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Cutting a 'Hot' CD
by John Vestman - John Vestman Mastering, August 2002

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Question: I've mixed to DAT and tried to get everything as much in your face as possible. It sounds great, but after I hear the finished CD, the volume level sounds lower than other CDs. It still sounds good, but I have to turn it up to match store-bought products I compare it to. Any ideas what might be the problem? - Pete

Answer: This is a common problem encountered by artists every day. You go and buy all that cool gear so you can record as much as you like, and then your CD comes back 6 db softer than the commercial products. Yikes! Since you want your CD to sound as competitive as possible, it's important to know why there's a difference.

Commercial CDs have been mastered by experts who know how to make a CD hot, and hopefully still have some dynamics left over. We're cutting CDs hotter than we did even several years ago and it takes more than just a Finalizer to know how to do this effectively.

Key: Loudness levels on CDs are dependent on how the peaks in the music are handled by the mastering engineer. If the peaks go beyond a certain ceiling, errors are printed on the CD. While some errors can be corrected by the computer in your CD player, too many will cause the CD plant to reject your master. The fudge factor we have in analog just doesn't exist when that last zero gets hit. You can hit analog tape harder and harder, and it just compresses, saturates, and distorts. Hit the CD too hard too often, and it's rejected by the plant!

There are actually several different kinds of "level" (volume).
When I master a project, I listen to the over-all level of the band, the vocalist level, the apparent level (amount of presence), the song-to-song level based on musicality, peak levels, and finally the level compared to other CDs. All of these factors play into the making of a loud CD, and the adjustments are quite varied, and subtle changes can make a big difference.

Why are CDs hotter now?
It goes back to the days of vinyl. When we mastered to vinyl, there was an inherent surface noise that was masked when the music was cut hotter. Louder records not only had better signal-to-noise ratios, but they also slammed out bigger when the disc jockeys played them! They sounded more exciting over the air, and all the record companies sought out the innovative mastering engineers who were cool enough to push the volume and improve the sound at the same time. Thus mastering came out of the closet and became a high-profile art, instead of a back-room mystery.

Whoosh! Time travel back to the present, and now, those same wizard CD mastering guys are being asked by the record companies to "cut it as hot as you can - pump it up - I want it to be hotter than the other CDs..." etc. It's the principle of a louder CD is more exciting and it makes others sound not-as-good. Never mind that all that cool dynamic range on CDs that makes music sound natural and open (without any hiss or rumble) is now tossed out the window in favor of loudness. Maybe that's appropriate for some music, and there are enhancement factors to this approach that really do work.

The Trap:
Bringing up the rms (over-all) level (and hard-limiting the peaks) takes out the *punch*, even though it's... um... louder. Huh? What do you mean... take out the punch? Punch (like when the kic drum hits you in the chest) comes from a wider speaker excursion... how far the cone of the speaker actually moves back and forth, thereby pushing the air, or thrusting the air, if you will. The greater the peak, the wider (back to front) the excursion, the deeper the volume of air that is moved. You feel it.

When we have to go to great lengths to limit the peaks so that we don't cut errors on the CD, we actually have to flatten out those peaks. Imagine Mount Everest sawed off about 2/3rds the way up. That's how the waveform looks. Now imagine climbing up a sawed off Mt. Everest... you actually don't have to climb up as far. Sonically, the speaker doesn't have to move as far either when the waveform isflattened. You can push the whole waveform up higher (more volume) but the impact is more general and homogenized... less distinctive, open, detailed, subtle, musical, natural etc. Again, the "in your face" result may be completely appropriate and beneficial to the end result. The impact of a loud CD is still impact, it's just a different kind of impact from one that's softer overall but with greater dynamics.

Some mastering engineers object to making a CD all level and no dynamics. Others pride in pegging those meters and "competing" for the hottest CD. The only standard is what you can get on there without creating errors. I think there's a happy medium, or a least a place where musically it makes sense to put the levels and retain the natural musical appeal. I interact with my clients, informing them of the tradeoffs, and come to a decision that works for their purposes.

What can you do about it in the meantime? Hire an mastering engineer with at least 20 years of full-time experience or more.... (BTW some guys have engineered part-time for years, but that's not the sameas doing it as your main gig). If you really want to do it yourself, there are CD mastering programs for computers that are available with gobs of cool features. It's just the 20+ years that aren't included in the program.

Also, the TC Electronics Finalizer is a good way to go, but again, you won't get the education by doing it yourself that you will by sitting down with a superb mastering professional. My setting recommendations are to use a minimal amount of multiband compression (or none at all), set the de-esser as required (peaky SS's are a common problem), and set the multiband limiter at -.5db on all 3 ranges. Compare your sound to other CDs, add more level either at the input, the eq, or the multiband compressor, and eq to taste. The Finalizer a great box, but frankly, the more I use it, the less I like it for deeper kinds of sonic alteration.

Gear vendors will tell you that the Finalizer will give do-it-yourselfers the mastering touch, but trust me, the sonic variations on a typical CD demand more than any all-in-one box can give. Like say a particular word sticks out in the vocal, and it doesn't hit the compressor enough for it to sound right. Level correction in the Sonic can take care of that, but a Finalizer won't have a clue. I have a Finalizer and I like it for de-essing, but multiband compression adds harshness to the mids or highs, and the limiter takes away openness from the sound. If you're not picky about the smoothness and openness of your sound, the limiter will prevent "digital zero" errors, and the multiband compressor will add pizzazz to a moderate sounding mix. But make sure you set the attack and release settings just right for each song, because it makes a difference.

I still say spend the money on going to an experienced mastering person - once you see how your mixes are adjusted, you'll take home knowledge that you'll keep forever and utilize every time you mix from then on. An engineer with a musical background will especially be able to reveal layers within the sound that truly enhance the professional sound you can achieve.

Essential to know:
If you send your master dat to a pressing plant, they will not master it the way commercial CDs are mastered. That's not the plant's job or expertise. They will only give you an exact CD version of what you gave them. If you give them a CD-R master, they will give you the numeric equivalent back, in the quantity you order. They are experts in numeric replication, and appropriately so.

If you ask them to master it, it will be expensive and you will have little or no control over the sound you get back. They will either have their staff person do a conservative amount of enhancement (do you like gambling?) or they will send your master to a mastering house that they have tried, and trust to hit a close bulls eye.... possibly with a cost mark-up included.

Question: We've been using the mastering features found within the Roland VS units themselves... but we haven't been able to get it to that "level" as hot as say the new Jamiroquai or a Puffy CD but we'd like to come as close as possible. - AJ

Answer: Sigh. Take your project to a pro mastering house, along with your Jamiroquai & Puffy CDs, and request that they "make it sound like this." Then, it's simple. They either can or can't satisfy your request.

Warning: I just evaluated a CD for a platinum engineer who was dissatisfied with the mastering from a *major* mastering house. The problem: It was cut so hot that there were errors all over the CD-R, and it completely changed the sound of the kic drum making it dull and punch-less. You have to decide if you want sheer RMS (overall) volume on your CD... or if you want it punchy.. and then it's a fine line to make the whole frequency spectrum work for you.

It's my opinion that a punchy CD will motivate a club dj to pump up the level, and it will hit harder than the CDs that are extremely loud but compressed into a smooth, flat waveform. Most dj's can feel the energy of the crowd and work the music... they don't just make a softer CD whimp out next to the others, and it's not that hard for them to push up those faders an extra 1/4 of an inch to equalize the volume level.

There's a couple places where CD level counts. When people have "carousel" style players... say at a party and your CD comes on next to everybody else's. You want it to be competitive/compatible. Also when you present your project to a record company to potentially get signed, you want it competitive/compatible. However, most record companies won't turn you away if you CD has great material and performances on it. They care about that more than they care if they have to turn up their volume knob a 1/4 of an inch. Generally, if they are *interested*, that's what they'll do anyway.

"0" on an analog VU meter has a +1 and +2 and +3 after it.... but digital "zero-VU" is just all there is. Since the top isn't moving any higher in the near future, it is only the management of the peaks and RMS levels that determines how loud your cd will be. The question is whether the trend will always be to make less punchy - loud CDs, or if people will ever give feedback to the record companies/artists on this issue.


John Vestman, Engineer/Producer/Studio owner for 26 years, is the founder of John Vestman Mastering. Projects have included work for such artists as Sting, Hole, Billy Davis, Jr., the Wynans, the Kenny Loggins band, Word Records, Maranantha Music and many others.

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