MIXING AND MASTERING ENGINEERS FACE THE FORMAT QUAGMIRE
ONCE UPON A TIME, AN ALBUM WAS AN ALBUM, a single was a single, and the number of formats available to recording professionals and consumers could be counted on one hand.
How times have changed. Today, in order to create recordings and release them commercially, mixing and mastering engineers have to contend with a dizzying array of formats. For stereo projects, the choices go beyond analog and digital. Nowadays, any engineer worth his or her salt must be able to handle DASH, ADAT, DA-88 and analog tape, which exists in various track configurations, recording speeds and noise-reduction types. In addition to those tape-based formats, mix engineers can expect to receive multitrack masters in any number of hard disk systems, especially Pro Tools, which has no standard storage medium. That means that a Pro Tools session might come in on a SCSI drive, a FireWire drive, a CD-R or DVD-R or any number of digital tape cartridges, including Exabyte, DDS, Data DAT and AIT.
Once the mixer has possession of the master (or sets of masters) and has procured all of the necessary hardware to handle the formats in question, a new set of choices opens up with regard to the mixdown medium. Here, the options include DAT (either in the new 24-bit version or the more common 16-bit variety), CD-R, DVD-R, magneto-optical disc, ADAT or DA-88 (sometimes using bit-splitting techniques, which are not standardized), Alesis MasterLink (which uses optical discs), and any of the aforementioned hard drive systems and their associated backup devices. Then, of course, there's analog tape, which most mastering engineers say they still prefer. Not to be outdone by digital, analog 2-track tape exists in various guises, including half-inch, 1-inch and 2-inch reels; speeds of 30, 15 and 7.5 ips; and noise-reduction systems, like Dolby SR.
In the multichannel domain, the spectrum is even more complex, with mixdown options ranging from hard disk recorders, like Pro Tools and Genex, to tape-based MDMs, such as DA-88 and ADAT. Beyond the decision of which format to use for the multichannel master, engineers must figure out — to the best of their abilities — what the final release medium for the project will be. For instance, will it appear on DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, Super Audio CD, Dolby AC3 or DTS, each of which offers varying degrees of choice with regard to bit budgets, compression algorithms, disc types and allocation of non-music items, like videos, liner notes, bios and Web access.
At the consumer level, the bombardment of format options is no less intense than it is for the people who create the music. Even a “simple” stereo release may encompass such disparate mediums as CD, cassette, vinyl, DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, MiniDisc and any number of download formats like MP3. In the multichannel world, DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, Super Audio CD and DTS are vying for consumers' attention and threatening to confuse them with format overload.
Posing a rhetorical question that many engineers are asking themselves these days, Skywalker Sound director of music recording and scoring Leslie Ann Jones says, “How many formats does it take? Too many, as far as I'm concerned.”
Jones should know. Not only does she serve in a managerial capacity at one of the largest and busiest commercial facilities in the world — where part of her job is to make equipment purchases — but she is also an award-winning engineer who faces format dilemmas every time she starts a project. “In my experience, the format decision affects the creative process right from the beginning,” she says. “I'm about to record a live album with Michael Feinstein in Israel, and the first thing I had to think about was what format I was going to use, and then I had to fit my format and mic selection into a [pre-existing] budget.”
Mixers and mastering engineers who own their own facilities — like Bob Clearmountain, Mick Guzauski and Bob Ludwig — face the same combination of creative choices and financial burdens that Jones describes. They complain that the pressure to invest in multiple systems — ranging from DASH recorders to tape-storage systems for digital audio workstations — is so intense, it sometimes gets in the way of creativity.
Commenting on the data storage demands of a large-scale multichannel project like the live DVD Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live in New York City, which he recently mixed in stereo and surround, Clearmountain says, “The data shuffling gets to be mind-boggling. Even the manufacturers don't realize it. You go to AES, and they all talk about 5-channel this, 7-channel that, and I wonder how many of them have ever had to deal with an entire project in 5.1? It's insane, the amount of data involved, especially for a home studio like mine.”
The data shuffling gets to be mind-boggling. Even the manufacturers don't realize it.
— Bob Clearmountain
One of the factors that complicates the format quagmire is the sheer number of people involved in a typical recording project, particularly pop, hip hop and R&B albums that use multiple producers, engineers and studios. Mastering engineer Tony Dawsey, who has been working at New York powerhouse Masterdisk since 1980, says, “There was a time when you would get a ¼-inch or ½-inch master from one studio, one engineer and one producer, and it was all put together on a reel. Now it's a lot more complex, because there are a lot more people involved. I often get into situations where an album gets held up, because one producer didn't turn in his track. Sometimes we're waiting for days with everything in place except for the one track, and it ends up getting down to a crunch when the track comes in. When you have different producers, different engineers and different studios, everything becomes an emergency.”
The rapid proliferation of formats may have complicated the lives of engineers and studio owners, but it has also generated more business for them, which they appreciate. “These days, it can take twice as long to EQ an album as it used to,” says Dawsey. “If it took four hours before, it takes eight hours now, with all the different formats we're dealing with, and because people are putting 15 or 20 tracks on an album instead of eight or 10 tracks. Studio time has gotten longer per project than what it used to be. All told, it takes me about a day to do a ‘normal’ project, that being one version of an album. But any time there's more than one version, like clean, ‘street’ and instrumental versions, it's another day.”
Ludwig, who mastered the Springsteen DVD and CD at his Gateway Mastering studio in Portland, Maine, adds, “If this had just been a CD, Bruce might have booked only one day here. But because of all this complexity, it was two days with Bruce and lots of post-production afterward.”
The format decision affects the creative process right from the beginning.
— Leslie Ann Jones
On the mixing side, engineers like Clearmountain, Guzauski and Chuck Ainlay are seeing a steady stream of work mixing albums in 5.1, and the material ranges from current titles such as Mark Knopfler's Sailing To Philadelphia, Springsteen's Live in New York City and Eric Clapton's Reptile to classics like Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive and Michael Jackson's Thriller. In these early days of surround sound production, there are as many opinions on how to execute 5.1 channel mixes as there are engineers doing them, but there is virtual unanimity among mixing and mastering engineers that creating separate stereo and surround mixes is preferable to using the automatic “fold-down” features built into such multichannel compression systems as Dolby AC3 and Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP).
Clearmountain says, “If you pan something in five channels and then fold it back to stereo, very often it's not going to work. You might have something spread between the left front and left rear, and when that folds down to mono, it's just going to be on the left channel. That might be fine, but maybe you want it to be a stereo sound. If you're going to commit to doing that for an entire project, it's like working with your hand tied behind your back.”
For projects with budgets that do not allow for separate mixes, engineers are willing to accept a fold-down, albeit reluctantly. Ainlay notes, “As far as making a DVD-Audio disc compatible with a portable DVD system, using the fold-down gives you the option for somebody to take that DVD-Audio disc and play it on the beach. Say somebody, for economic reasons, didn't do separate mixes, the fold-down is applicable there. But I still think there should be a separate mix.”
In most cases, engineers working in the 5.1 domain are not concerned with the final release format of their mixes. After all, whether a title will appear on DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, Super Audio CD or DTS does not affect the creative decisions that go into a mix. However, some engineers, like DMP Records owner Tom Jung, have honed in on favorite formats and are tailoring their work accordingly. In Jung's case, all of his projects — which consist mainly of acoustic recordings done live to six channels — are now being done in Direct Stream Digital and released on Super Audio CD.
“I love the way DSD sounds,” says Jung. “It's a simpler system than PCM. Even at high [PCM] bit rates, you have decimation and interpolation, and those are things that don't exist in the 1-bit DSD world. At 24/96, the damage is minimal, but it's still there. To me, DSD is a much purer interpretation of the analog signal.”
For Jung, the purity of the audio signal takes precedence over all other aspects of his projects. Pop engineers, on the other hand, must add a battery of logistical considerations to their concerns over sound quality.
“The biggest thing with 5.1 remixes,” says Ainlay, “is finding all the elements: the masters, the technical notes, the bits of gear used in the mix initially, etc. There may be loops that weren't recorded back to the multitrack, and other material that's hard to find.”
The biggest thing with 5.1 remixes is finding all the elements: the masters, the technical notes, the bits of gear used in the mix initially, etc.
— Chuck Ainlay
In an effort to simplify and standardize the multitrack archiving process, some facilities are consolidating entire projects on FireWire drives — which have become increasingly affordable — and keeping them there for posterity. Skywalker's Jones says, “We're trying to get to the point here where we treat hard drives like analog tape reels. It used to be you shipped the masters to the record company when you were done with your project. Now, you're usually shipping Exabyte tapes, which can be very cumbersome. By transferring all our digital data now to FireWire drives, where the entire project exists on one drive, if you end up remixing something, it's easy to access. You don't have to take the Exabyte and restore an entire project to remix one tune.”
While the FireWire system may work for Skywalker, the industry at large has no standard — or even a prevailing pattern — when it comes to archiving its recordings. Observers say that such past nightmares as sticky tape syndrome and lost masters will pale in comparison to what future generations of engineers can expect to encounter when they try to remix projects that are being archived under present-day conditions.
“With recordings, nowadays, on people's Pro Tools systems, a lot of times all the stuff doesn't get turned into the record companies,” says Ainlay, adding, “It's going to get really strange.”
If the archiving choices themselves seem overwhelming, then the questions regarding the stability and longevity of current data formats are downright frightening. Despite certain manufacturers' claims, no one really knows how long a CD-R, Exabyte, DAT or hard drive may last. And, while they anxiously back up their data to their format of choice and hope that the medium holds up in the long term, engineers are grappling with an entirely new set of format and sound quality issues with regard to audio on the Web.
“The whole MP3 thing is interesting,” observes Ludwig. “It's very difficult to figure out in advance how the MP3 encoder is going to react to the material you send into it. I've done classical projects with extremely wide dynamic range with high MP3 encoding rates, and you can't hear the difference in the noise floor. On the other hand, we were encoding this Paula Cole track, and the encoder was really affecting her vocal in a nasty way. That's not the kind of thing you can EQ for.”
Clearmountain says he avoids sending MP3 files of his mixes because of quality concerns. Instead, he encourages his clients to find an ISDN-equipped studio in their area or directs them to his FTP site, where he posts uncompressed Sound Designer II files of mixes in progress.
As Internet audio matures, it will probably further complicate the lives of recording professionals by presenting them with new technological challenges. In the meantime, mixing and mastering engineers are working furiously to keep pace with a rapidly evolving format landscape. “It keeps life exciting,” says Dawsey, letting out a hearty laugh. “I'm a very blessed and lucky man to be as busy as I am, but it adds to the stress level. After all, I'm just one individual!”
Paul Verna is Mix's New York editor.