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 that i had just come back from having greg calbi master my new album, in new york. i had no memory of the session, or even of the new york experience, beyond a brief moment when i was saying goodbye at the studio and talking about how 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 experience for me, since for whatever reason it had been wiped from my memory in dream land: “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 during our session, and i was a little disappointed the dream hadn’t supplied me with at least some vague recollection of what had been discussed. i imagine my whole “giving it away for free” mentality would have sparked some interesting conversation.

i decided to fire the newly mastered cd up on headphones first, and the results were not encouraging. the volume was certainly competitive with current commercial releases, but that was kind of the problem; some things were squashed and clipping in unpleasant ways. other songs sounded really good, but had different problems. for example, 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 had sped up the song and changed the pitch considerably in order to make it shorter. what’s interesting to me is that the dream was heavily influenced by the fact that the album isn’t finished yet; because i’m still not sure exactly what songs will be on it or what order they will be 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 track to track. many of the songs i’m planning on putting on the album were not there in the dream, while several songs that were there don’t actually exist in the real world, but i guess the dream had supplied them to fill in the gaps. one of them was a cool electric-guitar-driven thing full of digital distortion that wasn’t horrific, but took away a bit from the song.

apparently greg had given me a deal. i mean, the guy’s a pretty big potato who’s considered one of the best mastering engineers around, and i don’t imagine his services come cheap. i don’t know what he charges exactly, but my guess is if i decided i wanted him to master one of my albums, i would probably end up spending somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5,000. maybe more, given how long my albums tend to be. 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 prepared to make notes for what needed to be changed for each song — part of the mastering process generally involves some revisions after the fact, and the treatment of that subject varies from one engineer to the next. some will keep tweaking your album after you’ve paid them, at no additional charge, until you’re happy with their work. others will keep charging you more money for every minute change you want made. others still have a “you got what you paid for and i’m not doing anything more beyond that” mentality. i ran into that last school of thought myself once, about six years ago, when a mastering engineer completely fucked up my music and didn’t want to accept the blame (he did a few half-assed revisions that were still seriously flawed, before eventually apologizing and admitting he had botched the job, after it became clear i was never going to do business with him or the studio he worked at again…long story, that).

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 had been given into any kind of releasable shape, and i knew i wasn’t going to get any of my money back just because the mastering job i received was sub-par and bizarre. things were left unresolved, without much hope for a happy ending. it looked like i was out a few thousand dollars and would have to remaster the album myself.

i thought this was a strange dream to have, for a few different reasons. 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 wars, i would get a pretty great sounding 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 necessary it’s kind of absurd. but even though there are practically no dynamics there, it still doesn’t sound like crap in the way that, say, regina spektor’s begin to hope does (love the album…not the way it sounds. bob ludwig completely 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 just 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 dreaming brain would decide to make him somewhat inept.

another thing that’s strange is my apparent lack of backbone in the dream; it was pretty clear i had let him sequence the songs the way he wanted, and hadn’t given him much instruction. this isn’t the way i work in real life. if i’m handing over any amount of control to someone else when it comes to my music, i’m going to give them detailed instructions outlining what i want, how i want it done, and why i want it done that way. i’ve had enough unpleasant surprises in that department, and i prefer not to leave something as important as the sound quality of my music, or the way the packaging looks, to chance. i would certainly never, under any circumstances, let someone else decide what order the songs should go in, or what material was worth making the cut and what should be discarded. i put enough thought into that myself as it is.

it’s also an odd dream to have because of how normal it was. i mean, my dreams routinely involve things like a little 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” and 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 the 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 involving 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…and 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. 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 3-5 months with a new album to master, and (d) into the kind of music i make, and after the same kinds of things as i am sonically.

i really do think you’re good at what you do, mr. calbi, and if i won the lottery or money was no object, i would probably look into retaining your services just to see what might transpire…my dreams just have minds of their own.

4 comments

  1. YES!
    The lack of brillance was only due to the gloopy nature of that green stuff…yes gloopy. Next time: finer tip for writing song lyrics on cookies + less gloopy green stuff = not having to write in short-hand. Lesson learned.

    🙂 glad you enjoyed them.

    1. it was one of the only times i can think of where a tasty experience was also kind of hilarious — the cookies with faces seemed to be begging me to spare them as i ate away at them, but it wasn’t to be. poor cookies…happy stomach. it’s a delicate balance, but i think it all worked out in the end.

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