The art of mastering

September 30, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

When done correctly mastering, recording, and mixing are more art than technique. Just ask our own Gus Skinas.

And the art is in the listening (perhaps nothing too surprising to us audiophiles).

Another master of the arts is our good friend Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast. She, like Gus, and everyone at Octave Records relies upon listening and DSD to get the results she wants.

We need more people like Gus, Cookie, Bernie Grundman (click here to hear my interview with Bernie), and Chad Kassam of Acoustic Sounds.

Recently, Cookie posted the following on our forums. I think it’s worth sharing.

“I watched a recent interview between the great mastering engineer Bernie Grundman and Chad Kassem on youtube. At one point Bernie says something like this, “There are things you can’t measure and only hear when it comes to sound.” Bernie was my mentor who I learned from. He tested gear and had modifications made until it suited his tastes in sound.

I will say that not every well known mastering engineer goes to the lengths Bernie does. Many don’t hear the difference between FLAC and WAV of the same file. Some mastering engineers won’t do a listening test for it, either. As Bernie also says, the ‘math’ isn’t as good as the ‘ears’. Which I agree with. This is a business of ‘ears’ and hearing sound.

If you play the same file using Roon, Audiogate, JRiver, etc… it will not sound the same. If you change DACs, that same file won’t sound the same. If you use different analog channels to run the sound through, those analog channels won’t sound the same with the same file. Filters, components of gear, chips… you name it… all make a slight difference in sound. This certainly keeps reviewers busy. :slight_smile:

In developing the SEA process, we tested hundreds of combinations of devices and software until we arrived at our current setup. Those slight differences in playback of each component is what highlights or diminishes certain qualities of sound we are looking for in our SEA process.

The differences we are making in our SEA remastering process are very, very small and very difficult to hear unless you’re experienced with doing blindfold tests. The choices we make for playback DACs for the source music and the analog channels we choose for adjustments in gain were tested and chosen over a period of a year before we finalized our processes. Our systems don’t work on all music but on 90%, we think we can make a difference for those wanting to hear their music in DSD.

Again, mastering is an art form of small details that most people don’t care much about. Bernie is a master, but there were times that I didn’t always agree with his choices… and that’s okay. These are very very small differences. Most of the time I agree with Bernie when I worked with him. The only way to really experience these sonic choices in mastering is to attend a mastering session with a high caliber engineer.

We will be offering a DSD mastering workshop soon. We haven’t settled on the final topic, but if you’re interested to learn more, ask questions, hear the files (remotely, we’ll send out later), please fill out the form for our waiting list.
https://forms.gle/4sq9hgFJBKcKpepAA

Thanks to the few that make this a wonderful and generous industry to be associated with.

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45 comments on “The art of mastering”

  1. I think “the few” are quite a lot, as there seems to be a wealth of production and engineering talent, especially at independent labels. Some are larger, like Channel Classics (long-time DSD users), others smaller. These days recording engineers usually start by getting an academic background in Music Technology.

    It comes home to roost in their artistic relationships, for example Channel Classics’ recordings with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Brecon Baroque and many others.

    One of the more interesting is Linn Records’ decade long relationship with the Royal Academy of Music. Peter Hobbs has been Linn’s Chief Engineer since they started in the 1980s, he is a Lecturer at the Royal Academy and Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, the Principal of the Royal Academy, produces many of the recordings. One purpose of the relationship is to give top music students experience of working in recording studios. One of my favourites is their first recording from 2012, a chamber arrangement of Mahler 4, directed by Trevor Pinnock. Probably mastered in DXD.

  2. There are probably only a handful of really top-notch Mastering technicians in the audio recording industry.
    I just hope that they can pass their ‘magical’ technical abilities on to a next generation of no-compromise mastering geniuses.

    1. There must be hundreds if not thousands of such engineers. You can fool yourself that there are a few god-like engineers doing audiophile stuff, but there are loads of engineers and technicians doing great work in the music, film, television, radio and other broadcasting industries, and they don’t need to have been around since the 1970s either (there is no polite way of saying it).

      Certainly in London and the UK, where there are loads of seriously good studios and engineering teams, and there are no doubt in many other countries like Germany, I still read of teams collaborating across studios, because there is no monopoly on talent.

      Of course it is an art, because the producer and artist must be on the same artistic wavelength in terms of what they want the music to sound like, and the engineers put it into effect. In the classical world production teams stick together for decades. In pop music artists and their agents decide they want a different sound, get a new producer, and the result can be brilliant or terrible.

      1. You’re probably right Steven, as I can only comment on the ones that I’ve heard & because I am mostly only interested in a particular genre of music this does limit my exposure to a larger number of Mastering technicians.

        1. Nothing against these guys, two great recent albums are Soul Eyes and The Women Who Raised Me by Kandace Springs, produced by Larry Klein and mastered by Bernie Grundman, but in the middle she did the equally excellent Indigo with. different team.

          At the same time as doing The Women Who Raised Me, Klein/Grundman did Melody Gardot’s Sunset in Blue and you can’t help notice the production similarities. They also did some of her earlier most popular albums, my favourite is The Absence. They can certainly make stuff that sells, but they have good material!

  3. Isn’t it trivial that a sound engineer wants to work (!) with the best equipment available being in competition with other recording studios? However wouldn’t every customer expect that a studio is equipped with state-of-the-art gear? Same for broadcast studios. But as long as I cannot hear significant (!) differences in sound quality between different high-res format I would rather focus on “low hanging fruits” (improving room acoustics, better loudspeakers, sophisticated equalizing, removing sources of unwanted RFI, vibration control, power regeneration galvanic isolation) instead of investing my time and budget in the search for a new DAC optimized for DSD finally requiring an additional SACD-transport or increasing the storage capacity of my music server. What is the use of opting for the best A to D technology when the final result doesn’t offer significant improvements? But maybe my expectations for audible improvements in sound quality are too high?

    1. Every studio website I’ve looked at lists its hardware and often software. Like lots of commercial software, the Pyramix system Octave use is modular with a vast range of applications, and then there are third party plug-ins.

      Much of it must be portable for use on outside broadcasts and location recordings (film, TV, sport etc.). Most of the music I listen to was not recorded in a studio.

      So Abbey Road, for example, have been using Pyramix for years for their multi-channel recording, but I’ve never heard of DSD being done there so they may not have the DSD modules.

      1. In the recent interview of Abbey Road’s Miles Showell, he explained why they don’t use DSD. My final conclusion was, for convenience reasons of PCM mixing.

        1. I have not seen any evidence of any mastering with DSD remaining in the UK recording industry. As Paul has explained many times, it has to be converted to PCM or analogue to edit.

        2. Sorry I didn’t fully finalize this:

          In my understanding, due to the necessary conversions (PCM or analog) for DSD mixing, Miles decided to start directly from PCM/DXD for convenience reasons and because he sees the necessary conversion steps from and to DSD as somehow compromised, too. It seems he has a high opinion about DSD generally, but didn’t consider it as that important for his work when in parallel being aware of the convenience advantages of pure PCM processing. He doesn’t seem to be an extreme sound perfectionist but making his decisions based on a mixture of performance and convenience arguments.

    2. I think this approach might be the right one for your situation, but you also have to see, that at the beginning, at the recording stage, the best capturing processes are the most relevant things to improve, aside of the general recording skill. This is the basis for the extent of all following improvement potentials.

    3. Me too Paul S. So WAV vs FLAC sound different? Not in my universe so I’ll die happy not worrying about which version of the truth I’m missing out on. And Just keep
      On enjoying my music.

  4. ‘There are things you can’t measure & can only hear when it comes to sound’
    should be laser etched onto the fascia of every piece of quality home-audio equipment.

    1. Get out the wood burning set and engrave the phrase on a wooden plaque placed just above the system.

      Maybe engraved on an old school corporal punishment paddle… would be befitting. 😉

  5. Anything that pushes the boundaries in recording or mastering techniques which improves the quality and therefore musical enjoyment has got to be good. Positive progress should not be halted. However the amount of new music I am going to buy in the future will be a small fraction compared to what I already own and enjoy so it’s improvements in equipment and systems that to me are of greater significance. Much of my favourite music will likely never be remastered or available in DSD so it’s equipment improvements that can extract more detail or better the sound from my existing collection that gets my vote.

    1. I acquired a DS DAC because the theory and marketing story behind was rather convincing claiming that even the sound quality of RBCDs would come close to SACD-quality by applying this huge upsampling process and straight-forward filtering. Indeed, the DS DAC “sounded” most different compared to my old DACs but it robbed any punch! A most “soft” sound but no revealing of more details or better staging or of other relevant aspects. Maybe Ted’s Reference DAC will soon offer a giant step forward?

      1. I politely disagree. In my experience it improved the most relevant characteristics for all PCM resolutions, which otherwise probably only perform like this or better when playing DSD. It may be a bit on the softer side where others often are for a much larger part on the too technical sounding side, but this is usually a topic of fine-tuning within a setup. I couldn’t say it robbed any punch in my setup.

      2. In the period between 1986 and 2001 I found that listening to CD’s for more than about 45 minutes gave me a headache. I heard my first SACD on a mid-fi system in 2001 and was blown away. In 2002 when I got my first hi-end system it included a Sony SCD-1. I have never looked back. I have about 600 SACD’s.

  6. I would amend the statement “there are things you can’t measure…” to be “there are some things you can measure like room interaction with your gear”. The next obvious question is can you make adjustments that don’t involve swapping cables and gear until you get the sound you like?

    I’m a proponent of a system with lots of intelligent adjustability in my case with DSP LMS (Loudspeaker Management System), multi-amping the main speakers and a subwoofer with DSP, Bluetooth and phone app (no analog knobs on the back please). With shareware like REW and a $100 USB mic you can discover some rather startling deficiencies in your system (which must include the room). Correction of these deficiencies cannot be done by ear if your goal is flat(ter) frequency response, reduced reverb time, etc. Recent use of said measurement tools has resulted in the best sound I’ve heard from my system.

    And, you can’t get around proper room acoustic treatment with DSP tricks alone. Not suggesting this at all.

  7. Mastering is definitely an art and definitely a skill. I’m also delighted to hear that Gus Skinas is mastering the Pink Floyd Animals remix. God. I have been waiting months to get my SACD copy if that. Should finally arrive next week. 🙂

  8. Thanks Cookie and Paul…..

    “If you play the same file using Roon, Audiogate, JRiver, etc… it will not sound the same. If you change DACs, that same file won’t sound the same. If you use different analog channels to run the sound through, those analog channels won’t sound the same with the same file. Filters, components of gear, chips… you name it… all make a slight difference in sound.”

    The line above is what grabbed my attention. It all matters….

    The DSD workshop sounded like a cool idea.

  9. Certain harmonic resonance frequencies are pleasing to the ear & body. How can a meter measure pleasure?
    Not to long ago I had an approximately half full tallboy that vibrated in my hand. The vibration my hand felt was a most interesting experience that definitely drew a smile. My buddy felt it too when I let him hold my can. Maybe a new test instrument should include tallboys (to test for the happiness factor of course)?

  10. I saw this video the day that they posted it on the analog productions YouTube channel. I was riveted during this long video about how Bernie works and how he thinks. He’s an amazing mastering engineer. Hope he lives another 50 years.

    I’d like to give a shout out to Chad because this man like Paul has stuck to his guns since he began his business many years ago. There is nothing that he won’t do to produce the highest quality vinyl recording reproductions many of us have in our libraries. Chad just did another video with Donald Fagen because he was able to recover the original tapes of every Steely Dan recording ever released and he is going to put them out one by one hoping that he can do a bit better than these already excellent recordings. I don’t know where he finds out about all of these hidden treasures and is able to negotiate with the people who have them in their possession to make incredible use of them for the betterment of historical music.

    I would call these two guys the Dynamic Duo.

  11. Paul,

    I love your products and your gift for communicating clearly and provocatively.

    This post has me applauding and scratching my head at the same time. Of course, the proof is in the pudding and the sound is in the hearing. Different packages sound different when they do DSP and apply filters. How could they not?

    But they can’t sound different when they are just delivering a file. And there can’t be any audible difference between WAV and FLAC files. At this level, there is no analog world impact—no jitter or other timing effects, no way for anything other than magic to interfere.

    The mind is a powerful influencer. So I believe Cookie believes what she says. Nonetheless, a proper double blind experiment would prove she can’t tell the difference between WAV and FLAC, just like she can’t distinguish between 3+2 and 2+3 by looking at 5.

    In my opinion, when audiophiles go too far and espouse impossible things they make people question the exceptional contributions our hobby (and your profession) have made to the field of psychoacoustics and to the enjoyment of millions. And that’s a bad thing, because good DACs and clean amps and faithful speakers and uncompromised recordings are how we hear the real music.

    Michael

    1. In my experience it’s not difficult to differentiate flac from aif or wav on a suitable setup. There may be a few other dependencies.

      Paul somewhere in the forum explained why the arguments like yours against these differences being audible don’t apply (I can’t reproduce them now). You should definitely listen to it on a setup of someone who heard the differences.

      But I’m not the right dialog partner for the technical arguments, I can just tell you I hear it in my setup.

      1. With respect, that’s exactly like saying an application you install onto your computer behaves differently than if it was first downloaded as a zip file. That you can see subtle differences in the fonts rendered by Microsoft Word as a result.

        Again, the only possible impact technology can have on our nervous system is in the analog domain. So, of course, DACs–the boundary between digital and analog–are crucial. So are all the rest of the links in the post-conversion chain, from interconnects to amplifiers to speaker wires to the transducers themselves. And the input to DACs, the jittery presentation of the bits in order, is now understood to be an analog operation on the preconversion side.

        But there is no magic.

  12. Bernie Grundman has caught many manufacturing errors that caused something to “not sound right.” Probably the biggest was Sony’s videotape-based CD mastering hardware!

    I owe my post-Motown mastering career to attending sessions with Bernie Grundman, Doug Sax and Bob Ludwig. Each was a lesson in listening and what not to do!

  13. Does anyone know why Chad closed down the digital downloads part of his business? It was my trusted source for good digital recordings. One day it was just gone from the website.

    1. At the time the announcement was made, he posted this on his site:

      “Several factors have led us to make this difficult decision. As streaming continues to eclipse downloads, sales have steadily declined. Also, the Music Modernization Act of 2018 introduces fees and reporting requirements that further compromise our ability to operate this portion of our business.”

      That’s all I’ve ever seen him say about it. I take his statement to mean sales were dropping while at the same time regulation was increasing his overhead expenses.

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