Jonathan Wyner is the president and chief mastering engineer at M Works Mastering Studios in Cambridge, MA and an associate professor of music production and engineering at the Berklee College of Music. He has mastered recordings by Aerosmith, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, the London Symphony Orchestra, and others.
Professional Sound: There are four main mediums you need to make a master for: streaming, MP3/AAC, CD, and vinyl. Do you make one ideal version and adjust that for each medium?
Jonathan Wyner: Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. In general, yes, that is my workflow because to make four separate masters for four different mediums is not doable. It would blow budgets, both time and money, out of the water. So usually we’re aiming for a good expression of dynamic range and then making adjustments for each.
I do want to point out, and I am willing to be wrong about this but don’t think I am, that in spite of what the story is and what the media says, vinyl is a blip in the way that music is distributed and consumed and for every 100 clients that master with me, maybe one wants a vinyl master. There is another associated issue, which is if at any time vinyl sounded good, it doesn’t sound that good anymore. Now, the raw materials that are available are relatively poor compared to what they were 20 or 30 years ago. I really think this is a time-limited phenomenon. I could go on and on about it but I am not a huge fan of vinyl from the standpoint of fidelity.
PS: You’ve said that when remastering old albums, there is an ethical dilemma around fixing problems with new technology – whether to stay loyal to the original version or make it “better.” How do you answer that?
JW: Well, in the best case it’s a decision that is made in collaboration with the artist and with their agents, like the manger or label. I think as mastering engineers and music producers, it’s not usually our right to play God and make those kinds of decisions about things. You know, you do have to think about the aesthetics.
I worked on a release of Madama Butterfly and it was the first full-length opera that had ever been recorded and it was made on 78 rpm transcription platters with all kinds of noise and technical issues. I was asked to make it sound as if it was a cohesive whole, which presented a series of technical challenges because of the change in frequency response as the platters would play from the inside to the outside of the platter. But then I also was asked to take noise out and the noise was an artifact of the recording technology of the day and by taking out a lot of it, not only did it impact the quality or timbre of the sound of instruments, which is a serious issue, but there was the question of, “Are we trying to make this sound as if it had been recorded in the last five or 10 years or is all of that artifact just a vestige of the recording as it was made?”
You could make the same argument about records made to analog tape in the 1960s or ‘50s when signal-to-noise wasn’t that great. What’s the best answer there? What’s the best listener experience and is there something about the context that the technology of the time creates that is part of the recording, or not, or is it just about the music? There is no single answer and to me it is an endlessly fascinating question and the answer changes depending on the project.
PS: Does the poor quality of what many consumers use to listen to music – computer speakers, cheap ear buds, etc. –influence your mastering decisions in any way?
IW: Yes and no. If you look at Sonos, they’re making these decent sounding wireless speakers and they’re a multi-billion dollar company now. If you look back to what people listened to cassettes on in 1977, those speakers didn’t sound very good and neither did the cassettes. So I am not sure I really believe that what people are listening on, just on average, is worse or that the technology is performing more poorly than it did back in the day.
Mobile devices and mobile environments certainly present some challenges to the listening experience and that’s a real difference. People used to have to sit in a room to listen to music and they don’t anymore. But I would say that a well-mastered song will translate well to the widest range of playback systems no matter what. No matter if it’s a great system or a terrible system, if you try to adjust your results to one version of bad or another, you’re likely to compromise it in a way that is not going to help or make it sound good on all the other playback systems.