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Creative Mastering: Interview with Michael Romanowski Part 2

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Continuing from last week's interview with Michael Romanowski, we continue discussing the creative aspects of mastering. If you missed the first part you can read it here.

Michael Romanowski is a professional mastering engineer working out of the Bay area in California. He's been mastering for the better part of two decades and has worked with a multitude of high profile clients. In this second part we discuss the different aspects of the home studio revolution as well the experience with working with creative rock-groups such as Dredg.


What's the main difference between a mixing room and a mastering room?

Well, beyond the sonic-ness of it, a mixing room is hopefully treated so that it gives the listener a good perspective of what's happening no matter what room you're in. However, in a mixing room, you've got way more things going on. During mixing you got way more choices to make per track. You also have all of the equipment there per track that you have to have to be able to use. There are generally compromises because of that. The cost of creating a mixing room that had all the same tolerances and everything a mastering room had would be ridiculously expensive. And most people don't have the option to do that.

But since I'm just dealing with two channels, I've got the best cabling, I can have the best amplifiers and I can have the room designed and treated for one listening spot. Another thing that a mix room has is a couch or other places where clients can listen because they're going over the mixes with you. I mean, in my mastering room, there's actually a piece of tape on the floor. There's one spot in my room and it's designed around the perception at that one spot. There are reflections all over the room, and in any room, based on sound traveling around and bouncing off doors and equipment. But I know exactly what's happening in this one spot and that's where I sit.

And you know, I think that's an important part of the mastering room.That it's really designed, first and foremost, as a listening room. And most mixing rooms are designed for anybody that happens to be there, and to be pretty good for people to come in. And it could be that you're listening one way, I listen in another, and so and so listens in a different way.

And for the studio and the mixing room to remain in business, they have to be busy. And to be busy, they have people come and go and it has to be adaptable to everybody's different work style.

Right.

Everybody has different listening preferences. My listening preference is sitting here in this chair with that speaker this way, and this one over here that way, and I know my room really well. I know that what leaves here translates in different types of systems, because I've done a tremendous amount of just sitting here listening. And mix rooms are not...

Designed as specifically, I guess?

Exactly. Yeah. They're more multipurpose.

What are your thoughts on the home studio revolution? Where the artist does everything from creating the music, recording, mixing, and mastering all the way to marketing it themselves?

I think that the way technology has evolved to allow people to make their own records from start to finish is amazing. I mean, I think that the advancements we've made to be able to do that at home has tremendously increased. And like I said from my days with a four-track cassette machine, I was just fascinated. This was awesome. That was great. I could do this. I could do that. And then when I got an ADAT I was like, "Wow, not only do I have eight tracks but they're cleaner."

Yeah.

Now, you listen to ADAT stuff and the perception has changed. I just got done with a project with about 75 of my old ADAT tapes I had been carrying around with me for the last 20 years or so. I finally said, "You know what? I don't want to carry these anymore. I need to get them in a format that I can store them and archive them.” And so I've been going back through all of these tapes and recapturing all of the material that's on them going, "Wow, I used to think that sounded great, but it wasn't so great." And then there were things I went, "Wow, that was so much fun to do. I had a great time making those."

There is the fun aspect of people making stuff at home which I think is amazing. But I also think that just because you can put salt on your food doesn't mean you should. Just because you can make records at home doesn't mean you should.

The idea behind creativity is that you have a left brain process and a right brain process, and one is creative and one is technical. And you're going back and forth. And you're trying to be the artist and the engineer. One is technical and one is artistic. You have to go back and forth between the two as fast as you can and as far as you can, but you can never get as far in one direction as you need in order to be as good of an engineer as you can nor can you get to the other side where you can be as good of an artist as you can. Very rare are the people who can do that. Now, some people can do that.

Right, exactly.

But the argument is, "Oh, would they be better if they didn't? If they focused on one thing, either being the artist or the engineer." I mean, I think the capabilities of being able to sit at home with a laptop with all these plug-ins and processing capabilities is awesome. That's really great. You can be very creative and do lots of cool stuff with it. But I don't think those are necessarily records. I think there are way too many things that are released these days that are demos.

They're only scratch pads or ideas. Those who take the time to sit and go through this whole process of recording at home determine how the structure of the song should work, they determine the instrumentation with all of their virtual instruments. They've got string sections, choirs and marching bands. Whatever it is that they've got that they can add is great, but that's not necessarily a record, that's a demo.

It's like producing yourself. Mastering your own stuff is like being your own producer. You don't have the perspective. You can't separate yourself from the material or the art form to be able to look at the big picture, going: "What am I trying to say and am I saying it in the best way? Is this a creative way to do it or is this just making sense to me and nobody else is going to understand it?"

And then you wonder why nobody gets your music when it's not accessible in any way. It needs somebody with some perspective to go, "Here's what we should be looking at. What about if we started with an intro or something like that." Some of the best bands in the world have come out and tried to produce themselves and usually it's a disastrous result. Not because they're not good bands but because they just lack the perspective.

And I think that's one of the pitfalls with the home recording thing. I don't mean people can't do it. People can certainly make really great sounding stuff and very creative things as well. As a whole it's a tremendous asset to people wanting to develop their skills. Being able to do that at home and making your own copies is great. But I don't think it's the end product.

Right

But when people come to me and say that it has sound good as an MP3, or they want me to send them an Mp3 as a reference. That sort of negates my whole purpose. I think CDs are dead. I think the red book audio is a compromise, MP3s are a joke. I mean, MP3 served their purpose. I think getting people to listen to high-resolution files via digital downloads is certainly the wave of the future.

And people can do that from home very easily. Have a server at home that people buy your file from. They'd buy 24bit/96kHz versions or surround versions of your songs or your album. You can send them way more artwork that's actually legible than trying to look at the back of the CD that's got two-point type that you can't see. People can get way more information and way more understanding of the artist and the creativity that took to get there by being able to do that. And you can do that from home excellently. I think that's a very cool thing.

And it takes the labels, the distributors, the trucks and the expense accounts out of the equation to where people can focus on actually marketing. That doesn't necessarily mean they're great marketers as well but they have the capabilities to do that. The point is to make records, and I think there's more benefit in focusing on being the artist instead of doing everything from start to finish. There are pros and cons to both, but I think there's more benefit in being able to distribute and market yourself than necessarily recording yourself. Doing promotions, getting people engaged and getting your music into the hands of the listener is an art form itself as well.

Yeah, that's for sure.

And that should also be left to people who know how to do that. When the artist should be spending their time being an artist rather than doing that. They could be writing, honing their craft. They could be learning another instrument. They could be developing as a performer rather than having to wear so many different hats that they're a 10-headed monster without much focus.

That's the downside of having an entrepreneurial spirit. You basically want to do everything yourself.

Yes. Well, you know what? What I find sometimes with people is that they go, "You know, I'll save money." The saving money aspect is the worst part about mastering yourself or engineering yourself. It's cool to think that you'll save money but you don't actually save money because it takes longer. You're learning to do it as you do it. So you're not actually spending your time wisely.

For instance, say that you're a graphic designer. What you do is you do album covers and you decide, "I want to make a record. I can do the graphic designing myself." Well, great, that's a skill set you already have. But you're going to have to learn to be an artist. When an artist engineers himself he's going to have to learn to be an engineer when he already has the skill set of an artist.

But if you build your time as a graphic designer, is your time worth that many dollars an hour learning a different craft when you could spend it honing your own abilities instead of just being an artist and hiring somebody who has already put in the time to know what they're doing. I mean, they've learned their skill in design, they already have the abilities they've spent their life learning to do. People come to me because I'm an engineer and what I do is I master records. That's what I do.

Yeah. They wouldn't come to you with their album and try to get you to do the graphic design.

Yeah. So even if they might want me to do their graphic design as well I'd say, "Well, okay, cool. But I'll tell you what, I'd be happy to learn, but my rate is still the same." They wouldn't go for that, that's not fair. They say they have this guy down the street who'll do it for 20 bucks. Well great.

Use that guy.

I'm sure he'll do a much better job than I would. So, yeah, I mean, I think that the home recording thing is amazing and dangerous at the same time. The unfortunate part is that I think that we take music for granted because it is so accessible, because there is so much out there.

And nobody wants to buy it...

And there's so much out there that nobody wants to buy it anymore. And why don't they want to buy it anymore? They won't buy it anymore because there's so much of it and most of it is not that good.

It's not that the artist isn't good. I don't mean to say that people aren't creative and don't have anything to say, but they're not paying attention to the things that makes the music accessible or makes them unique to listeners. They're not taking the care to make a good sounding record that when you play it for a friend sitting in your car they go, "Well, this is cool. What is this?" They're not making records that you can respond to that by saying "Well, hey, this is the so and so band. You should check them out. They're great."

Fan development starts when people dig in and get what you're playing. They have some sort of connection with the artist. But when you're making records that are either just loud and abrasive, loud for loud's sake, and maybe not very accessible on a sonic level, then people will put it on and skip to something else after one song. Then they just listen on shuffle and their brain has to work too hard to decode what it thinks an acoustic guitar, vocal or drum-kit sound like. The brain gets fatigued. The more it gets fatigued, the less attention it has for that music. So the more likely that somebody is going to put on something else.

Well, it's like the joke of the shuffle button. The shuffle button isn't really used to listen to random songs. It's used so you can skip to the song you really want to listen to.

Right. And the one you want to listen to is just the group that speaks to you in some kind of way, it doesn't mean the rest of the songs on the album aren't good. But you know that's one of the byproducts of the loudness wars. Everybody makes things loud because they feel like they have to be heard. Well, if everybody is standing at the same room shouting, the one standing in the center of the room is going to leave the room.

Picture a big circle of 100 people and somebody is standing in the middle with everybody shouting. This person is going to walk up to somebody and see if they have something to say. When he finds out they don't he'll try somebody else in the room. When he's listened to enough people in the room that don't have anything to say he'll finally get fed up and walk out of the room.

He's leaving because he can't handle all those people just shouting at him. And it's just as hard for people to have to expect people to pay attention after that. When we make records that all do that, because we don't pay attention to those details, then it just becomes a shouting match.

Yeah.

And it degrades the art form. Less people are going to listen, and the less people listen the less people are going to buy. In the end it's just going to be given away and then you can't make a living as an artist because nobody is buying anything. And that's just a big slope, a big kill.

And I'm very passionate about the power of music and how it can really affect people. It can transport you to places. It can tell you stories. It can make you remember things. It's part of an experience. And when it's not part of any experience, it might as well be street noise, buses and people and cars and sirens and stuff, because it's just stuff that's distracting you without saying anything.

And unfortunately, I think that's the slippery slope with the home recording market. People are recording traffic noise more so than they are sitting on a couch and listening. The danger is that you're just trying to compete in a shouting match. And you're not being as artistic as you can because you have to wear so many hats. None of them fit correctly.

I have a jazz singer, a friend of mine that I work with and I do recordings and stuff for her, and occasionally I do live sound for her. I've played with her, but she has to spend half her day trying to market herself and get gigs. She has to spend most of her time every day promoting and working on getting the gigs. If she spent that kind of effort at being a singer and being a songwriter and a musician, she'd be unbelievable. But finding somebody that has the same commitment to the craft of promoting or getting gigs is just as important as finding somebody who's going to be the bass player on your record or some engineer that really knows how to capture your sound, or a producer that knows how to develop your sound.

I wanted to ask you just, you recently mastered The Pariah, the Parrot and Delusion?

Oh, yeah.

The Dredg album, which is absolutely one of the most impressive albums I've heard in a long time.

Oh, cool.

I'm just wondering how you approach the mastering part of that album.

They're really nice guys. It's fun to have them in the studio. By the way, that's one of the things that I enjoy the most about mastering is that I get to work with a lot of different styles of music and a lot of different artists and a lot of different musicians and engineers. And I just enjoy meeting people, talking to them and hearing their stories and listening to their music. And you know, I'm a big, big goofy music fan. I just love listening to music. And especially guys like that are just a great example because they cared about their music.

Yeah.

They were in it every step of the way. And I think it shows. You know, I think that kind of attention to detail shows in the end because I think it's a great record.

My approach on The Pariah, the Parrot The Delusion was really the same as I approach everything. I talk to them first, I know what's coming in. When I get the material in my hands and they're here, we sit down and listen. I develop an opinion and I develop another opinion about where I think it should go, and I try to find the best way to get from point A to point B.

We may go, "Well, let's try it this way. Well, what if we try that? What if we try this?" There are all of those what-if moments. But from there, it's really us deciding on a path and following the path throughout, trying to make it sound as cohesive as possible. That approach isn't any different than any other record, whether I'm working on somebody who's going to sell six copies to their family, or 100 million copies around the world.

I'm just wondering because they kind go all over the place. So, there's these really poppy quiet parts and then they have the really hard rock music. So, I'm guessing as a mastering engineer you would do the exact same thing as in everything else, but is there any critical listening because they go all over the spectrum?

Right. That's one of the those things why content doesn't necessarily matter. If they're all over the spectrum, it still has to sound like it goes together.

Right.

It could be a very quiet acoustic feeling and then get in to those big bombastic electronic sounding things or those big distorted parts to this very intimate piano. I mean, it could go all over the place, but my perspective is looking at the big picture. How does the album or the body of work translate. Not just, "Okay, let's make this song as cool as I can. Now, let's go to another song and make it as cool as I can," and then try to pull them all together and try to hope that they sound right.

And you know, you're right. Those guys are good example since that's a wide swap of music they're doing. And for it to work right, it has to go together. Yet, they still have to sound like a journey, like it's taking you on a trip.

Yeah. And that's what they're really good at, actually.

Yeah, I think so too. Yeah.

Well thanks so much. Before we finish, is there something you would like to add?

I think I've hit some of the big points. Mastering yourself is dangerous – as dangerous as recording and mixing can be. I want to stress the importance of the room and the monitoring environment as well as the importance of listening.

I mean, it's absolutely about listening and paying attention. As a mastering engineer it's about digging in to what's going on sonically, not what's going on content-wise. You should be aware of all the things that are important in the song, but that's not the first and foremost thing about mastering.

I believe that computers have a sound and a hardware has a sound. Even with things like hard drives. I think a solid state hard drive sounds better than spinning hard drives. In fact, I don't think that I think that. I know that by careful listening to the same material played back in the same way. Even though everything is exactly the same, there is a difference between solid state drives and hard drives. It's that type of attention to detail that a mastering engineer should focus on and pay attention to.

You can check out more of his work, his website and studio at MichaelRomanowski.com.

Michael will be doing two mastering panels at the AES convention in San Francisco this coming November with other engineers such as Andrew Mendelson, Mark Wilder and Mike Wells among other. If any of you readers live in the Bay area or are heading out there for the convention be sure to check out some of the inspiring and educational information they have to offer.

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