CD Mastering Services at Vestman Mastering
 

Listen to Audio Mastering SamplesVestman Mastering EmailHD Separation MasteringVestman Mastering File Upload PageVesman Mastering Booking Form

 
Interview with Stephen Marcussen, Mastering Engineer
 

Record labels all know how mastering is the sonic icing on the cake. Since changes in technology arrive so quickly, they rely on mastering experts, almost all long-time music engineering veterans, to keep their products competitive sounding. Recently, two mastering heavies talked shop for an hour-and-a-half capsulizing the ride from vinyl to DVDA.

John Vestman, engineer at John Vestman Mastering spoke openly with Stephen Marcussen, one of the greats of the music business. Stephen has worked for artists such as Aerosmith, Art of Noise, Black Crowes, Michelle Branch, Johnny Cash, Cher, Elton John, Eve 6, Amy Grant, Don Henley, Incubus, Mick Jagger, Matchbox 20, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Ozzy Osbourne, Prince, Queensryche, Rolling Stones, Linda Rondstadt & Emmylou Harris, Seal, Spiderman,Barbara Streisand, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Weezer, Stevie Wonder, Ziggy Marley and more.

The two mastering engineers discussed everything from nuts-and-bolts technology to musical-sonic evolution - responding to the wishes of the labels and the pleasure of the consumer. Like eves-dropping at exactly the right moment, hear how the top sound-shapers view the tools and the tone of music-as-art.

John Vestman interviews Stephen

John Vestman: I've always loved your work - starting years ago when you mastered projects for me when I was producing. It was just vinyl then, so in the spirit of reminiscing, I'm curious, what do you miss about vinyl?

Stephen Marcussen: I miss nothing about vinyl. The sound I miss, working in vinyl I don't miss.: It's a very difficult medium to work in because there's fewer and fewer people doing it, there are fewer and fewer pressers, fewer stages of quality. If I could say one thing that is terrific, it's the sound. Everyone I know is dumping lathes because it's so disappointing.

JV: I know the sound of vinyl, and I know when I put on a record even from years ago, it's great - the spatiality...

SM: When you look at the evolution of sound, vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CDs, Super Audio CDs, multichannel sound... you see that you couldn't put 16th notes out of 5 speakers coming from a machine hi-hat that is bright beyond belief on a piece of vinyl - it would fry beyond belief - the medium wouldn't tolerate it. That's not a judgment call, because everything's valid. It was a limiting factor in production values because you couldn't have your bass drum on the left and your snare drum on the right. You could get away with it on 8-track, but nobody mixed their records for 8-track.

When you listen to vinyl, you know it's theoretically full-frequency. But take a step back, and you'd say 'you know there's not a ton of 16k on my slab of vinyl' - and I've certainly worked on tapes that were glaringly bright in high frequency, where the cutter head would simply shut off, where the digital medium today will accept that to various degrees of satisfaction.

I had a client who was talking about eq'ing albums differently for different purposes.: We did an album to sound good, and then he wanted to jack up a single like we did in the "45 era" to get the promotion team excited about it, because the album didn't lend itself to super levels or being super compressed. It was more a "band" setting with space and air, but he didn't want the promotion department to put it on and go, hey this is quiet and the record before was testing the ballistics of the vu meters.

JV: Plus the 45 also had more groove velocity to handle the additional level.

SM: Good point. In those days all things were geared up to make 45's spicier and near 'stun.'

JV: How much influence do you think the promotion industry has had on the level wars?

SM: I don't think you can attribute level to any one factor. The greatest demon in this is the carousel CD player and the button called "shuffle." I know if I was in a band and my CD was louder than everybody else's, I would be happier than everybody else. The competitiveness of music in the carousel (or juke box) format is just there - the level war's always been around. There's always been a compromise to level whether it's the tape level, the disc level, the cassette level, the CD level, and now the 5.1 level - I don't think it's driven by any one thing.

I bought some CDS lately that were so hot they just buzzed along on the high end [somewhat breaking up] and that's a shame. I listened to one of those CDS on my computer, one version of what the world's listening on, and , it really didn't sound good. It was like a starched shirt, you know it was flat.

JV: Yes, and when digital first came out, we were so excited about the dynamic range of digital and how the big stuff can sound really big and the quiet stuff isn't sitting there with noise added in.

SM: There's no question that there's no question that there are elements of the popular world that just want you to be blown away. There's elements that don't utilize it to it's greatest capacity, but they're aware of it, and there are those who choose not to participate in the game to the extreme that they could.

I'm not going to say that the level thing is bad - I've cut my share of loud records. It's a service business and at the end of the day you want the client to be happy.

JV: Yes and there's some projects that warrant themselves to be pushed more because the middle instruments are submerged more than you'd like, and the extra level brings those out.

Do you see any trends of it going back, or do you see things becoming project-dependent?

SM: Truthfully I see things getting even more aggressive. I have become extremely aware of what the guy next door is doing, and not every guy next door put's the stunner to '12' - which a lot of people have. It's a competitive field, which ultimately the music suffers, which I think is a shame - it's just so loud. When it doesn't even sound good on a computer, it's an awakening of sorts. It's just what it is - I go to movies, shows - I can't believe how loud things are today.

JV: What percentage of analog to digital mixdown formats are you getting, and what's the sonic differences?

SM: I get a high rate of analog tapes, usually 60% mixed to 1/2" tape and a digital format [at the same time]. A good portion of my projects come in with options - we listen to everything and make judgments based on the client's taste.

Digital can sound terrific - there's no reason to be afraid of digital. Analog can sound terrific... and each can sound horrific. I just cut an album with a ton of it flat, but some of the songs I took from the DAT because some tracks were too loud on the analog tape. It was an aggressive album, and the beauty of it was that we could pick and choose from song to song.

One thing I do notice is that some analog [machines] could sound better than they do. I have a couple of ways to play back analog tape where the electronics just make it hard to beat, even with a great digital second source. It all depends on the program too - I look at all these different forms of playback as a form of eq. A good digital source will sound excellent as well if the mix collapses a little due to the tape saturation issue.

JV: I think most people classify analog as "warm" - I think there's other characteristic differences as well.

SM: It's a harder comparison each day. You put in a 96k source done with a hybrid converter and compare it with a 1/2" tape... that 96k source is really good - it captures the detail, it captures the low level information, the image is excellent, the bottom/middle/top is excellent - people do categorize analog as warm - it is warm if you've got cheap digital! Cheap digital chatters - expensive digital does a job - they both capture a sound and which is better just depends on the program material.

JV: You and I both use Prism converters - what were some of the qualities that you felt made the difference.

SM: We compared a lot of different converters in a double-blindfold test with four different engineers. The interesting thing is that we literally picked the Prism 80% of the time consistently among 3 of the 4 engineers on a variety of different program sources - hard rock to a basic piano record. I felt that the Prism converters were really solid - what I put into them is what came out of them. The clarity, the punch, the details, the trailing edges, the low level information - there was just no coloration, separation or blur. All of the things engineers look for seemed to hold up in the Prism converters.

JV: DVD, DVDA, 5.1, all of that... what do you think the next format will be in terms of the listener?

SM: MP4!

That's an interesting battle that's going on. DVDA is an audio format that's jumped onto a video format, DVDV is a video format that can benefit from multi-channel audio, and then SACD is the Super Audio format that can work both 2 and multi-channel formats. I think the world will embrace some form of multi-channel format - what it is maybe hasn't even been defined yet.

As a consumer, I'd be overwhelmed by it all. As a professional it's incredible the amount of energy, effort and detail that has to be put into the DVD format. Every project in the multi-channel world needs skilled assessment and direction - and you have to put a 2-channel mix on every multi-channel disc. You can say that the world has umpteen million DVD players, most of them are set up for only two speakers. You can go to Los Angeles and New York, and there are people with more disposable income willing to part with their money for some higher-end system than somebody in Arkansas. They're interested, and they've got that DVD player, but to take that next step to more speakers is big and/or confusing.

JV: And consumers don't really want to learn the science of where to place the speakers, and they're just going to put them where they can - and it's like, how do you run the cable under the carpet so that you don't trip on it as you go into the kitchen...

SM: Or as some say, how do you get around your spouse? I don't know anybody's wife that says it's a great idea to set up 5 speakers around the house... I know people who are prominent engineers who say they've set it up in their office because my wife doesn't really want it in the living room...

JV: You're getting different mixdown formats - do you think there's a new standard emerging, like do you think that analog is going to be done and all we're going to have is Masterlink or computers?

SM: There's enough interest in analog that keeps it alive - I'm looking at a project with 29 rolls of analog tape... but I do think there will be some time, maybe not for another 20 years, when we'll lose the analog side of things - not necessarily in signal processing. All of these big Pro Tools guys all say they have a rack of Pultecs or they route it out to eq and re-record it, or they route it to tape or fuzz-maker converter to get "that sound".

As digital formats get better and better, people will switch. There's the practicality of digital, when you can have a guy in Australia working on the same track you're mixing in Los Angeles or New York, that's not because the analog tape can get there that quickly... Nobody seems to be complaining about emailing Pro Tools files - they seem to be acceptable - and I think that will trickle into the mix world. I've mastered things off MP3s that appear on people's albums today. They didn't sound bad. Do they sound as good as the 1/2" tape? Hard to say - good chance it probably sounded better.


JV: Musicians and engineers kind of blend these days - what do you think is the best and worst ways they're using technology?

SM: I think to take Pro Tools as an example, it can offer you flexibility that was never before seen - you can rearrange the song infinitely. And by the same token, you can manipulate a song to where it doesn't have the feel of what it once was. Those are the pros and cons of technology and music. You get a band that goes in and plays sloppy and it feels great - it happens all the time - but then somebody says let's go tweeze it, then boom - you've got that sloppy band that now feels like they're playing to a metronome and that's the down side of it. It's how you choose to use it.

JV: Are there any things that any engineers do that kind of make you want to pull your hair out - or - things that you think are great?

SM: My rule of thumb in mixing a record is make it sound the way you want it to sound. Don't try to second guess mastering. I had a situation where a band felt that since I had all the expensive equalizers, they didn't use any eq on the record. That's not really workable.

JV: Yes, I just can't get any high end onto that thing that's submerged into the mix there...

SM: Right. I tell people - you said it yourself earlier - just put in a CD, see what it is you like about the CD and go for it.  Don't come in to me and say to me, make it sound like so-and-so mixed it. Go mix with that guy if that's what you want! That's just reality. If they say they like the way so-and-so gets the high end so smooth, then that's a term I can relate to.

People should come in and be proud of what they got. It's not going to happen every time, but if you're involved in the process and you pick and choose where you work, you should choose somewhere that will let you get what you need. I always say get it as good as you can get it, and let the mastering side of things enhance it, not save your project. Don't come in saying we couldn't hear the bottom in the studio so we left if up to you... go to a studio where you can hear the bottom right, or complain to the studio, hey there's something wrong with the bottom here - fix the problem, don't create new ones.

JV: Yes, that's why I have a ton of information on my website. I'd rather they have it right even before they walk in the door - it saves them time in mastering and the product is more satisfying - everybody wins that way. That's the up end of things - what's the biggest mixing mistake you find?

SM: Second-guessing the mastering, or thinking that mastering will save the mix. You can't save, you can only enhance. Just get your tape out to the car or the boom box or where ever and get it to where you hear all the good stuff that you want.

JV: I notice in your room that you don't have sofit-mounted speakers, you have more of an audiophile monitoring set up. Any particular reason why you picked that particular speaker, because it's almost like it's not a studio speaker.

SM: I think that's changing. I see more and more studios using B&W speakers than before. The reason I picked them first and foremost, they sounded good. I could have any speaker I wanted, but that was a speaker that I related to because I could use them in the multi-channel array, and the speaker consistently sounded good in many different environments. It's a relatively robust speaker - obviously mastering's a controlled environment - we're not soloing bass drums and unplugging microphones... they can be loud, they're not fatiguing, they're not beamy, I can't say enough good about them. I chose the 802's because I happen to like the tightness in the bottom as opposed to the 801's which have a 15" woofer. It's just a musical speaker.

JV: Do you think recording studios would benefit from using that approach vs. using powered monitors or other "standard" monitors?

SM: Typically what happens is the mix engineer brings his own speakers in and the studio just provides what it provides. It's all good. What's bad is that interfacing a speaker isn't as simple as just plugging it in. There are aspects of a room that interact with every loud speaker in different ways.

Loud speakers in rooms are a difficult issues - there are certain studios where you can rely on their speakers, but you can't be all things to all people. There's also facilities that are more for mixdown and others more for tracking where monitoring criteria is different. People traveling with their own speakers seems to be a nice solution.

JV: Eq is really important in the process, whether it's tracking, mixing or mastering. Tell me about your eqs.

SM: We pretty much use Prism eq's and our own homemade eq's. Between those two, I'm able to do what I need to do. Tapes pretty much sound good by and large, so it's just a matter of learning the tool and using it.

JV: Any particular reason why you picked the Prism eqs?

SM: I liked it! I was introduced to it by Dave Collins, and I found it to be a very musical device. I listened to (obviously) a lot of other eqs, and they're not in my rack. The Prism gear just represents a good solid sound. It's very pleasing what comes through.

JV: Any comments about compressors?

SM: Yea. I never compress! I should say that I hardly ever compress - stuff pretty much comes in squashed enough. I have quite a selection to pick from, and I look to a compressor as a tool to get a musical balance when it's needed. It's more to make something fit with something else.

JV: Do you ever find people bringing in mixes where the stereo buss is too compressed and it boxes you into a corner?

SM: There are times when things are a little compressed. People typically use compression as an effect. In years passed I saw more of that.

JV: Do you limit some or all of the time?

SM: I think everybody uses peak limiters for level, so I'd be lying if I said no.

JV: A lot of time people see a mastering studio, and they see there's less gear in it than a big studio, and they wonder why. What's your comment about why is a mastering studio more expensive?

SM: First of all it's a dedicated environment with an engineer and a lot of very expensive gear in it. You're paying not only for the gear, but for the engineer's experience and ability to solve problems. I've been mastering for 20 years and it's pretty hard to fool me. There are similar problems, but every tape's a different story. You're paying for that comfort of knowing that when you're in that room, this is it. This is your last stage of creativity in this process. You can take your 3 hot-shot mixers, and this is your one chance where you can put it all together into the final state where everybody's going to hear it. I think that confidence has tremendous value.

JV: Plus in a studio if a channel goes out in a console, you use a different channel, but your console is still running.

SM: Typically in the recording studio when there's a problem, you worked around it. In a mastering room, you can't necessarily work around it - you have to be equipped to replace it - it's a different way of working around it.

JV: Mastering engineers also do a lot of research. We spend a lot of non-billable time finding out what is needed for the best results.

SM: I'm sitting in my room right now looking at three different kinds of analog playback. I'm looking at five forms of digital playback - there's a lot right there. I test a lot of cables, and we pick and choose our cables based on what we think is best for our needs.

JV: Someone mentioned to me that they thought mastering engineers only use their ears, not their meters. I use my meters, and I don't use a spectrum analyzer. What's your take on that?

SM: I pay attention to meters, but I pay more attention to a given monitor position and sound pressure level. So really I'm using two sets of meters - a visible meter and my ears as a gauge. I don't master to the meter, I'm aware of the meter. If the meter is telling me that it's ridiculously loud, I will try to figure out why. It is a tool that I certainly use. I use a couple spectrum analyzers - they're on the side of my head.

JV: Sometimes my clients are going to a CDR for their master. I insist on 1x glass mastering. Do you have any comments on 1x vs. any other version of that?

SM: I try to insist that they go to 1630 still because a 1630 only plays at one speed. It leaves a couple variables out of the chain, you know, less is more. If they're going to a CDR, I recommend 1x. I never found any reason to go any more than real time.

JV: Do you ever have people who bring in their computer, using the mixing mode as the source?

SM: Yea I have. So long as they're able to not get mix-picky, I'm fine with it. One project recently had a little struggle with low end on it, and I was able to ask for a dB on the bottom on the bass instrument, which rounded out the mix nicely. I don't recommend it, because there's too many options, but so far it's been positive.

JV: Do you think there are any creative standards, musically speaking, that are getting worse or better? Are things in the past more creative than they are now - or is creativity great in its own way in its own time?

SM: Technology has afforded changes in songs that have made them better songs. People are afforded more flexibility in the way they make music now. From that, it evolves. I think creativity is an ever-evolving situation and technology enhances it. I don't see that people are any more or less creative now than they were [in the days of] Sgt. Peppers.

John Vestman's recording articles also appear on several other web sites including www.GetSigned.com and www.4frontmusic.com. His current plans include more mastering for major and independent record labels. "I look forward to increasing my reputation in world music, high-end contemporary music, and music from any artist who wants the best that mastering can offer."

Portions of this interview were published in EQ Magazine - May, 2003 and again in Pro Sound News Magazine.

See John Vestman's previous recording studio and past articles:

Trianon Recording
Trianon B
Pro Sound News
Eq Magazine
R.E.P Magazine
No Cover Magazine
Pro Sound News - John Vestman studio upgrade