I made the drive out to Sacramento this morning to have the next Tycho single mastered by Eric Broyhill at Monster Lab Audio. In case this is sounding familiar to you, it’s because this is my second pass at this song. I mixed and mastered it last month but after repeated listens, something just wasn’t quite right so I did another mix over the past week and it’s finally wrapped. It’s been a long road, this particular track is sonically very dense and it’s been a very difficult one to mix. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the idea of mastering, it’s the last stage in the production process in which an engineer puts the finishing touches on your music and gets it into the form it will take for the final release — be it CD, MP3, vinyl, or otherwise. That is, of course, a gross oversimplification of what mastering is, if you’re really interested in the details here’s the Wiki article on the subject. It’s a vital step in the process of moving a recording out of your studio and into the real world where every stereo and every room is different, and you hope that your music sounds good on and in all of them. I think most importantly it puts another set of critical ears on your music. By the end of the production process your own ears can become deaf to the subtleties (or not-so-subtleties) and details of the material so it’s vital to have some fresh ears hear it for the first time and recognize it for what it is, not what it has become for you through infinite listens. Ideally, those ears belong to a capable person who knows waaaay more than you’ll ever know about the science and nuance behind how people perceive sound. Mastering can be heavy-handed or light and transparent, and therein lies the problem. Because the process can have such a profound effect on the final product, you have to trust the person doing it. You must have faith that they get what you’re trying to do with a song. It’s a very difficult thing to hand over the reigns to something you’ve put so much of yourself into, to another person who may or may not understand the essence of what you’re trying to do sonically with a song.
I was fortunate enough to meet Eric Broyhill back when I was finishing up my first album and he’s mastered all of my releases since. He’s great at understanding what I am going for and I am always amazed at the night-and-day results when I compare his versions with the raw material. The shots above are from his space which is located inside Hangar Studios (John Baccigaluppi’s studio and the home of TapeOp magazine) in Sacramento. I took these shots during a session a while back so they aren’t really up to date, I think he’s replaced a few pieces in the rack but the interiors are the same and that’s the really impressive thing about the place (unless you’re like me and you can’t stop staring at the Manley Massive Passive). A mastering environment has to be acoustically treated to ensure accurate monitoring of the material. There are many ways to go about this, most involve fiber sound absorbers and diffusers. I’ve always admired Eric’s solution to these problems from both a technical and aesthetic perspective. He was able to build much of the treatments into the structure so that they’re almost unnoticeable but the most prominent element is definitely meant to be noticed. The primary diffuser on the front wall is a giant face he had built by a local artist out of wood blocks set at varying heights (see picture above). This randomly redirects reflected sound waves to avoid phasing issues that can be caused by parallel surfaces. It looks amazing and sounds even more amazing when paired with the incredible Earthworks Sigma monitors he uses. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever heard a better sounding system than this one.
Now it’s time to finish up the album. I really can’t wait for the day I get to drive back out there, it’s always like a celebration for me at the end of the months spent in the studio slaving away on the music. You get to hand it over and then watch it become complete. If you’re in the market for mastering — which any self-respecting musician should be — definitely check out Eric at Monsterlab, he does incredible work at very reasonable rates. And if you’re not in Northern California I know he can do the work remotely as we did a couple sessions that way. Monsterlab Audio