irOri Blog 03 - On Loudness (Mastering pt 1)

Welcome to part one of an occasional series on Mastering. 

Soooo.....what's mastering?

It's the last step in the process of preparing a track to play live or release. The idea is that you take your musical idea just as far as you can possibly take it, you make the track as perfect as you can, and then you send it to someone else to finish it off. Sure, you can do it yourself, but the idea is that you pay (and you damn well should pay!) someone with better gear and- more importantly - better ears than yours to make your music sound as good as it possibly can. 

People seem to think of mastering as some kind of a dark art, some magical process that makes your music sound "pro." But that's really not true. All mastering is, really, is making your music roughly as loud as everyone else's. 

Of course that's a wild oversimplification, but that's basically it. Let's take a look. Here's a visual representation of a track from my last EP (Transiant, Jagno Gaia & Priapizzm - Shirime) just the way it came out my computer before I sent it in for mastering. 

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For those not familiar with audio software, the left-right axis represents time, while the up-down axis represents amplitude (volume). The top and bottom pictures are the left and right speakers respectively. The blue is the audio information while the white is silence. 

Now here's the same track once David Cohen aka the Dog of Tears got done working his magic on it: 

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You can see that the spaces between phrases are just the same, but the peaks go up higher. It's the exact same track, just louder. 

Now for comparison, let's take a look at a track from a (very) prominent producer, on a (legendary) label that is for sure not-irOri:

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It looks pretty similar, right? The loudest parts of the two mastered tracks are just about equally loud. They both fill up the image, going right to the top/bottom. So, like, what's the big deal? Why does everyone get so damn worked up about mastering if all you're doing is making it roughly as loud as any other psy track?

Take another look. My track and the famous guy's track actually look pretty different. Yes the very loudest parts are equally loud, but if you look carefully at mine you can see some white spaces up at the very loudest parts between a bunch of spikes. Those spikes are each individual kick drum. On the other hand, Mr. Prominent Psy Guy has virtually no white space. (Yes, I know that if you zoomed in you could find some space between kicks on his, but let me make my point here). 

.....so what?

Imagine a giant speaker playing these songs. It's pounding in and out with every kick drum, and jiggling a tiny bit between those kicks to create all the rest of the sound. The difference between my track and this other one is that David mastered my track so as to give the speaker some space to bounce back between kick drums. This tiny little bit of breathing room makes the next kick sound louder when it hits, because the speaker has room to breathe. You can't have dark without light, and you can't have loudness without quiet, even in the few miliseconds between quarter notes at 150 beats per minute. 

When a track is smashed flat like this famous one, the speaker can't breathe. It can't come back in before shooting out again. It's basically just smooshed out all the time. I'm oversimplifying here, but not as much as you might think. 

So why in the world would darkpsy's most famous mastering engineer take a track that a very famous person has spent months or years working on and just squish it flat like that? Well, as it turns out, the human brain does this weird thing where if you take two of the exact same sound, but make one marginally louder, your brain thinkis that the louder one sounds better. Google "psychoacoustics," "Fletcher-Munson Curve," and "equal loudness contour" if you wanna know more. The point is that while the loudest point of both tracks is the same, the famous guy's track averages 2.6 decibels louder. So when you listen to both of them on crappy laptop speakers, you think "damn, that one sounds way way better than shitty Mr. Priapizzm."

but

On high-quality studio speakers, or on an enormous sound system, Shirime (my track) fucking thunders. Because there is space for the speaker to breathe, each kick abolutely pounds and all the tiny little details between the kicks are crystal clear. The reverbs extend off into space and the leads zip around your head. There is depth and clarity and width, and the whole track seems to live in its own beautiful little space.

The other guy's? Well, it's a hell of a track. It's beautifully written and immaculately produced. But it just sounds flat. Everything is all the way up front, all the time. There's no back-to-front, no side-to-side. And after about three minutes, it starts to hurt your ears. 

THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is why David Cohen is the mastering engineer on every irOri Music release. Because he has the ears and the gear and the balls to pull back a little and let our music breathe. So if you're listening to one of our releases and you find yourself thinking, "dang, this is a little quieter than the psytrance I'm used to," just reach out to your stereo and turn the volume knob up a little. Your ears will thank you.