Although we’ve had plenty of audio professionals pass through the interview pages of MTM, this is the first time we’re talking to someone who is both an industry professional and an educator. You may have seen Ian delivering his educational videos and e-books on www.productionadvice.com, or through the PR work of Dynamic Range Day (www.dynamicrangeday.com) which he founded three years ago.
The studio Ian usually does his mastering in wasn’t available for this interview, so we met him at Gareth Stuart’s Zigzag Music (www.zigzagmusic.com), a studio in Cambridgeshire that he uses for recording and mixing. Ian has experience in all aspects of sound production, but mastering is his speciality. He gives us quick run through of where exactly it is he’s coming from as an engineer: “I worked for SRT, near Cambridge, almost straight after university, where I did physics and music. I enjoyed both and couldn’t bear the idea of giving one of them up – working in a studio combines both. I worked for free at a local studio after university while sending out letters; one of these was to SRT Studios, where I got my first paid job. I didn’t know much about what they did at the time but they turned out to be one of the leading mastering facilities outside London. They’d just landed a deal to record, edit and master over 120 albums with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I think it was the biggest classical recording contract ever at the time.
“I was trained from the ground up, initially just copying tapes, but I got to work on mastering material within a year. I didn’t really know what mastering meant when I started, but in hindsight I think I was destined to do it. At college I’d carry out remasters of Prince bootlegs on cassette. A friend had a ghettoblaster with a graphic EQ and I’d boost the bass then roll down the treble in the quiet bits for hands-on hiss-reduction. I’d always try to get the best that I could from recordings. I used to take cassettes apart when I was 14 and bend the metal part behind the tape to push it closer to the head for better high-frequency response.”
The Modern Mastering World
Ian left SRT after the best part of 15 years, going on to set up his own company called Mastering Media. Here he could develop the Enhanced CD and DVD work he’d been doing for SRT and explore the newer Blu-ray format. We asked how mastering for these different formats differs from stereo music mixes – Ian is only too happy to tell us: “For DVD I’ve done various types of content, but it’s the live concert releases where music most often gets onto DVD. It’s basically the same process except you’re working in surround. Audio for DVD film and DVD music do differ, though. With film you have a strict set of calibration guidelines because of the Dolby Digital and THX specifications. It’s very dynamic with loads of headroom. This is necessary for films in general, when you might have dialogue one minute and a bomb going off the next. And when you’re authoring film for DVD it’s pretty much a matter of just taking the existing information and transferring it. Some music films mixed for cinema release – like Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads for instance – are released to the same film standards. But if you’re mixing or mastering music specifically for DVD or Blu-ray there are no enforced guidelines, meaning it’s similar to mastering for stereo – asking yourself how loud you’re going to make it compared to competing releases. So many music DVDs and Blu-rays are just as ridiculously loud as stereo music.”
While on the topic of dynamics – or lack of – we take the opportunity to ask how Ian ended up being the man behind Dynamic Range Day: “The increase in loudness isn’t actually anything new. I’m currently reading in Ken Scott’s book about how he started out at Abbey Road. Even then they were analysing Motown stuff that had come over from the States and they couldn’t figure out how they got it so loud. These days, though, engineers are under pressure to do things they may not want to, driven by those who aren’t engineers but control what gets put out there – management, labels etc.
“My involvement started on my blog while I was still working for SRT. I started it around the time of Metallica’s Death Magnetic release. Ted Jenson, who mastered the CD, made a comment to a fan online who was complaining about the sound – then the fan quoted him on the Metallica forum. He’d basically said that he’d had to push things further than he’d liked and that he wasn’t proud of the record. When I read that I thought, ‘it can’t be that bad’, but then listened to a 30-second clip and it really was! In this case, though, it wasn’t solely the mastering as Ted mentioned that the mixes were already flatlined when he received them. There was already a petition against the sound of the release – it had 10,000 signatures on it before I found it. When I shared the story on my blog, various magazines quoted my comments and links, which generated a lot of interest. Ever since people have been asking me about my thoughts on new releases and I’ve got a bit of a name as someone who’s focused on the Loudness Wars. It’s something I feel strongly about, so I decided to invent Dynamic Range Day to raise awareness of how dynamics can make your music sound better and that you don’t have to crush your music for it to be successful, you have a choice.”
Some people misunderstand the message of DRD, thinking that it’s about banning compressors and limiters, but, Ian tells us, that’s not the case: “I think there’s actually a sweet spot of loudness. It’s just as bad if it’s not loud enough. You can’t have modern pop or rock records without compression or limiting, so I’m not saying we shouldn’t compress things and reduce dynamics.
“Antony David, from SSL, summed it up well at our second DRD event. He said compressors and limiters are for managing dynamic range, not eliminating it. Although there are still lots of loud releases at the moment, there’s also been some great dynamic albums released recently. Bjork, Fields Music, Jack Black, Elbow and Bon Iver’s CDs all have plenty of dynamics and sound fantastic. Change is happening elsewhere, too, as we see more people putting out their own music on places like BandCamp. They don’t have the pressure from the label bosses saying it’s not loud enough.”
Like Dynamic Range Day, Ian’s education website stemmed from his blogging activities. People often asked for his advice during mastering sessions, so the idea was to provide a pay-as-you-go production service. He explains the concept: “People would send me a song and I’d listen to it, then give them feedback to improve the track. It never really took off in a big way, but people liked the site and kept asking more questions about mastering. That’s when I started to create videos on the site about mastering your own music. On one hand I would say that if you want your music mastered you should pay for a professional to do it to get the best results, but the truth is that you can get great-sounding masters on your own if you know what you’re doing and have the right goals in mind. One of the things people wanted to know about was multiband compression, and to cover it would take at least 20 blog posts to explain properly! I therefore decided to do an e-book with an accompanying video covering my technique, philosophy and suggested settings.
“Now I’ve started the Home Mastering Masterclass as a lot of people have read about processors to use and other fragments of information but have no overall context to understand how to use them successfully. It’s a weekly fly-on-the-wall course of me mastering eight songs of various genres while I explain what I’m doing and why. People can email me questions, which I answer in a weekly podcast. Finally, there’s an Essentials video and an Overview, too, which add detail and weekly assignments. The response has been fantastic. Other engineers think I’m crazy for giving away all this information, but I’m finding it’s getting me more work for mastering, not reducing it! So the mastering side of the business is gaining momentum and becoming more and more global due to the reach of the web.”