In this brand new two-part interview for Oasis Recording Info, mastering engineer Mike Marsh of The Exchange explains in detail the art of mastering and exactly how he mastered Oasis’s albums Be Here Now and The Masterplan…
How did you get involved in the music industry?
The simple answer is, like the story of my life, I was in the right place at the right time!
I was in the middle of my ‘A’ Levels at school getting more and more disillusioned with education when I happened to pass the school jobs notice board advertising that a brand new multitrack recording studio was opening and needed a trainee recording engineer. I’d always been heavily into music from a young age, like about 7 or 8, listening to Radio Luxembourg on a little pair of headphones in bed, way in to the night, long after my parents thought I was fast asleep. I also remember messing around with reel-to-reel tape recorders my Dad had and chopping up recordings and making edits and generally messing around with audio and a microphone he had at the time. I became a mobile DJ too, having built all of my own lighting boxes and took my gear on the road most weekends once I could drive! Way too much lugging around of equipment though, so I was very pleased to land a gig at the local nightclub, where between 16 and 18 years old I was working weekends there as resident DJ. Great fun – I remember turning up with the latest 7″ and 12″ singles at the time and seeing the reaction when they got played!
So I got the job with Ian Dent at Daylight Recording Studios in Devon and eventually became house engineer. We were working mainly with local bands recording like a 3-track demo to give out to pubs and clubs for them to get gigs, as well as a few record company demo sessions.
Occasionally we did some classical stuff and sometimes some speech-based jobs but it was great experience and certainly recording learnt the old school hard way. No Pro Tools and computerized stuff, it was pure analogue! Decent microphones and a one-inch multitrack tape recorder and learning through trial and error. There were no School of Audio Engineering or training courses so I had to learn on the job! Definitely the best way! Drum Machines had just been invented along with the Fairlight and Emulator sampling keyboards – quite a joke really compared to today’s technology – those things were always breaking down!
In 1986 Ian Dent said to me that his brother John wanted to borrow me for a week or two to help set up a new mastering studio in London. I jumped at the chance. Bright lights, big city and all that! John was working at Island Records’ mastering studio called “The Sound Clinic” along with Graeme Durham and they both decided they wanted to set up on their own. The plan was to get me to help out with the technical installation side of the studios and once finished, go back to Devon. It didn’t quite work out like that. Two weeks turned into 3 months and I started to get really interested in this mastering thing! Wow, cutting records and not having to deal with a bunch of 4 or 5 guys in a recording studio arguing over how they were supposed to be playing their song whilst I sat at the mixing desk twiddling my thumbs waiting for the fights to stop!
This seemed more like it! The Exchange Mastering Studios were on the air and I never did go back to recording. I was a cheeky chap and once we’d got the mastering studios built, John and Graeme were about to send me back to Devon when I asked them there and then for a job – thankfully they said yes! They trained me up, especially with regard to using the Neumann lacquer cutting lathe and that was 26 years ago and I’ve never looked back!
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of mastering, could you explain what this process entails and the difference it makes to a finished piece of music? What makes for well-mastered music?
Mastering is a very personal thing and when I’m working on tracks, I’m working on making them sound like how I want them to sound. It’s about getting the very best out of a recording and making the sound energetic and exciting so that you can feel what’s going on as well as listening to something that moves you.
For the most part it’s about analyzing the sound of a mix and putting back what might be missing. It’s a frequency thing and a feeling thing. You have to apply the age-old fundamental basics of sound across the entire frequency range. Sometimes mixes arrive with big “holes” in the sound for various reasons, often due to poor monitoring in the mix studio, mixing at loud monitoring levels or just an engineer not really understanding the sound of the room meaning that all the wrong frequencies and not enough of the right ones actually make it onto the mix! When you work on an album in particular you will have around 10 to 12 tracks to work on. Nowadays sometimes these tracks may have been made in 5 different studios, with 10 different producers on untold different types of equipment. It is my job to pull all of those different recordings together to make them all sound like they were done on the same day at the same time in the same place so that the listener doesn’t put on an album an go “Woah, this sounds all over the place”!
Sometimes, even when an album is made in entirely the same studio, with the same equipment and the same people pressing the buttons all the mixes end up sounding slightly different too! Often nothing is consistent and there are way too many variables for a whole bunch of tracks to sit together coherently the way they are. Mixes often arrive at completely different volume levels, with completely different sonic flavours and we have to iron out all of this and make a cohesive end result which sounds good from start to finish.
Using the processing we have in the mastering studio enables us to do that. You have to remember that we are mostly working on 2-channel stereo mixes and not individual component channels (unless working from stems – but that’s a whole different ball game – and I don’t normally recommend that because, to me, it smacks of the mixing engineer not doing his job properly and never actually nailing the finished mix). We “delve into the entire mix” using equalisers, limiters and compressors and most of the time can achieve very successful results and, in extreme cases, the end result you achieve is like chalk and cheese when compared to the original supplied mix.
There are no individual settings you use over and over again because EVERY mix is different from EVERY studio they come from so you really have to approach each recording as an individual. As a mastering engineer it’s REALLY important to know your studio and monitoring inside out. It’s a bit like the studio is an extension of your own ears! You have to be really confident that you know what you are listening to and that the sonic changes you are making to mixes will work well in the outside world. I’ve been working solely in Studio 2 at The Exchange for 26 years so I feel like I’m just about getting the hang of it now!
Mastering can make or break a recording. Despite only working on the 2-channel mix it’s possible to add a lot to the sound, if it is lacking and remove any problem areas if they exist. As music is made in so many different environments the Mastering Studio is often the only constant in the whole process!
Well mastered music should be something that sounds exciting, energetic and faithful to the vibe of the track – something with a solid foundation of bass / low end with an energetic mid-range along with a clear top-end. If any of these elements don’t come across then tracks can end up sounding lifeless and unfinished.
How did you get involved in working on Oasis’s third album, Be Here Now? Were you a fan and had you seen them live prior to working on the album?
That’s a good one! It was quite spooky because I remember having a pint with my boss, Graeme Durham, back in January 1997. We were just chatting about it being a new year and how things were at work and jobs that would be really good to “score” for the studio this year. I said it would be fantastic if we were asked to work on the new Oasis album and he totally agreed. I was already a massive fan so getting the chance to work on the follow up to Morning Glory would have been a HUGE buzz for me.
Two months later while I was working on a session, the guys in reception buzzed me on my studio phone and said “we’ve got Owen Morris on the phone and he wants to talk to you about mastering the new Oasis album!”
One of the things I remember Owen saying to me was “how do you get your work to sound so fookin’ loud and clear?” I said “trade secret” and we both had a laugh. (There is no real secret; it’s all about the basic principles of audio and “creating” a powerful sound.)
I’m pretty sure my name came up for the job because of my work with The Chemical Brothers, who I’ve been working with now for over 20 years. Noel also did some tracks with them, which I mastered (Setting Sun and Let Forever Be) so I’m sure Tom and Ed (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) would have spoken with Noel about mastering and that’s probably how it all started.
I then went down to Orinoco Studios in South London for a little chat. They were mixing the album there and Owen thought it would be a good idea to catch up with everyone and meet up to say hi. Owen, Noel and Alan White were the only ones in the studio and I remember Owen putting Block Rockin’ Beats by The Chemical Brothers on the system there and buzzing about how I got it to sound so good!
As I was about to leave, Noel gave me a cassette of a rough mock-up of Be Here Now and the mixes done so far and he said “have a listen, see what you think, but, do me a favour, don’t play it to anyone else!” I remember putting the cassette on in my car with a big grin on my face! At this point I hadn’t got to see the boys live yet… but more on that later!
Can you recount a day in your life mastering Be Here Now: how long did it take and how closely involved were Noel Gallagher and the producer Owen Morris in the process? Any detail on the specific workflow, pieces of equipment, and mastering techniques you used would be great.
Well, first of all, Owen and Noel wanted to check if my work was going to be good enough so on 17th April 1997 I did a test mastering on D’You Know What I Mean? so they could check it out. I remember making reference to Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? because it was already a well-known fact that they were really loud and full on sounding, especially Morning Glory, so I knew I had my work cut out for me! What I did had to be at least up to the previous album or I could wave goodbye to the job! I was working alone for this test mastering.
Good News! Owen and Noel liked what I did and a week later, on 23rd April 1997, I was mastering D’You Know What I Mean? as the first single along with 3 other “B-side” tracks.
The main album session took place on 30th April 1997. Owen came along initially with a whole heap of ½-inch analogue master tapes and we went through all of the tapes physically, just to make sure I knew which reels to work from and which mixes were which. It can get very complicated if you don’t do this and there were 30 reels of tape on the floor! After about 2 hours Owen said “Right Mike, I’m off down the pub – I’ll leave you to it.” That was all cool with me because once I’ve got the plot, my job becomes a bit of a solo one. I know what I want stuff to sound like and it’s not really that easy for anybody attending to really get to grips with what is going on because no-one can walk into a fresh environment / new studio / new set of monitors and actually understand what the hell is coming out of the speakers!
So for EQing and mastering all the tracks for the album I was working alone. It would have been a full day’s work and I’m talking about at least a 12-hour day just getting everything sounding right.
The next day Noel came to The Exchange to compile the album running order with me and do any editing that we needed to do. Noel came in around 10.30 a.m. and I remember him apologising to me for being about one minute late as he got held up by photographers and the media as it was General Election day and they all mobbed him to find out who he voted for. I remember him telling me he said to them “Who the fuck do you think I voted for!”
With regard to pieces of equipment and mastering techniques I used my Studer A80 ½″ tape machine and passed this through my minimal signal path to my EAR Valve EQ’s and limiters to work on getting a powerful, musical and energetic sound for the album. This would have then gone through my Studer A/D converters and then onto my Sonic Solutions hard disk Digital Audio Workstation.
What kind of tapes did you get from Oasis to master Be Here Now from? (I understand the first two albums were recorded on, and mixed down to, analogue tape, but am unsure on the third!).
Be Here Now was mixed down to half-inch analogue tape – Ampex 499 if I remember rightly. I remember 30 reels of tape were delivered to The Exchange with all the various takes and mix variations but Owen had clearly marked exactly which mix of which track was on which reel. We also made sure everything made sense in the chat we had before I got started on mastering the album.
Every track for the album was mastered from half-inch tape except I Hope, I Think, I Know and Fade In-Out, which both came from DAT. I can’t remember exactly why we had to use DATs for these two tracks but it’s quite possible the actual mix needed only ever existed on DAT and may never have made it to tape for whatever reason. I also mastered all the singles that were released from the Be Here Now album and the source tapes for all of these varied for each of them. I’ve tried to list the mastering of the singles chronologically below and which tapes we used:
23rd April 1997
D’You Know What I Mean (from ½″ tape – Album version)
Stay Young (½″ tape)
Angel Child (DAT)
26th June 1997
Stand By Me (All tracks from ½″ tape) I Got The Fever was edited.
22nd October 1997
All Around The World (All tracks from ½″ tape) (Album version was used as single version and a Radio Edit was done from the main album version specifically for radio airplay)
24th February 1998
Don’t Go Away (½″ tape – Album version)
ALL 3 additional tracks from DAT
Did you have a favourite track on first listen? How did you feel Be Here Now compared to Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory?
Oh yeah! My Big Mouth was my outright favourite from the word go! I just loved it for its outrageous intro and then how it drops into the main track with the riffs from what must have been 100 guitar parts jamming at full blast – and then Liam kicks in – genius! Simple, “kick you in the balls” rock ’n’ roll.
I remember when I was compiling the album with Noel I told him that this was my favourite track – he said it was their sort of tribute to The Sex Pistols! Compared to Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory a lot of the Be Here Now tracks were longer and way more layered but still with the magic simplicity of genius Oasis pop songs – oh, and lots more feedback!
Creation Records boss Alan McGee once memorably said that Be Here Now’s huge wall-of-sound was akin to Led Zeppelin produced by Phil Spector. Did the dense mix of songs such as My Big Mouth (with its 30 tracks of guitars) pose any particular challenges at the mastering stage?
Not at all. Even though there was shit-loads of stuff going on in the mixes the key thing that Owen had done a great job of during mixing was getting the separation and mix balance right. That was crucial and not an easy job but he nailed it. Even though there were lots of channels running in the mix and lots of layering, none of the mixes sounded cluttered or messy. Yeah, I had to do stuff with EQ to all the mixes whilst mastering but because all the mixes had good separation between all the elements, I found that whatever I wanted to do with EQ it was always possible to enhance the entire mix without skewing the original vibe.
How did you ensure that the album sounded good on a variety of playback systems and listening environments? Noel mentioned in an earlier interview that during the recording process he would check how most people would hear the album by dubbing rough mixes to cassette and listening on a home stereo; is there an analogous process in mastering – i.e. checking on domestic set ups as well as on high-end monitors? (If so has this changed in the years since – i.e. can mastering be optimised for iTunes?).
To ensure it sounds good on a variety of systems basically means carrying out decent mastering! That is what mastering is all about. You can never really do mastering for just ONE specific playback situation otherwise it might sound crap on everything else. When mastering, you always look for an “across the board” cohesive, exciting sound that will work well in a variety of situations, whether it be Radio / TV / PA systems / Home Hi-Fi set-ups or even the MP3 / mobile phone scenario.
Obviously different styles of music have different inherent frequencies and sounds but even if it’s a club orientated tune where lots of bass is required you still have to make sure the mid range and high frequency energy is there too otherwise it will sound dull and lifeless. The surroundings or format that a track is played in will also “change the sound” too. If you play the exact same mastered track on a club system it will sound quite different if you then heard it on TV.
The same principle applies to rock music – obviously there are different elements – rocking guitars for a start, but you still have to engineer the sound to work well on a variety of formats. Whilst mastering, you don’t have the luxury of spending weeks doing tests in lots of different situations or get the chance to spend time taking stuff home and back and forth day after day. As mastering engineers, that is why it is so important to know the sound of your studio inside out and you have to go with your gut reaction to a mix every time.
I sometimes take a listen to a project in progress at home, or maybe, in the car but it is very rare to get the opportunity to do that. You sometimes do it after you’ve finished a project, or even when something is released just so that you can get the final vibe on it outside of your own critical listening environment of the mastering studio.
It would also be quite confusing to listen to a job you are actually currently working on, on a whole different set of speakers every 5 minutes because you will totally lose the perspective and end up chasing your tail not knowing what the bloody hell you are listening to any more!
Because most mastering engineers have worked in their studio for a long period of time and, the environment never changes, your monitors are a bit like an extension of your own ears so it gives you the confidence to go with your gut feeling and know you are making the right choices each time. I would never say that I know it all and, sometimes it’s a good idea to take a listen to projects that have been done elsewhere just so that you can always analyse the quality of your own work against what is going on in the “outside world”, i.e. that outside of your own listening environment.
Noel’s idea of checking mixes in progress at home is always a good idea because an artist will always understand their own playback system at home way better than they would an outside studio. When you get used to listening to your own music, or other people’s music on your own system it is much easier to be constructively critical about what you are listening to because that is where you normally do all of your listening! By listening at home can often give an artist the confidence that if they want to make changes and tweaks to a mix because they are not quite feeling it right they are making the right decision!
One of the big differences between Be Here Now and the first two Oasis albums is its sheer length; in fact I understand the album was approaching the maximum run time for a CD, so any details on the editing and sequencing process would be great (was there an even longer – 13-minute version of All Around the World that was trimmed for the album?).
The maximum running time for a CD can be pushed to 79 minutes 50 seconds and Be Here Now totalled at 71 minutes 38 seconds, so it was well inside what would have been considered maximum running time for a CD.
As far as I remember none of the tracks on the album were edited down from their original mix lengths. Noel was with me to compile the album and the sequencing was done to keep a flow going. We may have chased fades or outros a little to make tracks flow better but that would have only involved crossfades using the existing intros and outros that were on the mixes. It wasn’t something that took ages to do. I think the longest cross-fade that we put together for the album was at the start where the light aircraft takes off, flies past and rolls over the intro to D’You Know What I Mean?
We never had a 13 minute version of All Around The World – not sure where that rumour has come from? The full length version direct from the ½-inch master tape was 9 minutes 45 seconds and the final running time on the album was 9 minutes 20 seconds but this was only because we chased the end fade a little earlier to run into the next track, It’s Getting Better Man! If there was a longer version I never saw it and I’m not aware one existed unless it got scrapped and never actually made it to a finished mix.
Some of the tracks were edited for use as singles but this was mainly to keep the radio programmers happy really. Radio is rarely happy with anything much over 4 minutes (make that 3 minutes these days!), especially commercial radio because the more music they play per hour the less adverts they cram in per hour!
I remember some radio stations being a bit naughty at the time of the release of the first single D’You Know What I Mean? as they were doing their own edits just to suit themselves. FFS. This is something that pisses off a lot of artists but it’s a catch 22. If radio isn’t happy – they won’t play your track! Mind you, radio is a lot less relevant these days than it ever was, especially in terms of record sales. Music is accessed in so many different ways now, which, in a way is a good thing as it has taken the power away from the radio programmers who often have got their heads up their arses anyway.
Which songs on Be Here Now sounded the best in their initial, un-mastered state and which needed the most work to bring out their best qualities? Any detail on the changes you made to each song would be fantastic.
On first listen, I think Don’t Go Away was the best sounding mix in its raw state. On the whole though, for the album, and to try and explain it simply, I had to add Bass / Low Frequencies and HF / High Top End frequencies to most of the mixes as they were sounding a bit basslight and quite harsh / honky so I wanted to get kind of “height” and 3D into the sound by adding “bottom and top” either side of the wall of sound guitar action and to get real clarity and energy into the overall sound.
Obviously a big part of the sound was the guitars, which are inherently mid-rangey sounding. And there were lots of them! Essentially, I wanted to thicken and brighten all of the tracks to add a sense of depth and size to everything. All the elements were there in the mix; it just needed enhancing with the right EQ.
To give a rough idea, I was looking to boost frequencies above the kind of 12kHz area, up to 20kHz and increase bass / low-frequency thickness between approx 50 to 100Hz whilst softening the 1.5 to 3kHz screechy mid-range area. A lot of my EQ notes look quite similar for a lot of the tracks, just varying amounts to each different mix, so it would be a bit pointless drafting up the settings for all the tracks, as to the untrained eye it might look like I am writing the same thing down over and over again!!!
Be Here Now was also released on vinyl; what are the fundamental differences between mastering for CD and vinyl and how did these bear on mastering Be Here Now? (For example, was it possible to cut the vinyl version as loud as the CD?)
There are no real fundamental differences between mastering for the two formats. The mindset is the same. Try and achieve the best and most exciting sound from the mix. It is only after the mastering of the mix is complete that you then take care of any specific adjustments you need to make to take account of the format.
In the case of vinyl, you need to be very aware of High Frequency peaks (cymbals / hi hats etc), sibilance on vocals (where “s” words or “f” words don’t translate to vinyl cleanly) or things like extreme stereo information or out-of-phase components to the recording.
It has always been possible to cut record at a loud volume. In fact, in the early days of CD, vinyl records were way louder than the CD. Back in the day, CDs were seen as the secondary format too and it was often the vinyl release that was taken more seriously. The level at which CDs are working at now is ENORMOUS compared to the early days and actually, I think it would be technically impossible to cut records at the overall level digital formats have settled on without blowing up all of our cutter heads and vinyl cutting equipment!
The volume of a vinyl record depends solely on two things:
- The format: i.e. 12″ single; 7″ single; LP
- The total running time of the material on that side of the record
Even back in 1997, CDs were technically “louder” than vinyl releases measured dB for dB though. I mastered the vinyl for both Be Here Now and also The Masterplan and in both cases, as is often the case, the vinyl was cut from “CD ready” EQ’d / compiled and sequenced files that have been mastered onto my hard disc system. You then have to carry out a series of “test cuts” to check out what is going on when you make a vinyl transfer. Only then would you make minor additions or adjustments to the mastered “CD sound” to take into account the vinyl format.
For example, I had to be careful with the sibilance on Liam’s voice so I needed to use a De-Esser to get the vocals to cut cleanly and make sure all the top end was clear and not mushy. I also remember I cut the master lacquers for Be Here Now onto DMM Coppers using our Direct Metal Mastering VMS80 Lathe. This reduces the amount of processing work needed at the factory / pressing plant and, in theory, gives better quality pressings and better sounding vinyl.
For both albums I remember first having to cut acetates (reference discs which are like a one-off disc cut on the mastering lacquer lathe) for both Noel and Owen to approve before we all committed to the final album DMM cuts and the coppers were sent off to the pressing plant for manufacture.
When I cut the acetates for Be Here Now, I remember there then being a massive glitch in the proceedings. I got a call from Owen saying they didn’t sound very good. So I cut another set of acetates. Also no good. WTF! So I went direct back to the master tape and cut a small part of D’You Know What I Mean? in case Owen was hearing something weird in the whole process and just to make sure I wasn’t going mad.
I went down to Orinoco Studios with this acetate to play it with Noel and Owen just so I could see where they were coming from. Sure enough it wasn’t sounding particularly good. I was really pissed off. Noel said to me, “Hey man, don’t worry, it’s only a fookin’ record” to which I replied “Yeah, and it’s my fookin’ job”! They were much more chilled out about the situation than I was!
Noel said not to worry, the CD is sounding great but we’ll just get somebody else to cut the vinyl. I couldn’t do anymore than I had, so imagine how gutted I was when tapes were shipped to another mastering studio to cut the vinyl.
Anyhow, for me, the best was yet to come. I got a call at home on a Sunday night, from Owen who was round at Noel’s house playing the new acetates from the other studio. Owen then started to explain that the new acetates they had from the other studio sounded SHIT and even SHITTIER than the set I cut previously. I was pleased about that bit. Then he said to me, “Mike, the very first set of acetates you cut sounded fucking awesome, I’m round at Noel’s playing them now… there has been a horrible mix up, we are SO sorry”.
To cut a long story short, the turntable down at Orinoco Studios, where they originally played the acetates was wired up to the system in MONO. As there was so much stereo information in most of the Be Here Now tracks when you put them into mono – half of the sound disappears! That’s why they were sounding shit on that system, but when they played them on Noel’s system, which, thankfully, was wired up correctly, my original acetates were actually rocking! TFFT! Suffice to say I was REALLY pleased to get that phone call on a Sunday night.
There’s a static-type clicking in the song Magic Pie (heard at 5.59 and 6.06) – was this one of the sound effects on the original mix or perhaps a glitch in the original master recording?
Yeah, I remember hearing that and thinking “shit, we’ve got a problem” and my alarm bells started ringing. Thankfully, it was on the master tape and was always a part of the original recording!
Since its release, Noel has been scathing about certain aspects of its production. In the 2003 documentary film Live Forever he said of Be Here Now that “It’s the sound of… a bunch of guys, on coke, in the studio, not giving a fuck. There’s no bass to it at all; I don’t know what happened to that… And all the songs are really long and all the lyrics are shit and for every millisecond Liam is not saying a word, there’s a guitar riff in there in a Wayne’s World style.”
Do you think his comment about the album lacking bass is a fair one? If so, what do you think might have caused this? For what it’s worth I don’t agree with Noel’s comment here; there are some tracks which, on my home stereo at least, sound less bassy to me – My Big Mouth, the title track, and D’You Know What I Mean?, whilst on others (The Girl in the Dirty Shirt, Stand By Me, and All Around the World) I can hear more low end. Might this variation in bass have had something to do with the level at which the original recordings were monitored? I recall reading in an interview with mastering engineer Steve Hoffman where he mentions that mixes that are monitored loud are thrown off by not being able to get the right amount of bass.
Any artist is always going to pull their own work to pieces – that’s why it’s always good having a team of people around you that you can trust to keep pushing jobs forward otherwise nothing would ever get finished!
Noel’s comments sound almost line for line how a shitty review would have been worded in the music press. Like yourself, I don’t really agree with Noel’s comments. I wouldn’t have let the album get released like it if I thought that was the case. These kind of issues are as important to me as an engineer as they are to an artist pushing for the best possible end result for the product.
I made constant references to both Definitely Maybe and Morning Glory throughout my part of the process and I felt the bass end was comparable for all three albums. The mixes in their raw state were quite mid-rangey and telephonic but I thought I fixed all that in the mastering with the addition of Low Frequency and very High Frequency EQs.
You mentioned that you feel more bass on The Girl in the Dirty Shirt, Stand By Me, and All Around The World and it is interesting as these are more mid-tempo, slower tracks. It is often the case that you feel the bass more on slower tracks whereas on the faster, rockier tunes – even though the bass is there – it is often more swallowed up into everything else that is going on. Also, if you artificially emphasise bottom end to rockier tracks, just so that you can “feel” it more you always end up with mixes that can sound way too boomy.
In the slower, mellower tracks there is also often a lot less going on so the individual elements, especially bass end, get far more room to breathe and consequently often sound louder.
A good analogy is to think of hip hop. Always sounds big and fat. Always sounds bass heavy. Well, first off, hip hop is usually very stripped with perhaps only 8 channels or so running in the mix: Beats, Bassline, Vocal, Keyboard stuff and percussive elements. You can count up the mix channels used on two hands. Plus the majority of a hip hop track is mixed in MONO and that also creates direct perceived power to the sound. Because there is little going on it is much easier to get hip hop sounding massive as there is no clutter going on in the mix. Think less is more. I often use this description to engineers when they ask me how they can improve on their mixes or just generally make things cleaner, clearer and more powerful!
You raised a point about comments made by Steve Hoffman and the danger of inaccuracy with mixes when monitoring too loud. He is right. It really is a false environment to be listening in when you crank up the volume too high. Monitors will sound very different when driven really hard and at high volumes and because of this you lose your perception of reality when you are mixing.
For example, when you crank up the volume of any system, even at home, you really accentuate the midrange in the sound so, conversely your mixes then tend to end up lacking in midrange energy and end up swamped in bass and low end. If you are hearing a lot of midrange because the volume is up high you completely lose perception of the real volume of everything else in the mix and it is the bass end that will suffer the most.
It is usually quite obvious to me when I receive mixes that have been monitored too loud as they are mixes which are usually swamped in bass with no real detail or clarity in the entire midrange or high frequency content of the mix. Either that, or the monitoring used for the mixing was so bass light that massive compensation has been made for that while mixing by turning up the bottom end until it felt right on the tinny monitoring system!
Owen mixed the album at Orinoco and I wasn’t there for the process so I’m not sure what sort of levels he was monitoring at. I’m not aware that he was mixing at silly levels – the mixes were too good and well balanced for that.
The first few Oasis albums are sometimes criticized for their hyper-compressed sound  even if that’s what the band wanted: do you think that they would have had the same impact with more conventional, less compressed mastering? Or do you think this is an intrinsic part of the Oasis sound?
Of course it’s part of the Oasis sound. This is rock ’n’ roll not frikkin’ opera! A big part of how that sound is formulated is in the songwriting too. If you don’t write a song to sound a certain way you certainly can’t engineer it! Owen will have had a massive input into shaping that sound. The force and the energy that came across in the first two albums is also one of the reasons why it connected with so many people.
If the tracks had all been written as ballads, or both albums were acoustic albums they would have sounded very different. Because they were written as in your face rock ‘n’ roll pop songs they needed to sound like that and hit you hard. Oasis weren’t making lame attempts at nicey nicey please-the-great-grandparents type songs, they were making rock ‘n’ roll guitar anthems which needed to sound that way.
Like I said, a big part of why they sounded the way they did is because of the songwriting, the construction of all the guitar parts, the vocals, the layering and the energy captured in production. It wouldn’t have worked any other way – The elevator music, polite approach would definitely not have worked.
There is definitely an argument for lowering the level at which we are all working at now. It’s been well documented as the Loudness Wars, which is getting out of hand. As long as proper dynamic range is maintained and tracks don’t sound painfully squashed to fuck there will always be the argument for rock albums to be worked on in a loudish manner because that’s kind of what the music is all about.
I am a massive fan of AC/DC. Great tracks – simple production – VERY effective kick-ass end result. I couldn’t resist taking copies of their albums to my studio to run them through the grinder and analyse them in my anorak sound engineer type way.
Back in the day, their early albums were out way before CD was even invented but have since made it to CD by way of remastered re-issues, and, very recently as ‘Mastered for iTunes’ downloads. It’s been interesting to see how they have moved forward with the overall level thing from the earlier albums. The current album Black Ice is probably the loudest album in terms of overall level, but the sound of it – and the level – still really works.
George Marino did a fantastic job on the mastering as he engineered a very exciting end result and pushed the volume just right. Right up there, but not super squashed that it left your brain smashed. He clearly thinks the same way as me: engineer the sound to be loud but you don’t have to squash the fuck out of ALL the dynamics to get the end result.
(Note: George Marino sadly died in the Summer of 2012).
What do you think of the so-called ‘loudness wars’? Do you think mastering engineers are now under pressure to push levels further than they would like? If so, where do you think the pressure comes from and what do you think might be done to change this situation (if indeed you feel it is a problem in need of a solution)?
This is a topic we could all write an encyclopaedia on! Mastering engineers have always been under pressure to push levels since back in the day when we were just cutting records! When a vinyl single was the only way your record got heard. Who could cut the loudest record? Who could make your 12-inch or 7-inch single stand out from the last one played? So this is nothing really new! And then along came digital and eventually the arrival of digital limiters and the landscape was changed forever.
I guess I come from the old-skool. An engineer who understands headroom, dynamic range and the beauty of that verse / chorus build thing. Well, that barely exists now! We are definitely under more pressure now than ever before to push things to the max, although there is a bit of a turnaround in the conscience of people who are realising that, actually, it’s all been getting a bit too painful listening to this saturated blob of audio.
Of course it depends on what kind of music it is and what kind of music you are working on. Dance Music and electronic music is still pushed very hard but there is certainly a bit more give and take when it comes to “band tracks” and singer / songwriter stuff with regard to putting some dynamics back into the process!
Initially the pressure to push levels harder came from record company A&R Departments, Artists and Producers who just wanted their record to sound louder than anything else on the planet.
Then they wanted it louder than that.
Digital limiters and DAW plug-ins arrived which then allowed volumes and dynamic range to be squashed even further at the recording and mixing process – way before it even reaches mastering for its final level placement. Artists and Engineers then got used to hearing everything they were working on in a compressed environment, so the only way they could appreciate it being better, was by it being louder. It got out of hand.
As mastering engineers, we are also providing a service to give our customers (i.e: Artists, Producers and Record Companies) exactly what they want. If you chose not to do what they wanted you lost all your clients so we were always in quite a compromising situation.
None of us mastering engineers want to mash up sound to the level of un-listenability but the big problem is that this is now becoming the “normal” way to hear music for a whole new generation of people who have grown up knowing no different. They have grown up with the “brick-wall digital limiter” effect on music, so to them, anything less than that would result in them thinking there has been some massive technical error as it sounds too quiet!
To put the situation right would mean scaring a lot of people and going back to the days of way more dynamic range and lots more headroom. Personally I would like to see some move toward that – but who’s going to be the first to put themselves up for a test? Less is often more! But for a lot of people, less would be a big gamble / mistake. The problem is we’ve created this situation and it is going to be VERY difficult to undo it.
Back in the day we used to turn our volume controls up to 7 or 8 if you wanted to play stuff loud. Now you barely reach 2 and it’s already blasting. It’s a shame because, simply, if we were ALL working at a lower level throughout the whole process and introducing more dynamic, the listener could then turn up their amp to 7 or 8 again and it would sound as loud!
The other big factor in this whole volume wars thing is the MP3 and the devices on which MP3s are played now. Few people have home hi-fi systems or audio playback systems with good speakers capable of good volume anymore. Much music is listened to on shitty devices with tiny little speakers that come nowhere near conveying the full frequency range of recorded music. Because of that and, to get the maximum volume out of the crappy playback device being used, squashing the sound to the max was considered the best way to do it.
How has music mastering changed since you completed Be Here Now? Is there any particular mastering technique or piece of equipment that wasn’t at your disposal in 1997 that you would use if you re-mastered it in 2012? What kind of difference might it make to the finished album?
Broadly speaking, the concept of mastering hasn’t really changed since it was invented! The overall volume at which we are all now working has! Regarding the mastering of Be Here Now, I don’t think there is anything that I would do differently now, even 16 years on!
I guess the big new arrivals since 1997 when I originally mastered Be Here Now have been better quality digital converters, Analogue to Digital and Digital to Analogue. Digital mastering equipment was always originally pegged to the final resolution at which Compact Disc were standardised, that being a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz with a bit-depth of 16 bits. Now mastering and recording studio digital equipment looks way beyond those early limitations with many recording and mixing at 44 kHz/24-bit, 96 kHz/24-bit and even higher. Compact Disc technology has not really changed since its inception (apart from the introduction of SACD – Super Audio CD, although this never really took off). The wholescale adoption of the MP3 format has also made a little bit of a joke of very high resolution professional formats as so very few people are actually choosing to listen to recorded music at these resolutions.
More recently iTunes has now taken on board MFIT files (Mastered for iTunes files) for download. These are 44.1 kHz/16-bit files, compressed in the almost usual way but made from hi-resolution source files. We supply our clients with 44.1kHz/24-bit files, who then, in turn, send them to Apple for encoding using their “special” Mastered for iTunes encoding conversion. The bottom line is that customers are still actually downloading a lossy format, but the “selling” point is that they were made from a better source.
The other big arrival is that of plug-ins and specifically dedicated “mastering plug-ins”. I still don’t really choose to use many plug-ins whilst mastering as I prefer to use my “hardcore old-skool” tools of outboard equipment. On many occasions I will use a bit of both as the digital limiters / compressors and parametric / notch EQs / filters are now very good and when used in conjunction with my traditional outboard gear I really feel I have got the best of both worlds now.
In mixing, particularly as many projects are now recorded and mixed “in the box”, ie: Pro Tools / Logic Audio etc, the use of plug-ins is now very commonplace with much choice at the users fingertips! Mastering plug-ins also give novices a real sense of power when tinkering with finished mixes but, actually, getting the final result often only benefits from years of experience.
There is also a very common trend now to mess around with stereo width and spatial enhancement which can sometimes cause all manner of problems. Falsely widening stereo imaging may initially create this “wow” feeling but many people wrongly assume that a “wider” stereo mix is going to sound like a louder one. Often when referenced in mono, these over-cooked wide stereo mixes will actually disappear on themselves with a lot of the intended sound cancelling out to nothing so using this technique should always be used with caution and certainly checks should be made in mono to hear exactly what might be getting lost!
Like I mentioned earlier – some of the biggest, fattest, best sounding tracks are hip-hop records and, guess what – on the whole they are mixed in MONO!
(Click here to read Part 2 of this interview, in which Mike recalls mastering Oasis’s 1998 compilation album, The Masterplan).
Mike’s additional notes, thoughts & comments…
On documenting the mastering sessions…
Unfortunately there are no photos from any of the sessions we did. Maybe, rather stupidly, I have never thought to do a photographic record of anything I have worked on. I guess, at the time, it is just that you are doing a job so this issue has never been addressed. Also, this all happened way before the “everyone having a camera on their phone” thing came about and, of course, this was also way before the whole Facebook / twitter scenario!
How I wish now, after 26 years of mastering at The Exchange, that I had introduced a “visitor’s book” or some kind of journal / diary where visiting artists could have made comments, drawn doodles, or made anecdotes about their time spent with me mastering their music! It would certainly have been a nice item to have left my son in my will and would surely have become an auctionable item in years to come. So, for now, I will just have to stick with my memories!
On working with Noel…
Noel was definitely as funny in person as he is in interviews. He has a wicked, sarcastic sense of humour – just like myself. I found him an incredibly easy person to get along with – very humble, friendly and an absolute consummate professional – even though this is all “Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll”.
I also remember his excellent timekeeping. So often, when you are dealing with high profile people they think they can take the piss because of who they are and you will put up with it. Noel was definitely NOT one of those people. Whenever he was scheduled to be at The Exchange he was there – 5 minutes early, and, if you asked him to do something for you, he would do it. A gentleman, and a real pleasure to have had time to spend with.
On the leak of D’You Know What I Mean?
Something else interesting that cropped up during the sessions and subsequent days before the release of Be Here Now and the first single D’You Know What I Mean? was the illegal leaking of a track to the media.
When I got involved with mastering the Be Here Now album, I had to sign a contract, properly drafted up between Me, Noel, Liam, Bonehead, Guigsy, and Alan White stating that I promised not to play the tracks to anybody or give anybody a copy of the recorded material.
This is something that I was well used to and actually was quite commonplace so I signed it without hesitation. Basically, in my job, if you start playing or talking about what you are working on ahead of its official release to public domain then you can probably wave goodbye to your career. I take my job very seriously, and the confidentiality of my clients, so what goes on in my studio – STAYS IN MY STUDIO – until, of course, it’s in the outside world!
Well, it was in July of 1997 when I had a call from Creation Records saying that a radio station in the North of the UK (WHO WILL REMAIN NAMELESS) was playing D’You Know What I Mean? as an exclusive and they couldn’t understand how the radio station had got hold of the track to play! Nothing had been sent to ANYONE ahead of the release of the single.
In the quest for information, they asked me if I knew anything about it – fair question, I guess, seeing as realistically only me, Noel, and Owen Morris had access to all the mastered audio at that point.
Obviously I confirmed we had not released anything to anyone other than the people who were supposed to have had it.
The radio station in question were making a big thing of being the only station in the world to be playing the “brand new Oasis single” which, of course, was a big coup for them but Creation Records and, more importantly, Noel and the boys wanted to know how on earth this could have happened.
As luck would have it, I was moonlighting at the weekends as a radio presenter on a large commercial radio station near to where I live. (It was something I always wanted to get into, having grown up DJing at nightclubs since I was 16 so it seemed the next logical step!) Because of this, I understood the workings of a radio station a little bit so I suggested to Creation Records that I could go to the Radio Station in an investigative manner and surprise them by demanding to hear back the “logger tapes” which would let me listen to the broadcast and at least try and analyse the source they had got their hands on!
(Logger tapes are required by law and Ofcom to be made by radio stations to record their output over a 24-hour period. They are obliged to keep those logger tapes on file for at least 3 months worth of broadcasts in case of any listener complaint or legal issue, so I knew I would have a good chance of figuring out what might have happened!)
Creation Records loved the idea, and before I knew it I was on the train with my boss (for a second set of ears) and a member of staff from the record company headed for the radio station.
We arrived and, needless to say, weren’t made to feel that welcome but everybody knew we had a job to do so they just had to get on with it. I could tell they were shitting themselves. They probably thought they might get away with it. Imagine the look on the Station Manager’s face when I then asked him to pull out the logger tapes for the offending broadcasts in question! He must have thought, “How did this git know about that!”
So we went off into one of the off-air studios and a technical assistant pulled out the logger tapes to play to me. Sure enough, there they were, bigging up the fact that they had got hold of the new Oasis single and there they were playing it.
I got them to play it to me a few times and then I asked the tech guy to play the tapes to me in mono. Gotcha! As soon as he played it in mono, the sound went all out of focus and very “swishy” sounding – exactly like how a cassette sounds when it is recorded on one machine and then played back on a different one. (It’s all to do with the alignment of the record / playback heads – the azimuth – of the cassette deck)
I told the station manager that I believed somehow someone had got a cassette of the new single and that this is what they were using to play on the air.
At this point, another guy turned up, who was clearly shitting himself more than the people at the radio station. This guy was the plugger hired by Creation to do the radio and TV plugging for the release of D’You Know What I Mean? I’ve forgotten his name but he was a really nice guy and clearly fearful for his job.
I spoke to him and he told me he was given a cassette of the new single to take around to do his job. No CDs, no high quality audio – just a cassette for the time being to get initial interest and reaction before radio and TV were sent full quality audio by way of a CD to then officially begin the campaign ahead of the single release.
It turns out, what had happened was he was just doing his job as promised. He went to the radio station to just play them this cassette of the new single. The people at the radio station thought they would be clever and decided to do their listening in one of the off-air studios. As the plugger started playing the cassette someone else started recording the audio from the off-air desk onto the radio station hard-disc audio system so they basically ripped the audio from him from under his very eyes!
Once it had all become clear to me, I asked to see the files stored on the radio station audio playout system and there it was – the ripped file of the audio from the cassette with the date and time stamp totally matching up with the time that the plugger was at the radio station!
We had them by the short and curlies and they had to admit that this was exactly what had happened.
I’m pretty sure that nothing else came of this incident, but at least we had gotten to the bottom of where the audio had come from and that no real hardcore piracy or leakage of the bands new material was going on.
I was thankful to have at least got everybody else “off the hook” in terms of wagging fingers and raised suspicions but, like I said, nobody in their right mind in this business would get involved in doing anything untoward for reasons that it may be the last time you work in the industry! Unless, of course, you run a radio station!
On Oasis… all around the world!
Another funny little story! I remember it being the end of July 1997 and I decided I needed a break and a decent holiday. It had been totally full on at work as I had just spent the last few weeks mastering The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land, Depeche Mode’s Ultra, The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole and Oasis’s Be Here Now, all in a fairly short space of time.
My brother had decided to go backpacking for two years all over the world and I started getting jealous! I called him up and he said “Hey Mike, I’m just leaving New Zealand and I’m going to Australia next – why don’t you come down for a bit and chill-out?” I didn’t need much convincing and decided I would go and catch up with him and take an extended break of six weeks by cramming all my annual holiday, and half of next year’s, into one long trip!
Long story short: we both flew into Melbourne, he from Auckland, me from London and then set off to find a backpackers to crash at for the next day or so. We sorted one and I was ready to sleep – 36 hours travelling and all that. He said he would knock up some food before bed and I took a quick shower. Then we both went into the small eating area at this backpackers and my brother turned on the TV. Well of course, it burst into life and was tuned to MTV. My brother looked at me and laughed because you couldn’t have planned it – the first track that came on was Oasis – D’You Know What I Mean?
I had to laugh – I thought, “Woah, 36 hours travelling, I’m half way round the other side of the world, in another bloody country, on holiday and it sounds just like I’m back at work!”
Obviously there was plenty of hysteria surrounding the release of this single and the upcoming album and there was no escaping any of it! I also remember being in Brisbane on the day of the release of the album seeing massive queues outside the record stores and big banners all over the shop fronts picturing the new album. It was a midweek release if you remember rightly and I do believe I would have seen it hit the streets 12 hours ahead of the anticipation in the UK.
On seeing Oasis live…
In one of your earlier questions you asked whether I had ever seen the band live. I hadn’t. But that was about to change…
I knew that when I got back from Australia, Oasis were about to hit the road in September and tour the Be Here Now album. Imagine my delight when I find out that the first date on the tour is just round the corner from where I live!
First dates were to be at Westpoint Arena, Exeter and two nights, both a Saturday and a Sunday, were booked. Needless to say the tour was a sell-out and you couldn’t get tickets for love nor money. That was, of course, unless you knew someone in high places.
Thankfully, by then, I knew Mr. Gallagher and he very kindly organised 20 tickets for myself and friends and family to attend both shows on the Saturday and Sunday night. Thank you very much! I also earned a few brownie points with my friends that night as I managed to get them into the hottest show on earth for free – and we didn’t have to queue up for 6 hours to get in either. Genius!
I managed to catch up with Noel and Owen before the show and it was funny as Noel joked to me, “Where’s the fookin’ dog, man?” (referring obviously to my German Shepherd who went everywhere with me and spent her whole life at work in my studio!)
The gig was great – beers were in – friends were happy – my wife to be had just met the band and I was totally relaxed after my 6-week break in Australia. You can imagine the roar that went up from my section of the crowd when the band launched into All Around The World and the video screens showed a massive graphic of the Earth spinning round. As it reached Australia a big cheer went up from my buddies, aimed towards me and the whole song took on a much more poignant meaning!
It was a fantastic show – coupled with what now sounds like an Oasis greatest hits set and will go down as one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. (Oh, and AC/DC – Wembley Stadium with my son aged only 7 and a half at the time – heh heh heh!).
I spoke to my brother soon afterwards who was still in Melbourne while I was soon heading back to work. I told him about the show and he was gutted to have missed it. Then he said, “Hey Mike, I think the boys are coming down to Melbourne in a few months – don’t suppose there would be any chance you could organise me any tickets?”
The next time I spoke to him was after that show. “Thanks dude”, he said, “What a fantastic night, will you pass on my thanks to the boys? They only went and organised guest list action for me and three girls to get into the show”! Not only that, when I returned to work there was a massive food and drink hamper waiting for me to say thanks for having helped out on the album. Believe me, the pleasure was all mine!
2: (Back to article) Amongst others, music journalist Nick Southall has commented on Oasis’s heavy use of compression on Morning Glory, arguing in a 2006 article he wrote for Stylus magazine called Imperfect Sound Forever that the album’s ‘excessive volume and lack of dynamics meant it worked incredibly well in noisy environments and crowded pubs, meaning it very easily became a ubiquitous and noticeable record in cultural terms’; in the March 2011 issue of Sound on Sound magazine Sam Inglis investigated whether music is really more likely to sell if it’s louder, noting in his introduction that whilst ‘some of the albums that raised the threshold of acceptable RMS level have been big hits — one thinks of Oasis’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication, and so on […] it’s impossible to say how many copies those albums would have shipped had they been mastered less loud.’ The September 2011 issue of Sound on Sound included a detailed analysis of Dynamic Range and the Loudness War, challenging the widespread belief that the trend to master albums with increasing loudness has resulted in narrower dynamic range (mastering engineer Ian Shepherd clarifies in a post on his Production Advice website that it is in fact the crest factor, roughly the difference between the average and peak level of the recording, that is adversely affected when limiting and compression are used heavily). Finally, for another clear analysis of the controversial topic of loudness in mastering, I would recommend this excellent article on the mastering engineer Barry Diament’s website.
Interview by David Huggins. Answers © Mike Marsh. Q&A published on Oasis Recording Info, 2012. Many thanks to Mike and The Exchange Mastering Studio.