If you’re going to read this then it’s probably best that you read the initial blog here. If you’ve done that then thanks for sticking at it because really I should have edited it down. It’s a bit long-winded. Sorry. If you’ve already read the initial blog then, you know, just keep reading 🙂
So, if you read the last blog on this subject you’ll know that I went on a bit of a journey with LANDR and finally arrived at a place where I was kind of OK with the final results but wasn’t really entirely sure whether these would be my final album masters. Well, in the end, I decided to take my tracks to a tried and trusted professional. I could potentially have gone with the LANDR masters without any negative feedback. The people I sent the LANDR tracks to as a test seemed happy enough in that they enjoyed listening to them. Or they said they did anyway. I could have just left it at that and scored a bargain price on my mastering and moved on. However, after taking a break of around a week or so (important because listening fatigue destroys any sense of objectivity) I went back to my original un-mastered mixes and was surprised at just how much I preferred listening to them over the LANDR ones.
Minus the LANDR treatment, the music, to my ears, seemingly had more room to breathe, or, in less woolly terms, there was less loss of dynamic range. I thought perhaps this was just the effect of listening to the songs afresh but after listening again and again I still preferred my original mixes. Now if there’s one thing we can be sure of, mastering should not make you enjoy the music less. The other thing I noticed was that there were little segments that would almost jump out of my mixes which didn’t seem to hit home in the same way with the LANDR versions. In addition, sometimes the low end would seem a bit muddy whilst the highs were occasionally lacking. Imagine you’ve taken a lovely picture of a forest but then when you get it back from the printers and frame it you notice the bottom of the picture is a bit blurry and also the very tops of the trees have been lopped off.
The process of mixing my album took a long time with many conscious choices involved. For example, this might mean keeping the bass at a particular volume level where it tends to rumble along in the background largely unnoticed but then really bubbles up under the surface by the last verse of a particular song. Or spending ages listening again and again to the way two synth parts combine during an instrumental portion, continually altering the levels until I’m happy with how they merge. If a master means that you lose clarity in relation to these kinds of factors then you’re essentially rendering something which ends up flatter and more lifeless than what you started with. A good master should heighten these elements in a natural sounding way or at the very least retain how the person mixing the songs has chosen to mix.
With my album deliberately written around simple sampled drum sounds for a specific reason it is particularly important the final masters do not choke the life out of the recordings as arguably I’m skating on thin ice enough as it is due to there being a lack of a live feel and a great deal of repetition. For Flounce (the title of my new album), rather than painstakingly mapping out the drums like I did on Tish (my previous EP) so there was plenty of variation, which lent a certain realness, I went for a more stripped down approach meaning I could easily capture loops from my recordings and use them on my sampler when playing live in a way that would stay true to the sound of the album, therefore only potentially needing to teach three other people the guitar, bass and synth parts. With this record, from the outset, I was trying to record something I could replicate live with the equipment at my disposal, trying to keep extra investment to a minimum. I set myself the challenge of seeing what could be accomplished artistically with what I have, which includes a limited budget and limited time. Sorry local drummers but that limited budget and time precludes auditioning lots of different people who might not be good enough anyway, and hiring rehearsal rooms in order to do it. The drawback is the sampler can only store a limited amount of information (though arguably more than some drummers BOOM BOOM) but using it means I do not have to bring a laptop onstage. I’ve nothing against people using laptops onstage but in my case blue screen of death is almost inevitable and that’s no good during a live show.
This is not to say any less work went into sculpting a drum sound. I had to spend a lot of time choosing the right sounds and composing the right patterns for the songs in question, trying to keep them as enjoyable to listen to as I could within the strict constraints I had set myself. Then I spent a lot of time processing them and shaping them. With the use of simpler drum patterns I also had to take special care there were enough twists and turns musically to keep things moving along in an interesting way. If the mastering undermines all this work then it’s very frustrating. I feel it’s important to add here that I am not of the belief I am settling for less by using drum samples and then using a sampler to play them back live. I don’t feel like I have been forced into a corner or anything. Necessity is the mother of invention and I was keen to experiment with new sounds and new ways of doing things, to embrace a new direction and see where it leads.
I have now received my final masters back from Tom Woodhead at Hippocratic Mastering, who mastered Wensan Rd for me back in 2013, and it’s no surprise to me he’s done a really great job. Wensan Rd was written and recorded during a time when I was either preparing to move, in the process of moving, or had just arrived in Hangzhou. During this rather testing time my computer died and I lost all my work, which had not been backed up adequately. All I had backed up were my early mixes. It still irks me thinking about how much better that album could have been but this feeling is lessened by the fact Tom did such a great job mastering it. So I was confident Tom would be able to work wonders with tracks I had managed to complete to a much higher standard and were a lot more polished this time around, and I’m glad I paid the extra money otherwise I’d have always wondered how much better this record could have sounded. And, to my ears yes, Tom’s masters are noticeably better.
Tom has judiciously used the tools at his disposal in a manner ideally suited to my music. Every instrument sounds like it is in its right place on the frequency spectrum, and the low end has greater warmth and clarity to it. The tracks have been smoothed over but not at the expense of the music’s character. At the same time I’m not listening back to any of the tracks and thinking that this is not how I wanted my music to sound. He has readied the music for commercial release at a significantly louder volume without leaving the songs sounding over compressed, at the same time staying completely true to my mixes. If you visit the Hippocratic Mastering website you’ll see that the guiding principle, inspired by the Hippocratic Oath no less, is ‘do no harm’. I think it is important when I finish a project I walk away from it believing any perceived flaws are down to me and not the mastering.
To sum up (for the second time if you’ve read both blogs) I’m not going to be too hard on LANDR overall. Their customer service was very good and they were even willing to let me try their new beta service, presumably after reading my blog. This was actually better but still not good enough for me personally. I think I would have maybe found LANDR useful when I was younger and had next to no money to invest in recording and mastering. In those days the company might have proven useful in providing more competitive sounding tracks at an affordable price. In addition, LANDR is cost-effective for those who perhaps aren’t producing something which is that artistically important to them, maybe they are recording a jingle for a client and LANDR gives them something that does what is needed. It’s important to recognise too that people prepare different kinds of mixes in different ways. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I know of artists who have created great tracks which I certainly didn’t have a negative impression of simply because they were mastered by LANDR. The music in question I found enjoyable. Also, I mentioned earlier in this piece I am hoping to play with sampled loops live. Well, as part of my monthly LANDR service, before I downgraded to the free account, I also ensured that I rendered LANDR masters of all the loops I will need for live use. And these currently sound perfectly adequate to my ears. As far as my album goes though I am finally at the end of the process and able to relax and feel satisfied that, within reason, it is the best it can be. That’s what a great mastering engineer gives you. And it feels really good to have finally arrived at this stage.
If you want to know a bit more about mastering there’s some useful info here.
Thanks for sticking it out!