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If you want to sound like a 1960s psychedelic band, are 21st century mastering techniques appropriate?

As the 21st century struggles to achieve a signature style in music, even well into its second decade, it will always be attractive to look back at the music of the past for inspiration. It came to my attention through several mass-media outlets (due credit to the press agency that achieved such wide promotion) that the UK band Temples sound rather like Syd Barrett-vintage Pink Floyd. Now I am rather partial to a bit of psychedelia now and then, in sound if not substances, so I took a listen.

You can listen to extracts too here...

Temples - Sun Structures (2014)

And for comparison (YouTube search link)...

Pink Floyd - The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

I'm not a music reviewer and my tastes in music should not be taken as any kind of a guide. However I do pay close attention to instrumental and vocal textures, musical arrangements, recording and production techniques, and the overall sound quality of recordings that I hear.

Pink Floyd soundalike?

My first thought is that Temples are not the Pink Floyd soundalikes that they are portrayed to be in the media. Syd Barrett-powered Floyd was noted for its quirkiness, both lyrically and musically. Temples very definitely have the psychedelic sound, but they register scarcely 0.5 on the Barrett scale of quirk. I have a feeling that if they had been around in the 1960s, they would have been seen as rivals to Pink Floyd rather than soundalikes. Powerful rivals too.

I very much enjoyed the arrangements and the instrumental and vocal textures. The creative use of recording techniques to recreate the era of the 1960s is wonderful, and a refreshing change from the standardised techniques of the modern style of production.

What I didn't enjoy however was the...

Mastering

Sun Structures by Temples is, I am sorry to say, mastered to death. Compression, limiting, harmonic generation, brick-wall limiting - the entire inventory of the mastering studio has been thrown at this recording.

Here's a comparison of the waveforms of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (vinyl version) shown over the full duration of the album, compared to Sun Structures...

The rectangular shape of the envelopes of the tracks of Sun Structures clearly shows the heavy limiting employed.

I fully understand that the heavily mastered sound is popular for contemporary productions. I don't like it myself, but if the music-buying public likes it then I'm not going to argue with their choice, and indeed I recommend that these techniques are in any recording engineer's or producer's skill set.

In this case however I feel that a wonderful studio production has been ruined in the mastering suite. So much so that I would long to hear the original tapes or raw .wav files of Sun Structures. I feel that then I would be able to enjoy this music to the full. I'm tempted to get a copy of the vinyl version (there is one), but I'd have to hear it first to make sure I won't be wasting my money on something that is hardly any different from the CD or download.

Looking at the broader picture, I have the feeling that the intensely mastered sound is something of a fad, or at least a phase that music is going through. Perhaps sometime in the 2020s we can expect a flood of re-releases of 'unmastered versions' - albums as the original musicians and producers heard them in the recording studio. Make sure to keep your own unmastered mixes just in case!

By David Mellor Saturday March 15, 2014