Jack Sharkey. May 25, 2013.
In audio post-production, the most critical–and least understood step–in the process is mastering. Basically, the term mastering originally comes from the process of dubbing the final mix down to a two-track tape that was then sent to the manufacturing facility for pressing or duplication. In some cases, an acetate record would be “cut” right in the studio.
Today, most mastering is done via digital files, although there is still a fairly large demand for analog (tape) mastering.
The mastering engineer is a specialist with finely tuned ears who can hear things most of us mere audio-mortals can’t. But without the work of the mastering engineer, things like volume and equalization wouldn’t be consistent, and problems with the final mix and production would greatly diminish the listening experience for all of us.
On May 23rd I had the pleasure, as part of KEF’s partnership with professionals in the audio production field, to listen to a pair of LS50’s in a mastering studio in New York City run by a multi-Grammy® Award winning mastering engineer. We’ll talk more about him and his studio another time, but I was too blown away by how the LS50’s held their own yesterday to wait!
The studio itself is located in Midtown in the area of the Brill Building and all of the “old” New York that was so responsible for the music of the last 70 years. In fact, the very room we were in served as Jimi Hendrix’s studio before he finished Electric Lady in Greenwich Village. The vibe in the room and even the hallways just oozed with magic. The room now measures 19 feet by 28 feet with 12 foot ceilings and was minimally treated with sound absorption and dispersion material–proving once again that it’s not the quantity but the quality of material and placement that make a room sound great.
The main speakers in the mastering suite are a pair of $16,000 Revels powered by a MacIntosh amp. I’m not going to attempt to convince you that the $1500 LS50’s matched the $16,000 Revels–they didn’t in terms of filling the entire room–but they more than held their own in terms of sonic reproduction in a room with little tolerance for pretenders. In fact, the articulation and purity of sound from the LS50’s was an amazing surprise, even when compared in A-to-B fashion with the Revels. In another A-B comparison, we listened to one LS50 in mono compared with an $8,000 speaker this studio uses as a center channel when mastering 5.1 and 7.1 material. If you like artificial mid-range, shoot for the $8,000 speaker (which I’ll leave unnamed here), but if you want a smooth curve across the spectrum, spend the $1500 on the LS50’s.
The engineer had to move the LS50’s around a bit to get the sweet-spot right. In one placement the area around 200Hz (high bass) resonated a little, while in another the area around 1900Hz (female vocal) sounded a bit held back. You’d be amazed what a simple adjustment of 1 or 2 degrees can mean to a speaker’s performance–try it on your system.
After adjusting the position of the speaker cabinets in relation to the sound treatment in the room, the testing began. The LS50’s were also noticeably consistent across the audio spectrum enabling a mixing or mastering engineer to set his or her equalization to taste or need, thus allowing the engineer to completely rely on the speaker’s performance regardless of the material being worked on–an incredibly important point in the studio. At home, the LS50’s will do the same thing.
We listened to some outrageously great Flamenco music direct from Spain, as well as some Vince Gill & Earl Klugh and some Norah Jones, none of which has been released yet.
Ms. Jones' 9' grand piano was stunning to listen to and the naturalness of Klugh's acoustic guitar was something to behold. But what sucked me in was the subtle hand movements across the fret board and the buzz of the strings on the stand-up bass on one track that was so clean and filled with such presence it was chill-inducing. The subtlety of the hand-claps during the Flamenco tracks was something I had never really experienced before, so I’ll be investing heavily in some new Flamenco music this summer!
I’d always considered the LS50 to be a great near-field or mid-field monitor, but from 20 feet away the LS50’s more than held their own against the big boys (speaker-wise) in the room. I then moved another few feet back and found a spot on the couch in the back of the room and was delighted by how the LS50’s filled my personal listening space.Obviously, a 5.25” driver in a cabinet the size of the LS50 is not going to shake a room (especially one that’s 19x28 feet!) but what the bass reflex cabinets on the LS50’s do deliver is a thick and deeply realistic bass that has presence without any of the artificial coloration often found in speakers in the price range.
When KEF’s engineers designed the LS50 to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary, they went back to the legacy of the LS5-series monitors it built in partnership with the BBC to build a mini-monitor for the consumer with today’s technology. They succeeded and then some–the LS50 can truly be considered a studio monitor-level speaker.
If the LS50’s sound this good in a room this demanding and intolerant of lesser speakers, imagine what they’ll do in an average listening space!