Deep in the recesses of my reptilian brain, I've had an idea for a semi-regular (longtime readers will know how much this blog sticks to a plan...) series of posts exposing really poor mastering, or other critical sonic faults with some of my favorite records.
This plan, at times grandiose, scaled itself back when I realized a lot of the records I'd critique - and post my fixes of - are still in print. And nothing bugs me more than when I hear a "better" version of a favorite, but only tantalizingly brief, and therefore I can't get the whole thing. Therefore, if I were to do this right for myself, meaning that it would satisfy me as a critical listener, I would want to post the entire thing. So, with my mostly-solid stance on not posting full length in-print records, I would only be able to put up snippets of in-print records.
Which, while limiting the reach of this series, doesn't cripple it. There are plenty of my favorite records that are in dire need of "fixing", and out-of-print.
What is a shitty mastering? The ten-second version: Band records a record. Tapes are finished. Stuff happens. Record is manufactured, and you buy it. It's the "stuff happens" in that process that really defines what the end product will sound like: were the songs recorded in different sessions, with different studio characteristics? Different personnel? Different engineers/producers? That "stuff happens" is mastering - whereby the discrete entity we call a "record" is assembled from the component parts being the "tracks". One of the key, if not THE key, aspects of mastering is to give the record an overall feel and cohesion, a sense of the record being an "album". It's hard to describe, but let's say you record ten songs, in ten different studios, with ten different engineers. John Smith plays guitar on three tracks, Jim Bob on four, and your stepfather on the closing song. Track six is your neighbors banging on their laundry tubs, with your guitar plugged into your Walkman. While you could just take those ten final tracks and bang them in sequence onto your "record" as-is, they will sound like ten separate, discrete, non-cohesive sessions. For some, this is what works (see Guided by Voices). For the majority, though, the record isn't complete until various magic happens to give the ten discrete tracks a sense of unity, cohesion, and common (in as much as is needed) feel, a "record". This magic is what mastering is, in this definition.
Sometimes mastering just doesn't happen because the band can't afford it. Sometimes a record is mastered for a particular format (say, vinyl), and isn't really re-jiggered for different formats, as there is a distinct difference in what is needed for records mastered for vinyl, and those same records mastered for CD. Sometimes it's just that, shitty mastering (did the mastering engineer forget to take out his earplugs?).
I have my own evolving list of classic indierock, "alternative", what-have-you records that meet one of the above categories, and sound worlds different when I get to work on them. The list is smaller when in-print records are winnowed out - I really don't want to be DMCA'ed...
What would readers like to see worked on? What do you think is sonically terrible, but you still suffer through it because the songs are just so damn good? I'm curious to see if our opinions of shitty mastering overlap.
2nd night of Chanukah: The Wake - s/t ep (1985, Stonegarden) - If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. R.E.M. should have been tickled pink, assuming they ever heard this obscuro L.A. bunch. Just as the...
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