|An Interview With Steve
by permission of Brian Smith
of the Metro Times
The Mastering Master
Mastering is the key process
to the final sound of a recording. It’s where the mixed master
from the recording session is technically fine tuned (through
equalization adjustments, sound compression, signal leveling,
editing, restoration and blah, blah, blah) for listening on
vinyl, CD or any other format. In short, pretty much every
commercial recording you own has been mastered. And there’s a
real art to it.
Steve Hoffman guy is, um, a master at mastering, one of a few in
the world. His versions — always from original master tapes —
are the definitive ones, from the recent Red Hot Chili Peppers’
heavy vinyl pressing of Stadium Arcadium (Warner Brothers) to
the Faces’ A Nod Is As Good As A Wink CD (Audio Fidelity) to the
Sonny Clark Trio SACD (Audio Fidelity) to the out-of-print
McCartney CD (DCC).
His is an ability
to identify warmth — the tonal, ambient and rhythmic — in
prerecorded music and present it in such a way that’s totally
involving, while not fucking with the integrity of the
recording. His masterings are popular among audiophiles, artists
and other engineers.
audiophile forum, stevehoffman.tv, is growing quickly. Its
informed members chime in on myriad musical subjects, including
"mastering" engineers whose final touches ruin "remastered"
reissues. They can get crucified in some of the site’s threads.
Nitpicky? Sure. But if one gives a damn about music and how it
sounds, albums and discs faithful to the original master tapes
And if modern
recordings are a difficult listen, if the sound leaves you
fatigued, blame can often be placed on a mastering engineer for
jacking up the volume and applying other "enhancements" that
squash the dynamic range of the music and kill the feeling.
Times: What’s your biggest complaint about modern
The music is mastered too loud. The engineers and producers are
so concerned with their release being as loud as possible they
forget that in order for something to actually sound loud it has
to have some quiet parts in it! "All loud all the time"
basically has the effect of making everything sound quiet.
makes a well-mastered disc?
When the music (doesn’t matter what kind) has some "breath of
life" as I call it. In other words, if, when you play the music
your ears might accept it as actually happening instead of a
mere recording of something. Dynamics and fidelity come first.
Your ears want to hear something that sounds lifelike no matter
what the type of music. From birth you have been unconsciously
taught to survive by using your wits, eyes and ears. Your ears
need to be able to tell you if there is danger, the sound of a
friendly voice or whatever. We are "tuned" to this whether we
realize it or not. Well, when we hear music we struggle to make
sense of it; is it happening in a real space, etc. When we can
put a mental "picture" to the music we can enjoy it better. It’s
hard to do this with purely electronic music, but we are getting
so used to that sound now (after years of synths, Star Wars,
etc.) that it’s becoming a reality just like a violin. We do
strive to makes sense of noise though, and the more dynamic
something is (even if it’s a sound that does not occur in
nature) the more our ears can accept it as "fact" instead of
fiction. That helps.
Remember, our ears are pretty smart.
We can recognize a voice over a really tinny cell phone speaker,
so it’s not about total fidelity. It’s about the idea that the
more lifelike something sounds, the better we can enjoy it. You
can be walking on a street and hear inside a club some music
playing and you will know instantly if there is a live band in
there or not. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that. We are
nowhere near the band, but even from a block away we know it’s
live. It has certain musical and sound "cues" that clue our
brain to the excitement of live music.
Dynamics have a lot to do with it. When a drum set is being
played, the cymbal vibrates at a different frequency than the
snare drum and at a different volume. When our recorded music
faithfully reproduces this, we can be "fooled" into thinking
that it’s actually happening. That always makes the listening
Also, when people are all playing together in a room, the sound
is bouncing off the walls, ceiling, etc. and this all hits our
ears at different times. When this can be reproduced on a CD or
album, it’s all the better for us. Close micing techniques of
most modern music can really spoil this illusion. Think about
it; no one listens to a hi-hat cymbal on a drum kit from one
inch away from it. Well, that is where the microphone is! If the
engineer moved the microphone back about two feet the sound of
the hi-hat would mingle with the sound of the rest of the kit
and the room and (like a good sauce in cooking) everything would
simmer together better.
far your work seems mostly appreciated by audiophiles and
artists and not many others. If more people heard this kind of
presentation on a decent system, there’d be many more sets of
ears into hearing music as it was intended to be heard by the
original producer and artist. Do you agree?
would like to think that this is true, but my real life
experiences have shown that people, 99 percent of the time,
think that louder is better and that any music with natural
dynamics in it (loud parts and soft parts) is somehow "flawed."
Sad but true.
Musicians, songwriters, producers, audiophiles and those keyed
into the actual dynamic integrity of music seem to be drawn in
by something other than performance and the quality of overall
sound. There is something deeper. Engineers and producers in the
’50s and ’60s understood this "mysterious" element. You
understand this "mysterious" element. What the hell is it? And
where did it go?
Spontaneity. I mean, musicians playing together in the same room
without headphones or studio isolation panels has a lot to do
with it. When "multi-tracking" came in the late 1960s (I mean
16-track, etc.), we lost that in our mad rush to have total
control over the final mix. In the good old days, feel was what
mattered. That is totally lost now, I’m sorry to say.
Everything you’ve mastered has a real-world, life-like quality.
Do you have any theory about how certain tones or rhythms can
affect a person’s overall well-being? Or how certain sounds and
tones lead to emotional responses?
have found this to be true: The better mastered the music, the
better it can make you feel. After doing this for 25 years, I
can state that this is so! Yes, certain "tones" strike a chord
(pun) with us and lead us down a path of actual healing. I
actually invented a CD called The Healing Disc that has nothing
but tonal vibrations on it manipulated in such as way as to
stimulate your own body’s healing force. This enhances your
body’s innate healing ability because it is my belief that all
life systems have their own rhythmic balance. Music and the
tones inherent in the music seem to make the mind and body
become "as one" as they say. I’ve always found this to be true
but was quite surprised that the musical tones themselves
without any semblance of "order" can work on their own. However,
our minds need emotional responses as well, and music has fit
that bill for hundreds and hundreds of years. One can find music
that will make you happy, sad, thoughtful, etc. These emotional
responses translate into physical ones as well. It’s very
rewarding when someone writes me and tells me that something I
have worked on has made them cry or laugh out loud. I am doing
my job when that happens.
do all your actual mastering work in analog right? No dumping to
dislike the sound of digital work stations. If I am working with
an analog tape, I will keep it in the analog domain until the
final "dump" to the digital master. This means that all my
mastering "moves" (fades, EQ, balances, etc.) are done in real
time, live in true analog. I try to keep the good analog sound
until the very last minute.
personal listening, do have any format preference — vinyl, CD,
SACD or DVD-A? Can you explain for the reader what you like and
dislike about each?
Vinyl is neat, very lifelike-sounding, and I love to watch the
label going around (old-school). An important feature of good
vinyl mastering is that there are rules for mastering; you
cannot go crazy and add too much treble or the needle will jump
right out of the groove, and you cannot add too much bass or the
needle will jump out of the groove and the record will be over
in three minutes. So engineers (even the deaf ones) have to
follow the rules and most LPs sound good.
CDs are neat as well. The good ones sound really good; the bad
ones sound really terrible though, with much wider variance than
vinyl because there are no rules in mastering; you can add as
much screechy treble or pumping bass as you want. Not my
favorite. SACDs are nice but no Beatles, Led Zep, etc., so
pointless for me.
I’m not really into surround sound so DVD-A leaves me a bit
cold. I dislike having music playing behind me like I’m sitting
in the middle of the band or something. This is not anything
that would ever occur in real life unless you were the bass
player or something.
live in a culture with myriad downtime distractions. So sitting
down and actually listening to albums in a real participatory
way is all but an archaic activity. It’s like some people enjoy
wholesome home-cooked meals while others prefer the Burger King
drive-thru. The magic of music — in that powerful, life-changing
sense — might be lost in our culture. It’s but aural wallpaper,
a soundtrack to other activities. If you had one piece of advice
to someone who wants to broaden their listening from, say,
downloaded MP3s on an iPod to a more dynamic, musical
experience, what would it be?
Take the buds out of your ears, get a real (modest) stereo
system for your room or house and devote at least a half-hour a
day to real listening. Sit still and focus on the music alone.
It might change your life!
Through your Web site, many have been converted to, for lack of
a better word, "audiophiles," or have a better understanding of
how sound and music work. Was that part of your plan when you
set the site up?
Actually, it was. Sometimes too much information (like how
something was recorded, etc.) spoils it for the casual listener
but most times, they gain a new understanding and awareness of
the recording process and therefore can appreciate the music
even more. That tickles me!