My name is Noah Mintz and I’m a mastering engineer.
A few years ago my two kids, who were 12 and 14, 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,
and 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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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
Player 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.