Friday, May 11, 2007

I win!

Actually, I don't win anything, but that's really the best way to describe how I feel right now.

These times, at least for me, are few and far between, but I like it when they come. Maybe it's different for some people, but for me the times when I'm hit with a sudden, mind-cracking revelation don' t come around that often.

But it just happened. Actually, it's been building for a few days and it just cracked wide open. Break on through to the other side and all that. It really feels like I kicked a hole in something and I just want to run around screaming at the world. But I won't. I'll just sit here with my headphones on and grin like a fucking idiot.

Let me try to explain:

I first tried my hand at Mastering in 1998. That's Mastering as in the oft-misunderstood black art of mastering audio recordings. Ask ten people what audio mastering is and you'll get ten answers. Ask ten people who make a living in audio production what mastering is and you'll get ten even more different answers.

To try to outline it without going off on some crazy quest for the truth, I'll give a quick rundown of the other end of the process.

You start with a recording studio. Or at least a recording device. This recording device is capable of recording multiple tracks so you can stack things up and build a song. 12 tracks of drums (each individual drum on a track), four rhythm guitars, a bass guitar, some lead guitars, some vocals. You can end up with 24 or 48 or more tracks. Just ask Hansi.

Once the song is built these multiple tracks are mixed. Mixing takes 24 or 48 or however many bajillion tracks of Hansi vocals and combinates them together so that you end up with a single "song" which actually consists of two tracks - which most people recognize as LEFT and RIGHT - just like the jacks on your stereo at home are labelled.

So you spent a lot of money at a recording studio and you paid some other guy $10,000 a song to mix your album (if you're Green Day that is, and you can even get one of the Lord Alge bros. fone numbers) and now you have a MIX.

Funny thing is, the mix sounds cool in your car but you have to adjust the EQ in your home stereo or it sounds funny. Then when you take it to your mom's house her cheap boombox sounds OK but the big stereo sounds a little off.

So we have problem in that our MIX doesn't translate across all available systems. Since we didn't get Chris Lord Alge to mix it, it's also not very loud compared to other CD's we like.

So maybe it's easier to tell you that mastering fixes these problems than to try to tell you what mastering actually does.

But that's what it does. Or what one does when mastering. You take a stero mix - or a bunch of them in the case of ten or twelve songs making up an album and you tweak them. You make them have a nice volume with clean transistions between the songs and you make some adjustments with EQ or compression to (hopefully) allow the mix to play back equally well on boomboxes, car stereos and expensive hi-fi shit.

And like I said, I first tried it in 1998.

I didn't know a fucking thing about it. But that doesn't stop me in most things, so I didn't let it stop me here.

I joined a MASTERING FORUM and I got e-mails from people who earn a living mastering professional recordings. I talked at length with the guy who mastered whatever Shania Twain record sold four-hundred-twenty-billion copies. I tried to get a handle on what the deal was, why it cost so much to do it, and how I could A.) do it for myself and B.) charge other people to do it to their songs.

And I mastered an album. It's out there with my name on it. You can get it at or your local record store or download it from iTunes.

I also mastered stuff for other people and they paid me $40 an hour for my efforts. I didn't do a whole lot of these, and looking back that's probably a good thing. Definitely a good thing.

After a while, I learned enough to know that it was very easy to do more harm than good with mastering tools if you didn't know what the fuck you were doing. I certainly didn't know what the fuck I was doing, so I tried to limit any actual mastering. Instead, I admitted defeat and just slapped a Louderizer plug-in on the output of whatever I was mixing so I could get a decent volume without the negative effects of bad EQ and compression.

But earlier this week I stumbled upon a folder with some really old shit on one of my hard drives. It was a project where I took my first band's middle demos (demos 2 & 3 out of four total) and dumped the DAT mixes into the computer and attempted to master them.

I'm guessing this took place in 2001 when I was first starting to fully realize how shitty bad mastering was.

When I played back this discovery, I was appalled. It was loud. It was muddy. It sounded hideous. I quickly negated all the changes and listened to the raw mix. It was pretty much the way I remembered it from 12 years ago when we recorded it - it had some problems and didn't sound hi-fi or professional at all, but my ears also told me there were options here - and for the first time they told me exactly what needed to be done.

So I readjusted the adjustments. I played with EQ and got the guitars to sound super crunchy. I got the drums to bang a little louder. I got the volume up to a disgusting level. And then I burned a CD for the drive to work the next morning.

And that drive to work was the first part of tonight's revelation. Actually, it might have started forming on the way home. On one of those drives I realized that in making the guitars sound crunchy and delicious that I had done ill to the vocals. They sounded thin and quiet -- not natural at all.

And in that moment my brain said to myself, "If you could just EQ the guitars and leave the vocals alone it would fix the whole thing."

And I knew in my heart that this was possible, but I didn't know _exactly_ how to do it.

See, the vocals (and the bass guitar and the meat of the drums) are all in the center of the stereo image. They come out of both speakers at the same volume. On the other hand, the guitars (and the toms and the cymbals and the reverb) are panned around the stereo image - meaning each individual element is louder in one speaker than it is in the other speaker.

So tonight I sat down and tore apart the mix. I made it so the stuff in the center came out one side and the panned stuff came out the other side. It makes no real sense -- especially when you hear it playing back that way, but it works. You just need the right tools.

And then I EQ'd the shit out of the guitars. And I compressed the fuck out of the vocals and drums and bass. With the right tools.

And then I put it all back together so the drums and bass and vocals are in the center and the guitars are on the sides and the GUITARS ARE GIGANTIC and the BASS HAS BIG OL' NUTS and the DRUMS FUCKING CRUSH YOU and the VOCALS ARE MORE CLEAR THAN EVER BEFORE and it stopped being a demo and sounds like an album and I'm now ready to stand up, run out of my house, and punch the first person I see.

Watch out. Don't be in my driveway any time soon.

To maintain whatever is left of anonymity on this site, I won't post any samples because the only place I have to do so is my own personal web server which is named after my own personal self. If I find some other place to put up some before and afters maybe I'll do so.

But did I mention I'm ready to go fucking ballistic here? Fuck.


Sarah said...

This is good, winner.

Some Guy From Grantsville said...

yeah I like that one abot pound out your brains

Sarah said...

I finished a book of short stories last week and realized it was the first adult book I've finished since I read "Falling Leaves." Mind you, I've read dozens of children's book for class and I've *started* plenty of adult books, but still ... I guess my point is -- if you've still got last years NaNoWriMo novel floating around in some non-commital, non-ccompleted version, you should, you know, maybe work on when you have some time. And then, you know, maybe let me read it. Just a thought. Hope everything is awesome, Sacky.