Cannon Shots

by Ricardo Gutierrez


You guys had some great responses to the technology post yesterday. Thank you all, you brilliant, beautiful group. I had to pull out this comment by admiralfrogpants and respond to it fully. Plus, I've had a few folks ask me to speak more on mastering, so the timing is perfect.

The compression arms race (I am looking at you Justice and Justice imitators). My ears cannot stand the highly compressed "dance-rock-blog-house" tracks of 2007-present day. I understand the motivation of making tracks like that (standing out in the fray, better suited to MP3 compression) but I think this is doing a disservice to music and to the physiology of our ears. With all the technological abilities at everyones disposal why, oh why, are we making "loud" tracks with such limited dynamic range? I think at least one reason is the death of HiFi in favor of the tiny compressed sound coming from the ubiquitous ipod ear buds.

I don't know Justice's music, so I can't really comment on them. I wish I could hear every single thing that comes out, but the time that would take and the amount of ear fatigue I would suffer would just be too great. However, I do know the genre and the complaint. It really is something I struggle with every time I sit in the chair to get to work. 

The "loudness wars" as they've come to be known have been around for a long time. The introduction of CDs is an easy target for the blame of the practice, but even in the days when vinyl was king, folks were trying to outdo each other to have the hottest record, though the limitations were different for vinyl.

I feel that to be a good audio engineer of any sort you almost need to be part detective, part psychologist and part psychic. The work is constantly about troubleshooting. Getting to the root of what causes sounds to behave as they do and changing or augmenting that. You also have to engage the artist enough to really know where they want to go. There are times when the artist is not too clear on what they want and your work lies somewhere between doing what's best for the music and divining what exactly the artist wants. I don't go as far as using crystal balls or tarot card in my work but maybe that would add to the whole smoke-and-mirrors reputation mastering has already gotten.
The loudness in music is the result of several competing forces. It can be the artist who really just wants to compete with other music out there or believes that that is the sound they want for their project. Sometimes the artist may just be inexperienced and is riding the prevailing trend. You've got engineers, many along the way from recording to mastering, who are trying to outdo each other. You've also got inexperienced engineers who didn't come up in either the typical master-apprentice relationship or in a studio, with policies and standards that need to be followed exactly. 

I remember being a grunt at The Hit Factory and setting up the rooms for the days session. Every room needed to have a notepad (that looked presentable) with a sharpened pencil (not too small) resting diagonally on top of it. Rooms also needed to have all appropriate paperwork engineers would need as well as a pen container with five sharpened pencils and five sharpies each of color: red, black and blue. Rooms needed to be clean and clutter-free. And in every lounge there had to be a fruit bowl with a bunch of grapes in the center and an orange, apple and two bananas around them. That was my morning routine for seven studios, if I recall correctly. I could go on with the rules and that's just what I was responsible for in my lowly position. Ask any studio engineer and they'll tell you similar tales of their early days.

My point is to say that that level of specificity applied to something as mundane as pencils sets the stage for how one deals with the audio work. You are trained that the work is solemn and to be respected as the rooms and the gear are. This doesn't always ensure an engineer who cares or work that is done well, but it definitely facilitates it. That may be the biggest thing I lament about so many studios that are closing and what it means for the future of music. It may mean some loss of professionalism, though I hope not.

But I digress. The other influence on loudness is definitely the label, or if there isn't a label, then the market or genre at large. This is based on the need to compete, but not for artistic or ego reasons. To compete for commerce. I understand that. Artists put a lot of work into their music and they need to be paid for it so they can do more. Gone are the days of rich patrons for artists.

Working in mastering means having to negotiate your way through all those competing forces while still trying to do what you think is best for the music, especially if you hear quality in the recording that needs to be preserved. One of the earliest lessons I was given by a mastering elder was "do no harm". If the mix sounds awesome and perfect, don't touch it. Don't ruin the work just because your ego needs to be stroked. I love getting a mix so great that it only needs light touches to add a little life to it or none at all.

I am going to say something that might blow the minds of a few of y'all, but it's between us, ok? I rarely use compression and I almost never use a limiter in mastering. If I'm mixing then they are definitely in use. I hate to say never about anything. Compressors and limiters are just tools and it's possible I may find a use for them from time to time. Really, this is just how I learned mastering. My mentor, Herb Powers Jr., was the only guy I've ever seen not use a limiter at all. He didn't even have one in the room. And his compressor was only used if the mix needed it. Like if it needed to sound a little tighter. It was never used just to make something louder. It worked for him and I adopted it.

The fact that many mixes come to mastering already heavily compressed and/or limited begs the question, why would I add more on top of that? At that point my job is breathing life back into something that has been flattened completely. And if the mix sounds great, with the right amount of everything, then I don't want to ruin the dynamics that are essential to an enjoyable experience. 

Our ears weren't designed for listening to music, they were designed for survival. So they are probably not happy with the aural assault we often subject them to. But it's not just about loud, I like loud and we can take loud in small doses. Loud adds impact and that is a special part of music. I mean, the 1812 Overture has cannon shots written into the climax of the piece!!! But those cannons wouldn't have the same affect if they were in the whole piece from start to finish. Our ears need time to recover from loud sounds and that interplay between loud and soft is a magical space. Ask any jazz drummer who has full control of his foot and can play so the kick is felt, but not heard.

I don't have answers for this dilemma. I just keep doing my work. Sometimes I'm fighting the good fight and sometimes I'm guilty-as-charged. A few of the engineers I work closely with, and some that I will soon be studio-mates with at Stadium Red, discuss this often. We are doing what we can to preserve some dynamics. We will do what we can when we have control over a project because I know I want to work on music that I'm going to want to hear 10, 20, 30 years from now.

I need to add that I agree about those conspicuous iPod headphones. They suck! If you do nothing else, invest in a pair of headphones that enter your ear and form a seal. I know they are expensive and not all of them are great but you hear more details in your music as you walk around. They also work great in cities because you can dampen the abrasive sounds around you. But please, be aware of your surroundings. The best thing about them is that you'll be able to turn the volume down and still hear the music well, which will preserve your ears for more musical enjoyment in the years to come.

One last thing. I intended to do a post giving a shout-out to my man Herb, but I don't think I'll have time to get to it this week. The matters discussed in this post relate to conversations he and I have often and one that all engineers have a lot. In fact, he once played me the 1812 Overture from vinyl on his awesome system after a discussion about dynamics just so I could hear the cannon shots. Check out this fan site someone did for Herb many years ago. The fan goes heavy into Herb's vinyl days. I'm lucky to call him my mentor and friend. He is one of the most talented, giving people I've ever had the pleasure of working with.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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