The BB5 was the first commercially available reference loudspeaker made by PMC and remains their flagship product to this day. Combined with the XBD-A bass extension and over 2kW per channel of Bryston amplification this is the most popular monitoring configuration used in the UK’s leading mastering studios and was the only choice for us, providing incredible accuracy at all levels.
The requirements of mastering monitors are that you need to hear any anomalies in EQ that might be causing problems in the mix, and you also need to hear all the effects (both intended and not intended) of any process that you might choose to apply. Monitors that flatter, that sound sweet or warm and fat or which colour the sound in any substantial way are simply not acceptable; they must be very fast and responsive and cover the entire audible frequency range with a pretty much flat response.
Perfection is of course not possible. We chose PMC BB5 XBD-A because they’re the closest thing to it.
So we’ve got the big speakers, which tell us just about everything. But it’s useful while working to have a different perspective from time to time, which is where our PMC 226′s come in. These remarkable new monitors are also very accurate, but with just the one crossover and not such an extended bass response as the big fellas they give us a chance to hear the end result from a different point of view.
This is particularly important when shaping the bass end, because with larger monitors you can have a mix that’s loaded with subs and appears to have a huge bottom end that suddenly vanishes when the same mix is played back on the kind of speakers that most people listen on; and you don’t want that.
The 226′s also have a slightly different voice in the mid-range to their big brothers and a comparison between the two can be very enlightening when making small but crucial eq tweaks in that critical upper vocal range around the 3kHz mark.
The most critical transformation your audio will undergo during any mastering process is the conversion; from analogue (in the case of mixdowns on analogue tape) to digital, or from digital (in the case of most contemporary recordings) to analogue for processing in the analogue domain before going back to digital again.
Our main choice for this is another flagship product, the ADA-8 by Prism Sound; probably the most popular top-shelf ADA converter in the world. There are however no sexy words to describe it, because it doesn’t do anything to the sound other than convert it – from digital, to analogue, and back to digital again, such that it sounds the same coming out as it went in. You can’t ask for more…
Whilst recent innovations in digital signal processing technology have resulted in some very useful tools in the form of affordable plug-ins some of which do a reasonable job of emulating the behavior of analogue equipment, most top level mastering studios ourselves included prefer to use the real thing. You cannot beat the three dimensional sound of true analogue gear and our selection features some of the most popular and widely used high-end kit alongside a couple of more esoteric and rare items.
Our two main analogue EQs come from Prism and Manley; the MEA2 providing precision and transparency with a super sweet top end, whilst the Massive Passive brings character and warmth or crunch and more radical tone-shaping options where appropriate. For compression Prism’s MLA2 is a very well known mastering unit which again provides control without colour, whilst Rupert Neve’s Portico can really bring a track to life and is literally much more than just a compressor (for a more detailed analysis of the Neve check out Nick’s blog post).
For clean recordings that require a little extra crunch we wanted a valve stage with a twist and so we turned to UK tube maestro Vic Keary’s Culture Vulture, made by Thermionic Culture. The Vulture is designed to harness the distortion characteristics of thermionic valves, providing more control over these effects than had previously been possible. We’ve been happy to learn through experience with this unit that not only can it add real old-school grit to sterile digital recordings, but can also provide wonderful subtle enhancements in a wide range of applications.
The Dolby 740 Spectral Processor was developed by Dolby Labs as a sideline using similar technology to that developed for their SR noise reduction processors but with creative rather than remedial objectives in mind. It has equalization and compression technology under the hood but it is neither of those things, and yet both. It’s not a tool you would want to use on everything, but where it is needed it is the only tool for the job. There are no plug-ins that do this.
Finally our Neumann Vinyl cutting console features some great EQ and compression options which are not just exclusively available to our vinyl clients. All these processors are separately patchable into the signal path to provide a bespoke mastering chain individually tailored to the needs of your music.
Even with the best analogue tools money can buy on hand, certain processes are best handled in the digital domain. The Weiss DS-1 is a very flexible and transparent de-esser, which can be used not only to tame the more obvious sibilant sounds but also to provide control over gnarly frequencies where a straight EQ cut would be too extreme, or to smooth out the top end by warming up spiky hi-hats and the like.
The TC Electronic System 6000 on the other hand has so many functions that you could arguably master to good effect using it on its own. We particularly like George Massenburg’s “DesignWorks” EQ, which is a 5 band parametric equaliser that we use mostly to cut problem frequencies at very narrow bandwidths. It’s the surgeon’s knife in our arsenal. The famed MD3 and MD4 Dynamics packages are also here, providing M/S EQ, and three or five band multiband compression if needed.
Most of our masters are compiled and edited on our SADiE 6 system running on the PCM8 platform. Unlike some DAWs we find that the SADiE provides total transparency, and in particular when summing in-the-box it cannot be beaten for audio integrity. It is also a superb editor; very fast and intuitive to use, and in all our years of experience with this platform, delivering masters day in and day out, we have never had a single fault or glitch on a master.
One plug-in that we find invaluable, and that runs on our SADiE system, is Cedar’s renowned and latterly much copied Re-Touch. Originally designed for audio restoration, and to take out unwanted extraneous noises from location recordings etc., Re-Touch provides an editable spectrogram of a chosen segment of audio, and can probably be most easily described as “Photoshop for sound”. There is barely ever a session that goes by without our needing this fella at least once, whether it be to remove some clicky spittle from a particularly close vocal, or just to smooth over a dodgy edit. We use Re-Touch to fix the things you thought you couldn’t fix; it’s an amazing piece of kit whose applications are seemingly infinite and its ability to blow the minds of our attending clients make it one of our very favourite gadgets.
For more serious restoration projects we have yet another flagship product and that is Cedar Audio’s Cambridge workstation. The Cambridge is used for de-clicking vinyl records, removing mains hum and buzz (far more effectively than with a notch filter) and correcting time discrepancies between left and right channels in the case of bad azimuth alignment. We’ve used Cedar’s world-class restoration technology on all sorts of remastering projects including our extensive work on the back catalog of the Trojan record label.
The elephant in the room isn’t actually an elephant. The renowned Neumann VMS80 was the last and most sophisticated vinyl cutting lathe ever developed, and ours put in a good many years of service at Whitfield Street Studios before we bought it for Fluid Mastering.
We had the lathe, along with the SAL74B cutting amps and our Neumann cutting console installed and calibrated by Sean Davies, and it is currently maintained by Crispin Murray.
Fluid Mastering have a range of playback options to cover virtually every format (see above), however if you have any material for remastering from a particularly unusual legacy format just get in touch and we’ll sort something out.