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October 27, 2018

How to get your sound to the top.

Hear from Mastering Engineer Conor Dalton (Daft Punk, Jeff Mills, Marcel Dettmann, Ricardo Villalobos)

Conor, first of all thank you so much for spending some time with us. It's a big pleasure to have you here, part time mastering/audio lecturer during the day, mastering hero during the night, you worked with quite a number of great artists including Daft Punk.

Thanks for taking an interest and nice to talk with you. Yeah, I've been fortunate to work with a range of musicians of all different styles and genres. I'm mostly known for my work in dance music, whether that's working for an international artist or band, a record label or even for bedroom producers, every day is different. Every day I try to be a little better than I was yesterday. It's an addictive and enriching process and the deeper in you go the more interesting it becomes. As for the lecturing i'm pretty new to that but man it's rewarding. The students have that youthful energy and curiosity that makes music exciting to discuss. Enthusiasm is infectious. I've always enjoyed sharing my tips and techniques with people, to help someone with their passion makes me deeply content. I see lecturing as "giving something back" rather than a job, the balance between that and mastering feels good, even if it means working a little "too much".

Tell us about your approach to mastering a track. What makes the perfect track to master?

First I clean up resonances and consider the low end, do I need to roll off the low frequencies or not? Then I will evaluate if anything is asking for my attention first, for example, the track might be missing some confidence in the vocal, so maybe this pulls me towards the low mid-range to see what I can find here that's musically useful. It's common that I might use a clean high-quality linear phase EQ for broad and gentle EQ adjustments to balance the frequency spectrum before the first stage of compression (if necessary). Parallel compression with a clean compressor might be common with the sub frequencies relaxed on the parallel signal, before moving into using more colorful tools that add harmonics and favor, such as a colorful analog EQ, or a colorful digital EQ such as Acustica's Cream, then maybe another layer of compression with something more creative if necessary before some final limiting and dither. I try not to have my limiter taking off more than 1dB or 2dB and if I want to push the song louder then I prefer to use another compressor rather than squash the peaks with a limiter. I tend to avoid multi-band compression unless it's necessary to tame a frequency range, for example in the chorus the high-mid range becomes too harsh. If using multi-band I use as few bands as possible and always linear phase to avoid phase distortions around the crossover points. If my high end is lacking energy I might overemphasize it with colorful EQ before using a high-frequency limiter to beat it back down, this leaves the high end with more consistent sound pressure. Every song is different but my mentality is similar, clean and corrective processes early in the chain: colorful and creative processes later in the chain, as there is no point adding harmonics to a signal that isn't balanced and under control in the frequency domain. The perfect track to master is one that has the elements with a respectful relationship in volume between the elements in the song, meaning that one thing isn't so loud that it drowns something else, rather all the elements are on a similar playing field in terms of perceived volume. Setting volumes of individual instruments correctly is one of the most crucial steps. Next, the EQ balance should be rich with all the frequencies strongly represented, so no major dips and peaks in the frequency domain, rather balanced frequencies. Also, a controlled dynamic range so nothing is getting lost but not overly squashed either. Good quality source material and a good take are important, but most importantly a good song with a rough mix is better for the listener than a boring song with a good mix, music isn't always about being technically correct, but rather about emotions and expression. How does the song make you feel? It's better to sound new than it is to sound "correct".

What are your favorite Acustica plugins and how have they improved your workflow?

They have given me the option of some new go-to solutions for reoccurring issues I face in dance music mastering, for example, if a pre-master feels slightly too clean and digital; lacking excitement and sparkle, then Cream is a very unique solution to inject some life into something that felt two dimensional and flat before. It's a strong way to change the character of the music and to add attitude. Each tool from Acustica is unique in its capabilities and has characteristics that might suit a certain scenario. I had a track recently that needed a lot of re-balancing in the frequency domain with a clean EQ, and once I'd done so the track was balanced and yet now feeling a bit lifeless, so I used Coral to bring some of the power back.

Mastering for vinyl. How does your approach to processing a track change in this regard?

Vinyl mastering is usually an adaption of the digital master, so a few things to remember: for the vinyl version it shouldn't have wide stereo bass, or much going on over 18kHz. You should use a correlation meter to check the phase, making sure nothing is out of control. Check in mono. Cutting to vinyl adds it's own natural compression during the cutting process so we can also relax the dynamic processing on the master for vinyl, it's not favorable to make the vinyl master too squashed in general. Also, cutting to vinyl can overemphasize resonances so it's wise to keep that in mind and make sure you're alert to this, doing a test cut can expose these issues so you could then tweak the master a little bit before the final cut. It's common that the master for vinyl might be a little overhyped in the high mids and slightly bass light too, cutting tends to favor this.

Analog vs digital: does it still matter?

Less and less so, each has advantages. It's hard to find a good digital compressor that beats an analog one, but digital is improving rapidly whereas analog is plateauing. The advantage of digital is 'recall', and the ability to make multiple approaches over multiple days, this way you get multiple first impressions and might lead you to a better decision in the end. What's clear to me is that a good decision is much stronger than a good tool. I believe speakers and room are more important than anything else, the rest is good decision making and you can achieve world-class results with simple equipment if your technique is on form.

Is 'competitive loudness' still important?

Musicians still expect loud masters, especially in electronic music. It will take some time before they begin to explore the possibilities that loudness normalization on streaming platforms begins to offer them but as mastering engineers it's up to us to expose them to it. For example, the website loudnesspenalty.com is really worth a look. Make a hot master and a streaming master and let the customer upload these to loudnesspenalty and see which they prefer for themselves once the loud master is normalized and turned down. Times are changing for the better, and we're beginning to see a shift. For now at least, competitive loudness is still desirable in an artists mind. The future however will favour dynamic music once the record labels and artists utilize the normalization systems available to them.

You are also a lecturer at dBs Music in Berlin, an institution focusing on music Production and sound engineering. What are the most obvious doubts that afflict young aspiring producers?

Confidence. Lack of experience, lack of practical exposure to decision making with audio, I feel that students can sometimes feel isolated or unsure about what to do next, or where to turn to as the exposure to new ideas often leaves you in a vulnerable state of mind. The more you learn the more you realize you know nothing. Also, the desire for high standards can often paralyze students out of fear. Overcoming this is crucial, perfectionism can work for you to a point, but recognizing when to take a step back is essential. I read a really nice quote on this which I think is relevant: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it” - Anne Lamott. It's important to me to try and help students overcome this particular challenge, and try and get them to begin to focus all their energy on self-improvement, and not get concerned about what other people are doing. Rather continue on the life-long road of learning and the pursuit of knowledge: the grass is greener where it's watered. Focus on investing in yourself. The rest is just noise.

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