by Stephan Mathieu
I have been fascinated with music and its reproduction since my early childhood and started collecting records when I was 8. At 10, I took up the drums; in 1990, I moved to Berlin, where I spent most of the decade as a drummer and had the chance to work extensively with some outstanding players and thinkers from the improvised and contemporary music scenes – including noise, electronic, jazz and experimental rock & pop musicians from around the world.
Through countless collaborations, rehearsals, and performances on a near-daily basis, I became well acquainted with how the entire palette of instruments – from ancient to modern – sounds when playing right next to you and how different spaces will affect and alter the result.
As an active musician and collaborator, I’ve encountered diverse perspectives on what good sound can mean to different people. The experience gathered during this period became formative for my current work and my general approach to sound and mastering.
In 1997, I made a shift from being a percussionist to producing music with computers. I began work as an engineer and teacher in a traditional electronic music studio in France, the former CERM (Centre européen de recherche musicale) Metz, where I was able to set up an experimental analog lab around their vintage devices by ARP, Crumar, EMS, Moog, New England Digital and Roland, as well as a digital production studio featuring the latest ProTools 24-bit audio technology.
There I started mastering in 1998 – without exactly knowing that’s what I did – by transferring DATs and reels with recordings made during their annual festival, cleaning, editing, and EQing them for archival purposes and as copies for the composers and performers. Around the same time, I began a long journey of learning more about how to listen critically, frequencies, and dynamics while regularly attending mastering sessions for my own material with my friend and mentor Henner Dondorf.
In 2001, I became an associate professor for Sound and Digital Concepts at the University of Art and Design HBK Saar, where I was invited to establish two more ProTools-based production studios, and worked as a visiting professor for various international institutions for most of the decade.
During my research into the roots of audio reproduction, I began collecting mechanical-acoustic gramophones and records from the first quarter of the 1900s. I remain fascinated with how they deliver sound in an archaic yet stunningly beautiful way.
Recorded Sound as an Illusion
When studying the reproduction of recorded acoustic events, there is no such thing as perfect sound. A recording will always be an illusion, a reflection of reality similar to photography or movies. Rather than perfect, such an image can only be as good as the recording and playback methods permit. Imagine an orchestral work you love performed in a concert space with fantastic acoustics. You will not get the same result from a pair of loudspeakers, no matter how good they may be. That said, listening to music at home has its own magic and can, without a doubt, be a fantastic experience in its own right. In fact, recorded sound can present a piece of music in a way it can’t be experienced in a live setting.
A trick almost as old as the record industry itself – to work around the problems that will arise while trying to bring fidelity to people’s homes – is the production of a recording, with the use of equalization, compression, reverb, etc., paired with a skillful mix of the individual components that make up a complex audio event. Needless to say, this process has sparked a huge wave of creativity and led to an enormous amount of fantastic works spanning genres and production schools across the decades.
In purely acousmatic music, on the other hand, what we hear through a set of loudspeakers sometimes has no real-life counterpart at all. The sound aesthetics are solely defined by the composer – the loudspeaker itself becomes the instrument.
My monitoring setup follows the piece-of-wire concept, allowing me to hear what is actually there while listening to a client’s work. This means keeping the signal’s path between the source (my digital-to-analog converter) and target (my ears) short, transparent, and unimpaired by anything that might add color or character to the material. I love equipment you will not hear, which acts as a measuring tool and offers an uncluttered perspective on your work. The same goes for my room, which provides an accurate 35 square-meters listening environment to assess the quality of a mix before adding or subtracting color during the actual mastering process. At this initial listening stage, I strive to keep the tools out of the music’s way.
For the shaping instance of the mastering process, I’m working with a hybrid setup: critical corrections are accomplished with a brief selection of cutting-edge plug-ins which allow for meticulous adjustments and to-the-point automations, while my custom-built mastering console offers the kind of 3-D depth and unique radiance that analog does best.
Taking this as a starting point, I see no difference in working on a recording of a string quartet or a recording of a vacuum cleaner. Each sound has its individual complexity: when handled well, it will show its character with precision and cogency. Hence, the question I most frequently ask myself while working on a master is: Does it sound better or merely different?