Mastering albums: Listening to how people actually listen to music
In the mid-’60s, when The Beach Boys’ resident genius Brian Wilson wrestled control of the production of the Beach Boys albums from his label, his overbearing father, and the stale music industry as a whole, he would meticulously mix and master the music on massive stereo speakers at the Capitol studios, and then go out to his T-bird and play the mix on his shitty car stereo.
Wilson was acutely aware that this was the main way in which people would imbibe his music, and so he needed to make sure whatever mixes he made in the relative comfort of this state-of-the-art studio would translate to the way in which people actually listened to it.
In Paul McCartney’s (kinda) autobiography Many Years From Now (co-written with longtime friend Barry Miles), he bemoans the fact that The Beatles had to make stereo mixes of their post-1966 records because this fangled technology — in which two separate speakers blasted different sounds — was harder to regulate, and therefore compromised how the band wanted their records to sound. With ‘mono’, they could make sure everything was in its right place. He recalls being at a house party where the promise of a stereo experience involved bouncing from one side of a room to another in order to hear the subtleties of the mix while the actual song was secondary. Phil Spector — arguably one of the greatest producers of all time — was so vehemently against the technology that his best of box set was named ‘Back To Mono’.
In 1994, Owen Morris — who engineered the Oasis’ album Definitely Maybe — used a technique he called brick-walling, which basically involved pumping the impact and volume of the album so that when Definitely Maybe came onto radios or jukeboxes around the (bloomin’) U.K. it would be way louder than the song that preceded it. Volume is power. It worked. They sounded massive, which was merely a stroke of luck, as they happened to be the biggest-sounding band of the times – with or without brick-walling.
The loudness wars followed, in which digitally-sounding records that would be primarily played on MP3s, PS1s and car stereos were boosted and mastered for maximum loudness but minimum dynamics. Think Linkin Park’s Playstation-sounding records, in which you can almost hear the files. Think the digital rock records from the turn of the century. These albums sound terrible now, but sounded amazing blasted out of CD players during this era.
All of this begs the question: how should music be mastered now?
Should the fidelity be compromised in order to create something that sounds amazing coming out of iPod earbuds, or the iPhone speaker? Should certain frequencies be boosted in order to hit hardest in those earbuds while distorting or sounding muddy on actual thousand-dollar speakers?
Who do you serve? The audiophiles, or the majority?
The article was originally published on The Industry Observer