Mastering with Joe

Spent Wednesday in Oak Park CA, right on the line between LA and Ventura Counties, with this guy:

Joe Gastwirt is one of a handful of top-flight mastering engineers in the country. I’ve worked with him on several Grateful Dead projects. He’s a great guy to hang with, too. We have a zillion friends and the weird, eventful underworld of the Grateful Dead in common, so plenty to talk abut. And over the course of the day, we discovered a love of food and the farmers’ market, too.

I have a friend in Philadelphia working on the CD package art, which is based on my own photos of voluptuous produce from the Grand Lake market. The CD is titled The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best – a line from “The Bounty of the County,” a song I wrote with my beloved produce-expert spouse, Rita Hurault. If all goes well, the CD will be ready by the end of July.

Mastering is the process of making audio ready for replication. In the old days, mastering meant operating a disc lathe and cutting the groove in a lacquer master from which metal mothers were made; from the metal mothers were made stampers, which turned little hockey pucks of vinyl into discs. The art and science of that process involved making sure the deep bass notes didn’t knock the needle right out of the groove, and packing as much magic as you could into the mechanical limitations of that medium.

Mastering for CD is easier in certain respects, because the limitations if the medium aren’t as oppressive. The job is to place the tracks in the proper sequence for the CD, arrange them in time so the next song starts at the right moment, make seemingly-minor adjustments to level, dynamics and equalization (a much more granular set of adjustments than “bass” and “treble”) to give the collection as much sonic consistency as possible. With the whole project up in an edit window, you can spot-check the levels from track to track so you don’t have a quieter song seem to disappear if it follows a louder one.

My new CD has eleven songs and a “spoken word” hidden track. Four songs were recorded in January 2007 with an acoustic ensemble (and drums overdubbed on one song); six songs were recorded in the same studio in August 2007 with a different bass player, a fukl drum kit, and an additional musician playing pedal steel, electric guitar, and lap steel. The eleventh song was recorded in February of this year, in a studio 3000 miles away from the other sessions, with a third bassist and a different mandolin player. One of my songs has five clarinets; one has two electric guitars, banjo, and baritone sax; another has pedal steel, bowed cymbals, and prepared piano; etc. The artist and the producer collaborated on the song selections, and we collaborated with the players on the performances.

The mastering engineer’s job is to make the whole thing sound like a coherent musical presentation.

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