Lewis from Stardelta Audio Mastering talks tape, loudness, vinyl and more…
As you may know, Time+Space is based in rural Devon so we were very happy to find out that one of the UK’s premier mastering facilities is just down the road. Stardelta Audio Mastering provide a variety of services including the delivery of vinyl, CD or mp3 masters using their stack of high quality analogue and digital equipment. We took the opportunity to ask Lewis Hopkin, the owner of Stardelta, a few questions…
Can you tell us how you got into mastering?
I love music and I love vinyl! This is where the whole thing stems from. I was fascinated by the sound that came from those magic black shiny discs and as my understanding of the process grew so did my desire to be an engineer. It really did turn out to be the closest thing to magic I know! I have always loved music in its many different forms and specifically how that recorded music sounded. I loved the transformations that could occur at the mastering stage and learning the technical understanding of how to translate those moments of musical magic onto difficult formats such as vinyl……… That was the best part of 2 decades ago and not a day goes by where I don’t love it more or learn something new. Its a real pleasure to do what I do.
How did you come to start a company in rural Devon?
Devon is my home. I never feel at peace anywhere else. I feel very strongly this is where I should be. I was born in Exeter and I have always been a country boy at heart! Who wouldn’t want to live in the wilderness its beautiful and the pace of life is just right for creative endeavors. When the opportunity arose to start my business I would not have dreamed of doing it anywhere else. I think with the advent of the Internet it has become possible to work from anywhere even with a remote client base. Most of my work arrives either by post or by FTP. My clients are spread all over the world with quite a number being in various areas of the UK, America, Australia, Mexico and even Russia.
I think by not being in central London like a lot of my competitors I have much lower overheads and this can be reflected in what I charge for my services. The main ambition of Stardelta was to offer a premium service at a very reasonable cost. The main thing that makes this possible is not having to pay for expensive premises in central London. I think when you look at it like that you can see it is very easy to work from Rural Devon with ease. (Apart from when it Snows then you could be in trouble when the cabin fever sets in!)
You have an impressive list of clients on your website, do you have a favorite project that you have worked on?
That’s a really hard question to answer. I wouldn’t pick just one there has been so many but I would say there are frequently projects where the outcome of the mastering really compliments and enhances the music beyond all expectations.The magic in the performance and the recording sometimes gets lost at the mix stage and the mastering brings it back to life. When you get these elements to combine, you know you have nailed it!
Its an exciting feeling knowing that a job is going back to the artist or label and that they are going to be on the phone or email raving about how great it sounds. I also really enjoy the attended mastering sessions where you see peoples faces light up and the excitement in their eyes.I have had people say to me that it wasn’t until the mastering stage that the record really sounded how they wanted it to sound at any stage of the process.
I always really enjoy the the projects where I am cutting masters for vinyl as well as doing a set of masters for the digital release. You get to do two different sets of masters one more suited to the vinyl format and one more geared towards the CD or digital. The vinyl masters are always dynamically less compromised. As a music lover this always brings me joy as contrary to popular belief its not the mastering engineers who want really loud CDs! (hint,Hint)
I also love the projects where I am either working from open reel tape or as part of the mastering process the music is transferred to tape. I often use tape as a means of adding some extra dimension to the mixes before the mastering process. Nearly all music mixed in the box needs some kind of analog help to really achieve its full potential. Music made by groups of musicians with real instruments especially using live drums often really lacks detail and clarity when mixed in the box.
Transferring to tape helps massively to enhance some of what is missing and fills out the sound in a very musical way. Very often it seems to recover the ambiance of the room that it was originally recorded in and allows the recording to shine. Its not always the right thing to do though. Music for clubs wont always benefit from the process although some drum and bass and dubstep sounds amazing after the tape treatment. You need to just listen carefully and make a judgement call when it is the right thing to do. When it works though its amazing especially when you get to cut the results to vinyl afterwards!
Your facility is stocked full of classic hardware processing gear, what are your thoughts on the range of software mastering tools that are available?
Hmm…….. I might not be the best person to ask about this it depends on your perspective I suppose. I have got some strong views that I am happy to share!
Mastering to a professional standard cant be carried out by using software alone. It just wont cut the mustard I am afraid. There are some engineers who get a good sound using software plugins and a combination of hardware gear. Personally I use no Plug-ins at all in the mastering process. I don’t know any proper mastering houses that use just software alone. There are a lot of online places that do it all with plug-ins and charge less for it. I think frankly that the reason it costs less is because it gives you only an acceptable (if you are lucky) result not an excellent one. One of my biggest aims with Stardelta mastering was to offer proper, Professional, hardware mastering at the same cost as the online plug-in guys. The antidote if you like!
Software can produce a result that would be perhaps acceptable for demo purposes and to this extent is useful and is a great educational tool. One point to consider is that music in its most basic form is just collected vibrational energy. The process of creating, Recording and reproducing this music,in the post recording studio age is more often than not done entirely in a computer especially with certain forms of electronic music.
When music is created using digits instead of vibrations, or electricity as these vibrations will become when captured through a transducer, only part of the picture is available. The process of digitising electrical energy made from vibrations is a mere snapshot of the original picture. It is measured in bits and has a limited dynamic range. When music is entirely created digitally within a computer the only time it becomes a sound wave is when it is played back through a loudspeaker. You could look at this as being the equivalent of a guitar string being struck and a sound being produced. Just hearing that guitar string being played is only part of the picture. In order to record that sound you need to make an electrical analog of what you hear so that the note or sound you hear is recorded in a way that it can be reproduced for listening to.
If you just make music inside the computer and master it with plugins you are in effect missing a vital piece of the picture. One entire stage of the process that could be referred to as the recording. That recording process of the guitar string being played requires the use of a transducer either a pickup or a microphone. The microphone or pickup needs to be connected to a preamplifier this in turn needs to be connected to a recording device. This correct chain of electronic equipment is necessary to capture this sound as vibration becomes electricity captured for reproduction. In a digital production made entirely inside a computer just played through a D to A converter you are only creating the electricity to power the loudspeaker. The digits sound empty, missing that vital magic that only analog hardware using electricity not binary code produces. The point I am trying to make is that since the advent of recorded sound it has either been a recording made from vibrations directly or vibrations converted into electrical energy.
This digital music making, created entirely from digits is unnatural and in a sense and can sound that way. No amount of plugins which are just more digits can improve on this situation. Its worth mentioning that analog modelling is just that. A model not an analog. Mastering using real gear with real electricity flowing through the circuits brings those all digital productions to life. Quite simply because digits will only ever be a snapshot of the whole picture. I am not suggesting that somehow my gear puts back what is missing as this is not scientifically possible but what is does do is to help fill the gaps and breathe some much needed warmth and width into the sound. There is no equal to hardware processing in the hands of an experienced engineer. Not to mention the fact that I would be bringing objective and unbiased ears to the project which most producers really need by the time music gets to mastering.
I have an enormous list of clients who would agree,after having used both plugins then used my services and compared the results. I think it would be safe to say none return to using plugins! To sum up what I feel you cant argue with the science. Analog hardware has an infinite bit rate as electronics work with current and voltage not 1′s and 0′s.Software by its very nature has to convert the infinite into a finite number of bits sampled at a finite rate. If you compare the sound of both in a great sounding room, where you can make an unbiased judgement the difference is night and day. I would say however that at 24 bit 96KHZ the gap is getting closer but only through the best converters such a those made by Prism Sound. The converter is the key to good digital sound and comparing different converters can be like lifting a blanket off the speakers.
What piece of mastering advice do you find yourself giving most frequently?
There are a few which keep cropping up……..
Leave the mastering to the mastering engineer! Take the processing off the mix bus and provide me with a mix that has not been processed with limiting or compression. By all means send in two mixes. One with the processing on and one without. I can listen to what you have done at your end as a guide. Not having a mix without compression or limiting on the bus will make my job harder and will always compromise the result. The difference is astounding.
Don’t try and make your mix artificially loud. Volume is something mastering engineers know how to do if its required or appropriate. If you really want it loud this result will be much better when done by a mastering engineer using hardware not software. I always discuss with clients how loud they really want their masters and explain the improvements in fidelity that can be gained by sacrificing a bit of level. The mean average level that has become standard has reached the stage of serious compromise. I do have ways of making masters very loud with much less compromise but there will always be some compromises if you want to compete in the loudness Olympics and are going for gold!
Always think about the balance of the sounds. Sometimes it may be very beneficial to provide more mixes of the same track with different vocal balances or drum balances. The more choices I have, the more I can really avoid the compromises that can occur during mastering if a mix is lacking in certain respects. Most producers and engineers know when something isn’t quite right in the mix and this can often be a good way of helping achieve the best results from mastering discussion and experimentation with different mixes can produce stunning results.
The big one:
Watch out for clipping on Buses, Channels, Aux faders, EFX sends etc. Watch out for crackles caused by incorrect audio buffer settings. Watch out for distortion created by resonant filter sweeps on sounds in the track. You may not even pick it up when listening in your writing environment’s but when it comes to mastering if there is any distortion in there it will be amplified along with everything else. The one thing mastering doesn’t help to sound better is distortion. The most common problem I have is not being able to master a mix because of distortion that has not been spotted in the original mix before it is sent in for mastering. Check and check again for these things sometimes its hard to spot when you are mixing.
I find myself asking clients to De ess vocals more aggressively on a regular basis. I will only be able to do so much to control sibilance at the mastering stage. This is crucial if the master is destined to be cut to vinyl. Sibilance can be cut but will not trace back when played on a pickup. The sibilant sounds break up violently as the stylus struggles to track what has been cut. In general making sure this is in check before it gets to mastering will stop me from requesting a new mix or having to reduce the sibilance so much during mastering that other elements of the music are effected. The thing to bear in mind is that if you have sent in a mix that needs to be brightened and it has sibilant vocals or crash cymbals or open hats etc I will be brightening the sibilance too. This will mean more processing to control the sibilance and a compromised sound. I will always discuss this with clients if mixes turn up sounding like this and request a new mix if the fix will compromise the final result too much.
Keep basses in mono. This may sound a little odd but it is not possible to cut stereo bass to vinyl. I can use a tool here to put them back down the middle and cut it but if your track relies on stereo bass to sound powerful it may require a re mix or it could end up sounding not how you intended. This is only really an issue for vinyl jobs but I do find myself reducing the stereo spread of low frequencies on digital jobs as well. This is mainly because it tends to really swamp the mix if the bass is too stereo. It can sound very odd indeed and most of the time when I pull it up as an issue the artist wont be aware of the problem in their mix.
Watch the tops……. My most common vinyl problem is that I cant cut something because of excessive high frequencies in the mix. I can normally remove them and cut the record if I have to. In a lot of cases this causes no problem… but it is far better to send in your mix with a hi cut eq added using an 18db per octave Q cut down to 16 or 17KHZ on all of the drums and things such as white noise effects or crash cymbals. You will often find by doing this you loose very little in terms of brightness but gain some more space in the mix. Those ultra high frequencies on bright sounds often confuse the ears when they exist in large quantities and doing this not only makes it possible to cut the track but improves the clarity of the mix. Just doing this on the drums will allow the rest of the parts of the track to be unaffected by the eq cut that I would otherwise have to carry out. Because i cant just get at the drums on their own on a stereo mix (unless they are all in mono) this will give a better result than me making the Low pass adjustment at this end.
Always work at the highest sample and bit rate possible but don’t sample rate convert unless you really have to. If you have written the track at 16 bit 44.1 KHZ there is little benefit in turning it into a 24 bit 96 KHZ file this just degrades the audio. If you can work at high sample and bit rates do it. The difference is enormous.
You still produce vinyl masters which many see as a dying format, do you think vinyl has a future?
Interesting question there. There is a misconception that vinyl is just about to turn up its toes. This nasty rumor has been kicking around since the 1980′s……. It is indeed true that for years CD sales have been far greater than vinyl sales but, dead or dying it is not. I can tell you why and I can also explain how it is actually on the rise not on the decline which may be a surprise. Firstly vinyl is a high quality format which compared to all digital forms of media contains far more of the the recorded information. This has meant that the popularity of vinyl amongst the audiophile community has never been out of demand and never surpassed.
The rise during the 1990′s of club DJ’s playing vinyl made the sales of maxi 12″ singles huge and flew in the face of its detractors. Although there has been somewhat of a decline in this area in recent years (not so much in Drum and Bass and Dubstep which are going very strong on vinyl) this decline has been replaced. What has happened to replace the volume of units of vinyl being produced is smaller runs of often limited edition vinyl products by artists or labels who want vinyl. For many there is no choice in the matter they have to make records, the digital is only one release format, secondary to the vinyl. Musicians and record labels choose to do small runs of vinyl for the love of the music and the love of the format.
Its also a smart business move if you have a great record. Quite a few of my clients actually make nearly three times as much money from releasing small runs of vinyl than all the income from digital online sales put together. It is important to consider also that vinyl has a value and is treated as an investment in the artist and their music by the labels. As an investment the sale price is higher and consequentially the income returned is higher.
There has been an increasing culture of releasing digitally online as this provides zero financial risk for labels. The problem with this is that the quality control has slipped and they are not really investing in their artists or developing a quality product as there is nothing for them to loose by just releasing everything digitaly. The tide has turned and many more labels are doing small runs of vinyl to go alongside the download releases available. This includes a lot of what were once digital only labels realising the empty future of exclusively online sales and doing small runs of vinyl. A lot of the successful labels never slowed down on the vinyl releases as these were the core the label was founded on and continues to be.
The thing you cant escape is the physicality of records. They are very alluring not to mention the sound of vinyl which has much more of the original recording still intact. If it wasn’t for vinyl I wouldn’t be doing what I do now. I cant imagine my world without it and i know the same is true for a great number of my clients. Music consumers are being starved of the full experience of owning music by not having a vinyl release. You have to ask the question do you ever really own a load of digits on a hardrive? And what does it represent in terms of a musical legacy for the artist? A low grade snapshot of a piece of music that can be completely erased with one click. These low grade files are reproduced through cheap D to A converters and played through a laptop or mobile phone this is not a sustainable future for the music industry.
Those questions doesn’t have to be asked when you buy a record, you get the full experience. The way it sounds, the way it feels,smells and the artwork, you actually own it. I never did smell an MP3 or pick it up and marvel at its beauty!
I think the question you should have asked would have been: You still produce CD masters which many see as a dying format, do you think CD has a future?
I can say with all certainty that Vinyl will keep on going for many, many more years. I don’t think the same can be said for CD. Although this is very sad in itself I cant see CD surviving in an online digital world where an MP3 has become somehow acceptable. I don’t want to see this happen at all but it never really had the same magic as its analog cousin and like MP3 was born out of convenience not excellence. The future for CD is much less certain. The great hope is for faster broadband and greater,cheaper hard drive space. This would enable the download and storage of much less compromised formats such as FLAC and WAV etc to become the standard and hopefully banish the MP3.
I believe there is a growing awareness of the need for a return to quality recordings and in the next few years I look forward to watching the development of this. In fact I will do everything in my power to promote the need for it.
What are your plans for 2011?
2011 looks set to be a good year. I have recently started a sister company to Stardelta Mastering called Delta Disc Manufacturing. Delta Disc Manufacturing is a no compromise, one stop shop for all things vinyl and CD. We take on the whole process of manufacturing the clients releases from mastering (here at Stardelta) for CD and Vinyl, the cutting of master lacquers to producing the vinyl or CD itself.
We will manage the full production including design of artwork (if required) using our partners for this, who are the the excellent GAK design who can cater for all your sleeve and label design needs. If you already have artwork it can be transferred to our existing templates and produced from there. We can do all types of sleeve and label design and manufacture from simple packaging and labels to very complex productions. Your wish is our command anything is possible. The client will be able to take advantage of our deal with the worlds finest pressing plant for vinyl and CD and we will manage the whole process for just one fee that includes the mastering and all the leg work.
The desire to do this was born from wanting to make it affordable for clients to produce vinyl and CD rather than just release digitally. As you would expect the prices will be the UK’s best for package deals of this type of quality. The new website for Delta Disc Manufacturing will go live early in 2011. I cant wait!The stem mixing side of things looks set to continue being very busy. I find myself doing a lot of mix and master package deals for clients who want their projects mixed in the analog domain on a proper console with the best selection of analog processing gear. Room 2 (the mix suite) here at Stardelta is really perfect for that ultra high quality mix experience, coupled with the mastering services my clients are getting the best of both worlds. They can write their music in the box and send stems for mixing and mastering in the analog domain for the best sound possible. I am going to be putting up some mix and master package deals on the website soon. I am able to, like with all the other services keep the prices low due to low overheads and do a great deal for my clients.I also intend to keep thumping the vinyl Bible, preaching the good word of vinyl glory and generally getting on everybody’s nerves going on about fidelity and resolution of recorded music and how it should be!
Other plans for 2011 will be to keep busy mastering for both my existing clients and looking forward to working with new clients. I will keep enjoying the music as always, and the privilege of doing what I believe is the best most satisfying and heart warming job in the world.
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