John Dent (2006)

The late John Dent’s mastering credits include seminal albums by Bob Marley, Grace Jones, Motörhead, the Stranglers and a whole lot more. Key to his approach was a life-long dedication to sound, sonics and music. His mastering studio was an extension of his ears, creating an environment that allowed him to recognize the equipment used on a recording, from the workstation to the length of the cables.

In his lecture at the 2006 Red Bull Music Academy, Dent gave his own answer to the question of why mastering matters, in the process conjuring up a fantasia land of sound.

Hosted by Toby Laing Audio Only Version Transcript:

Toby Laing

We are fortunate to have a man with us, who has prolifically been in no small way responsible for a lot of the music in your record collection over the last 30 years, Mr. John Dent. [applause]

And I understand he’s going to be discussing with us a side of music production that we may or may not know much about, but which is very very important. I myself am looking forward to discovering some of the mysteries of mastering. Please feel free to ask any questions later on, but I think John, first of all, is going to present some information that he’s put together for this very purpose, and I’ll hand things over to John now.

John Dent

Thank you very much. I’m going to talk on a couple of subjects. The first one is, Why master? Why do we actually want to master a record? I’m mostly going to have a discussion on quality issues because with the introduction of mp3, iPods and internet downloads, it’s very easy to lose sight of the fact that the original masters are of a significantly higher quality than you’re all listening to. And I have a number of demonstrations here. One is a particularly good one, of an album that was mastered for a band called Zero 7. And we actually put all the material onto vinyl acetate before we made the CD. So everything on this album has actually gone onto the lathe. But as a sideline to that, they asked me to cut a 12” single, and I actually cut the 12” single direct from the half-inch tape. So it hasn’t been digitized, so we can actually hear the resolution difference between the two. But that’ll come a bit later. I’ve also prepared about 70 album and single sleeves of material that I’ve worked on over the last 30 years. It was done in a hurry I just literally grabbed a pile of records and CDs and scanned them in the other day. But I have actually had a hand in all of this, which I’m quite proud of. It actually surprised me when I went through it.

I’m going to start off by playing a couple of pieces of music. These are before and afters. In simple terms, you’re just going to hear a louder, bigger version of what the original actually is. The way to look at what I do is, when you go out and buy a finished CD or a finished piece of vinyl, generally it has been mastered. And somebody somewhere has looked out for the overall recording level, they’ve worked with the artist on getting the cross fades and the relative track levels right and the overall sound quality is generally been kept as high as it possibly can. So we’re all kind of spoiled when we put a CD in the CD player, you don’t have to get up and keep changing the volume. You don’t have to keep getting up and altering the tone, because an engineer like me has actually supervised that process for you.

When you’re making your own tracks, most people are absorbed with the content. They’re looking at the instrumentation, the arrangement, the general vibe of the track. And when people bring the stuff into me, I can tell what they’re trying to say; I can tell what they’re trying to do. But what actually happens is that if you make a comparison between the stuff they’ve just literally come fresh out of the studio with against the stuff that’s out there being played on the radio, being bought by everybody. And sometimes there’s an absolutely enormous difference between what people bring in and what they really want. And that’s what my role is. It’s to supervise that process.

I don’t try and put any of my own influence in it. I pass on my own experience, but I don’t say to people, “Oh, you need to do that, you need to do that.” I can just show people a number of ways of doing it. And the way I work is quite broad, I have a large palette of equipment and methods that I can use. And the result for some people is actually quite staggering. I’ve get engineers that have spent years working, they come up to me and go, “How the hell did you get 9 dB more out of my track? I already peaked it at zero and it doesn’t sound compressed and limited.” I suppose, this is the skill and the art that engineers like me have.

We put all our years of experience into our work. We generally select our own equipment. As an engineer, I don’t use plug-ins unless a particular job requires it. All of my equipment is outboard equipment. Very high-quality analog equipment. Some of it has been modified, and supplied by some of the finest designers on the planet. And some people just like their sound going through my equipment. And without it sometimes it doesn’t so good. It’s one of those things that happens. So I’m just going to play you a couple of things that I’ve done recently. The first one I’ll play is a “Before.” this particular one is The Kooks. It’s a single that was in the British charts recently. And the first one is a copy of the master that came from the States, Mike Brown mixed it.

The Kooks - "She Moves In Her Own Way"

(music: The Kooks - “She Moves In Her Own Way”)

The brief for this job, there was a strange bottom-end thing that was making radio transmitters pop and actually it was changing the dynamics and volume of the recording in a rather strange way. So I had to filter out some of that, and also duplicate the kind of levels that were on the album. I didn’t master the album, but this was the radio version that got approved and was played on UK radio.

(music: The Kooks - “She Moves In Her Own Way” (Radio Version) / applause)

Both of those recordings are peaking at digital CD zero. The difference is that after it’s mastered it has an energy and a sound pressure, and everyone taps their feet. It sounds almost less like a demo sort of thing. And that’s actually a common effect, a common factor with a lot of the work that I do. This is actually quite dramatic, it’s a track from the new Scritti Politti album.

Green has a home studio and his own engineer, and they’ve spent a good year making this record. They came in to me, they actually brought their mixing rig into my studio, and I gave them my second room. And they’ve been in, over the course of a year–and they’ve only recently finished this–while I was working on it, if there were issues within what I was doing, perhaps the vocal came out too loud, once you raise the gain, they would go back and actually reduce the vocal in the mix slightly, then give it back to me. So this is a collaboration between them and me, and I kind of, in a way, became part of the production process for this record. I’m going to play about two minutes of each; and this is quite dramatic.

Scritti Politti - "The Boom Boom Bap"

(music: Scritti Politti - "The Boom Boom Bap" [unmastered version])

And this is the mastered version.

(music: Scritti Politti - “The Boom Boom Bap” [mastered version] / applause)

So that’s what I do. I work with all this wonderful music and get a better energy, more accessible. And if it works well, it works fantastically. It’s all done without plug-ins. I think the message behind this is that everyone who makes music generally wants success out of what they do. And there’s a lot of people making music everywhere. And the presentation, the delivery of this music is what I’m involved with. And it’s not enough just to make and record music, you know, the delivery is important. That’s why engineers like me, we specialize in this field. I did actually start off in a recording studio with the intention of recording, but I decided I’d stick with this. I started with vinyl disc-cutting, and incorporated CD mastering when CD mastering came out.

When you record your stuff, you need to kind of decide what you want to do with it. Perhaps one track in fifty that I receive in my studio, actually you hardly have to do anything to. Most music does need some kind of attention at the mastering stage. It may be a simple levelling exercise between tracks for an album, if someone’s got their recording technique together. It may be that you need actually a more dramatic approach to what you’re doing. I have on hand in my studio a good half-inch tape recorder, that I can actually take data files and reproduce them through a really high-quality D to A [digital to analogue] converter. I use valve converters with my equipment, I feel they’ve got a better energy than transistor ones. And quite often I’ll put the material onto tape, and then start making the CD from that taped version. The Scritti Politti one went that route. When we put it on tape it suddenly elevated in sound, quite considerably.

I also have a vinyl disc-cutting lathe in my studio. I tend to use similar equipment to work with the vinyl system as well as the CD. I just re-plug it and patch it in a different way. And some artists have actually, by choice, decided that they want whatever they hear on vinyl to be part of what they hear on the CD, and I have a collection of CDs here, that have all been recorded onto vinyl, before putting them on CD. They haven’t gone to the stage of actually pressing them–we put them onto vinyl acetate. Vinyl acetate is an aluminium disc, with a skin on both sides, of nitrous acetate. It’s a material a bit like nail varnish, It’s fairly soft. And when you cut into it, the groove is silent. You hardly hear anything. People don’t really appreciate that when they buy records, because they pick up crackles and scuffs and whatever but the actual disc-cutting process is very, very good. It’s fairly noise-free. And we can record information from a hi-fi deck into our converters, and that’s how some people have chosen to make their CDs, and it’s very effective. [reaches to his computer]

I’ve got various orders in which I can do these things. I think what I’ll do, as we’re listening to some of the things that people have done...I’ve got a guy here, he was a very well-known producer in the ‘80s. His name’s Tim Friese-Greene. He worked with Talk Talk, he also wrote with Talk Talk, and a couple of years ago No Doubt had a hit with “It’s My Life”–he co-wrote it. And he used my services. He was probably the most extreme session I’ve had for a long time. He was remixing and remixing. He’s got his own home studio, very similar in a way to which way you guys are working. A digital workstation. And he was bringing in 24-bit data files, and he specifically asked for it to go onto tape, and onto the cutting lathe, in order to make the recording.

Once we’d gone through a good few months of doing this, and replacing tracks, we were building up an album after a few months. He then started bringing in vocal overdubs, and guitar parts, which he also wanted put through tape, through the lathe. And because we were working with analog systems, the timing of the equipment may not be as exactly precise as digital equipment. So when we got the guitar parts back on the computer, we had to kind of time stretch them a bit, just to make sure they fitted. And he was building up layer after layer, to complete this album. Now, I’ll play you a bit of what he’s done, because these are sounds you don’t normally hear on CD. This is Tim Friese-Greene and one of the tracks, he goes under the name of Heligoland.

(music: Heligoland - unknown)

So there we go. That was Tim Friese-Greene. And there’s another character that came in to me. He’s actually a builder, and it’s his dream to make a record. And he’s got a bass player in his band. The bass player is a recording engineer, mixing engineer. His name’s Wally, the artist, calls himself Sir Walter. And I gave him a couple of days of my time, and he’s produced an album. So, you know, he’s not signed to a record label, it’s just his dream to have his own record out. And based on that he’s now building a website, and this has also been to vinyl. We tried different routes, and actually the vinyl route really suited it. Especially, with the bass playing.

(music: Sir Walter - unknown)

He’s heard these records, and has decided to try and create something that, in his view, is fairly authentic to that sort of style he’s been listening to. There’s one other band here, the band is Grand National. Some of their stuff sounds a bit like The Police; I actually cut “Roxanne” a long time ago for The Police. All three of them turned up to the session, blonde-haired lads, with the a record, and I cut “Roxanne.” But this is again, putting the stuff to vinyl. They recorded this at home, and Rupert he originally mixed it to data files and decided at a later date to replace all the tracks by mixing to quarter-inch [tape], which again is kind of more authentic to the way that The Police recordings would’ve been. It’s a mix of modern styles, a mix of sampling, but you can hear where he’s coming from with this.

(music: Grand National - unknown)

One of the things that concerns a lot of engineers like myself within the industry is the way everyone is listening to much lower-grade music these days. And really, everyone is listening on the move. I can understand why that’s happening. But there is a great concern that whole generations are actually going to lose sight of the fact that historically recorded music has been of a really superior quality. I can give you some facts and figures. A lot of master recordings are actually recorded to tape. A good quality half-inch tape is approximately four times the resolution of a CD. So whenever we record from half-inch tape to make a CD, the basic sound is there, but the subtleties start to get lost. When you then reduce that to some mp3 formats, what you’re actually listening to is approximately a thirtieth of what’s on the CD. If you work that out, the sound change is actually quite considerable.

I had a work experience, guy in, he was 14, a couple weeks ago. He’s never listened to vinyl, he’s just been listening to mp3s. I’ve actually brought the record in that I played him. And he was shocked! He actually had a look of shock on his face. He just said, “That’s it. I’m going to go and buy a turntable. I’m never gonna rely on this again.” So the message is, you’re all making your own music. And whilst there’s nothing wrong with low-quality sound in itself, if it’s used as a creative thing... I mean, a lot of people use beats that have slightly crusty sounds or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with that. I would advise all of you at some stage, just to look into as high a quality listening system as you can find because it’ll show you more clearly what you’re actually doing.

You’re choosing sounds... Some people record their own sounds. I know Mark [Pritchard] has actually hired a recording studio, and brought in a drummer and bass player and actually recorded those sounds in order to sample them and then create some decent sounding dance records. Other people just take stuff off the internet, they pinch stuff off CDs, and generally the quality ends up in a downward direction, with a lot of these sounds. And in my studio I hear both ends of the spectrum and I think creatively there’s no problem in doing whatever you want to do. But to not be aware that there’s this other world out there of superb know, it’s a good idea to actually be aware of it. So wherever you can, try and audition your stuff on good systems. Not just on headphones or on a computer speaker, but actually take the trouble to actually get a full-frequency range speaker system, and use it as a tool. Use it as a way of actually grading, and deciding what you’re doing.

That probably leads on to... I’ve got a comparison here, between vinyl and CD. This is the Zero 7 project that I talked about. Now this CD, the actual recording will have been on vinyl, and we can A/B between the same source recording, which was a half-inch tape... And what the CD sounds like and what the vinyl sounds like.

Zero 7 - "Futures (feat. Jose Gonzalez)"

(music: Zero 7 - “Futures” *CD/vinyl comparison)

Could anyone hear the difference? [laughs] Yes?

Audience Member

So the process here, was it exactly the same, when you decide to go either on LP or CD?

John Dent

No, I’ll explain what it is. The master was a half-inch master, they’d recorded it analog multi-track, and the half-inch master was replayed on a... I’ve got a very specialist machine in my studio. There’s an analog hi-fi designer in the UK, Tim de Paravicini. He has a reputation within the professional audio field, and he designed the tape machine replay electronics that I use. In the case of the vinyl, I just literally plugged it into an analog EQ. There’s a couple of dBs of analog limiting going on, and I plugged it into the cutting system. So there is no digitizing.

I liken it to potato and chips. This [the vinyl] is the potato; this [the CD] is the chips. The history of recorded sound, where recordings come from, is analog. And you know, when I grew up, I bought a lot of records. I was listening to an analogue recording system. And we all found it a bit strange when digital came out, because we had something that was almost perfect, and then politics and all sorts of other stuff came into play, and we had CD. I can see from a delivery point of view, CD doesn’t have the pops and crackles, but mathematically and technically, the CD is a quarter of the resolution of that [the vinyl]. And you can hear an element of that in this demonstration. Now, think about an mp3, which could be a 30th of the CD, and that’s what you’re losing. That’s why vinyl is still a relevant medium. It’s a high-resolution medium. I think a lot of people don’t really appreciate the fact that it is a high-resolution medium.

I mean, we spent half an hour this morning, listening to different record player cartridges in here, because I wanted to make sure that you could actually hear this demonstration. And the pick up that you use on a record player is important. You need to spend a little bit of money to get off the record, what’s there. A lot of people with their [Technics SL-]1200 decks, with Concordes or Stanton styli, are actually, again, you’re probably only hearing 75% of what’s on the record. That’s what hi-fi is about. A lot of hi-fi based on record decks is extracting every ounce of that information, but vinyl is a very high-resolution medium. I think that’s why a lot of people swear by it still, a lot artists insist on all their material still being on vinyl. And when it comes out like this, I don’t know about you but I’d much rather listen to that [the vinyl], than that [the CD]. [inaudible question from audience member] Oh, I haven’t actually finished the process. With the CD, when Henry [Binns] heard how his tapes cut to vinyl, he decided that he actually would have the whole album put onto acetate, but beyond that it’s played back on a high quality hi-fi deck, and then converted to digital beyond that. So, when I was in the room doing it, it’s definitely the digitizing process that loses some of that detail. You’re just chopping the sound up and sampling it. So that’s the process. But the source was the same.

Audience Member

I was wondering how much... With a CD being 16-bit, that DVD audio would be far better, being 24-bit...

John Dent

Yes, it is.

Audience Member

How much better would it be, roughly?

John Dent

Well, we get a lot of high-resolution sources. Quite a few artists produce 24/96 sources. And if you imagine a slider scale between CD and good quality analog, then the higher the resolution of the digital, the closer it is to the analog end of it. And I would recommend for all of you, if you’re working, to work in the highest resolution that you can. Whatever you can set your workstations to. I mean, there are practical issues once you start going beyond the 41.1 or 48k sample rate. But at least work in 24-bit. These differences do move it closer to what the analog actually is. And there’s another format, Super Audio CD, that’s been invented and brought out, and that’s another attempt at getting it kind of closer, but all the record industry’s doing is getting back to where we were with vinyl.

Vinyl towards the end of the ‘70s/’80s it had reached a peak. You’re talking about 60 years of development, a lot of reputable companies, in perfecting the way recordings can be made. Then, once we went over to CD it took a step backwards, a lot of the equipment was quite crude. Nowadays, a lot of stuff’s been learned from that, a lot of phase correction, a lot of work’s been put into converters that actually initially convert at a much higher sampling rate. And then they down-sample back to 44[k] to CD. They’re the type of converters that I use.

So I think the message is, be aware of these quality differences. It will affect your work. it definitely will affect your work. And I suppose I sort of touched on this. I’ve got a list of things here. General advice. Once you’re making your tracks, one of the things I would suggest that you do, Everyone makes music within certain genres, styles. Put in, input tracks that are already out there. But don’t do it off mp3s, go out and buy the CDs. And place these tracks on your workstations, and just make the comparison. This is the kind of thing that I do every day when people bring tracks in. But do it yourselves, be aware of what you’re doing. You may think you’ve got a loud sound or a big sound, and maybe you’re just monitoring too loud. And when you turn your monitor down–because you can’t listen to a commercial CD and go back to what you’re doing-you might think, ‘Oh, I might need to work a bit harder to get it to work right.’ So just be aware of what you’re doing compared to what’s out there.

Number two, work at the highest quality you can. If you’re sending work to a mastering studio, ideally send high-quality data files, if that studio can deal with them. Most reputable studios now deal with data files. We do a lot of stuff over the internet. I’ve got clients all over the world. And we have an FTP site set up which is secure. And on a daily basis clients are moving files backwards and forwards. We’re getting them off the site, mastering them, and sending them back for approval, that kind of thing. So mastering has become a very easy international thing for us now.

One of the other things that we’ve done with our studio – my studio is called Loud by the way–for obvious reasons — I decided that that was the name that was going to make me a living for a while. But we’ve teamed up with two other studios, and we’re on a website called Mastering World. There’s a little bit of a C.V. on me in there, and each engineer has a choice as to how they operate a site. And there are different prices for different engineers and different availabilities. But we get a lot of work. In one week I had a job from Turkey, something from India, I did a German football song. You know, it’s kind of all this stuff which is coming in over the internet, which is quite interesting.

And I’d also advise you to attend mastering sessions, if that’s at all possible. You do learn a lot. Every engineer that masters is different. I work differently to people that I trained with. But there is some common elements. We all strive to get the best out of the recordings. And you will learn about it, especially with vinyl. Vinyl is an easily distorted medium, some of the things you hear on vinyl – ‘S’s for instance, sibilant qualities in voices. Some singers don’t actually record to vinyl that well. I remember when I started, Queen were the house band, at the studio that I started with, and Freddie Mercury’s voice wouldn’t record to vinyl very well. There were big efforts made to find the right microphones, and the right way of getting that sound of his through onto vinyl. His vocals were spitting, very sibilant, it was quite a distraction.

So when you attend the mastering session, simply come away with some information that will help the next mix you do, the next recording you do. One of the issues that we have–quite a lot of clients really hammer the mixes. They maximise them, quite often they have an L2 on their computer and they just want to impress everybody and they maximise it. And I think there’s nothing wrong with trying it and seeing what effect there is, but a lot of mastering studios, and mastering engineers including myself, are horrified sometimes when someone gives you something that you can’t do anything with.

Because a good example is that with dance music, on vinyl, the maximised tracks will give you a good level, but what people don’t realise is that the intro is all out of balance–people have a kick drum on the intro and it’s three times as loud as it is within the track. And you have this kind of weird balance, where everything is kind of... The more sparse stuff is very loud. And the stuff that should be loud is actually suppressed. And you have to be aware of the effect that this has. And to a large degree, it’s irreversible. So if you use limiting and maximising programs, just be aware–just don’t overdo it. A lot of people will actually send me one that they like, with maximising, and then another mix with slightly less of it or none at all, so that I actually have a chance to apply my skills and my equipment to what I’m doing. So just be aware that you can kill a recording quite significantly by overdoing it. You quite often have to give demo CDs to send to record companies that have a decent level on them, otherwise they won’t get heard–but just be aware that you need to mix it slightly less fierce.

And the other thing I’d advise is, if you are not sure about how your CD is going to come out or how your vinyl is going to come out, do a couple of variations to your mix. A very common variation, which happens with a lot of albums, is that engineers, producers, will give me the master mix, and then a vocal up and a vocal down mix, that’s very very common. The reason they do that, is it gives you the ability to cut and paste, between versions. You can create a more interesting track. If you use the vocal up for the verses, and then master one for the choruses, that kind of thing. If the track is amplified a lot in the mastering process, things like the vocals may come up as a consequence of it and actually be too loud. So then you fall back on the vocal down version, and quite often that sounds better.

With Mark [Pritchard], Mark’s brought in sort of snare up versions when he’s been doing hip-hop, bass up, bass down, you know? I think Mark goes a bit mad with it, but you know? It’s nice to have a bit of variation if you’re going to use the mastering process quite creatively. And some people do bring their workstations in. They might have some stems there, where they can just quickly piece together a sub mix, and plug the laptop in, and we’ll work from that. I just recently did a Coldcut album and one of the tracks they mixed didn’t actually have a very powerful bass on it so they called up the stems and we actually kind of remixed it in the mastering room to make a much fuller track, and that track is on the album. So, preparing for the mastering stage. And you need to have a mastering engineer who’s prepared to accept all of this. There are some mastering engineers that won’t tolerate this kind of thing.

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