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
and
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 subsequentstudio@hotmail.com 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
(http://www.kvraudio.com/product/crossover_by_rs_met 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 (http://www.tcelectronic.com/m5000/). 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...
(http://www.tcelectronic.com/m5000/)


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..
(http://www.tcelectronic.com/finalizer-96k/)


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
(http://dbxpro.com/en/products/quantum-ii)

Drawmer Masterflow: Slightly obscure now, but you'll find a handful of MEs singing their praises online still
(http://fr.audiofanzine.com/processeur-dynamique/drawmer/DC2476-Masterflow/)



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! 
(https://www.izotope.com/en/products/mixing-mastering/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 subsequentstudio@hotmail.com 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. www.subsequentmastering.com

Selected Grime credits include:



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).  

                                           (source: http://www.weiss.ch/old/102/102.html)

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.

                                           (source: http://www.weiss.ch/products/eq1)

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. 

                                           (source: http://www.weiss.ch/old/102/102.html)

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. 

                                           (source: http://www.weiss.ch/old/102/102.html)

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,
Daniel


FURTHER READING: http://www.weiss.ch/old/102/102.html
OFFICIAL WEISS ENGINEERING SITE: http://www.weiss.ch/