Chris, you are the man behind the Canada-based Quantum-Music studio. What was your journey towards this venture?
My father (Alain Dion) was an internationally renown live sound engineer and technical producer (Nat King Cole, Sting, Celine Dion, Cirque du Soleil, and many locally-famous artists). Therefore, I grew up in an environment where high fidelity audio was the standard. My father hated everything that sounded less than perfect. Unconsciously, he trained my ears. I owe him a lot for that. Nowadays, every time we see each other, we spend much of our time talking about which compressors, consoles and techniques.
When I was young, I was recording sounds on cassettes and making soundtracks for my own pleasure. At the age of 16, I started to set up a home studio and I ended up recording every hip-hop artist and pop singer of the neighborhood. At that time I was living in a small town in the north of Quebec. We became local celebrities at some point. Then I moved to Sherbrooke to study engineering at the university and I had to rebuild everything from scratch. At that moment, I met Guy Hebert (Over 2000 projects mastered at Karisma Audio) that became my mentor. Still after all these years, we can speak for hours on the phone.
I am now based in Montreal since 2011, and that’s when I registered Quantum-Music as a company. These days, many montreal-based freelancers are joining the venture, making it more like an association of audio professionals than an old-fashioned company. People feels that something is going on and they want to be part of it.
Montreal is such a wonderful city for music. It’s the hometown of so many great bands (Arcade fire, Leonard Cohen, etc) and international festivals. I think the fact that it’s the biggest French-speaking city in North America makes it more exotic, and therefore inspiring for musicians.
Being an audio mastering engineer these days – what is the challenge?
Today’s challenge is mostly financial. Mastering is field where money follows the hype. A trendy mastering studio is incredibly expensive to run but people are less and less ready to pay for services. It requires a huge cash down to start, and a constant flow of client to keep your head above water. The successful one, will be the one who’s able to convince his clients that he can deliver the best quality sound at the lowest price. In the case of Quantum-Music, I’ve consciously decided to operate from home so my clients are virtually not paying for the rent. It doesn’t give a good first impression, but when people hear how it sounds, they smile and sit down for the session. No more questions asked.
How does a typical mastering chain look like and what is the meaning of compression, today?
To build a mastering chain, we have to look at the current mixes we receive: mixes are usually 24 bit-44kHz, all mixed in the box, with 2-way near field monitors in non-acoustically treated room. 90% of mixes has way to much top-end and low-mid frequencies, and since they are mixing in 44.1kHz, everything above 22kHz sounds terrible.
Based on the previous assumptions, in the current digital area, a mastering chain benefits greatly from having an excellent Class A tube preamp to bring some analog harmonic distortion to cold digital mixes. Honestly, I push it until I obtain audible distortion and then go back just a bit. Almost every mastering engineer I know has a Fern preamp or something similar that has the same purpose.
Personally I find that the frequency balance is the most critical aspect. When the typical consumer listens to albums in his crappy sound system, he does not hear the definition (or the lack of), what he does hear however is if the balance is right. Anyone can say if a mix is well-balanced, too bright or muddy.
Still, the equalization must be as clean as possible. A typical mastering chain would have a crazy expensive high-end analog equalizer (We are talking about more than 12k for the little box). Personally, I currently don’t have the budget for that. I found though that high quality linear phase equalizer does the job incredibly well especially working at 96kHz.
For compression, almost anyone agrees that RMS-based compression gives the best results. An Opto compressor or a Variable-Mu is the first compressor to go with to get the most transparent gain reduction. I personally possess one model of each in the analog domain. Then, faster compressors, either VCA or FET can be used to take care of the persistent peaks. For limiting, I apply very little and I’m talking about proper limiter, not L2-like maximization.
Finally, the speakers-acoustics combo is the most important criterion in mastering. Combined, they must tell you the truth, not what you would like to hear. You need both definition and flat frequency response.
From your point of view, what makes a dynamic processor stand out these days especially but not limited to mastering?
There is a huge difference between a mastering grade and a mixing grade compressor. In mixing, we are often looking for character. We want to hear the compression because it brings some personality. It is okay if the frequency response is less than flat, and we can tolerate much higher noise levels. I’m thinking of some compressors such as DBX 160, Tubetech CL-1B, LA-2A and 1176. Those sound fantastic, but It would be inappropriate to use them in mastering as is.
In mastering, transparency and versatility are the required qualities. A dynamic mastering processor that would stand out would propose a combination of compression type (Opto, Variable-Mu, VCA, FET) with an astonishing transparency. A good example of recent products going in that way are the Shadow Hills in analog domain, versus Steven Slate Virtual Buss compressors in the digital domain. I also think of Klanghelm’s DC8C that allows us to literally design our compressor from scratch; that product does stand out. And of course, yours (Density MKIII, and the Thrillseeker VBL and LA) are interesting products mainly because of your Stateful Saturation approach. Although, sometimes I find that there are to many downward compressors and not enough upward compressors. That is very surprising, since the latter sound more natural. So we have to “trick it” by using technique such as parallel compression to trigger the same feeling.
To conclude, whatever you’re doing in life, to stand out, one has to find something that is unique and to exploit this unicity.
Did the application of compression and the aesthetic of dynamics in audio changed over the years?
As opposed to what other people might say, I think the purpose of compression remained relatively the same over time. People always wanted it to sound bigger because, it is human. We want the record to sound better than the real life. Already, during the time of the Beatles, the band was concerned about being competitive in terms of loudness. They just didn’t have the right tools and knowledge to make it louder than that. The aesthetic, however, evolved at an impressive rate. Having more different types of compression available made our knowledge of compression evolved tremendously. We can now say that the use of compressor is quite optimized: now we hear a sound or a mix, and we already know what kind of compressor we are going to choose: opto for bass and vocals and mix bus, FET and VCA for drums, etc. Those are now considered as norm or “classics” like tomatoes and basilica, salt and pepper, olives and feta. Those are matches that experience told us that these tastes are compatible. We even see a regain in popularity of Variable Mu compressors (those Fairchild emulations, the Manley Vari-Mu and even your Thrillseeker VBL) because experience showed us that they still do sound good on masters because of their mix of warmth and transparency. Does that mean that you can’t put a FET compressor on a master ? Not at all, I do it all the time for music genre that requires fast attack time like hip hop and techno.
What I’m trying to say, is that, if you don’t know how to cook, just follow the established recipes and it will work. Once you’ll get comfortable, once in a while you will experiment new things based on a gut feeling, and the creation will be surprisingly delicious. You’ve just customized your recipe book.
Is there anything else you would like for people to have in mind when tweaking the mix dynamics or are there any wishes to developers regarding future dynamic processors?
To musicians, I would like them to not worry about loudness until the mastering stage. I firmly believe that, at the mixing stage, compression should be used to make a mix that is coherent with itself and that’s it. Overcompressing can literally leach the life out of a song in few tweaks. From a mastering engineer point of view, I think there is nothing worse than receiving over compressed or brickwalled mixes. The damages are done, and can’t be repaired. Same thing with the L2-style adaptive limiters. You’ll get volume, but it will rarely sound good.
To developers, I must agree with our friend Tony Frenzel from Klanghelm that said in a previous interview on this very same blog; Getting the attack right, get rid of the need to oversample (without coming back to aliasing, of course!). That’s also what I hate about digital compressors. Personally, I mostly work in analog domain, but I still use plugins now and then. It would be nice to be able to rely on it, without constantly being suspicious about artifacts.
To you, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity of this interview and I encourage you to continue your great work; I’m a huge fan. I would also LOVE to see your AU versions of your plugin come out some day. I know it represents a huge amount of work for you, but I still hope to see it happen. Despite the advantages of working on mac, testing your plugins is something I miss about working on a PC.