Squarewave to make you happy

For the dutch readers, I’ve been over this subject a couple of times before, here’s the previous message about it. Last night I sent the following complaint to Tom Coyne at Sterling Sound:

To: caryl.mcgowan [at] sterling-sound.com
Subject: Question concerning master
Date: Thu, 20 May 2004

Dear someone who is not Tom Coyne,

I have a serious question for Tom:
Attached you’ll see a screenshot of the raw audio coming from a
1:1 view of the single-CD ‘Born To Make You Happy’ by Britney Spears.
On the sleeve of the CD it says
‘mastered by Tom Coyne at Sterling Sound NYC’.
For a long time I wondered what was wrong with the sound
of this track, so I decided to take a look, and there it was;
At least 10% of the track consists of clipped audio!

As a professional audio engineer I’m just wondering;
Is this YOUR fault, or was this track already in such state
when it left Battery Studios (in other words: Is the so-called
Pro Tools engineer Michael Tucker at fault here, or what’s up
with this horror you dare call mastering) ?

If this is NOT caused by you, Tom, please try to be
a little more strict towards the people delivering you such
garbage-engineering work, ’cause I hear this and it sounds
horrible, which is a shame, since the track and production
deserve much better treatment.

If this clipping IS caused by you, well, then you
have yet to master the art of digital audio, my friend.
Here’s some recommended reading:


Julius Thyssen
JTHZ Pro / K&G Pro / jult.net mastering
Amsterdam – The Netherlands

I sincerely wonder if they’ll even read it, so I decided to put this up here. One can only fear the amount of clipping in current main-stream CD’s (it’s not just sterling-sound, who have lost respect). Often, when people have done a few hit-records (like those at Sterling), they start behaving like they’re above the laws of digital audio, they act like these things no longer apply to them. I’ve had similar experiences with Top Format in the Netherlands, who created jingles for the radio-station I used to work for. The modern way of thinking for these wanna-be audio-professionals seems to be:
‘In our opinion the listener won’t hear it, so who cares about a few squarewaves here and there?’
Oh you think so, huh? Sorry, I’m a listener and I hear it. I know many who do hear it. Plus, if you’re so proud to be bragging about the high-end quality of your studio-equipment, what’s the use of having those terribly expensive low-distortion 96 kHz 24 bit AD converters and zero-dB lossless gold-plated audio-cables and all that? You create nothing but distorted masters out of it, right? Something wrong with that picture much?
Quite strange is the fact that an album like The Ray Of Light has also been mastered at Sterling-Sound, yet Ted Jensen seemed to have much more respect for the way the audio was handled for Madonna. Poor Britney. She’s getting the low-end treatment from them.

Some short reminders to prevent this from happening in the future:
When the amplitude of a signal exceeds the maximum level for the available current conditions (i.e. 256 in 8-bit audio, or 128 for one half of the wave), a process known as clipping occurs. Clipping causes the signal to distort, and appears in the display as a chopping-off of the top (and bottom) of the waveform. If you experience clipping, try lowering recording input (or source output) levels. Also: The true professional converts (or records) the audio to 32- or 64-bit floating point before doing any DSP.
Make sure you have eliminated any DC offset in your audio-file when it’s still floating. DC offset occurs when you apply Direct Current to an audio signal, usually this is coming from earth-loops in your system/setup, it will make the signal deviate from the 0-crossing line, and before you know it one end of the line will clip…
And no (Tom), you don’t make clipping disappear by hard-limiting the entire track to -0,2 dB; Once a waveform has been squared, its original shape is destroyed, forever.

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