seeing studios, mastering mastering, and hearing as a producer

last week i went to king of kings studio to have no substitute mastered. king of kings is a humble but certainly adequate recording space (in an earlier description i called it "non-descript but well equipped"), located on constant spring road (midtown). it is widely recognized for producing the martial arts riddim, among others, and, as you can see by the tracklisting for the double-cd, king of kings is a place where a number of "big artists" record. i was there to meet with everton burrell, or "eva," the main studio engineer. eva is a master of the boards and computers at the studio, and his daily duties include recording, mixing, and mastering. i have been curious about mastering for some time now, so i was looking forward to learning a bit about the mysterious process.

from what i have been able to glean online and by talking to friends, mastering is a cross between an art and a science. it requires some serious sensitivity and some serious tools. the goal of mastering, as i understand it, is to get an audio recording to sound as full and loud as possible, with as little noise as possible, so that it plays optimally through a wide range of audio equipment. mastering can increase the depth and sense of detail of a musical recording. and it seems to be the process that separates amateur-quality recordings from professional-sounding products. this has irked me for some time, since i am a great advocate for the democratizing potential of digital tools. i like the way a simple PC and some good software can enable one to make professional-quality music in their own home without the huge resources, and costs, of a studio. still, i noticed in my own home-studio work that the music i created--no matter how well mixed--never sounded quite like that on a cd from a store. it always seemed to be lacking a certain kind of punch, some subtle but profound power. i am hesitant to put out a product that lacks this quality, as i feel it could forestall the kind of engagement that i want people to have with my music. i decided i could kill two birds with one stone at king of kings: i could get my latest effort mastered and figure out something about mastering in the process. a third bird fell as well: hanging out in a jamaican studio is a great way to further my research.

i have only a foggy idea of how mastering was done before the digital revolution (it usually involves tubes of various sorts), but it seems that many studios, especially those with fewer resources than a bigtime studio, mainly use computers to do it these days. it is noteworthy that some people still prefer the "warmth" of analog processing and find digital processing a bit "hard." for those who have no access to analog equipment, programs such as sonic foundry's sound forge and steinberg's wavelab make processes such as noise reduction, normalizing, and EQing a snap. eva, who has been working in the studio since 1997, demonstrated not only a fluency with sound forge but also a finely-tuned ear. with years of close-listening experience under his belt, eva has grown rather sensitive to what i might call timbral issues--e.g., problems involving not the pitch, or loudness, or duration, but the quality of a sound. this gets us into rather un-verbalizable territory here, as sound itself is perhaps even more difficult to talk about than music. typically, when people refer to a sound's quality, or timbre (pronounced tam-ber), they resort to metaphors drawn from other senses, such as vision (bright, dark), touch (rough, hard), and taste (sweet). this kind of synaesthesia (describing one sensory experience with reference to another) may be illustrative, but it's far from precise. of course, precision in this area is not necessarily all that important, especially if--as in mastering--the main timbral aspect we're concerned with is noise (or lack of it). noise, or white noise, can be produced by a number of things on a recording. for one thing, one's environment is nearly constantly suffused with the stuff. just take a minute to listen. computers, fans, power supplies, distant cars, and various other ubiquitous things create white noise. sometimes it is suprising how easily one tunes it out. microphones, however, are unforgiving about it. a sensitive mic will pick up all kinds of undesirable sounds, whereas one's ears/brain are remarkably adept at automatically focusing in on some sounds and ignoring others.

many of my school-based field recordings, with which i thematically weave together the tracks on no substitute, are filled with white noise. i actually liked the noise in these cases because i thought it captured and expressed the distinctive atmosphere, or ambience, of the classrooms where i was recording. eva took a while to get used to it and still insisted on removing some of the noise--which, in such cases, turned out to be a subtle but effective action. eva worked some wonders with the software. even with sound forge's powerful noise-reduction plug-in, one still needs to get the settings right in order to make it work. in the past, i have used the process in attempts to reduce the noise on particularly nasty samples, but rarely have i been happy with the results. if one attempts to remove too much noise, one loses sound quality as well. the music can become thinnish, sounding a bit too processed. i noticed that generally eva took it easy when reducing the noise, careful not to do too little or too much. here is where the art comes in. even with the software making the process easy, one needs to use it sensitively, to interpret the results according to aesthetic criteria, and to craft a desirable product. the same is true for normalizing, which was the other major component of eva's mastering job (most of the tracks seemed to be adequately EQ'd already, and several were noiseless, which served as some affirmation for my mixing abilities and attention to sound quality). normalizing is another mysterious process. it seems to consist of adjusting the peak volume on a track as well as leveling it out and fattening it somewhat. if we are talking about mastering an entire album, normalizing also means getting the levels to about the same point for all the tracks, so that none are louder or softer than others. again, eva had a sense of where to put the settings in order to maximize the sound on each track. sometimes after normalizing, the wav file would appear to be "peaking" (i.e., too loud in some places and possibly causing digital distortion, which is a very undesirable thing). i would let out a little gasp--actually more of a "woy-oh," a strange exclamation that i seem either to have picked up or created here--to signal my surprise and concern. often, however, it only looked like it was distorting, and a close listen revealed a nice, full sound.

it took us about two hours to go through all twenty tracks. for some reason, eva couldn't get his cd-burning software to record the tracks without inserting two-seconds of silence in between each one. this was unfortunate because i had already carefully worked out the endings of each track so that they create a continuous mix. (i had to remind eva on several occasions not to fade out a song that was supposed to segue directly into the next track.) since i use sound forge on my own computer, however, i knew i could take the mastered tracks home and cut the silence out of each one. in the process of doing so i discovered that one track had some new clicking during an intro and another had been noise-reduced a little too much. as a result, i will need to go back and redo those tracks. i could attempt to re-master them myself, but i would prefer that they have the consistency of sound that results from the same person using the same settings on the same tools. moreover, heading back to king of kings will give me a chance to speak further with eva about working in a studio in kingston. i am sure he has plenty of thoughts about the hybridization of dancehall and hip-hop these days. and i'm sure he can connect me to others who have their own perspectives to share. it was interesting simply to be in the studio, mastering my album, and getting feedback from the artists and others hanging out there. a couple of djs made it a point to complement me on my rapping. one guy was totally blown away by cipher by the pool and thought that afroclick (which is based on some traditional ewe rhythms and dressed up with techno) could be a hit riddim in jamaica. i tried to tell him the beat might be difficult to flow over, since it is in 12/8 time, but he argued that jamaican artists are especially versatile when it comes to riding rhythms and that they would definitely come up with something. eva's favorite track on the album was miami airport, which seemed like an interesting track to pick out. perhaps it makes more sense when considered alongside his request for enya's latest album (he wondered if i have it; i don't).

it might seem strange that a jamaican studio engineer who spends most of his time recording dancehall tunes would have a soft spot for the new-age stylings of enya, but these kind of contradictions (of my own assumptions about jamaican music) don't surprise me anymore. (i have revised my assumptions.) if i have learned anything while living in jamaica, it is that jamaicans love all kinds of music, and sometimes in a can-you-believe-france-loves-jerry-lewis kind of way. this was at first suprising since there is a tendency outside (and inside) of jamaica to romanticize jamaican music as so distinctive and original that it would be unthinkable for a jamaican to listen to anything else. this is one reason i was curious about hip-hop's strong presence in kingston on my first couple of visits. what would it mean for young jamaicans to want to express themselves through decidedly non-jamaican sounds? (of course, recently i have done a lot of re-thinking around the "un-jamaican" sound of hip-hop.) much of jamaica's locally produced music certainly is distinctive and original (though a lot of it is derivative and unremarkable, like anywhere else). but this does not mean that people want to listen to it exclusively or feel the need to define themselves by some nationalistic allegiance to it. on the contrary, when it comes to musical preferences and practices, people seem to define themselves more through the type of non-jamaican music they listen to than the subgenre of reggae they prefer. just yesterday i had a long conversation with a jamaican man, perhaps in his late thirties, whose favorite music is what he called "hard rock" and what others might call "prog(ressive) rock." he named pink floyd and yes as his favorites, explaining that he liked these bands music for its richness and depth (i.e., a lot to listen to) and its emphasis on melody. he also said he enjoys what he called "indigenous" music from places like india and malaysia. in particular, he is drawn to the polyrhythms produced by hand drums like the tabla from northern india. with such a diversity of musical styles in the air and such an open mind for them (at least among non-fundamentalists; last week, for example, a principal at a christian school told me that there would be no dancehall allowed in her computer labs), it is not surprising that recent hit riddims seem to draw on styles outside the traditional realm of reggae resources ("eastern" sounding melodies and percussion and techno rhythms seem the favorites of late). take a listen to my remix of sunday morning jamaican radio, if you haven't already, to hear the wide range of music being broadcast throughout jamaica on a daily basis (and, mind you, it was culled from just twelve minutes of sampling).

mastering at king of king's was worth it, even if, as many online sources suggest, simply using software like sound forge is not the best approach. my cd's new sound quality is certainly adequate for my current desire (simply to spread my music around). more importantly, it was an informative and tangible introduction to mastering--a fascinating, important, and understudied (at least by academics) realm of music making. there is much to appreciate about the subtlety and the power of the process. it is something that very few people--musicians and musicologists alike--think about but that all listeners inevitably respond to. here again is an instance where my experience as a musician, specifically as a producer, not only informs but directs my research interests. understanding more about the ins-and-outs of the production process helps me to determine which are the important and interesting questions to ask. at some point, i will have to check out a serious mastering studio, perhaps when back in boston (and by serious, i mean, dedicated to that purpose alone and properly outfitted for it). i am sure that a facility such as m-works (which i encountered in my online research on mastering), would be able to answer, and suggest, a number of my questions about this final stage of the production process and the role it plays in the music industry. (i hate that term, by the way, but sometimes it is appropriate. adorno's labeling of the "culture industry" is, if not pejorative, at least descriptive of its relationship to the market economy.)

a couple days after visiting king of kings i had the opportunity to compare it to another small but capable studio in town, kingston music, located in the mona (uptown) area of kingston. dami was there to voice a song with a dj named crazy b. crazy b is a friend of sean, one of the studio's engineers, and they were there to put their stamp on one of the riddims the studio is in the process of voicing and will soon release. according to crazy and dami, they were the youngest artists--career-wise (crazy is actually in his early thirties)--to voice on the riddim, putting them in the company of bounty killer and other big names. for this, they were proud. i took a taxi up to the studio and dami met me at the gate. just inside the yard were a group of dreads, half of whom were japanese, hanging out, smoking, and enjoying the shade of a low-hanging tree. we stepped inside the converted house, which now holds three studios, and it was even cooler there. dami, crazy, and i each rolled a spliff of what they call "(h)igh grade" around here. they both wanted the proper "meds" (slang for vibe or mood) for the recording process, as did i. another artist, a dj named chaos, was still doing some voicing when i arrived, so crazy and dami had to wait their turn. with its techno bounce and multiple layers of percussion and melody, the riddim that chaos was riding rather inventively was clearly a post-diwali riddim.

the diwali is the most popular riddim of the last year, and for good reason: with its house-music-inspired, dancehall-hybrid drums, layered synth-melodies and distinctive hand-claps, it is original and infectious. the diwali was produced by steven "lenky" marsden, an up-and-coming dancehall producer who played for some time in buju banton's 'til shiloh band. it has produced at least 6 different hits in jamaica alone, and has charted two songs--by sean paul and wayne wonder--in the US (which must seem strange for many american listeners, i think). one of the things that makes the rhythm so catchy and listenable is the way that lenky arranges different versions for each voicing, "personalizing" the rhythm to fit a particular artist's tuneful conception. compare for example the distinctive inventions of bounty killer (featuring wayne marshall on the chorus), elephant man (melody ring a bell?), and wayne wonder (watch how the riddim sneaks up on you on this one), who come up with, respectively, dancehall-, pop-, and r&b-inspired tunes. it is already clear that the diwali has left its mark on dancehall's rhythmic conventions. not only is it imitated in jamaican television commercials but, as demonstrated by the dan studio riddim, it has spawned a new sub-style of its own: one that combines the rhythmic frameworks of dancehall and techno and adds a little "old world" spice--whether the old world is india (the name "diwali" refers to the indian festival of lights) or africa (the hand-drums in the dan studio riddim prompted crazy b to call it "jungle music").

crazy b had interesting perspectives on other things as well. it was a fortuitous meeting, for crazy is exactly the type of cat i am seeking out here in jamaica and plan to seek out in-and-around new york once i get back up north. crazy was born in jamaica, but grew up in the bronx (like kool herc), and even spent a bit of time in the US army, stationed all over the south. for the last several years, he has lived in jamaica. as a result of all this worldly experience, his exposure to jamaican and american musics, vernaculars, and cultural workings is broad and deep. he draws on both worlds in his music, talk, dress, and composure. we had a great, ranging conversation about hip-hop in the bronx in the 80s, american slang, white rappers (he rates eminem as high as anyone else), and coming up as a dj in kingston. i plan to speak with him in greater detail about all of these things soon. it took crazy a little while to figure me out. he was very friendly (trusting me through dami and, i assume, my generosity, demonstrated knowledge of things jamaican and non, and comfort level) but occasionally contentious, wanting to ascertain my motives. we had a funny moment when, after explaining myself, he recognized his aggressive questioning and called it "reasoning" (the rasta term for philosophizing or making an argument), which was a nice way of describing the deeply engaged conversation we were having. at first, as usual, i was introduced as a producer, but before long it came out that i rapped as well. i did a little something in the battle rap mode for crazy, who dug the performance and became perhaps the thirtieth person to make the eminem comparison. most of all, crazy seemed to appreciate that he could understand--not phonetically but culturally--almost every word i said. judging by the way he bragged to dami, crazy clearly got off on being able to decode hip-hop slang in the same way that i take pleasure from deciphering dancehall parlance.

when it was time for dami and crazy to voice their tune, we moved into the main studio room. first we listened to chaos kill the diwali-esque riddim, as the engineers did a basic mixdown. the studio was filled with nice racks and modules, though the majority of the activity seemed to be digital. they were using nuendo, a powerful multitracking program, to record and mix the vocals with the riddim tracks. the focal point of the room is a pair of immense speakers, lying on either side of the dual-monitors used to edit the audio. i was surprised to find out that the loud and full sound we were hearing was not being produced by these behemoths but by a much smaller pair of speakers. jamaicans know sound technology. there is nothing like experiencing a sub-bass boom through a stack of jamaican-tweaked speakers. as i was interested in the set-up and operations of the place, i got to talking with kevin, the studio-owner and main engineer, about the software he used for recording and mastering (he prefers steinberg's products), his approach to building rhythms (he prefers hardware: MPC drum machines and the korg triton keyboard, which seem to be the most common tools for beat-making in dancehall and hip-hop), and the success of his studio endeavor. kevin had plenty of questions about pro-tools (my preference for multitracking) and the production tools and techniques used in the US. he was quite a techy (and i mean that in a good way) and described the construction, and maintenance, of the DAW (digital audio workstation--essentially, a really souped-up computer: fast processing, lots of RAM and memory, a top-notch soundcard, professional software, and a big fan) that he has put together. meantime, i watched the other engineer, sean, skillfully entice strong performances from crazy and dami, cutting and pasting the track together in real time during the recording process (though a real mix-down did not happen until the next day). the song they put together is a catchy one. dami came up with a sung-chorus, based on a melodic line in the riddim, and crazy had three verses worth of jamaica-centric, if hip-hop influenced, dj-lyrics. i heard a preliminary mix yesterday evening, but dami is not crazy about it. it seems that the engineers got a little effects-happy and perhaps added a bit too much reverb to the vocals.

over the course of these studio visits, work remained steady in the very humble and poorly-equipped sandhurst mews studio (i.e., my computer in our apartment here). the biggest news here is a resolution of the dilemmas surrounding dami's "never let go." dami and i came back to the apartment after working at dan studio. i wanted him to hear my mix down, but mostly i wanted to coax another, stronger performance out of him. dami picked up the mic once again and delivered a good take. i layered the new take over my previous mix, but dami felt that i had removed too much. he wanted to hear the various harmonies, especially the humming underneath. we compromised, since it is, after all, his song. i imported the original vocals, with everything included. it sounded like it was distorting a bit at points, and i was surprised to learn that dami liked this quality. it reminded him of the mic quality from a vintage soundsystem dance. this was an important lesson for me in aesthetic preferences. i try to be open-minded about such things, but sometimes people can have very different ideas about what sounds good and right. dami forced me to recognize that, sensitive as i was trying to be to jamaican-oriented production styles, there were still some aspects simply passing under my listening radar. still, a compromise is a compromise, and i needed to get the vocals to a point where i would be content with them. i added some compression to level them out and remove some of the distortion (which just sounded a bit too raw for my tastes). then i added some reverb, which had a slightly magical effect, blurring all the supporting voices together and giving them an ethereal quality. at times, the harmonies seem to float above the rhythm, creating all kinds of interesting aural illusions. to top it off, dami brought over a commodores song with a piano-intro he wanted to sample. i captured the intro and also cut it into several pieces, inserting them into the rhythm itself. with this selection, dami showed himself to have huge ears: the sample fit perfectly, mimicking (if not following) the harmonic contour of the song and adding a nice sampled timbral layer to the otherwise synthesized rhythm. listen to the semi-final mixdown here. (it still needs some mastering).

interestingly, i had a number of my qualms about the song validated this afternoon while listening to it with wasp, dami, and a friend of theirs named benzly, who has been involved in the jamaican music business for a while now. benzly works as a producer and a performer and has spent quite a bit of time under the tutelage of sly dunbar (of sly and robbie fame), one of the most successful and acclaimed jamaican musicians and producers of the last thirty years. benzly was able to bring another critical ear to the song. he was rather blunt about notes that he thought were not right and recounted a typical conversation he might have with a disagreeing artist: "it's wrong." "but i feel it." "still wrong." sometimes a producer simply needs to exercise this kind of authority. frequently people recommend that artists find outside engineers for both mixing and mastering precisely for this reason. a fresh set of ears can more easily spot misjudgments made familiar by repeated listenings. in the end, his best recommendation was less about the singing and more about the arrangement. it's just too repetitive. dami follows the same melodic contour traced by the bass, the strings, and everything else, over and over again. the song's chorus (which benzly called the punchline) thus loses punch when it finally enters. so, i think i will go back to the song and edit the arrangement a bit to see if i can't give the track a better sense of movement, of musical drama. i try to be as sensitive to dami's desires as i can, but sometimes he's just too close to the project to hear it as a new listener might. moreover, he does not approach the song from the perspective of a producer, who must be sensitive to a host of different issues above and beyond the performance.

as one can see, there is quite a bit that goes into making a good song, including strong performances, good recording techniques, and skillful post-recording processing (mixing, effects, mastering). over the course of the last few blogs perhaps i have given a sense of much that is involved. the aesthetic decisions made at each step in the process have a greal deal of significance, for these are the musical choices that draw from and hope to create a particular matrix of meaning. part of my research on hip-hop includes a broad aesthetic project to map out the various choices that producers, engineers, and artists/djs/rappers/singers make over the course of crafting a musical product. determinations of what sounds "good" or "real" open up a number of interesting questions about music's power to mediate cultural and social forces. music that is considered authentic seems to strike a sympathetic, and inherently social, chord in people. but determinations of authenticity and goodness do not seem simply to emerge from some inherent musical factors, such as precise rhythms or "correct" harmonies. on the contrary, music seems to accrue affective power more through the messy workings of culture and history and along the blurry lines of race and class than out of some intrinsic relationship between certain organizations of sound and, say, the order of celestial spheres. hence, mining the richness of music's social resonance could prove to be quite an illuminating project. the trick, for me, is to try to keep sound central to my analysis even while explicating the socially-charged meaning of that sound as engaged by various listeners. hearing as a producer not only makes me more sensitive to the musical choices--overt or subtle--that artists make, it compels me to ponder the ways that all kinds of people hear music and the effects that artists' musical choices can have on the meanings people make.