Disillusioned -- piss-poor masters

Discussion in 'Mastering' started by Cucco, Jan 23, 2006.

  1. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Fredericksburg, VA
    Okay, so I haven't really bought too many commercially released pop/rock CDs lately, much less listened to them in a real environment other than my car.

    So, in an attempt to familiarize myself with a few of the newer artists or some returning favorites, I bought the two following discs this past weekend:

    Keane - Hopes and Dreams
    Liz Phair - Somebody's Miracle

    It turns out that both of these discs were mastered by the same ME at Sterling.

    I HATE them both.

    Don't get me wrong. I think the artists did a fine job as did the engineers, but the mastering makes me want to shove an ice pick through my ear drums!!!

    I always set my system to monitor at K-14 (unless I'm doing classical, then I'll occassionally do K-20 (unless it's like Mahler or Bruckner - then ouch!)) So, at K-14, the amplitude is sheer painful. EVERYTHING was at Full Scale ALL THE TIME on both albums (well, not all the time, but I would say a good 70% or more of both albums!!!)

    Get this, RMS levels are consistently at -9 to -10 dBFS and occassionally, for 10-20 second passages reach as high as -6 to -7 dBFS.

    While I really was hoping to enjoy these discs, I found that I couldn't listen for even a moderate amount of time before my ears got seriously fatigued. I had heard them on the radio (albeit XM, which if I'm not mistaken doesn't limit NEAR as hard as many other radio stations) and thought that the uber-compressed dynamic range was courtesy of Mr. Orban, but it turns out they don't even have to use the Orban.

    Is this really the new trend? This is sickening and disgusting!

    Furthermore, do you think the studio reps or the artists went to Sterling and said "Crank my sh*t so loud that your ears bleed and so that you need to replace the rubber surrounds on your monitors when I'm done!" or do you think the guys at Sterling (who, let's face it, do a huge chunk of today's pop/rock music) are just in the business of smashing the SH*T out of tunes?


  2. axel

    axel Guest

    cucco wrote:

    i don not know any of the albums you mentioned, but my experience is similar*...

    SADLY i know many, many artists and managers who ask just for sheer overkill volume, and it's sometimes the hardest work to make 'em realise that this is not at all what it is about!


    *i am not a pro ME!!!, but many clients ask me after the production to recommend them ME's who gurantee to acomplish to push the hell out of my work, and i have to jump in to make 'em realise that they with this request are on the highway of destruction of all of my work and efforts...

  3. Being more of a lurker and not much of a poster, i feel i should chime in with a very similar experience.

    I've recently put together a new home/project studio and have had my control room properly treated and tuned through much trial and error. I'm using Mackie HR824's as my main monitors (not the best but not bad either... Will be upgrading as money permits)

    I decided to go through some listening sessions of some of my favorite albums, and try and get a feel for my new room. i'm very pleased with how my mixes are translating and must say that for a home studio, I'm pretty damned accurate.

    I never realised how bad things had gotten until; last week.

    I popped in Def Leppard's Hysteria album and was absolutely loving how silky the high end is. The low end was warm and fat, without being muddy and I'd never realized just how great it actually sounds.

    Next, without much thought, I popped in Matchbox Twenty's latest album.

    Before turning up the speakers, i made sure to set the input of the cd player so that it matched the output of the Def Leppard album.

    My jaw dropped.

    It sounded god awful. Honky, squashed and thin. Since then, i'm making a concious effort to maintain as much dynamics and tone in my mixes as possible.

    i really wish we could all go back to making great sounding albums, instead of loud sounding albums. And, I'm only 27yrs old..... i've had the misfortune of going through my developmental stages as the loudness wars began.

    to the older guys who remeber what good sound really was, i can't imagine what some of you think about all this.

    There's certainly a disservice being done to the artist's music, these days.
  4. Michael Fossenkemper

    Michael Fossenkemper Distinguished past mastering moderator Well-Known Member

    NYC New York
    Home Page:
    to be fair, you are comparing one of the best over produced albums of our time to one of the mediocre albums of our time. There are plenty of older records that were very popular that sound terrible. Maybe terrible for different reasons but still terrible.
  5. GregP

    GregP Guest

    I gotta admit, I love the way Hysteria sounds, too. ;) BUT, I was listening to some Hendrix earlier, thinking, "Man, who gives a crap about 'sound quality', this is where it's at!"

    (doesn't stop me from loving Hysteria, still... you know, it was one of those "hell ya" moments that you still don't entirely buy into, but you WANT to. ;) )
  6. lowland

    lowland Guest

    Personally, I think 'Hopes and Fears' by Keane is a well mixed and mastered piece of work, and between them Mark Stent (mixing) and Ted Jensen (mastering) have preserved more of the music than others do at lower levels.

    Certainly it's loud, but then it has the space to be so and there's surprisingly little sense of major compromise going on, surely part of the art. Anastacia's 'Not That Kind' track has similar loudness, also has a spacious mix, sounds great and was mastered a few years ago by Bob Ludwig, not an obvious member of the mastering Mafia.

    Did the Keane album need to be that loud? Maybe not, but as it stands it's one of the better examples of 'loud and clear' around, one of very few loud albums that holds up to any extent on my monitoring - I use tracks 1 and 5 as a reference among twenty or so others in my Masterlink when mastering, but then I also have 'Isa Lei' from Ry Cooder's 'Meeting By The River' album, a gentle acoustic piece where four musicians have been recorded by a single stereo mic to 1" tape, and the loudest peaks go to about -8 dBFS.
  7. Of course it's not a good/accurate comparison, production-wise (or from a scientific standpoint) but it was a jaw dropping experience.

    But it isn't just in the production. you CAN hear how smashed the newer cd is. Hysteria just breathes and sparkles.
  8. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Fredericksburg, VA
    I respectfully disagree.

    I think, subjectively, that when the peaks come in at -8 to -7 dBFS on this album, the mix collapses like crazy.

    I'll agree that, on the whole the album has some very good, open sounding moments, but you must search for them. Simply as an example, the end of the first track (Somewhere only we know) reaches these ear splitting levels and instead of dynamic impact of increased amplitude or even subjective volume due to the increase of intensity and quantity of instruments, you instead hear a mush of cymbals, distressed vocals and a homogenous soup of noise. Yet, strangely, it doesn't sound any louder, simply more confused and painful.

    Of course, all of this is subjective, but I find the album difficult to listen to after no more than 3 tracks. That to me is a pity.

  9. axel

    axel Guest

    TheBadAssCanadian wrote:

    once agin i personally don't know the album you refer to, but i agree on the smashed up sound in general in lots of newer productions also discribed from cucco...

    the problem i see, and i CLEARLY DON"T MEAN THAT ANY OF THE RO MEMBER MEs ARE LIKE THAT!!! because i have never worked or conciously heard any of your work, but from what i read here you are not that way...
    however back to the problem, that is that a lot of modern productions "lost" the attention and mostly the UNDERSTANDING of good mastering, so they go to some el cheapos with a fat compressor / limiter setup to just squash the hell out of it, it's a shame! but happens far to much in reality, i guess that the whole developement of electronic music plays a big role in it, what i mean is that modern synths / drum mashines and production methods of electronica do produce by nature a higher allover volume level... electronic music in our days is big and mainstream and has influenced a lot of music in general, so there is a new "milestone" (in volume) and it's harder and costs more effort to achieve the same with oldskool mic / band recordings... whilst remaining the quality, but i don't think that it has to be like that, why the hell on earth should a band recording be equal in volume to techno anyway??? that's why i have the volume knob on my personel stereo for, when i want it just loud...

    i blame the artist / mangement who is not willing to spend the dough on a decent ME anymore!
  10. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Fredericksburg, VA
    Well, on many projects, I'll agree. Often, people go with an ME as an afterthought and they don't understand what is required. But, in this case, Sterling Sound ain't cheap. They're supposed to be good.

  11. beachhunt

    beachhunt Guest

    Same experience here. I bought the Evanescence album recently and ran it through my Wharfedales... Not THE most revealing monitors out there, but I had to skip ahead track by track because I couldn't find a song I could listen to all the way through. A couple were easier on the ears, but even those had parts that got so harsh that I had to skip ahead. Ended up sticking to my Labtec computer speakers and could at least listen to the album.

    Like the original poster, I figured they were just squashed on the radio because that's what happens on the radio, but when I opened them up to take a peek at the waveform, I saw a perfectly filled in rectangle, as if an obsessive child had colored in my screen. The perp? Ted Jensen, Sterling Sound.

    I remember seeing a table in Katz that showed a Ricky Martin song squashed to -6 db RMS and thought that was just stereotypical pop and not a proper example of modern music. Turns out I hadn't bought an album in 6 or 7 years and just didn't realize how widespread it was. Of the handful of albums I bought last year (spanning rock, rap, classical, trance), the only one I can enjoy musically without also focusing on how bad it is -technically- is Brahms.

    I keep thinking there's got to be a backlash at some point, but it looks less and less likely.
  12. axel

    axel Guest

    cucco wrote:

    yupp you're totally right, from a 'brand' like that you should be able to expect the 'best'.
  13. road_weary

    road_weary Guest

    I try to do my own mastering unless the client has the big bucks to send it out. Some of the stuff I have sent out is, to be fair, squashed so flat the meters never even flicker when you play it back. It seems everyone wants their record to be louder than everyone else's, or at least as loud!

    What is that all about?
  14. TrilliumSound

    TrilliumSound Active Member

    Montreal, Qc, CANADA
    Home Page:

    I had a Hard Rock band last week for a Mastering job for their 3rd CD. They brought a NickelBack CD as well for reference. First, I have listened to 2 tracks of their ref cd then I started to work on their tracks which were very good sounding, you know when you hear a mix like this that it will be a great session and fun.

    At the end of the session we have put the NB cd back again and it sounded like....crap compared to their tracks (anyways, they sounded better that cd before the Mastering them ). They were in shock and at the same time they were so happy and proud that their stuff sounded so much better (again, I have no credit since the mix was already top). They have noticed the volume difference and ask for the same volume as NB cd. I told them the consequences of cranking this up and they did not want at first to proceed for the volume thing. After 15 minutes consulting each other , they said : well, let just crank it up!! I did, they heard and did not like it really much but thats what they wanted.

    They knew and heard it sucked after pushing this almost 5 dB RMS but they felt they were in the league. The mix Engineer called me (ask them to ask him to call me) and told him that I have put his work in a junk state and he betternot listen to this .
  15. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Philadelphia, PA/ Greenville, DE
    Home Page:
    I'm glad to see a healthy discussion going on about mastering & loudness, etc. It's one of my favorite topics to complain about, and some of the most upsetting problems out there, iMHO. We have the best production gear going nowadays, and sadly all too much of it is being used for just loudness. Crappy loudness at that.

    There's a GREAT article on this topic, written back in 2002; and it's about the changes in taste & volume in our industry. When not working on my clients projects, I still try to listen to a wide variety of music lot of artists, two of them in question are Sting and Rush. For years I've been hearing Sting's mixes deteriorate due to squashing and overproduction. Same with Rush; I bought their "Vapor Trails" CD and although I liked the music per se, I found I couldn't listen to it at any kind of level without ear fatigue. It's awful, sonically.

    Take a read here and find out more. The waveforms don't lie, and neither do your ears:


    I'm avoiding the temptation to become overly militant and speaking out about what the term "Mastering" has de-volved in some circles. It's pretty disgusting with some releases. (I've said it before: mastering USED to be the art of fitting a tape recording onto vinyl. It's come a long - and not always better - way since then.)

    Jeremy, you can laugh at me all you want, but my eye-pod gadget has allowed me to compare all kinds of my favorite music, from orchestral to folk to pop to prog rock to god knows what else, and it gives you and almost INSTANT ability to time-travel sonically, and hear things done decades ago, and compare them to things done last month. It's pretty startling, actually, no; it's ASTOUNDING. People used to make GREAT music with their hands, from the playing in the first place in front of the mics, to the hands-on engineering, to the lovingly crafted final masters. (NO computers then, and NO ridiculous uber-compressors.)

    The good stuff is still VERY VERY good, and the bad stuff is worse than ever. (And doesn't last long on my playlist, either).

    Although the rock & pop genres are the worst examples of the loudness wars, they're not the only ones doing it. Perhaps they're the worst offenders, though. Sadly, there are still many people out there who can put up with out of focus movie screens, overly squashed audio, and bad tv content. Still, I think there's hope for good music, and it's still out there, still being made. We just have to look harder to find it, or work harder to create it.

    I've heard some good "loud" music, it's out there, and in the right hands, it's still dynamic as hell.

    Wouldn't it be AMAZING to hear a record - even a rock record - that went from a true whisper to a roar (and not just STAY at a roar) and REALLY took advantage of 119 db range??? God, that would be awsome.

    One can dream......
  16. barry4audio

    barry4audio Guest

    Hey fellow audio enthusiast,
    I'm curious how you know at what point the music was crushed and destroyed. In my admitidly short 10 years of mastering, I've received many a project that was munched to death before I ever touched it. The good folks at sterling are careful with their work and are responsive to client needs and preferences. Also, many artists are looking for a rawness that requires the abuse of dynamic range and clearity. I have no idea where the CDs you refer to went wrong, but the view is quite different from behind the mastering console.

    Today I mastered a project that had a great deal of plugin generated distortion and a load of crush. I fear some will wonder if I know what the heck I'm doing. I also fear this music that took months to record will have the shelf life of a McDonalds Big Mac. On the other hand, there is some serious magic in many CDs that have 12-18 db of good solid dynamic range.

    Thanks for reminding us that vigilance is needed at every step in the process.
  17. Michael Fossenkemper

    Michael Fossenkemper Distinguished past mastering moderator Well-Known Member

    NYC New York
    Home Page:
    unless you were listing in a car, or off a computer, or vacuming while listening to music. 119 db range would be a bit dynamic.
  18. JoeH

    JoeH Well-Known Member

    Philadelphia, PA/ Greenville, DE
    Home Page:
    unless you were listing in a car, or off a computer, or vacuming while listening to music. 119 db range would be a bit dynamic.

    Just a bit of hyperbole to make a point, Mike! ;-)

    I realize that realworld dynamics are vastly less than that, but come on....what we've got right now is just "pressed ham under glass" in most rock recordings. And don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for insane specs or things that can't be heard in even the quiestest of real-world listening. (Say, the average living room.)

    All I'd like to hear is loud AND soft passages, with rise times for peaks that sound like a real person hitting a cymbal or drum or strumming a guitar. THe same-ness and numbing quality of most of today's recordings - at maximum,constant, endless peak - is just horrible.

    I'm fortunate in that most of my clients don't want (or would not accept) this kind of compression and limiting. I urge more people to take some time recording real, acoustic instruments, and get a feel for how natural dynamics and interplay between musicians works. I'm not knocking the electronic portion of this industry, but whenever things get as far out of hand as they are now, sometimes the best thing to do is to step off the merry go round and listen to some timeless music and remember what it is we're all trying to do, regardless of genre.

    I'm old enough to remember how things used to sound, and I'm not going to accept some of the overprocessed junk that's being cranked out now.

    Not with MY dollars, nossir.
  19. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Fredericksburg, VA
    Wow - Lots to reply to here...

    RoadWeary -
    I understand your desire to keep work in-house for the sake of ensuring a good product and for client affordability, but one of my golden rules as an "All-in-one house" (meaning I do recording, editing, mastering, duplication, packaging, etc...) is - I will NEVER master a project I recorded. Edited? Sure. Engineered/Recorded? Nope. There's just too much room for error there. My recommendation is to find a good ME who is affordable that will work in a manner similar to what you are looking for. They do exist (I know, I try to be one of those guys...)

    Joe -
    I won't laugh at you too much. Much as it is with anything, those who mock others for their belongings or their personal traits are usually covering up issues of their own. My issue - I lust for an IPod. I know I shouldn't but I do.

    As for the dynamics, I get the hyperbole - and I agree. I do enjoy a dynamic mix. Of course, when referring to dynamics, there is so much more than macro and micro dynamics. On the whole, for an orchestral work, I judge the dynamic range on many factors. The two most prominent are RMS level and more importantly, the level at which I can subjectively hear the softest passage without it being absorbed into the noise floor.

    As such, I have had a couple good classical recordings which, by my subject rating described above, reach an impressive 92 dB of dynamic range (just a tad shy of the CD's limitations). The quiet part happened to be the natural reverb tails which faded to black (not digital black, just ambient noise) which I could easily determine occured at the -92dBFS point. Boy was I happy.

    As for rock or pop mixes, I don't need such dramatic range (BTW - on the whole, the RMS for the above mix - measured using WL 4's tools, was -19 dBFS and was a recording of Tchaikovsky's Symphony #4 as performed by the Richmond Philharmonic - radio broadcast on WCVU/NPR on Thanksgiving 05.) However, for rock or pop, I expect to hear the subtle dynamics (microdynamics) such as "pick-ups" into phrases and such. Most pop/rock music simply doesn't possess this.

    Speaking of Sting - check out any of the Police's albums. Friggin awesome. Dynamic range, natural sound and heaven forbid - EXPRESSION and PHRASING.

    Check out some of Queen's stuff - also amazingly expressive.

    I just did another session last night where, a girl needed to submit a vocal track for a competition. She decided she wanted to overlay her voice on a track by Fantasia (of American Idol fame...). Well, she didn't have the karaoke version, so I M/S encoded it and filtered the voice. Moral of the story, the song was smashed. Flat out awful smashed! There were average RMS levels higher than -10dBFS. And here's the awful thing - the whole thing peaked at -1dBFS. There was no content above the -1dB point!!! Just think, that whole space could have been used to add dynamic content - it just wasn't touched.

    Barry - I think Richard's example is a key answer to your question - where does it all go wrong?

    In many cases, good mixes are served up as lambs to the slaughter. I don't think it IS the ME in many cases, but in some, I have to wonder. Often, it's the client or the label that is responsible for saying "Make it louder!!!" Rarely would it be the ME. I shudder to think that a good ME is sitting there in his room listening to a mix and saying..."Hmmm, I think this mix sounds great, how's about I smash the $*^t out of it and then it will sound better....."

    Here's my experience, both personal and from sitting in on a few others' sessions.

    ME's don't need meters. They are there to make sure they don't overshoot, but that's really about it. Of course, they're good at the end as kind of a sanity check. (I mean, if you master a track that you think sounds glorious, but then see an RMS of -4dBFS, then you might want to retire... :lol: )

    ME's use their ears first. They mix at a constant level and if it sounds good, it sounds good. Only ME's that WANT to smash a mix stare at the meters whilst mastering.

    If you're finding your mixes are happening like this, find a different ME.

    Just some more thoughts...

  20. axel

    axel Guest

    cucco wrote:

    yes, yes, yes and again YES.

    barry4audio wrote:

    refuse it! if your work really means something to you, or you are just pussy hunting for dollars.

    simply because you can't do any magic on a source which is already ^#$%ed up by a bad producer / engineer. sent it back!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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