API 2500 and DAV Electronics BG3

5 reasons why analogue still matters in mastering

Digital-only mixing has become near-universally accepted over the last few years. And mastering is not far behind.

Pay any kind of attention to the music tech press and you’ll come across stories of records being mastered solely with plugins. Sometimes even – gasp – on headphones.

I’ve done my share of In The Box (ITB) masters. Even a few on headphones. But I still maintain an analogue rig, which most mastering jobs pass through.

Here’s why analogue still matters in mastering.

1.      Magic pixie dust

Plugins have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years, especially as they’ve moved from algorithmic emulation to full-scale circuit simulations.

But analogue still has the edge. For me, it’s the difference between a master you really like and a master you absolutely love. Audio you want to dive into and take a bath.

In mixing, the workflow advantages of digital outweigh that extra dab of sonic lust, but the same doesn’t hold in mastering; especially as it can compensate for sterile, digital mixes.

Rendering in real-time is a price worth paying for that gooey, fizzy, analogue magic.

2.      The human touch

We’ve all got used to mixing with a mouse at this point. Even with the best controllers, at some point you have to concede to using your computer like a computer.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat there holding down Ctrl, pushing the mouse wheel ever so gently, to get that crucial difference between a compressor threshold of -13.4dB and -13.5dB. It kills the vibe.

With my actual in-the-rack API 2500, I just turn the knob until it sounds good. Without missing a head nod.

The thing with analogue gear is that you just reach out and grab it. You play it almost like an instrument. And you do a better job as a result.

3.      Individuality

The thing with plugins, is that they all sound the same. Brainworx’s TMT technology is shaking things up, but we’re still essentially all using the same palette.

Each individual analogue unit sounds a little different to its brothers and sisters. It’s a small thing, I grant you, but it’s just another one of those extra special somethings that helps your record stand out.

And in mastering, there’s a lot of gear that hasn’t been emulated. As far as I’m aware, neither of my analogue EQs – the Gyraf XIV and DAV BG3 – have plugin counterparts. They’ve got a tone you just can’t get ITB.

4.      Sign of serious intent

Perhaps the greatest thing about digital audio is how it’s massively lowered the barrier to entry, democratising music production in the process.

That’s also the worst thing about it. There are so many mixing and “mastering” houses out there that are basically just kids with Ozone.

Don’t get me wrong, you can do great things with Ozone – and it’s how I learned when I was a kid. But it’s an uncommitted level of investment.

An analogue rig isn’t just about the gear. It’s a sign of commitment to the craft.

5.      Romance

Masses of sound engineers will point to all the practical advantages of digital. The people that do film mixes wouldn’t dream of using analogue at this point, it’s just not worth it. A lot of them are incredulous at the idea that engineers in music still bother. I don’t touch analogue for film work either.

But you know what? It’s just nice, isn’t it?

In a world obsessed with maximising productivity, life hacking your way to optimising every single second of your day, it’s just nice to know that your music has passed through some old-fashioned tubes and transformers. Slowly.

Call me an old softy, but I still get a thrill from watching the needles on my Manley Vari-Mu. And putting my hand on it to see how warm the tubes have gotten.

Bottom line? Yes, you can master in the box. Sometimes, it’s the most appropriate choice. But passing audio through beautifully crafted analogue circuits still has that extra special something.

And that’s what life is all about, isn’t it?

Billie Eilish at Pukkelpop Festival, courtesy Lars Crommelinck Photography (Creative Commons)

Billie Eilish and the myth of the homemade Grammy-winner

When Billie Eilish won best record for When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? a lot of press focused on how a record made *in a bedroom* won a Grammy.

There’s an emerging narrative that as digital technology has improved, and as the cost of basic recording equipment has fallen, anyone can make a record at home.

But it’s not quite the whole story.

Not even for Eilish herself.

Bedrooms are bangin’ for synthesizers

Let me start by saying I really like Billie Eilish. And I really like the album. It’s a beautifully original piece of work with an obvious attention to detail. She sounds great. Her brother’s production is imaginative and perfectly executed. It was a well-deserved win.

But the first caveat to the “anyone can make a record at home” narrative – using Eilish’s record as evidence – is that the album is predominantly electronic. By and large, it’s built from soft synths, samples, found sounds and vocals. And the vocals are delivered at a whisper (one of the best things about Eilish).

It’s music that suits home recording.

At this point in time, it would have made less sense for Eilish and Finneas to hire a studio to record in. It just wouldn’t make sense for this kind of music.

I’m not trying to undermine the achievement, it’s just worth bearing in mind that home recording isn’t quite the same for musicians who use real instruments, rather than noises from a computer.

When you’re moving air in a room, the mics matter. The room matters. And you make a lot of noise. The kind of noise you can’t usually get away with in a residential space.

I’m sure there’ll be many more homemade records winning Grammies in the future. But no matter how cheap the tech gets, how advanced software becomes, I bet they’ll still be predominantly electronic.

Mixed by Rob Kinelski

The second problem with the “Billie Eilish proves you can make a world-beating record at home” premise, is that it wasn’t entirely made at home.

Finneas didn’t mix the album. Rob Kinelski did.

You can mix commercial quality recordings at home. You can. People do it all the time. Andrew Scheps recently said he was giving up his mix room so he could mix in a living room.

Now you don’t need a massive mixing console and racks upon racks of outboard, mixing in a dedicated room suddenly isn’t so fundamental. And living rooms are full of frequency damping soft furnishings. I’ve been in treated rooms with worse acoustics.

But that doesn’t mean you should.

Finneas is a talented producer but he recognised that either his mixing skills weren’t up to it, his setup wasn’t up to it, or simply that there’s value in another pair of ears. Especially in electronic music, where it can be difficult to maintain perspective when you’ve already slaved over each sound with the same tools as you use in mixing.

And Kinelski is no slouch. His credits include Common, Nas and Vince Staples. And although he works on a computer – with the same tools available to anyone at home – he still has a dedicated mix room.

Mastered by John Greenham

Neither did Finneas master it. John Greenham mastered it. For which he won a technical Grammy himself.

Greenham is a similarly dyed-in-the-wool professional with credits for, among others, Ice Cube. His rack includes top of the line pieces like the elysia alpha compressor – a snip at £8,479 – and the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor; available for a mere £7,800.

Again, it is perfectly possible to master a record to commercial standard entirely with software. Sometimes, it’s even desirable. But would something mastered at home with plug-ins alone win a technical Grammy? Probably not.

Those expensive boxes still do something. I master solely with software every now and then, but by and large, I get more out of running it through my analogue chain – even compared to very good emulations.

And in mastering, the room really counts. It is technically possible to master in less-than-favourable circumstances, but you have to really know what you’re doing.

Technology is a tool

The point is, just because the enormous leaps in digital music technology over the past few years have made it technically possible to make a record entirely at home, that doesn’t mean that it’s desirable, or that it’s the future of recording.

And Eilish’s record is not the standard-bearer for home recording it’s being made out to be.

Yes, recording at home makes sense for electronic music. But as When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? demonstrates, there is a still a need for professional skills. The tools of mixing and mastering may be easily available, but the skills still require years – decades, even – of study and practice. And there will always be value in a second, and third pair of ears.

The proof is the result. One of the things I admire about Billie Eilish’s album is how it sounds.

In a time when treble rules the playlists, when I first listened to it, I was immediately struck by how much low end it had, while still retaining a laudable clarity.

It’s an incredible technical achievement, as well as a musical one. And to me, it makes more of a case for taking records out of the bedroom – even when they were recorded in one – than it does for home recording.


The ‘radio master’ myth

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and again I get asked for a ‘radio master’, separate from the main CD master. What do they want? A couple of extra dB, to make it stand out.

I’ve never agreed. Here’s why.

Louder for radio

Why would someone want a louder version for radio? Simple, they want their track to stand out. That, and jukeboxes, are the root of the ‘loudness wars’.

Jukeboxes have been replaced by iTunes and Spotify playlists, but the logic remains the same. The louder you track, the more people will pay attention.

Except they won’t. Almost the opposite in fact.

Broadcast processing

iTunes and Spotify are both quietly [sic] spelling an end to louder = better by introducing Sound Check and ReplayGain which both even out loudness levels between tracks, making the kind of mastering techniques used to achieve EDM loudness (somewhat) redundant. Once the track is turned down it would have been better off to have a more dynamic master.

The same is true for radio – and has been for some time. Radio stations apply their own broadcast processing to their signal before it goes out. It makes sense. After all, music stations in particular play a tremendous variety of material, they can’t afford to have it veering wildly from loud to quiet.

And besides, they want their station to stand out while you’re tuning that dial, too. Hottest station wins.

Not necessarily, but you get the idea. Each station has its own distinctive character, depending on its intended audience. For point of reference, try listening to BBC Radio 1 next to BBC 6 Music. Radio 1 is smashed to all hell and frequently distorts. 6 Music is much gentler, as befits an older demographic more interested in fidelity.

Chuck in that DAB radio is encoded at 192kbps at best (less than half CD quality) and the hotter your master, the more it suffers on radio.

The future of radio loudness

And if you want to future-proof your release, there’s even less reason to apply extra smash for radio. If you’re involved in broadcast at all, you’ll know the UK recently (finally) adopted the EBU R128 standard for TV. Radio is bound to follow at some point.

For those that don’t know, EBU R128 is the European standard for loudness. Other continents have their equivalents, which are all essentially the same. It’s a standardised measurement for loudness (not volume, loudness – the meter is filtered to resemble the human ear as much as possible) with agreed upon standards. The measurement covers the entire programme rather than momentary measurements.

So, any TV show must now be at -23 LUFS (loudness units) averaged across the whole programme. That means you’re allowed far higher than that, and far lower, but the sum must equal -23 LUFS (they do allow a +/- 1 leeway). If material submitted to the station doesn’t meet this spec, the TV station will adjust the overall programme gain to match it – i.e. turn it up or down as appropriate.

It’s all a lot simpler than it sounds. But the point is this: once applied to radio, it will be impossible to make your record sound louder than others. In fact, the harder you try, the more you’ll fail.

That’s why I never agree to do a ‘radio master’.