Record labels all know how
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: I've always loved
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?
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.
know the sound of
vinyl, and I
know when I put on a record even from years ago, it's great - the
you look at the
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.
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.
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.
the 45 also had
velocity to handle the additional level.
point. In those
things were geared up to make 45's spicier and near 'stun.'
do you think
the promotion industry has had on the level wars?
don't think you
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.
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.
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.
There's no question
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.
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.
and there's some
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.
any trends of it going back, or do you see things becoming
Truthfully I see
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.
digital mixdown formats are you getting, and what's the sonic
get a high rate of
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.
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.
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
think most people
analog as "warm" - I think there's other characteristic differences as
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
converters - what were some of the qualities that you felt made the
compared a lot of
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
DVDA, 5.1, all
what do you think the next format will be in terms of the listener?
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.
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
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
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
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?
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
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.
engineers kind of
blend these days - what do you think is the best and worst ways they're
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.
there any things
engineers do that kind of make you want to pull your hair out - or -
things that you think are great?
rule of thumb in
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.
I just can't
get any high
end onto that thing that's submerged into the mix there...
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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
would benefit from using that approach vs. using powered monitors or
other "standard" monitors?
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.
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.
important in the
process, whether it's tracking, mixing or mastering. Tell me about your
pretty much use
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.
reason why you
picked the Prism eqs?
liked it! I was
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.
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.
you ever find
in mixes where the stereo buss is too compressed and it boxes you into
There are times when
a little compressed. People typically use compression as an effect. In
years passed I saw more of that.
you limit some or
all of the
limiters for level, so I'd be lying if I said no.
lot of time people
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?
First of all it's a
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.
in a studio if
goes out in a console, you use a different channel, but your console is
Typically in the
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.
also do a
lot of research. We spend a lot of non-billable time finding out what
is needed for the best results.
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.
Someone mentioned to
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
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.
Sometimes my clients
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?
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
you ever have
bring in their computer, using the mixing mode as the source?
I have. So long
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
you think there
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?
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.
Vestman's recording articles also appear on several other web
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."
this interview were published in EQ
Magazine - May, 2003 and again in Pro Sound News Magazine.
John Vestman's previous
recording studio and past articles: