What is production? Part 5: Mastering
Is there such a thing as a loudspeaker that doesn't sound like a loudspeaker?
What is your main concern if your interest is voice over?
Is this the most expensive headphone amplifier in the world?
What difference does an instrument or vocal make if you can't hear it?
What's wrong with this picture?
Do vintage musical styles benefit from modern mastering techniques?
Can you use the classic AKG C451 on snare drum?
Q: How do I make a good studio?
Firstly I must say that digital audio is capable of much more accurate results than vinyl, and I believe that anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding himself or herself.
I know from my own experience of having my recordings pressed onto both vinyl and CD that CD gets much closer to the sound I heard in the studio. Indeed, in the days of 16-bit recording, CD was the sound I heard in the studio, as the bits were identical.
And today, a 24-bit mix made in the studio can be released as a direct bit-for-bit copy in the form of a download. In comparison, vinyl has many degradations that alter the audio quality significantly. You may like the sound of vinyl, but no way is it more accurate.
But read on for some surprising information to the contrary...
I was lucky enough to be invited only yesterday to a presentation of high-end hi-fi equipment by Sonata HiFi.
Listening to vinyl replay systems (including turntable, arm and cartridge) costing from $1500 to $5000, I was absolutely amazed at the quality of the sound. (Sonata will sell you a turntable for anything up to $40,000 if you're really serious.)
The sound was really, really pleasant with none of the deficiencies of vinyl that were pretty much universal in the pre-CD era.
Also there at the presentation was Diverse Vinyl, selling brand new (i.e. not vintage or classic) records for prices that hovered around the $50 mark.
At these kinds of prices, why would anyone buy vinyl replay equipment and vinyl records, unless they thought they could get a listening experience that is better than digital?
Why vinyl can be more accurate
It's all very well in theory to say that digital is more accurate than vinyl, but what about in practice?
One way to test this would be to compare the CD and vinyl version of the same album and see which is better.
There is certain album that I really love musically, but I hate the sound of. It is over-mastered. Indeed it is vastly over-mastered and is as harsh on the ear as sulphuric acid ear drops. But that is on CD. The vinyl version of exactly the same album sounds wonderful. So wonderful in fact that I have copied onto a CD and I play that whenever I want to listen to it.
The reason that the CD and vinyl versions sound so different is in the mastering. Clearly the CD mastering engineer has brought out his atomic weapons so as to battle effectively in the loudness war. The audio is massively clipped and the distortion intense.
But the vinyl mastering engineer couldn't do that. There is only so much that vinyl will take before the end-product is literally unplayable. So although there is clearly something of a mastered sound, it isn't anywhere near as severe as in the CD version.
So my point here is that a recording released on CD can be mastered to the point of unpleasantness and beyond. Vinyl simply won't take such excesses, so the vinyl mastering will stay much closer to the original mix.
What the producer heard
Taking all of the above into account, the way in which vinyl can be more accurate than digital is in presenting a version of the sound that is closer to what the artist and producer heard in the studio.
Going back fifteen, twenty years or more, it was normal for the producer of a recording to either make the mix himself, or supervise the mix. When the mix was finished and approved, that was the mix.
But now, it is normal for the mix to be done by a specialist mix engineer. Even so, the producer's intentions will be taken into account, and the mix will be pretty much what the artist and producer would ideally like to hear.
But then comes mastering...
Since, these days, everyone's record has to sound louder than everyone else's, mixes are mastered using the most aggressive techniques available. And since you can put anything on a CD, or encode it in a digital file, there are no restrictions on what can be done.
So the mastered version of a recording released on CD and download can be very significantly different to what the artist and producer would have preferred.
But since vinyl won't accept such harshly mastered audio, any loudness-enhancing processes have to be used very much more gently, so the end result is much closer to the original sound heard in the studio.
Many people prefer vinyl to CD and download, for a variety of reasons. But the most important reason of all is that on many records, you can get closer to the sound that the artist and producer heard in the studio.
Yes, in this respect, vinyl is more accurate than digital.