Between 1996 and 1998 I worked as mastering engineer and vinyl cutter at Dubplates & Mastering, a company founded by Basic Channel in 1995. Shortly before I left, Rashad Becker joined the team. Over the years he became one of the most inspired and skilled mastering people out there, with an impressive customer list. While still working for Dubplates & Mastering, he now runs his own studio in Berlin Kreuzberg, where he's doing CD mastering and mixing. The following talk took place during a rainy summer day 2008 in his studio. Robert Henke, July 15 2008 Rashad, what is mastering? Rashad Becker: Mastering means finishing a piece of music or any auditive work for a certain pupose. That pupose can be bound to free artistic ideas, it can also be related to, or referring to specific media, or it can be related to a specific purpose, like for example a certain speaker set up, or even a specific room. Radio broadcast would be also a specific condition. Mastering is also the strictly technical process of producing a master. Which can be a lacquer for vinyl production, or a CD or whatever medium, but there is a finished product at the end of the of the day, which is the master from which duplication is launched. But from an artistic point of view mastering also is approaching someone's music in a state which should be as close as possible to the vision or intention of the artist, and evaluate how much of this aim is achived and give it the necessary help. The changes applied can be very subtle or sometimes very drastic. Mastering became quite a fashion word, everyone is doing mastering now, everyone has mastering tools, but there are also those 'mastering gurus' and therefore mastering is located mentally in between being something very obvious and accessible and being a very secret knowledge. It seems a lot of people are pretty confused by that. I think this development is owing to the fact that somehow some stages have been skipped from the audio production process. In the classic structure of building up musical pieces, there would be composition, in one way or another, and then afterwards recording, and at that point you might already have a producer by your side which is some outer world influence, then you would give it to trusted hands for mixing, and finally the mastering would just be paying specific attention to each piece and then try to round it all up, so that the individual pieces work together. Nowadays, many times the music comes direct out of the stage of composing, which is often strongly related to the mixing process already, or composition and mixing has been merged into one thing, and then the first outerworld process is the mastering. So there is a heap of projections: if music sounds good people blame the mastering, if music does not sound good people blame the mastering. The importance or significance of the mastering process has been upgraded a lot because it has to deliver everything which was originally related to other steps in the production prorcess. Things like having an outside producer or somebody else to take care of details in regards to the big picture. Became the role of the mastering especially for those producers who have this classical one-man home recording approach more important, because there is no other external person involved prior to the final step? Yes, but there is another reason why people became more interested in mastering. In the earlier days people where first referring to amazing music and much less to aspects of production. Nowadays music production became more and more an element of creating music and 'good production' is often seen as being more important then a musical idea. People are overwhelmed by the possibilities and by the results they can achieve with very little effort, because the tools they have at hand give them overwhelming results with very little knowledge. The initiative for making music has been shifted to the production side and so did the perception of the process. The colour of the composition, musical inspiration and decisions, all these aspects have been shrunken a little bit perceptionally in favor of the production and that's also why mastering is seen now as having such a musical impact.
Can you give me an explanation of the mastering session as a process?
Rashad Becker interview Dubplates & Mastering Mastering is finishing a muscial piece post mix towards the release of that piece. So what happens is: people come to me with their music, we talk about the format, because from the start on you have to consider what format do you treat the music for, and as a first step I arrange the pieces in the final playing order. Then the next step is basically listening to the music and finding out what intention is prominent in the music, what is the basic... um.. sculpture or basic message or basic groove or watever it is, that carries the piece, and to judge a) how much of that intention is achived and b) how much of my personal feeeling for how it should be is achieved? confidence Of course the artists intention is prior, but very often mastering is about confidence and also people not wanting to be in charge anymore for what the result will turn out to be. People want to trust. Technically speaking it is a very little thing. Like with all audio treatment you refer to frequencies, to amplitudes, and to phase relations, and these are the three parameters you can work on. For that purpose you utilise equalizers, filters, compressors... and that's it. How does your signal chain look like? What is in it? Well, I've been very much hooked up by the idea of mid/side processing. That means the stereo signal is split into two channels which are not left-right, but where one channel is the sum channel and one channel represents the difference. This means you have one channel which carries the signals which are the same on both speakers and one channel which holds all the information that differs form one speaker towards the other. So the setup is like a left-right setup physically, but the former left channel carries the mid signal, and the former right channel carries the side signal. Decoding signals like this allows for a very precise control over the stereo image during the mastering process. I think the most important tool probably is the parametric equaliser so I have a couple of bands of parametric equalization here. Followed typically by a tube compressor, then followed up by another filter section which is a passive filter desgined for the low range, and two active bands for the higher mid range and the high range. Then there is another stage of transistor based compression. Optionally another stage of EQ is available which I classically use very narrowly and then there is the direction mixer which decodes the signal back to left-right and gives the opportunity to make final corrections in the stereo field, followed by a brick wall limiter. And after that there is the analog to digital conversion. So my signal chain in this room is exclusively analog, framed by the DA / AD converters.
There is almost an infinite amount of possible equipment out there which more or less does the same things. How did you decide about which tools to get when you decided to build your room? What drove your decision to use this or that product? That's a complicated question! There are a lot of things to take into account, but at the end of the day it comes basically down to taste. The products I have selected are all very specific. None of them are really neutral, except for maybe some of my filters. They all have a pretty decisive charcater and I think that's for me mostly the point. When judging audio art one of the prior parameters for achievement is decisiveness. So I don't have a strong feeling for 'this sounds right or this sounds wrong' - or this feeling is always bound to: does it sound decisive or does it sound like someone was twiddling around and achived something and was just happy? Does it sounds like somebody made a decision to have it sound like exactly this? This is for me a very, very important quality. I tend to say that the science of the machines I have chosen is, that they all have a very clear vision of what they should aim for, what they should help for, what they should add to the signal. And I do appreciate that they are all high end designs, so they can be rather invisible, as well as being able to add a lot of character. That's why there is such a lot of EQs and compressors in the signal chain, because all of them are used very decently and it sums up.
Rashad Becker interview distortion
Dubplates & Mastering
I forgot to mention the other type of tool I came to like and use very much in a mastering application, which is tube distortion, which I also use in mid/side coding. The input of the distortion is fed from a graphic EQ so I can emphasize and roll off signals which I dont want to be included in the distortion. Somethimes the distortion is rather brutal but mixed in at very very low levels. And sometimes I only apply it to side signal, sometimes only to the mid signal. I did not expect that distortion could be so useful, I thought is was more a production tool but is has become a very central piece for mastering for me. At the first glance that sounds like a weird contradiction. Many producers are very anal about sound quality and are so afraid that their equipment alters the sound and that tiny little distortions due to rounding errors in their workstations ruin their work, and and now you tell me that in your mastering process you add distortions?! The term distortion is of course stigmatized (laughs). I mean distortion is any deviation from the original waveform, adding harmonics is (nonlinear) distortion and as soon as you apply any kind of filter you have (linear) distortion. But you can apply the parameter of sound quality to distortion as well. There is low quality distortion and there is high quality distortion and what I can provide here is rather high quality distortion. Here I can add harmonics, in a way that is impossible to achieve with any kind of equalizer or filter alone, because they can only enhance what is already there. I am not in favour of trying to add colour with an equalizer; most equalizer designs are not really fit for that. Sometimes you need to roll off a lot to get rid of unwanted signals and the mix is totally in the mud and you don't have nice or interesting high frequencies and there is no sense in boosting these parts of the spectrum. So it might sometimes be better to replace it by something else. Adding distortion also can help in definition of spatial parameters, helps broaden the stereo image in a subtle way. So the distortion adds harmonics which are not present in the original singal but which are related to the original signal and which are applied carefully to make the overall sound more rich? Richer and with more dynamic. I can apply harmonics, I can apply subharmonics, I can emphasize the fundamentals - it depends on the application. I always use the distortion in parallel. The original signal does not get replaced by the distorted signal but gets mixed with the distorted signal, so I have a very precise control over the amount and colour of the distortions. You are using mostly hardware for your mastering. However there is nowadays an almost infinite number of plugins for mastering - what's your opinion about plugins? I don't have too much of an opinion here, because I have too little experience. I have been interested, so I have been scrutinizing the options and I did not yet come across anything really satisfying in the plugin realm. I was eager to have at least a software limiter after the conversion so I don't have to run the converters too hot to achieve nowaydays zero margin levels, and I found one plugin which kind of does the job ... and I was really eager to find something which is great- it doesn't seem to exist actually. This is not really digital versus analog topic! In the digital realm there is high end stuff which is in some regards superior to analog stuff, especially when it comes to the very crucial topic of limiting. Take the Weiss DS1 (digital mastering) compressor for example! I didn't encounter any plugin yet that comes close to the quality of the DS1. Hmmm.... I don't like to use plugins, maybe they just don't have the right interfaces. [A note, from late October 2008: Rashad finally found a compressor plug in that he likes interface and soundwise enough to use it frequently R.H.] With 'the right interface' you mean work ergonomics? Your workspace here is highly ergonomic and it radiates a certain very inviting energy. If I come in here I see theres racks in a semi circle with all this equipment, and it feels ike its a very comfortable working space and all functions are nicely spread out. Is the missing haptic part a reason for your difficulties with ... ? ...with integrating plugins? I would say so, its hard for me to address them nicely, there are controllers out there which cost oa lot a of money and which are probably fit for addressing plugins in a decisive manner but another problem with plugins is they always give you something
Rashad Becker interview Dubplates & Mastering to look at, they alyways give you visual info and you always have to look when working with them. With my hardware I don't ever have to look at it. And this is important for me, I really tend to stop looking, two inches before my eyes, when working with sound. I dont want to see the timeline of the piece, and most plugins show some sound related graphical information, which gives you a certain kind of precognition, some kind of preexpectation towards whats gonna happen next or how the dynamic range has changed. I am fine with seeing a little bit of gain reduction, some blinking lights. It doesn't even have to be precise, because I wanna hear if the result is right, I don't wanna be tricked into looking and seeing like Whaaa! 2dB of gain reduction, thats gonna be good! Most plugins provide too much visual feedback for my taste, which keeps me personally away from mapping the sound to my body, and to my ears - and thats how I master like: that I scrutinize the sound how it hits me. Not necessarily brutally, but how it addresses my body, and if I have to focus on a computer screen and operate with a mouse that is something else, its just a different world. interface I have to look and I will look at every parameter if I have a graphical response that shows me that I've notched away 2.73dB or 2.89dB. I will take this information in, whereas when I work with analog or hardware gear I just don't care at all about this kind of information, I don't get that anal about the values! With pIugins I tend to really go far beyond the decimal point and that's just not the right setting, not the right state of mind for me. Same happens with customers, here people sometimes for the first time see their album layout on a computer screen as waveforms, piece after piece, and just from the way it looks to them, they might like it or might not like it, and they judge the proportion of the piece from a graphic perspective, they see different levels, they see that one piece has maybe a much thicker representation than the other one, and suddenly they get the feeling that it might be a weak piece, or definately too low in volume. Even though before seeing it they felt it had the right prominence. They come to the mastering place or the mixing studio and I transfer all tracks from their HD recorder into the computer and they suddenly look at their music and start losing trust in the tension of the music and in the narration. They hear it a second time, they see the Boom! coming and suddenly they are really unsure - they ask me: how long is the piece again? And all that considerations which have not been a topic for composing suddenly become very important. This all comes with using computers and this also happens in the mastering stage if you work on a computer screen. You are not independent of these things. Well, I am most certainly influenced by that, and that's why I like to work with hardware. You have the narration in the room from your speakers, and that is it. That's what your are judging.
Hmm.. makes a lot of sense, I feel this sometimes too, that I'm confused by the visual represtantion and that I think, oh!, this piece is too long or too short, just based on what I see, or oh, this break here is too much ... Ah, this element element I could repeat. I only have it once here, It would look nice here, ....(laughs) ..a bit more a techincal question again - is there a difference between mastering for CD or for vinyl? You hinted that there is a difference when you said at the beginnning that it is important to know what the final medium should be, but I'd like to talk about it from a perspective of someone who finished a track and who wants to understand or learn more about mastering. Mastering is somehow a musical process, so each track should in the first place musically get what it needs and then the tracks should work together nicely. So I do the musical mastering, and afterwards I take care of the technical restrictions of the target medium in a second step. The difference between the CD mastering and the vinyl mastering is that you don't have any limitations on most parameters of the sound expect for the final peak volume on CD, and you have much more physical restrictions which do translate to sonic restrictions, when transferring sound to vinyl. So that's why its a kind of two stage process. In the first step the considerations are, does it feel right? Is the narrative emphasis where it is supposed to be... stuff like this, and then in the second step the question is, will I get this on vinyl like that? No... but, yeah... but no... but yeah, sometimes...
Rashad Becker interview vinyl
Dubplates & Mastering
Sometimes you have to do musical restrictions to the pieces when mastering explicitly for vinyl. Like you might have to lower the prominence of critical parts of the vocals if you want to make a very loud yet undistorted cut. Can you tell me with more technical details about the restrictions? Its not so much real 'restrictions', its alterations of the signal, and you have to consider those. The things that you have to keep in mind is that some geometries of the groove cannot be followed precisely enough by the playback needle. So for example, if you try to cut a very broad and complex high frequency signal very loud, most needles will be overwhelmed by that, they will not be able to follow that recorded modulation precisely, and thereby instead of playing back whats in the record, they move in a different way and this means losing the original information and creating additional distortions instead. A classical example for this are distorted hihats. Mostly the distorted high frequency signal is enriched with subharmonics a lot. You will always get some distortion , from vinyl playback you will get very complex distortions, there is no oneto-one reproduction, its just physically impossible. If you just record the same signal on different spots of the record it will already sound different. The question is: how precise will the needle be able to follow the geometry provided by the groove? The accelerations and the movements of the playback needle can get rather complex, especially if any kind of phase information is present, which leads to highly complex groove shapes that are engraved into the record.
Does this imply that you can cut more complex signals if they are in mono than if they are stereo? Well in mono they are less complex, so mono signals might cause slightly less problems. But there is a huge myth about that you can only cut bass in mono, thats something which is really resistantly in producer's heads, its absolutely not true! I have been cutting several thousand of vinyls and I really have to think hard about when ever I had to cripple a stereo bass signal beyond musical recognition because it wasn't translatable to vinyl. That might be three cases, in all that years. People should not bother about that, they should make the music the way they feel it should sound like!!!! 99% of problems related to phase can be corrected in the mastering room effortlessly without making a musical disaster out of the piece. With most phase adjustments that need to be done for vinyl, you can nicely live, and I never experienced somebody who was really shocked or totally unhappy with the result. Of course in the high days of IDM there were a couple of pieces that had 180 degrees out of phase full level 50 Hz sine waves and such, and that gives you problems... But that is so much the exception that it is not in balance that every producer thakes this so strongly into account which just keeps him away from making music. People should focus on sculpting colors the way they feel it should be, and not think about the post-production. People should not make music for post-production. What are the most common mistakes of your customers? What are things people do because they are inexperienced, and which makes your life harder, or the result musically miserable? If you talk about real mistakes, I'd say most mistakes are really related to limiting. Second most mistakes are related to compression, and thats about it. Mistakes - there are a lot of things I have to cope with, which derive from being uneducated or inexperienced, like for example people keep sculpting their sound by boosting frequencies if they feel an element is not prominent enough in the mix. Lets boost it! If it has not enough bass or not enough high end - lets boost!!! Instead I try to educate my customers to think the other way round: Scrutinize every singal for consistency, check for what disturbs it, and try to remove that, and not primarily check the signal for what's too little... I always think negative. I know this is much less fun actually, but the results will be much more consistent and also louder. People try to achieve loudness by saturating media and thats just the wrong way, its the other way round! Saturation can be done at the very very end. If you saturate your medium from step one on, you will have music which will have a constant high level but will not sound loud.
Rashad Becker interview Dubplates & Mastering The basic mistake is that people compress or limit without a musical vision. They compress or limit because they feel it should be louder, and they do not do proper AB comparisons ... thats the thing you have to learn - making correct AB comparisons. Its absolutely not easy and it takes several years of practice. Proper AB comparison means that you listen to the your music on your workstation with the limiter and compressor versus the unlimited uncompressed signal and you make sure that the volume between the compressed and uncompressed signal is in a relationship so that you are not tricked by the fact that one is louder? Yes, but it is more complex than that. Briefly, you should always do different stages of comparison, you should compare whilst not looking at any meter, you pick one element, which might be the most prominent or most important one, or even the least prominent or the least important one, you don't look at any meters and set both signals to a volume so that this element has the same prominence in both versions. Be very careful about that, if it really has same prominence, and not just closely the same. Then see how the rest of the track wraps around this element in the uncompressed version and in the compressed version. Now look at the meters and set both versions to the same peak level and compare, most of the time compressed singal will probably win. If you on the other hand set them both to similar RMS or average level and compare, there is a good chance the uncompressed version will win in that case. If you compare looking at the average level, the uncompressed version will sound more lively, and more punchy! It is hard to speak in general terms here, but I think that a certain amount of generalization is rather fair, because compression is a high art and its very easy to be satisfied by the results compressors give you, without the results being really good. You can easily be fooled by that perceived boost in loudness if you do not compare correctly. So should people compress at all? Well, I always tell my customers: If you use compression for musical matters, and never mind what compression's supposed to be - forget about all that.. if you use the compressor and the result is something which is just evidently musically what you wanted to achieve, of course, go for it! But do not compress, just because you think it has to be compressed. I think that's it as a rule of thumb. When it comes to limiting, whenever you have the chance to go to a mastering room, don't do any limiting at all! Sometimes it helps on a single track to get rid of certain spikes, but don't do it on the sum. Also be careful or at least think twice before using compression in the sum. limiting Don't use maximisers. Never ever. Except if you need something to sound as loud as possible on TV. Maximisers are just not a tool to use in a musical process. A mastering engineer will not have the chance to do anything with the music anymore if it has been maximized already. The track is flat, dead and sealed, with no access to details. I understand your approach to use hardware for all the reasons you mentioned, but assuming someone wants to do mastering by themselves and all they have is a laptop, can serious mastering be done entirely in software these days? Good question. I'm probably not the most competent person top answer that question, but from what i've seen on the market I am not entirely convinced. But a much more important point here is, that this often implies the question if a person can master their own music by themselves. Its a bit a closed circuit in thinking. One of the most evident legitimacies for the mastering process is, that some one else you can trust finishes your music. Software might be able to replace my racks of hardware, but it cannot replace the engineer. Should people still attempt to master stuff themselves, or would you say that this is something one should never touch a at all? As I said, an important part of the mastering process is that it is somebody else does it, even if your are the mixing engineer and the recording engineer and you have forty years of experience. Ideally the mastering should be done by someone else. But it should be somebody else you are in touch with, someone you know, and you should attend the mastering session. That's the ideal situation. But of course people who master themselves are mostly not control freaks but just cannot afford to have the mastering done outside their home studio.
Rashad Becker interview Dubplates & Mastering If you have to master by yourself, do not attempt to do so in the mix. Mix from a musical perspective, do not mix into a limiter or compressor, and carry the finished mix to twenty places to listen to it in different conditions, and let some time pass by. And then do the mastering. The mastering should be a totally separate process. What advice wold you give to someone who wants to buy mastering equipment? First, I would ask some questions in return, what do you want to buy for? What music are you treating,... hmmm.. if there are no budget limits.... ...tricky question. What you need is a mastering console where you can easily compare and access signals, because mastering is all about comparison. If you cannot compare properly you cannot master properly. So that part should be the centerpiece, and the starting point of your considerations shld be the signal flow, and how to control it. The mastering desk is also very important because this willl be one piece of equipment that will always be in the signal chain and everything which is remarkable about it will be remarkable on every piece of music which goes out of your studio. You would need some decent parametric EQs, and I would suggest getting one or two colorful broader EQs. If you go for equipment that has lots of character, you have to be careful, because if it is too recognizable, all your masters will sound the same. It should be equipment which is capable of giving character but which is also capable of being quite neutral. dynamic Im turning my back on multi-band compressors recently. I have been a fan for some years but the more I work with them the less happy I am. It is good to have at least one frequency selective compressor, especially for the bass range, but the classical multi-band designs have three ore more bands and you get more trouble than benefit from that. But to have a frequency selective compressor is very handy, you can use for de-esing, you can use it to control the low bass etc...
Tell me about listening volume! It has to change all the time!!! Hearing is not linear, that means if you change the level your perception changes, so if you listen to a piece at different levels the perceived relation between frequencies will change. Also you have to ask yourself, will this be a piece of music that will mostly be listened to very loud, or is it music which will be listened to normally in a home listening environment? That should change your way of approaching the piece and how you are looking at it in regards of sonic consistency. Not the same results will be consistent in both scenarios. Of course people will also listen to club music at low volume at home, but if you have a reference it should be taken into account. And besides that, I find it hard to judge compression at normal listening volume. At normal listening volume its easy to make wrong judgements about compression. At very very low levels compression mistakes become very evident and at high levels also. So the first thing I do is to listen to a track at a very very low level, I also do AB comparisons often at the limit of the capability of hearing. Besides that, the longer you work on a thing, the lazier you get, so you have to really discipline yourself to change the listening levels, but it should always change. When I work I always have one hand at the volume control. One should change the level two times a minute! (laughs). The mastering engineer Bob Katz tries to establish a fixed listening level for mastering, similar to the fixed level approach for mixing movies for cinema, where it really makes sense. But I am not very confident about this when mastering music...
How important is mastering? The answer is: it depends on mastered by whom...(laughs). How much a record can improve from mastering is related not to the quality but to the character of the music. Not all music really is timbre music, not all music really is functional music. There are a certain not too small genres of music where I would even be tempted to say its not so important how it sounds, it might still be brilliant music! Of course, it can benefit from sounding good in a car or other music-hating
Rashad Becker interview Dubplates & Mastering environments in which people like to listen to music nowadays: On your mobile phone, on your computer, in your agency, at Starbucks and wherever.... But: there is music where the sound of the music might not be the crucial element. And then of course it depends on how close the sound is to what you wanted to achieve. Actually, in contradiction to all the expectations of the clients, the closer the sound already is to what it is supposed to be, the harder it is to master it. The more repair it needs, the easier it gets. Things that sound unachieved ... every little help will give a lot. But if it sounds already really, really achieved, and someone sits there and says: "I want you to get that extra notch, I want you to add your character" or something like that, this is sometimes much more work and much harder to achieve. If customers come with an album, and say "it really sounds very good already, it shouldn't be a lot of work", I'm getting pretty scared actually.
I'd like to talk about objectivity in mastering. It sounds like its a very personal process, and that your role is far beyond fixing technical things. Given this I assume that mastering is not objective at all - you are adding your personal filter to the music - what are your thoughts on this? I think it hardly can be objective at all. In no regard. There are elements to the mastering which are outside of your own consideration, but still dependent on your own experience. For example, if you master an album, it is important that you set the levels in a manner that the listener will not have to change the level whilst enjoying the album. I always advise my clients to listen to the whole album once, on the borderline to disturbing their neighbors, and see if there is any track where you would immediately want to lower the levels. Then listen to the whole album again at the very low end of attention or perception, and see if there is any track where you spontaneously want to pump it up. So you could say that's some objective measurement, but at the end of the day it still depends on your experience and the focus you have whilst listening to the music. objectivity Some might focus on the voice, and others might focus on the kickdrum. And so their perception of an even level throughout the album might be different. It depends on the complexity of the music and your selection form that complexity, so even these parameters can't really be objective. You could want that it sounds good in a club, and you could think that is objective, but then again what is 'sound good'? You know, even with the same piece, different people might select different elements of prominence. Some are totally happy with the snare carrying the track, while others are really intrigued by how shy this one element in the background is in relation to all the other elements in the track. Objectively you can say that this piece will be more dependent on spatial parameters than that piece, because the frequency-distribution is more even, so it will be not as much affected by any room resonances as the other one which has one very strong and prominent resonance in that tonal element around 120Hz, and whenever a room matches this, we'll get into trouble. You could say that there's an objective to aim for an even distribution of frequencies, but then again, that might not be musically right. Because some song might need that totally exaggerated low mid peak which does not sound even at all, and then it would be a miss-achievement of the mastering if it would attempt to get rid of it completely. You would say objectively speaking this or that will not sound good on all hi-fi systems. I don't think that this should be the only reference for mastering - to make music sound reliably represented on all sound systems. If that blurs the character of the music beyond the intention of the artist, then I say its a miss-achievement. Though my mastering approach is probably very much dependent on my personal experience, I still feel like my mastering efforts are very much apart from taste. I don't feel like: "I really like that or I really don't like that" - I always see the piece as an entity outside of me. I feel what is right for the piece or what is wrong for the piece, and customers will have to rely on that. Of course, I will discuss what I feel, but it will be my personal judgement at the end of the day. Does the music address me in a way I can receive it? Yes or no? Does it it address me in a way I like to receive it? Yes or No? That's the questions, and that needs to be subjective. Do you need to like the music you master? No. I have to say I am rarely troubled by music, I am rather troubled by bad lyrics. So if something keeps me from mastering, or if I suffer from mastering, then it's because of the lyrics. That is rarely the case, but it happens. I don't even have to be intrigued by the music, independent of that, I can sense if it feels right for me or wrong. Are there specific types of music you really enjoy mastering, or other types you really do not enjoy? Hmm ... (after a long pause) ...I couldn't really put my finger on that. I would say no. There is of course music I like more, and I might enjoy working on it more, but then again I really try to keep my culture and my identity apart from my job. Sometimes, I'm really happy to work on music I can absolutely not relate to, it gives me also pleasure.
Rashad Becker interview Dubplates & Mastering I feel like I'm doing my job, and it doesn't feel l like I'm living my life. Sometimes there is music and I can strongly culturally relate to it, and then I also enjoy it, because I feel like I am having a good day. But I am cautious not to have a good day when it's a good working day. I want to be very cautious about that. But naturally I enjoy that I am not bombed with music that tortures me, which is rarely the case. I think it comes from the context which I emerged from. It kind of sorts itself out, I never actively reject or pick a project. The projects which are carried to me are to ninetynine percent projects I can relate to anyway. Then everything else is dependent on the day. I mean stupid things like some day you are really up for some bass, and some day you really are not up for bass... I don't take much pleasure from music that's really grayish. And sometimes if there's a long row of tracks coming in which all have the same grayish type of consistency I get a bit wasted. It's hard for me then to still feel if it's right or wrong, because it just generally feels unpleasant.
Would you say there is a specific Berlin sound in mastering? Most certainly there is a perception of that. May be a myth, I can't confirm if its a myth or not. People tend to say, well that sounds like English mastering, that sound like Detroit, that sounds pretty much Berlin, but how could anybody verify if it is really the mastering which makes it comparable? I know I can observe sonic fashions and vogues in the music which is carried to me. Not necessarily stylistically but definitely sonically. And also I can say there are vogues if I look at my own oeuvre, my own mastering back catalog, I can see that in some years I had a certain focus on specific elements of sound. Spectrally but also spatially, and I can see changes, see that this focus transforms a bit over time, and that's probably the case for every mastering studio and engineer. But as I said before, it is hardly verifiable. Of course every studio has a slightly different palette of gear and signal path, and this might inevitably contribute a bit to a specific tone. But that is quite theoretical. What are your thoughts about volume? It's a shame. It's a pity, I really don't know where this is leading to, this general development of aiming for maximum loudness. Do we speak of loudness or of volume? Both! Volume is a pain in the ass, the listening volumes everywhere... it's gross. But the hunt for loudness is a real pity. It makes music more and more comparable, it removes a lot of narration, it removes a lot of information, both from the music making process and from the music perception! By producing music that's always aiming for maximum loudness you don't give people good reasons anymore to properly listen to the music. And that will retroactively shape the reasons for making music, and that will lead to a situation where all music is kind of exchangeable. And that's a real pity, I reckon. I try with my mastering to give people a reason for not only listen to their music on their PowerBook speakers! Clients do tell me that it needs to sound good on PowerBook speakers. When all music is made in that manner, is made to fit the technique the music is played back with, then all music will be shaped from the same wood after a couple of years. And I can understand that people don't take the effort anymore to get proper hi-fi systems, because they're just not given the reasons to do so anymore. I think the general evaluation of musical products suffers from that. Like also the total availability; you don't have to go searching for music that you're interested in anymore. Music became even more push media, it's not music on demand anymore. loudness The topic of loudness: There's music which needs to have loudness - there's a certain idiom in music where you always have the contrast of quiet parts and blasts and dramaturgically there's a huge potential in loudness of course. But if you make all music always loud, steady-state, you lose that potential. Besides from the physical effects it has of tiring your ears. You know about transients and you how they shape your cognition of sound. Transients are a phenomena or an aspect of music which are really vanishing from music. More or less, there are no transients included in music any more, and this is taking away so much of musical information. I mean the usage of the ears became rather degenerated, or it is not developed to the standard the ear potentially offers. People use their ears as bad eyes. They don't train their listening, they don't question the ways by which reality is represented by their ears. And this is all related. I think if music today was more as it was some two decades ago; still elaborate on narrative dynamics, this would generally also educate people more in listening. Just really everyday listening, not necessarily musical listening.
Rashad Becker interview Dubplates & Mastering I'm not willing to take part in that race for loudness anymore, because it is so damn redundant at the end of the day. Each amplifier has a volume knob. I have often heard "Well, you need to pump up the master a little bit more because the mp3 player don't give enough level on the headphones." I don't know if that's really the case because I've never used an mp3 player but it would be disgusting if it was the case, but then again what damn levels are people listening to on headphones? This is really making me feel sick! And I don't want be responsible for that. If it's really the case that current mp3 players don't have headphone amplifiers strong enough to cover up all the noise from the city, then they will have them in half a year! I don't know if it should be the ideal aim of mastering to support music-hostile environments. (after long silence:) This would be a perfect end for this interview. Maybe one last question: How did you become a mastering engineer? My background is a social track actually, rather than a professional track. I've been making music since I was a child, and that emerged into very different kinds of cultures and very different kinds of environments. In the 1980s I've been doing tape stuff quite a lot, and I started to record other people when I was sixteen. Then I went into different things - I was at an art school, and then I started working as a sound engineer again on musical projects. Later I worked as a sound engineer in theaters, then sound design for theaters, and theater music. Then I started editing movies. While doing this, I was asked to come to Dubplates ( Dubplates&Mastering ) to do mastering. I didn't have any real experience up to that point, and for me it was really a social thing, because I felt socially close to that setup at Paul Linke Ufer with the Hardwax record store and all those people involved, and I felt culturally close to the sound I was relating to this. So I thought: Yeah!, let's do that for a year or something. I always liked to work on a project basis, where you dig into something for six weeks and then it goes away! But that's not the case with mastering, it's just always something on your plate. I knew that, I could smell that in the very beginning - so I thought I'd do that for a year. It wasn't like mastering was something I always wanted to do, that's really not the case. I started mastering without ever really having watched anybody doing it. Also when I started at Dubplates, most engineers were leaving as you know; you started being involved with Ableton, Andi wanted to make more music, and so I had maybe two or three sessions where I learned how to handle the vinyl cutting machine, and then everything just fell into place somehow. I just started doing it. I don't even know if mastering is so much apart from any other sound treatment - you know, the most important thing is that you know what you want, because mastering is about decisions. So you can master any track in twenty-five different fashions, and at the end of the day if you screw around with the track and you think well, that's probably good, let's do it like this, it might be good, but it might also sound like its "probably good". As I said earlier, for me the achievement in mastering or in sound is that it sounds decisive - that's my idea of 'good'. I always found this kind of easy, I think that probably the only talent I really have - making decisions for other people. I'm not so easy in making decisions on my own music, but I can relate to other peoples material. I can feel safe with the decisions. Of course I also learnt that more by confirming the decisions I made in the outside world, by listening to records I've cut in clubs or something like that. But this is what feels like my qualification: to feel trustworthy on the decisions I make. I've just started doing that, because in all the working scenarios we had since the early nineties, that's the only qualifications that all the people had to have: Take responsibility, not necessarily really being capable of doing something, but taking the responsibility of what you do. So I just started taking it.