Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” is one of the albums of the year.
Lead single “Get Lucky” was a massive hit, and the album has been at Number 1 in the charts almost everywhere in the world.
It was one of the most anticipated releases of the year, and when it arrived, one of the most controversial. Polarising listeners, it splits opinion. People seem to either love it or hate it in roughly equal proportions – “meh” is an unusual response for this record !
But everyone agrees about one thing.
“Random Access Memories” sounds awesome.
And that’s important. Of course the songs are the most important thing, and of course the real reason people love this album is that it’s rammed full of hooks. But the sound is crucial too – if only because people are talking about it ! Over and over I read people saying how much they love the way it sounds – and I can’t remember the last time that happened with such a mainstream release.
Lots of the attention has focused on the fact that the album is quite dynamic, by modern standards – the TT Meter gives it an overall reading of DR8 – but the surprising truth is, it’s still pretty squashed at the loudest moments. A step in the right direction, for sure – but there’s more to the story than just the DR values.
So why does “Random Access Memories” sound so good ?
It’s all about bass
The first thing that hits me when I press “Play” is the bass. The bass on this album is beautiful. It’s huge.
On all the songs, but especially on “Lose Yourself To Dance” and “Get Lucky”. And especially the sub. The deep bass on this album is a joy to hear – in fact at some points I might have been tempted to reduce it slightly myself if I was mastering it – but that would be such a shame ! It’s controlled, it’s musically valid, and you feel it.
And that’s why it’s important. I think the warm, clean low end is one of the reasons people love the sound of this album so much – because the bass is the foundation of the mix. And on top of that foundation, you can build a groove.
Producer and guitarist Nile Rodgers says the groove is something you feel. I’m not sure if he means “feel emotionally” or “feel physically” but my guess is both – because for me, you can only really feel a beat emotionally when you can feel it physically.
It’s a positive feedback loop – feeling bass physically helps you feel the beat emotionally which makes you move physically so that you feel it physically… and so it goes round and around.
Remove the physical sensation of the bass and you remove a key part of this magic. It’s still a great song with great hooks and great performances, but let’s face it – “Get Lucky” is never going to be as pleasurable to listen to on a mobile phone speaker !
All of which underlines the fundamental role that EQ plays in mastering.
So the dynamics aren’t important, then ?
Wait, I didn’t say that.
One of the key problems with “loudness” is that bass distorts fast – and it distorts nasty. So if you want your music “loudness war” loud, one of the first things you need to do is cut out the really low bass completely, and tame the rest.
In fact, you can hear it happening on this album. Listen to the final track, “Contact”. By the end the TT Meter reading has been reduced right down to only DR6 – but in order to achieve that, all the deep sub bass audible earlier in the track is gone.
Now I don’t know if it’s a mastering or mix decision, but the fact remains – if anyone had pushed for “Random Access Memories” to be that loud all the way through, as most mainstream releases these days are, it would either be distorted to hell, or have no bass – or both.
And as a result, it would lack that clear, deep pulse – that amazing foundation and heart.
And THAT’s why I disagree with people who say that EDM doesn’t need dynamics – that club music “needs” limited dynamic range as part of the sound. In my opinion, if Skrillex gave himself a few more dB to play with, he could increase the impact of his tunes even more.
Drums are all about impact – the difference between them playing and not playing is what makes a beat ! Remove the impact, you remove the essence of what drums are.
I mentioned above that the ends of some of the songs get really “loud” – so why does the album have a better DR score than many, then ?
In a nutshell – because not all the album is really loud. In fact, a lot of it is positively mellow. So rather than making the whole album quieter, the mastering engineer has chosen to allow a few really “loud” moments, while keeping balance and variety elsewhere.
Which is exactly as it should be – the “DR” measurement is a very limited way to describe musical dynamics, after all.
OK, so – big bass and more dynamics – is that it ?
Not by a long shot. I do think those two factors are key to the overall sound, and my hope is that they’ll start a trend that grows and grows – but there’s more. For example:
Real instruments, real players
Almost everything on this album was played on a real instrument, by a real person. And it shows ! That feel, that groove (again) is everywhere – even when you’re listening to a vocoded voice. And let’s not even mention the gorgeous real strings…
As “Get Lucky” vocalist Pharrell Williams says – “music and the liveness is what moves people”. The robots are bringing a human feel back to music – creating real music you can dance to as opposed to just dance music, as Annie Mac said – how’s that for irony ?
“Random Access Memories” is full of the fat, saturated sound of analogue tape and processing – but it’s not true to say this is an analogue album – again it’s not that simple.
Everything was recorded simultaneously to both digital and analogue tape, which was then digitised afterwards. With everything in Pro Tools, engineer Mick Guzauski says this meant the band could choose which format they preferred song by song – or phrase by phrase, as he says.
I’d love to know the percentages – and also how much of that sound was added in mastering, if any – but the truth is we’ll never really know which format we’re listening to at any given time, and the answer may often be both…
(For the record, analogue synth legend Giorgio Moroder, featured on track 3 of the album, is in no doubt which he prefers – it’s digital ! And actually, in my opinion the real secret of “analogue warmth” isn’t really saturation distortion at all, it’s balanced EQ – but that’s a whole other blog post.)
Sweet, soft high-end
The top is just as lovely as the bass on this album – perfectly balanced, open, clear but never harsh. This is especially true of the vocals – and a lot of this will be down to skilful de-essing.
People get obsessed about this topic so I don’t want to delve too deep – my guess is that it was all done in the mix, rather than the mastering. One point though – there’s a really interesting moment in Dave Pensado’s interview with Mick Guzauski where Mick reveals that he used a DBX-902 – and Dave is obviously unimpressed by the choice ! Showing once again that ‘it ain’t what you use, it’s the way that you use it’…
What about the vinyl ?
Apart from discussions of the great dynamic range of the abum, the other hot topic of debate as far as the sound is concerned is the vinyl release. Several recent vinyl releases have had significantly more dynamic range than their CD counterparts – is that the case with “Random Access Memories” ?
As far as I can tell… no. The DR values do measure a few points higher, but the sound of the vinyl versus the digital releases is very close in the comparisons I’ve done, bar some minor EQ discrepancies.
Which is not a problem ! As I’ve said many times, a great master is a great master – a great vinyl master, a great CD master and a great master for mp3. It may be that a slightly less limited version was used for the vinyl releases, but this doesn’t mean the digital versions play second fiddle in any way.
[Update – so many people contacted me pointing to the TT Meter measurements of the vinyl, I decided to do a more rigorous comparison. The results were really interesting, so I made a video to share them with you – to see it, click here.]
All in all…
…I’m impressed ! As you can tell : )
The album was mastered in two stages – initially by industry legend Bob Ludwig from the analogue mix masters. He then released the 88.2 kHz 24-bit files to the band, who made further changes and tweaks with Antoine Chabert (“Chab”) from Translab studios in Paris.
The album shows again that great, dynamic mastering can be hugely successful despite the so-called loudness wars.
Bob has taken some flack recently from “dynamic range purists” for some re-masters where his hand was obviously forced, but as a founder member of the Music Loudness Alliance and a supporter of Dynamic Range Day, he’s consistently leading from the front, making more dynamic masters wherever possible and proving again and again that you don’t have to make music “loudness war” loud to achieve commercial success.
Recently albums by many artists have been successful without paying any attention to the “loudness” trend – Jack White, Laura Marling, Bjork, Ben Harper, Steven Wilson, My Bloody Valentine, Mumford & Sons, Bon Iver and Fields Music and more, all have minimum of DR8 – and been very successful.
And now Daft Punk can be added to that list – and you could hardly ask for a higher-profile example.
Let’s hope the rest of the music industry is paying attention !
For more information on the recording and production of this album, check out this great post on theproaudiofiles.com: