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Mastering: The Art of Sound

Whereupon Lazy-i attempts to uncover the closely held secret that has been plaguing mankind and witless audiophiles for centuries.

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

Lazy-i: August 6, 2003


So what is sound mastering?

You see it listed on the liner notes of almost all your CDs, but do you know what it is, and more importantly, should you care?

I had no idea what mastering was, but got curious after glancing at the credits on a number of local CDs and noticing the same name popping up again and again -- Doug Van Sloun. Seems Van Sloun is the hottest local audio engineer who performs mastering. Glance at the credits for most locally produced CDs and you'll likely find his name. He's worked on almost all of Saddle Creek Records' best CDs (including Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint), as well as recordings by bands such as Race for Titles, Statistics, Racebannon, For Against, Broken Spindles, The Carsinogents, the list goes on and on.

Van Sloun and his partner, Clete Baker, run Studio B on the same campus of brown metal buildings that also houses the fine folks at American Gramophone, located in North Omaha on Mormon Bridge Rd. In addition to mastering, Studio B also handles recording, for among other things, telephony stuff -- answering machine messages. They also do their share of band recordings.

Inside the Studio B complex is Van Sloun's mastering suite. Crammed within the closet-sized room is all manner of electronic equipment. Fabric sound-buffering panels compete for wall space with framed art of The Faint's Danse Macabre CD as well as an RIAA award plaque for the Manheim Steamroller Christmas Extraordinaire CD. Directly in front of Van Sloun on either side of a computer monitor are two slightly larger-than-bookshelf sized speakers balancing an assortment of mini jet airplane models. A plethora of machines blare with meters and lights and scopes of all kinds. Off to the side sits an analog tape player.




 

 

So back to the original question: What is mastering?

"It's the last step in the process before a CD goes to production," says Van Sloun, a young, fit, longhaired hippy sort of dude, with a goatee and a few tattoos hidden here and there. "Half of it is creative, half is technical. The creative side is getting the recording to sound a certain way. The technical side involves error checking to make sure you have the best master possible. The ultimate goal is to make the recording sound like a record. You want to have a certain amount of cohesiveness, so that the loud songs rock and the quiet songs have their perspective to the loud songs."

Before we go on, I have to tell you that Van Sloun threw out more than his share of technical gobbly-gook speak that was almost indecipherable. He talks shop with gusto. To define every word or phrase would take up most of the space in this newspaper. So you technical wonks who are looking for a heated debate about phasing or clipping should go back to your copies of Tape Op magazine.

Van Sloun broke it down this way.

A performer comes to him with recorded and mixed tracks on a CD or CDR, analog tape or Pro Tools file. Pro Tools is the current crème de la crème of computer-based sound recording software.

"In the case of an audio CD, I play the first song and listen to about half of it, then move onto the next song and listen to half. I do that for the first three songs or so, then I listen to a quarter of the next few songs, and about 10 seconds of the last songs," Van Sloun said.

His ears are tuned to subtleties in the recording. Maybe the guitars are too low or the kick drum or bass isn't beefy enough. The engineer has to use his experience to guide him in deciding what's appropriate or most effective for a specific genre.




 

 



"Sometimes during the mixing process you can't see the forest because you're focusing on individual trees."


 

 

Van Sloun played a portion of a recording by a local hardcore band that he mastered a few days earlier. "The band came in and I asked, 'What do you like or not like about your mixes? Is there any sort of overriding concern?' Sometimes during the mixing process you can't see the forest because you're focusing on individual trees."

The mastering engineer's value comes from being an objective set of ears that is unfamiliar with the music. "It's almost always bad for someone to master their own music," Van Sloun said.

In the case of the hardcore band, the vocals were too "hot" (meaning too loud) and the guitars were buried in the mix. Van Sloun has to use all of his healing powers to get the recording to sound like the band wants it to sound -- i.e., a wall of guitars, punchy rhythm section, and the screaming vocals pushed down in the mix.

To do so, he adjusts equalization, compression and the recording's overall levels.

Equalization is adjusting certain frequencies to make something sound brighter or to give it more bass. Sometimes the midrange frequency needs to be adjusted to clear up overall "muddiness." "The better the mixes are, the less I have to do," Van Sloun says.

Compression is manipulating the recording's dynamic range, making the range smaller. Conversely, expansion is increasing the range. The range spans from the recording's quietest to loudest passages.

When Van Sloun talks about "levels" he means looking at the entire song for consistency "where the quiet songs need to be quiet compared to the loud songs so that you don't have to turn up the volume to experience the differences. You don't want the loud section of the vocals to blow away the orchestra section."

If it sounds confusing and technical, that's because it is. Throughout the discussion, Van Sloun played music that had been expanded, compressed, adjusted -- essentially corrected, frequently pointing at various meters and computer outputs that show jagged lines or color bars. The goal is to get the music to a point where everything pops -- where the dynamic range allows for the vocals to emote emotion, where the guitars blaze when they come in, where the drums get you moving in your seat. It's all about adjusting the mix to create the best dynamics, in contrast to a flat recording where everything is on the same audio level and nothing pops.

In addition to making audio adjustments, the engineer can also make additional edits in the recordings. "A band may want to ditch a chorus or something," Van Sloun says. "Generally all that stuff is done in the mixing process, but occasionally someone will want to shorten something up. If they bring multiple mixes to the session, they might choose one guitar take over another."

Van Sloun also sequences the songs as they'll appear on the final CD and adds fade ins and fade outs. When everything's done, he makes one last quick run through the recording. "I make sure the levels are right, that the hot parts are hot and the quiet parts are good. I do it all by ear. There's no meter that's going to tell you how it sounds."

His last job is to "set it up for the dump," meaning placing the completed sound files on CDR or DDP (disc description protocol), which is similar to a computer archive tape. In the old days, the mastering engineer would also carve the groove into the actual record vinyl, something that Van Sloun says he's never seen performed. "It's on my audio career 'to do' list."

He learned his trade at Hennepin Technical College in Minneapolis, a two-year audio program that he discovered by accident. "I was working at a commercial cleaning place and one of the new hires told me he went to school there. I knew I wanted to work in music but would never make it as a guitar player, so I checked it out."

He moved to Omaha and got an internship at the now defunct Sound Recorders studio, where he worked until the company closed in October 1996. Van Sloun and Baker started up Studio B in the same facility soon after. His first paying mastering job was for 60 Watt Saloon in January of 1998. Today his weeks are filled with mastering or editing work, and he still records at least one band a year. Thanks to the success of Saddle Creek Records and word of mouth, he's been getting a new influx of "out of town" work.

 

 

So what are some good examples of mastering? Van Sloun points to the last Tool record, Lateralus. He played a sequence and pointed at the levels. "See how they're moving and not stuck in the red? It's a good mix and a good master. They're not throwing level on it. Level is like a penis envy thing. They think that if it's loud, it's really good."

An example of a questionable mastering technique is the latest by Linkin Park, Meteora. On that recording, the levels are all up so high, they rarely dropped enough to make the meter flicker. "They just kept turning it up, which throws away the peaks," Van Sloun said. "The spikes get flattened off because they can't go any higher. There's no dynamic range at all, and the life and movement is flattened out of the recording."

Distortion is the other byproduct of this new mastering trend of pushing the levels, and is suffered especially on cheaper audio equipment where the reconstructed analog signal goes beyond the player's capabilities. In those cases, even at low levels, the recording sounds distorted. Van Sloun said the new Rush CD, Vapor Trails, was so badly mixed and mastered he returned it.

The trend to push the mastering knobs to 11 isn't only on heavy metal and hardcore recordings. Van Sloun pointed to the Grammy Award winning CD by Nora Jones, Come Away With Me. "Someone made the decision that this record would be this loud, and distortion is a byproduct."

He played one of the songs as an example. "You hear that?" he says while Nora belts out a high note. "It's gritty on the vocal… right there." But of course, it sounded just fine to me. For Van Sloun, the distortion was clear as a bell. His ability to hear the unhearable has become somewhat legendary. When he walks into Nebraska Furniture Mart, for example, Van Sloun says he can "feel the high frequencies" coming from the television display wall. Robb Nansel at Saddle Creek Records tells a story about Van Sloun immediately picking up that a song was "out of phase," though it sounded just fine to him.

Van Sloun disclaims any super-human powers, saying that any good audio engineer can pick up the same things. "It's like being an auto mechanic who can hear what's wrong with your car just by listening to it. They know without looking that it's the timing belt or alternator" he said. "I'm just doing the same thing with sound."


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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader August 6, 2003. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.




 
"You hear that?" he says while Nora belts out a high note. "It's gritty on the vocal… right there." But of course, it sounded just fine to me.