Chris McCormack’s “Elevator Music’ Techno (interview)

“Is there any truly pioneering music left in any corner of the world?  Techno is suffering more than most to my ears, but then techno is a cherished possession to me and all I ever really wanted to do when I was thinking about it as a producer was to try and help make a difference, to inspire someone to inspire someone else.”

Renowned and respected British techno producer Chris McCormack cut his musical teeth in the mid 90s, producing massive techno tunes including Erase Techno, his Ground and Gueshky Remixes before delivering his acclaimed ambient techno opus under the name UK Gold. Turning to mastering in 2004, he’s since worked on tracks for the likes of Ulrich Schnauss, Soma, Detroit Grand Pubahs, Gary Numan, Slam and Black Dog, as well as turning down offers from more than a few potential clients.

“I’m sure some producers must just think once they given me this horrible squashed up mess, I can unravel it, turn the volume up even higher and give them back something big, bright and bold which defies the law of physics,” says Chris, “It’s all really quite perplexing and annoying in equal measure.”

The ‘squashed up mess’ he’s referring to are tracks on which producers have applied limiters throughout to try and increase volume, resulting in the waveform- the tracks visual audio display-, looking like a continuous block.

“To be brutal, I can only guess it's the blind leading the blind,” says Chris on why so many dance producers send him their ‘smashed’ techno tracks (he reckons it’s around 70%).

“A lot of people seem to think that limiting is a required part of the mixing process these days, never mind the mastering, and in some cases it can indeed be.  Heavy limiting can be effective on individual sounds within a mix, but across the whole mix, well, it’s always going to end in disaster.”

It’s like it’s become this disease that people can’t seem to get away from. People seem afraid they might get left behind in the big race or that if they limit the tracks before sending them to me, somehow this extra volume will assist me in making a better master. It’s just not true.  The more dynamics I have to play with, the better my Eq’s will respond, the more my compressor has to work with and the more I can find the correct shape and natural balance for the mix.  Education is working, however, I get less smashed tracks than I did a year ago.”

“I don’t know where we can all go from here, but a lot of producers to me just sound like they live inside Ableton,” he continues, “There’s nothing to attract my ears to any sense of place, emotional state or individual expression, just lots of endless flat sounding tracks doing the same thing. Sadly a lot of it is the modern day equivalent of elevator music.”

Mastering business aside, he continues to work on his own music, and has just released a new compilation ‘Chris McCormack presents Exit to Extinction Part 3’ as a completely free download (with parts 1 and 2 available to buy).


Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): What prompted you to set up Blacklisted; what got you so interested in mastering in particular?

Chris McCormack: “I’ve always had a deep fascination with mixes, I mean just listening to mixes, the balance, the blend, making two sounds coexist together to create something more. I like listening to anything with clarity, punch and depth.  Sometimes I’ll hear a sound so perfectly crafted it just sends shivers up my spine.  The mix is such a powerful thing for creating feelings and emotions, in many ways it’s the key to everything in music. I guess mastering is a natural byproduct of this and therefore I have always gravitated toward it.   I get a lot of satisfaction from crafting and shaping mixes.  I love finding the right balance, the right dynamic.  It’s an emotional interaction with the music.”

It all started seriously when I mixed an album last year for a good friend.  On one particular track, he dropped round the completed mix files, along with his bounce of the mix as it stood. It was a slow ballad I suppose you would call it, just piano and female vocal.  I could hear the sentiment in it was emotional, but it wasn’t making me feel emotional listening to it. 

Anyway, I got to work on the mix and a few days later I asked him to come back round to have a listen. I went of to make some tea and when I returned he was crying, momentarily unable to speak. All I did was mix it in a way I felt it needed to be mixed, getting the perfect balance of top, bottom and mids, reverbs, vocal level and compression etc.  Mastering as an extension of this helps redress the missing balance that can make the difference between being emotionally moved and unsatisfied and that for me is the most satisfying part of the whole job.”

Skrufff: What's wrong with the waveform looking like a continuous block: what implications does that have for the final track?

Chris McCormack: “There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it per se, it just sounds crap.”

Skrufff: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews turning down mastering offers for tracks that are produced this way, are big name dance producers doing it as much as amateurs in your experience?

Chris McCormack: “No, it’s definitely more prevalent with the newer producers.  The truly established names understand how the whole chain works and it’s always a pleasure to master for those guys. Sometimes it feels like people are putting on limiters just to hide the fact that their tracks are not very good, like somehow an L2 (limiter) is going to magically elevate a track into a “commercial” product.

Smashed mixes that come here for mastering bug (irritate) the hell out of me to be honest – I just turn the master gain down in the studio and get on with it if I feel I can still do something useful with it and there are no other mixes available.  I am here to do the best job I can for everyone, I always try to educate if they are willing to listen, but if you want to go ahead and shoot both of us in the foot by smashing your track up before sending it to me, I can only then make a choice to master it or leave it alone.  Either way the result will not be as clean and punchy or musically satisfying as just giving me the right track in the first place.”

Skrufff: Where do you stand on the vinyl versus digital debate?

Chris McCormack: “To be honest, they are just delivery mediums in the end and you work with the limitations of each to deliver the best sounding product.  Each have there own advantages and disadvantages.  For the nerd in me, I prefer full quality digital files as they give a truer representation of the source mix, the studio in fact.  From these files I can quite often tell what kind of set up made the tracks. For the music lover in me, vinyl is more woosey, richer, more alive, more real, more imperfect and somehow becoming more like life itself.  But I don’t prefer it per se.  The mastering engineer in me always loves to hear it as it was made.

As a writer I would often come away annoyed that vinyl had taken a mix I had worked on for a week and messed around with it, softened the transients and adjusted the spectral balance, but other times really chuffed with the end sound. I guess in those situations I was less generally happy with the mixes to start with.”

Skrufff: Technology's been improving all the time: how much is high quality laptop mastering something that will soon be available to all?

Chris McCormack: “High quality laptop mastering is here already.  What’s important is a great set of objective ears, years of experience and a great room with a true sound.  Look at this way:  If the equipment in a studio is a high performance car, and the mastering engineer is the driver, putting the car on ice and trying to achieve a good lap time is like trying to master music in a bad room, all the equipment in the world wont help you connect with the music and let you hear what’s really happening. The room is the environment in which the mix performs to its potential, as the road is to the car. It’s hugely important. 

Just this week I have done consultancy for two established producers, pulling their rooms to pieces, showing them where to make changes, how and why.  For both of them I think it’s going to be a revelation. Both of these cases have been prompted purely by listening to the mixes they sent in for mastering; I could hear the room all over them. I’m not just going to sit here and take people’s money for mastering when I could help show them something better that will stay with them and inject itself into their future mixes forever.”

http://www.blacklistedmastering.co.uk/article04.htm (Download Chris McCormack presents Exit to Extinction Part 3, here)

Article by Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)

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