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t_d
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mastering ambient music

i was wondering if anyone here regularly masters "ambient" types of music. i've been releasing ambient/experimental and minimalist music on my label for 12 years. for the past couple of years i've been doing the mastering for the artists myself in-house as i've been building up my room/speakers/hardware/convertors...

i'm very interested in the discussions of the hardware (or software for that matter) and how they sound and what sort of character they impart on a mix.

take hardware compressors for example...we read all of these threads about different pieces of hardware and how they are punchy or fat, or whatever... but i find that it really takes more dynamic music to bring out these sorts of characteristics in a piece of gear. i find that with very low-dynamic ambient types of music the compressors, which work less, don't have as much noticable impact on the music, character-wise, as if you'd run a dynamic pop track through them.

likewise, when i tested a Neve 5042 tape box in my studio, on the types of music i deal with, i could barely tell a difference.. and not until i ran some more full-range dynamic material into it could i tell what the box was doing. (i don't feel this about the HEDD tape, however.. i can quite hear a warmness when i use it on ambient music).

EQs, however, i find definitely have their own characteristics on no matter what type of music you put them on.. because they are less dynamically dependant.

for me, reading threads on GS is a bit misleading because 99% of the gear talks are examples of the equipment being used on a type of music that has little bearing to what i do. or listening to shootouts of various pieces (like on the vintage king site).. it is hard for me to judge what something will actually do to *my* (label/clients) music unless i have it in *my* studio.

i guess i'm curious to hear from other MEs who regular master this type of music and if you feel the same way, or find yourself reaching for the same gear you do for more pop forms or if, otherwise, you go in with a totally different frame of mind. any favorite pieces?


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i've done alot of it.

and the trick is really knowing the genre (which you do) and really knowing the artist's intentions (the best you can).

as what you are trying to change might have been done on purpose.

for me this is is the type's of music (unlike with most non-abstract rock-country-hiphop-etc music) where the music is a moving target.

i usually take the time and send a few samples and get a conversation going with the artist before i really sink in to the meat of mastering.


good luck
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t_d
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yes.. this is a big part of experimental music genres.. there can be extreme frequencies that are really crucial.. or noise... or...

i was mastering something last night that had a pretty constant white(ish) noise across the mix.. it was actually quite beautiful.. but, any compression at all on the track and you'd hear the noise dip. the noise is so wide-band that it's so easily affected.

the 2500 was useless on the track, although i did find that a couple db of VariMu was rather smooth and worked well.

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i've done alot of it.

as what you are trying to change might have been done on purpose.
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also, there is alot more leeway to become part of the music.
as weird as that sounds... its really one of the only genre's i've done where a heavy hand can really work.
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Interresting thread T_D,

I agree with almost everything which has been said so far. When my ambient world beat group released our last full length album "Seed" in 2001 we used Trevor Saddler of mastermind productions to master it and that was based largely on the basis that he mastered David Sylvian's "Approaching Silence". Actually, he did the remaster and after we purchased both the original and re-mastered versions and comparred them we realized...aahhh this guy gets it. Here is a mastering engineer who serves the music.

Gear-wise at the time he was using one Manley chain for tube and a modified Avalon chain for Solid state.

Since then I have found that Millennia gear, their NSEQ 2 and TCL2 are both excellent pieces of kit for ambient mastering...(we still use Trevor as well for larger label releases).

I chose the Millennia after conversations with Robert Rich (who is another sublime ambient mastering engineer). Basically any gear that would do a good job on classical mastering is great on ambient I have found.

You guys are also right that much of the equipment here seems better suited for rock and such, but like my quote on the bottom, most gear does not care what music you push through it. It may just take some extra work and finesse to coax the sounds you want out of it.

Also, whether in recording, mixing or mastering I am a person who feels getting out of the box is essential. I am not a fan of soft-synth, plug-in only productions in ambient land.

Yes there are some great releases done this way, but for me getting out into great outboard gear and even running real synths and soft synths back through high end compressors, EQ's and Mic Pre's adds a depth and realism which is not possible in the computer alone.

I use a hybrid approach of Nuendo, plug-ins along with 14 channels of outboard gear to achieve my sonic goals.

Just some thoughts,

Great discussion by the way.

XJ
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done quite some ambient and industrial too , allways a challenge , sometimes confusing when the source makes my analogchain going crazy.
sometimes best to do attendet with the artist and mostly to be carefully discussed with em.
sometimes sounding best when no squashed at all....

from my personal taste i`m quite into dark ambient like e.g. lustmord .
he doesnt like his mixes beeing squashed and while listening you have to turn up the volume quite much but than you will realy be able to feel the deepdarkdoom.

i think ambient musik in any case should not be mixed/mastered loud at all so that it can hold it`s peaks (if there are any;-) , nevertheless once i squeezed the hell out of my own deepdarkdoom trax .

however , to me the vertigo seems to work great on ambientlike trax and maybe some real tape pushing for increasing the muddyness in it.....
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I've done a great deal. What we found was that accurate full range monitors are absolutely critical.

The ability of monitoring to accurately reproduce acoustic music turned out to be the benchmark needed for abstract electronic music in order for it to translate reliably between different listening environments.
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I've done quite a bit since starting out, and I'm one of those artist types myself.

I agree that approaching it from a classical standpoint is where to start. Lots of reverbs, wide dynamic range, full frequency spectrum....it's far outside the "squash 'em" mentality.

Robert Rich's albums are great reference material--I think I recall Bob O doing some of them.
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Bob did all of the great HOS stuff, including (I think) "Seven Veils" which I remember was a cd used by sever high end stereo stores as a ref CD. Truly one of the sonic bench marks of the Genre.

XJ
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Quote:
Originally Posted by xj32 View Post
Bob did all of the great HOS stuff, including (I think) "Seven Veils" which I remember was a cd used by sever high end stereo stores as a ref CD. Truly one of the sonic bench marks of the Genre.

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Quote:
Originally Posted by jdg View Post
i've done alot of it.

and the trick is really knowing the genre (which you do) and really knowing the artist's intentions (the best you can).

as what you are trying to change might have been done on purpose.

for me this is is the type's of music (unlike with most non-abstract rock-country-hiphop-etc music) where the music is a moving target.

i usually take the time and send a few samples and get a conversation going with the artist before i really sink in to the meat of mastering.


good luck
I've done my share of it, too. I like to decide whether the intent is to relax and mesmerize the listener or perhaps to get him moving with the beat (such as it is). An entire CD of ambient in the "relax" mode will put him to sleep, which is not always desirable! I live for the more rhythmic piece in the middle of the set that is designed to wake him up again, because I can show my stuff there with either upward expansion if the mix was a bit too compressed, or parallel compression, which will allow me to preserve the transients and get or preserve the excitement. And I work in the movement department from song to song to see where the tension/release is intended in the music.

The relaxing stuff can be made to sound big and spacious if it's missing some of that, using many techniques, including parallel compression with unlinked sidechains and long attack times.... the K-Stereo processor (oops, a personal plug here---pardon the advert and the pun!), or MS techniques. And the clients love the ambient stuff to sound big and spacious and not all of them have the quality of reverbs or mixing chops or the samples they used to make it happen all in the mix side.

BK
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Think mastering this stuff is such a different 'experience' to mastering anything else. In many ways I would imagine as different to mastering classical to, say, rock-orientated music (again, I imagine as I've never mastered any classical).

I think a lot of the difficulties lie in the sometimes sudden shifts of dynamics, where everything suddenly becomes much more 'up front and personal' after 12 minutes of drones (I'm thinking someone like Machinefabriek for example). And in this sense, for example, a compressor that is described on Gearslutz as having a particular colour, probably because of the dominance of more rhythmic based music, isn't always as relevant. I guess in many ways the 'focus' is different.
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I master a lot of electronic ambient music and also 'folktronic' (electronic/acoustic). I listen to it at home as well (Isan being a personal fave).

Fortunately most the them have been well recorded and mixed, but had a slight ITB quality and needed some depth and sparkle. So generally my process was to glue and warm the mix up slightly with a vari mu compressor, and use the Maselec EQ to add some nice air above 12kHz or so. Then into the weiss DS-1 to prevent overs.

It's nice working on this style of music because loudness doesn't really come into the equation much, it's all about sound quality and good fades and timing between tracks.
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The "what is" ambient music question is certainly all over the map... better to maybe ask "what it is not." It's usually not pop, rock, techno, etc. - nor classical, but classical approach may be closer. I'll leave that at that, for now.

I've sold close to a million records in this area. The bulk of our best selling work was either mastered by Bob Olhsson or Dave Collins... some of the rest by me, or shudder the thought, not really mastered at all in a processing sense. We've also directly used or been involved with projects mastered by Patricia Sullivan, Future Disc, Trevor Sadler and few others I've forgotten.

I've also worked part/full time and consulting for a disc plant for the last 15 years. During my longest more-than-full-time stint, I mastered a variety of projects, but I also checked receipt of masters for production of just about every top, mid and low level ME/house you can think of. Most of these were not what I would at all consider to be ambient, but enough were to get a feel for what different engineers did in this area. The biggest crime was treating acoustic and ambient material like pop/rock, though this can easily root back to the production, too.

I'm basically retired from all of this, even though I have a newish record out, and I still take most work that comes my way. But with the music industry the way it is, I've gone back to doing things for fun and fulfillment. Mastering is important... but original material is what captivates a listener and sells a record, IMO. I've used all kinds of gear over the years from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low, and tried to make the best recordings I could with all of it.

Right now I'm working on a live set and new solo project, and transferring 40+ year old half inch 3-track Nashville country/gospel masters. I bring this up because these tapes sound really, really good - unmastered...

Okay, if you've made it this far, you're probably wondering if I have any on-topic points... favorite ambient mastering gear: what ever works. I've used all kinds of stuff that many of you would scoff at, and worked a lot ITB.

- bottom line: you probably can't go wrong with Bob Olhsson or Dave Collins, and yes, ambient results from pop/rock or even classical favored gear will vary from what they are famous for.
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Familiar w/ your work, Barry--was just listening recently. Thanks for posting.
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Great post, Taylor.

I've been doing a lot of experimental music and it seems in that context, where the music is not very dynamic, I tend to use the 2500 or Vari-mu more as euphonic line amps than dynamic processors.
Have you experimented with your gain staging? Like how hard you're hitting the 2500 on the front end or how much makeup gain you're using?

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some experienced ambient people here.thumbsup
the key difference between ambient music and most othere genres is it's general lack of rhythm, and slow evolving harmonically rich tones.

slamming this material into 0dBfs usually sounds awful & muddy.
nice chance to use slow settings on a tasty valve or opto comp
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Hi Taylor, very interesting post.

I've been working in the areas of noise/drone etc for about the same amount of time as you have and have found similar problems to you when mastering low dynamic recordings.

At present I'm primarily working ITB and find that the Sony Oxford (Sonnox) plugins tend to be the go-to set, particularly the EQ, Dynamics and the Inflator to an extent. I've also found the Sonalksis StereoTools (and the Flux Stereo Tools free download) very useful for playing with the stereo imaging of drone/ambient recordings.

Also, a friend of mine worked on some of my pieces recently using a combination of the Waves C4 multiband and the UAD-2 plugins and the warmth he managed to coax out of what were fairly cold/flat recordings was quite amazing.
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For that kind of music I wouldn't go out of the box if there are not absolutely stellar converters around and amazing analog outboard, otherwise you just mess it up...

I have some experience with mastering such music from others and from myself and in the past I had problems getting good results from good specialized ME, that were more into rock/pop stuff. They just wanted to hear other things than were meant to be heard, squashed it too much, tryed to tame extreme frequencies too much, instead of making it spread even more, making it more "focused, compact" and therefore "less ambient", wondering if that sub bass should really be so loud, etc.
So I decided it is best to do it myself.

I use UAD plug-ins (including all Neve, Precision plugs), Sonnox Oxford Limiter, PlparEQ, Sonalksis compressors also work great, Flux stereo tool can also be useful (in very moderate amounts).

Parallel compression with some psychoacoustical treatments (stereo field widening, etc.) is most of the time very useful...

What I aim at is not loudness, but making the texture more 3D, giving it more low end impact, more pleasant or clear highs, accurate and warm mids, etc. If it sounds too VSTi based, I try to impart it more analog, dirty feeling with a third parallel group distorded and treated with some UAD Pultec or similar...

It is also aboslutely necceserry to be able to monitor in full range, to hear low bass and the overall balance of the texture. It is probably in some ways similar to mastering classical music.

One example I did mastering for and liked: LINK
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All depends on the music. Sounds annoying to say it, but it's true. "my" ambient stuff is mixed out of the box and I run it through various boxes when mastering. I suffer a little more noise than if I worked inside the box, but I prefer how it sounds. Some ambient really doesn't want any noise added. In that case, ITB is the only way.
I have done others and I work the same way but it's really down to the artist.
I find too much ambient music is too clean and needs a bit of life breathing into it though and a certain amount of it sounds like the priority was cleanliness rather than "sound"
In any case, the main issue for me is noise but I accept a little in return for character.
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dlmorley View Post
All depends on the music. Sounds annoying to say it, but it's true. "my" ambient stuff is mixed out of the box and I run it through various boxes when mastering. I suffer a little more noise than if I worked inside the box, but I prefer how it sounds. Some ambient really doesn't want any noise added. In that case, ITB is the only way.
I have done others and I work the same way but it's really down to the artist.
I find too much ambient music is too clean and needs a bit of life breathing into it though and a certain amount of it sounds like the priority was cleanliness rather than "sound"
In any case, the main issue for me is noise but I accept a little in return for character.
Don't misunderstand me... I think noise is good. ANd using analog means of producing ambient music much more interesting than just ITB, although in the end it is all about the idea and a good composition.

I just think once it is done and mixed and it only needs to be mastered, usually the poor quality of converters and/or average analog compressors, EQs wouldn't do much good. While some rock can profit even from that in the analog domain, for ambient (in such case) I prefer to stay ITB to preserve clarity, resolution and enhance it digitally (nowadays it is possible). If I would have Prism or Benchmark and similar and some Millenia, Maselec, Elysia, etc. I wouldn't mind going OTB.
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Quote:
Originally Posted by The Listener View Post
Don't misunderstand me... I think noise is good. ANd using analog means of producing ambient music much more interesting than just ITB, although in the end it is all about the idea and a good composition.

I just think once it is done and mixed and it only needs to be mastered, usually the poor quality of converters and/or average analog compressors, EQs wouldn't do much good. While some rock can profit even from that in the analog domain, for ambient (in such case) I prefer to stay ITB to preserve clarity, resolution and enhance it digitally (nowadays it is possible). If I would have Prism or Benchmark and similar and some Millenia, Maselec, Elysia, etc. I wouldn't mind going OTB.
And I agree with you!
BUT sometimes I hear ambient stuff that just sounds boring because it has no character. Musically it might be fine but nothing to get your teeth into soncially.
I'm not suggesting adding noise = character but often external processing can add a hair of dirt which opens a track up.
Usually though it is well advised to stay away from cheap conversion and processing. I agree.
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wow.. a lot of great responses here... fantastic to see the ambient geeks surface on GS!

i agree with the below a bit.. the Mu becomes a tube stage for me, less of a dynamic grabber in a lot of cases..

the 2500 i actually bought because i was demoing the waves 2500 and mastered an experimental album for my label... the girl's music was "ambient" but had a lot of bubbly and dynamic sounds poking through in mellow ways. the waves 2500 was so amazing on it that instead of buying the plugs (i already had a 5500 at the time, so didn't really need the EQs from the bundle) i just bough the hardware version.

i find its character and sensitivity to be just what i need most of the time.. except when there is a layer of intentional noise which you can hear every half dB on when it gets sucked away..

i actually have not played around too much with how hard i hit the 2500 at the front.. it's generally the first thing in my analog chain coming out of the computer.. i tend to send it "normal" levels... but the Vari Mu i do play a lot with input gain.. often turning it as high as 2'oclock and backing off the outputs.

i've got a guy in germany who is building me a rack now consisting of 2 Siemens line amps and 2 Siemens EQs. it's going to have XLR in and out for all modules as well as DI points on the front and bypass switches. i'm really looking forward to using this as a color and leveling device.. possibly before the 2500.


an a different thought.. many of the aritsts in this genre use highly digital processes and tones. super clean sine wave stuff, very linear and very mellow. i actually mastered an album for a guy last year who does stuff like this.. i did it OTB and he didn't like it all. the saturations and color was not something he wanted... he wanted to keep that pristine digital sound.. so i went back and redid it ITB and he was much happier. i have a few clients where this is pretty much the standard way to go.

on the other hand, a lot of this music is created ITB and the artists want it to sound like it was created OTB.. that's the main reason i've built up my analog chain.

interesting idea about the full range monitors. definitely makes sense.

Quote:
Originally Posted by cepia View Post
Great post, Taylor.

I've been doing a lot of experimental music and it seems in that context, where the music is not very dynamic, I tend to use the 2500 or Vari-mu more as euphonic line amps than dynamic processors.
Have you experimented with your gain staging? Like how hard you're hitting the 2500 on the front end or how much makeup gain you're using?

Huntley
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I agree with Listener to the point of converters and such, but the reality is, if you have great outboard gear at the level of Millennia, Manley, Weiss and such and you still have crappy converters...you need to re-examine your signal chain priorities. Also as Bob pointed out critical monitoring is critical.

Any real mastering engineer would / should own all of these things. Outboard gear many times for me adds greater clarity than in the box, as I cannot think of one plug-in which rivals these $3000 to $5000 real world components, and those outboard pieces should not add...noise per say, saturation and coloration possibly, and I do agree then that it becomes an artistic decision.

That is why many people in this thread mentioned and recommended outside mastering engineers and that said engineer should understand or have done this music in the past.

XJ
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Actually the noise I mention being added is usually inherent in the tracks themselves. No noise in the box but many times, no richness either. However if you compress or EQ THEN the inherent noise is amplified or boosted. I explained this badly!
I actually blame software EQ for this! In the analogue world I use EQ fairly liberally because it is forgiving to a certain degree but many seen inhibited ITB, presumably because it is not as forgiving or as obvious. So the tracks sound flat to me. And then don't get me started on midrange! Often totally ignored by artists AND engineers.
Someone who posts on MULTIPLE forums about their releases for example makes decent enough music, but it sounds like ITB with NO mixing skills. to make it sound MUCH better would need remixing. Throwing it through a character piece might help..but no style of music can be saved from a bad mix

I am rambling. In short, I like my ambient with a bit of grit to it hence I don't worry about noisy effects etc. I DO worry about poor mastering and mixing though
To answer the thread starter: If I master (on my very limited level) ambient I look at the tracks and do what I think is necessary. Often that is just running it through an external EQ with transformers and using the iron more than the EQ. Yes, it IS subtle, but it can make all the difference.
Sometimes I have this chain
EMT 156 comp, ADR comps and EQ's, Dolby 740 spectral EQ.
With that chain you can change things EXTREMELY and I am not afraid to occasionally.
The great thing with ambient is that at least we don't have the loudness wars going on!
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sunbreak Music View Post
Familiar w/ your work, Barry--was just listening recently. Thanks for posting.
- thanks Cass... killer studio you've got there, BTW.

Quote:
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Someone who posts on MULTIPLE forums about their releases for example makes decent enough music, but it sounds like ITB with NO mixing skills.
- oops, I've been outed...
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Glad it was you he was talking about you Barry, I thought he meant me

By the way, I have not spoken to you in years, but I still have Jeff Pearces "Vestiges" and the often over looked "Satori" which I know both of which you helped release.

Glad to see you are still living the dream

XJ
#28
7th March 2009
Old 7th March 2009
  #28
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Location: Belgium
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Coyoteous View Post
- thanks Cass... killer studio you've got there, BTW.



- oops, I've been outed...


It could be I was talking about myself!
Seriously, I hate criticizing individuals, so won't go any further, but occasionally it bugs me that the Internet is a place where those with the most self promotion seem to get the most attention despite any basis in artistic merit.

You are all safe from my scorn though!

By the way, did I mention my new CD?
#29
7th March 2009
Old 7th March 2009
  #29
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Quote:
Originally Posted by xj32 View Post
Glad it was you he was talking about you Barry, I thought he meant me

By the way, I have not spoken to you in years, but I still have Jeff Pearces "Vestiges" and the often over looked "Satori" which I know both of which you helped release.

Glad to see you are still living the dream

XJ
- thanks Paul (right?)... BTW, I really like the subsequent MJL material I've heard. I've hardly listened to any music that wasn't work related for the last 15 years or so - but yours stood out.

It's funny, I have a CD player in my truck that won't eject most of the time, so I made a copy of Jon Hassell's "Maarifa Street" to play in it... mastered by Scott Hull, I believe. Anyway... great record, Peter Freeman is the man - got me back into listening to music and thinking about this topic before it came up here.

I operate from the premise that I'm a lazy, yet lucky, no talent hack. It's worked out pretty good for me, so far!

Thanks for bringing up those recordings. Jeff Pearce is the only person younger than me on my short list of favorite musicians - not that I'm even on my own list... just using my almost 50 years as a benchmark.

Christi and I also co-produced Jeff's 2nd album "The Hidden Rift" - all but one track recorded on a PTII/442 system. I think we used my TC line level/booster pedal straight into the 442 and Lex JamMan - QuadraVerb+ and PCM70 are the only additional effects. I mastered it in Sound Designer with a little Waves Q10 for EQ and gain changes - my only plug-in, at the time. Then I spooled that out to a DAT master from MasterList. That's what you hear on that record and I still think it sounds and looks pretty darn good - Christi did the beautiful artwork. We still sell it through Amazon Advantage. I mastered Jeff's self-recorded "Vestiges" ITB on my upgraded PTIII system... again, mainly EQ, gain and formatting - though I think I had a CD burner by then. I like the sound of that one, too - it's really all about Jeff's music, though.

Satori: "Invisible Rhythm" - my wife and I did this record together over a period of years. The recordings were straight to DAT, or multi-tracked to my Otari MX-7800 1" or PTII/442 + OSC Deck 8 Track Tool (anybody remember that?) - analog mixes from the 1" 8 track through a crappy Alesis 1622... other mixes ITB. This has some cool tunes on it, and again, Christi's brilliant photography. The standout to me is still the collage piece that re-sampled Bill Laswell's unauthorized sampling of my solo record "A Sky of Dreams" which he used on "Axiom Ambient: Lost in the Translation" and Hakim Bey's "T.A.Z." When I spoke with him, he said ASOD was a favorite of his, so he sampled it! IR was mastered as THR... also still on Amazon.

Thanks all, for putting up with me blowing about these recordings.
#30
8th March 2009
Old 8th March 2009
  #30
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dlmorley View Post


It could be I was talking about myself!
Seriously, I hate criticizing individuals, so won't go any further, but occasionally it bugs me that the Internet is a place where those with the most self promotion seem to get the most attention despite any basis in artistic merit.

You are all safe from my scorn though!

By the way, did I mention my new CD?
Dang it... I think I killed another thread - sorry!

I think the world "is a place where those with the most self promotion seem to get the most attention despite any basis in artistic merit." The internet is just fast and cheap [insert racy joke here].

- back to "mastering ambient music?" I shared a little about my mid-era DIY methods. I won't go on about what I did before that other than to say it sometimes involved bouncing between consumer PCM processors (pre-DAT). At the time, I preferred that to multiple generations of analog tape.

Okay, now back to the future... I want to improve my room, monitoring, conversion and OTB processing for recording, mixing and mastering - pretty much in that order. In the meantime, I've recently upgraded my computer, some of my front end and summing capabilities.
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