A KINGDOM FOR A HORSE,
We know who a sound engineer and a sound director are, as well as we are aware of the role of a producer. But how about a mastering specialist? Jacek Gawłowski, a Grammy award winner of the year 2014, will be our guide through the unknown area of the art of mastering.
he world of mechanically reproduced music, not including mechanically powered instruments, is divided into two domains: one is connected with recording music, the other one – with playing it. The former is called ‘pro audio’, as it is dealt with by professionals (people who have jobs in the field) and the latter – ‘hi-fi’, ‘stereo’ or ‘audio’. Its marginal section which focuses on reproducing recorded material as faithfully as possible is ‘audiophilism’ and people who deal with that are ‘audiophiles’. These two worlds – pro and perfectionist – are separated with a glass of prejudice, mistrust and aversion. People representing pro audio consider audiophiles to be idiots susceptible to suggestions of manufacturers who sell them voodoo for a lot of money, while audiophiles think that people involved in recording music are deaf and lazy.
I have my own opinion on the subject, based on many years of working experience on both sides of the glass, also resulting from the fact that today I deal with both of these domains – both personally and through my friends, and acquaintances. If I were to summarize both, it would go like this: both groups are simultaneously absolutely right and wrong. Simply, both groups include idiots and geniuses, lazy and hard-working people who are trying to reach the “truth”. Unfortunately, both of these groups are mostly marked by the behavior of fools, as stupidity is louder.
So, one needs to value exceptions even more – people who have it all: talent, education, experience, diligence and something that we call “God’s gift”. The man who has it all is Jacek Gawłowski, the owner of the JG Master Lab mastering studio and the iMix mixing studio, and recently also the manufacturer of Bauta speakers.
I have encountered his talent many times, while reviewing Niemen’s recordings remastered by him. Recently, he has joined a big project of Polskie Nagrania, i.e. remastering the whole catalog of Polish Jazz (CD and LP). To get to know his working methods better and hear recordings the way he hears them, and to finally see and hear his pride – the Bauta speakers that he has designed and made, I visited him in his studio near Warsaw. It is a text about a man and his passions, consisting of three scenes. I suggest reading them in the given order, one part at a time – the text is quite long.
Any musical material (recording) that we play at home has to be tracked, mixed and mastered earlier. We know most about tracking – it is a method of recording sound – first it was done mechanically, then mechanically and electrically, now just electrically. I have written about different media many times, so let us only say that the most popular ways of tracking have been analog tracking on magnetic tape and digital tracking – first on magnetic tape and now on SSDs and HDDs. Initially, tracking consisted of one track, then two and three, and finally a few dozen.
Consumer formats were first monophonic, then stereophonic, while at the beginning of the 1970s they became quadraphonic (four-channel) for a while. The development of multi-channel systems was only made possible by the expansion of so-called “home theatres” and such media as Laser Disc, DVD and Blu-ray. In order to create a monophonic, stereophonic or multi-channel mix from many channels, we need a process called ‘mixing’. In 1950s, mixing was done together with tracking – a three- or two-channel master copy was made using a few sources, that was then used to make a template to press LPs. Later, as “multi-track” became more popular, mixing gained separate status and started to be dealt with separate studios.
In order to release mixed material, one more stage is necessary – mastering. In Poland people know relatively little about it. It has mostly been carried out together with mixing and not much attention has been paid to it. It is probably the reason for its low status among Polish record label representatives and musicians. This is not right, as the mastering specialist gives material its final shape, can improve poorly mixed material and get the best out of well-prepared stuff.
Mastering (“audio mastering”) is a post-process, aimed at turning a collection of tracks into an album (single, playlist, podcast, etc.), putting them together in the final ‘master’ recording. As productionadvice.co.uk portal adds, another goal of mastering is to prepare material in a way that makes it sound the best way possible (more HERE). In his handbook entitled Podstawy nagłośnienia i realizacji nagrań (Eng. “Basics of sound systems and recording”), Krzysztof Sztekmiler mentions the following elements of mastering:
- leveling dynamic disproportions between tracks,
The process of editing distortions, e.g. “de-esser” needs to be added to the list – adding PQ, UPC/EAN, ISRC, and CD-Text information, and preparing a file having the required parameters (16 bits and 44.1 kHz for a CD), using dithering and transferring it onto the medium required by the record label. Recently, it is usually a CD-R or a high-resolution file (compare HERE).
A specific type of mastering is re-mastering, i.e. repeated mastering. While we hear little about mastering, remastering is being constantly talked about by everyone, as it is used by record labels to sell us the same musical material again and again. However, this is what we, audiophiles, want – while pursuing the unachievable aim, i.e. the ideal recording, we buy new album editions to get either a new remaster, a new medium, or extra tracks that have not been released before (more HERE). Similarly to mastering, remastering is also made in a special studio, by people other than those who had done the tracking and mixing (more HERE).
He is described by realizator.pl in the following way:
Jacek Gawłowski is a sound director, music producer and composer. He started his musical career in the early 1990s as a guitarist, which quickly resulted in recording his own album Welcome to my guitarland. Soon afterwards, inspired by sound recording technology, he started studying at the London School of Audio Engineering (SAE) where he gained his diploma in1994, having done work experience in renowned recording studios.
Untypically for a specialist so well educated abroad, Jacek returned home, to Poland, after his studies. As he says, his decision at that time was mostly influenced by his wife, who insisted on returning, but apparently he did not mind. Then he worked in Warsaw studios as a sound director, as well as was the sound engineer and co-producer of albums recorded by such bands as Oddział Zamknięty or Armia. In 1998, he set up his own Q-Sound studio that I know mostly because of incredible spatial recordings of the Abraxas band (the 99! album) and where the Closterkeller band, among others, recorded its albums.
With time, he was asked more and more often to deal with mixing and mastering. His skills and sensitivity were recognized – people entrusted their recordings to him, hoping he could make them sound the best. So, in 2003, Jacek established his own JG Master Lab mastering studio, connected with the iMix mixing studio – first located in Warsaw and now in Jacek’s beautiful house on the outskirts of Warsaw near Izabelin. This is untypical, as the two domains are usually separated and dealt with by different specialists. However, as Jacek told the prestigious British magazine “Resolution” (that published his photo on the cover), it is a “hybrid mixing + mastering solution” which gives him better control over sound material. In this way, he has returned to recordings’ best times, i.e. the 1950s and 60s (Zenon Schoepe, Jacek Gawłowski, “Resolution” July/August 2014, p. 46).
Jacek’s attitude, unique for his domain, as well as everything that I have already mentioned (“ear”, sensitivity, education) gave him the prestigious Grammy award (won by almost no Poles) in 2014, for mixing material for Randy Brecker plays Włodek Pawlik’s Night in Calisia album in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble category. He got a special diploma for mastering it, as the award for mastering is only given for the Album of the Year.
Since his return to Poland in 2008, he has recorded, mixed and mastered and incredibly large collection of over 4000 titles! His crown jewel is the Grammy award, but his clients include the most important Polish musicians and record labels. There are a few dozen gold records on the walls of his studio (the rest is kept in the garage), from such bands and singers as Kombi or Ania Dąbrowska. Jacek has also recently been working with Marek Sierocki, mastering his I Love… series, and Lady Pank and Wilki bands had been in his studio the week before I visited him. His Niemen and Maanam remasters represent the best Polish remasters. He talked about that – and more – specially for “High Fidelity” readers.
WOJCIECH PACUŁA: We are listening to Aga Zaryan Remembering Nina & Abbey.Can you tell us more about The record?
Brian Blade played drums on the album and the sound of that room made the Aga's record sound so natural and ambient. Two vintage mics were placed in the middle of the studio and captured the whole performance beautifully. The recording paved my way to mixing the record that way, with a lot of studio ambience, rather than artificial reverberation. I went for the character and natural sound. I am proud that this album sounds the way it does. I like to listen to it over and over again. I would not change a single thing on it and that is quite unlikely with other records I have done.
For example Abraxas record (Polish prog-rock band)?
You seem like a man with a lot of character to me. Tell me more about how it all started.
Alan Parsons taught me British work ethics. He worked with The Beatles and Pink Floyd as a sound engineer on "The Dark Side of The Moon" record. He told me about tape delay they used and coin machine they miced up to get that special sound in the song Money. He really is one of us engineers. Great ear! While assisting at The AIR studios I also was introduced to Mark Knopfler who was working there at time.
Why did you return to Poland then?
What was different in Poland comparing to UK?
But you had a chance to be creative while working on your Grammy record?
Tell me about the remastering of Polish Jazz series.
So you have transferred and what is the next step in a process?
You mentioned once that you don't like bright sounds.
What amps do you like with your loudspeakers?
Please share your knowledge with us how you listen to music and what you look for in recordings?
In all the interviews that I have read, including my own one, Jacek stressed that he belongs to the analog domain. In the professional world it does not necessarily mean the same as in the audiophile world. His approach can be described as analog, because he uses the beautiful analog SSL AWS 900+ console for mixing, as well as analog peripherals such as the EQ Manley Massive Passive, tube compressors from the same manufacturer, dbx compressors, etc. However, the material that he mixes is digital, in the form of tracks on high-resolution files. Played using a digital audio workstation (DAW) with Pro Tools, it is converted to analog, mixed and mastered, and then converted into digital again, in A/D Apogee Symphony converters.
The mastering section, located at the same place as the mixing section, is totally digital. Even though there is the analog Studer A80 tape recorder, it only serves to copy material to the digital domain, as in the case of Niemen’s catalog. So, it is a pity that it is not solely processed in the analog domain to cater for vinyl users’ needs. Such things are very expensive and large Polish record labels do not even think about them. An exception to the rule are small record labels, such as OBUH Records. However, let us listen to things made in that studio and we will not find anything to complain about. Weiss Eq1 MK II digital de-essers and correction devices, DS1 MK II compressors from the same manufacturer, Bricasti M7 Reverb, etc. result in mastering that most musicians can only dream about.
Both parts off the studio (the mixing and mastering section) have one element in common: amplifiers and speakers. The legendary near-field Yamaha N10 monitors are standing on the console, which you can see in the photos. They are legendary in the pro world, as they are the actual standard, and all sound engineers and musicians know their sound. In the audiophile world they are legendary as they provide sound like columns that cost, say, 1500 PLN.
Fortunately, we have two kinds of monitors in studios: near-field and far-field monitors. For a long time, Jacek had been using the Lipinsky Sound L-707 speakers for the far field, with two L-150 subwoofers, powered by amplifiers from the same manufacturer. However, with time, he started to lack something. He replaced cables, including digital ones (he is one of few professionals who hear their contribution to sound) but it still was not something that he had been dreaming about. So, he designed his own speakers that are now also available to other demanding listeners, under the Bauta brand.
These are colossal passive speakers that weigh 200 kg, with and additional active subwoofer. They kind of resemble (because of the notch in the middle) the designs of the Lithuanian Estelon company, as well as American Duevel loudspeakers. The latter might have been the primary cause of Jacek’s own design, as they are intended to provide mechanical phase equalization of all converters, cutting them off using the simplest switch with the best components – hence such shape.
If we have a stereotypical image of a stage loudspeaker in mind, i.e. one that would survive a KAT concert after being set on fire and thrown onto the audience, let us not look at it, as we are talking about a completely different approach. Bauta loudspeakers look brilliant. Their woodwork quality is top-class, just like their mechanical design. Individual sections are separated from one another using anti-vibration elements and there is sponge with a special notch around the tweeter to make place for it. It takes a whole day to make one such element and it costs more than the converter itself. The same kind of foam has been used to dampen the loudspeaker housing.
The speakers are placed in a small, highly soundproof studio. Behind the sound engineer’s back there is a Schroeder diffuser. Most of the sound that reaches our ears – assuming that we are sitting in Jacek Gawłowski’s armchair – is direct sound that is dispersed only to a small degree. Even though Jacek’s stories and anecdotes were interesting and although I could hear what he said about his work, approach to material, role models, etc., the visit could only end in one way – with a listening session. So, I sat in the abovementioned armchair and Jacek played some tracks that he had prepared for me. At the end I listened to the whole Aga Zaryan Remembering Nina & Abbey album released by Blue Note, the material for which was mixed and mastered by Jacek. The album was played from a “master” high-resolution 24/96 file. I could not get any closer to the birthplace of musical material.
The sound of the system is mostly a derivative of the interaction between loudspeakers and the room, so it is just the way Jacek described in the interview. The room is very dry and there is virtually no reverberation. It is also highly soundproof, but it is not muffled – unlike in most mastering studios. The loudspeakers are placed in the corners of the almost square room with one window on the side. There is a very big piece of furniture with the mixer and accompanying equipment in front of the listener.
The sound delivered by this system is different from what I have ever heard before. It is incredibly good at rendering impulses. Backgrounds in recordings, no matter if it is a large symphonic orchestra or a small jazz combo, sound as natural as during a concert, i.e. I did not hear any slowing down or compression. It results in incredible freedom and naturalness. I had known before that large loudspeakers deliver big sound and that low bass also improves the treble, but Jacek’s designs confirm that. Dynamic transitions are not noticeable, we simply hear something new all the time. It is neither contour or hard sound. I would say it is soft, if that word did not imply “softening”. There is no softening and there is an immediate attack. Nevertheless, we get the impression of softness and a natural transition from the attack to the sustain.
The sound stage is completely different from what I have been used to. The foreground is very close to the listener, almost within the reach of his hand. The part of the foreground that is given precisely on the listening axis is very precise and harder than the rest of the musical message. Everything that is stereo can be heard further away and it forms the background. However, it is also precise and clear. I think that better amplifiers will remove the disproportion and soften vocals a bit. Now they are a little contour and there is no seamless connection between them and the rest of the recording, which would still be possible to achieve (I am just speculating).
The combination of precision and smoothness is incredibly much better than in the case of any other loudspeakers that I have listened to at my home, regardless of the price. The bass is amazingly deep, but we do not hear it that way, i.e. it does not require our attention, as it happens with other speakers. When the counter bass enters, it is presented in the right proportions with other instruments. When the percussion foot bangs, it does not resemble the sound of rumbling rocks. I did not hear any colorings in that range. The treble is similarly clear. It is different from what we usually hear in recording and mastering studios – it is smooth and “golden”. It does not hiss or “sparkle”, as the percussion plates, saxophone and violin are very natural. When sound is natural, the treble becomes part of the midrange, its extension. Everything here was perfectly coherent.
A FEW FINAL REMARKS
Bauta speakers were displayed during the High End 2016 exhibition in Munich – Jacek’s studio was recreated in a special box, with the same walls and equipment. Another meeting with the author of the Polish Jazz remaster is planned for November, during the Audio Video Show 2016. A meeting will be prepared in the Audiofast room at the Polish National Stadium, under the patronage of “High Fidelity”. During the meeting, Jacek, aided by me, is going to present his work, i.e. Polish Jazz files before and after remastering, and will explain what mastering and remastering are about. Please feel invited!
I am really happy that Jacek proved to be the man I had imagined him to be while listening to recordings that he has made. He has excellent hearing and is also open to experiments. These experiments lead him to a place where cables matter and made him create his own speakers that are perfectly made and very expensive. Delivered in special cases, they constitute one of the most interesting products in the extreme high-end domain.