Connoisseur Series

In my job as a mastering engineer (besides refining and enhancing music) I’m fortunate to get to know many talented artists, producers, engineers, musicians, A&Rs++. These creatives have spent years and years perfecting their craft and I’ve been wanting for quite some time to go more in-depth about how they create their music and be able to share their thoughts behind.

The first chapter in the Connoisseur series kicks off with artist, composer and producer, Hanne Hukkelberg, marking the beginning of what will become a nice selection of short interviews. It will hopefully let you in on the stories behind the productions an make you an even better connoisseur of music.

Enjoy!

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Connoisseur
/ˌkɒnəˈsəː/

noun

  1. an expert judge in matters of taste.

    "a connoisseur of music"

    synonyms:expert judge (of), authority (on), specialist (in); arbiter of taste, pundit, savant, one of the cognoscenti, aesthete; gourmet, epicure, gastronome; informalbuff; informalmaven"a connoisseur of fine wines"

Playback levels in streaming services

In the recent years, one of the most frequently asked questions from artists, labels and managers has been the playback levels in the various streaming services. As this has been a somewhat moving target since the beginning, it's hard to give an exact answer what the future will bring in terms of a common ground, but I'll try to shed some light on the current state on the most popular platform; Spotify and my overall philosophy about loudness. 

When Spotify introduced their "Replay Volume Normalisation" in 2009, they put it at -12 LUFS. In 2017 they chose to change it to -14 LUFS (now 2 LUFS louder than the AES recommended -16 LUFS/-1dBTP) In 2018 Spotify introduced a new Volume Level feature that enables the listener to set the playback level based on their surroundings. Quiet - Normal - Loud. In addition to Off, that gives the listener the option of 4 different playback levels. Spotify determine the loudness level of the track as ReplayGain and is not a LUFS measurement, but measurements of a selection of tracks shows that the Quiet level is now approximately -22LUFS, Normal -14 LUFS and Loud -11 LUFSTo bring up the level of  quiet masters (-12 LUFS and down), Spotify currently use a built in limiter.

My approach has always been to try to find the sweet spot for the level and amount of dynamics for any given track and aim for perceived dynamics and energy rather than measurements. I do try to keep up with the current playback levels of the different streaming platforms, but since it's a constantly moving target, I try to focus on making the track sound as good as possible within a dynamic range that's optimal for their target audience.

 Photo by littlehenrabi/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by littlehenrabi/iStock / Getty Images

The path to better sounding vinyl

During the last decade, there has been a rebirth of vinyl for almost all genres. An increasing amount of artists choose vinyl as their physical product and skip the CD entirely. While the production of CDs is hard to mess up (sound wise), vinyl is a much more fragile process. After sending hundreds of albums to cutting, I've come up with a couple of guidelines that will hopefully help you avoid too many headaches along the way.

1. Find a proper factory or broker. If you go with a broker, use one with close connection to the cutting studio and factory. Using a local broker will save you the extra time on handling VAT and shipping and often has a priority at the factory (over individual clients). Factories like Pallas Group (most often requires going through a broker) and Optimal in Germany are pretty safe choices.

2. Be sure to keep the length pr. side below 22 minutes if you want to maintain a full sound for 33RPM. 18-20 minutes is even better for 33 RPM. If you want to go the audiophile route, go 45 RPM and keep below 14 minutes. 33 RPM: 18-20 minutes pr side / 45 RPM : 12-14 minutes pr side

3. Either send the master files from mastering (filemail/wetransfer..) directly to the cutting engineer or supply them with the mastering engineer's contact info so they know who to contact if they run into any problems. Also triple double check that the master WAV files are correctly labeled for side A and B and that the accompanying TOC and checksums are there.

3. For every genre including classical, I highly recommend lacquer cutting. Even though DMM results in less noise and less chance of error by skipping the metal plating process, the sound of a lacquer cut done right can't be beat.

4. 180 gram vinyl doesn't sound better (the grooves are being pressed by the exact same stamper), but it will make the record less prone being bent out of shape/warp.

5. Always get a test pressing and check it on a playback system you know so you can pick up any errors. First and foremost - check that it's your record (yes, it has happened that someone in the chain have mixed up masters and productions) and that side A and B is correct. The side designation should be engraved in the dead wax (area between last track and label). Next sound: Often slight distortion on the loud parts and surface noise on the quiet parts is unavoidable, but excessive distortion, noise, groove echo or ugly sibilance can and should be avoided. Mechanical faults from the metal plating or production of the stampers resulting in clicks and pops should also be picked up during the QC process by checking the multiple test pressing.

 

Some final words: A great sounding vinyl is dependent on a great sounding recording, mix and master. Vinyl is not a magic format making everything automatically sound amazing, but when done right, it sure sounds great! Before mastering godfather Doug Sax passed away, I was lucky to discuss the vinyl cutting process in detail with him as well as getting a selection of records cut by him and Eric Boulanger at The Mastering Lab. It was an amazing eye/ear opener how much better it sounded than what I was used to and how that helped shape the masters I now deliver to cutting.

 

Do you want to dive even deeper? Read the comprehensive/umfassend FAQ by SST (Schallplatten Schneid Technik GmbH)


My recommended brokers and contacts:

Lydmuren (production at Optimal Media - lacquer cut)    

Contact: Marlyn Smørsgård - 47 18 21 48 

(For Norwegian customers, Lydmuren will take care of all tax and shipping related issues and often have a priority delivery at the plant.)

 

FourManufacturing (cutting at SST-Frankfurt and production at Pallas Group)

Contact: Andy Pagel

 

Eldorado Media (cutting at SST-Frankfurt (nb. needs to be specified) and production at Pallas Group)

Contact: Jürgen W. M.

 

Do you have any questions or remarks, please leave a comment below!

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My philosophy then & now

When getting into mastering 14 years ago, I had a thirst for gear much like any other 20 year old audio geek. The more devices in the chain, the better. The years past by with mixes getting more and more dense. To cope with this, I tried working 100% ITB/digital for a while, but even though I could maintain the signal integrity, I was missing the joy and qualities of using analog outboard. Fast forward to 2018 and I'm now exclusively using custom built or modified electronics with a very short signal path to merge the musical integrity and creativity I feel needed. I still admire the work of engineers using way more gear than I use myself, but it has been a fun and highly educational journey. And don't get me started on cables...

What I've learned from this and also inspired by the engineers I've always looked up to is that the less clutter there is in the recording chain, the more natural and musical the result will be. It's not saying that one shouldn't use vintage mics or preamps and just modern gear. It's more about maintaining a pure path. Does the vocal require 5 different plugins to get there, or would it be better to try another mic instead?

I dare you to go the minimalist route and use the mics as EQs and compressors (ribbon!!) instead of plugins on your next production! If you leave some headroom on the mix bus as well, you're a certified hero!