On Monday I stopped by my friend Drew Daniels (www.drewdaniels.com) studio to hear what he had done to The Eternal Contradiction. I had talked to him about remastering Traces of the Old Road, once I had finished with my tweaking of it, but he didn’t write down the title and thought that I wanted to remaster the EC which he already had. When I sent him a post to see if we could schedule the mastering date, he said the remastering was already done, at which point I knew he had done the wrong CD, as I hadn’t even given him Traces as yet, because I wasn’t finished with it myself. Wow now there’s a run on sentence if ever there was one. Mrs Henning, my favorite English teacher, would have had my hide.
What this episode did, however, was bring to mind a question someone asked me recently about mastering. What is it? Why do I need it? Can’t I just do it on my computer? Why does it cost so much. So for the uninitiated, a little background.
Every song that is recorded has different dynamics, highs and lows, louds and softs, etc. One of the things that mastering does is to take care of that kind of level, so that when you listen to a CD you don’t have to jump up and down readjusting the volume for each cut. A mastering engineer also knows which frequencies make a track sound muddy, sharp, unpleasant, sonorous, piercing, one dimensional, etc. He takes the tracks and by using the boosting and cutting of various frequencies clarifies the recording so that all the terrific stuff you jammed into that three minutes can be heard and appreciated. A mastering engineer evens that all out; all these different things in a musical and dramatic manner.
A really good mastering engineer can even change where the voice is placed in the recording; bringing the lead vocal forward to moving it back into the track. It takes some copying of the tracks and different eq’s and phasing, but it can be done. (Actually even the programs that address stereo spread can do this to some extent, but not like a mastering engineer can do it). They can also impact the drama of the track by the subtle manipulation of level. They can make a song build to a crescendo that it didn’t really have. They are artists in their own right.
When Batdorf and I finished our recording of acoustic versions of Rolling Stones classics, All Wood And Stones, (www.allwoodandstones.com) we thought we had gotten it. But we still decided to take it to Ron McMaster at Capitol Mastering (yes, that’s his real name) and see if he could add any fairy dust to it. We delivered the masters and then went for a cup of coffee. We came back and gave a listen to what he had done. Sounded the same to us, until he said, “wait, let me play what you brought me and then compare them and see which one you like better…” It was incredible, he literally bumped the recording up a notch. Ours sounded dull and lusterless compared to Ron’s tweaked version. Ours sounded slightly one dimensional and he gave it an amazing depth.
They also have incredibly high end equipment. Everything at Capitol is first rate and their echo chambers are actually echo chambers. Remember the cluster of voices doing AAAAHHHH in the Beach Boys Good Vibrations? That was Capitol's echo chamber. Nothing like the real thing. Speaking of which, your recording has to be the real thing.
They can’t fix everything…garbage in equals garbage out, as they say. They can’t fix distortion, they can’t fix overloaded signal, but what they do is really necessary if you want to compete in the world of professional recording artists. And keep in mind that when you put a recording out there, it is going to be compared to every other recording out there. No one thinks about budgets when they are listening to a recording. It’s just, “does this sound good to me?”
And yes, Drew did an amazing job with The Eternal Contradiction. So much so that I’m using his reworked master to manufacture the next run. If you bought the old one, now you have to buy the new one and compare them. You’ll see.