From LP To MP3

Dec 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Janice Brown



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Illustration: Kay Marshall

Illustration: Kay Marshall

These Days, Masterjavascript:preview_media(24428)ing isn't just about Golden Ears: The role of the mastering engineer has become more consultative as artists pursue multiple release formats for their albums. Enthusiasm for vinyl has spread anew among artists who are frustrated with the sonic shortcomings of MP3. At the same time, a burgeoning interest in optimizing material for all available, and even future, formats is beginning to emerge.

San Francisco-based mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine describes the ways he has expanded his services: “I realized recently that I have to say we're mastering for four formats: CD, downloads, vinyl and high-resolution digital. And that's not including tape, which we're also doing for our in-house label, The Tape Project.”

It's not just the existence of these multiple release formats that's expanding mastering engineers' roles, however, it's also the changing profile of their clients. “There are more people with less experience in the music business today,” says Sterling Sound engineer/partner Greg Calbi. “I see more people than ever coming in here who've never been in a real recording studio. At the same time, many of these independent artists are more interested in their brand, I think, than artists have been in the past. And they feel there's a learning curve when it comes to mastering. It's like we're filling a kind of void. By coming to us, artists feel they're getting an important, professional take on what they do.”

Calbi — who owns Sterling with fellow mastering engineers Ted Jensen and Tom Coyne, along with president Murat Aktar — notes, “September '08 was our highest billing month in the 10 years since we've owned the company,” citing a significant growth in Sterling's international business. Additionally, he points out that, “2008 has also been the best year for vinyl, by far, in those 10 years.”

Revisiting Vinyl

By all accounts, customer interest in the vinyl format has skyrocketed in recent years, most notably among rock bands and artists who hadn't traditionally released on vinyl for club DJs. Calbi estimates that the number of lacquers cut at Sterling this year is double that of previous years. “Almost everybody who comes to Sterling at least inquires about vinyl; the business just keeps growing exponentially,” he says. “We even picked up a second Neumann lathe from Sony Studios when it closed.”

Ray Janos handles the vinyl cutting at Sterling. “Generally, he cuts from digital copies,” says Calbi. “But we do use 96kHz files when they're available and when the client is so inclined; we will create a 96k master that won't have any of that digital compression that the CD would have. Your best bet is to use the highest-resolution file that can be played back through the best D-to-A converter that you have. We use Prism converters that take 96kHz files.”

These days, most records are not so much mastered specifically for vinyl as they are re-purposed for vinyl. “There's really no difference between how I EQ material for CD or vinyl,” says New York City-based mastering engineer David Kutch, owner of The Mastering Palace. “For me, the most important element in vinyl creation is the person who is going to physically cut the master lacquer. Two different cutting engineers will yield two totally different sonic results. There are engineers who know how to ‘operate’ a lathe and engineers who play it like a musical instrument. The latter is the one who will most faithfully reproduce the essence of the original recording.” Kutch names Rob LoVerde of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopol, Calif., as his choice cutter.

Doug Sax, owner of The Mastering Lab in Ojai, Calif., and veteran mastering engineer recommends, “You don't want to cut vinyl from a CD master — that's just the way to make the worst-sounding vinyl. When the client wants a vinyl cutting master, we re-transfer the album — after everyone's approved the changes we're making — at 96kHz/24-bit, with no digital limiting and without pushing the A-to-D converters in any way. We put tones on it and a sidebreak, and send it to someone, preferably Bernie Grundman, who's set up to do a flat transfer to vinyl, going through a minimum amount of equipment.”

When mastering for CD and vinyl, San Francisco-based engineer Mike Wells sends a dual stream out through his Lavry converters, with “one going into a final stage of limiting for CD and one that doesn't for vinyl.” Wells then typically sends material to be cut on vinyl to Paul Gold of Salt Mastering in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Gold says he prefers to receive a 24-bit un-peak-limited file but will work with whatever comes in the door. “My job is to get the cleanest possible transfer of the source material so that it will play back relatively distortion-free,” says Gold. “I'll typically use some high-frequency limiting, de-essing, maybe a lowpass or highpass filter, and an elliptical EQ. But basically what I try to do is figure out a way to do the transfer so that as little of that happens as possible.”

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