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Upgrade Escapades

In a mastering context, upgrading — enticing as it may be — is deadly serious and even dangerous, especially when the monitor path is involved.

A few too many decades ago I became a recording addict. My first real gear purchase was a brass-capsule AKG C 414 EB pair, fresh from behind the counter of a mom-and-pop pro-audio store with the instruction, “Pay us when you can.” (I did.)

I bee-lined to a friend’s attic studio where we recorded a primo Ludwig drum kit with the new AKGs and his Neumann KM84 pair. We recorded to a Scully 4-track, spending hours experimenting with the mics, listening to playbacks and having a whole lot of fun learning what they could do.

Those days are some of my best memories, but a great thing about recording (especially the analog kind) is that the exploration and the fun continue for as long as you stay in it. There’s always something that can re-spark the sense of discovery or bring a fresh perspective. Each acquisition promises new sounds, better results, and anticipated (but unobtainable) perfection.

Serious Upgrades

However, in a mastering context, upgrading — enticing as it may be — is deadly serious and even dangerous, especially when the monitor path is involved. Mastering consoles, converters, amplifiers, and speakers all have a major impact on mastered results and any substitution upsets the bedrock foundation for a mastering engineer: the knowledge and understanding of the environment. Of course, if you’ve been getting excellent results with your present rig, you don’t really need anything new, right? My friends continue to remind me of how many times, after an acquisition, I’ve said, “I’m all set! I don’t need anything else new at the studio.”

The Great Normalizer

Is the McIntosh MC252 Alan’s last new piece of gear at his studio? [We doubt it. – Ed.] Upgrading has taught me something about how we hear. The ear is a great normalizer. A neurophysicist friend once explained that new connections are made in the brain over a period of time when we make a significant change in the daily music playback system. What sounds radically different at first soon becomes normal. Whenever I’ve made the decision to upgrade the monitor chain in my mastering room, I’ve allowed up to a week of downtime for the adjustment to take hold and to get comfortable with the change. A lot of time needs to be spent listening to familiar reference material and to past work.

A recent upgrade involved bringing in a McIntosh power amplifier to replace the amp I had been working with for the last eight years. An opportunity presented itself to pick up one from an engineer friend at a good price. I’d always loved McIntosh amps, and we had scores of them at New York’s A&R Recording Studios where I was on staff. They could handle any monitor well, from UREI 813 to Westlake BBSM to Yamaha NS10. I waited for the opportunity of a few clear days and finally did the installation.

On first listen, it seemed obvious it just would not work out. The sound was so completely unfamiliar it was scary. There seemed to be too much of everything. I did a few hours listening in the hopes that things would settle in, but no luck. I shut down the room for the night and took off.

The next morning I had high hopes for a fresh-eared listen, but the sound was still very disorienting. Fortunately, there was a project in for a friend who did not mind being part of the transition. After a difficult day, I took the results home—not bad, but not right. This sort of thing continued for two more days, each spent partly working on new material and the rest listening to references and old work.

The fourth day must have been the charm. At that point, for the first time, the system did not seem at all foreign at the morning’s first listen. References and past work sounded good; in fact, they sounded better than I could recall, even though just the morning before things were off. As a reality check, I hooked up the old power amp; it seemed practically unusable, but this was the amp that had carried me through eight years of successful work! Evidently, the auditory transition was complete, and I was past the point of no return. This was an illustration of another madness that we’ve all experienced: It’s all good ’til you hear the better device, and then there’s no going back.

The amplifier upgrade is now a few months behind me, and I’m finding that I am working more smoothly. My job has become easier. The sound in the room is the best it has been. It’s a great feeling, and even greater knowing that I’m all set! I don’t need anything else new at the studio.

Alan Silverman is the founder of Arf! Mastering in New York.