Subsequent Mastering

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Vintage Digital Series #3 :Junger Audio DO2 Digital Dynamics Processor

I'm back on my vintage digital hype after a long break, mostly due to being deep into work doing masters and trying to fix various bits of obscure transfer gear I've picked up recently, maybe we'll talk about that again soon but for now I'd like to tell you about something I picked up a few weeks back.

I had my eye on these Junger boxes after seeing various mastering houses who had the budget to buy new stuff and the inclination to not keep hold of old, hard to maintain, lower samplerate boxes, keep one of these in their racks alongside all the trendiest of modern analogue processing equipment.

They are ugly little guys, with a pretty dated user interface, that said they are a total breeze to use. 1RU of pure early 90s tech aesthetic, which if that's your thing, well, fair enouh I guess. Junger is a German broadcast equipment company who at one time branched out into pro level mastering/pro audio gear. The Junger compressor/limiter/expanders appeared on the market soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and were the brainchild of Herbet Junger. There are also some broadcast only units on the market second hand as well as various versions of this unique compression design. I am told by mastering engineers I trust that the dynamic EQ is especially worth looking out for, but incredibly rare.

I grabbed this on a pretty weird broadcast wholesale second hand seller in the UK, who almost doubled the price I bidded on it in ridiculous fees which if I hadn't got this for 100 bucks I would have told em where to stick it... this aside for £200 all in this was a steal. Even at it's 48kHz max samplerate I can't imagine this leaving the racks after a few weeks unless they come to some kind of arrangement to make a native plugin (go on!).

As readers of this blog may know I own a TC M5000, the original digital mastering rack unit. In the manual for the D02 (or at least the last revision, mine appears to be an earlier version) it compares their "muti-loop" to TC's "multi-band" compression and explains where the Junger algo can do something nothing else on the market at the time could do.

As dated as this thing might look you simply cannot fault the sound of the units instant capabilities: perfect digital hard bypass, clean a whistle signal with no processing applied and a learning curve of about 2 minutes. The "multi-loop" I referred to is what we would now call "parallel compression" or "upwards compression" and if I'm honest I've never heard one I liked. Every time I tried to set up a parallel compressor I couldn't get anything like the sort of RMS rise I wanted without hearing an exponential weirdness in the loud signals (now being summed against a heavily compressed version of themselves with some delay I guess...). But the Junger D02 I grabbed for 200 quid the other week changed my mind.

After working out that it's basically reacting to whatever digital juice you pump into it and you have 1 dB steps at the front of the unit to drive more or less, I got something completely usable within about 20 seconds. 

The Junger compression is so easy you end of second guessing yourself if you're used to complex push and pull in hefty analogue mastering compressors. You pick a mode (1 to 4 for different time constants), you pick a ratio (which is essentially compression amount here, as each ratio has its own make up gain built in), you match the peak level on the genuinely decent VU meters on the output, and finally you bypass.

Has it added level and perceived loudness, yet kept the loud elements rock solid where they were before? Yep then it's working. That's really all it is. But man, when it works it can do something light years more transparent than downward traditional compression. This became really obvious to me on a very sensitive piano/vocal recordings I mixed a few years back which I like to pull up to put new units through their paces. All the haunting and dramatic stabs of the piano and vocals emoting dynamically were kept clean and in the same place, but the droning low end of the piano, the reverbs, all that detail had jumped up, making a kind of thick/wide/exaggerated effect on everything BUT the lead elements. This is the parallel I had always dreamed of, but never achieved! I literally went "aaah! that's it!".

I haven't tried the expander yet, but the limiter and AD/DA is basically for the bin I am afraid, but come on, this unit is as old as some engineers!

I urge any mastering engineer, or any mixing person dealing with acoustic music especially to grab one of these when they inevitably come up cheap again, you'll be surprised.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Mastering Engineers are not Audiophiles

People often ask me about posh HIFIs out of the blue in the pub or on social media. Presumably this is because I post all about electronic music boxes and talk about frequencies and stuff. It took me years to work out why I was associated with people who spend money endlessly tweaking audio players and talking about new fancy streamers (I didn't know what one of these was until two months ago when I finally bought myself a new HIFI, mostly because I wanted to listen to BBC 6 Music downstairs and it came with one!). Recently it dawned on me: because I care about good sounding audio professionally I must be on a personal quest for audio perfection at home. I guess it makes sense in a way; I do get paid to care more about audio playback than anyone else essentially, right?

It's true; my job is to care about audio. But that's not what being an audiophile is. My aim here isn't to insult people who are into their HIFIs as a hobby or to cast aspersions on the people who do, but to draw a line between those who seek to make audio work for everyone and those who seek to make audio work for themselves.

When I master a piece of audio I have one aim in mind: To make this audio as enjoyable and accessible to those who chose to listen to it.

I am not interested in the audiophile listening rigs unless my client has briefed me that they are aiming to sell to that market.

I don't ask why the end user is listening on the format they are, whether this be ear buds, MP3, just in the car etc, I just accept that they do.

Music is so important to a human's happiness, I wouldn't for a second prejudge how and why people chose to engage with it. I'm just so happy they do and I'm happy I get to play a role in that. Furthermore I find the idea that people who can't afford good systems should have their experience de-legitimised so offensive. If all you have is a phone, ear buds and Spotify I want you to feel as much of the emotion the composer intended as possible.

The language sometimes used by audio engineers to patronise listeners who don't spend their time and money on systems to enjoy music on is not only problematic politically it is also self defeating. This is exemplified by how small incremental changes in audio format standards are sold as monumental revolutions in the audio industry and rely on cynical marketing techniques and "emperors new clothes" story telling.

I want to democratise good audio. I can do this in my daily work by being open minded and listening to my clients (and their consumers) needs, not by lobbying audio companies or paying lip service to corporations redesigning the wheel. Good audio playback is great, but then again so is a weekly deep tissue massage and fine wine, this doesn't mean everyone has ac
cess to them, and they should not be benchmarks for a "good life".

If you want to be part of the push for better audio standards be my guest as it will make my job easier and make the music I purchase more enjoyable, but it's not my role.

Joe Caithness - Owner / Head Mastering Engineer - Subsequent Mastering

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Vintage Digital Series #2 : TC Electronic - M5000 / MD2 Mastering

Hey there, it's been a while since I dropped in on this whole "Vintage Digital" thing. It's kinda funny, I get some funny jibes and then some people genuinely intrigued when it comes to this stuff, I can't deny that I do keep looking to pick this stuff up super cheap on eBay, but at the time same let's be clear that most of my stuff is really going to sound like super low distortion digital cleaning up and super sexy sounding expensive analogue-ness, as that's my normal rig...

That said, I had a few interesting experiences recently. Firstly I was offered a big beast of a Weiss BW-102 system (see previous more for more info on this old monster) and secondly I had a piece of gear come back from the dead. The BW-102 was a steal, and I wonder who got it, but the shipping from the states would have killed me.

But before we get to that I must be slightly candid and anecdotal. A few years back now I ended up losing my current mastering space (which wasn't great, to say the least) and having to move into a pretty blank space, which had auxiliary uses. It wasn't perfect, but I come from a DIY background with that kinda working class mentality that you have to work, you can't sit around waiting for something else to happen, so I made it work. In some ways it was great, it made me sell stuff I didn't use and forced to me seriously look at my routing, gain structure and work flow. The space was also occupied by another mastering engineer, Dallas Simpson, and for about a year we lived completely separate mastering lives. It was only crossing over by accident sometimes that we got chatting about the gear we had. I asked him if he knew what "X format" was he could explain in detail some legacy formats I hadn't had the chance to work on, for example, and he would ask me about some analogue gear I had (he was working all on digital hardware and some plugins) and I could show him sounds he didn't have in his arsenal. One day I was bemoaning my lack of de-essing capabilities, I had some kind of free plugin but it wasn't great and was more of a mixing quick fix thing, therefore not so great for serious mastering work. For the year which had passed I had been staring as this odd looking TC Electronic brick-like thing in his rack (which was now combined with both our gear to stop dragging stuff around), I'll be honest and say I thought it was kinda funny looking and assumed it sounded like crap. He suggested I gave it a go, I was even looking at other stuff from DBX, Drawmer etc, and it wasn't until another local engineer was like "Joe, check out that TC thing, seriously, that's pretty much the one everyone uses in an old box". So Dallas chucked the manual in the room, in all it's 90s folder glory and I sat down and read it.

I had no idea if this thing even had the MD2 section the forums told me about, and to his credit Dallas didn't know, and didn't need to care! There is something I find myself jealous of when an audio engineer doesn't know what's inside a box because they've been doing busy doing work on it day in day out to go on a forum and wax lyrical! But that's another topic entirely....

After navigating the somewhat obtuse manual and documents I found online I worked out that the MD2 for the M5000 was an additional bolt on you can upload to the box and provided two bits of software for mastering and it WAS installed, alongside the reverbs and other effects the box is possibly most known for. This is split into two sections:

The Digital Toolkit
Multiband Dynamics

The Digital Toolkit is a kinda nuts and bolts for fixing up digital audio signals, and for it's time is actually mind blowingly useful. I remember the original DAWs for home PC and they had almost none of this stuff... M/S matrix with degrees, DC offset filtering, Fletcher and Munson based fading, 4 band parametric EQ with assignable filters AND variable filter shapes. OK I don't use this much, but I'm training my interns to use the EQ on this as I think not having a screen and having to really chose bands is super useful for their ear training.

The Multiband Dynamics is the big daddy, this is THE multiband compressor design for serious audio work. And by that I mean the engineering behind this is the basis of almost all that came after it, and if you hear this thing, you'll realize TC absolutely nailed it first time. I have spoken about Mutliband Compression and how it's actually used in mastering in another blog spot, but I will go ahead and say that there are Finalizers/finalisers/automastering units and there are multiband pro mastering units, this falls in to the latter (although yes, the Finalizers are a kinda bastardization of this exactly processing).

This gives you 1, 2 or 3 bands to work with (this is important, the Finalizers don't do this, they are always in crossovers), and each band has individual discrete control of it's sections: Compression, Limiting, Expansion.  This is no "set and forget" unit, this is a serious piece of audio manipulation gear. What's more, the settings are all set to known musical parameter ranges (I'm pretty sure most of these are even in the latest MD5 generation too), they got it right first time.

I can control a low end where the kick is weak and the sub bass is overpowering in a bedroom dance music mix as well as pushing that nasty hi-hat back into the upper mids where the snare and vocal sit before I even hit analogue. Or I can use it's firm and somewhat glassy 90s sound as an effect. It's EQ sounds to me almost exactly the same as the System6000 original EQ (I wonder if they null?). When it comes to restoration there are ways in which we can rebuild broken areas of the dynamic range un-obtrusively.  This is a really flipping useful box! And the DA/AD ain't too shabby either.

OK, it's got a tiny green screen and it whines and growls when it's on, but man, it sits on my desk and when I hear some program material that just sounds.. kinda wonky.. within minutes I can set the M5000 MD2 up to just nail it and forget I ever cringed. Then I can think about how I'm gonna add that bass, or get that mid range to the front etc.

If you're a mastering guy and you like to use your hands over that exact nit picking with those many many dynamic eq/multiband/witchcraft plugins (I find them infuriating) then grab one of these off eBay, they are stupidly cheap generally and if you get one with two DSP cards you can do a LOT of work alone on this thing.

I thought this thing had blown up (turns out it was just one card), and after plugging it in the other day when our Powercore MD3 was bumming me out I am so happy it's alive again. May the mastering brick ride another day!

Friday, 17 July 2015

Dance/Club Music Producers.. We Need to Talk About Your Bottoms!

Everyone likes fat bottoms right? Queen seemed to think it had something to do with gravitational forces they deemed it so important..

For a long time now club oriented electronic music made in bedrooms and destined for the dance floor has paid for me to live. I see many tracks come in and out in a week, therefore I pick up a lot of sonic characteristics over time which are not intrinsic to the composition. The biggest of this is how and where the low end of a mix produced to be played on a full range sound system at intense volumes is composed and mixed.

This is vital stuff, and I'd say 9/10 how us mastering guys deal with it is the difference between a good or bad club music master (way more than loudness played flat through a rig!).

I'm not looking to talk down or make anyone feel small with this, as it would be self deprecating also, as I am one of these people I describe (I produced/DJ'd electronic music as Littlefoot for many years). What I am seeking to do is find practical methods and advice for dealing with these issues.

Why does this happen?

It's an educated guess but I'd say for the most part it's due to the old classic:

1. Non full range speakers
2. Pushed levels
3. Small untreated/under-treated room

I'd say this set up fairly describes most bedroom/independent label/not pro producers set ups. Again, I'm not hating, there has been incredible music made in the last decade on small pairs of KRK, Yamaha, Adam etc monitors in student shared houses with the speakers stuck in a corner!... but it's far from ideal, and doesn't give us a whole lot to work with.

This is an extreme example but if we think of this as one end of the scale and a true mastering room as the other we can say most dance music is produced in something towards the budget/semi-pro level.

What is the result of this?

For the most part the result of this is a massive womp of level on the bass instruments in certain areas and massive holes in others (often areas a dance floor loves).

Classically you find that these rooms/speakers/listening rigs will have a combination of scooped sounding speakers (made to sound LOUD not FLAT) and sharp cut off in the low end, often with some kind of resonance. What I mean by this is the speakers go to say, 60Hz, but drop off hard and bump from 60Hz to 80Hz, often to create a false sense of bass. This is also unavoidable for many small speaker designs due to physics. This is always worse when the speakers are being over driven to "get that feeling", unfortunately with a lot of these speakers the feeling can't actually be produced, maybe try a pair of good headphones in this situation. 

So the producer isn't in a great position, even if the song is perfectly musical and works using scales and harmonies with tonnes of space, when they come to do mix down they have wool cast over their ears.

This manifests in two ways in my experience:

1. Bunged up lower mids, with some excitation, caused by such things as EQ boost etc to get the track to flatten out alongside the above mentioned bass cut off boosting. This is almost always coupled with a big lack of actual sub (that good stuff that shakes your ribcage). This is easy to deal with, but means we gotta cut some good stuff (lower information from snare/percussion/synths/vocals) to make the bass go to the right place, it also (to my ears) sounds better to add some lovely analogue boosted low frequency stuff to a dance music mix than cut over excited/processed low end.

2. The infamous unheard sub! The bane of my life at times and a massive shame all the time. This is where the producer has programmed sub frequencies they are unable to hear. They are hearing something of source, a combination of the upper harmonics of the synth producing the sub and if we're unlucky the resonance in their speaker low end cut off (and it's partnered distortion.. ouch!). The main problem here is we have to recreate the low end from scratch, sometimes using multiband compression (as explained in previous blog post) and hard EQ notches. This is often call for a remix if it's in extreme levels and is a root cause of many existential crisis among producers...

"It's all very good telling us our monitors suck man, but seriously, what can we do?"

OK OK, it's not all doom and gloom... Well first of all try speaking to us! make a relationship with a good mastering engineer who is friendly and understands what you are trying to achieve with your music. We don't bite and aren't all miserable sound engineer types. 

Secondly you can use your speaker specs/some simple room measurement techniques to work out what you can't hear and use this information alongside a real time frequency analysis plugin, both of these things are free. If it's not being created in your room, but it's on your master output: don't do it! or at least flag this for concern.

Thirdly, find some speakers which do go all the way down. You don't have to use these to check other stuff, context is good and you can train your ears to be picky. If your mates bad boy car sound system or home cinema rig throws up every time you play your tracks through it, a club system is really going to struggle..

Hopefully this helps with getting your heads round one of the biggest conundrums of electronic music production. As ever drop me an email on if you have any questions and thanks for reading!

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Multiband Compression : let's talk about it calmly...

"Argh! get off my master! you've split the bands... you ruined my beautiful mix, multiband heathen!"

"The mix was finished but we couldn't get that damn low C note to work, after hours of processing individual channels we stuck a compressor over that frequency range and tucked it right back in, it sounds so TIGHT now!"

Hang on a minute... what's going on? Read any mastering forum and see people slamming their heads against the keyboards at the mention of multiband compression in the context of mastering. Why the hate? what even is it? and why is it so awful?

Multiband compression is a style of audio processing where the frequency spectrum is split up using a crossover (much like a PA or speaker system), processed, and then re summed back into one signal. In a true multiband system each signal created by applying a crossover has individual parameter control, which a single separate processor available for each band.

A fine visual example of crossover
( FREE crossover plugin by RS Met)

The technical theory of splitting bands, applying dynamic control and summing back together comes loosely from broadcast technology, where you have a lot of audio and a narrow everything (bandwidth, dynamic range) due to the nature of radio broadcasting and a large range of playback scenarios to consider. A famous type of multiband compressor all types of audio engineers use is a "de-esser". This is a multiband compressor with only one band active to edit (often the highest band or a mid band focused on the S area of the human voice, or both). This technology is also replicated in vinyl cutting, often known as a "high frequency limiter", but essentially the same thing tuned for a specific task.

So hang on, multiband compressors are on almost everything already? so why is there mention to quite a lot of audio engineers a cue to exhale a huge passive aggressive sigh?

Well this is what I'm hoping to debunk and offer some closure on. First of all, let's take a short modern history lesson..

The advent of the compact disc in the 1980s  pushed for the development of digital mastering (and general audio processor) technologies. One of the first true pro audio devices taken up by audio engineers was the TC Electonic M5000 digital mainframe ( This device was a host for several different algorithms, notably it's NON LIN reverb/delay and it's MD2 mastering software. Although clunky and limited by today's standards this is still a HELL of an audio processor. It's fixed at 44.1kHz and has a complex array of pages and layers to get to what you want, but if you want to control one to three frequency areas dynamically it's still up there with the best! trust me, until it blew up, I was using my studio partner's old M5000 (which sat in the rank infront of me for months until I even bothered to patch it in..) on many of my most successfully bits of work!

Man I miss this thing! The big black mastering brick...

It worked great, it's a real pro tool with the kind of design which for audio engineers makes sense and to anyone else is pointlessly baffling. 

So what happened, this sounds great right? serious tool for serious bits of work. Well... TC took this technology in two directions: the M6000 (later known as System6000, now a standard in many pro audio suites) and the Finalizer series. The latter is possibly to blame for the misunderstanding of multiband compression, or at least its marketing.

A powerful tool is damaging in the wrong hands..

Big leaps forward in the programming of digital audio equipment had happened between the MD2 development and the Finalizer hitting the market, and this allowed for... presets..

Earlier I mentioned broadcast processing and multiband, this kind of fixed processing with all the bands engaged was totally the done thing in broadcast by now, but the current multiband mastering processors from TC and also other great companies such as Weiss (see previous article on their original digital mastering processor!) forced you to engage each band on request and set up from scratch. The Finalizer, and it's competitors such as the DBX Quantum and Drawmer Masterflow allowed you to load settings with processing applied as default. It's worth stopping at this point before I accidentally drag these units through the dirt to point out that all these units are pro standard audio processors, I would happily work with any of them, and before you think I hate the Finalizer, I have an OG 44.1kHz Finalizer which I bought to use as a second layer of that good old predictable TC multiband on really tricky/restoration jobs.

DBX Quantum: A fiddly thing, but with some features not found in it's competitors

Drawmer Masterflow: Slightly obscure now, but you'll find a handful of MEs singing their praises online still

The issue here is how the user was convinced to use these specific units. The concept of presets/wizards/whatever is something which I can't honestly say has done anything other than damage probably quite decent sounding recordings or trick people into hearing something they're not. Aha, so now we are back to the beginning again, the whole "trashed recordings" thing, but before we smash our heads into our keyboards let's have a think about this.

What sounds "bad" about a really well designed crossover, with top end compression with musically selected parameters and values on each resulting band? well, nothing! So why do we hear so many depressing screwed up, phase mis-aligned, smeary, pumpy messes? Because the button was there to press, and often placed at the start of manual and in big inviting print on the unit itself.... In the late 90s there was an arms race to sell "home mastering" gear to the sudden "project studio boom" (a revolution for the good for independent music!) and everything went a bit whacky. The resulting generation of pure confusion about multiband compression can be pointed towards this in my opinion. The shame is when people get multiband processing and ALL THE BANDS IN MOVING ALL THE TIME, which unfortunately is what a hell of a lot of those presets do.

The native plugin revolution in audio created a LOT, and I mean a lot of Finalizer clones, the most popular being Izotope Ozone, a plugin which when mentioned is like actors speaking openly of "the Scottish Play".. but again, although this thing has some bizarre features such as mastering reverb(?!) it's a pro level processor, it suffers from its marketing and pressure to make something crazy and colourful. It's also worth mentioning that Izotope are no fools, their RX restoration software is only rivalled by the bafflingly expensive Cedar systems!

(Amendment #1 : as pointed out by two folks, the latest Ozone, as pictured, does away with the Mastering Reverb, good work!)

The dreaded Ozone! 

To summarise: multiband was great, then confused, now great again. The truth is it never went away, and pro mastering engineers, the guys churning out the records we all enjoy never stopped using them, they just kinda had to go quiet for a bit...

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

What does "Mastering for Vinyl" actually mean?

We mastering guys will often offer and be asked to perform the task of "mastering for vinyl", almost always alongside digital audio masters of the same release (whether that is CD, digi download or both).

But what does it actually mean?

Well first of all it's not the same as "Vinyl Mastering"! This is the process of creating a physical master disc using a format known as a lacquer disc or sometimes acetate. Historically the material used for such masters had varied, but it's quite a different process to that which mastering engineers without a cutting lathe often offer to our clients.

The above may not come as a surprise to labels and independent artists when costing up a vinyl release. You may notice that for my mastering service I charge a 20% fixed rate for a second version of the master (i.e. one "mastered for vinyl"), which is wildly different to the price of cutting a master disc. This is as they are different processes!

So what is it I do then?

Well, the process I apply is what is actually known as vinyl pre-mastering. This involves the preparation of an audio master (often digital, but not always!) which can be cut by the engineer at the next step in the production chain. 

What the 20% extra is actually getting you is simply a version of the audio which has been QC'd (checked) for its use with the cutting engineer. This is a lot simpler than people think! Hence the % or sometimes with other engineers: a lower track rate on top.

Our aim in vinyl pre-mastering is simple: To maintain consistent translation to the next stage of production. i.e. the client loves the master I sent em to listen to on Windows Media Player and really wants to hear that, albeit with the joyful sounding limitations of vinyl, in its entire form coming out of their record player when they get the test press back. Same gaps, same loudness matching, same objective improvements in tone and imaging, if there has been from the mixing stage onwards.

A vinyl premaster is typically a 24 bit audio file containing masters for each side of the record, with additional track data where required to aid the cutting engineer.

The difference between a good vinyl premaster and an OK one is knowledge of the above mentioned limitations of vinyl... 

With digital audio we can do all kinds of crazy things, whether it sounds good or not! One of the nice things about vinyl (and perhaps why vinyl versions of recordings sometimes sound better unanimously) is the barriers to letting you go too far.

The digital master also almost always requires loudness processing. This is usually just a final push into a limiter/clipper/both which the engineer controls for transparency. What this causes though is a kind of artificially shaped harsh transient every time a loud thing happens, vinyl hates these and is wildly unpredictable in how it cuts this onto the master. Ever tried to cut a CD master to vinyl and found the top end sounds wrong, or often quite bizarre? This is probably why!

This falls into three main categories:

- Amplitude (or level)
- Frequency content
- Phase correlation 

I won't go into too much detail on these, as they range from easy to explain (amplitude) or so complex you could do entire degrees on the subject (phase correlation). But I will say this: when it comes down to hiring someone to do "mastering for vinyl" consider this: can they have a 20 minute conversation with the engineer at the plant about the above topics and get it nailed so your record doesn't sit in test press limbo for months? Vinyl production is a tricky game and it's getting trickier. Having a mastering engineer who can bang out some excellent digital masters, make you a fully formed CD image AND create a vinyl premaster and tackle any thorny issues at the next stage is vital for a label taking its vinyl releases seriously!

Hopefully this helps, if anyone has any further questions you can always drop me a line on thanks, Joe Caithness (Mastering Engineer, Subsequent Mastering).

(shouts to Ben Hunter for proofreading!)  

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Mastering Grime Music

Grime is a unique beast.

It appears to be almost completely misunderstood by anyone outside of this island we call Great Britain, both sonically and artistically. 

On one hand it's an incredibly complex sound of crashing noises which don't fit in any other context, and on the other it's angry teenagers on a Playstation banging out tunes to play to their mates at school.

The reality is somewhere in between, I won't wax lyrical on the journalism that surrounds the "second coming of Grime" (FYI it never went away, check out some stuff which came out in 2008 when Dubstep ruled the roost, so good!), but I will speak about the contrasts in how people approach the genre,

My introduction to Grime, like a lot of people was Dizzee Rascal's first singles on XL recordings in my teens. Mostly being into punk and hip hop music at the time, but generally being a music nerd and having a passing interest in UKG the idea of Dizzee Rascal intrigued me, and for about ten minutes I hated it. I thought: "isn't this just UKG MCing with some kinda Dancehall vocal stylings over ridiculously clangy beats?", and then I realized that was actually an incredible musical idea and that my original response was only shock that someone had come up with something as groundbreaking (in the true sense) and original as "I Luv U". After hearing Wiley's "Wot U Call It?" I was hooked, and alongside the emergence of what was eventually called Dubstep this felt the first underground music I was ever around to see it bloom.

Hearing these squelches, industrial clangs, boings, detuned-to-the-point-of-atonality synths and basses (see Dizzee's Youngtar produced Stand Up Tall!) made me hark back to playing dark and sinister games on my NES and Windows 3.1 Gateway PC (those ones with the cow skin boxes, remember those? showing my age..) as much as it sounded like the aggression and violence inside my pubescent teenage brain. 

Deeez ones!

What was somewhat shocking was the incredible range of audio quality.

Some of the best Grime sets (and even vinyl) you will ever hear are full of digital clipping, terrible mic levels and technique, feedback, crappy edits.. the list goes on.

But would Pulse X or the original Igloo instrumental give you that paranoid sense walking home with your eski hood up at 2 AM through the estates if it had that glimmer and sheen of the big US Rap stuff coming out in the mid 00s? probably not. But what happens when you drop a grime tune in the club which is literally someone tapping the scart cable off a Playstation into phono and video cables (or atleast that crammed into any DAT machine available at whatever level) and sticking it down to wax in the cheapest cutting house in London, against some of the incredibly well produced Dubstep which had painstaking hours of mastering and various mixes taken over it that came out in the late 00s?

The answer is: you do, if you dare risk it.

Sometimes dropping So Solid's Dilemma instrumental or a Wiley Devilmix out of some kinda of super compressed synth led dubstep can be the palette cleanser the dancefloor needs, but it can also be a total buzzkiller.

So as a mastering engineer I must consider this when working on Grime tracks, considering all the things discussed above as well as the objective quality of playback across several mediums.

It's kinda like fitting a square peg in a round hole, but this is some of my favourite music ever and I am truly blessed to be able to work on it.

Here are some considerations when mastering or producing Grime records I would put forward looking on into a future where more and more of this stuff is going to (hopefully) become real...

1. Is all the space in the mix being used? if not, is that what the producer is going for?

Listen to something as standard as Wiley - Igloo (original full instrumental), for entire sections the bass goes up an octave and there is little or no bass left. If we approached mastering with an "all sizes fit all" style we would be shouting "oh god, automate some EQ, the bass has gone! mutliband it, do something!". But tell me when this production drops in a club that weird space that appears and re appears doesn't make your head go funny in all the right ways?

2. Is "poor production" just something you're musical brain isn't trained for?

Whatever you think of Dizzee now, this is one of my favorite pieces of music ever, even though the album itself never clicked with me, the combination of Youngstar's ridiculous beat and Dizzee at his most articulate is just so bang on. But look at the music on paper: no key, some samples are cents away from being in tune, sitting neither side of the piano keys, the bass sounds like a crashing computer. Stick that in front of some more traditional music fans and it genuinely makes you feel a little queasy, but that's exactly why it's good.

3. Distortion: killing the vibe or pushing it beyond? 

Most grime fans will know this video:

I would imagine the person at Propellerhead who programmed the distortion algorithm expected the sound of being pushed into ridiculous levels, let alone expect it to be one of the most sampled/copied sounds in UK dance music in the 00s and beyond. To add to the confusion the actual record (unfortunately no longer in my possession) is one of the most blown out/strangely cut things I have ever DJ'd with. But like people in the rock music world see Velvet Underground's White Light White Heat, or The Jesus and Mary Chain's Pyschocandy as exercises in the pushing the limits and therefore inspiring more defined future production styles, we can see Pulse X and similar productions as a similar thing, whether it's intentional or not.

4. If it's dry it's dry.

If you whack a load of sounds into a sequencer and it sounds right, you don't need a "room" or "ambience". Some of the best Grime productions ever, and the one's that really smack it on a system have all the sounds right at the front, almost completely mono. When music doesn't exist in the real i.e. acoustic world it might not need "a room"!

5. There is no point "analogue-ing up" something which is meant to sound cold and digital!

Yeah I got those valves and transformers in the rack, but if the digital clang and grit is making the music sound edgy and exciting, there's no point whacking some excitation on those areas and "smoothing them out". Harmonic distortion is all about context,

None more cold!

I think I'll leave it there. Hopefully this part philosophical musing, part auto biography, part technical analysis is useful!

Written by Joe Caithness of Subsequent Mastering.

Selected Grime credits include: