Mastering Engineer – Piper Payne, February 23, 2019, by Larry Deniston
“How to save the world and cure sad records” – Mastering Engineer Piper Payne
While the event headlined Piper Payne, Mastering Engineer, we were lucky to have Allen Perkins of Spiral Groove turntables and Joe Markert, CEO and founder of FunctionOne, to make significant contributions as well.
We began with Allen Perkins discussing the challenges of getting recorded material onto a record and developing a system to reproduce the material on a record and sound good, no simple feat by any account! Converting analog or digital material to bumps in a record groove while preserving a reasonable facsimile of the artist’s intention takes a tremendous amount of skill and know-how. Similarly, it takes an equal amount of skill and know-how to design and build a system that can retrieve the information from a record surface by converting mechanical energy to an electric signal.
Allen also talked about how one should be somewhat circumspect when reading product reviews. Some reviewers have contributed to myths and misconceptions about various components of an audio system. For example, some reviewers promoted the “truth” that bigger speaker wire is better for bass, which may or may not be true. A similar assertion is that materials such as ebony or aluminum used to make cartridges have a “sound”. The fact is, materials don’t have a “sound,” but they are filters, and filters can change how a cartridge sounds. Cartridges convert the vibrations from a record groove to an electrical signal and the materials used in the cartridge affect (filter) how the signal is produced, but that doesn’t mean that the construction materials have a “sound”. Allen feels that such assertions by an advertiser are misleading the consumer.
Allen believes that seeking “the absolute sound” is too lofty of a goal, that that there is no way to reproduce, for example, the sound of Carnegie Hall in your home. Allen feels that we should be having fun and that the goal should be the reproduction of music in your home that is enjoyable for the listener. (Great advice IMHO, ed.)
Piper was up next. She is the owner and chief mastering engineer of Neato Mastering in Oakland, CA. Piper is a quality advocate in the vinyl industry and also a cheeseburger enthusiast! Piper said the whole point of music is to evoke emotion and for the listener to feel something when listening to the music. Her job in mastering albums is to help make that a reality. What followed was a very interesting discussion about the differences between the sound of vinyl records compared to digital files and how mastering differs for each.
Piper then talked about the differences between the artist’s intentions and what can be realistically achieved in the studio. To the shock and dismay of some of the vinyl enthusiasts in the room, Piper let us know that the bulk of vinyl records produced today have some digital processing – most lacquer cutters have some digital processing. Yes, even those records that state they are remastered from the original analog tapes may have some digital processing in the production process.
Piper observed that many new vinyl consumers don’t really understand vinyl. They’re not familiar with the equipment and the potential for surface noise, clicks and pops. For some, collecting and playing vinyl is a bit of a fad. That being said, Piper believes that vinyl will be the last physical format for music.
Next, Piper discussed mastering for digital and vinyl. What is mastering and what tools are used? Mastering is finishing, quality control, formatting, and sound conversion. And ultimately, mastering is producing an album as close as possible to the artist’s vision. After an album has been recorded, edited, and mixed, mastering engineers have a relatively small amount of time to finalize the product. Among the tools Piper has at her disposal include PMC BB5XBD speakers; custom Bryston amplification; all outboard, analog, real-time capture mastering chain; RADAR UltraNyquist conversion; Manley SLAM! Limiter; Langevin Mini Massive EQ; GML Parametric EQ; MCI JH110 reel to reel tape machine; and a Basis turntable with custom VTL phono stage.
Piper wound up her portion of the discussion by noting that with the recent vinyl boom, there have been some quality issues with vinyl manufacturing. Increased demand for vinyl has led to an increase in the number of pressing plants which, in turn, has led to some difficulties maintaining appropriate levels of quality control. This appears to be due to a lack (or loss?) of knowledge in the industry regarding pressing and production. These issues can result in loss of up to 30% of product.
Joe Markert wrapped up the event talking about vinyl distribution and the vinyl market. Joe is an artist/rock star with the group Cure for Gravity. He is also a music product manager and production veteran. Joe feels that product design and brand positioning are where we can leverage technology to improve sales. Joe talked about “the revenge of vinyl,” where young folks getting into vinyl are using vinyl as a social experience as opposed to the less social digital experience. Also, vinyl is “cool!” People also want the tactile experience of vinyl – especially people that grew up with digital only. Vinyl sales in 2018 experienced the 11th year of continued growth, and highest sales since 1989, with plenty of continued upside opportunities. Joe then talked about the market and pricing of CDs vs. vinyl, the greater profit margins with vinyl, and declining sales of CDs. Areas of opportunity include getting new people involved in the industry – a similar challenge to one that SFAS has in growing our membership.
All-in-all, another enjoyable and informative SFAS event!