Art of mastering music: Getting better all the time

Engineer Alan Silverman has mastered albums by Norah Jones, Keith Richards, Dolly Parton, and Rufus Wainwright.

Silverman at the controls. Steve Guttenberg

Mastering engineers, like Alan Silverman of Arf! Mastering, make music sound better.

Of course, by the time the mastering engineer gets to hear the music, it's already been recorded, mixed, and fussed over by at least one recording engineer, record producer, and the band for weeks, months or even years.

The mastering engineer brings a fresh set of ears to the project and (hopefully) the necessary skill set to eke out the very best from the music. Silverman has mastered music by Norah Jones, Keith Richards, Dolly Parton, and Rufus Wainwright.

When I visited Silverman a few weeks ago, he was finishing work on Medeski, Martin, and Wood's upcoming CD, "Radiolarians 2." I'm a big fan of MM&W's free-form funk jazz, and these guys always make great-sounding recordings. It figures Silverman is involved with the upcoming CD.

I heard from friends that Silverman's newly updated playback system is not only super accurate, it sounds like an audiophile system. That sort of truth and beauty are a rare combination so I brought along some of my reference recordings and was thrilled by the sound. Silverman uses Revel Ultima Studio2 speakers and a McIntosh MC252 power amplifier.

Of course, in the real world just a handful of people are listening over a system like that. So for Silverman, "It's about how the music 'translates.'" A great mastering engineer knows how to make the music sound the best it can over all sorts of systems, played back in differing environments: headphones, car audio, plastic computer speakers, and high-end audio systems.

That's why Silverman hopes he will soon be doing multiple versions of a recording: a highly compressed mix for iPod or car, an uncompressed CD quality version for home listening, and a high-resolution one for audiophiles.

But now that so many bands are recording themselves mastering engineers play an even more crucial role in making the most of the music. When I asked if recordings ever come in that are so awful Silverman turns them away, he said "No, not at all, although in rare cases one of the best things you can do for client is advise them to do a remix. In general, though it's easier to make a poor recording sound better than improve a recording that's already really great. With those you worry if you're really making them better or just different. In those cases sometimes even the smallest tweaks add extra dimension and life to the music." Toby Wright, 3Doors Down's producer, uses Silverman and raved about his work: "So much better, it's silly."

I first met Sliverman when he remastered a batch of Kinks albums for SACD a few years ago. The hybrid SACDs are still in print, but many of those Kinks titles are now also available as high-resolution 96 kHz/ 24 bit downloads from HDtracks (in the interest of full disclosure I have worked as a producer and writer for Chesky Records, and as a writer for Chesky's subsidiary HD Tracks).

When I expressed some concern that only audiophiles care about sound quality Silverman brought up the hubbub surrounding "Guitar Hero: Metallica." Fans noticed that the "Guitar Hero" version sounded a lot better than Metallica's new "Death Magnetic" CD. Silverman said, "This may have been the first time in history that music buyers were given a choice between a (dynamically) compressed CD--and what it should sound like." The fans raised hell.

So it's not just snooty audiophiles that notice these things, Metallica fans can hear the difference. Sound quality really does matter, and the better your speakers or headphones are, the more you're going to appreciate the differences mastering engineers work so hard to achieve.

 

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