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 )
ENO - MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS
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 )
KRAFTWERK - AUTOBAHN
JJ JARRE - OXYGEN
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.
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.