MASTERING: A "Medium" (Rare) Overview
by Eddie Ciletti

It doesn’t matter whether the medium is DVD or Vinyl, CD or Cassette — the keyword is "Medium." Hey, if any of these formats were "amazing" we’d call them that, right? OK, so maybe I’m taking this a bit (or is it a byte?) too far, but the fact remains: all storage media are flawed in some way.

History has shown that analog’s "flaws" eventually became its desirable qualities. This month’s overview of recording media — specifically records — will show that even "dead" technology has something to teach us. This is hopefully the first of several overviews of audio’s obstacles — past, present and future.


Danny Caccavo has remastered and remixed several projects using ProTools. (See Table One for credits or visit his home page) He is a knowledgeable recording and mix engineer (as well as a Mellotron owner). As a listener, one of Danny’s obstacles to CD reissues was the standard complaint; excess or harsh high frequencies and/or the lack of low frequency "warmth."

When he first began receiving tapes for remastering, Danny’s first observation was that they seemed excessively bright or at least, "much brighter than he remembered them." We discussed this subject to death several times and at one point I showed him an Ampex 351 tape machine manual containing references to the Ampex Master Equalization (AME) curve. AME improved the apparent signal-to-noise ratio by boosting the 2 kHz to 6 kHz region during record and taking it away during playback. It was intended for in-house use only.


Danny obtained a print-out of the AME curve from Standard Tape Laboratories, then modeled an inverse AME-style curve using the Waves Q-10 EQ plug-in for ProTools. He found that in some cases, it made old recordings much more listenable. During the late fifties and early sixties, most mono record players didn’t have tweeters, let alone the ability to reproduce above 10 kHz — explaining why many pop recordings seem overly bright when played on modern equipment (tape or disc). Many of the final Motown mixes were approved using car speakers — EQ’d so they’d really cut through AM radio and jukeboxes! In the case of the Temptations project (which were not AME recordings), the inverse AME curve serves as "corrective" equalization.

In addition, the Waves C-1 dynamics plug-in features a "split mode" which allowed Danny to create a dual band limiter that simultaneously limited high frequencies (de-essing) while also smoothing out some low-frequency peaks and troughs (compression). Later, on an Arthur Lyman project (which actually did use the AME curve), Danny applied the inverse curve via the Focusrite D-2 TDM plug-in.


While in LA for the '96 AES, I visited veteran mastering engineer, Wally Traugott, at the Capitol Tower in LA. During training (in the mid Sixties), he recalled being instructed to roll off high frequencies above 12 kHz and low frequencies below 47 Hz when cutting 45’s. Excessive low frequencies make the grooves more difficult to track for phonographs at the bottom of the food chain.

The RIAA EQ curve (see inset in Figure One), already includes a serious high frequency boost. Rolling off frequencies above 12 kHz preserved the playable information while discarding that which is either untrackable or potentially damaging to the cutterhead. (Later, helium had to be pumped in to keep coils cool.)


The sixties were the battleground for the "volume wars." Some records were mastered as loud as possible to "override" the automatic volume control (AVC) circuitry built in to most jukeboxes. Columbia, Epic and London were most guilty of generating product that was obviously distorted (and using a cheap plastic — polystyrene — that was very unforgiving), while Capitol and RCA stayed within safe margins and almost exclusively used vinyl.


Meanwhile, my odd assortment of vintage listening tools includes a Rek-o-Kut turntable outfitted with an original General Electric VR-II mono magnetic cartridge featuring both a 1 mil (.001 inch) "Microgroove" stylus as well as a 3 mil "Standard 78" stylus. (This turntable also had a separate arm for playing stereo records!) Before doing any tests, I noticed how great my 45 collection sounded with this combination. Even the really scratchy ones sounded better than they did on my more sophisticated system. Why?

Figure One details the results of tests made in 1997.
Please click for updated 2002  tests showing that my conclusions were premature and cartridge-specific.
The new tests were made with a Stanton 500-series cartridge outfitted with a 1-mil stylus.

Figure One is a hand-drawn frequency response chart of a 45 RPM RCA test record (circa 1951) played with three cartridge/turntable/preamp combinations. (The inset shows the record EQ curve.) A mixer permitted adjustment of playback levels using the 1 kHz tone as the reference. The "warmth" of the VR-II comes from a gradual rise below 1 kHz that, from 400 Hz down to 50 Hz (three octaves), is up 1/2 dB. (Notice the 2 dB "rise" at 31.5 Hz as well!) At the opposite end of the spectrum is a pretty serious roll-off hinging at 4 kHz. The VR-II’s 1 mil stylus is too fat to track dainty high frequencies hence the response at 7 kHz is down 3 dB while 12 kHz is down 10 dB and off the chart! And that’s where all the screetchies went!

In the late fifties, stereo records required not only a special cartridge but also a smaller stylus (.7 mils or .0007 inches) which improved high frequency response. Up until this point (he-he), the tip was still "conical" (cone shaped) but an elliptical stylus — as both of the modern cartridges are equipped — reveals that, even in 1951, extended high-frequency information made it to the record. The Shure V-15 Type IV, for example, delivered 9 kHz and 15 kHz at -1.25 dB and -2.5 dB, respectively.

Note: The system was not tested with a "modern" reference disk to determine actual performance.


While the three playback systems were calibrated at 1kHz, I played an original 1960 pressing of The Orlon’s "South Street." (I am originally from Philadelphia, yew know!) I made transfers to DAT and edited three identical sections together for comparison. (Touch here for sound file samples) The difference between the VR-II and both Shure cartridges is like the difference between AM and FM, respectively.


I can tell you from experience that minimal use of EQ during the tracking stage will help keep things simple until mix time. If you start out with bright tracks, every added track has to compete and, not every track needs all the fidelity technology has to offer. Too often we reach for additive EQ when a little subtraction will do a better job.

Of the many decisions to be made during the mix and mastering phases, one will be whether or not to make your mix spectrally competitive with the current market norm. Reissue specialists also face that challenge. Danny’s treatment of the Temptations "Anthology" is infinitely more palatable than pre-Polygram Motown re-releases.

When making critical EQ decisions, try to do so with fresh ears. (First impressions are key.) Allowing full bandwidth to come through may seem great at first (listen to all that detail) but your ears will either quickly get used to it (and want more) or become fatigued. The excess brightness still prevalent in nineties mixes is mostly the result of compensating for bad speakers and, uh, left-over cocaine abuse from the eighties.

So, what does "dead technology" teach us? Well, it’s sort like a mix between The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. Dorothy always had the power to leave OZ and, upon returning to Kansas, realized she never had to leave her own back yard. Obi Wan instructed Luke to use "The Force" rather than rely soley on what his eyes and ears told him. The summary: we’ve always had Hi Fidelity, we just didn’t always have the equipment to play it back.

And so, girls and boys, remember, there is no single magic "black box" that can solve all of your audio problems as much as that very first reaction, "How does it make me feel?"

TABLE ONE: Danny's Abbreviated Credits


James Brown "Funk Power - 1970: A Brand New Thang" (Polygram) "Give It Up Or Turn it A Loose" "There Was A Time (I Got To Move)" "Get Up I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine" The Spinners "One Of A Kind Love Affair - The Anthology" (Atlantic) "How Could I Let You Get Away" (live) Roy Ayers Ubiquity "Live At The Montreux Jazz Festival" (remixed/mastered) (Verve) James Brown "Foundations Of Funk - A Brand New Bag: 1964-1969" (Polygram) "Out Of Sight/Bring It Up" (live) "Cold Sweat" (alternate take) "The Popcorn" "Licking Stick-Licking Stick" (live) "Brother Rapp" "Mother Popcorn" (live)

CD Mastering credits include:

The Temptations "Anthology" (Motown) "Shaken Not Stirred" (various artists) (HiFi/Ryko) Arthur Lyman "Taboo" (HiFi) "With A Christmas Vibe" (remixed/mastered) (HiFi/Ryko) "Sonic Sixties" (HiFi/Tradition/Ryko) "Hawaiian Sunset" (remixed/mastered) (HiFi/Ryko) Bernabé de Morón "Flamenco España" (Tradition/Ryko) Coleman Hawkins "Hawk Talk" (Tradition/Ryko) Mark Brine "New Blue Yodel" (mixed/mastered) (<re:signed>) Oil Can "Once Were The Pastures Of Plenty" (Unsigned) East River Pipe "Poor Fricky" (Merge) East River Pipe "Mel" (Merge) Women In Chant (re-signed) TABLE ONE: Danny’s Discography

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Thanks to Real Audio, you can actually hear the spectral differences of at least one of the three phono cartridge/stylus combinations.  For those with fast internet access, click here to stream the 97k audio file.  Or, touch the 45 RPM record player below to load the file first, then play.  Enjoy!

Part 1:The Phonograph Part 2:Magnetic Tape Part 3:The Mastering Process Part 4:CD Part 5:DVD
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