[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Gary Gray. UPDATE: Read part two here!]
The History (and the Mystery) of Mastering Laid Bare
The infamous “Loudness Wars” are, for the most part, now over.
For more than 30 years, labels, artists, producers and engineers fought to create louder and louder master recordings. It seemed almost everyone was chasing the idea (untrue as it turns out) that the louder the final master, the higher the number of sales, downloads and/or streams. (There is no such correlation.)
It’s remarkable how loud some commercial recordings were mastered during the latter half of this time period. Though the quality of some of those recordings is open to debate, no one disagrees that they certainly were extremely loud. As the decades moved forward, more and more of those louder recordings approached an almost improbable eventuality – a flat “brick” audio file waveform, as close to 0db (the “red zone” of distortion) as possible, where dynamics (louds and softs) became what some considered dynamic-less (louds only).
And just when we thought it couldn’t get any louder, a number of artists, producers and engineers crossed the “red zone” (above 0db, or into the “red zone” of clipping and distortion) on purpose. The sound of previously “unwanted” distortion became part of the sound of several genres. This approach had its origins in the 90s with bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and culminated in 2008 with the famous (or infamous – depending on who you talk to) album Death Magnetic by Metallica.
When the album was released, there were petitions submitted to the record label, reported by Rolling Stone Magazine, to have the album re-mastered, because it was so compressed and limited (in order to be really loud) that audible distortion could be clearly heard. The deep, rich, punchy low end, was described by some critics as “not even there.” Some critics and some fans denounced this album as being poorly produced and mastered. The mastering engineer himself, Ted Jensen, of Sterling Sound, distanced himself from the album after it was released, saying, “The mixes were already brick-wall limited before they arrived” for mastering.
How did this “poorly produced” album do?
Death Magnetic won three Grammy Awards. The producer, Rick Rubin, won a Grammy for Producer of The Year, Non-Classical. The album went to No. 1 in many countries. Sales achieved an impressive status of 2X Platinum in the U.S.
Again, the debate regarding the inherent quality of these recordings will always be open. Just as the introduction of the electric guitar amp, especially the mid 50’s iterations, had people passionately debating whether this “new distorted guitar sound” was musical — or just noise. The sound of distorted guitars, which some felt was non-musical, too loud and “wrong” helped form several genres of music.
That was 1955.
A number of fans and critics claimed that musical recordings with distorted electric “noise” would never sell. And yet, many recordings with that “ugly noise” not only sold well, but created the foundation of a world-wide cultural revolution that was the envy of its founding homeland. As Bruce Springsteen pointed out, it was “Born In The U.S.A.” Fast forward to the 21st Century, and it can be argued that history is repeating itself once again.
Did the introduction of distorted guitars in the 1950’s or the practice of purposely clipping and distorting digital masters in 2008 cause, all by themselves, increased record sales? No. Did they hurt record sales? No. What then, is the common denominator of music production practices, and in this case specifically mastering approaches, that create phenomenal success? Is it always adhering to “industry standards?” Is it risking “poor production” feedback for the sake of loudness? You probably know the answer already. But just to confirm your wisdom, keep reading…
For us ‘Indie Musician Home Studio Owners’, when we tried to make our masters as loud as commercial recordings, the result was often worse than poor. Most of us threw our hands in the air and said, “Can’t be done. No way. I give up.” And yet, for the love of music, we kept trying.
The good news, as laid out in the opening statement, is that “The Loudness Wars” are pretty much over, and the need to keep pushing the threshold of loudness higher and higher is no longer with us.
Before we dive into the technical aspect of loudness and mastering (Post-Loudness Wars), I invite your attention first, to the main moral of our story. It can be summed up in a single-sentence comment made in 2008, the day one particular typical music-loving fanatic bought the Metallica CD Death Magnetic, and listened to it for the first time:
“The first song on the album is horribly distorted, by the fifth I didn’t notice as the music was so good.”
By now, I think you’re probably beginning to process the ironies here. Let’s look at them.
How can an album which received petitions for re-mastering, and about which some fans complained was “horribly distorted” earn the producer a Grammy — for Producer of The Year?
How can an album with agreed-upon post-production flaws achieve such incredible sales results and accolades from the very critics and fans who complained about the production?
And what causes fans, who complain about the “horrible distortion” on the first song, continue to listen to (and love) the entire album, over and over?
It comes down to the MUSIC. The songs. The performances.
More precisely, it comes down to the emotional impact of the music itself, and the performance of that music on the listener, a.k.a., The Magic.
In other words, the bottom line is not so much how we master, but WHAT we master. Yes, we will be getting into the nitty-gritty technical aspects of mastering in this series, but I want to shine the brightest light I can on the importance of why we are here at all: The Music. And performing that music to the very best of our capabilities.
There is a purpose I believe we all share: To get under the skin and into the soul of listeners through the emotional impact of our music and the emotional impact of the recordings of that music.
A shining example of the power that great songwriting and solid performances bring to the production table occurred on November 18, 2015. It was exactly one month before the now superstar phenomenon singer/songwriter Billie Eilish turned 14 years old. She uploaded a song onto SoundCloud. It was called Ocean Eyes, and it was produced by her brother Finneas O’Connell. She clicked the “ok to download” button because she and her brother wanted her dance teacher to download it from SoundCloud so her teacher could choreograph a dance for Billie.
Little did Billie and Finneas know, but that simple upload, recorded in their 12-foot by 14-foot humble, slightly cluttered (or not-so-slightly cluttered), simple home studio, went viral. One thing led to another, and eventually Ocean Eyes ended up earning Billie and Finneas Platinum Status in not only the U.S., but four other countries as well — on the strength and the magic of the song and performances. Adding his finesse to the formula with unique and competent production, Finneas knew that without the magic of a great song and solid performances, production alone only goes so far.
This is an amazing story that illustrates how much power every single home studio owner can potentially harness through the unstoppable magic of a great song and solid performances, framed by competent mixing and mastering. And by the way, when you listen to some of Billie Eilish’es tracks, you will hear all kinds of genres and styles, and some of them are less dynamic than others, utilizing the process of “over compression” and/or “over limiting,” creating a certain degree of intended clipping and distortion in a musical way, a way that serves the genre appropriately.
And the secret behind competent mixing and mastering is not the gear. It’s your ear. This is why I spent more than 5 years developing revolutionary music production ear-training exercises which are at the core of The Lucrative Home Studio Online Masterclass. I have students who now have Spotify streams numbering in the 10’s of millions, and their tracks are getting licensed for lucrative deals. All from humble home studios. Guided by golden ears.
So, with your focus mainly on the music and performances, with your ear more finely tuned, and with a growing education regarding mixing, you can now tackle the subject and definition of mastering.
A Modern Definition of Mastering for the Home Studio Producer
Mastering for the Home Studio Producer can be defined as: The workflow architecture and series of steps designed to create a competitive finished recording.
The definition of a finished recording is: No emotional weak links for the listener, from the very first note to the last moment of silence. This definition at once includes the choice of content. The song. And the performances. It is not a technical definition. It has nothing to do with watching meters. It does include the statement “designed to create a competitive finished recording.” Within that statement comes the obvious process which shows you definitively if your track is competitive or not: A/B’ing.
A/B’ing is an area I have been researching and developing for over 20 years. For instance, I have developed a revolutionary series of 23 A/B’ing techniques that will cease forever any feelings of second-guessing or frustration as to whether or not your tracks are broadcast quality or radio-ready.
So with the modern definition of Mastering for the Home Studio Producer now known, let’s move on to the nuts and bolts of mastering itself, and a revolutionary and simple approach that results in consistent high-quality master recordings.
(Stay tuned for Part Two of this series where Gary discusses Home Studio Mastering and the transition from the Loudness War to the Battle of Normalization from a unique and ear-opening perspective!)
Gary Gray is a Voting Member of the Grammy Recording Academy; a two-time Telly Award- Winning Producer, Arranger, Mixing and Mastering Engineer; the author of The Home Studio Bible, and creator of the online masterclass The Lucrative Home Studio.