Follow Up Thoughts on Audio Quality by Sage Kim


Last month Lacquer Channel Mastering held a small panel discussion at The Soho House on audio quality. Sage Kim was in the audience and she recently posted this to Facebook. It’s reposted with permission. 

Some geeky follow-up thoughts motivated by the Soho discussion event of last month.

1. The main focus of the discussion was the changed delivery method of music to digital formats and the lack of appreciation & ritual regarding listening music but I think we still have the room to discuss sound quality. The psychoacoustics model of lossy codecs are roughly science-based but it is not a hard science. Technically there is still no objective way to measure if high-res mp3s sounds the same with the source to human ears as traditional methods for audio quality assessment like measuring S/N or total harmonic distortion is useless for perceptual encoding. PEAQ which is the only objective measurement method developed is yet to be extended to multi-channel/high-res/stereo audio signal. So universities like McGill are still doing the subjective assessment – double blind test – but any result of subjective ones can be nothing more than an example for better assumption due to many reasons.

I think a lot of people, not just trained listeners like engineers and musicians, can tell the difference between high-res mp3 and the source, even people who claim they cannot notice it. (We often tend to dismiss things which cannot be articulated in words.) However, due to life-style matters, younger generation will keep sticking to the streaming service or Youtube which is not a pleasing news(?) to engineers or anyone who appreciates the decent quality of audio.

2. The funny and ironic thing is while the sound quality is being less appreciated due to digital culture, the sound elements as musical ideas turned to be more crucial for the same reason. More musicians produce, mix and master their music these days especially when there is significant portion of digital elements in music, not just because it is easier and cheaper than before but sound elements themselves are important parts of their compositions and it makes sense to think all the processes are better to be combined. When musicians/producers do all by themselves, the overall sound balance is more inclined for emphasizing their specific styles, so it is often noticeable just by listening to it. For example, Grimes sounds like that she has mixed herself but not mastered, whereas Chromatics sounds like Johnny Jewel has done everything including mastering. The difference is though Chromatics sounds awesome in delivering Jewel’s musical ideas, it still sounds a tiny bit off in terms of ideal (or traditional I should say?) production quality. Also when I compare electronic musicians from 90s and 2010s, veteran electronic musicians from old days like Chemical Brothers who work with other engineers in the production process, sound much more ideal in a traditional way (warmer and fuller even in their harshest songs) than electronic musicians of more recent days who take care of a lot of things themselves.

Does it mean the idea of ideal sound balance (or even quality) could be changed because of digital tech? Probably. Like lo-fi and glitch have already claimed their own aesthetics, it will be challenged by pushing the envelope in many ways. Though I still think a lot of great musicians including Chromatics could sound better by working with right engineers inside of my engineer box.

Sage Kim is an audio engineer at Joao Carvalho Mastering

We Cut Wax – The Origin of Recorded Sound


Experience the history of great sound with the “We Cut Wax” video series
Sound that is a renaissance but at the same time – a revolution.
By Jacqueline Parker

When Lacquer Channel Mastering opened their doors over 40 years ago, they were on the leading edge with vinyl. Today, as vinyl has become more of a retro material, they are still on the leading edge as they bring it back into the present so artists can enjoy its pure, unaltered sound.

Technology has had its impact on the recording industry just like any other. Long ago, vinyl was the material of choice for great sound. As the industry changed and recording advanced, mastering was added to the process by the 60’s, sound became louder and mastering became a creative industry. From there, CD’s were introduced which literally almost killed vinyl at a time when vinyl was becoming big with indie artists. At that time, Lacquer Channel Mastering made the decision to stop working with vinyl. It was too cost prohibitive and it appeared it was on its way out.

30 years later, Noah Mintz has decided it’s time to revisit vinyl which is no small feat given it’s also been about 30 years since any new vinyl recording equipment has even been manufactured. “I met with a former competitor who still had a lathe,” said Mintz. “We agreed that if he could get it up and running, we’d display it in our studio,” he says. So the two former competitors teamed and are now the owners of the last operating lathe in Canada.

Audio unplugged
We Cut Wax is a new video series that demonstrates this process of making music.
“The audio you hear comes right from the room and it sounds exactly as it did during the recording. No mixing. No mastering,” says Mintz. The series is an answer to the question ‘Does audio quality matter anymore’ and the answer is obvious. “The process in creating the audio on the series is, in a way, more important than the product. The process is the product.”

Lacquer Channel Mastering has stripped the technology away from the recording and taken to back to the origin of sound. Recorded directly to acetate disc through one microphone in a room. There’s only one chance to do this as there are no overdubs, no redo’s, no digital no auto-tune and no stereo (glorious mono). “What you get is pure sound unlike you’ve ever heard before,” he says proudly. You may be hearing it digitally but the essence of the performance can’t be duplicated through digital or conventional analog recording.

‘We Cut Wax’ is our new video series that let you experience the history behind great sound. The series can be viewed at


Mastered for iTunes


To be clear, Mastered for iTunes is not so much a format. It is more 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?

320kb MP3 FileiTunes.JPG


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.

The problem with Landr (isn’t LANDR) PT.2

LANDR, if you don’t know, is an online mastering product by a company based in Montreal formally called MIXGENIUS. Unlike other preset mastering software, LANDR claims to use an artificial intelligence to master your mixes. Robot mastering if you will. While I think robots are cool I’m not sure I trust them with my carpet cleaning let alone my music. Hasn’t The Terminator taught us anything?

I’m a mastering engineer so obviously I’m going to fell threatened by automation rendering my craft redundant. My issue with LANDR is not about automating me out of a job however. My concern lies in my feeling that LANDR is missing the point of mastering. The human element is what makes mastering, mastering. It can’t be reduced to an algorithm. Part of my job is listening. Part is figuring out what doesn’t need to be done by a process of elimination. Part is actually making an adjustment. The remaining part is a je ne sais quoi. This is the part of mastering that can’t be explained or quantified. It can only be experienced, through practice and skill. If you’re a musician I’m quite sure you’ll understand this.

My objection to LANDR is not an anti-technology stance. At Lacquer Channel Mastering, we have a whole host of mastering grade no-compromise modern and vintage eqs, compressors and converters. We also have a plug-in and software library that numbers in the hundreds. We use the right tool for the job regardless of it being hardware or software, digital or analog.

Mastering is a skill and an art. It’s a third party, a real human objective ear. There is a metaphysical aspect to mastering. It’s more than just making it louder. 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. Mastering helps reveal the ‘soul’ of the recording. Bad mastering can wreck that feeling. Good mastering should be transparent to the listener.

Any audio engineer can make an album loud. It’s about how you get loudness. A good mastering engineer will know the best combination of eq, compression and limiting. Sometimes doing almost nothing is the best thing for the project. Can a robot decide that nothing is the best choice? Can ‘less is more’ be programmed?

LANDR’s developers imply that LANDR can learn. From the website: LANDR is smart and getting smarter. Its true beauty lies in its ability to learn. So the more mastering it does the better it gets? I don’t understand how this makes any sense. What is the control? What is it comparing it to? How does it quantify ‘better’? There is no gold standard of mastering other than well seasoned engineers. With one song and ten different mastering engineers you’ll have ten different masters. Unless there is a technical problem, who is to say which one is better other than the artist and producer? Human mastering engineers learn over time via experience. They know how to use their tools more intimately and they gain knowledge by doing revisions via client feedback. We learn to work more efficiently and proficiently. How does LANDR A.I. do this? How does it improve?

The Mastering Engineer’s job 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. My issue is not with LANDR. It’s not a tool. A tool is something that is only as good as it’s operator. LANDR is an automat. It takes the art and the craft out of our hands. Music is so much more than a song. It’s the microphones, the recording medium. It’s the instrumentation, the performance. It’s the feel and expression. It’s the operator and engineer. A recording is the sum of it’s parts. The fact that we are willing to accept automation to this degree is the problem. The fact that LANDR has received 10 million in funding, (source: <> ) more than most mastering studios can net in a lifetime of operation, is a real problem for me. Between LANDR, lossy encoding, loudness wars & low-bitrate streaming, its almost as if there is an actual industry wide conspiracy to propagate an anti-quality, anti-human stance on audio recording. In fact, if you submit your song to DMDS, the most popular radio distribution service, there is a button you can click to have your songs automatically LANDRized.

Quality of audio is important to the enjoyment of music. We’re already inundated with lossy encoding formats like MP3 that literally remove frequencies from the audio spectrum and leave us with hollow sound. At the very least, the engineering itself should retain the human element. 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 lets us appreciate it best.

The problem with LANDR PT.1


from August Canadian Musician:
Written by Michael Raine

Noah Mintz is considered one of Canada’s top mastering engineers, having put the finishing touches on albums by Arkells, Broken Social Scene, Death From Above 1979 and Rheostatics, just to name a few. When he saw an early press release about LANDR he dismissed it as “ludicrous’ but decided to test out the free version as he began to hear about it more and more. When it comes to his views of LANDR, he doesn’t pull any punches.

“First you’re trying to turn art into an algorithm, which is literally impossible. It just can’t be done. You can’t have a computer do mastering any more than you can have a computer create art” says Mintz. “They can claim whatever they want, but as a 17-year veteran of mastering, much of what I do is in what I don’t do. It’s not the gain that I use or the EQ or compression I use; It’s how I use it or why.” Because, Mintz says, mastering is all about maintaining or enhancing the listening experience and artistic intent, not necessarily the technical quality, he sometimes makes no changes to a mix and it’ll take him eight hours to come to that conclusion.

“I don’t understand how an algorithm can listen to a file. It can analyze it, but it can’t listen to it. It doesn’t understand how a set of harmonics or played frequencies touch a human being, right? So it can’t make those decisions that are important towards a quality listening experience, which is really what all mastering is about.”

Taking on the notion that LANDR is “good in a pinch” he says “We have enough things out there that are contributing to the degradation of sound quality and I don’t necessarily think we another.”

Mintz does note that his opinions don’t stem from a place of competitiveness.”There is probably a very small percentage of releases out there that actually use professional mastering, so LANDR is not really competing with us; it’s competing with smaller grade mastering or recording studio mastering and those guys can do a better job than LANDR can do,” says Mintz. He also takes exception to the notion of machine learning. As he says, “mastering 1 million tracks makes no difference to a robot unless there is a control in place telling LANDR what it’s doing wrong and what to do differently next time.”

“I am the first person to adopt technology; I love technology of all sorts, and if I really felt what engineers do could be quantified or imported into an algorithm I wouldn’t have a problem with it.” Mintz says in conclusion. “You can look at the RMS of the song, raise that level, and maybe that is good in a pinch, if that is what LANDR does but anyone can do that who has recorded an album”

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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.

The Tools I Use: Noah Mintz

noah copy

A mastering engineer can only be as good as his/her tools. The better the tools the better the sound. We’re very lucky to have some of the best mastering gear available at Lacquer Channel. A mix of state-of-the-art new and vintage from the mid-1970s when the studio first started.  All tweaked out and modded by tech-to-the-mastering-stars, Chris Muth. I think our mastering suites are some of the best sounding rooms in the world.

Equipment used in mastering has been typically been shrouded in secrecy. Here, I hope to unravel some of the mystery. I present to you a list of the gear I use in my mastering room with some explanation about why I use it and what modifications have been done.

Muth Audio Engineering Custom Bax EQ
Muth Bax EQ
This is a prototype of the Dangerous Music Bax EQ made by original designer of Sterling Sound, Chris Muth. This eq is like the bass and treble knobs on a 1970s stereo. Big, wide and fat.

Neve 2087 Mastering EQ
Neve 2087 Mastering EQ
This rare-as-it-gets Neve mastering EQ came from our custom Neve Mastering Console (click for a pic of that console circa 2004) that we had at Lacquer Channel from 1975 to 2005. It’s warm and punchy at the same time. MOD: Gain is .5db instead of 1.

Sontec Mes 430-B Mastering EQ
Sontec Mes 430-B Mastering EQ

The holy grail of mastering eqs. The Sontec Mastering EQ can be wide or surgical. It has a buttery sound unlike any other eq. This classic eq is so unique that it’s not ever been copied. MOD: Steve Firlotte of Inward Connections has installed his version of the John Hall amp cards replacing the stock Sontec HS-1000. Many Sontecs have this mod to even further improve the sound and lower the noise.

GML 9500 Mastering EQ
GML 9500 Mastering EQ
This very expensive eq was designed by George Massenburg to be the most transparent eq ever. It can be so surgical that you can almost boost just the kick drum from the mix. If the Sontec is butter, the GML is air.

This is a passive eq, like a Pultec, designed by German audio company SPL. Unlike the Pultec, this eq is made to be extremely transparent via 120 volt rails (most eqs are 24 or 48v).

Neumann Console EQ
Neumann Console EQ
Truth be told I hardly ever use this eq but it looks great in my console. When I do use it, I get that vintage Neumann German sound.

Kush Audio Clariphonic Parallel EQ
Kush Audio Clariphonic Parallel EQ kush

Kush Audio is a very innovative company. They make gear in a category of it’s own and unlike anything else. The Clariphonic is a high-frequency parallel eq. It creates a top-end sparkle for program material that conventional eqs can’t provide. MOD: The power circuit has been altered and the power switch disabled for lower noise.

Chandler Limited LTD-2 Mastering Compressor
Chandler Limited LTD-2
This mastering compressor is very Neve 2254 like. The original Neve is very dark but the Chandler LTD-2 is more open while still maintaining a colder sound than Neve is known for. MOD: I’ve added a hard by-pass to the circuitry so it’s completely out of the chain when it’s on bypass.  It also has the Sterling Sound Mastering Mod which is a matched pair with faster release times and 1dB stepped gain makeup.

Manley Tube Vari-Mu Mastering Compressor
Manley Vari-Mu Mastering Compressor
With 4 tubes per side, the Manely Vari-mu is one fat, fuzzy and warm monster. On top of that, it’s extremely musical and clean. I’ve been using this since my first year of mastering 17 years ago. MOD: I’ve had a high-pass side-chain filter added so those big bass drops don’t make the compressor pump. Chris also did a “Calbi Mod” to it but I’ll admit I have no idea what that means.

ADT TM222 Mastering Compressor
ADT Mastering Compressor

This is a parallel compressor built by German boutique audio company ADT. It can make audio very loud without pumping. It has more controls than a space shuttle.MOD: All the numbers have been reduced. For example the ratio goes from 0:0 to 4:1 instead of 20:1.

Maselec MPL-2 Peak & High Frequency Limiter
Maselec MPL-2 Peak & High Frequency Limiter

This device is both a peak limiter (like an analog L2) and a high-frequency de-esser (like the Neumann Acceleration Limiter on our the record lathe). You find this (and other Maselec devices) in the best mastering studios. De-esser plug-ins can’t sound like this.

Weiss DS-1 MKIII Digital Mastering Compressor and De-esser
Weiss DS-1 MKIII Digital Mastering Compressor and De-esser

Daniel Weiss has been making digital processors since before plug-ins existed. When people ask what’s the difference between the DS-1 and plug-ins I usually joke that the DS-1 costs more than all the plug-ins combined. No software sounds like this. It makes audio sound louder, punchier, bigger and more stereo.

Dolby 740 Spectral Processor
Dolby 740 Spectral Processor

The Dolby 740 is a very interesting processor. It was/is a secret weapon of Chief Engineer George Graves so when I rebuilt the studio a number of years ago, it had to be a part of the new arsenal. The 740 takes low-level sonic material (-40 to -60 db) and allows you to sonically manipulate it to bring it forward. Sound complicated? It took me a few years to really figure this thing out.

Crookwood Mastering Console
Crookwood Mastering Console
The Crookwood is the digital brain to my mastering and monitoring system. The flexibility and transparency of the system is unparalleled.

Dangerous Mastering Console
Dangerous Mastering Console
The Dangerous provides no-compromise analog routing. It’s also great for gain staging with input gain and and output gain pots. MOD: I’ve wired it in conjunction with my Crookwood to allow all my eqs to operate in M/S (mid-side) mode and be individually put in or taken out of the circuitry.

dCS 905 AD / 954 DA Converter
dCS 905 AD

dCS is known for $25,000 CD players (and people actually buy them). These converters run all the way up to 384khz and have a sound stage so big and dynamic that just running mixes through them improves the sound. I use them with the dCS 992 Master Clock which outputs 4 different sample-rates at the same time.

Burl Audio B2 Bomber A/D Converter
Burl Audio B2 Bomber A/D Converter

As my alternate A/D converter, the Burl B2 Bomber is like no other. Instead of transparency, Burl goes for vibe. Input transformers allow you to slam the input to get distortion and clipping. This can sound surprisingly dynamic and musical.

Magix Sequoia DAW
Magix Sequoia has become the de-facto standard DAW in mastering. I’ve been using it since version 5 and it’s at version 12 now.

Ampex ATR 102

Kranis Custom Designed Mastering Speakers
Steve Kranis is a Toronto speaker designer. A few years ago he came into the studio and took some measurements. Some many months later he delivered us a very large and heavy set of speakers custom built for the studio. These sound big and neutral. They translate to everything from hi-fi to laptop speakers.

Bryston 4B / 7B Power Amplifiers
Bryston Amplification out of Pickering Ontario is the workhorse of audio amplifiers. In use both at studios and audiophile systems. They weigh a billion pounds and come with a 25 year warranty. I’ve got 1200watts of power to drive my speakers without distortion.

Ampex ATR 102 Tape Machine
This is THE tape machine. Fully serviced by Michael Spitz (RIP) and equipped with JRF glass heads. We’ve got both the 1/2″ and 1/4″ headstocks. If you record to tape, we can play it back. We also have a Studer A80 program/preview machine with  1/2″ and 1/4″ headstocks but it lives in our lathe room now so we can do all analog vinyl 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


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.


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.

Why Should You Master Your Record?


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_0-300x71 Why-should-you-master_img_1-300x71 B:

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.

George Graves, Master of Masters

george31As spoken by George, written by Darryl Webster

One afternoon as a kid growing up in Southern California, my school took us to see the orchestra. We were seated in the balcony and I was fortunate enough to be in the front row. I quickly found myself so engrossed in the music, I was literally hanging over the balcony. Had it not been for the protective glass, I surely would have fallen to the level below. It was like an awakening. At that moment I knew my life would be one of music.

In the mid 1960′s I found myself working as a mastering engineer with RCA records. It was a good gig, but their philosophy regarding mastering was very ‘A to B’, more mechanical than artistic. I left RCA for one of the first independent mastering studios of its kind, DCT recorders run by Hank Waring. In those days, if you were an independent, you needed to come up with your own sound. Whether it be EQ, extra limiting, whatever, you had to experiment and find your edge over someone else’s cutting. Hank ‘s thing was he could cut it louder than anyone else.


I liked loud, but there is loud, and then there is clean. When The Mastering Lab came along making recordings which were both loud and clean, people quickly started running over to them.

One Summer’s night after work I walked over to The Mastering Lab and knocked on the door. A heavily bearded man by the name of Doug Sax opened up, complete with the single longest hanging-ash I’d ever seen on a cigarette. We began talking, and eventually I asked him if it was possible to get a job there. He said “maybe.”

So every day after work I went over to the mastering lab and hung out. I would be there about three hours a day, just hanging around. After about four to six weeks of this Doug finally said; “I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna play you something and you tell me what you would do.”

As we listened I said; “I would take 2 db off at 40 hertz and put 2db on at 15k.” Doug got out his book, looked up and said “that’s exactly what I did.” (I should probably mention, that song was ‘Won’t get fooled again’ by The Who). This was the thing about The Mastering Lab that made it so fun. Their clientele. It was so high-end. Glyn Johns would fly in from England just to master. George Harrison hung around and played piano in the Bud Wyatt room while his album was mastered. It was a truly amazing time.

Meanwhile up in Toronto, Jack Richardson was starting his own mastering facility named J.A.M.F. With an invitation north and the promise of a Bud Wyatt built room, I decided to move my wife and two young children to Canada in the (season?) of 1974.


After a good start in Canada, the work eventually dried up and I found myself working at Carling O’Keefe brewery in the refrigerator, stacking kegs for eight hours a day and loosing weight. It was an out-of-the-blue phone call from Paul Gross at Phase One that changed things for good. Their disc cutter was in the hospital and Paul asked if I could help them out. At Phase One I was grinding out 16 to 18 sides a day, I was really flying. The studio manager eventually remarked; “I’ve never seen so many lacquers go out of this place at one time.”

Paul Gross’s mastering room eventually moved to North York and became Lacquer Channel. I went in for three months and have been there ever since.

When you know what you’re doing you don’t have to guess. To me great mastering sounds original, clean, and natural. A little bit like the orchestra.