Saturday, October 07, 2006

Yes, Master

I got the mastered CD today. Either this guy (mastering engineer) is really good, or I just don’t have the ears to hear where I’ve lost any quality to compression and whatnot. I’m betting on a combination of both.

Here’s what I can tell about the mastered version: The songs have a nice flow from one to the other, and all the levels are good. Mastering is the part where you take into consideration how much time you want between songs. Sometimes it’s one second, sometimes a second and a half, maybe two, maybe more. Sometimes you go right from one song to the next without a discernable pause. It depends on the order of the songs and the feel of each song. There’s a rhythm to the whole album – when it’s done well. (Just listen to Abbey Road.) Also, and this is hard to explain, the overall level (for simplicity we’ll say that’s the loudness and softness, or dynamics) from song to song is consistent while retaining the individual character of each song. In other words, there is no dramatic drop or rise in volume from one song to the next making you want to grab for the volume control for a manual adjustment. This is one of those little unnoticed, “behind-the-scenes” things about a professional recording. You don’t notice it, because (when done well) it just sounds like it’s the way it should be.

But, consider two different songs – for instance “Fire” and “Let It Burn,” which are back to back on my CD. “Fire” is a “quiet” song – just acoustic guitar, vocal, piano and cello. It’s intimate, moody and mellow. I could be sitting in your living room playing for you. “Let It Burn” is all-out angry rock and roll. Think Bachman Turner Overdrive. It’s got the acoustic guitar in there, along with a searing electric guitar, driving percussion, a horn section, bass and organ. Live in your living room it would shatter your windows. So, here they are, these two songs, back to back. You’d think one would be louder than the other. Well, a good mastering job (which this is) gives the perception that one is louder and the other is softer by keeping the integrity and the nuance and the spirit and the soul of the songs intact, while making the overall level about the same. Got it?

There is one change we want to make. After weeks, maybe months, of playing with the song order, I finally had to give in to what had been bugging me since we wrapped the recording phase. I didn’t want to. I had been fighting it. But there was one song that just disturbed the rhythm, the pace, the general flow of the record. I just didn’t want to lose another song (remember “Light?”) even though I knew it would improve the quality as a whole. The song is “Every Step a Prayer” and it runs about eight minutes long. And it’s kind of tedious. In a good way. And our arrangement of the song is good. It’s got a cool synthesizer part by Ed, nice backing vocals by Celia and a Flugelhorn part by Mark. Thematically, it’s an important song. The message is pertinent. It’s not badly written…it just takes a little patience to listen to. I’ve done it live many times, especially for MLK events (I wrote it for an MLK event), and it works in that context. But it just disrupted the flow of the CD. I found myself skipping over it during listen-throughs.

I finally came up with a solution. We decided to take it out of the mix but leave it on the album as a “bonus track.” It’ll be at the end of the record with a long space (5-10 seconds) between the “last” song and it. The track list will read eleven songs plus one bonus track. I think that will solve the problem. Only, I thought of this after we sent it off to get mastered and somewhere this communication got missed. But it’s not that big a deal (I think). Nothing about the mix or the master really has to change except song order, and that’s nothing these days since everything is digital (see: Where Are We Now?).

It won’t be long now. Depending on your definition of “long.”

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