AES 2001: Part 2

Back to first report

The Changing Role — 
Not to Mention Wardrobe — 
of the Mastering Engineer

Manhattan skyline as uncompressed audio

Dynamic Range is Back in Fashion;
Fortunately Neckties are Not

Standard Disclaimer: This dispatch is not intended to be objective reporting, nor should it be mistaken for such. It is the viewpoint of one person, an independent radio producer and veteran journalist who is also a DIY recordist, and who therefore approached the Audio Engineering Society Convention from her own unique perspective.

Disclaimer about the Standard Disclaimer: In actual fact, she approached the AES Convention from Hoboken via NY Waterway Ferry.

By Janet Dagley Dagley

jdd@biglisten.com

Recent events have put the conflicts that were going on in the audio world before Sept. 11 into a larger perspective, which makes them seem much less significant. Format wars in the high-resolution audio field (SACD or DVDA?), the conflict between seasoned pros and home recordists, mp3 traders versus copyright owners, and even the Loudness Wars of recent years now seem “like nothing but a skirmish,” said Bob Katz of Digital Domain (http://www.digido.com ) as he opened one of the most popular workshops of the 2001 Audio Engineering Society Convention: “The Changing Role of the Mastering Engineer.”

Katz himself was one of the reasons I wanted to be there — I’ve learned a lot from his web site (his explanation of dither alone is worth a visit), and I figured I’d learn even more by hearing him speak live and in person, along with a panel of some of the best mastering engineers in the business: Dave Davis of QCA Mastering in Cincinnati, Ohio; David Glasser of Airshow Mastering in Boulder, Colorado; Glenn Meadows of Emerald Entertainment in Nashville, Tennessee; Alan Silverman of Arf! Digital in New York; and Jonathan Wyner of M Works in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I wasn’t disappointed, and I have to admit that for me the highlight of the entire convention was watching — and listening — as Katz brought faders down and compression up to squash audio by more than 20 dB with no perceived difference in volume, —in a dramatic demonstration of what the Loudness Wars have done to music (and our ears) in the past five years or so. A close second was the black-and-white slide of Joe Meek himself in a 1950s studio, with a single studio monitor that looked like one of those speakers you’d attach to your car window at a drive-in movie back then. Meek was dressed in what was then the usual attire for an audio engineer: suit, tie, and a white shirt.

The audio industry is now facing the worst crisis it has ever seen, Katz said: “CD sales are at their absolute lowest.” But even though the audio world may be already reeling, he didn’t pull any punches: “How can we as pros recommend you go to a mastering house when nine out of 10 CDs sold sound worse than a 45-rpm single on recycled vinyl?” he asked.

If the sound is worse than ever despite the best equipment in history — and many engineers in attendance agreed that it is — then many consumers may not have noticed. They may not be able to, due to hearing loss caused by Walkman-type portable stereos with headphones and car stereos with extra bass response. Listening to either at moderate to loud levels for long periods can cause permanent damage to the outer hair cells of the ear, Davis said. “We’ve got 20-year-olds these days who seem closer to 30 or 40 on their hearing tests. We’re producing sound for hearing-impaired listeners.”

Glenn Meadows spoke first with a brief history of recording, beginning with a slide showing a bird with its beak in the groove of a stone disc on the back of a turtle — an image from the Flintstones to start things off with some laughs. The next image, however, was not a cartoon, nor was it from The Three Stooges, though it looked like it might have been: a grand piano with an enormous megaphone over it, as if it were about to fall on Curly’s head (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!). “Of course, they were recording to wax in those days,” Meadows said. Wax discs, he explained, were packed in suitcases filled with dry ice so they wouldn’t melt, and the suitcases were then hand-carried by couriers on trains.

In the 1950s, the one tiny mono speaker was enough for the engineer in his white shirt and skinny black tie, since “the only way to hear it was to cut a dub,” Meadows said. “A lot of times they’d just take what the client sent in and press that to disc.”

Upstairs, the nostalgic “When Vinyl Ruled” exhibit helped the young folks learn — and their elders recall — how audio recording and replicating used to be done.

Dave Davis of Cincinnati spoke about more recent developments. “The CD and the PC have already changed how music is produced,” he said.

“The CD changed the rules for listening, because for the first time the listener could randomize the tracks or use the remote control. We had a breakaway from predefined sequences, and an album became a collection of singles. The narrative structure started getting lost.”

There were exceptions: Davis fondly recalled a Flaming Lips four-CD set in which all four were to be played simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the album concept and narrative structure have been further undermined by Mp3s. “Mp3s have now “redefined the marked for ‘lo-fi’ — they’ve replaced the cassette.”

Davis doesn’t see mp3s as a threat. He does a separate mix specifically for that format, as he does for 5.1 if a client wants that in addition to stereo, and charges the client for each mix.

“We’re moving from focusing on equipment to focusing on the value of what’s in our heads, and the ear/brain interface,” Davis said.

Internet music, yes, even mp3s, can be good for the audio industry, Davis said, and sometimes giving away music can be good for business. He cited Sony’s decision to reduce the price of Mariah Carey’s “Loverboy” to 49 cents shortly after it was released, in order to move it higher on the charts.

“And you don’t necessarily have to pay with money — trading demographic information for a download could be of value to both parties. What’s missing with Internet music is a charting mechanism,” he said. Davis also sees benefits for the audio industry in streaming media, which can go beyond the geographic limits of conventional broadcasting, and allow consumers to time-shift. “It puts music back into the hands of the fans,” he said.

 “Music on broadcast radio these days is all programmed from the same place by the same few companies. Internet audio exposes consumers to new artists and products, and allows an artist to be exposed to a more tightly focused market. It’s easier to get spin and buzz if you know where your fans are.”

Aside from all those issues, the popularity of mp3s is indisputable. “And most industries don’t thrive when they ignore what their customers want,” Davis said.

Turning his attention from the “lo-fi” to the “hi-fi” end of audio, Davis said that high-resolution versions of existing material in formats such as SACD or DVD-A may well sound better, but they’re unlikely to sell unless they include something extra, such as text or graphics, in addition to better-quality sound. “Consumers don’t want to rebuy their entire CD collections,” he said.

What about the problem — at least it was considered a big problem a couple of years ago — of home and project studio musicians recording and mastering their own material?

“That’s going to continue,” Davis said, “And you know what? It’s not a threat. Mastering is the interface between the artist and the replication process, and there are more interfaces between artists and their fans than ever before. That means more opportunities for mastering, and more opportunities for mastering engineers.”

Davis offers his services for many other kinds of audio beyond commercially released music. He does audio for computer games, and even environmental audio. “I did a special disc for the Cincinnati Zoo, and then I had to do a second one for nighttime so the animals could sleep,” he said “There are many other areas where we can find new work. Mastering connects the audio world with its end users, and if we look at it that way, it’s easier to see the opportunities.”

Bob Katz spoke next. His topic: “No Mastering Engineer is an Island,” by which he meant that engineers will have to be able to deal with numerous high-resolution formats, as well as standard CD audio, because such formats as DVD, DVD-A, SACD, and CD will all be playable on the same consumer systems, often in different layers on the same disc. A good point, but Katz’s most moving, and heartfelt, comments were on the Loudness Wars. Because the current fashion is to mix CDs as hot as possible, with lots of compression and little dynamic range, he said,” We’ve lost a lot of the ability to contact the heart of our listeners.” And that’s not always the mastering engineer’s doing, either. “I did a master with lots of dynamic range, and the client complained that it wasn’t as loud as other CDs, and asked me to make it louder,” Katz said. He then played a musical passage for us and compressed it as he brought the master fader down, so the overall volume seemed the same — until he gave us a quick burst of that compressed sound with the master fader back up, and that nearly blew us out of our chairs. It was 20.5 dB louder! But the compressed sound had “kind of a wimpy loudness,” Katz said, and we agreed.

“We need to return to the concept of headroom.” Katz said.

Next: Repeat after me: Bill the client accordingly. Bill the client accordingly. Bill the client accordingly, because six channels of audio require a lot more work than two channels.

Janet Dagley Dagley has been an associate member of the Audio Engineering Society since 1999. She and her husband, Michael Dagley, also known as the Bohemian Hillbillies, have just released their first CD, Once Removed, available at CD Baby:

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/bohemhill as well as Amazon.com


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