A Neverending Story: PBM Monitoring

There are no such things as the perfect converter, perfect amplification, and perfect monitors. There is a certain high level of accuracy required in the whole mastering monitoring situation – which includes the room as much as the equipment in it – but beyond that a great deal hangs on taste and preference, perhaps on dominant genre too, and certainly on expectations.

As I noted in a previous post, in the very early days of the business the monitoring chain was my Hong Kong hi-fi: Mark Levinson DAC, Mark Levinson or VTL amplification, and Wilson-Benesch speakers. By the time of the move back to the UK this had changed a bit, e.g. with the addition of dCS conversion and a Nagra pre-amp; and by the time PBM came fully into being this had changed even further with ATC SCM 50A active speakers instead of the WB and external amplification. The final change, which brought us to the present set-up, was replacing the tiny-tubed Swiss Nagra pre-amp with the large tubed Italian Viva LF1.

The motivation for each change was the felt need for a more accurate presentation of the kind demanded by the nature of the music we were working with. Given the extended tonal and timbral and dynamic range of classical music, we then assumed that if it worked for classical, then it would work for most other genres, and we’ve rarely been given any cause to question this. In that regard, the ATC were a definite step-up from the Wilson-Benesch; the internal ATC amps a definite step-up from the external Mark Levinson; and the Viva a definite set-up from the Nagra. Each change brought the overall presentation closer to what we needed, and the move to the new room seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle: allowing us to hear much more of what the equipment was providing, which was more of what we wanted to hear than any previous incarnation of the chain. Read More »

Mastering as Unmasking

As I might just have mentioned once or twice before, there are no special mysteries in mastering, mainly just fairly common issues in real-world sound scenarios – including real-world irritations – and fairly straighforward ways of overcoming them.

Here’s a real-world example of a common EQ problem. I was sitting in the PBM monitoring chair, not working but listening attentively and happily to a classical piano music CD that was released a few years ago. It was something slightly irregular – Berg’s sonata – and so required a bit of concentration, and I was listening both for pleasure and to see just how well (or otherwise) the recording engineer (me, in a previous life) had managed to capture the full dynamic and frequency range of the instrument. A few minutes into the piece I was feeling quite content.

Behind me my assistant, not really much of a classical music enthusiast, was sitting at the DAW, doing some computer housekeeping and listening quietly on in-ear speakers to something entirely different. I could not hear what it was – that would have been an irritation of an entirely different order – but it was clearly something catchy because after a while he began gently to hum along with it. Naturally (I assume that everyone feels the same way) I found this a tad distracting and irritating – it meant that I had to consciously concentrate, even to strain a tiny bit more in my listening. I became discontented. Finally the irritation peaked when his harmonically invariant humming became just loud enough to prevent me from hearing some of the subtleties of the piece – ppp middle register notes – notes that I really wanted to check had been decently captured. I had the score with me, so I knew they should be there, but at the critical moments the low humming from behind me was just enough, and in just the right frequency range, to mask what I was listening out for.

Here’s a real world example of how to solve that EQ problem: I tapped my assistant on the shoulder, firmly enough to indicate my displeasure. He jumped a bit, looked at me, mouthed “sorry” and shut up. When I turned back to listen the piano recording could immediately be heard much more clearly again, and I could confirm that the previously hidden notes that I’d hoped were going to be there, were.

When the mastering aim is to clarify upper mid-range textures, the effective use of EQ is sometimes simply a matter of stopping something nearby in the mix from `humming’ in the lower mids. This can be a single item – for example, upper bass notes which ring a little too long, or the lower strings of an acoustic guitar, can muddy up the low end of a male vocal – but it can also arise when a number of instruments in the mix have overlapping frequencies in the same critical region – as can easily happen with acoustic ensembles, from string quartets to folks bands. The mastering skill, as in all EQ practices, is then just listening to identifying that region, and then knowing how much to cut, and how broadly. Simples …

PBM from the Egg

Before describing the evolution of the mastering/monitoring chain and its present form I’m going to say something about the evolution of the business itself, as that might help to explain some of the oddities, peculiarities  particular choices.

PBM is a part of URM Audio Ltd which began in Hong Kong in the 1990’s as a classical recording/editing/mastering company. The start-up money was spent on carefully chosen Sonodore, Schoeps, and Royer mics, a Grace 801 pre-amp, a Tascam DA-98HR DTRS recorder, and a SADiE 24.96 DAW. To begin with monitoring was through a Levinson DAC, a Levinson 334 amplifier and Wilson-Benesch ACT 2 speakers (basically: my Hong Kong Hi-fi).  The company, not yet quite a full-time concern, immediately did pretty well, so we then bought the Weiss EQ, which we still have and use daily, and a full suite of dCS converters (ADC, D-D and DAC) which we also still have and use daily.

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Up on the Farm

At the end of November 2014, PBM closed its studio in mid-Norfolk and moved everything to a small farm up near the North Norfolk coast. The farm is in a lovely rural location, and has a range of flint outbuildings just perfect to be renovated and rebuilt for a growing business. The first of these to be converted had most recently been used as a wood-turning workshop, but was originally built in the mid-19th century as a bullock shed. This now houses our main mastering facility, and we have decided to call the room The Workshop, in honour of its most recent artistic use, instead of anything to do with bullocks, which we fear might well prompt coarse comment.

The move itself was not entirely straightforward, and the rebuild has taken much longer than we expected, but the first stage – getting the room acoustics and electronics ready for work again – is now finished, and we re-opened for business at the end of January.

The move, and the delays, gave me plenty of time to think about and re-evaluate my ways of working, and the equipment I use for mastering. There has been a cull and some other changes … and I’ll be describing them in a short series of weekly posts starting on Saturday.

Favourite Mixes/Mixers – Olympians “Filling My Heart With Weird Dreams”/Dave Pye

IMNSHO Probably the best band in Norfolk – except they’re not in Norfolk anymore …

Mixed by Dave Pye, Mastered at PBM and thoroughly enjoyed by all …


PBM Mastering Workflow

The PBM mastering workflow has been in development for over 15 years. In that time I have done a lot of equipment evaluation – and I’m pretty sure that I now have a settled inventory of top-notch equipment that enables me to do anything I might be called on to do in mastering projects.

Here’s the set-up. The computer screens are off to one side, next to the equipment desk which faces the main monitors – ATC SL50 active controlled by a Viva valve pre-amp and fed by a dCS DAC – and my main listening chair is in front of that desk. It has been like that since my early classical days: I have tried (very hard) to work behind the desk, Starship Enterprise style, but I simply can’t. It’s not just a matter of wanting an unimpeded sound-path between ears and the speakers, it’s also (perhaps principally) because even at the best of times I have a dreadfully butterfly mind – I’m more easily distracted than Nemo’s Dory – and so when listening critically I need to safeguard my fragile attention from any interference whatsoever. So I listen to the track to be mastered, and make some mental notes on what I can hear that might need some work. I then rise and go to my processors – generally just EQ on the first pass – make some settings, come back and listen again; process, rinse, repeat … Read More »

Favourite Mixes/Mixers – Andrew Balkwill “Bad, Bad Luck” Neil James Rogers @Half-ton Studios

We’re pretty lucky at PBM and work with a number of very talented recording and mixing engineers, but although he has stiff competition, Neil James Rogers (Bugs) is one of our very favourite collaborators. His work is wonderfully open and dynamic, his drum sound is simply the best around, and over the past 5 years we have developed an interactive working style which makes the very most of the music. We’ve already featured his work with The Travis Waltons, and we plan to feature a good number of his other mixes.

This track – from Andrew Balkwill – is one of our relatively early collaborations: great song, great sound, great video …


Favourite Mixers/Mixes – Dave Pye: Sargasso Trio

I have mastered a goodly number of projects with Dave Pye over the past 4 years or so, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed just about every single one – Dave is not only a first-class engineer, he has the knack of working with fascinating musicians (with many more to come in this series). Early on in our collaboration Dave introduced me to the work of the Sargasso Trio. I was delighted, and they became a firm PBM favourite. The very first track I mastered for them was `Bedtime for the Almost Living Dead’ – from the album Get to Grips, but this is the video single – Dinner – from that album.


Favourite Mixes – Richard Formby/ILT

This song, ‘Mnemosyne’ from the album The Shallows, is the very first track we ever mastered for Producer Richard Formby and for the band I Like Trains – it was a wonderful introduction …

We’ve subsequently worked on superb material with both parties (a re-mastering for vinyl of another extended EP for ILT is in our current schedule) and we will be posting further examples in the coming weeks.

(The sessions were engineered by Dave Pye – whose own mixes will feature regularly in this series …)


Favourite Mixers/Mixes – The Travis Waltons

“Homewrecker” – Mixed by Bugs @ Halfton

This is the first in a possibly infinite series featuring personal PBM favourite mixers and their mixes – all mastered here, of course.

The Travis Waltons are an extraordinary band: the brain-child of songwriter/singer/guitarist Daniel Flay – him of the unique voice, unique way with guitar parts, and lyrics that can baffle your brain and/or engage your emotions.

Carrie’s all-time-ever favourite Daniel Flay song is “Millionaire” from the the album Your Neck is Bleeding – and this is the video of the first single from that album. We chose to begin our new series with it because it was released just two days ago, it was played on Radio One this morning – and it is introduced by Aaron Paul.