Day: December 15, 2010

Master of your own debate.

Now here’s what has to be a first — my lyrics. On cookies.

A few crafty friends got positively Westian on those cookies. I couldn’t resist eating them (they were tasty, too), but I made sure to take pictures first.

Another first — I’ve had a lot of odd dreams about a lot of odd things, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a dream about audio mastering until the night before last.

I had a dream I was just coming back from having Greg Calbi master my new album in New York. I had no memory of the session, which took place offscreen (or offdream), and no memory of the New York experience at all, beyond a brief moment when I was saying goodbye at the studio and telling Greg I was looking forward to giving my reference CD a good listen on the hi-fi once I got home.

Johnny Smith summed up the session for me: “He’s a nice guy. Seems to like your music. But he lets himself get a little too wound up sometimes.”

Apparently Greg did a lot of talking and ranting while we were there. I was a little disappointed the dream didn’t supply me with at least some vague recollection of that. I imagine my whole “giving it away for free” mentality would have sparked some interesting conversation.

I decided to fire up my new master on headphones first, and the results were…not encouraging. The volume was competitive with current commercial releases, but that was kind of the problem. Some things were squashed and distorted. Other songs sounded really good, but they had different problems. There’s a song that will be on the album called “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free”. Greg somehow made it sound like the drums had been recorded in a professional studio — in a good way, not a glossy and homogeneous way — and the whole thing sounded really warm and organic. But he sped up the song to make it shorter, and it sounded all wrong at a higher pitch.

In the waking world that album isn’t quite finished yet, and the dream reflected that. Because I’m still not sure exactly what songs will be on it or what order they’ll end up in, the dream didn’t seem to know that information either. The sequencing seemed all wrong, and one song appeared about five times in a row with no apparent changes from one version to the next. Many of the songs I’m planning on putting on the album weren’t present in the dream, while several songs that were there don’t exist in the real world. I guess the dream supplied those to fill in the gaps. One of them was a cool electric guitar-driven thing full of digital distortion that wasn’t horrific, but it still took away from the song.

One bit of silver lining behind the clouds: Greg gave me a bit of a deal. I mean, the guy’s a pretty big potato. He’s considered one of the best mastering engineers around, and I don’t imagine his services come cheap. I don’t know what his rates are, but with the average length of my albums and how many songs are on a given CD, if I ever asked him to master something, I’m going to guess I’d be looking at spending somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. In the dream he only charged me $2,000, which seemed generous (if still expensive). Maybe he really did like my music after all.

I started making notes for the changes that would need to be made for each song. Part of the mastering process tends to involve some revisions, and different engineers have different ideas about how that should work. Some will keep tweaking your album after you’ve paid them, at no additional charge, until you’re happy with their work. Some even have a “you don’t pay me until you’re satisfied” policy. Others will keep charging you more money for every change you want made, no matter how small. Others still have a mentality of, “You got what you paid for and I’m not doing anything more.”


In my dream, Greg’s approach seemed to be a willingness to make changes “off the clock”, within reason. But it seemed to me it would be pretty difficult to whip what I’d been given into any kind of decent shape given all that was wrong with it, and I knew I wasn’t going to get any of my money back just because the master I received was subpar and bizarre.

Things were left unresolved, without much hope for a happy ending. It looked like I was going to have to remaster the album myself with much lighter pockets.

I thought that was a pretty strange dream to have.

First of all, I don’t have a low opinion of Greg Calbi at all, and I’m pretty confident if I shelled out the money and told him I just wanted my music to sound as good and three-dimensional as possible, without even a passing nod given to the stupid Loudness War, I would get a pretty great mastering job that probably wouldn’t need any tweaking at all. Even when the artists and/or record labels force him to squash their music to make it sound as loud and lifeless as most other modern music, he still has a way of retaining some musicality.

The first Interpol album, for example, is so much louder than it needs to be it’s kind of absurd. But even though there are practically no dynamics left, it still doesn’t sound like crap in the way that, say, Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope does. Love the album. Hate the way it sounds. Bob Ludwig crushed it to death, and it took a lot of work for me to get through the whole album in one sitting without my ears collapsing into sobbing wrecks. The most recent albums by Idaho and Grizzly Bear are both loud, but they’re also pretty dynamic and sound really good. The recent Brian Eno remasters also sound pretty great. I have a number of albums in my collection that were mastered by Greg, and I find most of them enjoyable to listen to. So I don’t know why my sleeping brain would decide to make him somewhat inept.

Another thing I thought was strange was my total lack of backbone in the dream. It was pretty clear I let him sequence the songs the way he wanted. I would never do that. Ever. If I did someday decide to pay someone else to master one of my albums again, I would already have the song order sussed out (that’s a no-brainer), and I would give them detailed instructions outlining what I wanted, how I wanted it done, and why I wanted it done that way.

Finally, it was an odd dream to have because of how normal it was. I mean, my dreams routinely involve things like: a young girl who thinks her parents have died in a freak accident talking to a pipe under the sink in her house, referring to it as if it were a person but calling it “chair”, asking it difficult questions that have no answers about why good people die for no apparent reason and why she has to be left alone; attacking a snake with a plunger while riding on an elevator only to realize someone forgot to attach a tranquilizer dart to the bottom of the plunger; scenes from an amusingly bad movie in which people who are riding on a bus verbalize what are supposed to be interior monologues, emphasizing the poorly-written dialogue in the process; eating a strange “lime cream” pie with a double hazelnut crust…and those are just a few things off the top of my head from the past few nights. I don’t tend to have dreams that involve realistic situations like paying someone else to master my music and not being happy with the work they’ve done.

Maybe the dream was my brain’s cynical way of responding to the occasional thoughts I still have of, “I wonder what my music would sound like if I paid someone else to master it.” It’s difficult not to get at least a little curious sometimes, even if the amount of material I tend to produce would make it too expensive to give everything the “professional” treatment even if I wanted to go down that road. And if you’re going to be selective about it, how do you determine which albums are worthy and which ones aren’t? I couldn’t do that.

Experience has shown me I’m probably better off doing it myself for the time being, if not for the rest of my life. I understand the importance of a good mastering job, but I don’t have the time or the endless bags of money necessary to set off in search of that one mastering engineer out there who is (a) really good at what they do, (b) not prohibitively expensive, (c) into giving a bit of a deal to someone who will return every three to five months with a new album for them to master, and (d) into the kind of music I make and after the same things I am sonically.

I really do think you’re good at what you do, Mr. Calbi, and if I won the lottery I would probably look into retaining your services. My dreams just have minds of their own.