Everything Matters

In my earliest days as an assistant in a recording studio, I learned the ropes as basic tracks were laid down on tape, overdubs and “punch-ins” were added, stereo mixes were created, and the final, edited mixes were mastered.  From those early days onward, I frequently heard what I came to refer to as The Three Most Heard Phrases in Record Making:

“We’ll fix it in the mix” (when something in the recording was not quite right)

“We’ll catch it in the mastering” (when the mix didn’t exactly fix it)

“They’ll never hear it at home” (when it still wasn’t nailed in the mastering)

Rumor has it that Frank Zappa once said “We’ll fix it in the shrink wrap.”

There has been some discussion on the Internet recently about which aspect of record making has the greatest influence on the sound of the finished product.  Some say the space in which the original recording is made makes the greatest difference.  Others say “it’s all in the mastering.”  Asking three people will elicit at least four different answers.

The space where the recorded performance occurs will impact the musicians, influencing the sound they hear from the instruments and from the environment, thus influencing how they play.  But with typical recordings, where the microphones are placed close to the instruments, the sound of the environment is often minimized.  Alternatively, some recordings are made using very few microphones, which are placed to deliberately pick up the environment as well as the players.  Here, the space becomes in integral part of the final sound, as it is when a listener attends a live performance.  Still, this does not suggest the space has the greatest influence on the sound.  One might be in a fabulous room but the wrong microphone selection or the wrong microphone technique can very easily override the sound of the space.

Typical major label recordings involve three main production phases: recording, mixing, and mastering.  There are those who feel the mix—where a multitrack original is turned into a stereo (or in some instances, surround) version—is the biggest factor in shaping the final sound.  Instrumental and vocal level balances are determined during the mix.  Tonality is often adjusted, placement of instruments and vocalists on the “stage” is determined, and special effects might be added.  There is no doubt about the magnitude of influence the mix has.  Yet the final result will always be influenced by the ingredients used to create it.

With the advent of the remastering phenomenon, labels have given new life to older releases.  Sometimes the results are improved sonics, with newly revealed nuances from the original recording that were lost in the original mastering.  Other times, and sadly all too often, the remastering is simply a louder, brighter rendering.  Either way, through these re-releases, many music aficionados have discovered the influence mastering has on the sonics of a recording.  As the last stage of production and the first stage of manufacturing, mastering is the last opportunity to make small—or large—changes to the sound.  While the degree of influence on the final sound can sometimes be quite surprising, here too, the final outcome is always fundamentally impacted by the source material.  A pachyderm’s aural appurtenance does not a silken wallet make.

To my ears, an mp3 of a Keith Johnson recording, listened to in the car, on the highway (with the windows open!), can reveal more Life than many a typical studio master played on the finest, most carefully set up systems in the most optimally treated rooms.

In my experience, once the signals are leaving the microphones, 90-95% or more of the recording’s ultimate quality ceiling has already been determined.  Everything after the microphones (i.e., mic cables, AC mains power, AC mains cables, mic preamps, recording format, recording device , mix, if any, mastering, playback format, playback device, interconnecting cables, amplification, speaker cables, speakers, speaker positioning, vibration isolation, room acoustics, etc., etc.) merely determines how much of what was captured the listener gets to hear.