was doing less and less to them. It actually got to a point during a Robbie Robertson record that I realized that Bob Clearmountain was trying to bring in records that were perfect and Bob Ludwig could not do anything to improve them. They had little playful arguments about whether that recording really needed that half dB at 12K or not or whether it was perfect. I think they both decided that it was a draw. I realized that my involvement in the project was a tool. It became much more than simply sending the tapes to a mastering engineer and having him do his thing to them. Its more of a communication process: Whats needed, what's the market, what's the music trying to sound like.
Have you ever had somebody come in and lay out a full CD for you that you haven't had to do anything to?
The only one that would have come close was the recent Ravi Shankar record, but I actually ended up doing a fair amount to it. I was kind of surprised and was expecting to set a level on the performance and have it be as it was, but I actually found I wanted to do a few things to it just to improve the performance of it. It's a bit radical for acoustic music to be getting the tools out to fix it, but there were actually some compromises in the recording. Some of the tabla drums (the lower one's) weren't quite as loud as you wanted them to be, so there was some need to rearrange things. The performance couldn't be redone and it was impractical to remix so they asked the mastering studio to do some things. There have been a few projects where we started with the idea of making a bunch of changes. And, by the time it all weeded down through revisions, we ended up with the songs close to where they started. They sort of wanted to exercise the options to see what more they could possibly get out of it and, once they heard the alternatives, they realized they were pretty happy with the way it sounded to begin with. A live Steely Dan record we did called Steely Dan Alive was treated very much the same way. We tried some alternatives and a bunch of different things and at one point Donald Fagen liked it the way it was.
We are now reading in the newspapers mostly, although we are not listening to it so much yet, about Surround Sound and 5.1 audio. What kind of challenges is this going to present for all of us and, in particular, for you.
I've got one recurring problem or thought about surround sound. As producers and engineers, were not fans of the new format. Let's back up for a second. When we all got into engineering (be it as engineers or producers or musicians) we had records or, for the later generation, we had CDs, and we would listen to them. We read the credits. We really wanted to be like these people. There was a format and we understood the concept of the end-user because we were the end-user, at one point.
Right now, we are in a phase where we don't have engineers, producers and artists understanding what the end-user's perception is. It's a difficult time. I think that in order for this to develop as a serious format, we have to be fans of it. We have to figure out what it's like to listen to surround sound and what's good and bad about it. If a listener was to pick up any particular 5.1 disc and play it back in their home and would use that as an evaluation as to whether surround sound was valid, I think they'd be making a very big mistake. Any particular recording right now runs the gamut from being very successful, very moving, and very interesting to being very pedestrian and unnecessary. I'd caution any one as a listener, as a fan to be careful about making judgments based on the material that's out there right now, primarily because, as producers and engineers in this format right now, we're real new. We're really still investigating what can be done, what's practical to be done and what the equipment is really capable of. We certainly have fallen prey to the manufacturer's glossy sheets about what professional and home gear can do and how easy it is to set up a home-surround system.
There's still quite a bit of a way to go with this, and I'm concerned whether it will be driven enough in a consumer section in the meantime while we're in this "I don't know; is this any good?" stage. Is this really worth three more speakers and all the headaches from the other members of the family about speakers hung in the wrong places in the living room? This will all shake out. I think, ultimately, it is an exciting format, but I'm not sure it's obvious if you listen to any particular recording that is available now.
At the other end of the spectrum is the MP3 revolution, and it's ironic that high technology is practically leading to a dumbing down through people's listening with the quality and the impact of MP3. Do you think that's a way that's going to become predominant?
I have a different opinion about this than my colleagues. I was excited about whole MP3 revolution. Not because I like to listen to them, but because I thought it would be a great way of keeping things interesting for kids and young adults and getting them back into music again. It's simply the convenience and the inter-activity of it all. You know we used to share albums, buy albums and loan them to our friends (who wouldn't scratch them, hopefully). We would talk about the music. Did you hear the latest so and so? I find it very similar in today's society how we share and interact with MP3 files. Many of my colleagues are concerned, certainly about the revenue stream and where that's going to come from. My view on this is that I'm keenly aware of the revenue stream and where it's all going to come from. If we don't have music fans, we don't have anyone supporting the entertainment industry of ours.
As a concept and as a lower resolution, immediately available, tradable kind of format, I find it very exciting. I hope that it will continue to foster ideals of buying the higher resolution stuff. I understand the plurality of enjoying low-resolution music and then suddenly appreciating higher resolution music. My crystal ball is a little too fuzzy on that one point about whether or not being a fan of music at an MP3 level ruins your perception for people. However, if we don't interest them as much as Game Boy, Nintendo or Playstation, then music is just noise that goes on behind the arcade game. It's no longer something that really moves people into acting, into dancing and into moving. I think it needs to be there, and I think it will change the industry to a large extent eventually.
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