People often talk about mastering, and mastering engineers, enhancing, improving, adding warmth or depth. But what about when audio art is created with the intention to make the listener hear rawness, distortion, hazyness, fuzzyness? These are all words we use to describe when an audio process or unit is either working incorrectly or is of low quality.
As musicians, audio engineers and music consumers we are all too aware of distortion, it’s uses and abuses and place in popular music. Rock n Roll, a style which provides the foundation for a large part of modern western popular music, is a direct result of “doing it wrong” with your gear and “playing it too hard” for example.
But what about when the recorded elements are not the subject of distortion, but the process or recording itself? How do we approach this? Do we take audio which has been destroyed to some extent and try and make it fixed again? Do we want our feedback and clipping to somehow sound “warm”? Is that even possible?
And to go one step further, how about when we are working with an audio recording where the output itself (sometimes known as the 2-bus or mix-bus) has been processed in a way which intentionally distorts the music found within?
Perhaps apt, with the recent passing of Lou Reed, one example of pioneering distortion beyond the acoustic realm is the Velvet Underground’s “White Light White Heat”, and its subsequent imitators and progressors in production value such as The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Pyschocandy”, that this discussion is being raised right now.
As a mastering engineer I used to think my job was to make audio “sound better”, after a few years of being challenged by a wide range of audio sources and aesthetic choices I realised my job is to make audio sound “right” or “fit for purpose”.
So when audio is meant to sound “bad” compared to “pop music”, what do I do? Well I do exactly the same thing I do with a pop/dance production, I make it sound the way it needs to be heard. Sometimes as audio engineers we can get a bit of an ego about our input on the music we work with, it’s an important that to curb in the back of your mind. When a track comes in all messed up on the 2bus, it’s all to easy to think “oh this is a poor production, let’s try and fix this”. Communication, as always, is the key here.
One example of this is a job where I was given a reference and asked to “make this new record, have the distortion of our previous tape demo, but the balance of a good sounding hardcore punk record”. My conclusion was that I needed to take the clean, raw premaster, balance it out so the tonal relationship felt good and then push it out of my analogue chain into my converters so the red light hardly drops. This is the kinda thing which would make some audio engineers cry, but it was the right thing to do! Furthermore because my converters are solid in tonal and dynamic response, I got that clipping sound, without too much of the bass getting swallowed up or a loss of stereo imaging.
The conclusion here is that us mastering folks aren’t here to make beautiful sounding music, we’re here to facilitate an artists vision, specifically how that vision is heard. OK I love making beautiful sounding records, delicate dynamics, shiney analogue top ends, real aural pleasures. But sometimes you gotta let it be blown the fuck out, let it hurt a little bit, give the listener that uncomfortable masochistic audio experience, if it’s what the artist wants!