The idiocy of mastering pt 1 - Level Maximisation and creative fear


so we have a million tutorials on how to master rock , dub , trance , dance , beat and rap music.The sad thing is this has lead some to try and apply these techniques to ambient work.I believe this is very wrong.

Please take a look at the graphic scans below of various ambient albums including a couple of mine.

I would like to ask you which ones look right ? which look wrong ? which look creative and encourage the listener ' in and out ' of the listening experience and which look alien , limited , surpressed , compressed ? ( and are these qualities enhancing our work and its energetic nature ? or forcing it to conform to the harmonic limitations of cheap and limited frequency listening devices ?

Heres the waveforms below , i believe a study of waveforms is one of the greatest ways to learn ' level ' in mastering and also ' ebb and flow ' in composition .We can learn to ' hear ' these waveforms on some level or percieve there character .If the waveform looks wrong then it suggests a Forced process and something Is Wrong.

ENO - ONLAND ( i think this is where good ambient work should be level wise )


BIOSPHERE - SHEZHOU ( i find this interesting , it showed me the creative use of track level modulation but most mastering guys would call this wrong as its not Flat and Even.( since when was life and art always flat ? )
When listening you feel yourself being pulled forward , inward and then stilled , its clever level modulation and Creative mastering )



ELVE - EMERALD ( ok so this is mine , level wise you can see what i am aiming for )

THOM BRENNAN - BENEATH THE CLOUDS ( i like this one , it works well on good hi fi systems , a slight push here and maybe a happy medium between ' hi fi levels of the eno work and radio freindly levels )

ISHQ - ORCHID (not mastered by me but level wise just short of over the top , thankfully no peak reduction or Limitation )

HIA - COLOURFORM ( classic beat electronica and i think where good intellgent dance music works well - very little limiting )

DELIBERATE MISTAkE - what happens when ambient work is over limited.The depth is lost , the distant objects are pushed closer , the whole writing process is negated and yeah it sounds great on an ipod and pa but on good headphones and to the ears of a listener who likes distance and space it sounds terrible.

TYPICAL MODERN DAY MYOPIC MASTERING ( it just looks wrong , does that look like a free and happy waveform abbing and flowing ? it looks to me like mankind gone wrong , like Restrictive Production , its music forced into a harmonic and transient box ) Compare this to the HIA one which has a nice volume level but also has left in the peaks and Life of the work.

Ok so nothing is absolute , none of us are ' right ' and some like maximisation and their ears like its conformity , it can work for dance music and for music designed for pa systems and low fidelity hi fi systems which cannot handle peaks , but it remains a process of ' Limiting ' and do we really need to limit things if we mix well ? sometimes odd harmonics and some ' peak ' can add value .The flaws in a work are often its beauty and a clear glass jewel is nowhere near as beautifull as a flawed diamond when light reflect through it.

The images above i think show the past trends , how many albums are ' between the lines ' ( in soundforge 8 ) and how we now have a trend of blindly pushing levels to much as ' loud ' to some sounds better .

The reason i post this is because i come across alot of people who read mastering tutorials all based on ' radio mastering ' alot of the time and maximisation of level as essential and i have seen people try and apply this to ambient work with alarming results ( to my ears and my taste ) .

The reason its alarming for me is

1. / Ambient work sounds better at moderate low volume , its subtle energy music and really best when heard at subtle levels , at higher levels its subjective and subtle energy is distorted on many levels as we percieve and the result is that we dont ' recieve ' the works harmonics properly and its beauty.

2. / Ambient work relies often on a ' landscape ' approach where there are near objects and distant objects.The composer in the writing process alters these objects levels to create depth and space , distance and forground etc.The process of limiting then alters all this when done badly and shifts the lower level distance and objects into the forground.The work becomes like a landscape painting where the artist left out the ' far away ' distant scenes in a landscape or got the sense of perspective wrong , sometimes this can be creative but in music limitation / processing it rarely is , it sounds like the depth has been forced into the forground of the mix.

So sometimes we dont want distance but my point is that ' Limitation ' often unaturally distorts depth and space in a work and ' Pushes together ' harmonics and parts that really sound better when left apart a little.Yes some ' glue ' is nice but are we not making music that reflects life and its beauty ? which in turn is not Limited but free and unpredictable.

In the end we all have our preferences and then we each listen on diffferent systems to add to the confusion , some write for radio and some for hi fi and some for pa systems but ambient work i think needs to be handled with more care.

The ' trend ' to master loud and Flat and ' Box in ' a works peaks and transients has been blindly followed , it was after all a trend based on competative radio play levels and not on making the music sound better and not a technique designed for more subtle and 3d ' music with a depth of field .The trend really took off when limiting plugins arrived and people went mad shortky afterwards.

Inflator ?

Maximiser ?

Penis enlargers . . . . pure and simple.

I am not saying you cannot be creative with limiting , especially on an individual track level but on a master level ? so often it ends in Squased music.

The shift towards Limiting and flatness i think mirrors much of humanities need to control and box in , make uniform and ' the same ' and its all fear really.Its Fear which makes people master to death music and flatten it , pump it up etc and why are we so afraid of a few harmonic peaks ?

To cover my back i will say there is no absolute right .........whats right for some music and me is wrong for other music and that changes relative to the final destination and taste of each of us.

Another issue i should mention is the idea one mix can fit all systems or should ? , one mix can fit all systems but its a mix thats limited , has limited freq and that has been checked on all systems and Adjusted to death with eq , compression and mastering ....the practice of eq and compression to make music sound good on cheap speakers designed for little more than the Microsoft startup sound is utterly insane to me but some make music for mass markets and these devices.Some dont and music that sounds good on all systems often falls down on Hi fi systems in a big way and sounds lifeless and flat and sterile.

The quest to please all speakers costs the music some of its life.

I master music the way i like for a good hi fi system i use , if it does not work on cheaper systems my thinking is thats the failure of the cheaper device , not the music and i will not restrict my music to suit devices not designed for full frequency music.

By peak limiting and eq'ing to much ( with pleasing cheap speakers in mind ) i think we are restricting the harmonics we share with this world and by doing so we forcing art to Conform to Mass market consumer electronic devices Not designed for music ? to my ears its utter insanity .

The music we make and harmonics in it are key , if we restrict these then we restrict the energy in the music and its effect , this in turn effects the listener on a subtle level and they dislike the work and fail to ' feel it ' and often percieve it as Sterile.

We always seem to want to LIMIT ? CONTROL ? doesnt this effect the influence of a creative work ?

LIMITLESS = the word says it all.

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Tags: techtips

Comment by Steve Brand on November 9, 2010 at 11:04am
Great blog, Matt. Such a big issue and you never see anything written about it...or least, I haven’t. I’ve had to learn a lot on my own playing my stuff along-side the work of others, hearing the differences, noting what I was trying to do, what they were trying to do, making changes, making mistakes. Thanks for posting. I need to read and re-read this.

When I first started recording, I had a mic, a cheap mixer and a Phillips CDr. I quickly became apparent that when I tried to use a keyboard, a drum, or any loud acoustic sound, I was clipping like crazy. I had no control what so ever. I finally learned that I needed a limiter/compressor to squeeze the sounds down to a manageable level...beyond that, I could even be artful in how I shaped the sounds. I was amazed. I got a little Ellesis (sp) rack mount and learned a lot, played, basically worked it over. (Of course, I'm still learning.) In this part of the U.S., you have better luck winning the lottery than finding a class on engineering and mastering for ambient music. I mastered one of my songs ONCE as a traditional studio, and when I heard, “What are these, sound effects,” I knew I was in the wrong place. So...I went by my instincts and gut. Anyone who heard my work as Augur hears levels that are ALL OVER the place. I could have stayed away from using acoustic sounds, because those presented the most challenge...hiss, levels, clipping, etc. I love using acoustic sounds, so that wasn't going to happen. I had to learn to manage them on my own. I just dove in. Had a lot of failures and a lot of my standards. Digital recording presented a real improvement in my method, as I could clean things up afterwards, fix things “in post.” (I still want SoundForge.) About 3 years ago, I had the fortune of working with one of the godfathers of ambient. It was a very affirming experience to sit with Roach and look at my waveforms, listen closely to my self-mastered sounds on Timeroom speakers, and distinguish (with Steve’s expert help) what was working and what needed tweaking...from the standpoint of my own personal aesthetic. Priceless experience, but bottomline, with or without the help of an expert, I had to be open to and ask for criticism, remain self-critical, have a sense of what I want to convey and a good inner compass. I sincerely wanted/want what I’m hearing in my head and heart to be accurately conveyed through my music. I want that emotion to come through loud and clear without technical stuff getting in the way. I still find that I’m learning new techniques and cheats every time I record. There are plenty of tools and toys out there, but those choices usually grow out of necessity for me.
Comment by John K-N on November 9, 2010 at 11:14am
This is a fantastic thread. I've read once, I'll need to read again a little more in depth. I'll post more when I have time - buried at work.

Quick links to other posts similar to this that I've read in the past:

Discussion on why Autechre - Untitled is unlistenable... comparison of waveform to Incunubula track:

An article by Robert Levine from 2007:

There's an article comparing five Rush albums - which I can't find at the moment. The above article references it but the link is dead.
Comment by John K-N on November 9, 2010 at 11:50am
Har - yeah - that's the album with the "problem" - ironically - there are some kickin great tunes on it - but it's squashed like a bug if you view the waveforms...
Comment by Steve Brand on November 9, 2010 at 12:04pm
The point that interests me most about Matt's blog is summed up in this statement: "so we have a million tutorials on how to master rock , dub , trance , dance , beat and rap music.The sad thing is this has lead some to try and apply these techniques to ambient work.I believe this is very wrong." You can't use the standards of those other music forms for ambient music and to make matters even more hall-of-mirror-ish, those standards are almost completely objective. Appropriate to the form, I guess.

Oh, I also learned the lesson of too much overall compression or boosting of levels when I turned one of my Augur recordings over to a very small label in Europe. I wasn't asked if any post could be done. I got the finished work back, and the label owner had boosted the overall level completely. All the subtleties I had tried to create were gone, all the hiss I had eliminated was now prominent...and to make matters worse, he had stretched my art to fit his templated cover. A lesson in mastering AND how important it is to maintain control over my own work.
Comment by John K-N on November 9, 2010 at 12:17pm
I think some techniques are "universal" and more in the "building block" categories. Pulling techniques from other forms of music isn't necessarily "wrong" - but I totally agree that the pretty much now tried and true way of mastering pop/rock for mainstream radio or for tiny earbuds... no - just doesn't work for ambient or any music that needs space to breathe - peaks and valleys - subtlety.

Unless you're purposely shooting for a certain effect on a part of a track - cutting back on compression - not pushing everything to the edge of clipping - those are important lessons to learn here from Matt's article.

I also agree with Matt wanting to master for better systems... and I do think this "works" for this type of music - because more people that are fans of this type of music are willing to slow down - and enjoy the music. If they're willing to do that - they've probably invested in better headphones - or a stereo system that's not a small bookshelf system.

Granted - people do listen to ambient on iPods and earbuds - and there's nothing at all wrong with that - but Matt's ideal of shooting for the higher end systems - I think that's very valid here - because I think it's a situation where the people that listen are often in that market.

Even me at work - I have a very decent sounding iPod dock that I spent some money on... even thought it's just for my desk and at low volume - I want speakers that are better than some tiny little thing. (of course - it's not that big either - it is work after all!)

At home - I'm either listening on my Mackie monitors - or my Polk surround sound system in the living room which I matched the fronts and rears to be the same speakers... so that listening to something in 7-channel stereo had the correct sound from front and back (as opposed to very often having small speakers in the rear.).

But I'm not necessarily normal...
Comment by John K-N on November 9, 2010 at 12:22pm
When I'm mixing... I try and place sounds in the stereo field - I kind of think in terms of where that sound might be in the room physically.

I also will 'carve' out space for a certain part or sound... from the other sounds that are in that same space with it... so I'll maybe eq out part of some sounds around it so that the bit that I really want to come through can sit on it's own. It's small changes - subtle that I'm talking about.

So if we're thinking of a living room analogy - if the sound I want is sitting on the chair a little to the left of center... I might cut the frequencies of the floor lamp sitting behind it in that area where the main sound on the chair is.

Honestly - I don't think that made sense to anyone buy me... but... I'll leave it at that for now. I'm not a mastering engineer. And mixing and mastering are two different things... but - tossing that out there anyway... :-)
Comment by John K-N on November 9, 2010 at 12:39pm
When I was releasing a while back... I would always always always take a week or two off of a project before coming back and doing final mixing and mastering. And once I thought I was done - take another bit off and come back with fresh ears.

Hearing the music for what it really *is* instead of what I hear inside my head along with the music - is very key and very important. I'm sure other people don't have this problem - but I hear music and I constantly think of what's coming next or what needs to be removed... it's important for me to step away, let it sit - and then listen to what's really there. Not what I think should be there.

And yes - when I'm working on a project - I always listein on multiple systems to try and get a certain balance between systems. I'm not trying to "be all things to all speakers" because you just can't do that... but I at least want to make sure I'm not taking advantage of a certain pair of speakers.

I don't have a treated room - so frequencies and reflections can be a problem - and if I've rearranged (which has happened several times over the years my studio has been in this spare bedroom) the sound changes... so I do the best I can - I think I get decent results - and I'm reaching a point where I'm thinking maybe someone who masters a lot more often than I do might be better doing it than me... but we'll see. Not sure if I can "let go" of that.
Comment by Fellirium on November 10, 2010 at 6:19am
Great article, although, It's hard for me to understand everything in the comment, but I've got the point!
I agree with the article. Since then music must be loud and flat?! Who said that?! Everyone can think and can do everything they've been told about in those lessons and articles, but I'll do how I like.

I also want to show you some pictures I found on one of the mastering tutorials:
Antonio Salieri, Piano Concerto in B flat, I. Allegro moderato (1996)

Pixies - Broken Face (1988)

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)

Guano Apes - Don't Give Me Names (2000)

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (2002)

That is extremely significant, I think.
Comment by Ishq on November 10, 2010 at 7:09am
really cool points guys and spot , totally agree har , thats my point of view really and ' ambient "is better" at quieter levels ' is really my own taste issue to a point , i just cant listen to stilling and subtle music at loud volumes but also ambient as a term could mean so many different things .My own personal perception is that if you take a stilling work and play it loud you slowly lose the stillness as the loudness then becomes the percieved energy rather than the work itself and it becomes more energising and counter productive to its main essence as a work , that said ambient means a million things and thats not always true ! yesterday i was in an ' ambient is subtle , quiet and still ' mode but thats narrowminded for sure , the Thom brennan album is a great example of ambient work i can listen to louder as it has more surge and drive a bit.Were back to 'whats ambient ' and i should have never used ' that ' word :) .

Some people may like the still and delicate stuff loud anyway so it is a bit sweeping what is said .

Its interesting though how you can take a calm work with subtle space and some delicacy and when played loud it becomes ' the opposite ' from a certain point of view.

Its a good point about compression , the fixation i had on ' limitation ' really was more about the art of ' boxing in and suppressing out of fear ' and ' limiting ' as a mentality or the way creative people now or some feel the need to ' limit ' on many levels their vision and also use techniques to limit the harmonics etc .

>homogenization and avoiding deviations

thats a key point and a good one to bring up and i think sums up what i am a bit hung up on , this blindness of conformity and fitting in boxes , using certain genre techniques , sounds and the fear of upsetting poor speaker systems and listeners with ' peaks ' . What i find sad is that many producers now find loudness more gratifying ( as loudness and squash is a course and quickly pleasing rush like a cheap hamburger is if your not thinking whats in it ) .I think like our taste in food and pallette if we introduce courseness to it to much over time we lose the ability to percieve subtlety and on a more subtle level.

My main unhappyness comes from the trend of restricting harmonic ( the soul of music for me ) and the fact these techniques of Squashing can destroy the subtle nature of harmonics and transients all to often as a result .I could go into a tirade about the use of eq to remove harmonics whilst using computer speakers as a ' test monitors ' that were nor designed to handle them and distort to easily as a result but i wont.Thats another subject .....possibly my next one .

There is a creative side to it all and no absolute rules and god help us if anyone writes a ' how to master and make ambient music ' tutorial as they are first going to have to expplain what isnt ambient and what is !

I should have never used ' that ' word ....
Comment by Ishq on November 10, 2010 at 7:23am
nice Fellirium . . .. thats spot on.

We have to do what we like in the end .

The waveforms - yeah from one spectrum into another and they say more than i ever can.

When i look at the squashed waveforms Its funny but its almost like the trend of humanity and ' system ' toward uniformity , control , limitation , fear , boxing in , safe reality etc has been transfered perfectly into the mastering of music.

These squashed waveforms represent the fear which is ' capitalism' really - ' maybe ? i am not anti capitalism - just unbridled materialism with no morality .

Its all about radio promo volume and possible sales as a result.Thats what created this trend but it strangely matches trends of humanity in many other areas toward safety and protectiveness.

Were back to fear .

Mine must be louder and bigger than yours .( competative business )

We could be back to penis enlargers also.( sorry but i couldnt resist that )


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