This is a guest article originally written by Bart Gabriel – a record producer, A&R freelancer, and mastering specialist. His discography includes more than 200 metal and hard rock albums, that were released by labels such as AFM Records, High Roller, Skol Records, Lost Realm Records, Metal Blade, and No Remorse Records.
Master vs. remaster, first pressings, vinyl vs. CD. I’ve recently seen a lot of posts with very incorrect and inaccurate information, so I’ve decided to write what it’s all about, what is happening during mastering, why, and what for. Hopefully this information will help both musicians and fans to understand what they are dealing with!
What is happening during mastering?
To make long story short: mastering is a process during which someone makes sure that the audio material meets industry standards and will sound enjoyable for everyone. I wanted to write “will sound good for everyone”, but something like that is not possible, as we all have our own preferences and personal taste. By industry standards I do not mean that everything should sound the same, but that every single format, like CD, vinyl, or cassette, carries the audio material in a bit different way, and some things that are OK for a CD format are not OK for vinyl and the opposite.
The best mastering is the one you don’t hear. When you listen to music and you don’t feel any discomfort and the sound is enjoyable then it’s likely everything is OK. We of course need to remember that music is art and that in most cases the people that created the music we listen to had some kind of vision, idea or plan, and wanted to achieve something. We are listening to someone’s creation.
Except fixing potential issues with the overall sound and bringing it to industry standards and format standards, someone can make your album sound better / worse / different (again, we are talking about own preferences, personal taste, and the vision or plan) – more punchy, brighter, darker, cleaner, sharper, muddier, louder, quieter, someone can fix issues with the dynamics or level drops, and so on. The audio material will be edited; someone will do fade-ins and fade-outs at the beginnings and ends of the songs, someone will take care of the pauses between the songs (so the album doesn’t sound like one 40 minutes long song), and – in case that the author or the band didn’t already think about it – someone will take care of sequencing. Sequencing is more often ignored these days, but back in the day people were making sure that there were no two similar songs next to each other on the album (it would sound stupid to have let’s say four super fast songs in a row, and then 4 ballads, right?), that each side of the LP starts and ends with a special song, and that the album “makes sense” as one big piece. We can compare it to making a movie, and making sure that the scenes are in right order.
Finally, someone prepares the material for the pressing – the reproduction. Back in the day we had master tapes, later most masters were on digital tapes, then on audio CD-Rs, and finally now in most cases masters exist in the shape of the DDP image. This is also where the mastering guy adds other things such as ISRC codes, that help to identify the recording, or the text which you later see on the screen of your player.
An important note to add about the mastering process: I sometimes hear or see comments like “we can fix it during mastering”. No, you can’t fix sloppy playing, bad takes, or a bad mix during mastering. It’s like building a house: the recording is the foundation and the base. The mix is the walls and the mastering is the roof. Sure, you can put the roof on a house with damaged walls or foundation, why not, especially when the client pays, right? But will someone be able to live in that house, or perhaps it will collapse before someone will move in…?
My album sounds good without mastering. Do I still need to do mastering?
Well, there is an important difference between where your album sounds good and where it should sound good. Does it sound good on studio monitors, when you play it directly from your studio gear or workstation? Awesome. However, are you sure it will also sound good on your home stereo, on your iPhone, in your car, or while being reproduced on the CD/vinyl? Or when it will be streamed on Spotify, after they will treat it with their codecs and after it will be normalized? Are you sure it will sound good on a big stereo system with a huge subwoofer, and on those tiny headphones you just plugged into your smartphone? This is why you need to do mastering: to make sure it sounds as it should sound everywhere.
Does vinyl sound better than CD or Digital?
Well, no, or only better by definition. Original sound is analog and a vinyl record is an analog recording. Digital recording takes “snapshots” of the analog signal at a certain rate, and measures each of those “snapshots” with a certain accuracy. We can take these “digital snapshots”, play them back, and press them onto vinyl, right? Here’s an example: let’s take shitty sounding mp3 file, in let’s say 128 kbps, and let’s reproduce it on vinyl. So, will it start to sound better coming from vinyl? Of course not! It’s still the same shitty sounding mp3 file, just played from vinyl, from different format. It all depends what is being pressed on vinyl.
Some people say vinyl is a worse format for carrying the audio material than a CD. I would say it’s not better or worse, but different. A quote from this vox.com article covers this well: “Vinyl is physically limited by the fact that records have to be capable of being played without skipping or causing distortion. That both limits the dynamic range – the difference between the loudest and softest note – and the range of pitches (or “frequencies”) you can hear. If notes get too low in pitch, that means less audio can fit in a given amount of vinyl. If notes are too high, the stylus (needle) has difficulty tracking them, causing distortion. So engineers mastering for vinyl often cut back on extreme high or low ends, using a variety of methods, all of which alter the music”. In case you didn’t quite catch that last part: some low end frequencies, as well as some high frequencies that are OK for CD or digital format, simply do not land on vinyl.
So why is it in many cases that old vinyls sound better? This is because the audio material was pressed directly from lossless original analog sources like the super-high-quality master tapes and they were made in times where not that many people thought that “louder is better”. Let’s also face it: we are talking about different generations. If you are older, most probably you used to and still listen to music on big speakers, on big stereo systems. Young people mostly listen to music through their smartphones, iPhones, or on small computer speakers. So there is a big chance that something that was produced and mastered 40 years ago will sound great for a guy in his 50s, but it will sound odd for a teenager. The opposite is also true: if you are in your 40s or 50s, you might have a problem with modern productions. These days most labels walk an extra mile and try to use best possible source for the new LP pressing, be it original master or a high quality copy of the original master. However, this is not always possible, as some original master tapes simply doesn’t anymore exist. It sometimes happens that what we hear on a new LP release is basically a CD master pressed onto vinyl. It sometimes sound OK (when the CD master that they use is high quality), and sometimes it doesn’t.
Volume and Dynamic Range
Another difference between CD and the (old) vinyl masters we deal with every day, is that vinyl masters had wider dynamic range. They sounded deeper and more natural to our ears. Again, for some reason people started to think that louder is better and how to make something louder? You squeeze the dynamic range of the recording – you decrease the difference between loudest and softest note or part of the song. You raise the volume of the softest parts, so they start to be at the similar level like these louder parts. But then, surprise: you can’t raise up the loudest part as well, as every gear has its limitations. There is this border you can’t cross, the threshold, after which the sounds will start to be deformed and distorted. Summary: you sacrifice the dynamic range, to make something louder. Is it better? No, it’s just louder, and you just killed the dynamic range. It’s less or more like driving a car, and pushing the acceleration pedal and the break pedal at the same time.
Every single stereo system, amplifier, or playing device like walkman, iPod or smartphone, even the online player you are using has a volume knob. So if something is too quiet for you, just turn the volume up, or if something is too loud, you can turn it down! Seriously now. Lot of people think that “louder is better”. Well, it’s not. It’s like saying “black is better”, or “cold is better”, without giving any reference. Remember that the loudness level is something that you – the listener – are able to control! And why it’s funny? Because the dynamic range of a CD format, is almost twice as big as this one possible on vinyl. So yeah, you can make super dynamic, deep and natural sounding master on CD!
The vinyl ritual
The same album will always sound a little bit different while being played from vinyl, while being played from a CD, or from a digital copy. First of all, the vinyl format gives its own kind of saturation and color and so does the entire playing chain we use: the needle, the cartridge, the record player. One quick thing is also worth mentioning here: at least half of people I know never calibrated their record players. Sometimes it’s not possible in the case of cheaper record players, but in many cases people didn’t even know they should do something like that. You need to balance the arm that holds the cartridge and needle, you need to align the cartridge, set the right weight with which the needle (stylus) you are using is pressed to the surface of the vinyl, and you need to set the anti-skating, because the centrifugal force at the edge of the vinyl record is different than in its center. When everything will be set properly, you might notice huge improvement of the sound quality of the played record, not to mention the record won’t be in danger anymore (it’s not a myth: the record player which is not set properly, might actually damage the record).
The last and certainly not least differentiator of vinyl – the magic of the record and the ritual. Taking out the vinyl from the sleeve and carefully placing it on the player, sitting down in front of your speakers, checking out this huge beautiful artwork, reading the lyrics, chilling out. It’s an experience that to a certain extent may take place when we deal with a CD, but which doesn’t exist in case of streaming or listening to mp3 files. Imagine this: let’s say you like coffee, or red wine. You are drinking it from a beautiful glass, it’s the sunset, you’re in the mountains, and there is this great view in front of you. You are relaxed and you don’t worry about anything. You enjoy the drink. Now, you have the same coffee or red wine in a paper cup, you are at a loud railway station, and you are tired because you just worked for the last 8 hours. It’s the same drink, but will the entire experience be the same? Of course not.
The original pressing sounded better!
I explained a little bit why in some cases old vinyls sound better, but it’s not always like that. I know many examples when it was exactly the opposite! I remember doing the mastering of a classic album from the early ’90s, where I knew every single sound because I listened to it many, many times, as a fan. Then I got the high quality copies of the original mixes before someone proceeded with that mastering that I was familiar with. To my surprise it was almost like listening to a different album: the original, unmastered mix was so much better than what I knew from that “first pressing CD”! So what happened there? Most probably someone was trying out some new toys, like digital boost, FX finalizer, or stereo enhancer on that original mix and without thinking too much if it’s needed or not, turned it all on 10 during the mastering process.
The album – and its first pressing – sounded how it sounded, it became a classic because of great songwriting, but that original mix sounded way better without all those weird alternations and special effects and no one knew about it for the next few decades! So when I did new mastering, it sounded way better than what is known as the first pressing of that particular album. For the record: it didn’t sound better because I did the mastering, it could be done by anyone. The difference was caused by the fact that the original mix wasn’t butchered by special effects no one needed and no one asked for. I simply worked with provided material without adding anything own.
Another example: I once worked on an album that had this loud hiss noise going on everywhere. It was super easy to remove, without damaging high frequencies in the recording. So why was it there in the first place? Well, the original mastering engineer was an older guy who played in several bands when he was young. His hearing was a bit damaged, and he simply didn’t hear those frequencies!
Mastering for vinyl
We need to keep in mind technical possibilities and character of the format we are going to use. Something that is OK for CD is not OK for vinyl, and vice-versa. So the “special mastering for vinyl” is not a myth or lie, at least not in case of current productions. In most cases old albums didn’t require special mastering for vinyl because they were originally mixed that way to sound good on vinyl. They were mixed and mastered in times when no one thought about the CD format or prior to its existence. So in theory, the original LP master that sounds good will also sound good while being converted to a CD format and reproduced on CD as long as someone won’t try to alternate its dynamic range or loudness level. It will be a bit quieter than the standard CDs we know, but in most cases it will sound good. It’s of course necessary to double check if everything is OK each time, but we are talking about “most” cases and some general rules.
I remember talking with one of my favorite sound engineers, and he told me he never did any special mastering for vinyl. He had the same working methods for almost 40 years! The not-so-secret explained: he was doing the “vinyl friendly” masters by default.
Mastering for digital platforms
“Why does it sound so bad from Spotify or YouTube”? The most likely scenario is because someone delivered the wrong master or didn’t think what will happen to their master. All these streaming platforms normalize provided audio files with their own codecs and they actually decrease their volume. Without going too deep into technical details, mastering engineer should leave a bit of “space” (the so called “headroom”) for those codecs to work. If you will deliver super loud master, the codecs will be doing their job right at the edge or very close to this threshold I mentioned before, the threshold after which the sound starts to be deformed and distorted. So it may happen that your song that sounds great on CD, will sound bad on Spotify or YouTube.
A frequent question I run across is: will my CD master sound good on the streaming platforms? That depends – if your mastering engineer didn’t make it too loud (remember about the threshold I mentioned) and there is some space for those codecs left, then everything should be fine! However, if it’s one of those super loud masters with tight and narrow dynamic range (very often referred to as the “brickwall” master), then you might be in trouble.
Mastering vs Remastering
In general, remastering is doing new mastering of material that was already mastered. There might be various reasons for that: either previous mastering wasn’t very good or very precise and you want to fix something, you need to do different mastering for different format, or you want that new master to meet new industry standards, or a new vision of the musician. In addition to doing all those things I mentioned above, during remastering the audio material is very often cleaned or even restored.
Vinyl, CD, mp3 or streaming – they’re all just formats, and they all have their own possibilities, specifications, and limitations. It’s the artist, the client, or the mastering engineer who decide and determine what will actually happen and how they will be used. You can have a super dynamic master in an mp3 file or on CD or you can have painfully compressed digital master pressed onto vinyl. The most important thing is to respect the original vision, and original idea of the artist. At the end, it’s all about the music and it’s you, the listener, who will decide whether you like the final product or not.