The above intro was written well over a decade ago, about four years after we opened our doors as a mastering studio. It was and still is a humorous way of reminding producers and artists that there is a mastering studio out there, charging affordable rates, that understands that if one is not careful, it is easy to degrade a good mix in the mastering process. In other words, a good mix should become a great master and a great mix should become a scintillating master. Engineering experience, skillful mastering techniques and top notch equipment can almost always make a poor mix better, sometimes much better!
Fifteen years later, we have refined our methods and have replaced almost every piece of equipment in our studio...well, actually, we have replaced our whole studio! (see the what's new section for further info) Having a professionally designed studio is one of four essential components necessary to hang out one's shingle as a professional mastering studio. The other three are an experienced engineer who specializes in mastering, an accurate monitoring system and all the equipment necessary, in case there are problems to solve, and just to have a choice of tools to do a good job when mastering a wide variety of music.
For us, one of the biggest changes over the years was the realization that while mastering plug-ins and programs like Sound Forge and T-Racks in the right hands can do a credible job, nothing inside a computer beats the sound of Class-A outboard gear. In fact, almost all of the albums with gold and platinum credits have been mastered with Class-A outboard gear, mostly of the vacuum tube and solid state variety sprinkled with a few outstanding digital (outboard) units.
As years passed and finances allowed, we began to move away from the all digital computer platform by integrating some analog tube gear in our set-up. As of the year 2006, all of our equipment dreams have come true as we have acquired class-A brands such as Manley, Tube-Tech, Weiss, Lavry, Requisite, TC Electronic, Prism, ATR, etc.
The best mastering studios have a good selection of both digital and analog class-A outboard gear.
Class-A tube gear is used not only for its functionality, but for the sound, i.e., it adds or emphasizes musical harmonics. Whether its a pre-amp, compressor or equalizer, class A tube gear, properly used, adds "warmth" and "musicality" and it colours the sound in a way that most people find pleasing. Solid State Class-A is usually "cleaner" and less coloured (but not always!) and is simply another sound that is part of the mastering engineer's pallet.
So why digital? Because digital gear can be very precise in how it functions. Certain processes, such as the stereoization techniques available in the K-Stereo Processor, M/S techniques offered in our TC 6000 mastering mainframe, the Weiss EQ1-LP-DYN's dynamically controlled equalization and parallel compression as offered by the Weiss DS1-MK2, cannot be achieved as easily and accurately in the analog domain. Although world class digital gear can have its own sound, it doesn't colour the sound the way analog gear and especially tube gear does. In fact, the best units sound transparent as they go about working their magic. Great digital gear is the perfect partner for great analog tube gear.
Why outboard digital instead of plug-ins? For recording engineers, plug-ins are the only way to avoid the purchasing of many, many outboard units. In fact, one of the reasons your local high-end recording/mixing studio is so expensive is because they offer a good variety of class A outboard units. The reason we try to avoid plug-ins in mastering is that the vast majority of them colour the sound adversely. Squeezed, choked, loss of depth and space are words often used to describe mixes put through the plug-in mastering process. (see the what's new section for further info)
Silverbirch is always on the lookout for special gear that will make our work easier and sound better.
Expanding the stereo image is often necessary in order to add depth and polish to indie mixes. While in the past we were able to do a reasonable job with our plug-ins, our Digital Domain K-Stereo Processor treats the stereo field with a lot more respect! No more sacrificing vocal definition and bottom end clarity and punch in order to achieve a wider, deeper sounding master. This unit is the ultimate mastering "polisher".
The Tube-Tech SMC-2B Vacuum Tube Multiband Compressor is the world's first, and only, multiband tube compressor. The computer environment and stand-alone boxes abound with multiband compressors as they are a useful mastering tool. The quality ranges from dreadful to good but when we compared our plug-ins to the Tube-Tech, the quality of sound was considerably better. We had to have it! Fast forward four years later and we now have the TC Electronic Mastering 6000 which has the best multi-band outboard digital compressors. When the tube unit doesn't sound right for the job, the outboard digital usually does!
The Requisite L2M Tube Mastering Limiter/Expander compressor is simply the best analog tube unit that we have ever tried for compressing stereo mixes. There's no pumping, little loss of top end and the compression can optionally be rolled off the bottom end, allowing a more dynamic kick and bass. As a unit to "make-up" gain at the end of the analogue loop, this is one of the best.
Our Weiss DS1-MK2 Compressor / Limiter / De-esser does everything the Requisite unit does (and more!) but does it in the digital domain. Whereas analog tube gear is known for the pleasing way in which it changes sound, the strength of Class-A outboard digital gear is that is does its magic by remaining sonically neutral. In other words, the Weiss unit, being digital, is capable of compressing in a more precise and "clinical" fashion without adding the harmonics that tube gear does. When mastering an album, the engineer sometime uses different tools for different songs and this outboard digital compressor is a wonderful alternative/addition to our analog compressors. The parallel compression function is our favourite use of this unit. It's also one of the absolutely best De-essers.
We recently purchased the TC Electronic Mastering 6000 for its superb 5 band multi-band compression, eq, expander and transparent brick wall limiter. These algorithms work in stereo and M/S stereo. The latter is a most useful tool in perfecting stereo mixes during the mastering process.
The M/S stereo mode provides a way to be able to adjust certain elements in the stereo field, almost like having access to the individual tracks, but working from a different angle. An M/S device will convert the stereo field into two channels. I.e., one channel being everything mixed at 12 o'clock on the pan pot (called M) and the other being the combination of everything mixed to the right and left (called S). Although not as discrete as an individual channel, the elements are usually separated enough to able to effectively alter the mix. Imagine being able to equalize, compress or adjust the volume on either of those elements at almost any frequency range. Obviously not as good as having the individual tracks to adjust, but a real problem solver when you are in the middle of a mastering session and don't have time (or budget) to remix and you need, for example, the lead vocal louder, M, and the cymbals softened a bit, S.
We've always had multi-band compression and eq available to us in various plug-ins but only used them in an emergency, as the sound of the plug-ins aren't quite up to the level of our outboard gear. The TC unit is an outboard unit that is available as an insert in our workstation. The sound is absolutely transparent and so we are using these sorts of digital algorithms more than in the past. As a bonus, for just a couple of thousand more, we purchased the reverb component. Although the use of reverb in mastering is relatively rare, its nice to have the use of a truly world-class reverb unit when it becomes necessary. The TC brick wall limiter is also excellent for final volume maximizing. We previously only had the Waves L2 and L3 for that purpose so its nice to have another useful tool as an option for final limiting. The TC unit is little more transparent than the L2 and L3 and can be used for most projects that don't require a heavy volume output.
In 2005, we decided to add a precision outboard digital equalizer to our setup. We already have Manley Massive Passive tube equalizer but that is more useful for broadband work and colour. After much consideration, we chose the Weiss EQ-1 MK2 Dynamic & Linear Phase Equalizer. Not only is this an excellent equalizer but it has a dynamic option available, and this is what sold us. One of the problems in mastering is when two instruments are playing in the same frequency range but one is louder than the other and shouldn't be. So by activating the compressor function triggered at the appropriate frequency range, you can set it to soften the louder instrument when it is playing and when it rests, the softer one is not affected. The ads for this unit say"...compressor or equalizer?...". We can't really answer that question but it works like a charm and much smoother than doing the same thing with a multiband compressor!
This unit became so indispensable as a subtle de-esser. (freeing up the Weiss DS1) and transparent softener of harsh frequencies that we sometimes ran out of bands that we needed for regular equalization tasks.
So, we decided to add a precision analog equalizer, and after much research, we chose the Prism Maselec ME-2 Master Series Equalizer. Nothing too fancy about this unit except it has a very nice sound, the frequencies are well chosen and its controls are detented for precise stereo imaging and recall of settings.
We also upgraded to LavryGold converters, our entire monitoring system, including Lipinski 505 mains with Velodyne DD-10 stereo subs, Dangerous Monitor ST speaker switcher, and Weiss DAC1 and brought in a most impressive tool, the ATR-102 Custom Remanufactured 1/2" ATR-102 (Ampex) with stock and Aria Electronics for transfer and lay-back mastering.
Add our Manley Massive Passive Vacuum Tube 4 band equalizer, the Manley Mastering Tube Variable MU Compressor/Limiter, and Nightpro's EQ3-D equalizer to the mix then finish with off a choice of the outboard Waves L2 Ultramaximizer. or TC Electronic's Brick Wall Limiter, or the L3 Multi-Maximizer or Sony Oxford Inflater (plug-ins) or our new PSP Xenon Limiter or the Massey 2007 Limiter. That's an unbeatable combination of tools to achieve great sounding masters.
There is a reason that most low and mid-priced mastering studios do not have much gear of this calibre; they cost too much! Most of these pieces are over $6,000. each the Weiss DS-1 compressor, EQ1-DYN/LP and TC System 6000 retail at close to $10,000. each. The ATR-102 deck and Lavry converters were over $15,000. each!
A TC Finalizer, which is essentially an entire mastering studio in a box, costs less than half of one tube unit found in our studio! If you have a chance to hear the results of the same mix mastered through a Finalizer, a computer based program like Sound Forge or T-Racks versus class-A outboard gear, you will be amazed at how much better the latter sounds.
By the way, we haven't abandoned our computers! We have the top-of-the-line Pro Tools HD system which is integrated with our outboard gear in a unique way (see Silverbirch's mastering set-up).
We have mostly abandoned our plug-ins but still use the Massenburg designed MDW High-Res Parametric EQ, which is neutral and transparent enough to be used in our system and provides a nice contrast to the outboard equalizers. The Waves L3 Multi-Maximizer mentioned above is a combination of Waves L2 and a 5 band Linear-Phase eq and is another occassionaly useful option for polishing the final output of our masters.
Digital programs make certain tasks very easy, tasks that were impossible in the old analog mastering studios. Editing, noise reduction, automating dsp moves and very fine, precise work are all functions that work really well in the computer environment.
Silverbirch has learned to make use of the best of the digital and analog techniques.
Of course engineering experience is the other half of the equation. Andy Krehm, our Head Mastering Engineer, worked as a first-call studio/theatre musician and music producer/arranger for over two decades prior to working as an mastering engineer on a full-time basis. He has mastered over 4,000 albums and 100's of singles and EPs.
Forty-Eight albums he mastered have been nominated for Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys) and eight have won Junos.
Literally scores of albums mastered at Silverbirch appear on the nomination and winner's lists of other prestigious award granting bodies, such as the Blues Music Awards (formerly the JC Handy Awards), Canadian Folk Awards, Canadian Independent Music Awards, National Jazz Awards, Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards, NAR LifeStyle Music Awards and the Maple Blues Awards.
Almost every year, a glance at the Maple Blues Awards nomination list will show that over 30% of the listed artists/groups mastered and/or manufactured at Silverbirch!
Andy's exceptional music background, coupled with excellent engineering skills pertinent to mastering, is the ideal combination for this job.
Silverbirch's engineering expertise, pro-designed studio, audiophile monitoring system and excellent selection of class-A outboard gear guarantees you mastering results comparable to "name" studios in Canada and the U.S. costing three to ten times more!
Hearing is believing -- arrange for an in-studio no-charge demo/evaluation.