Mixing engineer (and friend) Howie Beck called me up one day and told me he was mixing an interesting album and that I might be mastering it. He had a question about delivering the clients some reference mixes (usually somewhat psuso-mastered). I asked him who the artist was. He told me he wasn’t yet able to say but that he is a Canadian radio personality. That narrowed it down to a surprisingly large amount of people, most on CBC. Tom Power, Rich Terfry, Shad, Grant Lawrence, Randy Bachman, Alanna Stuart or even Nardwuar the Human Serviette .
His question didn’t narrow it down any further; How can I make a mix sound like it was from the late 80s early 90s? I thought about this for a bit. Someone might want an album to sound musically like it was from that era but rarely sonically. Digital was still young at that time and The Sony 1630 UMatic tape was the prevailing mastering format, CDr still not being a mature technology yet. Many albums from that time sound thin and weak when compared to albums that were released before digital and after digital matured.
I answered that I thought it would be best to emulate the radio compressors of the time. I told him to use a 3 band multiband compressor and compress and reduce the bottom and top more than the middle. Having only a small understanding of how radio compressors worked back then, it was more and educated guess than actual knowledge
If this effect was required for the mix-refs, I was curious on what the mastering would entail. When it did come time for mastering and I was hired to do it, it was revealed that the artist was Shad and that this was going to be a very different album then we would come to expect from him. While normally Shad is known for Hip Hop, this album was going to be a throw back to sound of Phil Collins, INXS and The Partland Brothers.
(this recording sounds horrible, even for it’s time)
I was told to master this album differently… creatively. Don’t do what I’d normally do rather, do what I might not do. Tough call for a mastering engineer who’s used to ‘less is more’ and “do no harm”. I was told to use what ever I had at my disposal to make it sound like it was released in 1990. I almost considered pulling out our old Sony 1630 converters but using 1988 digital technology felt like taking it way too far. Instead, I decided to to take ‘different’ differently and master up one song, as a test, 7 different ways. Here is an explanation of the different test masters and the accompanying audio for you to listen to. If you’d rather download 24bit 96khz .wavs of the test masters you can with this link: Shad 24bit 96khz Test Masters
1. All analog mastering:
I used my dCS DA Converter into a 4k boost on my Neve 2087. A 64hz boost for the kick on the GML9500 EQ then a mid-cut on the Sontec. Low and Top boost and cut on the Passive SPL (Boost and cuts on the same frequency is part of the design of passive Pultec style EQs). Finally a Manley VariMu Tube Compressor for some gain reduction into a Burl Bomber AD converter. The Burl (as opposed to my audiophile dCS) is a converter with vibe.
(I’ll get back to mastering after this important call)
2. All digital mastering:
I went a bit crazy on this one. Since they asked me to specifically not do what I normally do I tried out some plug-ins I don’t normally use. I started with the UAD ATR 102 1/4” 456 tape at 7 1/2ips for a more sludgy sound,
into a Fairchild compressor with 1-2 db of reduction,
a FabFilter Multiband EQ with a pretty heavy setting based on an EDM preset
and finished with a Pultec EQ with some Bass boost and cut, and 20khz cut. This was about 10x more processing than I would normally use but I thought it sounded pretty good all things considered. I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be the one they choose.
3. Layback to 1/2″ tape 15ips: and analog mastering path.
I recorded the mix to 1/2″ tape via a real Ampex 102 Master Recorder.
4. Layback to 1/2″ tape 7ips: and analog mastering path.
(The ‘reel’ deal. Lacquer Channel’s Ampex ATR 102 with JRF Glass Heads.)
5. Record to Lacquer 45rpm (vinyl): and analog mastering path.
Having a record lathe here at Lacquer Channel afforded me a rare opportunity. We took the unprocessed mix and cut an acetate master with it at 45rpm. We then played it back into the DAW via a Techniques 1200SL and applied the same analog processing that was used on the analog master.
(Cutting engineer Kevin Park working on a record master)
6. Lacquer and Tape 15ips: 15ips and analog mastering path.
We also took the acetate and laid it back to tape just for that added processing.
7. Lacquer and Tape 7ips: and analog mastering path.
I sent the mixes to Howie, Shad, Matt (the producer) and Gurav, Shad’s manager. In the end, and to my surprise, they choose the digital master as their favourite. They were looking for something different and this was different…. but not different enough. They asked for one more version with something added that’s not normally done in mastering. Reverb. So I added a Lexicon hall reverb with a short decay sent this off and the test-master was approved.
Approved ‘in theory’ that is because I was told by the time the mixes were ready for mastering, the actual mixes will sound quite a bit different than the test mix. At least we had a methodology.
After I got the final mixes and did my first round of mastering the list of revisions and delivery of new mixes was exhaustive. So I was glad it was all done ‘in the box’. It saved me from not having to rerun it through the analog system every time.
Here are some of the highlights and more interesting signal paths.
For the whole album I kept the UAD Ampex ATR 102 at 7.5ips w/ 456 tape. A UAD pultec with 100hz and 20khz attenuation.
Also, the UAD Lexicon large hall reverb and a FabFilter Limiter.
The FabFilter is my go to Limiter. I sometimes use others but to me it’s the most flexible and can sound the most transparent. It also doesn’t have a lot of settings which is something I look for in a limiter. I want it to be a simple as possible so I don’t really have to think about it. I set the limiter to 3db gain. This way I can have a lower level going to my plug-ins and for vinyl mastering I can take it off and have a lower level (which is really important for vinyl mastering) and increased dynamic range.
Conviction: Fabfilter C2 Comp with a bus-style compressor and a pretty high ratio (5:1) for mastering. Also some side chain filtering.
I used an Ozone dynamic EQ to dial out a bitey vocal at the times it was too much and too boost the kick a little. A dynamic EQ work similar to a multi band but only applies to EQ curve when it reaches a certain dynamic threshold
Fall (Girl): I used a mid-side EQ the the FabFilter q2. I cut the lows in the mid but put back in some of the kick frequency. I took out some 2k in both mid and side.
I also felt this song needed some dynamic lift. I could have used an upwards compressor but it didn’t create the effect I wanted. So I used a transient designer, the UAD Sonnox Oxford Evolution, to bring back some lost transients. To be honest I don’t actually know how transient designers work. I just know how they sound and for mastering it’s usually not a desirable sound. If fit’s into that category of effect that sounds pretty good until you take it out and realize how much damage it’s actually doing. But in those rare cases it does what nothing else can do and it’s exactly what a mix needs. The UAD Sonnox Oxford Envolution is the first transient designer that I think is flexible enough to be used for mastering.
All I Think about is You: For this song I really missed the sound of my Neve 2087 Mastering EQ so I dialed up a UAD Neve 1081 (the 2087 is basically a stereo stepped line-level version of the 1081) and dialed in 1 db at 4.7 1 db at 56 -1 db at 380hz and a 27hz filter, which is my goto preset on the Neve (save the 380hz cut.)
KIK: This song needed a little widening. The Nugen Stereoizer is the only plug-in I like for widening. It has a natural sound and never pushes anything out of phase which is a common problem with stereo widening.
There was a bit of demo-itis on this album, whereas they really liked the rough mixes from early on in the recording so we ended up using a bunch of those. For those I did almost no EQ or Compressor. I just shaped the EQ to compensate for how they sounded different with a louder level from the limiter. I felt these mixes were perhaps sonically inferior to Howie’s final mixes but the artist and producer were happy with them, and in the end, that’s all that matters.
When listening to this album you get a sense it’s not a typical recording and that’s exactly what they wanted. The mastering reflected that. I worry because this album is so atypical for Shad and doesn’t follow any current trends in audio recordings that it will get looked over, which would be a shame. It’s an amazing album by a very adventurous artist who assembled a fantastic team to make it a reality. I’m honored and privileged to be a part of it. I hope you give it a good listen: