By Noah Mintz
Mixing engineer and friend Howie Beck called me up one day and told me he was mixing an interesting album and that I might be mastering it. He had a question about delivering the clients some reference mixes (usually somewhat pseudo-mastered). I asked him who the artist was. He told me he wasn’t yet able to say but that he is a Canadian radio personality. That narrowed it down to a surprisingly large amount of people.
His question didn’t narrow it down any further: How can I make a mix sound like it was from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s? I thought about this for a bit. Someone might want an album to sound musically like it was from that era, but rarely sonically. Digital was still young at that time and the Sony 1630 UMatic tape was the prevailing mastering format, CDR still not being a mature technology yet. Many albums from that time sound thin and weak when compared to albums that were released before digital and after digital matured.
I answered that I thought it would be best to emulate the radio compressors of the time. I told him to use a three-band multiband compressor and compress and reduce the bottom and top more than the middle. Having only a small understanding of how radio compressors worked back then, it was more an educated guess than actual knowledge.
If this effect was required for the mix-refs, I was curious on what the mastering would entail. When it did come time for mastering and I was hired to do it, it was revealed that the artist was Shad and that this was going to be a very different album for him. While Shad is best known for hiphop, this album was going to be a throwback to the sound of Phil Collins, INXS, and The Partland Brothers.
I was told to master this album differently… creatively. Don’t do what I’d normally do; rather, do what I might not do – tough call for a mastering engineer used to “less is more” and “do no harm.” I was told to use whatever I had at my disposal to make it sound like it was released in 1990. I almost considered pulling out our old Sony 1630 converters but using digital technology from 1988 felt like taking it way too far.
Instead, I decided to take “different” differently and master up one song, as a test, seven different ways. Here is an explanation of the different test masters, which you can hear at blog.lacquerchannel.com.
1. All Analog Mastering
I used my dCS DA Converter into a 4 K boost on my Neve 2087, a 64 Hz boost for the kick on the GML9500 EQ, then a mid-cut on the Sontec. Low and top boost and cut on the passive SPL. (Boost and cuts on the same frequency is part of the design of passive Pultec-style EQs.) Finally, a Manley VariMu tube compressor for some gain reduction into a Burl Bomber AD converter. The Burl (as opposed to my audiophile dCS) is a converter with vibe.
2. All Digital Mastering
I went a bit crazy on this one. Since they asked me specifically not to do what I normally do, I tried out some plug-ins I don’t normally use. I started with the UAD ATR 102 1/4-in. 456 tape at 7 1/2 ips for a more sludgy sound into an API 550 EQ with a 15 K boost and a 50 Hz cut, into an SSL compressor with a slow attack and auto release, into a Fairchild compressor with 1-2dB of reduction, a FabFilter Multiband EQ with a pretty heavy setting based on an EDM preset, and finished with a Pultec EQ with some bass boost and cut, and 20 kHz cut. This was about 10 times more processing than I would normally use,
but I thought it sounded pretty good, all things considered. I was also pretty sure this wouldn’t be the one they choose.
3. Layback to 1/2-in. Tape (15 ips)
…and an analog mastering path. I recorded the mix to 1/2-in. tape via a real Ampex 102 Master Recorder.
4. Layback to 1/2-in. Tape (7 ips)
…and an analog mastering path.
5. Record to Lacquer (45 rpm Vinyl)
…and analog mastering path. Having a record lathe here at Lacquer Channel afforded me a rare opportunity. We took the unprocessed mix and cut an acetate master with it at 45 rpm. We then played it back into the DAW via a Technics 1200SL and applied the same analog processing that was used on the analog master.
6. Lacquer & Tape (15 ips)
…and analog mastering path. We also took the acetate and laid it back to tape just for that added processing.
7. Lacquer & Tape (7 ips)
…and analog mastering path.
In the second part next issue, I’ll tell you which they chose and how we used that approach for the final product.
Noah Mintz is a Senior Mastering Engineer at Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto. With nearly 20 years of experience specifically and exclusively in professional audio mastering (and many more previously in audio production), Noah’s philosophy has always been “less is more.” With a strong emphasis on “vibe,” Noah’s sonic signature has been left on some of Canada’s most successful indie and major-label acts. www.lacquerchannel.com.