The first month of being in business – mastering audio is a state of mind

Sand on the studio floor
Bringing in the white sand was a back braking activity.

When, somewhere in 2016, I came to the conclusion that a truly high-end mastering studio might work in Romania – I embarked on a 1 year expedition that very recently resulted in welcoming, and working with, our first Romanian clients.

Profile picture of Herman van der Veen
SWT’s Herman van der Veen.

Early fall 2016, I contemplated about what had happend in the previous 2 years. Years in which, together with a business partner, I tried to get a company called Sound Works Transylvania from the ground. The idea was simple: bring talented musicians from Romania, such as composers, performers and producers, to the attention of the rest of the world. Some sort of outsourcing.

Sure enough, it started with a boom. As a promotion for our services and the local philharmonic orchestra, we composed and recorded a reinterpretation of Coldplay’s A sky full of stars. Not too long after putting the video up on Youtube, Chris Martin, Coldplay’s frontman, shared a link on social media – calling our work “A lovely thing”. This happy event came accompanied by a flood of attention from the international and national press. Indeed, we where famous. Just for a little while.

In the almost 2 years following that short moment of fame, we struggled to get our composing, recording and mixing services noticed. Despite the many, many sales and promotion activities, we did not manage to find enough customers for our services. When my business partner and myself decided to call it quits and each go our own way, it left me with a nagging feeling of failure.

In a way, the Sound Works Transylvania “debacle” forced me to rethink how to do business. Instead of trying to work with a large group of people with many different skills, I decided to go at it alone this time. Instead of offering a variety of services, I limited it down to just one. This is how the idea of the first dedicated high-end mastering studio in Romania came to life. Once I made the decision to go ahead, all the pieces quickly started to fall in place.

First there was the choice of location for the studio. Because this was going to be a one-man-show, why not do it from home? Certainly an easy commute. At the time we where planning to convert the indoor pool area into a new living kitchen. When I mentioned to my girlfriend that the space would work well as a studio, she surprised me by saying that I should go for it. After thinking about the idea some more, I decided to give up on the dreamed kitchen island and started the transformation from swimming pool to critical listening room.

closed up swimming pool
Preparing the pool for a concrete cover.

After closing up the pool, we changed the roof and started installing the sound insulation. I will spare you the details, but I do like to tell people about the floor that is composed of a 15 cm concrete slab, 10 cm of white sand, 5 cm rubber tiles and a 5 cm solid top floor.

rockwool insulation
Installing more insulation

Over the years I have collected an extensive collection of digital and analogue equipment. When assessing what could be used for the mastering studio, much of the equipment previously used did not make the cut. Especially analogue mastering equipment is different from equipment used in recording and mixing. You can work with a non-mastering-grade analogue EQ, but it will be immensely difficult to exactly reproduce settings from a certain project with non-stepped dials and knobs. Analogue mastering equipment works with settings that can be adjusted in 0,5 db steps. While a “normal” professional EQ can be found for 2000 Euro, a mastering version will cost at least double or triple.

Since I choose to focus on analogue mastering instead of doing it “in the box”, I needed to seriously upgrade the whole audio chain. From AD/DA convertors to routing, from processing to monitoring – it all had to be of the highest possible quality.

For my recording activities I used to work with a vintage 36 channel analogue mixing desk – entirely useless in a mastering studio. That is why I chose a Maselec MTC-1X mastering console. It is designed and build by renowned sound engineer Leif Maselec and allows you to quickly insert the various EQs, compressors and other gear into the mastering chain. A-B comparison becomes simple and it is really easy to try different configurations (EQ before or after compression and so on).

A few years a go I invested, yes invested, in a set of Focal SM9 studio monitors. Since I am really familiar with how they sound, I did not want to change them now. The only addition I made to the monitoring setup is a set of Neumann KH 805 subwoofers. When mastering, the audio monitors have the function of revealing the whole audio spectrum. By adding the subwoofers (one for left and one for right), I took away the low frequencies from the Focal’s, freeing up more of their amplification power for the mid-range frequencies. All in all – I’m happy with the monitoring setup. Work that I do on them, translates well to other playback devices.

ceiling panels
Installing the overhead absorption pannels

When the studio neared completion, the process of measuring the frequency response started. The room by itself is quite large for a mastering setup and because of the extensive bass-trapping and the overhead sound absorption, it is easy to overdo it and lose too much energy. (This is quite a complicated subject and, if you’re interested, I suggest that you read up on the topic. Many resources can be found online.) Untreated rooms tend to boost low frequencies, causing the engineer to pull back on the low end in the mix, resulting in a track without energy on the bass. Or, even more complicated, phase issues can actually cancel out frequencies. Fortunately, the testing measurements showed that what I’ve planned in advance turned out to work pretty well. The subwoofers turned out to be not just an improvement to the monitoring chain but also worked well in providing sufficient amplification of the low-end.

C24 controler
C|24 control surface for ProTools

I’ve always worked with ProTools and decided, although my recording setup was totally unusable, to stick with the HDX set I already owned. I did decommission the C|24 control surface (by the way – it is for sale) and added an Antelope Pure2 for AD/DA conversion, in addition to the already ridiculously good (but not mastering good) DigiDesign I/O units.

studio gear
Digidesign IO and Antelope Pure2 ADDA

Luckily I could re-use a lot of the studio gear I previously used, for what I call the TV-station setup. Since I’m using Facebook as the platform to promote SWT Mastering, I want to do regular live sessions. So, my old monitor mixer, compressors and gates found their way into the audio chain that feeds the live stream. Nevertheless, I’m still sitting on a considerable mountain of un-used gear – enough to build at least 2 recording sets. (I know, I am bit of a hoarder when it comes to equipment.)

Finally, after months of construction and setting up the studio, it was time to start working on real projects for real clients. Although you know that you’ve done everything right, until you deliver your first work to a client, you’re not really sure if what you’re doing stands up to their expectations. Much to my surprise and delight, after some Facebook campaigning, interested musicians and producers started to ask questions and send projects. In a short period I’ve worked on 7 tracks for 3 different clients and have about 10 more tracks in the pipe-line. I’m receiving positive feedback on the work that I’ve delivered – strengthening my believe that SWT, by focussing on Mastering, this time around has indeed something to offer.

studio desk
Mastering desk

Let me end this article by telling you that, although the studio setup and all the fancy equipment are undeniably debit to the quality of the work I deliver, mastering is a state of mind. Listening to the tracks that you received, analysing what is “wrong” and applying a bit of EQ here and a dash of compression there, is done based on what you hear. Sure, you can use all sorts of tools to technically measure the original material and apply fixes, but I like to believe that the difference is made by me, my ears, my mind, my taste – my state of mind.