Mike Marsh on mastering The Masterplan

In the second of this new two-part interview for Oasis Recording Info, mastering engineer Mike Marsh of the Exchange recalls working on Oasis’s compilation album, which collected some of the band’s best-loved B-sides.

In 1998 you mastered the highly-regarded B-sides album The Masterplan; what (if any) were the main differences between working on Be Here Now and this compilation?
Essentially this album was approached in exactly the same way. We went back to the original master tapes for all tracks – mostly ½ inch analogue tape and some DATs. My job then was to pull them all together and make them sound coherent and not like it was a compilation album of tracks from over a long period of time which all sounded drastically different when you put them all together on an album!

In this case, of course, these tracks spanned a much longer period of time than Be Here Now and came from lots of different studios and mixing sessions. This is where the art of mastering really comes into its own and where it is crucially important because when you put on an album like The Masterplan you don’t want it to sound like it’s all over the place tonally, and you don’t really want to feel that it has come from lots of different environments over a long period of time.

What kind of sources were the tracks featured on The Masterplan mastered from? I imagine – given the variety of times and places they were recorded, that the tape format and intrinsic sound quality varied a bit? Did this present a challenge in mastering the album? Any detail on the sonic changes you made to each track would be great.  
The source master tapes for all the tracks were mainly ½ inch analogue tape reels with a few DAT tapes in the instance of no analogue reel of tape existing. As you say, all the tracks came from lots of different sessions over a wide ranging period of time but nothing proved a real challenge at the mastering stage, and in fact, getting all the tracks to work together was really “all in a days work” for me.

I mastered the album tracks on 3rd June 1998 and I was working alone whilst doing so. I had a brief chat on the phone with Owen prior to the session, just to check that I had definitely been sent all the right mixes of all the right tracks. The management company who looked after the band did a great job in their archive department and managed to provide the correct tapes and definitive versions first time! It’s always a case of having to play detective to a certain extent when it comes to shuffling through masses of master tapes and untold mixes and it’s imperative that someone, somewhere along the line really makes a VERY detailed list of what is on EVERY master tape and ALL the information relating to it, otherwise things like compilation albums or “greatest hits” packages can end up with incorrect versions appearing and lots of easy mistakes being made.

One thing that is usually for sure when that happens is, even if the record company / artist hasn’t noticed, then a hardcore “know everything about the band” fan will pick up on the mistake and that is when the shit can hit the fan! So, a detailed database on all recordings is an absolute must!

You asked for some details on the sonic changes I made to each track that appeared on the album so I have created a list below and kind of summarised my mastering notes relating to each track:

This needed low frequencies adding to the mix along with mid-range presence to focus the detail and energy of the track. The high frequencies were already good on this mix.

Underneath the Sky
This needed high frequencies adding to the mix along with a little mid-range energy and a snippet of low bass frequencies.

Talk Tonight
This needed a little hi frequency addition and a tiny bit of low frequency. There was already a good mid range clarity to this mix.

Going Nowhere
This mix needed quite a lot of opening out by the addition of high frequencies and a little softening in the harsh 2kHz mid-range area, along with a little low frequency addition.

Fade Away
This mix was a little boomy sounding and needed some reduction in the sub low end and some opening out in the upper high frequency area.

The Swamp Song
This mix needed quite a lot of opening out in the clarity / high frequency area as it sounded a little murky. (Interesting, considering the track title!) The bass end was very good and quite thick. I also needed to add some mid-range clarity to the mix.

I Am The Walrus (Live)
This mix needed opening out in the high frequency areas and mid-range areas for clarity and detail.

Listen Up
This mix needed a small amount of low frequency sub bass area reduction along with some opening out of the top end with high frequency EQ.

Rockin’ Chair
This mix needed a substantial amount of high frequency addition along with mid-range presence as it was a little cloudy sounding.

Half The World Away
This mix sounded pretty good already and only needed a tiny amount of high frequency addition.

(It’s Good) To Be Free
This mix needed a bit of everything! I had to add quite a bit of high frequency EQ to open it up along with some mid range presence to really get clarity to the track. I also needed to add some low bass frequency to the mix as well.

Stay Young
For this mix, I applied nearly exactly the same EQ I applied when I mastered this mix for inclusion on the “D’You Know What I Mean” single. It needed opening out in the very top end and some softening of the harsh 2 kHz mid range frequency area along with some added low bass warmth.

This mix needed a good amount of mid range presence adding along with some low end warmth and bass. I also used some gentle analogue compression to pull the mix together a little better.

The Masterplan
This mix needed a good amount of opening up in the top end high frequency area to get depth and clarity. I also had to add a little low end warmth.

David, you originally asked me whether any of the tracks needed digital restoration of any kind but this was not the case on any of these mixes.

You also mentioned that tracks like Fade Away and I Am The Walrus also sounded cleaner on The Masterplan than they had done on the original single releases. The only reason for this would have been my mastering and the settings I chose with my EQs. It must be that I was feeling them sounding better with a bit more brightness to the sound, and also to get them all to fit together well on this album. We definitely worked from exactly the same master tape as would have been used on the original single release.

You also mentioned that you felt Talk Tonight is one of the best sounding tracks on The Masterplan with a kind of clarity and presence to it and you are kind of right, Well, almost along the lines of comments I have made earlier, the main reason being is it is very stripped back with little going on in the mix – LESS IS MORE! When you have songs with very few components or tracks running in the mix they are always less cluttered sounding and have an inherent clarity to them.

I believe the solo in Listen Up was edited for the album version – any comments on how that came about would be great. I seem to remember Noel saying in an interview that he and Liam had an argument about it – which Liam won! Did they attend the mastering session?
You’re right! The solo was indeed edited by Noel and me. As I mentioned earlier, I mastered all the tracks alone on 3rd June but the next day on 4th June 1998 Noel came to The Exchange to compile the album with me, sequence all the tracks and carry out any editing that he thought necessary! When we got to Listen Up he said to me we needed to do an edit in the guitar solo: “It’s the guitar solo – we need to chop it in half – our kid always said it was way too long. I always thought it was OK but, he’s got his way and we’re gonna chop it in half for The Masterplan.

It was actually a really straightforward edit to do. I think the original solo was like 16 or 8 bars or something and we just halved it but taking the first part and the last part and losing all the stuff in the middle. It worked seamlessly and, if you didn’t know, you would never have guessed it was an edit.

Going through my notes, I’ve got a scribble saying to myself that we needed to edit the intro to Underneath The Sky but I can’t remember if we actually did and I’ve also got a scribbled note on editing the outro to Talk Tonight – something about taking out “You got any batteries?” so I’m guessing there was the usual banter going on at the end of a recording take which inevitably made it onto one of the channels recorded somewhere!

How long did it take to master The Masterplan and how closely involved were Noel and the producer Owen Morris? Also, how do you know when a master is finished? Do you have to submit multiple versions for approval, then perhaps make changes according to their feedback etc?
The mastering for all the tracks on The Masterplan, getting the sound right and making sure everything worked well together took me the whole day on 3rd June 1998 and would have been approximately a 12 hour day. I know when the master is finished when I am happy that everything is sound right together and I never finish working on a job until I am satisfied myself.

I guess it’s like “it ain’t over till it’s over” but you always have a sixth sense and gut reaction to knowing when you have done your bit. Obviously everybody else has to check your work too and that’s where CDRs for approval or acetates representing vinyl releases are sent to the artist / producer. If everybody is happy then it’s job done and you start making masters for factory production / pressing!

If there are any issues with sound, incorrect mixes, running orders or the like then this would be fixed as quickly as possible, new versions sent out for approval and once all is OK then all the buttons are GO for making production parts.

As I mentioned previously, I was working alone for the mastering of all the tracks after a brief conversion with Owen to check I had all the right tapes! Noel was with me on 4th June 1998 for the compiling / sequencing and editing of the album and that probably took us no longer that 3 or 4 hours, including the time needed for me to make Noel a first generation reference CDR to take back home an listen to in order to check everything was OK!

We would have had about an hour or so to chat whilst we were making this reference CDR as it all had to be done in “real-time” We ended up talking about all sorts of shit – football, women, cars and dogs! Typical having a pint type talk! I used to also have my big German Shepherd dog, Inga, with me in the studio back in those days – she was like a permanent fixture at The Exchange as she came into work with me for about 10 years of her life. As a result she was quite protective of the studio and I remember when Noel first came down to compile the Be Here Now album with me, she shot straight across the studio floor growling at him as soon as he came through the door.

Most people would have shit themselves, and I must admit I did think, “For fuck’s sake don’t bite the right arm” but Noel was completely unfazed by it – clearly already a dog person and that is the best reaction. Most dogs end up going “Oh, umm, oh, you’re not scared of me… oh, um, oh, well I’ll, um, go and lie down again then!” Noel made a bit of a fuss of her and she did go and lie down again and looked at me as if to say, “Yeah, he’s OK – he can stay”!

Everything did get approved immediately and we went straight ahead with making production parts. I did spend the day on 9th June 1998 preparing The Masterplan for vinyl release and there was a combination of vinyl formats that were going to be made available.

Firstly the album was made available as a double vinyl, gatefold sleeve album as well as seven individual 10-inch singles made available of all tracks. I would have had to cut individual playback acetates of all formats for Noel and Owen to check over first before I would then cut the master DMM Copper discs to be sent to the factory for processing and pressing. This would have also been an all day job – somewhere along the lines of at least a 12-hour day.

In retrospect it seems that The Masterplan was better received by many listeners than Be Here Now, despite the latter album’s initially glowing reviews; do you have a preference between the two albums and which was your favourite track from each?
I don’t know why The Masterplan was better received? Maybe it’s just because The Masterplan is a collection of so-called “B-sides” and not main upfront singles and that people thought “Woah, for a bunch of B-sides and ‘secondary’ tracks these are a bloody good bunch of tunes!”

The thing is, even when we did Be Here Now and we did all the singles and B-sides for that album I was amazed at the quality of additional songs AND there were always 3 extra tracks for each single. I remember saying this to Noel and he said “It’s for the fans man, you can’t just bash out a single and add any old shit and tag it along to the single as a B-side”. He was really adamant that if you were going to release a single you had to add some quality content to go with it and this is exactly why The Masterplan is such a great album. With the quality of B-sides that have been released over time there is enough material for The Masterplans Versions 2, 3 and 4, but then maybe that is why Stop The Clocks has come about and really is a top collection of recorded music in the history of Oasis!

I can’t really decide between Be Here Now and The Masterplan. I enjoy moments from both. It’s the same with Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory. Put me on the spot though, and get me to choose one song from each? My Big Mouth from Be Here Now and Acquiesce from The Masterplan.

Finally, where do you think mastering is headed in the near future? Do you think high resolution 24/96 audio downloads, as championed by Neil Young recently, will take off? If it does, would this make a difference to your approach to mastering, or would the same fundamentals apply as with CD and vinyl? Could we see (or hear, rather!) Oasis reissues in hi-res and would that be a project you’d be interested in working on?
Ha-Ha. If only I had a crystal ball! High resolution ought to be the obvious way forward. I would love that. As an engineer working in professional recorded music I have been working in high resolution for some time now and I would love for the record buying public to be a part of that too and ditch MP3 and low resolution listening environments.

The problem is that I don’t think people are becoming excited about it enough for it to become the norm. Too many people are of the mindset that as long as it makes about the right kind of noise, then that will do.

When CD / Digital Audio was domestically available in the 80s it was rush released. Technology pushed 44 kHz / 16-bit audio as the dog’s bollocks but it could have been so much better given a bit more R&D. It’s a shame that initial domestic standard wasn’t set higher. Of course, the CD was an exciting and fantastic invention for recorded music and it created tonnes of revenue for the industry as lots of back catalogue became available for the first time on a new format, along with many unearthed recordings that may never have seen the light of day otherwise.

People bought their CD players and they were happy. Even when SACD came along a few people got excited but not enough to create a revolution and it was always seen as a specialist audiophile format. (It’s a bit like 3DTV if you ask me – some are into it – many can’t be arsed!)

Then along came the MP3 and that, single handedly, fucked everything up. Unfortunately, it is the antithesis of quality audio: compressed, lossy, low resolution and artefacty.

For the consumer of course, the upside was that they could get loads more songs stored on their music player without having to change the disc or turn the record over. It seems people would rather have a massive library of songs at a shit resolution rather than a lot less tracks at a much better quality which sound better.

Maybe it’s just that people don’t really care? As long as it makes roughly the right noise that will do? I mean, people are quite happy playing music out of their crappy mobile phone speakers. WTF! To me, this is like listening to audio coming from one of those bloody musical birthday cards that you can buy – unlistenable.

What I would really like to see is iTunes offering FULL RES 44.1kHz/24-bit files as a download. This is a resolution that many professional recordings have settled on and would give the consumer a real chance to finally download music of technical quality. But, I guess until memory storage gets EVEN bigger than it is today, and it will, I don’t think hi-resolution audio will take off. 44kHz/24-bit files would be MASSIVE leap forward in digital downloads becoming acceptable to me. It is obviously also a viable, marketable item so maybe, just maybe, the music buying public will come around to the fact of quality and what they have all been downloading for the last goodness knows how long has been sub-standard? Let’s see how it goes on this one – or will the record buying public say, ‘You know what this 24-bit stuff takes up too much room on my hard-drive?’

In reality, our approach to mastering will still always be the same – whatever the resulting end format. We will all still strive for sonic excellence and perfection with all that we do.

I live for the day when quality audio, high quality digital audio playback equipment and real care about how something sounds re-enters the public psyche. Not just the educated few but everyone who actually cares about what they are listening to.

It would be great to work on all the Oasis recordings in hi-res and, yes, of course that is something that I would love to do. Interestingly though, in mastering, we are kind of always working at hi-res as we are playing back recordings using hi-res equipment. Quality analogue tape machines, 96/24 digital mixes and, still using the good old vinyl disc-cutting system which, even today still technically surpasses all of the digital systems invented to date!

I would love for hi-res to become the norm. Whether 96/24 is too much for most consumers I don’t know. It’s going to take a lot of education, a complete rethink on behalf of the record buying public, and possibly WAY bigger hard-drives for them to embrace it.

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(Interview by David Huggins. Answers © Mike Marsh, 2012. Published on Oasis Recording Info, 2012).