MASTERING BLOG

New Studio Gear: Dangerous Music COMPRESSOR

After auditioning this awesome new piece of gear through Vintage King, I’ve officially expanded my rack to include the new compressor from Dangerous Music. This is my third VCA compressor, complementing my existing Neve Master Bus Processor and The Dramastic Audio Obsidian, and allows me to have a great range of sonic options that cover all my bases. What sold me on this compressor is just how transparent it is which is due to the DC coupled transformer-less design and mastering grade components. You can add huge amounts of gain reduction and not hear any impact on the clarity of the mix (not that I recommend large amounts of gain reduction). I’m still experimenting with using this on records, but I am really enjoying having the flexibility to A/B between the Neve and Dangerous to determine what flavor I want, and really fine tune the tone.

The Dangerous unit won out on one of mdangerous music compressory more recent projects: a soon-to-be-released E.P. from the thrash/ska/punk/soul group MeanMugg. While I was mastering this record, I really noticed how good this compressor is at keeping the center image from suffering. It is designed with two detectors that trigger compression independently from the left and right channels so you don’t have any problem with stereo image drifting. At first, I was a bit apprehensive that it didn’t have stepped controls. In mastering you want to have the left and right channels detented for precise stereo matching and also be able to recall settings at a later date. However, this wasn’t a problem because in stereo mode the left channel of the compressor becomes the master channel. And for recalls I use the downloadable PDF recall sheet from dangerous and can easily log my settings. Compared to the Neve, this unit retained all the top end information and kept it clear and quick, just the way I wanted.

I’m pretty excited to keep integrating this compressor into my workflow, and to experiment with it on new projects. Dangerous Music makes rock solid stuff–I also use their summing box the 2 buss Lt for stem mastering, the Liaison to help integrate all of my outboard proccesors, and the BAX EQ in my studio. I definitely recommend their gear if you’re looking to improve your own setup.

Layback Mastering with the Ampex ATR-102

The Ampex ATR-102 has remained a essential piece of gear in major recording and mastering studios worldwide since 1976…and I’m proud to say that it is also a fixture in my studio. I picked up this machine from Burbank, CA and just before I bought it their studio tech went over the components with a fine tooth comb and replaced all of the heads with new flux heads from ATR, and I’m happy to report that the machine that is in pristine shape despite being 30 years old!

The ATR is available for tape transfers, but it is also a great tool for layback mastering– an additional step before the final master that gives a track a little mojo if it has only existed in the digital realm. The process of layback mastering is pretty straightforward: you take the mix, run it out of the DAW and into the input of the tape machine. The input preamps and the actual tape give the mix the analogue sound. Specifically, the tape adds nonlinearities and it can also compresses the whole mix (more or less depending on how hard you hit the tape). The result is an overall Ampex ATR-102warming effect, a more 3-D soundscape and sound stage, and a bump in the low frequency while also preventing high frequencies from getting harsh. ATR machines are especially known for a 60 cycle head bump of about ½ dB. I prefer to run my unit at 30 ips (but it can also run at 3.75, 7.5, and 15 ips), because that tape speed results in an almost flat frequency spectrum apart from the head bump.

Because the particular sound out of this unit is so sought after, UAD has also developed a digital plugin designed to mimic the effects of the ATR-102, but there’s nothing quite like running it though the actual tape machine…

Take a listen for yourself to hear what the ATR-102 can do to a mix. First, listen (through nice monitors or headphones for more effect) to the original mix of Signs, a track from Leverett‘s upcoming album:

And here is that mix run through the ATR-102. This is not the final master, but the first step before I bring the track back into the digital world and finish other elements of the mastering process. For this track the ATR really helped tighten the bass and kick drum and brought the guitar and vocals more forward in the mix.

If you’ve got a mastering project and want to add layback mastering into the mix, I’ve got THE machine for the job!

Soundcloud Mix/Master Comparisons

People often ask me What is mastering? Mastering is not just about making things loud, but focuses instead on bringing out the most in the mix, and translating the best-sounding result regardless of where the track is being listened to– in your car, with headphones, off laptop speakers, or through a top-notch sound system. There are no generic presets that can automatically master a track, and my approach to each tune differs because i’m taking into account what the client wants in terms of dynamics and volume and considering both their personal taste and the conventions of the genre of music to reach the final version.

Before we start, I take a look at reference materials that are in line with the project, and we try to come up with a target with reference to equalization (EQ) and volume that best suits the material. The final goal is for the material to leave better than it came in, and optimally formatted for distribution across different platforms (radio, online streaming, iTunes, CD, Vinyl, etc).

OK- you get it in theory, but sometimes it can be tricky to explain exactly what mastering does to a track unless you have some samples to actually listen to. So, I’ve uploaded a series of tracks to my soundcloud page so that you can listen for yourself– each tune has a version of the original mix (with gain structure so the volumes are the same) and my mastered version so you can compare and listen for the differences.

  1. First off, Circular, by Ghost Atlantic— with this tune we wanted to preserve the dynamic range, but also create a wider sound-stage for the instruments. Take a listen to the original mix:

and here is my mastered version:


Leander, Forbes/Wilson: As with most small jazz albums, the goal is to preserve the dynamics– to not make it loud, but enhance the music and keep the dynamic range. Take a listen to the original mix:

And here is my mastered version:


On The Line, Dark Hollow Bottling Company – With this track, we weren’t worried about the volume, but wanted to retain intent of artist: to preserve a warm, present, live-sound feel. Here is the original mix:

Here is my mastered version:


For Conor Mulroy’s bluegrass track we wanted to retain dynamics, not push too loud, and create a wider sound stage for all the instruments to sit well together. Here’s the original mix:

And the mastered version:


Finally, a rock track by Jeriko Rose. For this tune we wanted to make it as modern as possible. Loud, bright, contemporary, make the guitars, drums, and vocals all pop out more from the mix. Take a listen to the mix:

and my final mastered version:

I hope that listening to some samples helped shed some light on what mastering does to sculpt tracks and bring out their best elements.

PKM Featured in Mix Magazine’s Class of 2016

mix-magazine-june-2016My studio has been featured in Mix magazine’s newest issue as part of their “Class of 2016” list of finest studio design examples. Click here to check out who else made the list, and get in touch to book your next project.

“Designed by Lou Clark of Sonic-Space, this room serves as a home for Pat Keane’s mastering and audio restoration/archiving business. The studio is isolated using Greenglue between multiple layers of Sheetrock over Kinetics isolation clips. The rear wall features a 21-inch-deep full-wall broadband absorber with four XIX Acoustic Ramps. The studio ceiling contains 24 inches of broadband absorption with wood grate scattering panels mounted behind the mix position. The front and sides of the room also have a variety of absorbing panels built out at different depths for broadband absorption. Keane’s key equipment includes Barefoot MM27 monitors, Lynx AES16 Interface, Pro Tools HD12, and various analog and digital tape machines.”

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Photo by Tim Gaudreau