First Floor #68 – Is Mastering a Myth?
a.k.a. Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones challenge one of the music industry's unofficial rules.
Hello there. I’m Shawn Reynaldo, and welcome to First Floor, a weekly electronic music digest that includes news, my favorite new tracks and some of my thoughts on the issues affecting the larger scene / industry that surrounds the music. This is the free edition of the newsletter; access to all First Floor content (including the complete archive) requires a paid subscription. If you haven’t done so already, please consider signing up for a subscription (paid or unpaid) by clicking the button below. Alternately, you can also make a one-time donation here.
ON MY MIND
A few months ago, I was scrolling through Twitter and came upon the following tweet.
It immediately made me laugh, not because I’m a mastering skeptic, but because it reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Zora Jones and her partner Sinjin Hawke many times before. The two artists, who jointly run the Fractal Fantasy platform (they don’t like to refer to it as a label), previously lived in Barcelona, and back before either one of them had released critically acclaimed albums (Ten Billion Angels from her, First Opus from him), I specifically remember trying to convince them that they absolutely had to get their music mastered.
Why did I say this? When it comes to audio, I’m not any sort of expert, but as someone who’d run several labels and spent a long time in the music industry, I’d absorbed the idea that all music must be mastered. The idea of releasing unmastered music was practically sacrilegious! Of course, I couldn’t actually explain what the mastering process entailed or how it specifically improved the music—aside from vague notions of making it sound louder and “fuller,” whatever that meant—but I was adamant. This was just how things were done, and how could Sinjin and Zora know better than the entire music industry?
Well, they certainly know something, because regardless of whether you like the releases on Fractal Fantasy, from a sheer audio standpoint, the music sounds incredible. Somehow, these two have found a way to make their tracks bang without the help of a mastering engineer, and while I certainly wouldn’t advocate that every artist out there follow the same path, Sinjin and Zora have raised some interesting questions, simply by challenging the status quo.
Wanting to dig deeper, I called the two of them up in Montreal, where they’re currently hunkering down during the pandemic, and peppered them with questions about mastering. Our conversation—which has been edited for length and clarity—explores their past experience with mastering engineers, how and why they decided to change things up and what steps they now take to make sure that their music sounds so good. Plenty of useful production tips are inside, but even if you’re not an artist, an engineer or even an audiophile, Sinjin and Zora provided plenty of thought-provoking ideas to chew on.
Go here to read this interview. (PLEASE NOTE: the link will be open to all for the next 48 hours, but after that, it will be available to paid subscribers only.)
A round-up of of the last week’s most interesting electronic music news, plus links to mixes, articles and other things I think are worth sharing.
Tributes to SOPHIE continued to surface last week, and while there are honestly more than can possibly be listed here, some of the best ones I read were penned by Craig Jenkins (for Vulture / New York magazine), Ray Philp (for GQ) and Morgan M. Page (for Harper’s Bazaar). Andrew Thompson, who heads up the Huntleys + Palmers label—which released SOPHIE’s first record, Nothing More to Say, back in 2012—also put together a special radio show celebrating SOPHIE’s life and music.
According to this report from Billboard, SoundCloud is getting ready to unveil a new payment scheme that will allow listeners to pay artists directly. Exact details are scarce, and the company itself has yet to comment, but it will be interesting (assuming it actually happens) to see what form this takes, whether it’s some kind of tipping functionality, Patreon-style subscription plans or something else entirely. For what it’s worth, SoundCloud did start allowing users to place a donation button on their accounts last year, so presumably whatever new things are implemented will be more elaborate than that.
Last week’s newsletter referenced the UK’s Performing Rights Society (PRS), its newly implemented licensing scheme for livestreamed concerts and the sharp criticism the organization had received from musicians upset about the fees involved. In response, PRS has announced some amendments to the rules, and will now be granting free licenses to artists who are strictly performing their own music, as long as the total revenue is less than £500. There’s one additional caveat as well: these amendments will only be in place until the end of the pandemic.
Staying in the UK, the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) released a rather provocative (and worrisome) statement claiming that 81% of the country’s clubs won’t survive past February without additional financial support. Based on a survey of more than 100 venues throughout the UK, their report also highlight specific problems such as unpaid rent and laid-off workers.
On a brighter note, wildly talented Manchester producer Anz was profiled by Riri Hylton in the latest edition of Resident Advisor’s Breaking Through series.
With its fresh take on jungle, Bristol’s Western Lore has been one of my favorite labels during recent years, and the imprint was profiled by Ben Hindle for DJ Mag’s The Sound of series. Even better, the feature also includes an exclusive mix from label founder Dead Man’s Chest.
A round-up of noteworthy new and upcoming releases that were announced during the past week.
Sofia Kourtesis has a new EP on the way. Entitled Fresia Magdalena, it’s her first outing for Ninja Tune’s Technicolour imprint, and will arrive on March 19. In the meantime, she’s shared the warmly glowing “La Perla,” a song which finds the Berlin-based Peruvian singing for the first time. It’s not often that I listen to a track literally dozens of times, but I had “La Perla” on repeat all week.
French producer Colleen has completed a new album, The Tunnel and the Clearing, which is slated for a May 21 release on Thrill Jockey. The LP is dedicated in part to Barcelona (where she currently resides), and Colleen has already shared the first single, “Gazing at Taurus - Santa Eulalia,” which makes reference to one of the city’s two patron saints.
Nearly a year has passed since Caribou released his Suddenly LP, and the Canadian producer has now assembled Suddenly Remixes, a collection of reworks for the Merge label that finds artists like Four Tet, India Jordan, Kareem Ali, Floating Points and many others putting their own spin on his music. The full remix album won’t be available until March 12, but many of the tracks can already be streamed and / or purchased here.
Are you missing the club? Mr. Mitch is, and after putting out a call for people to share what they miss the most about going out, the UK producer has assembled a new video dedicated to the topic. The clip is for “Did We Say Goodbye,” the first single from his new album Lazy, which will be coming out on March 5 via his own Gobstopper label.
Last Friday, 3 Chairs—the all-star collaboration of Detroit heavyweights Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Marcellus Pittman and Rick Wilhite—dropped an expansive, 35-track retrospective called 3 Chairs Collection (1997-2013) that includes most of the music that the group has ever released.
Speaking of Detroit, Drexciya completists should take note that Tresor has reissued Mind Over Positive and Negative Dimensional Matter, a 2001 EP by the late James Stinson (a.k.a. The Other People Place) that he released under the name Transllusion.
Last year, I published an interview with Jordan GCZ about his move to Patreon, and now the Amsterdam-based producer has announced a new EP for Rush Hour, Introspective Acid. Although the record won’t be released until April 5, one of its tracks, “Jaguar Dreamin,” is already available here.
Reece Cox won’t be a familiar name for most readers, but he’ll soon be dropping his debut single on Courtesy’s Kulør label. Entitled “Emotion 1,” the song will be officially released on March 5 with an all-star package of remixes from Call Super, Parris, upsammy and Ibon. In the meantime though, the original version can be heard here.
MY WIFE HAS BETTER TASTE THAN I DO
My wife Dania is a wonderful person, but she has little regard for my taste in electronic music. Head of the Paralaxe Editions label, she often describes the music I like with words like “cheesy,” “simple,” “predictable,” “boring” and, worst of all (in her mind), “happy.” In contrast, I think she has a fantastic ear, and I’m constantly amazed by the obscure gems she unearths, both from record bins and the dark corners of the internet. Given that, I’ve asked Dania to share some of her finds with the First Floor audience. Each week, she highlights something that she’s currently digging, and adds some of her thoughts as to why it’s worth our attention.
Hi. I’m back again. Sorry for my absence, but during the past few weeks I’ve either been on night shift or in a state of fractured sleep, so I am feeling a little upside down. Whilst I’ve been in the dark, I’ve been listing to Sweet Hour, a (now sold-out) tape from Felisha Ledesma. It’s been soundtracking my ominous daily drive to the emergency department and my subsequent insomnia, which makes this song title (“2AM”) particularly apt. The other, brighter side of the tape is called “7AM,” and the two tracks are united by what the label describes as a “slightly melancholic grasp for connection,” a feeling I can totally identify with. Both “2AM” and “7AM” are extended pieces composed using a software synthesizer called AMQR, which Ledesma built in collaboration with Ess Mattisson. Currently based in Berlin, she’s a multidisciplinary artist who’s also co-founded and directed numerous organizations focused on experimental sound and community engagement. Her most recent project is Fors, which seeks to create “novel instruments that are elegant to use and adventurous in sound.”
NEW THIS WEEK
The following are some of my favorite tracks from a handful of releases that came out during the past week or so. (Click on the track titles to hear each song individually.) An extended list of recommendations is available to paid subscribers only.
After a relatively quiet 2020, ELLLL has blasted into the new year with “Housebreaker.” Pairing zooming synths with rattling jungle rhythms, it’s a club track at its core, but the Berlin-based Irish artist has bathed the composition in a dreamy, subtly regal haze; it’s not often that a song both scrambles your brain and soothes your ailing psyche, but “Housebreaker” achieves both objectives. Parris’ remix is far less rowdy—moving along at 110 bpm, it lives up to its “Slo’ Motion” billing—but the track’s deliberate undulations might be even more potent. Relishing the abundance of empty space, Parris fully embraces a sense of spacey weirdness, letting the aforementioned “zooming synths” zip to and fro, completely unencumbered. As club tracks go, only the most adventurous DJs will likely reach for this one, but as a head trip, it’s a top-shelf offering.
Over the past three years, Broken English Club has been focused on his White Rats album trilogy, exploring ideas of human depravity and social decay with a savage blend of techno, post-punk, noise and industrial. The series’ final chapter, White Rats III, just might be its strongest, as the veteran UK producer (who’s previously worked under a variety of different monikers, including his birth name, Oliver Ho) frequently abandons the dancefloor altogether, reveling in corroded machine rhythms and fierce squalls of distortion. The LP has its sentimental moments as well; the woozy “Shadows and Tall Trees” isn’t exactly sweet, but it could be the work of a New Romantic group who just heard KMFDM for the first time. Detours like these make White Rats III a well-rounded (and more enjoyable) album, but the LP also has a few techno rippers, including “Lord of the Flies.” With its brutally pounding percussion and buzzsaw synths, the track is the stuff of nightmares, but there’s a powerful sense of catharsis in its harrowing sonic assault.
After hearing those Broken English Club tracks, you may need something to calm your nerves, and any one of these four tracks should do the trick. KMRU has been featured a lot here during the past several months, and the fast-rising Kenyan delivered another immersive ambient journey last Friday. Clocking in at more than 18 minutes, “Falling Dreams” is more mournful than his past offerings, and while its gloomy palette likely won’t provide much of a pick-me-up, it is undoubtedly beautiful, with wafting tones and mournful strings softly lilting beneath an ominously grey sky.
“Giving / Receiving” is a bit lighter, though its slow burn is no less engrossing. Taken from Florian T M Zeisig’s new Music for Parents LP—a record literally inspired by a vibroacoustic mattress at his parents’ home in rural Bavaria—the song’s soft textures provide a warm musical embrace, swirling and swelling as a sense of genuine serenity sets in. Forest Management’s “Hydro” has a similar effect, even as the Chicago-based ambient artist strips his composition down to the bare essentials, leaving behind only gentle blooms of warbling, dubbed-out melodies.
Despite its unorthodox title, “• • – • – • • – • – • • – • – • • – • – • •” is easily the brightest of this bunch. Appearing on Claude Speeed’s new Hypersurface cassette, which the Berlin-based Scottish artist describes as a collection of “celestial digital drone,” the track radiates light, pleasantly buzzing like an old lightbulb as its intermittent shimmers lend the music an almost crystalline feel.
Once again, additional track recommendations are available to paid subscribers. This week’s selections include new music from Ikonika, Hieroglyphic Being, Mosca, Al Wootton and more, including new tracks from labels like Room40, Western Lore, 12th Isle and others.
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That’s all for today. Thanks so much for reading the newsletter, and I do hope you enjoyed the tunes.
Have a great week.