Author: Marcus Wright
When I started to make 55, the album that I’m close to releasing, I was living in a caravan in the Outer Hebrides. My drummer and I were taking time out - him from session work and me from endless production of youngsters EPs - and our live room was a stone igloo by the Atlantic Ocean without a single straight line in its construction.
I monitored on Sennheiser HD25s and Yamaha HS50s. Good, workmanlike solutions for a fairly rough and tumble recording environment. They did the job and survived the experience. Back at the studio in south west Scotland, my old and familiar Dynaudio BM5s and Sony MD7509s kept me informed about my mixes as they took shape to become a record. The studio I used in Liverpool to track the choir used HB monitors, and the one for the string sessions, a very old pair of Acoustic Research Hi Fi speakers.
With every twist and turn of the tracking, through changing acoustic settings and varied monitoring my mixes held up. However, I began to loose the sense that I knew exactly what my record should sound like. Different systems and rooms changed the character of the mixes, even the songs themselves. By the time I reached the mixing stage of the process, three years on from my days in the caravan, I was pretty confused.
I took time off the recording before tracking final vocals, and then more time off before I addressed the mixing. I’d moved house twice since starting the lp, and needed to settle into my current, and forever, home.
The mixing was a struggle. I could actually sense the shifts in sonic signature brought about by the changes of environment and location. The layers of sound betrayed their wildly varied origins and demanded a lot of attention to unify them into a cohesive whole. Occasionally the wilderness there was so dense that parts needed re-tracking in my booth and processing to match their environment in the mix. Slow progress that eventually brought the mixes to completion.
It had originally been my intention to master the LP myself but I quickly realised that this would be impossible. I had no objectivity left after the hundreds of hours I’d spent with the material. My ears felt blocked and I had lost any sense of novelty or freshness that I knew others heard in the music.
Enter Kleo McNeill. She had worked with me on her own songs before the Hebrides and then gone to college. It turned out that she’d trained in sound technology and had a particular flair for mastering. Her ears had always been exceptional, and her attitude professional. We discussed my LP and decided to work together to finish it.
Now I faced a dilemma. How was I going to assess the masters that Kleo would create? The signature of my own monitor system is virtually printed into my brain and into the recordings. None of my headphones offered the accuracy required, either because of their age or their design. Kleo had developed her own mastering process monitoring on high end Audio Technica’ phones. And then I became aware of OLLO.
I read ALL the reviews. I studied the specifications and looked at the details of the S4X construction. They looked promising. “Flat out of the box” was the headline OLLO used to describe them. I was impressed by the company’s return policy. I didn’t have to keep them if I didn’t get along with them. I took an enormous leap of faith and bought a pair. They weren’t the most expensive cans in the world but they were far from cheap.
At this point Kleo and I are about half way through the mastering. In all I’ve had to assess around twenty potential finalists and settled, so far, on four. I’m happy with her vision of the lp, and relieved that my mixes are cutting it. I’m also happy with the S4X headphones. Wearing them for hours is no problem. They present the stereo image in solid and clear detail. I don’t have to guess to make decisions. If something is not right my cans tell me the truth.
In conclusion, I would like to offer up the fruits of my experience of the incredible journey I’ve taken to make my first LP. It occurs to me that the process of creating the performances which are the foundations of the record is about capturing moments of clarity in a world of confusion. There is hardly time to think if those moments are to become immortalised. I never gave any thought to the technicalities of monitoring throughout tracking, and only a little more to it through mixing. Somehow though, I knew that handing over the mastering to another set of ears was absolutely vital. It also turns out that putting OLLO’s S4X cans over mine put me back in control of my album.