Analog is (often) not Analog and Digital is (always) not Digital

There are basically two types of audio signal. Digital and Analog. Analog can exist as purely Analog, meaning at no point does it have to come in contact with anything digital. Digital, on the other hand, has to go to analog to be heard by human ears as we have not yet invented the direct neural audio-computer interface. When we talk about the quality of digital audio it will always be dependant on the quality of the analog output.

dynaco

Even the highest resolution audio is meaningless if you’re listening to it on laptop speakers. Generally, the better the analog final output the better the quality (though this might have diminishing returns but that’s an argument for the audiophile community). I’m far from being an audiophile. I love listening to music in my mastering studio on $25,000 speakers, at home on my $150 1975 dynacos and both on my $300 B&W and $20 Apple headphones.

Analog.

Analog music these days pretty much solely exists as vinyl records. Tape is still used professionally though perhaps less so every year due to tape and maintenance costs. Some indie rockers are still putting out cassette tapes but good luck finding a used machine that plays it at the right and frankly I never thought cassette tapes sounded that good.

reel

Vinyl is not only enjoying a resurgence but sales actually seem to be climbing. It’s still a drop in the bucket of CD and digital sales but almost every popular band puts out a record these days. I wonder if you’d be surprised to know that very few records produced these days have much to do with analog at all. In fact, many records are just vinyl copies of the CD. Any of the problems associated with the reproduction of CD audio would be transferred to vinyl.

Many records offer no sonic advantage other than cosmetic over the CD version. This of course is subjective but the playback of a record might just be nicer by nature but it’s essentially just a vinyl copy of the CD. In this case, instead of your digital converters and speakers being the analog delivery source, the record and player is. There are some exceptions. For example, the last Foo Fighters album was made completely analog. It was mixed down to tape and then the tape was used in the vinyl mastering. They even took it one step further and the MP3s included with the vinyl version are actually made from a recording the record. I suspect the reason for that was more to the fact that many Foo Fighters fans don’t have records players and they still wanted to sell records to them.

Other than some niche recordings the days of actual analog records are pretty much over. But, all is not lost. There is something I and other mastering engineers are doing that artists can request.

recordMastering is usually done at 24bits. Sample-rates vary but few mastering engineers master at a bit-rate lower than 24. Technically, if 24-bit digital masters were provided for lacquering (the process of actually cutting the record master) the record could potentially sound better than the CD. The quality of the record could be even more improved by higher sample-rate and elimination of peak-limiting (which allows digital to be louder than analog) which is counter productive to records mastering anyway. Many vinyl records are already being mastered this way but we have no way of knowing which ones. This information isn’t provided as part of the marketing. I’m not sure if anyone would care if it was. Audio quality is not a commodity, it’s unfortunately not a selling point.

Digital.

There are so many factors which play a part in the audio quality of a digital recording. Digital audio playback is only as good as it’s weakest link in the chain. If you have an amazing system but are playing back an MP3 that system won’t have the ability to work at it’s peak performance. In the same respect, if you have a high-resolution audio file and playing it back through $5 headphones that you bought on the street, it won’t matter what kind of audio file you are playing, it’s always going to sound terrible. [side-note, I once bought a pair of these thinking 'how bad can they really be' and I was actually surprised how impossibly unlistenable they were despite having no expectations of quality].

Encoding is the first element in digital playback. I talked about this in my last post so I won’t go into too much detail. Basically you have these digital encoding formats: PCM, which is the linear recording of uncompressed audio in various bit and sample-rates and DSD, which is a high-resolution only niche format format developed by Sony and Phillips. PCM can also be converted into lossless (no loss of data) and lossy delivery (MP3, AAC) formats. You need a DAC (digital to analog converter) in order to hear the encoding so the quality of the encoding is always going to be dependant on the quality of the converter.

Conversion. In order to capture analog audio recording and listen to the digital audio one must employ the use of an analog-to-digital (ADC) and digital-to-analog (DAC) converter. These converters can range from sub-$1 components in consumer audio equipment up to $20,000+ for some audiophile specially products. In fact, one the brand of converters that I use is a company in the UK called dCS and they make a CD/Digital playback system that looks like this: Vivaldi DAC ($34,999), Vivaldi Transport ($39,999), Vivaldi Master Clock ($13,499), and the Vivaldi Upsampler ($19,999). That’s over $108,000 for what is basically an amped up CD player.

pono

Without digital conversion there is no way we can manipulate or hear digital audio. For
the most part, the better the converter the better it will sound. That doesn’t mean that cheap converters can’t sound good, some do but generally you’ll find decent converters in a recording studio and excellent converters in a mastering studio. One of the main features in Neil Young’s new Pono digital audio player is an upgraded DAC touted to be better than the iPod or iPhone’s converter.

Dither is something you may not know much about. It’s important in a discussion about digital audio because it’s used extensively in the mastering process. Most of the MP3 and CD audio you listen to that’s been produced in the last 20 years has been dithered from 24bit to 16bit. Dither, extremely simplified is adding some noise to the audio in order to avoid harsh sounds in going from a higher bit-rate to a lower bit-rate. It’s the difference between falling off a cliff and rolling down a hill. Both are no-doubt painful.

There is some debate in audio circles on wether dither needs to be used at all. I’ve listened to audio with and without dither and I tend to always prefer the dithered version but when choosing between dithers, that is the type of noise that’s used, it just becomes a whole lot of subjective opinions and no real evidence that one is better than the other. The funny thing about dither is that when you raise the level of it to where you can hear it, it sounds a lot like analog noise that you would find on a tape or vinyl record.

The best thing about dither is that you, the listener, don’t really have to think about it. Once it’s used in the mastering process (or not used) you can’t manipulate or change it.

Analog or Digital? With digital, the better the recording, mixing, mastering, encoding, playback system and analog components the better it’s going to sound. Terrible recordings won’t sound nice though good systems, great recordings won’t sound sweet with bad encoding and high-resolution encoding won’t sound any better with very cheap speakers or bad playback components. The same could be said for analog but there is something nice about listening to an old record though an old portable record player.  There is nothing nice about listening to an old CD through an antique CD player with bad speakers. There is not much value in the way of digital nostalgia.

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Music Is Food – A Discussion on Audio Quality. Part 2.

I’d like to make an analogy. Let’s say you went to a supermarket and bought two apples. Both apples picked at the same time, one from an organic farm and the other from a GMO-pesticide-laden-faceless-1%-corporation factory farm. If you ate both of those apples, I would think that they would probably taste more-or-less the same. You’d probably get the same short term enjoyment out of both of them.
apples-photography-design-wallpapersIf you didn’t know which one was which you’d probably not be able to guess. I’ve tried to tell the difference between organic and non-organic apples and really, I honestly don’t think they taste any different given age and other factors like ripeness being the same. But there is more to food than taste. Food is fuel. The better the fuel the better the body runs. I believe that if you eat more organic food, absent of pesticides and additives our bodies will know the difference. Over time it’s healthier for us and we’ll be happier for it. We’ll lead more joy filled lives. The more organic apples you eat, the more your body will crave them. Perhaps, and I’m just guessing here, the more non-organic-pesticide-laden apples you eat the more your body will crave a Twinkie.

Know where I’m going with this? Music that is poorly recorded, mixed and mastered, then jacked up to impossible levels adding a whack of audible and inaudible distortion and then further destroyed by lossy data compression such as MP3 encoding is the same as that non-organic-GMO-pesticide-laden-faceless-1%-corporation-factory-farmed apple. You might not notice the difference but I’m thinking your body will.

Sometime in the 80s, Rupert Neve, the famed audio console designer said, somewhat joking of PCM 16-bit 44.1khz CD quality audio, that it may be responsible for some of today’s delinquent youth problems. This was due to the way the CD killerPlayer handled frequencies above 20khz which is the upper limit of CD Audio. If that’s the case, could you imagine what prolonged listening to MP3 audio would do, which is far more frequency manipulated than any 80s CD player? MP3 might be responsible for creating a new breed of serial killers!

I’m not saying this is the case and I don’t actually have any proof that it is… for now it’s just a feeling. A hunch that MP3s might actually harm us if not make us hate music. Frankly, given the amount of time I spend listening critically to music, I’d like to think my hunches are as good as anyones educated guesses.

I have this thought about ‘active ears and passive mind’. It’s born from an experience in mastering. Up until I became a mastering engineer I was a vivacious listener of music. Music was my life. But something funny happened after a few years of mastering. I stopped casually listening to music. In the car I’d listen to talk radio or books on CD. At home I’d listen to nothing. Music became associated with work. I discovered after a period of time that I was going into work mastering albums but I never actually listened to them. When I’d hear them outside of the mastering studio, like on the radio, at a bar or store, I wasn’t familiar with the music. The mastering I did on them was good but I never took any time to enjoy the music. To listen to it without thinking about frequencies and what I was going to do with to it. Once I realized this, I tried something different. As soon as I started my session, I listened to the album from beginning to end. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t analyze it. I turned off my monitor and meters, sat back and just listened. I turned off the part of my mind that was working.

With this new found philosophy I went home and tried to do the same thing. I found it quite difficult. To just sit there and listen to an album with no purpose. For no reason other than to listen it was almost impossible. Why was I thinking this way?

I had to retrain myself to listen to music. At least a couple times a week I’d put on a record and do nothing but listen to it. After a short period of time I really enjoyed doing this. However, I could do this only with a vinyl record or a CD. If I listened to MP3s I found myself getting restless. It sounded the same but didn’t make me feel the same. I was curious about this.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the better the quality of the source of the music the more you’ll enjoy it. Both consciously and unconsciously. Access to inexpensive high-end equipment in the recording and home listening department is unprecedented. We’ve never had it better in that regard. Yet we allow our music to be delivered to us in a highly compressed format. Robbed of many of the frequencies that make for whole music. (think about the whole food thing here). This is not an audiophile argument I’m trying to make. It’s not so much about the ears as it is about the body.

Another issue is that we often listen to music at home from laptop speakers, TVs, small i-pod speakers and phones. I’m not saying you need a $100,000 system to listen to music but at least a proper set of speakers would up the enjoyment. We think nothing about dropping cash on the latest HDTV set yet we’re content with MP3 formats and terrible speakers. Add to that, sub-par mastering cheap mastering (had to get that shot in there), no wonder we’re all starting to care less about the quality of music.

I contend that if you give people music as low-quality audio they will then give it no value. Why not steal it if it’s worth nothing? Maybe, in some small way, higher quality audio can save the music industry?

Encoding, specifically lossy encoding , I believe is one of the most important issues contributing to the destruction of audio quality. Here is an explanation about the difference between lossy and lossless and PCM encoding.

PCM is audio encoded in a linear fashion with no loss of information. CD audio is an example of this. Engineers use DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) to record with audio in PCM. PCM can be either 16 or 24 (or 32b float) bit-rates and 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 (or sometimes 192) khz sample-rates. Generally, given decent engineering, the higher the bit and sample rate, the higher the fidelity. Does 24bit 96khz sound better than 16bit 44.1? An entire lecture can be dedicated to arguing this but I would say, to my ears, yes. Sometimes it’s not just an audible thing but also a whole body feel thing. I just know it’s better. I feel more relaxed, less-stressed and I get more enjoyment out of higher resolution audio.

Lossless encoded audio is encoded from the PCM and only the data removed is what can be replaced in full with no loss of signal quality. To me this sounds as good as PCM. Lossless file size is about half the size of PCM. Examples of PCM are FLAC and Apple Lossless Encoding.

Lossy encoded audio is also usually encoded from the PCM. MP3 and AAC (iTunes) are the two most popular formats.  The basic principle behind lossless encoding is a process called perceptual encoding which relies on the auditory observation that the dominant frequencies mask sub-dominant frequencies so those quieter frequencies are removed from the data stream therefore making the file size smaller.

I think lossy encoded audio just doesn’t sound right. There is something wrong with it and I can’t empirically tell you why. I’ve done a number of experiments and I’d love to give you a scientific reason why it doesn’t sound right but I can’t. It’s just missing something. There is no way you can take a file from 40 megs, reduce it to 5 and still retain it’s presence, the soul of the recording. Lossy encoding audio is soul-less.

PCM Digital copies are all the same. No matter how many times you copy it, the same information will be there. This is the purity of digital. With lossy encoding there is probably more variation in digital then there is in analog. Of course, every hi-fi system has different playback frequency response and sound different. That’s been the same since the dawn of recorded time but you could be pretty sure that the source LP and CD that you were playing had virtually identical frequency output from the master and it’s copies. MP3s and lossy encoding changes that game. Every encoder sounds different. It represents the audio differently even before it’s output. The artist has no control over this. We’ve gone so far from quality that we’ve accepted in the past.

We can look at countless graphs and do blind listening tests but how do we qualify what the brain hears and how audio quality makes us feel?

There are steps, albeit small ones that the industry is taking to at least start to have better quality audio delivery. One of these is mastered for iTunes [read my blog post on MFiT here]. For the most part, mastered for iTunes is a set of guidelines. Some rules of mastering that will lead to less distorted recordings and encodings. They even include a tool that will tell you if your pre-encoded master is clipping at all. Apple also include a tool that will let you audition exactly what the audio will sound like after it’s available on iTunes. The same encoder as the iTunes encoding factory is available to the artist and engineer. They also allow the artist to submit a 96khz 24bit master and the encoding is done in a two step process. One for sample-rate conversion and another for lossy encoding. Of course this all depends on proper recording, mixing and mastering but that’s a whole other discussion.

In the mean-time, until high-res audio is readily available try this; Put on the high-res, vinyl record or CD version of an album and listen to it from beginning to end. Then, put on the same digital mp3 version. (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is a great album for this). Forget how it sounds, how do you feel after each listen? How is your relaxed state, your mood and your stress. How much more or less do you like the album? Do you wan to listen to it again? Try it multiple times and in different states of mind.  Please let me know if you can. Try to loose your preconceptions and bias’s. If the MP3 feels just as good as the CD version I’d love to hear about that.

In Part 3 (the final part) I’m going to discuss Analog vs. Digital and what it means to you. Did you know that most modern vinyl records are just copies of the CD?

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Music Is Food – A Discussion on Audio Quality. Part 1.

My name is Noah Mintz and I’m a mastering engineer.

The other day my two kids, who are 13 and 15, said to me something that I’m very used to hearing. “Dad we’re bored.” I usually respond with “that’s not my problem find something to do” but this time I did some actual parenting and made a suggestion to them I said “why don’t you listen to some music” they looked at me puzzled as if I should continue. They said “and…” “And nothing” I said. They said, “Listen to music and do what?” I laughed. I said, “nothing else, just listen to music”. They continued with the puzzled look like I was out of my mind. Then something clicked. I think they got it. They then proceeded to grab the laptop, loaded up youtube and started watching music videos while listening through laptop speakers. Ugh, who’s kids are these? I closed the laptop. “No”, I said. “Not on youtube. On a record or iTunes or on your iPod or on CD”. Again the puzzled look. “What are we going to do with our eyes?” “Nothing! You don’t need them” I waited for the ‘I get it’ look but it didn’t come. These kids had no idea how to listen to music as a thing… the only thing.

When I was a kid,
photoand believe it or not, despite my boyish looks, I was a kid in the 70s, we used to anticipate the release of a new album. Sometimes we’d line up at the record store to wait it’s opening. Once we purchased the record we’d usually head home to listen to it. Other than study the liner notes and the album artwork, we didn’t do much else but listen to that one album. Usually 4 or 5 times over on the first listen. Our exposure to music was limited to the living room, bedroom, the car, concerts, bars and street corners. We didn’t have access to mass libraries of music other than our parents collections, and at that, only the most privileged kids had parents with any taste in music.

Though it’s trite to say, that was a different time. Up until the 80s portable music was a transistor radio, certainly not many people got any sonic auditory enjoyment from that (though the experience was fun). Today, we listen to more music than ever before in history. Music has become a literal soundtrack to every minute of our lives.

I was watching a talk recently and someone in the audience asked if we could embark on an embargo on involuntary music. He suggested that music is everywhere, in the mall, the workplace, home, elevator and the bathroom. We are rarely in silence. He asked “What is wrong with silence”. If we have music all the time does it have any value? In the same respect, does audio quality have any value?

Listening to music is like working a muscle. You need to isolate it and actively work it. The idea of active ears and passive mind. The more you work this muscle the more you’ll enjoy music. The more you enjoy music the better your life will be. Almost everything in this modern life conspires against the enjoyment of music but I’ll get to this point in a bit. Let me tell you a little bit about mastering.

Noah Mintz Mastering

A typical mastering engineer

What is a mastering engineer? A recording engineer is hired to commit the instruments to multiple tracks and capture a performance. A mixing engineer takes the multi-tracks and blends them so each track combined together becomes a song. I used to think that mastering was taking all the individual songs and making them into an album. To treat and process the mixed music or ‘program material’ as we call it, with EQs and compressors to change it’s frequency and dynamic relation respectively and respectfully. To shape the music so it all fits together into a sonic template. While this is all true, I’ve come to realize after over 15 years of mastering that this is only a very small part of my job.

Recording and Mixing engineers have a really tough job. It’s extremely time consuming and difficult to do it and more so to do it well. Its long hours and often low pay. These engineers are constantly turning knobs, pushing buttons, moving faders, tweaking the sound till each instrument sound right and fits into it’s perspective sonic space. I’m here to confess to you that a mastering engineers job is actually very easy. It’s doesn’t take very long and we bill a lot of money for it. Sure, we have very expensive equipment and painstakingly accurate tuned rooms, but essentially the mastering engineer only has one job and it’s not difficult to do at all. A mastering engineer is paid to listen. Out of a 6 hour job, I spend about 5 hours listening and only about 1 actually physically doing anything. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of skill in my listening. For the most part I’m listing for something or rather I’m listening to decide what to do with that 1 hour of actual sonic manipulation. The more years I have under my mastering belt the more skilled I get at listening. Four years ago that 5 out of 6 may have been 6 out of 8 and in four years it might be 4 out of 5.

The fact that I spend an enormous amount of time in my job just listening it got me thinking about listening to music in general. How much does listening have to do with appreciation of music. How are we listening to music? Are we really listening to music at all? When was the last time you put on an album and did nothing else but listen to it? I don’t mean sit down and surf on your laptop, eat a meal or have sex, I mean just sit or lie there on the couch and do nothing but listen to an album. A music project you worked on doesn’t count.

Waves L1

I’ve been calling myself a mastering engineer since 1996. Really those first few years would have been more accurately called a ‘mastering engineer’ with finger quotes, given the method and tools that I used. The years between 1996 and 1999 were probably some of the most interesting times in digital mastering. We saw the introduction of some of the most important and influential tools in digital mastering during that time. The TC finalizer and it’s multi-band compression function. The Waves L1 introduced the masses to digital peak limiting and lay the foundation for the future loudness wars. Plugs-ins were introduced. First as premier non-real time versions. I remember mastering an album with a plug-in called the Ionizer which featured 512 bands of dynamic EQ and only being able to preview 1 minute of audio. All that the remaining 32 megs of RAM in my Power Computing mac clone would support. Then, when Real-time VST and Direct-X plugs became available, that was a game changer. All-of-a-sudden, practically overnight, a whole crop of engineers bought or downloaded a Waves plug-in bundle and started calling themselves mastering engineers. It was the start of home-mastering. Up until that point it was pretty much impossible to do mastering at home. It’s also where mastering went in a wrong direction.

While not a bad thing in theory, the new portability of mastering aided to further disambiguating the meaning of mastering. I will contend to say that only a dedicated mastering engineer, working out of a real mastering studio has any business doing mastering… but this is getting ahead of myself here and despite being a pure-bred mastering engineer this article is not about mastering per-se. Its about sound. How and why we listen to music and the importance of well produced, recorded, mixed, mastered and format of audio.

The next article will get to this food thing… coming soon.

 

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The Howie Weinberg Mastering App

Howie Weinberg Mastering App

One might think, that I might think, that an iPhone mastering app is a total contradiction of everything I stand for as a mastering engineer.  You might also think that the fact, that it’s released by one of the most respected engineers in the business might make me say that he’s a complete sell-out to the profession and art? If so, you might be right but I paid the $2.99 and downloaded the Howie Weinberg Mastering App and put it through its paces so you don’t have to.

First off, the sell. It’s apparently very ‘ultimate’. Can’t get better than ultimate.

Upon opening the app, the first page just has instructions. Actually, it’s four pages of instructions. Like you’re going to read them? I didn’t and then I couldn’t figure out how to upload a song to the app and stop the Crystal Method song that was pre-loaded from playing.

After some fiddling I figured out if you went back to the beginning instructions and then went forward again, there is a download screen. You can download from dropbox or from your iTunes library.

I put a 24bit/96khz unmastered file into my dropbox and downloaded it into the app. To my surprise, it supports the high bit and sample rate file. Kudos!

Next, it asks you what genre of music the file is. They are divided into; Acoustic, Electronic, Hip-hop, Pop, Rock and Spoken Word. I was a bit surprised about Spoken Word. After 16 years of mastering I’ve never been asked to master spoken word but I’ll tell you if Art Garfunkel Malcom Galdwell ever asks me to master up one of his audio books, colour me excited.

Frankly, I feel that more thought could have been put into the categories. If it were my app I think I would have done it this way: Laugh Tracks, Music For Robots, Polka, Kanye West, Autotune, Lambs Saying “Yeah”. I believe this would be a lot more relevant and more appropriate for this app.

suggestions

Howie’s Choice                                                                                               Noah’s Choice

Once you choose your genre you are taken to the setting pages. This is where the mastering magic happens.

The settings are separated into four EQ pages; Bass/Low (or Bottom/Thump for Electronic, Pop and Acoustic), Midrange/Presence, Grit/Push, and Air/Ultra-highs – and one compressor page. This all makes sense to me except Grit/Push. Having never used those words for mastering before I can only wonder why 3k-10k is considered gritty or pushy. I’m going to let your imagination run wild on that one.

I loaded in my song. “Small Fires” by my old band Noah’s Arkweld. This song features Simon Wilcox on vocals and co-write. On each setting page there is a Howie Helps button. When you push it you get a little pop-up bubble on Howie’s face telling you different words of encouragement and then it does an EQ curve or compression setting for you. I don’t really know how it comes up with the results but I’m guessing Howie is not sitting in a cubicle waiting to audition the file and then giving suggestions.

whatwouldhowiedo

I ran Howie’s recommended settings on the song. I mean, this is “what Howie would do” and he also “Thinks it will sound great” so, how can I go wrong? This guy has 40 years of experience. In fact, he actually mastered my band’s 2nd album in the 90s and did a great job.

IMG_4564

The compressor page was a little more tricky. Howie only gave a starting point. He also mentions that a compressor is not always needed which might suggest some sort of integrity built into the app but in reality is probably there because they are expecting people to put in already loud-as-possible music and adding a compressor will just distort the hell out of it. So saying “It is often not needed” is the same as saying if it makes it sound worse, just take it off. I left it on. I don’t want to fuck with greatness here.

The last page is the “render” page. Here you can upload to soundcloud or send to email or text. The send to text doesn’t actually do anything. It just sends the people you text a message that you’re using the app and a link to download the app from the iTunes store.

Unless it’s a really short song, the email link doesn’t work either. Most email servers don’t accept a file over 25megs.

As a last resort I tried soundcloud. I kept getting the message “Ok, that went wrong”. So here I was with my mastered file and no way to get it off the phone.

Then, I was able to figure out that if you went back to the first screen where you picked the song to master, you could pick the song that’s already mastered and instead of clicking “Start Mastering” you could click an upload button and send it to dropbox. Whew.

How did it turn out? Could $2.99 rival $300 an hour? (Or whatever Howie is these days). Well… it sounds pretty much how you’d expect, unlistenable garbage but it could be worse.

Hear for yourself.

IMG_4558

 

Here is the unmastered track:


Here is the Howie-App mastered track:


For reference, here is the track mastered by Chris Athens at Sterling Sound (he’s no longer there but mastered this track when he was):


If you want to download all three here is a link to a zip file containing the .wav files.

Howie Weinberg is one of the best mastering engineers ever. The list of classic and amazing albums he’s mastered is almost endless.  From his days as the main guy at Masterdisk in NYC to now running his own studio in California, his career is aspiring and to be envied. This is why it boggles my mind that he would risk this reputation of excellence and release this app. If not for just the possibility of monetary gain what purpose does it provide? It’s not just innocuous it’s damaging and here’s why;

As technology progresses, the art of mastering will change. No doubt there will be more plug-ins, digital tools and even automated processes that will be used in the mastering process. I’m not holding on to old ways for the sake of tradition or stubbornness. We all know that an automated app cannot replace a real mastering engineer and I don’t think this Howie Weinberg Mastering app intends to do that.  My issue is of what this app represents. Which, to me is irresponsibility. Our job, as mastering engineers is not only to take your unmastered tracks and make them sound as best they can but it’s also to educate the listening public on how important sound quality is. The positive experience of listening to well recorded, mixed and mastered music is evidence unto itself that quality audio matters. The more steps we take towards lifeless robotic engineering – even as a novelty, is the closer we get to taking the very thing out of music that helps us appreciate it.

Noah Mintz.

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Proper Mastering

WHAT IS PROPER MASTERING?

I used to say that Lacquer Channel’s competition was other mastering rooms like João Carvalho Mastering and Sterling Sound but now I say our competition is ignorance. The art of mastering becomes more and more disambiguated as the fast-food-esk digital music age becomes more prevalent. What people try to pass off these days as mastering is only a shadow of what real mastering should be. I contend that mastering is a specific skill and an art and that only a true mastering studio can do proper mastering. What is proper mastering? Here is come criteria:

A dedicated room designed specifically for mastering: 
Mastering rooms are designed for one purpose: mastering. While a dedicated mastering facility is ideal, a recording studio that has built a room specifically for mastering can still qualify as a mastering room. Mastering rooms are well-balanced, aesthetically pleasing, and acoustically neutral. Two Canadian designers that come to mind that design mastering rooms, Pilchner Schoustal International and Group One Acoustics, design their mastering rooms differently than they design recording rooms. The control room of a recording studio is a multi purpose room. A band may record in the room, they perform, they mix, and they track. The recording control room has to accommodate what might be a large console, tape machines, multiple gear racks, and multiple speakers. Mastering rooms are just for listening. While there is more to mastering than listening, that’s the most important part. There is usually minimal gear in the room and minimal people – usually only one set of speakers, and usually only one main engineer.

Mastering quality speakers:

B&W 802

A good set of speakers is one of the most important components of the mastering studio. Some studios, like my room at Lacquer Channel, have had their speakers custom-designed ($15,000). Most mastering studios use high-end audiophile hi-fi speakers.

Usually, they are large and full range and they are almost always expensive. For example In Phil Demetro’s room at Lacquer Channel, he uses a pair of B&W 802′s ($12,000) Joao Carvalho uses Wilson Maxx speakers ($40,000). Zen Mastering and Silverbirch use Lipinskis ($6,000). Wreckhouse Mastering uses Dunlavys ($8,000). A good mastering speaker is one that sounds incredible in the room, yet translates well with lower-end systems.

Analog and digital chain:
While there are many mastering studios that use an all-digital chain, almost all of the top mastering studios have an analog chain. Analog arguably still offers a higher-quality sound than digital. Plug-ins, while they do serve their purpose, still do not have the natural sound of analog nor do they offer the ergonomics of real knobs and switches for that hands-on experience.

Mastering quality gear:
Any high-end piece of gear can be used for mastering; however, traditionally, there are certain criteria that make a piece of gear specific for mastering. They are:

  • Matched pairs. (dual mono or stereo units that are identical). If your gear is not identical on the L/R (or M/S), you can have undesirable phase issues or it can lead to an unpleasant listening experience.
  • Stepped Switches. As opposed to constant variable pots, stepped switches allow precise recall and matching between pairs. Stepped switches are usually higher quality and cost two to three-times the price of constant variable pots.
  • Overbuilt and over-spec’d power supplies. The better the power supply, the better the gear will sound. Some engineers take out the internal power supply, and make it external to move it away from the audio path of the gear.
  • High-quality internal components. Mastering gear is expensive. In part this is because of the high quality internal components.

A comfortable lounge:
While not equipment, a proper mastering studio will have a comfortable lounge where you can relax, get away from the loud music, and enjoy your time at the studio. This is one of the most important single days in the recording process. De-stressing and letting the engineer do his/her job is important in getting a good master.

Experience with making lacquer masters or masters for vinyl.
Vinyl mastering has a certain limitations. The engineer should have experience with working within those limitations.

George Graves cutting lacquers then and now

WHEN IS A MASTERING STUDIO NOT A MASTERING STUDIO?

There are studios offering mastering in Canada that do not meet the aforementioned criteria. While I acknowledge that some of them do good work, I would put them under the category of pseudo-mastering. In some cases, I believe you are best off not mastering at all than using some of these studios. Here is how you can identify what I would consider a pseudo-mastering studio:

Home Studio with no dedicated mastering room:
I’m not opposed to the mastering home; in fact, my first mastering room was a home studio, but I had a dedicated room that I used for nothing but mastering. I had an acoustician come in and treat the room and I had gear dedicated for mastering. A room that doubles as a bedroom or a rec room would not make a good mastering room.

A studio that uses only plug-ins:
Nothing wrong with plug-ins. In fact I use some myself, but plug-ins as the only option seriously limits the mastering engineer’s ability to do the best work on an album, sonically and ergonomically.

Recording Studio that offers mastering:
Albums should not be mastered in a room that’s also used for recording. The whole point of mastering is to have a new, third-party ear in a room that’s specifically designed for mastering. The exception to this rule is a recording studio that’s built a dedicated mastering room.

Online Mastering:
While the concept of online mastering is not flawed, any studio that will not give you the option of attending the mastering session can easily raise suspicion.

An engineer that also does equal amounts of producing, recording, and mixing:
Mastering engineers should make their living doing the majority of their engineering as mastering. Traditionally, mastering engineers have only done mastering. Mastering comes with a specialized skill set that takes years to learn.

Some of the studios that fit into the above categories will do good work. I’m not trying to paint them all with such broad strokes, but it’s not uncommon that I’ve had clients that have had their mastering done cheaply only to realize that the masters were worse than the mixes. They’ve come to me to re-master and the project ends up costing the client far more than if they had come to me in the first place.

FINISHING TOUCHES

One has to realize that while artists might spend months recording and mixing their album, mastering is one day. All of the work is compressed into eight or so hours. It’s literally a make-it-or-break-it stage and the potential for disaster is huge. I know mastering is expensive, but there is a reason for that. Mastering engineers typically spend years without pay honing their skills. Most mastering engineers I know didn’t call themselves mastering engineers until they had at least a few years of experience. The equipment used for mastering sometimes costs two or three times than the recording equivalent and rooms are expensive to design for mastering specific sonic neutrality.

Good mastering makes all the difference for a listenable and enjoyable recording and bad mastering is obvious even to a listener who has no idea of what mastering is or what it entails.

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Mastering in Canada

Mastering in Canada

WHY MASTER IN CANADA?

Many a Canadian producer will have musicians record in Canada, mix in Canada, but might suggest an album be mastered in the US. Why?

The world’s most celebrated mastering studios are in New York and southern California. You’ll find more credits from these few studios than all the other mastering studios combined. These studios also have top-tier gear specifically made and customized for mastering. The rooms have been designed by top acousticians and sound acoustically neutral. Their engineers have decades of experience.

So with all of that why wouldn’t your Canadian producer have you master outside of Canada? Because the producer doesn’t realize (or believe) we have all of this in Canada. Well we do, and in abundance from coast to coast.

HERE’S WHAT THE PRODUCER (OR YOU) MAY NOT KNOW:

Joao Carvalho Mastering

Grey Market Mastering

Lacquer Channel Mastering

Lacquer Channel Mastering

We have celebrated engineers with multiple gold and platinum albums under their belts:
Lacquer Channel (Toronto)’s own George Graves has mastered some of the best and most-recognized albums ever made and is one of the most experienced engineers anywhere.

We have mastering suites that rival the best rooms in the world:
Joao Carvalho Mastering (Toronto) boasts one of the most beautifully designed rooms, reputed as “the most accurate listening environment known.”

You can get world class mastering on both coasts.
Archive Mastering (Halifax) and Suite Sound Labs and Zen Mastering (Vancouver) discographies feature some of the best Canada has to offer.

The gear used in Canada’s mastering studios is the best anywhere.
The AD/DA converters used at Lacquer Channel, – Lavry Gold, Prism, dCS, Burl and Forsell,  - are the same that are used at Gateway Mastering (by Bob Ludwig) and New York City’s Sterling Sound. Greymarket Mastering (Montreal) has a custom-designed EQ by Barry Porter, one of the most reputable EQ designers. Silverbirch Mastering (Toronto) has an Ampex 1/2” tape machine with customized Class A Aira electronics.

Some of the coolest, best-selling, and highest profile Canadian artists of the past five years have been mastered in Canada.
Death from Above 1979 (Joao Carvalho), Handsome Furs (Harris Neumann), Joel Plaskett (J. La Pointe), Neko Case (Peter Moore), The Waking Eyes (Phil Demetro), RUSH (George Graves) and Broken Social Scene (Noah Mintz) have all had past recordings mastered here in their home country.

You can get a Vinyl Lacquer Master cut in Canada:
Lacquer Channel Mastering is the only place in Canada you can get a lacquer cut with our Neumann VMS-80 Lathe.

Overall, I can’t see any reason not to master in Canada and frankly, for-shame on Canadian producers who try to tell their artists otherwise. Kudos to all those Canadian producers (and labels, studios et al.) who encourage and build relationships with our many amazing, world-class Canadian mastering engineers and studios.

Here is a list of mastering studios in Canada: (Let me know if I’m missing any)

Toronto
Lacquer Channel Mastering

Joao Carvalho Mastering
Silverbirch Mastering
Wreckhouse Mastering
Heading North Mastering
E Room Mastering
Metalworks Mastering
Halifax
Archive Mastering
Montreal
Grey Market Mastering
Trillium Sound Mastering
Karisma Sound
Sonosphere
Ottawa
Sound Master Studios
Calgary
Infinite Wave
Winnipeg
Outta Town Sound
Vancouver
Suite Sound Labs (Vancouver)
Zen Mastering (Vancouver)

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Why Should You Master?

Why Master?

Why do you need to master your album, does it not sound fine the way it is?

There is a simple answer to that. No it doesn’t. Chances are your album needs mastering and not by the guy who produced, mixed or recorded it. It needs to be mastered by a real, dedicated, experienced Mastering Engineer. Look at almost any album you own. Its probably been mastered by someone who’s a full time Mastering Engineer. Almost 100% of the top 100 albums (current and of all time) have been professionally mastered. Is your album recorded so much better than those?

Mastering is one the most misunderstood part of the audio production process. Its importance is often overlooked and mastering becomes an afterthought. In reality, mastering is extremely important. So why is it the one stage that some people seem willing to compromise on? You’ve spent so much time and effort writing, recording and mixing your music. Why would you sacrifice all of that work to sub-par or no mastering?

Mastering is more than just making it louder. It’s a third party, an objective ear. A Mastering Engineer is someone who knows how to make your collection of songs an album. Mastering is not just adjusting the way your music sounds but also the way it feels. Only in a properly tuned room with the right gear can a mastering engineer ensure that your music has the right feel. There is a metaphysical aspect to mastering. You start with an intention to your music and during the production, recording and mixing process that intention can get further and further away. Mastering can help push your album back toward that intention.

Mastering rooms are much more accurate listening rooms than most recording or mixing rooms. The acoustic design on the room is one of the most important parts of mastering. A good mastering room sounds better than anywhere else, yet translates to any system. If it sounds good in the mastering room it should sound good almost anywhere. Only a room specifically and professionally designed for mastering can sound like this.

Recording is taking the instruments and vocals and putting them on individual tracks and mixing is taking the individual tracks and putting them down to two left and right stereo tracks. Mastering is taking the stereo tracks and putting them together to make an album. It’s the polish on the gemstone, the finish on the deck. It also can be the nail in the coffin. Bad mastering is worse than not mastering at all.

The loudness of your music is a very important part of the mastering process. In fact, adding gain to the audio will affect the way it sounds and feels more than any other processing. Sometimes, a mastering engineer will use EQ just to adjust the sound back to the way it sounded before it was made louder.

The reason for this is the Fletcher-Munson curve;

the way your brain hears the music at different volume levels. This is not only applied to speaker volume but to the gain applied to the mastered audio. When you change the dynamic relationship of the music, you also change the tonal structure of the audio.

Any audio engineer can make an album loud. It’s about how you get loudness. Gain staging, compression, peak limiting and converter clipping all add to loudness and sound different. A good mastering engineer will know the best combination to use (or not to use). Sometimes doing almost nothing is the best thing for the project.

Look at these two example waveforms:

A:Why should you master_img_0 B:Why should you master_img_1

They are the same song but would you believe they both sound as loud as one another? A one has more dynamics, more air and more space. Sounds better on the radio, your iPod and on your stereo. It makes you feel better when you listen to it. This one has been properly mastered using an expensive high quality analog/digital hybrid mastering chain and an experienced mastering engineer.

B is hyper-compressed. When you listen, it gives you ear fatigue and makes you feel uneasy. It has been mastered unprofessionally using all plug-ins. Not to say plug-in mastering is all bad. There are some great mastering plug-ins. However, if plug-ins are the studios only choice for mastering, you may want to question how dedicated the facility is to mastering. Does the engineer do mixing one day and mastering the other? A dedicated experienced mastering engineer will bring a specialized set of skills and tools to the mastering process.

Why should you master your album? You should master your album because you care about it, because you put your heart and soul into it. A mastering engineer has dedicated audio skills, a proper room and very expensive gear just to ensure that no harm comes to the integrity of your recording. Your music is worth mastering… and needs it.

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Mastered for iTunes explained

masteredforitunes

To be clear, Mastered for iTunes is not a format. It is a process attached to a format. While to some, it might just represent the pretty label on their latest iTunes store purchase, for musicians, engineers and music appreciators it is the beginning of a whole new golden standard of digital music delivery.

Before the foray of the MP3 in the mid 90s, the three major formats of mass music delivery were vinyl records, the cassette tape and the compact disk. The quality of the music contained on these delivery formats was universally quite good. Even the cassette tape was capable of sounding great. In fact, in almost all cases, it was the player that was the hindrance for delivering high-quality sound; your audio quality was only ever as good as the player because the source itself was excellent.

With the advent of the iPod came the proliferation of MP3s. The iPod put the capability of playing back full-resolution audio in your pocket. With its built-in digital to analog converters – which essentially allow you to hear the digital files in the analog world – being well above standard, the most portable high-quality audio experience was available to the masses.

The files available on the iTunes store and on the Internet at that time were 128kb MP3s, which was the first iTunes standard. They were of much lower quality than the iPod was capable of playing. These MP3s were encoded from the 16-bit production CD and captured at the lowest acceptable encoding setting for music. Artists, engineers and audiophiles were extremely unhappy about this. The sub-par quality of 128kb made it impossible to reproduce the subtleties and presence in the recordings.

Why is high-quality audio better? Think of high-resolution audio like organic food. It’s closer to the source with no unnecessary additives. It’s more like nature intended it to be. And in the case of audio, nature is the artist, producer and engineer. The more degraded the quality of audio becomes, the further away it gets from what they intended it to be.

The problem with MP3 and AAC audio is that it is lossy data-compressed. This means that part of the audio frequency spectrum has been taken away to make for less data and a smaller file size. Your ear doesn’t hear these frequency removals due to a concept called “perceptual coding” in which louder frequencies mask quieter frequencies. Think of it as an optical illusion for the ears. The problem with this is that while you think your brain doesn’t hear these missing frequencies, there is indeed another part of your brain that is aware they are missing. We know for a fact that people prefer non-data-compressed audio to data-compressed-audio in blind listening tests, and frequency masking is one of the many reasons why.

After many years of justified complaints from artists, producers, engineers and music-lovers, Apple decided it was time to rewrite its process of encoding audio. In consultation with producers, recording and mastering engineers, the Production and Engineering Wing of the Grammys and Apple technicians, they set out to develop a set of standards and better the AAC codec to increase the quality of audio available on the iTunes store.

What they came up with was Mastered for iTunes (MFiT). Paired with the AAC+ codec, it includes tools, directions and standards that allow the mastering engineer to increase the quality of audio files provided on the iTunes store. This is a very good thing for everyone.

The format for MFiT is an enhanced AAC file. It’s still a data compressed codec like MP3, but unlike the 16-bits MP3, this particular AAC file is encoded from and decoded to 24-bits of audio information. This makes it above the 16-bits standard of an audio CD, MP3 or standard AAC file. While the difference between 16 and 24-bits is subtle and while you might not think you hear it, even the most un-trained ear can perceive it. The higher the quality of audio, the better it makes you feel and the more you enjoy it. There is just something about it that is innately better since most recording and mastering studios operate at 24-bits.

The process for Mastered for iTunes is two-step. First is a set of guidelines laid out by Apple to prepare and audition your file specifically for iTunes delivery. Second is a set of specifications for the actual delivery and testing of the source master file.

The first process happens while in the creative mastering stage. This is where engineers can make decisions based on how it is going to sound in iTunes. Apple provides guidelines to tell the mastering engineer how to prepare the master for optimal encoding. It also provides tools so the engineer and artist can audition how it will sound with the iTunes enhanced AAC codec. If it doesn’t sound right, the mastering engineer can make changes based on this. Unlike MP3 encoding which can be done with one of many different codecs, a Mastered for iTunes AAC codec is always the same so the mastering engineer will know what the final product sounds like when it arrives in the iTunes store.

It is a small yet revolutionary change for the industry. Never before in the MP3-age has a mastering engineer been able to control exactly what the end file will sound like. In the past, mastering engineers have been able to make a PMCD Master for CD, or a vinyl test-press – or acetate – for records, in order to preview what the final product would sound like. This was wiped out by the MP3. An artist and engineer could labour endlessly getting an album to sound exactly the way they wanted, only to have it be compressed to a low bit-rate MP3 using an inferior converter. Instantly all the presence they worked so hard to create would be lost. Thanks to Mastered for iTunes, we now have the tools to preview exactly how the higher quality audio will sound upon digital delivery.

In the second part of the MFiT process, Apple allows the engineer to send up to a 24-bit-rate 96khz sample-rate file – much like the bit-rate, generally the higher the sample-rate the higher the quality. Apple then uses its proprietary system to sample-rate convert and then encode the 24-bit non-dithered file directly to AAC format.

Wait, what is “non-dithered”? Dithering is a method of adding noise to mask quantization errors which could cause distortions when converting from 24-bit of information to 16-bit. That noise doesn’t data-compress well and it’s one of the reasons why MP3s often don’t sound very good. Mastered for iTunes avoids this by converting 24-bit files, which don’t need the addition of dithering.

Here is a Mastered for iTunes for comparison. In this folder you’ll find the original 24bit 96khz mastered album, the 16bit 44.1khz CD, 320kb MP3 version and the Mastered for iTunes files. Load them into your DAW and decide for yourself what you like best.

Want to see what you’re hearing?

iTunes.JPG

320kb MP3 File

mastered for itunes.JPG

Mastered For iTunes File

Visually, you can tell that more high frequency information is getting through in the MFiT version. While this is far from scientific since the MP3 can be encoded so many different ways –this one was done at 320KB from our mastering software (Magix Sequoia)– it is perhaps an indication that the true quality of the song is coming through more clearly via the higher quality file.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the sound of Mastered for iTunes, the reality is that there are approximately 250 million iOS devices out there in the hands of consumers in over 50 countries across the world that are served by an iTunes store. It goes without saying that is a massive amount of ears listening to music. The biggest player in audio technology and digital music distribution has listened to the artists and professionals it serves and has made audio quality a priority. While Mastered for iTunes is a technology at its infancy, it has the potential to become the first true standard for high-quality digital audio that will be adopted on a broad scale.

Without the distinction of a Mastered for iTunes label, consumers of audio won’t really know, by looking at the file, if it’s MFiT or not. It’s a transparent process and compatible with all versions of iTunes and iPods. As the technology gets better, or new operating systems are released, Apple will update the audio files to match it — via, appropriately enough, iTunes Match cloud server service — since they have the hi-res source files from the mastering studio.

This opens the door for artists and engineers to also consider remastering previous catalogue work for iTunes – taking physical masters and transferring them into a digital archive that offers exact, bit-for-bit copies without any signal degradation.

It appears the industry is moving towards a complete adoption of this new standard, for good reason. Overall, there is dramatic potential for iTunes files to be many times higher quality than their predecessor, the CD.
If you want to provide your fans with the best chance to hear your music precisely as you intended it to sound then Mastered for iTunes should be a serious consideration when mastering your next project.

Music examples are from Names For Shapes That Don’t Exist by Noah’s Arkweld

 

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(Re)Introducing Maeghan Ritchat – Mastering Apprentice

Maeghan Ritchat

Those of you who have worked with Lacquer Channel over the past year will have talked to Maeghan Ritchat our studio manager. What you may not have known is that she’s (not so) secretly been training under our Senior Mastering Engineer Phil Demetro.

Today we’d like to announce Maeghan’s official title as Mastering Apprentice. She’s the only female in mastering in Canada (that we know of). We’re going old school with her and she’s been learning from the ground-up as a purebred mastering engineer. Quite soon, Maeghan is going to be a mastering force to be reckoned with.

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LACQUER CHANNEL MASTERING INC. ACQUIRED BY SENIOR MASTERING ENGINEER NOAH MINTZ

LACQUER CHANNEL MASTERING INC. ACQUIRED BY SENIOR MASTERING ENGINEER NOAH MINTZ

Studio also celebrates the arrival of Canada’s only operational record lathe

July 3, 2013 (Toronto, ON) – It was announced today that Noah Mintz, senior mastering engineer at Lacquer Channel Mastering, has acquired sole ownership of the studio, which is Canada’s longest-established facility exclusively dedicated to audio mastering.

Since opening it’s doors in 1975, Lacquer Channel Mastering has been the home of some of the industry’s most recognizable and experienced mastering engineers including Phil Demetro, George Graves, and highly sought after up-and-comers such as Andrew Cowan, Dan Dubois, Duncan Ferguson, Gavin Gardiner, Kristian Montano and Milan Schramek.

“Lacquer Channel Mastering started as full-service dedicated mastering studio and always will be,” said Mintz. “In assuming ownership, my main goal will be continued growth and innovation in a way that stays true to the art of mastering. Our commitment is to making the highest quality audio available, across all formats.”

Recognizing the importance for a truly full-service mastering studio in Canada, Mintz’s first priority was to have the studio return to its roots. Mintz announced that Lacquer Channel Mastering will begin to cut lacquer masters (vinyl record masters) in the Fall of 2013. This will make Lacquer Channel Mastering the only studio in Canada cutting lacquers, proving its dedication to the continuous creation of high-quality projects.

“We’ve missed cutting lacquers at the studio because it’s been such an integral part of who we are,” said Mintz. “An opportunity arose for us to partner with cutting engineer Kevin Park and, with many new records not sounding as good as ones from the 60s, 70s and 80s, we wanted to offer artists the opportunity to create a full-service high-quality lacquer master, leading to a better sounding record overall.”

Additional details about the lathe operations will be released in August, however those interested in attending educational sessions or looking to utilize the services are welcomed to contact the studio immediately to speak with lathe operator Kevin Park or Chief Engineer George Graves who has over forty years experience cutting vinyl for a long list of pre-eminent artists including Rush, Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin, Public Enemy, and U2.

The remainder of 2013 will see Lacquer Channel Mastering also reinvigorate its studio location with aesthetic upgrades, and studio enhancements that will be overseen by acoustician, Terry Medwedyk from Group One Acoustics who originally designed Lacquer Channel Mastering’s current location in 1989.

Additionally, Lacquer Channel Mastering will be increasing its educational platforms to increase awareness about the importance of audio quality. As owner, Mintz will be working to develop strong partnerships within all areas of the music industry in effort to create unique synergies that will continue to see the studio and its presence grow.

For more information on Lacquer Channel and its new direction, visit: www.lacquerchannel.com.

About Lacquer Channel Mastering:
Lacquer Channel Mastering is a Toronto-based music mastering studio established in 1975. One of the only studios in North America completely dedicated to the art of mastering, Lacquer Channel is home to award-winning engineers and has played a role in countless Billboard Top 100 hits, along with a long list of JUNO and Grammy Award nominated albums. With more than 50 years of experience, top-of-the-line equipment and newly renovated studios, Lacquer Channel has become one of the music industry’s most recognized and celebrated mastering studios.

Media Contact:
Tiffany Astle | pr@lacquerchannel.com | 416.554.7329

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