Turner Hopkins HQ has moved to the West Country for a week or so. So, while in the area, we took the opportunity to visit an old colleague and friend, the (genuinely) legendary mastering engineer Simon Heyworth, at his studio, Super Audio Mastering, in the extraordinary setting of the Dartmoor National Park (which is probably enough superlatives for one sentence).
I was privileged to work with Simon back in the 90s, when I was at Virgin Records, following a quite schizophrenic career path: on one hand I was overseeing general “catalogue exploitation” (think reissues, box sets, mid price catalogue marketing campaigns and the like for artists such as Bryan Ferry and Genesis); on the other I was creating a series of compilations of new (mostly electronic) underground music and newly commissioned albums which went on to be something of a cult phenomenon and even has its own Wikipedia entry (which no, I didn’t write) under the heading “Virgin Ambient series”.
Simon was a key collaborator in both these areas of activity. He cut his teeth as a studio engineer and producer in the 70s. Actually, “cut his teeth” barely does it justice: Simon mixed Tubular Bells, thus playing a pivotal role in launching a legendary musical career and an even more legendary business empire. But by the time I was working with Simon he’d carved out a role as one of the three or four best known mastering engineers on the planet.
For those not in the know, mastering is effectively the last stage in the process of getting recorded music out into the world. Once music has been written, recorded, mixed and “produced” (a pretty nebulous term in all honesty) it needs one final little bit of attention, and that’s mastering, a process which will render the finished product something that can be cut to vinyl, CD, cassette and, yes, download file. There are two clichés about mastering: that it’s about sprinkling on “fairy dust” and that it’s a “dark art”. Most clichés are a bit shonky; these ones aren’t.
First the “fairy dust” cliché. A good recording isn’t going to make a woeful piece of music anything other than woeful; a great mix won’t fix a bad recording; and great mastering won’t rectify a bad mix. But my God, it can make the mediocre sound good, and make the good sound like something you’d lie down in front of a train to hear once.
As for the “dark arts” stuff, well… All I can say on that is that I used to attend pretty much every mastering session Simon did for me while I was at Virgin and I had absolutely no idea what he was doing with all that tech, and, more profoundly, had no idea how he was able to hear what he did. And yet, and yet… the transformation he wrought on the music he worked on was palpable. The irony is that after my own personal learning curve from Hell of coming to grips with composing, recording and mixing over the last four years, I’ve learned what all the component technical parts of mastering are – say, limiting, compressing, EQing – and yet as a result, the alchemical process of mastering remains more mysterious to me than ever. Really, it does.
(Over the last decade or so, Simon has also added mastering in 5.1 surround sound to his repertoire of dark arts skills; that might seem a detail at this point, but hang in there… )
Anyhow, the whole issue of mastering has been on my mind in two very different contexts recently: my own personal music making and our report into the value of User-Generated Content (UGC) for Ofcom. And the conversation we had with Simon (and after listening to King Crimson‘s Thrak in 5.1 – oh my) took in some themes that I think are relevant here. I’ll look at them – briefly (because in truth, there are three separate essays to be written here) under the headings of Quality, Attention and Business.
Firstly there’s the issue of quality. Specifically, sound quality, although I think this applies across the digital media industries in many ways. I’m going to leave aside the issue of whether sound quality took a step back with the advent of CD (seriously, I’m not going there; a discussion of the superiority of vinyl on the World Service* this evening had me shouting at the radio, and really, I’m 46 so need to think about my blood pressure). Broadly speaking, the history of phonography from the turn of last century until, let’s say, the turn of this one, was one of continual progress**.
The age of digital has arguably been wonderful for the music fan – of any genre – in terms of access. But access has come at a price: along with the bathwater of inconvenience and artificial scarcity we’ve unquestionably thrown out the bathwater of sonic quality. Here’s the thing about the kind of alchemical transformations I’m claiming on behalf of Simon Heyworth and his brethren: does it count for diddly in the age of the unquestionably convenient but thoroughly compromised MP3 (which I use as a stand in for all compressed digital files)? And what about when those files are played back on crappy earbuds or on “docking stations” or – God help us – phone speakers?
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been trumpeting the opportunities presented by the digital revolution for the avid music fan since 2001, as one of the participants of the DTI’s Digital Music Mission and as a co-author of the resultant report, Monetising Anarchy. At one stage I even began to ditch my CD collection as I ripped it. Thankfully I didn’t get far – a fried hard drive brought me to my senses – although, as I was perversely making my way backwards alphabetically I ditched CDs by, among others, Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Yo La Tengo, Yes and Xenakis. All replaced now, but really, what was I thinking?
I grant you that the epiphany I had – that is, this just doesn’t sound that good – is one which I would like to think will come to many of us. But, but… many people don’t have the opportunities to listen to music closely as “life takes over” (see Attention below) and, more to the point, a whole generation is growing up who frankly doesn’t know any better.
I remember to this day my first hi-fi experience: my grandfather’s stepson (it’s complicated) had just acquired a Japanese hi-fi and played me Blue Öyster Cult‘s Don’t Fear The Reaper. I was 9 or thereabouts, and had literally never heard anything like it. Not so much the song – although it is, to be clear, a hard rock masterpiece – but the sound. Like something to swim in, or drown in.
Wind forward a generation and half a lifetime: I’d just recently set up a decent mid-range Cambridge Audio CD player and amp and Audio Research speakers at home. Over dinner, with some music playing away quietly in the background, my teenage daughter Lily asked if that was surround sound. “No, Lily, that’s stereo.” I don’t mean this patronisingly; it sort of breaks my heart that her sonic horizons have been, well, so severely limited by her compressed digital upbringing.
I dearly hope something hasn’t been lost forever – that would be a tragedy.
So, back at Simon’s studio we’re listening to Crimson in surround and I begin to ponder: how many people in the world have a set up at home to appreciate this? The pragmatic answer to that is: enough to make this a viable business not only for Simon but for the repertoire owners and musicians (sometimes the same thing!) remixing their back catalogues in 5.1, and producers like Porcupine Tree’s brilliant Steven Wilson who are carving out careers as 5.1 remix engineers. But more broadly, I got to wondering: does anyone actually sit down and listen to music any more?
That could sound like the question of a middle-aged man, I realise. Your life gets busier and suddenly, where’s the time to listen to a whole album, let alone all three and a third sides of The Köln Concert ? (Although we all seem to find time to watch Masterchef or Game of Thrones, but that’s something for another time.) But I don’t think it’s just that. I’ve watched my own three children, all music fans in their own way, grow up with music as seldom more than an accompaniment. There’s always something else going on. The acerbic and brilliant music business and tech commentator Bob Lefsetz has written often about how music no longer “drives the culture”. This is undoubtedly true, but why, exactly? Where I diverge from Lefsetz is that I certainly don’t believe it’s about the quality of the music being produced currently. Personally speaking, records made in the last decade by, among many others, Meshuggah, Richard Skelton, Rufus Wainright and Pat Metheny are in my metaphorical grab-from-the-burning-house scenario.
Rather, could it be that music is no longer a central part of the culture precisely because we simply don’t pay attention as closely as we once did? Is that why live is where the action is? Because the answer to the question “What is it that live music has that recoded doesn’t?” is, simply: your attention.
So here’s the final thing, and the one which relates to my personal music making and to our more general thesis about UGC. If mastering is a dark art, it’s because, like all dark arts,the principal component of its practice is experience. Remember my comment about what Simon Heyworth can hear? Well, I’m sure some of that is a gift, but I’m convinced that Simon’s ability simply comes from doing this for decades. Think about Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and the 10,000 hours required to become really good at something. Simon’s almost certainly put in 5 times that. And then some.
That experience, of course, comes at a price.
So can Simon’s skills – the process of mastering – be acquired more cheaply? In terms of kit, well, almost. The kit in Simon’s studio is beyond the financial reach of most “bedroom” producers. But the plugins available for a relatively small amount of money are incredible – easily equivalent to “pro” studios from just a few years ago.
But can you buy those years of experience, those years of listening? I think you can answer that one.
We discussed this at a recent workshop with Ofcom, indeed, we had a bit of a testy discussion about it. The kit becomes ever more available, but the time? The experience? You can’t buy that.
The truth is, if you want your recordings to sound truly professional, to have that extra thing, you need it mastered by someone who can hear. But in a world where even Lady Gaga is allegedly making only coppers from her Spotify streams, then where do the rest of us raise the money from digital to pay for the kind of attention which might just make our efforts sound as good as records we grew up with? Well, as it it happens, Simon’s studio offers cut price deals for the growing hoards of “unsigned” artists like me. Personally, I’ll be taking up his offer.
*The context, for what it’s worth, was Record Store Day, of which, to be clear, I heartily approve. I’ll be off to Black Cat Records in Taunton tomorrow to see what they’re doing to commemorate.
** See Greg Milner’s masterful – and hugely entertaining – history of music and sound recording, Perfecting Sound Forever.