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Interview with Peter James on Mastering Ambient Music

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  • Interview with Peter James on Mastering Ambient Music

    brass neck.jpg Jeffrey Ericson Allen (Chronotope Project): I'm talking with Peter James, British ambient music producer and mastering engineer. We spoke once at some length about his music, and today we're discussing the art of mastering, especially as it pertains to ambient music. At the outset, I want to acknowledge that Peter has mastered my last three albums and done exquisite work on all of them. Today I'm opening a dialogue about the process to share with other musicians and engineers, especially those who may not have had their work sent out for mastering by other engineers.Thanks for taking the time out to talk, Peter. The first question I'd like to ask is this: is mastering more an art or a science? To what extent is your work as a mastering engineer technical and to what degree is it aesthetic--or does this depend on the project?

    Peter James: Hi Jeffrey, and many thanks indeed for your kind words about the work I have done for you these last months, and I am more than happy to talk about my sound engineering and mastering processes here with you, as, even if I have been doing this stuff for nearly 25 years, I like to impart as much information to the musicians I work with about the recording process, especially, as I can, as I like to teach people about what I do, so as to make what they do, (hopefully) a lot easier.Thanks for such a good opening question! Well, it does depend on the project, as I take a different approach to some of the more "regular" music that I sometimes work on, where it is most definitely more of a technical exercise, mainly down to the fact that the instrumentation is more usual, where everything has its specific place within the sound stage. So for pop and rock music, it's mostly just the case to fix a few stray harmonics, attenuate certain frequencies, maybe so as to raise the amount of headroom in a track, or bring out a vocal line, that was maybe missed in the mix, etc., and so on. With ambient music, well, it's mostly aesthetic, for me, but there is also a huge amount of technical work, too. Way way more than with standard musical forms. With the huge amounts of reverb, or other effects used, and everyday instruments being used in novel ways, and lots of synthesized sounds, it makes it more of an art form, for me at least, to "fix" the music in such a way so as to give the music the chance to come out from behind all the stray harmonics etc.. So, yes, for me, mastering, and indeed mixing, ambient music, is way more technically challenging, but I do also take a much more aesthetic/artistic approach to it, at the same time.

    Jeffrey: I can definitely see how ambient music would present more challenges to the mastering engineer, not only for the technical reasons you mention, but also since there are fewer "rules" for this genre, and it seems like each album--and even every individual track--may need to be given a completely different kind of treatment. That's a lot of "reinventing the wheel."

    Let's talk about the aesthetic dimension to mastering ambient music, since I suspect that many people may be unfamiliar with the range of possibilities that are available at the mastering stage for tonal shaping, modulation of dynamics, and the manipulation of the stereo image, among other aspects. What kinds of aesthetic work have you done on recordings, and do artists ever say they felt it’s too intrusive and ask you to tone it down?

    Peter: Firstly I will say that you are totally correct, Jeffrey - yes, I treat each track totally individually, depending on the sonics of the piece - I may start with a basic "overall" EQ setting, purely for tonal consistency, and it's only after I find this happy medium, for each piece, that I’ll start delving deeper into each individual track.
    I tend not to mess with the stereo image of any song, but I find that sometimes, once I have "fixed" certain elements, it can alter, or shift a little, as a result, so I tend not to work on that too much. What I do work on is how I approach each piece, and I may listen carefully maybe 6 or 7 times to the works, to get a "feel" for them, to work out what needs doing, in my own mind, but also to see if there are certain elements that I feel could be bought out more, or elements that I feel could do with attenuating, and I tend to work on those elements near to the end of my mastering process. So yes, I guess you could say that, in some cases, what I do to a piece is to make it how I think it should sound, to my ears, and mind, and feeling, almost like, say, stripping back layers of old paint that are hiding or covering up some beautiful feature underneath. It's almost a kind of "meditative" thing - once it "feels" right, to me, I just hear music, and nothing else gets in the way of me being able to "hear" the music, if that makes any sense? Thankfully, and so far, no one has told me they didn't, or haven't, liked what I have done to their albums. I always try to go for total sensitivity to the music, and to the artist's intent for their own works. I will admit, that the wait for the approval e-mail from the artist is a nervous one, though, and of course, it they do disapprove, I’d always be more than happy to re-submit some new masters, or send the album back as it was sent. Always. But I don't aim for that, I aim for it to be "right", no matter the time it takes me.

    Jeffrey: I've noticed that quite a number of self-releasing ambient artists are apparently mastering their own works (including myself, on some earlier releases). Many of them seem to know what they're doing, but I sometimes hear things in self-releases that make me think they really should have spent a couple of sheckles to have them properly mastered. It's a bit like reading an author who self-publishes without an editor. There's almost always a few things that another pair of eyes (or ears, in the case of recordings) seem to catch that went right by the artist.

    My question is several-fold: First, what are some common problems you hear in self-mastered recordings? Is it generally unwise, or are there some people who are especially well-suited to do their own mastering? Is it false economy to save a few bucks on mastering and going DIY, when it's possible that the extra polish might make a crucial difference as far as the final product and it's success?

    Peter: I'm going to answer this in a slightly different way, Jeffrey. I'd never criticize anyone who wants to try their hand at mastering their own work - the more you do it, the more you learn, ergo the better, hopefully, you'll become at it, by looking back at older works, and seeing/hearing what you missed back then. I have remastered a couple of my own things over the years, for the same reasons. They might have sounded OK to me at the time, but the more I understood my own sounds (of course i create maybe 90% of the sounds that i use, so there is absolutely no other reference point other than to just experiment, and keep experimenting, and try to find a way of controlling them so as they are fit to be heard). Is it unwise? No, I don't think so, but it does depend on the source material. If all you are using are synth presets in a DAW, then they should already be pretty clean, so even if there are pitfalls, there should be less of them, if the material is recorded well to disk (one of the things i do come across quite a lot, is very low dB level recordings, and it's true in the digital domain as it is in the analogue domain, getting those low level recordings up to a decent volume means you generate a lot more "noise", both digital, and audio). But the opposite of this is also true. The worst thing, by far, is trying to cut your masters at 0dB. It's the biggest no-no there is, especially without any limiting plug-in in line (which should also always be set to a minus figure), as restoring clipped audio files can be incredibly time consuming, and frustrating. Audacity has a plug-in for it, but it's a real bind going back and forth between software, just to fix such a tiny, minor error. It really isn't one size fits all, at least not in the way that I approach mastering and sound engineering/editing.

    To answer the financial part of your question, I'd say a definite "yes", if you can afford it. My rates are very low, and the reason for that is that I know that times are tight, and, even if I'm not being totally altruistic with my rates, I'd like there to be a little more of a level playing field. mastering music is no "black" or "esoteric" art, even if it is a little specialist, and I'm not really sure why some places charge so much for it. It's about having a good pair of ears, and a good understanding of music, and intruments, from all genre's. I don't have any fancy monitors, or $500 dollar headphones or a mass of plug-ins. I have been sound engineering for 25 years, and I never, ever, cut any corners. So, if you want to have your work "up to speed" and clean, so it sounds good against anything else, then it's a yes, if you can afford it. But of course it's not worth sending your stuff to a general mastering service, if you do ambient music, always send it to someone who specializes in, or is sympathetic to, ambient music, especially if you're using self-created or unusual sounds.

    Jeffrey: You raise an interesting point when you suggest making sure that a potential mastering house or engineer really knows ambient music before entrusting them with your work. The expectations for an ambient album are quite different than a rock or pop album, which tends to be very heavily compressed (don't get me started on the "loudness wars") and need to sound good in mono for AM play (not the case for ambient). What, in particular, is your approach to limiting or compression, as it pertains to ambient music? I know it depends on the project, but are you more inclined to compress different frequency bands individually (i.e. multi-band compression) and/or do you often need to apply any overall compression or limiting to a track?

    Peter: For sure, I would always go to someone who understands the genre you're working within, whatever it may be, absolutely.

    I use basically a three stage process (although the first stage could take 3 to 4 passes to get to the desired point): E.Q, multi-band compression, and limiting. I will contradict myself, quite happily, by saying that multi-band compression "is" a bit of a black art ;-). The thing with it is, is that you get so much more control over a finished and EQ'd mix, and it gives you so much scope as to how you can get the final, limited, result, to sound. You can up the overall gain using multi-band, but not in a "limiting" way, as I always use soft-knee compression, which allows some headroom. You can turn up, or down, certain sections, you can keep some parts gently compressed, whilst adding a lot to other parts, use it to bring out an instrument, or sounds within a certain frequency range. It's not for the faint-hearted though, and the proprietary one that comes bundled with Logic is next to useless, akin to using a crowbar to open a tin of seven up: difficult, clumsy, and mostly messy. And if you have never used it before, do not use it at all for any final mixes, as you can totally screw up a good mix if you don't know how it works fundamentally in practice, or technically (I have heard self mastered commercially released CDs ruined by overly heavy handed use of multi-band compression). By all means, experiment with it, if you have it, on older works that you already know, to see how much it can alter a track, but if you haven't used it before, practice, practice, practice. Then practice some more.

    After applying the multi-band compression I do then go through a loudness maximizer (this is not the same as normalizing), but I never ever cut loud, not even on rock or pop music. My aim is to smooth out, sonically balance, and enhance the EQd mix using the multi-band, and then gently bring it up to speed, so that it'll sound at a decent level whatever medium you decide to listen on, and, if I’ve done my job correctly, it should also sound OK as an mp3, and if it's played on any internet, or otherwise, radio station. I could go on about this topic for quite a while, but it's so subjective, and I’m sure there will be many who disagree with my use of both compression techniques, but for me, I know how it works, as a sound engineer, and I know that, for my own process, at least, it works for me, and for the people I have mastered for. If it's used correctly, you can't even hear it working, if it isn't, you can, and if you can, try again, and again, until it sounds "better", but you can't hear it's effect, if that makes sense? I was taught that, for any form of compression, the object is to not hear what it's doing, but to know what it's doing.

    Jeffrey: Let's talk about (unintentional) non-harmonic distortion. Since you've noticed it's appearance in a couple of tracks I've sent to you to work on, I'm wonder if you might say a few words about it. What is distortion (not the effect, but the undesirable type that crops up)? What are some common causes of it, especially in the realm of electronic music? How can it be detected and eliminated from a mix before it is sent out for mastering?

    Peter: This is not such a cut and dried issue as some that I come across, as sometimes these sonic artifacts can be beneficial, or maybe add a nuance, here and there, some tension (in fact I only just recently worked on an album where this was indeed the case, as it added a nice "lift" towards the end of a track, so I left it in, and the client was OK with it).
    These kinds of distortion, or dissonant harmonics, are mostly caused by the sheer amounts of reverb being used in ambient and electronic music, where two heavily reverbed instruments, or sounds' reverb "clashes", thereby creating odd harmonics in the reverb tails, which ultimately spread across the whole track, and also the use of esoteric sounds, and generated tones. Mostly these can be removed OK, but sometimes (as on your most recent album Jeffrey, if I may discuss it here), the dissonance is so close to the intended music, that I can only attenuate them slightly, so as not to cut too deeply into what was indeed intended. This is a judgment call on my part, and an artistic one, too, but it does always concern me that I may do too much work, and the client won't like it. Thankfully (as per one of my other answers on a different topic), that has yet to happen.

    How do you remove these artifacts before mixing down, or sending to a mastering house? well, I would most definitely not recommend it before sending for mastering, please leave that to the mastering engineer, as if they are there, and you can hear them, I'd suggest not trying to remove them yourself, as if you're not sure exactly what to do, you can totally destroy a track you've just spent hours and hours or days and days on. I would, however, recommend trying to correct some of them during your mixdowns. You can do this in a couple of ways. Firstly, always EQ your reverbs. Always. Try to cut the lower mid range, around 125 to 650, as this is where you'll get the most "mud" creation, plus some rather nasty dissonant harmonic peaks, or pushes, and these can take up a lot of headroom, leaving less room for the actual music. I'd also look around the 900hz to 3.5khz regions, too. If you have a frequency analyzer on your EQ (as you get in Logic, for instance, even if it's a bit hit and miss) or DAW, solo the reverb returns, and take a good look at what's going on with them, follow the track carefully, and make a note of anything that sounds a bit grainy, or nasty. You'll need to do this on headphones, but only as long as they don't have too much of a mid range lift to them. Then go through the EQ and with moderately narrow Q points, attenuate until the nasty stuff either disappears, or gets to a level that still gives the reverb it's desired affect. Un-solo the reverb, and listen to the whole mix, again on headphones. If anything hurts your ears still, then look at the instrumentation, to see if there's anything going on that maybe causing the frequency clashes. It is usually in the lower mid-range, but also between 1khz and 3.5khz (these can be really aggressive and nasty - not something you want on a piece of ambient drift!). It's a slow process, but one that can really help to clean up your mixes. Always start by making narrow Q cuts, then widen around the center frequency, to see what works, and doing it this way means you shouldn't lose too much of the actual music. It isn't an exact science, but one well worth spending the time to do, as it really can make a big difference to the resulting mixes.

    Jeffrey: Thanks for spelling that out so well, Peter. Mid-range build up is a pretty common problem. By EQ-ing my reverbs (as you once recommended to me and detailed above), I've definitely improved my own mixes. I'd encourage electronic producers who are reading this to try it on their own work. I don't want this interview to stretch out too long, but I have a few more questions I'd love to ask you, and give you the option of answering any of them that interest you by way of wrapping things up.

    1. When you receive tracks for mastering, is it helpful to receive some kind of notes about the recordings? If so, what information from the mixing engineer or artist is most useful to you as you prepare to master a recording? And on the other end, what kind of feedback do you typically offer the artist or mixing engineer—if requested?

    2. I notice that in your answer about your mastering process, you don't mention aural excitation, a stage sometimes favored by mastering engineers. Are you against the practice, or do you sometimes find this method of selectively adding harmonics can add some definition or sparkle to a mix that may have become lackluster? Or do you generally prefer a subtractive method with EQ?

    3. Do you think there is any great advantage to recording at 96k sampling rate? I know there is some debate on this issue, and I would be very interested in your thoughts on the matter.

    4. What else do you wish every artist or recording engineer knew about mastering?

    Peter: I'll try and answer all of these in one go... but firstly, there's nothing I could teach any other recording engineer. Nothing. We all have our own ways of doing things, plus none of us share the same pair of ears. And as with my own music, I don't ever compare myself to anyone else, either. We all do it, the way we do it. As for musicians? Well, I hope that I have given a few tips during this interview that some people may (or may not) find useful, even if only in some small part. If I can say just one thing that will help, all around. Never, ever, ever, aim for 0db. Ever. Aim for minus 0.1, if you must, but never 0db. I know I have mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating. There is nowhere else to go at 0db, except digital clipping. One last thing on this - if you are multi-tracking your music, try and get a decent level recorded to disk before you mix down. If you're individual tracks are recorded at a decent level (say, minus 3 or 5db). You give yourself a much better chance of an easier mixdown process. If your final overall level in your mix is at minus 10 or 15, start again, until you can at least output around minus 4 or 5db. It'll make mastering your music a whole lot easier, whether you do it yourself, or send it to someone like me. Oh, and if you have a hissy or noisy track (or even individual tracks in a piece), try a narrow cut at around 6250hz, or thereabouts, of around 10/15db, that should help a little, and allow you to raise the levels, without raising too much more noise.

    I should say that my approach isn't purely attenuation. Far from it. But it's subtle stuff, for sure, sometimes, but trying to explain this would take me an age, as it's so, so subjective, even if it can be the most challenging part of the process: adding a shine, or "energy", or life, to a mix that had little to start with, say. So yes, not a very simple question to answer, for me, but over all, of course, I do like to add that "something else".

    I don't really see any point in using 96khz as a recording option, unless you are making very high fidelity, and for that matter, expertly technically recorded, material. I can see the advantages of 24 bit 44.1/48khz, for sure, but 96khz? for ambient music? indeed for any style of music, especially outside of high end recording studios, it's pointless. Even setting aside the fact that you end up with huge files, which take you longer to send, or edit, or then re-dither down to 16 bit if you are making physical CDs, if it's been recorded badly, or at very low db level (now this IS something I come across a lot with ambient mixdowns, way too low a db level), it's a waste of time. I'm sure some audiophiles will be up in arms, but no one can really hear the difference, unless you're using reference standard amps and monitors, and in the right environment. And lets face it none of us have access to any of that stuff. We use headphones, I-doodads, PC or laptop speakers, earbuds, docks, and so on. But if your mixdowns are peaking at minus 10db, or less, that's a hefty slice of volume you need to boost to get them anywhere near up to speed, ergo the higher the bit rate/sampling frequency, the more noise you're recording as well. So, no. I really can't see the point of it if you're not recording in a high end studio. Plus, and again, lets face it, 98% of listeners don't care. They just want to listen to the music without it making their ears bleed or give them a headache. They don't give a hoot about the technical stuff (although I do know there are a lot of ambient fans and musicians who are pretty geeky about this stuff, but it's still a small percentage, over all).

    And now for the first part of your question...again, the answer is no, I don't really need any info from the artist at all, unless there is something specific they need me to know, or to look out for. I always listen all the way through, without distraction, in my headphones, at a reasonable and comfortable volume level, and it's more likely that I'll spot something that the artist has missed, or not noticed as it's so quiet in the mix, as unless you're looking for issues, you won't hear it. I guess my ears are trained to listen for imperfections, not sure why, but they seem to be. Indeed there have been two such incidents of late. One was incredibly hard to hear, the other was so momentary, I'm not surprised it was missed. And for sure, Jeffrey, if anyone wants me to send them any mastering notes etc., I can gladly do that for them. A lot of what I do wouldn't be relevant, but I can send EQ screenshots, that kind of thing, yes. Anything more than that, we'd have to come to an agreement, as it's a lot of extra work, logging each step of the process manually.

    Thank you for your excellently pointed questions, Jeffrey, and I hope that some of the stuff I've talked about here, even if I have rambled on a bit at times, may be of help to a few people - even if it's only one, it will have been worth it. Many thanks.
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