From Mastering

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?

radio-960x200

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’.

Yes, You Should Dither to 24 Bit

Bit-meterThere’s a lot of noise around whether or not you should dither when bouncing down to 24 bit. But the answer is simple – yes you should.

Without going into the actual mathematics of it (partially because you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who really understands) here’s why.

Word length reduction

When we describe a file as 24 bit or 16 bit, we’re talking about the word length. This literally describes the number of decimal places allowed to mathematically describe an event.

What is common knowledge (in the digital audio community) is that when you reduce the word length i.e. convert 24 bit to 16 bit – you should dither. Why? Because dither helps to better make the transition from a longer word length to a shorter word length. If you don’t dither, your DAW will just indiscriminately chuck out the last 8 bits of data. With it, your DAW will still do that, but a bit more artfully.

Quantization distortion

The reason dither is important is quantization distortion. To put it simply, when chucking out the last 8 bits, your DAW doesn’t know what to do with the last bit – the one that describes the quietest section – and this causes quantization distortion as a result of rounding errors. A gritty, horrible sounding distortion that can affect things much higher up in the dynamic range. It can cause a blurring of the stereo image, phase shifts, lack of detail, lack of warmth – despite occurring at the quietest end of the range, below most people’s hearing, the symptoms are dramatic.

Dither randomises the last bit, creating white noise along the lines of tape hiss. This is far more pleasant to our ears, smooths out the bottom end and prevents all the symptoms listed above.

OK, so you’ve been working in 24 bit all along, and you’re bouncing your mix out at 24 bit to send to a mastering engineer – who will dither when it comes to rendering the 16 bit file – you don’t need to dither right? Wrong.

32 bit float

Probably every DAW at this point works internally at 32 bit float. That means that although your individual track files and project are set to 24 bit, every process that is being undertaken by Cubase/Pro Tools/Logic etc. is happening at 32 bit float. Even a single fader move will mean the DAW is working at 32 bit float.

And that means when you bounce your mix to 24 bit, word length reduction is taking place.

And what do you do when you reduce the word length?

Dither.

It’s important to note however, that this is not the time for your fancy noise shaping dither. That’s definitely down to the mastering engineer. This is just for your garden variety ‘flat’ or triangular dither (commonly described as TPDF).

And word to the wise – your DAW may not automatically dither when you bounce. In order to dither correctly you need to insert a dithering plug-in into the last insert of your master fader (so it’s the last thing to touch your audio).

Hear for yourself

I was recently explaining this to a mixing engineer friend of mine. He was sceptical, having learnt (as most of us did) that dithering to 24 bit was unnecessary, and possibly even harmful. So I suggested a blind test. He sent me the same 24 bit mix – one with a flat dither and one without – labelled A and B.

It didn’t take long to pick out which had been dithered. The dithered mix was more focused, more solid and revealed more detail. He went back and re-bounced all the mixes for the EP for mastering.

Try it for yourself, you might be surprised.