Get to know The Chaircrusher
Learn some recording techniques.

Kent Williams a.k.a. The Chaircrusher began his music endeavors at age six, when he began learning the violin & cello. On his 8th birthday, he recieved a transistor radio. It was during that time, in the late 60's, when The Chaircrusher got turned on to the San Franciso/Bay area psychedelic pop music movement. However, classical music was a constant influence in his surroundings, "my dad was a symphony conductor, and he used to bring home anything new to the classical field, I inherited all the records that were too weird for him."

In high school, he avidly followed the first wave of german electronic producers: Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Edgar Froese. Unable to afford the exurbanite prices of the synthesizers at the time, he had to be content with teaching himself to play guitar and experimenting with tape loops on an old reel-to-reel.

After getting is masters degree at the University of Iowa, he settled down and raised a family. The Chaircrusher patiently gathered and assembled musical equipment for a top-of-the-line home studio.

In the early 90's, his ongoing interest in new and obscure music influenced him to explore electronic music. House, techno, and ambient music just to name a few genres. His personal computer hardware and software had advanced, and he learned to combine both traditional analog equipment and computer technology to interface with each other.

The dream of a top-notch home stuido, some twenty years earlier, was at last realized. The Chaircrusher was in full-effect.

Tack: Hey Kent...what's up man? How ya' do'en?

Kent: Oh, I'm working right now, what cha' want?

Tack: I'm doing this article on mastering, got a few?

Kent: Yea...go ahead.

Tack: Its common knowledge around these parts that your abilities in the post-production realm are top-notch...what do you enjoy most about mastering and what are the least favorite parts about mastering.

Kent: Mastering for me is more of an analytical activity, compared to making music. Music is subjective and messy. Mastering is all about RMS levels, tonal balance and hearing. So, it's a craft that I can practice without putting as much of myself on the line as I do with my own music. And I get paid; I don't make very much money from my own music.

Things I don't like about mastering? When I don't get paid. Bitches know who they are. I mean I do freebies for friends and all but if you say you're going to pay me...do it.

Tack: You tell’em Kent! Pay up! Anyways...you’re handed a final mix from the studio. What's your mental approach to the recording at this point?

Kent: I want to enhance the recording and make the listener really hear the music. I grew up in the vinyl age, with terrible record players and bad speakers. I always had the sensation that I was listening to music through a barrier of imperfections--surface noise, tape hiss, scratchy records and distortion.

Tack: What has been the most important changes in audio reproduction since the vinyl age?

Kent: The advent of the CD, and more importantly, the advancement in overall recording techniques. The digital bits on the CD, come out the speakers, so the task of mastering becomes more focused on presenting the music as best you can.

Tack: Ok...take us through the process.

Kent: When I get music from another studio, I first listen to it on my studio monitors, after that, on my home stereo, then in my car stereo. My goal is to really hear what the artist is trying to present-- what I'd hear if they were in the room with me, presenting the music with nothing between us. When I get an idea of what the music is-- as opposed to the recording-- I can then listen for things that get in the way of hearing the music. When I know what's getting in the way, I can work to get rid of it.

Tack: Nice! Now give us the work flow.

Kent: I hope you write fast.

EQUALIZATION

Most of what I do in mastering is to some subtle changes to the spectral content with equalizers and compressors. A lot of recordings come to me with rumbly, boomy bass. To fix that I use a multiband compression plugin to reduce the dynamic range in the bass frequencies, and then do subtle cuts in those frequencies until the bass sits better in the mix.

A 'boxy' or 'nasal' quality indicates that the midrange frequencies are too prominent. Often a very gentle cut-- 1.5 or less -- will improve the sound radically. 'Harsh' or 'piercing' type sounds indicate high frequencies are too loud, and a 'dull' or 'muffled' sound comes from the high frequencies being too quiet.

An important thing to remember and realize is that an 'even' mix-- a mix where no frequency band dominates-- is going to work best in the widest variety of playing environments. If you're a producer and you really like bass, it's tempting to really jack up the bass in your mix. But, that ends up sounding awful on boombox speakers. It's better that the bass be present, but not overpowering. Keep in mind that listeners always have some control over tonal balance-- tone controls on a radio, all the way up to a 40 band graphic EQ on their stereo. If they want more bass-- an if the bass is present in the recording-- they can always tweak it up themselves.

COMPRESSION & LIMITING

Compression and limiting both do essentially the same thing: reduce the dynamic range...
(dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and softest sounds in a recording)
CDs have a theoretical dynamic range of 96 decibels. No recording actually uses the entire dynamic range. A signal 96 dB down from full volume is inaudible except in a completely silent room. If you've ever tried to listen to classical music in a car, you know that the softest parts of the music can't be heard; so you have to constantly ride the volume control...compression is like an automatic volume control plug-in.

It's almost always good to compress a mix during mastering-- only rarely will I hear a recording that doesn't need a little bit. If I don't compress a mix at all, the private/home studio recordings will sound too quiet in comparison to commercial recordings.

Limiting differs from compression in one important way-- a compressor always takes some time to start clamping a signal, so you will get peaks that sneak through. A limiter does just one thing- prevent signals from exceeding a certain volume level. Especially in digital recordings, there is a concept of 'full loudness'-- once you get to a sample value of 32,767 you're done. By clamping the peaks in a recording, you can raise the volume of the track. And louder is better-- up to a point.

Basically, I want your independently released masterpiece to be as loud as that commercial CD that's in a listener's player-- otherwise it will sound weak by comparison. Plus, only loud signals take advantage of all the bits in the digital sample. A recording that peaks at -12dB is only using 14 bits of resolution.

When it comes to mastering, I usually compress lightly and use a limiter to bring down the peaks. The goal is to get the average loudness of the track at or near the 'major label' or 'commercial' loudness range....between -14 & -12 dB RMS.

EXOTICA

There are a number of other tools that I don't always use, but find valuable for some recordings-- a stereo image widener, an exciter, and bass enhancer. The stereo image widener basically emphasizes stereo separation by taking a bit of the signal that's the same in both channels and raising the volume of what's different. Some recordings with a 'cramped' feeling seem to benefit from this. Too much stereo widening is bad though; you get a Karaoke effect, where signals (like vocals) start disappearing from the middle.

An exciter essentially introduces a little bit of high frequency distortion. It can really make a muffled recording sound brighter and clearer. Too much exciter can sound really harsh.

Bass enhancers work by doing more than just raising the volume on the bass-- they either synthesize some sub-bass from your track, or they add some overtones characteristic of deep bass, or both. Any of these can really wreck a track if you use too much of the effect, but they can be very useful when employed in moderation.

Tack: So what makes a well mastered CD or record?

Kent: One that is loud enough, has good overall tonal balance, and the CD doesn't contain any glitches, skips, and digital clips.

Tack: Could you explain to the readers of this article why mastering is so important?

Kent: Most people these days want to do every step from beginning to end. But, I really feel like that can be a mistake. A mastering engineer puts a fresh set of ears on your music, and often they can hear and correct problems a producer has ignored, due to the repeated times a producer has listened to the track. Whether it's me or a high priced mastering engineer, we can make your tracks sound better.

Tack: Kick some pre-mastering tips.

Kent: Before the mastering stage, a producer or track maker is in the driver's seat. However, please remember to give the mastering engineer some space to work with:

Don't compress your final mix. I can always add compression, but I can't take it out...ummm...well...I can sort of take out final mix compression, by a process known as expansion...but, that trick can have undesirable side effects. Try to make everything you care about in the track audible. Having a good mix means that I don't have to try and bring up the volume on an instrument with EQ. In a nutshell...the less I have to do with EQ, the better.

Record and deliver a 24-bit recordings if possible. Converting down to 16 bits (CD's are 16 bits) is the LAST step in the mastering process.

Clearly label everything! A part of the mastering job I haven't mentioned is track sequencing and order. Unless it's totally clear on what songs you want where, you're not going to get what you want and need.

Tack: Thanks Kent! Now get back to work!

KICKING KNOWLEDGE SINCE 1997

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