Even in the digital age, the music industry is a difficult arena for the impatient.
In times gone by, finishing a track was just the start of a drawn-out process involving label managers, mastering engineers, pressing plants, graphic designers, test pressings, lost parcels and distributors. It wasn’t uncommon to wait a year for your release to emerge, and in truth that can still happen (looking at you, Record Store Day and the Tesco-fication of vinyl).
Nowadays, though, many of those middle men (or womxn) are often either replaced by in-house/cottage industry/self-reliant types, or else the lead times are radically diminished through digitisation. It’s entirely possible to record something in the morning, get it mastered and sort the artwork during the afternoon, and whack it up on Bandcamp before dinner — and that can absolutely be a good thing.
But not always.
Objectivity, for the artist, is an ephemeral gift. After spending a few hours immersed in any creative endeavour, it’s fiendishly difficult not to instantly hold it aloft and broadcast its genius to the world. Except… it’s probably not genius, at least not yet. Taking time away from an artwork is hugely important and enables you to appraise it with fresh eyes (and ears).
In mastering, these breaks are particularly vital. Tired ears are the mastering engineer’s worst enemy and failing to take breaks — even after 10 or 15 minutes of listening — will invariably produce disastrous results, full of horribly over-compressed, flat or uneven audio. It reminds me a lot of learning to drive, where any encroaching sense of enjoyment meant I was almost certainly going too fast. In mastering, if you’ve spent the last few minutes pushing the signal in various ways, maxxing the signal so that it’s suddenly sounding amazing… STOP! Take a breather. Let your ears recentre and your ego recede. Make a coffee, or pee. Fuck it: go wild and do both.
It’s for those same reasons that I never send away a master on the same day I’ve worked on it. The objectivity, that distance, just isn’t there yet. The recent sense of investment, the natural impulse to feel proud of one’s efforts, is still too dominant.
None of this is to say I’m naturally patient. In fact, it’s a constant struggle, but it’s worth the fight.
Which brings us to Megaheadphoneboy’s ‘Blue No Eyes’.
This was one of the very first things we mastered when B&RM was launched at the start of the year (sidenote: yes, it was the literal worst time to launch a new business), but it’s taken a while to see the light of day. This was mostly due to Covid, of course, because like many artists Andy MHPb didn’t feel it was right to splurge his endeavours onto the world when the whole thang seemed to be falling apart. People had other things on their mind. But matters have, in their own atavistic way, settled down, and so BNE was released a few weeks ago.
It’s very much an electronic(a) release, featuring liberal doses of melody, skittering or glitched percussion and tough beats. ‘Pulse Star Demon Toy’ is a great example of this, and I moulded the other tracks around this one as the centrepiece — I’ve spoken about this before, but essentially I like to find a key track that is the sonic zenith, the real ‘up’ point so that the other tracks can sit relative to it in terms of loudness, punch, etc. For me, it’s no good delivering a bunch of samey masters if the EP or album is trying to portray a narrative arc — you’re just undoing much of the artist’s good work.
‘Pulse Star Demon Toy’ has all that melody, glitch and girth in spades:
For many of the album’s tracks, I used Plaid’s ‘Polymer’ as a reference. It’s got bright, sparkly top notes throughout that really help the audio ‘pop’, but also has a very decent weight in the low end at points. ‘Los’ was a particularly useful example:
Another BNE highlight for me was ‘Kay Strong Repo’, though it was a tricky one to master. Like a lot of the album’s tracks, it starts gently and builds up to a multi-layered lushness. This can always be difficult for the mastering engineer — you want to preserve the crescendo without the start feeling weak. What made this track more of a wrench was the beautifully weighty kick drums that are present from the track’s outset: they needed to punch their weight from the off and sustain their presence when all the other elements joined in. This master definitely took a few days of work/rest/work/rest to get a balanced view of my work.
One thing Andy and I discussed together was the concept of “mastering for tape”. My view (which hasn’t always been the case) was that there’s no point mastering differently for cassette, because the medium will do its own work in slathering that homely warmth and gentle saturation over the audio. Adjusting the master to compensate for tape is like stapling leaves to a tree. Plus, keeping a single master for both tape and digital allows consistency across them while allowing both to shine in their own ways.
But I guess the point of gluing these two rambles together — the impatience of creativity and ‘Blue No Eyes’ — is because I was incredibly impatient to see its release. And why wouldn’t I be? My mastering is a creative process and I feel that urge to show and tell, the drive to wield the work for all to see, as much as anyone. I know it’s a job but I’m lucky to do ‘work’ that pushes the same creative buttons I use as a musician.
And I’m also thankful because, by holding back the album’s release, Andy displayed exactly the kind of objectivity and self-awareness that is so important for an artist, not just for his work but also about the sensitivities and context for how he thought a new artistic commodity would be received in the thick of a pandemic.
Against my weaker impulses, he made the right choice. Once it’s out there, it’s there forever, and it matters not just when, but also how you give it to the world. So take the time to get it all right. Posterity will thank you.