Subsequent Mastering

Saturday, 9 August 2014

In Defence of "In The Box Mastering"

It's a strange time to be an audio engineer in 2014. Look at the racks of most pro guys in any field and it's a mostly a mix of incredibly well designed digital plug-ins and the odd analogue processor for that more complex / non-linear audio effects. Of course, many engineers nailed their set up historically and feel no need to catch up with the zeitgeist, and in some ways these engineers with "outdated" gear stuck in that years AES catalogue are the ones I trust most...

When I started Subsequent Mastering in 2009 it was hard to gauge what I needed to kick start a little set up to learn on. On the one hand the Finalizer/Quantum/all-in-one box was still on the market (with a rapidly decreasing resale value) and on the other simple and cost affective plug-ins were overwhelming appearing at a fast pace. The idea of analogue only came to me later when I found a way to acquire tools good enough (to my ears) to make the leap from simple, easily recallable plugins to large chunks of metal which cost more than a half decent car.

I spent some time listening and demo-ing all kinds of stuff I could get my hands on: older plugins, stock plugins, the really expensive stuff (which now in retrospect seems like a large waste of money..). I made some conclusions: this stuff can sound dogshit (early ITB linear phase designs always really upset me) or absolutely brilliant (like the first time I tried to get a "competitive level" from Voxengo's Elephant, an epiphany for me). I also made the conclusion that there is "something" missing from my tool palette, when listening to other peoples records and how far they got their tone especially, even after months of trying all this stuff, the obvious conclusion? missing the analogue stuff.

In reality what I was missing was a complex and detailed colouring tool, which didn't have that nasty smudgy thing almost all digital emulation plug-ins seemed to at the time. So I got  a guy to build me a Sontec clone (the one that's on all the DIY audio sites), fully stereo, fully stepped to see what happened. I was blown away, I loved it, I still love it, I cherish it's existence. It's been used on 90% of my masters since I got it about 4 years ago, and although it's awesome, it doesn't suit everything.

But what do I use the Sontec clone for? I use it for adding sound that wasn't there, I use it for pushing something out of the mix by exciting the stuff around it. A friend of mine (Chris at Blacklisted Mastering)  told me the high shelf made it sound like the high elements were coming from behind the music into your ears, and I get what he means. So can this be matched in digital? NO! I tried to null it last night, I used DMG Equilibrium in all the modes, all the impulses, all the shapes, boosts, freqs. Nothing came close, and even the closest thing I had sounded way different when I went on to A/B it.

Hang on! Aren't you meant to be defending plugins!? Yes! Because although the sound of MY Sontec clone couldn't be replicated, the desired effects of me using the unit, i.e. "I want to do this abstract thing in my mind to the audio" *reaches for the knobs* can. What I desire when using the Sontec clone I can do with plug-ins now, that sound coming from behind the speakers? yep. And and engineer learning to master for the first time could totally kick ass with a plug-in if it's the tool they learned. I would NEVER sell the Sontec, it feels like an extension of my brain! but it wouldn't stop me mastering if I had to.

It's also a strange time to be a plug-in designer, for years it seems sad that brilliant engineers were chasing their tails trying to make emulations of gear to get "that result", some designers even making various versions with famous mix engineers names branded to them! See also: emulations of NEW hardware, one of which (the Elysia Alpha) I have used a LOT until recently.

But the tides are changing, the processing power has gone way beyond the days of the SHARC chip Firewire boxes (although some great plugins are stuck on these currently!) and designers in the last few years have really started to realize that if you rethink audio processing and use digital for what it can do irrespective of the past really brilliant game changing tools can be created. Guys like Voxengo, DMG, Brainworx, Fab Filter and a tonne more are developing processors that previously couldn't exist.

It's a bit harder to feel the sexiness from a plugin: you don't get to unwrap it, you don't get to take a pic of it, you don't get to come into the studio the next morning and see it in the rack and get all excited. But if we take a step back and be more critical in our analysis of our work I truly believe it's these processors that are making mastering progress as an art, and yes, they are plugins! anyone can buy them! and this makes some people very uncomfortable...

I believe that the feeling of joy of working with a tool you see older engineers post about their Sontec 430s and original cutting consoles is the same guys like me get from spending the evening getting deep into clicking around with DMG Equilibrium or Voxengo Elephant, for example.

I guess us MEs are kinda at a crossroads, and it causes a few online existential crises for folks: Since when did plug-ins sound good? since when did almost all the big name guys start using the same plug-in I bought for my project studio?

I like it, it's like a kind of democratization of audio processing. There is no shame in an empty rack, and I totally vibe of guys who go full swing the other way, as long as it's for the right reasons.

My message to new MEs entering the biz, don't be ashamed! get those plugins, get incredibly deep into them, configure the additive flavours you desire from them, make your own presets, and when you get some money: spent it building an incredible studio! Get an acoustician in, upgrade your speakers, buy solid and long supported converters and an amazing listening space for you and your clients to enjoy working in. Don't worry about the analogue stuff until something really catches your ear, and if you fall in love with pushing knobs and pulling faders: jump in with both feet and enjoy it! But please don't worry about the digital vs analogue gear arms race, it's over now, stay off the forums or take them with a pinch of salt, your wallet will thank you in a few years when you haven't got debts holding you back from progressing your career.

Yeah you can't match the sound of running a mix hot through an API2500 with the threshold not engaged, but that hardness and girth you love from that, it's in the box if you look and listen too, and your clients and the end users aint gonna give a fuck.

Happy record making!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Vintage Digital Series #1 : Weiss BW102 - interview with Daniel Weiss

I have had an itch I've wanted to scratch for a long time. As a mastering engineer who entered the game just as native plug-in processing actually became good, I never got a chance to wrestle with the digital gear of the past, it's all plug-ins and great converters feeding analogue units for me. So what were these units like? who built them? and with what in mind? This series will look at such units and hopefully provide some insight into how we got where we are, and what it means to use this gear in today's studios.

Our first interview comes from Daniel Weiss, the legendary digital audio designer behind white boxes you will see a lot in mastering studios, even with the advent of incredible plug-ins, you will still see these boxes (The Gambit Series) stacked up against the Maselecs and the Sontecs and the Manleys.

Hi Daniel, thanks so much for communicating with me for this project! I don't know what it is that draws me into "vintage digital" units, I guess it's that the bygone eras of vinyl and analogue equalizers are still so relevant (if not more than ever), and the original CD mastering era seems to have only a few survivors. My first question is a big one, and hopefully leads on to the following questions: what led you to designing and maintaining such a system? what was your brief, and what inspired you to embark on the project?
I kind of stumbled into that. When I worked at Studer in the early 80ies, in the PCM lab, one day a gentleman from Germany came by and asked for an interface between the Sony F1 (a betamax video tape based 2 channel PCM recorder) and a Sony 1610 (a Umatic video tape based 2 channel PCM recorder). That was way before any standards like AES/EBU etc. Studer does not do such custom work, so I did that interface in my spare time. That gentleman was Ben Bernfeld who owned a Mastering Studio, called Harmonia Mundi Acustica. That was the time when the CD was launched and thus there suddenly was a market niche for digital mastering equipment. So Ben knew what he and other CD mastering engineers needed in terms of interfaces and signal processing. The concept for the BW102 (Bernfeld - Weiss) was born, i.e. a modular system with a 19 inch frame, a 24 bit bus and modules for interfacing and signal processing. Over the years we did dozens of different modules. The largest BW102 system was the IBIS digital mixing console with like 32 channels (or less of course as it was a modular system).  


In the mastering and pro audio sector you are mostly known for your Gambit series hardware (EQ1, DS1 and their varying versions), it seems like almost every mastering studio has, or has had, some shiney white boxes with black knobs lined up on their console. How much of the influence and the specific processing from the BW102 passed through to the Gambit? were lessons learned in the development of the BW102 implemented in the subsequent designs?
Yes, sure. E.g. the Gambit EQ1 uses the same low noise filter architecture as we use in the BW102 equalizer. The DS1 has the same basic block diagram as the dynamics processor in the BW102. 
The Gambit A/D and D/A are new designs though as the converter technology changed quickly over the years. The same goes for the sampling frequency converter and the denoiser / declicker.


Ergonomics and the highest signal processing available at the time seem to be fundamentals of your design ethos, was the Penguin software and extension of this?
Yes, the Penguin software was mainly made in order to be able to automate the BW102 console with time code. In addition it allows to control several modules of the same type (instances...) thus it is a much cheaper solution than the hardware based remote control usually required for the BW102 console. The Penguin was built before the advent of Windows and is still used in mastering studios. 


I search the web for studios and stare their gear lists often, it seems this system does still appear, often it's old school guys who mastered their trade and never felt the need to switch the gear out, but sometimes it's 
being implemented in a modern mastering system. How easy do think the system is to use alongside say, a DAW pc or mac, some analogue EQs and Compressors and standalone high quality AD/DA?
Well, it is as simple to integrate as any other outboard equipment. The automation is difficult though. The Penguin mentioned above requires specific video cards and a computer with ISA slots to run, so that can be difficult nowadays. The hardware based remote is the alternative, but that can not be automated. Yes, there are still old and new (with young mastering engineers) studios using the BW102. We did a 96kHz capable version of many of the modules, so technically the system is still current. 


Leading on from the previous question, do you still sell/maintain the units? do you have people coming to you to do the above with success? 
Yes, we still sell and maintain them. Sometimes we get back BW102 systems from customers who do not need them anymore. Those systems / modules we can refurbish and sell them again.

Final question: do you see an influence of this style and era of digital standalone systems on the horizon on modern mastering studios, will people stuck in the DAW for their corrective processes get sick of clicking a mouse?
Of course with today's computers, i.e. with their processing power, all of that can be done in the box. The success of our Gambit Series units, which we still sell despite the DAWs, is based on the ergonomics and our algorithms. Many users like the knob based user interface which is very analog like. And they like the sonic quality. Successors to the Gambit Series would have to have a comparable user interface (maybe as an option), similar sonics and should integrate into the DAW including automation. 

Best Regards,


Friday, 30 May 2014

Free VST Review #1 : Two Mastering/Bus Friendly EQs from Variety of Sound and Lkjb

In this post I will taking a look and a listen at two free VST equalizers which I deem suitable for mastering/mix bus duties. This will be part of a series of reviews for small plug-in designers making neat free VST plugins. There is a lot out there in the free VST world and I hope I can pick a few really special bits out for you and help improve your sound at no added cost.

I will be testing the Lkjb Luftikus Analogue Modeled EQ and the Variety of Sound Baxter EQ in this episode.

First Impressions

So I loaded the Luftikus up on a channel, no problems, not glitches. The UI is really nicely done and is a great improvement from the beta versions seen on forums last year. It's pretty obvious what it's inspiration stems from if you know the equalizer designs of Cliff Maag, it's a Nightpro/Maag EQ3/4-esque design with the same octave fixed bands as the Maag EQs. The unit itself has some "modes" not found in the Maag EQs or their plug-in counterparts such as "analog" and  "mastering".

Next I reached for Variety of Sound's BaxterEQ. People familiar with Dangerous Music's BAXEQ will be aware that this takes it's "Baxandall Tone Control" style (NB: worth a google if you're interested in further reading) and runs with it. Whereas the Dangerous Bax provides you with a neat single rackmount design with L/R on one strip, the BaxterEQ splits it into two virtual rack units and provides a Mid/Side matrix for those looking to get deeper into the stereo image of their source material. It also provides high and low pass filters for BOTH channels unlike the Dangerous Bax. This is particularly useful in mastering when the S channel is providing some useless out of phase bass or the middle image is too forward.

Field Test

 I loaded up a great, vibey yet murky and a little pokey in the high end, indie rock mix I received this month to have a look at how these things work in practice. I loaded up the Luftikus and checked the signal path in/bypassed: with all modes off it appears completely transparent, with "analog" mode engaged the signal also appears consistent. It's not stated clearly what "analog" is actually doing, but in my experience these Maag designs do have a sonic imprint: a smooth snakey tonal adjustments across the freq spectrum, and it's possible this is a factor in this mode, but it's very subtle if it is! Also provided is the "mastering" mode which makes the EQ work in steps, which some people might think is useless, but us mastering guys think in blocks of gain! Speaking of gain, the further "keep gain" mode is optional here. The Maag designs produce and overall gain shift beyond a certain point, which is counteracted in the Plugin Alliance version with a gain knob (also available here), but Lkjb have gone one step further with a kind of "make down" gain when this analogue modeled phenomenon becomes apparent.

Let's do some stuff: I felt the mix was a bit bunged up in the lower mids and lacking in the actual fundamental bass stuff, so I went in at 160 and took 1.7 dBs out and 2dBs in at 40. This cleared up room fast and clean, and uncovered some gunk a little further up, 1dB cut t 640 seemed apparent. A quick A-B showed me that the mix had been instantly improved in a wide sense and it was now time to take a look at the upper mid/high end balance. The 2.5 cut was applied, but instantly I felt the Q shape was too wide and had no control over this. I had in mind a cut in the upper mids and a boost with the AIR band (more on that later), but the width of the EQ let me down a bit here. The feature Maag's designs are famous for is the AIR band, a super high shelf with only gain. I put in 2dBs at 10kHz, which provided a really smooth brightening to the track, bringing out the ambience and wide elements of the overheads without adding back in any of the bad stuff I took out previously.

At this point I hit a bit of a snag. I punched in the "mastering button" to see if it was doing anything other than providing steps and it rounded my settings up/down to the nearest dB, essentially trashing my settings! Something to be looked into on updated versions perhaps? Annoyingly this messed up my gain structure, which I had to go back and re address, could be a bit of a bummer to have this happen when the chain has compressors either side of the plug.

I soldiered on and took some time to sit and A/B my settings. It's safe the say the combination of wide octave laid bands and super clean EQ modelling provided an incredibly smooth and un-distorted sound over all. For interest I pushed the AIR band up a few more dBs and took it out. Wow, that was some difference, and I dare anyone to tell me the effect "sounded EQ'd". Shout out to Lkjb for nailing that element of the Maag design.

Time to move on so I took the Luftikus off and loaded up the BaxterEQ. Taking what I learned from listening previously I had a go at cleaning up the same program material. The first thing I did (because I could this time round) is had a listen to the S channel to see if I could clear anything up here. As I had expected there was some bleed in the low end in the room, which is a perfect storm for murky low mids. I popped the M/S matrix on and took the low cut on the S, and although this did cut some stuff, I got stuck at 54Hz. I continued on my low mid cleaning mission by looking at the shelf cut on the S channel: 2 dBs at 74Hz took out the gunk I wasn't fond of, and auditioning back in stereo the imaging opened up quite a lot. Now I had cleared stuff up I felt I needed to focus the bass lower down, so I took the 74Hz knob, this time on the M channel and boosted it 1dB, and although this did the desired effect, it would have been nice to place it lower (an overlap with the filters would be useful!) to avoid adding to the low mids I am trying to clean up.

Moving on I addressed the top end: again I wanted to take some of the nasty forward nature of the mix and get some of the good top end stuff appearing clearer. I took the M/S approach again here, popping a 3dB lift on the S at the highest frequency available: 18kHz, and carving half a dB away on the M at 4.8kHz. This M/S push and pull stuff generally sounds more transparent than carving away with notches and dynamic EQs in my opinion, but it all depends on the width and shape of the EQ. The results were good, although I felt if I went much further with the boosts the EQ would begin to interact with areas I wasn't keen on touching.

At this point it's worth mentioning that the the Baxter has it's own bypass button, which I was using within this test, and this doesn't cut the plugin off, it simply un-engages the EQ, leaving the analogue modeled "hardware sound" of the EQ engaged. This might not to everyone's taste, having some harmonic excitement inline whenever you use anything on the plug-in, but it's safe to say it is very subtle.

Final Thoughts

Both of these free EQs are well worth trying, considering the price (or lack of) I really can't see how anyone working in the mix with busses or looking to carve their mix bus can afford to not check these out. Both faithfully represent analogue devices and add features only available in digital.

The Luftikus is great for adding top end to stuff where other EQs can't quite do it right, and is good for large swooping changes in the mid range. It is fixed in a mono channel (representing the EQ4 hardware) which makes it only dual stereo in practice, which can be not so useful when adding low end where there are problems in the S channel, it also misses a trick of adding varying amounts of AIR band to both the M and S, which would be so useful in mastering especially.

The BaxterEQ is a great representation of the classic Baxandall circuit with some neat features for buss and mastering work. It's analogue modeled sound when no EQ is engaged might upset a few people, but it's generally never been a problem in my experience. The added M/S matrix makes this thing very useful compared to many analogue modelling EQs out there. The freq points might be a little limited for using it on it's own, but there is no reason why this EQ alongside a clean and flexible digital EQ and a more vibey coloured analogue (or modeled) EQ couldn't EQ a troublesome mix.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Blown The F@#K Out! : Mastering Intentionally Distorted Music

People often talk about mastering, and mastering engineers, enhancing, improving, adding warmth or depth. But what about when audio art is created with the intention to make the listener hear rawness, distortion, hazyness, fuzzyness? These are all words we use to describe when an audio process or unit is either working incorrectly or is of low quality.

As musicians, audio engineers and music consumers we are all too aware of distortion, it's uses and abuses and place in popular music. Rock n Roll, a style which provides the foundation for a large part of modern western popular music, is a direct result of "doing it wrong" with your gear and "playing it too hard" for example.

But what about when the recorded elements are not the subject of distortion, but the process or recording itself? How do we approach this? Do we take audio which has been destroyed to some extent and try and make it fixed again? Do we want our feedback and clipping to somehow sound "warm"? Is that even possible?

And to go one step further, how about when we are working with an audio recording where the output itself (sometimes known as the 2-bus or mix-bus) has been processed in a way which intentionally distorts the music found within?

Perhaps apt, with the recent passing of Lou Reed, one example of pioneering distortion beyond the acoustic realm is the Velvet Underground's "White Light White Heat", and its subsequent imitators and progressors in production value such as The Jesus and Mary Chain's "Pyschocandy", that this discussion is being raised right now.

As a mastering engineer I used to think my job was to make audio "sound better", after a few years of being challenged by a wide range of audio sources and aesthetic choices I realised my job is to make audio sound "right" or "fit for purpose".

So when audio is meant to sound "bad" compared to "pop music", what do I do? Well I do exactly the same thing I do with a pop/dance production, I make it sound the way it needs to be heard. Sometimes as audio engineers we can get a bit of an ego about our input on the music we work with, it's an important that to curb in the back of your mind. When a track comes in all messed up on the 2bus, it's all to easy to think "oh this is a poor production, let's try and fix this". Communication, as always, is the key here.

One example of this is a job where I was given a reference and asked to "make this new record, have the distortion of our previous tape demo, but the balance of a good sounding hardcore punk record". My conclusion was that I needed to take the clean, raw premaster, balance it out so the tonal relationship felt good and then push it out of my analogue chain into my converters so the red light hardly drops. This is the kinda thing which would make some audio engineers cry, but it was the right thing to do! Furthermore because my converters are solid in tonal and dynamic response, I got that clipping sound, without too much of the bass getting swallowed up or a loss of stereo imaging.

The conclusion here is that us mastering folks aren't here to make beautiful sounding music, we're here to facilitate an artists vision, specifically how that vision is heard. OK I love making beautiful sounding records, delicate dynamics, shiney analogue top ends, real aural pleasures. But sometimes you gotta let it be blown the fuck out, let it hurt a little bit, give the listener that uncomfortable masochistic audio experience, if it's what the artist wants!