An interesting read for those who are interested in this kinda stuff...
Wednesday - May 12, 2010
mastering notes posted by Jack White at 09:08AM
the staff at third man has informed me of several letters that have been sent to the office regarding the mastering
quality of some of the records that we've released. particularly sea of cowards and icky thump, and also questions
regarding "analog" sourcing of the music to vinyl. i would like to take a second and address these questions.
all of the music that's been released through third man records has been recorded to analog tape.
all of the music that's been released through third man records has been mixed to analog tape.
not all of the music has been cut to vinyl from analog tape. why not? because it's not always possible.
it's not as simple as some people think. would we like to do it everyntime? of course we would.
for one the tape machines used at third man studios are highly unique and can't be found everywhere.
another reason is that if you do what's called a "cross fade" such as between the songs 'blue blood
blues' and 'hustle and cuss' on the new album, you can't mix that onto tape without having three machines
of the same model type. two to mix from, and one to mix down to. not very easy to do, and very expensive.
and you lose a generation in that cross fade to boot. "then don't put a crossfade in!" what if thats
what the song desires and what the artist wants? its not out of convenience to cross fade its about
aesthetic presentation just as a dissolve in film editing takes place.
the first time i was able to cut direct from tape to vinyl and and afford it and make it work was
the album elephant.
why? because the songs had no crossfades between tracks. sometimes that's not possible
when sequencing an album. also because the vinyl cutting joint in london happened to have
the same tape machine as toe rag. besides this we still had to pay double the price because it
was mastered to vinyl, then started all over again and mastered for digital a second time. probably
cost more than the entire recording of the album did, and a BARELY noticeable difference in sound.
don't mistake vinyls lower volume for "better quality" that aint necessarily so. vinyl is always
quieter and warmer, and hell i prefer it any day of the week. but if i wanted to play my album
at a venue over the loudspeakers i wouldn't be playing the vinyl i'll tell you that.
i remember first seeing the video for 'fell in love with a girl' on mtv and sat with jaw on the
floor as i heard the music volume drop in half from the video that had played before it.
so what do you do about that?
here's a breakdown of what happens with the mastering of sea of cowards:
the master mix tape is sent to vlado mueller in nyc (why vlado? i'll explain in a minute.)
he RENTS a tape machine that is the same model as
the one we mixed to at third man. he masters from the tape into his computer and converts the analog signal to digital.
because cd's and mp3's are digital formats. vinyl is the only analog format third man releases on.
why doesn't vlado master the vinyl from the tapes?
because he doesn't have a cutting lathe in his studio.
because nobody masters for vinyl anymore. bob ludwig (famous mastering engineer) got rid of his lathe in his studio as well.
we master our vinyl here in nashville with a person who only does vinyl mastering.
why not send it out to so and so somewhere else? because cutting vinyl "better" than the next cutter is practically indistinguishable
in my opinon.
there's only so loud they can cut it before the needle jumps out of the groove. so they all cut it as loud
as they can, which puts the signal/sound all in the same place. after that it just becomes a matter of how
"well" you recorded the music. if you had two vinyl cutters cut the same
record and a/b'd them on a turntable i highly doubt you could tell the difference, no matter what audiophiles tell you.
why do we send the tape to someone with a lathe? i don't know! it's expensive as hell and practically not worth it.
we have to master the album twice.
spend twice as much money, twice as much time, and make a COPY of the mix tape which lessens
a generation of the music. to get the album mastered to vinyl direct from tape in nashville i have to load
my tape machine into a truck and drive it over to the vinyl cutting lab and re set it up. and that's only
if the album is perfectly sequenced onto the tape and contains no crossfades. a cd master starts to
look like a pretty preferable option at that point.
whenever possible third man does its best though to cut from the analog source. we would never chose
digital over analog out of ignorance or carelessness.
"but my vinyl sounds so much less compressed than my cd!"
vinyl recordings come nowhere near the volume of digital recordings. if they could they would, but the needle
would jump out of the groove. who out there says "make my album quieter than every other record out there!"
that doesn't necessarily give you "better" sound quality just because you lowered the volume.
the problem only comes into play when people want things so loud they clip the entire recording
for the sake of volume. we have never done that. the first master of sea of cowards i received
did not clip, but i asked vlado to lower the volume slightly ANYWAYS just to make sure.
computer pictures of sound waves from different programs are not accurate. they don't
necesarrily show you the same picture we would see in the mastering studio.
"i can tell that my vinyl is from a digital source."
no you can't. i've a/b'd them myself along with engineers and mastering professionals and
you'd have to be a scientist to tell the difference. you only think that because of some outside
"my cd of sea of cowards is clipping! it's too loud!"
do you think that i, my engineers and assts., the mastering engineer and his assts., our management,
the record label, etc. all heard these same recordings and IGNORED the fact that it was clipping
and put it out anyway? that's insulting. icky thump and sea of cowards sound incredible on
the stereo systems i listen to them on. they sound good in the studio, good in the car, good
on the home stereo, good on you tube, and good on the radio. and good on my computer!
we honestly have no idea what you're talking about. don't just assume because a recording
is loud and powerful (or mastered by vlado) that it automatically has joined ignorantly into the loudness wars and
is clipping beyond belief.
the big question is what are people listening to their records on these days?
you guessed it; tiny, tiny, tiny little speakers on their computers and ipods.
jack lawrence said of hearing horehound on the radio:
"i'm so tired of hearing our songs on the radio and our music is half the volume of the song before us
and the song after us." true. it pisses me off too.
you need to know something else the loudness wars started in the era of jukeboxes. even making
songs short enough that they could boost the volume of the cut on a 45 to beat the other
records and be heard in a loud bar. this is nothing new. the only difference is that now they
have computers with extremely heavy compressors. these can be abused and overused for
why join in the loudness wars? we're not. but i'm not going to put out some puny, thin sounding
mastering of a heavy record like sea of cowards when i think it should be as loud as possible
WITHOUT clipping and distorting. i'm not going to do the music a disservice and have dj's
not want to play it, or have it lost in the noise of a bar just to please some audiophiles
holier than thou opinion of "quality". it doesn't necessarily apply. i've never said
"well, icky thump is too loud and clipping....but that's what the people want." either.
i've made our masters as loud and powerful as possible without falling victim to
those pitfalls to the best of my ability.
when an album is mastered loud (which it should be in my opinion) you the listener adjust the volume
for what medium you are listening to it on. if it's your computer, then don't turn it up to
"ten", the volume of the mastering probably warrants you listen to it at say "six". remember
that your playback set up can distort the music more than anything. some set ups
can't handle bass, come can't handle volume. that's the breaks. an old 1982 pontiac 6000
stereo wouldn't be able to handle icky thump if it tried. good.
what's the worst part of all these decisions for a producer is that it's so incredible
unexciting and uninteresting to master your records for ear buds and laptop speakers.
probably the last place an artist wants you to hear their music.
it's like editing a film for the iphone format instead of a movie theater large screen.
we understand thats the nature of the business now, but it's not favorable. i listen
to ipods, don't get me wrong. but i would never consider that the "proper" way to
hear an album by a long shot. for one the digital signal is only twenty percent
of the total amount of signal that the artist intended for you to hear.
the main point at third man is this;
we would never intentionally put out something that is clipping or distorting
out of carelessness for the sound quality. i mean give us a break, are you
we would never listen to a mastering of an album and say
"yep, it's clipping, but we don't care! put it out and take their money ha ha ha!"
give us some credit.
i've only done one "shoot out" between mastering engineers in my time.
it was between vlado mueller and bob ludwig. and for icky thump.
ludwigs mastering was so much louder than vlados and clipping i couldn't
listen to it. it was the only time i ever turned down a project i was working
on on my stereo in my life.
vlado mueller has gotten a reputation for being "vlad the impaler" and making
everything too loud and clipping. but i strongly disagree. he only does
that when the ARTIST INSISTS THAT HE DO THAT. and that's the
truth. believe me i've had this discussion a thousand times with engineers.
if you listen to the cd of icky thump or sea of cowards on nice mcintosh
amps and b and w speakers and still think its clipping, give us a call.
if you listen to those cds in a bmw driving ninety down the autobahn
and think it's too loud, give us a call.
if you are listening to those albums on ear buds and tiny computer speakers
and think its clipping i don't know what to tell you.
i hope this addresses some of your concerns and i hope you understand
our stance on sound quality at third man better. for more info into the
strange maze of death that is sound "quality" read the book
"perfecting sound forever" by greg milner. from the guardian review
of the book, this is what is most important in the battle against new
"For technology freaks, the book provides a veritable history of gadgetry, from the four-track mixing desk to the advent of Pro Tools, software that allows the recording engineer to, as Milner puts it, "see the sounds as digital waveforms on a computer screen and move them around with the click of a mouse… and try 10 variations of an edit, and decide which one worked best". Pro Tools has made the business of recording much simpler, but, as with all such advances, something has been lost in the process. That something is "presence"; the ghost in the machine that makes recorded music sound almost human."