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.