November 2005

Back in 2004, One to One magazine published an article about the mastering industry, and a portion of this included my comments on MP3 encoding. Since I am sometimes asked about how to get the best quality MP3s possible, and because such a thing is generally quite useful, following are my comments (partially based on the aforementioned interview).

One piece of software that I continue to commonly use when preparing tracks for Internet Distribution (at least in MP3 format) for my mastering clients is known as the Lame MP3 encoder. I can tell you that it certainly is anything but ‘lame,’ offering an absolutely massive variety of modifiable parameters. In a sense, it’s a ‘dream’ piece of software for anyone who wants to tweak MP3s to perfection. There’s also the ability to use some experimental psychoacoustic tunings too, which is of course an added benefit.

VBR (variable-bit-rate) encoding works particularly well too with The Lame — it’s not at all inferior to CBR (constant-bit-rate), and adds just that much more “edge” to complex portions of the music being encoded. Using my (admittedly quite refined) methods, I can achieve results at 192kb (average VBR) that has frequency response fluctations of less than 0.2 dB in the entire 20-18,000 kHz range (and less than 1 dB in the range above this). Also, stereo imaging is perfect compared with the uncompressed master.

The caveat here though is that there’s a very noticable drop in quality at bitrates lower than this. Of course, now that broadband is becoming more widespread every day, it’s not really much of an issue to distribute MP3s at a higher bitrate than one would back in the analog modem days, as download time differences between 192kbps and for example 128kbps aren’t really significant for most people anymore. Another caveat is that if one is not careful in the encoding process, it’s easy to have lost peak limiting and clipping. This is why I often will reduce song volume by a dB to compensate.

So, the lesson is that it really is possible to have really good sounding MP3s, provided that one is careful and thoughtful when doing the job, and does not use too low of a bitrate.

In an interview, I was recently asked if I could offer any mixing tips to ensure a higher-quality final mastered product. After thinking about that a bit more, I decided I ought to have a post, that I will update from time to time. As a starting point, I offer my interview response, which I think provides quite a good, brief overview…

What do you recommend the composer does to the track before sending it – can it be in any condition?

We prefer to have the completed mixdown of each song, with dithering and any other effects (of course with the exception of effects on single tracks within the mix, like on vocals, drums and all other elements) turned off, and without clipping. As for resolution and sampling rate, 24 bits / 44.1 kHz (or higher), compressed with WinRAR (to allow for checking of transfer errors via the CRCs/checksums incorporated into those archives) are preferred. That said, other formats are able to be accommodated, but we strongly recommend against mastering, for example, from a MP3 source because of the “heavily” decreased (at least for the mastering stage not high enough) quality that comes about as a result of the encoding process. Such encoding to “lossy” formats should only be done at the very end of the mastering. That’s a service we also offer (for example for Internet Distribution)—and where the encoding settings are optimized individually for each song.

As for mix quality, we really see a very wide range there, from very good down to very problematic. In the latter case, though, we’ve surprised quite a number of our clients in the “miracles” we’ve been able to “perform.” A good example of a problematic quality mix that we were able to heavily improve is available at:


Generally what advice can you [our] readers about mastering and mixing?

In terms of mastering, unless there is really no other alternative, it’s best to put mastering projects in the hands of the “pros.” It’s kind of a situation where the adage “if you would do your own dentistry…” really applies. Beyond the intricate technical and other factors there though, there is the one that is more often missed—the fact that the mastering engineer has completely “fresh ears,” and is in a definite advantage over those who have mixed the material, in terms of being impartial to the project. Also, whenever you are viewing the engineering credits of any “commerical” CD you will notice that the mastering is always done by a mastering engineer who was not involved with any other step of the project. This is simply because of the above mentioned reasons.

In terms of mixing, there are a few tips I can offer, in addition to those I already mentioned. Often, artists spend many an hour in the mixing studio, trying to get “huge” sound at that stage, when really getting everything out of the tracks is something that’s far better left to the mastering engineer. As odd as it may sound, sometimes a “small” or “dull” mix is really a lot better to work with. Also, keep in mind that it’s usually the mastering engineers job to make volume and compression adjustments. Another big thing is to be restrained with the use of “mastering processors” (i.e. compressors, equalizers, limiters, exciters and the “finalizers” we tend to see these days) across the master buss—if you do that at the mixing stage, it’s next to impossible to “undo” during the mastering.

One of the artists for which I have produced results that I’m particularly proud of is an Estonian group, by the name of Soul Militia.

From their site

The R&B/Soul/Hip Hop trio Soul Militia formed in Estonia in the late 90’s. Semy, Craig and Lowry were already pursuing careers in music business when a series of fortunate events brought them together. Starting out as a quartet the group released their debut album in 2002 appropriately titled “On The Rise” . The completely self- written record spawned a couple of radio hits and was the first contemporary R&B album released in Estonia.


One common (mis!)conception I see when people think of me, XARC, or other on-line mastering firms, be it in forums or elsewhere, is that they think on-line mastering is just for a “quick shot” – perfect for when they don’t have the time to go to a “real mastering studio,” or when they need a demo mastered “quick and cheap.” Thus, for the real mastering, they think they would go somewhere else. But…

On-Line Mastering is Real Mastering*
(* At least in the case of XARC!)

The difference between XARC’s on-line mastering and an equally-skilled “brick and mortar” firm – lets call them “Firm X” – is not to be found in the “usefulness” of the product. XARC and Firm X both use professional-grade equipment, and both employ professional, skilled and talented mastering engineers. Both have actual studios too, and both are in every way real mastering firms. The true difference is that XARC is simply not tied to certain constraints that exist with “Firm X”. We are thus in a position to deliver not equal, but rather higher quality. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • Having an on-line firm enables us to work within a global marketplace, rather than a more limited, local one. The advantages to this are huge, particularly in the realm of being able to work with such a wide range of musical genres. It’s never the “same old, same old.”
  • In terms of efficiency, there is far more flexibility too. For example, we can “pre-listen” to the clients’ mixes to see if they’re optimal for mastering. If any changes are required, those can be done and delivered very quickly, even if it has to be repeated several times. With snail mail, it’s impossible – or at least would take weeks to accomplish. The same applies in reverse – when it’s time to deliver the approval master, it’s just a download for our clients. Iterations at that stage again benefit from nearly instant delivery, rather than days back and forth.
  • Not being limited to having to go from mix to final master in a day or two (which is the typical practice when a mastering session is conducted at a “brick and mortar” mastering studio), also gives us the opportunity to refine the final product. We can get every last bit of perfection out of a track, and improve quality with the extra time, because we’re not as “rushed.”

So, on-line mastering really is real mastering. It’s just that the on-line aspect of the process creates the preconditions for what us mastering engineers are able to do; in the case of XARC that means we are able to provide a better product to our clients, that in every way matches (and I like to think at least typically exceeds) the quality of what is produced at Firm X. And, who knows – it may just be that in a few short years, it will be Firm X who will have to say, “but we’re just as real and good and as high-quality as XARC and the on-line firms!” 🙂


Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to tell you a bit more about myself, and my work as Managing Director and Chief Engineer of XARC Mastering. For sake of easier organization, I have categorized my extended ‘bio.’ Happy reading!

Mastering Me, Business Me

Prior to starting XARC Mastering, I worked for a German TV Station editing, mixing & mastering audio for their daily needs. In and of itself, the work there was very interesting, and often very inspiring. Taking on a slightly different project in 2001, I worked for six months with Artificial Illusions Film, on their movie “Malen mit Licht” (English translation: “Painting with light”). I performed all of the audio editing, including mixing & mastering of the soundtrack, as well as creating the sound effects and mixing & mastering the complete movie in Dolby Surround. The movie was nominated for and won at the “SLM-Televisionprice 2002” in the category “Special price production engineering – camera, audio, cut”.

But, my destiny soon appeared to be taking a different direction. Indeed, in a lot of respects, (and akin to many things in life), XARC came about essentially “by accident.” One major part of the inspiration for XARC originated one day in May 2003, when I was browsing the musician/producer forum on, taking a look at their section where new songs are posted for review. One sounded particularly appealing to me, so I downloaded it, and decided to improve upon it sound-wise, just for fun, so I mastered it for my own personal collection and listening pleasure. I was quite pleased with the results, and thought, “hey, maybe I should give this to the composer.” One thing led to another, and he was so “blown away” by the quality that he said: “this rocks, I am sending you $50 USD for your job.”

It was that event that really got me thinking. It was immediately obvious to me that there was a good business opportunity there to take my work international. A look around the Internet proved on-line mastering to be a brand new concept. Around then, I also realized just how empowering an on-line mastering service could be for a huge range of artists. So, I decided to test the concept out, to see if it was a good direction in which to expand my mastering work. I created a bit of “buzz” on forums like, and was really quite surprised with how well that worked. Before I knew it, the clients started pouring in, I was quickly becoming addicted to working on an international level, and, as a professional, I had really never felt better. I thought long and hard about what to do next.

I soon came to the decision to take the plunge. I took the very brave step of quitting mastering for television and film, and started doing XARC full time, launching the business as a new company along with a professional website in December of 2003. At that point, I had already mastered for 33 “online clients” from a few countries under the XARC brand. How things have changed from then to now… Now we’re going to easily surpass a thousand clients next year. I’ve had the truly life-changing experience of working with a global set of artists in over sixty countries. I’m very proud to be able to bring high-quality mastering “to the masses.”

I’ve said many times before that not much could’ve really prepared me for the incredible experience XARC very quickly became. I am truly honoured to be able to do the mastering work I love, while working with such a huge variety of artists, from such a diverse range of genres and nations. They often say music is an international thing, but I don’t think I ever fully appreciated that until starting XARC. The depth of talent and creativity I am able to work with each and every day, I assure you, is far beyond just inspiring, and has very much changed my life. I really couldn’t hope for much more.

I also feel it’s important to contribute back to the industry on another level. In that area, I am also responsible for maintaining our ongoing research program, looking at new techniques in audio processing, and working together with various DSP-Coders and engineers to achieve the best for audio in general. That in itself is certainly an interesting and educational experience, and I am very glad to be involved.

Ordinary Me

Although I keep extremely busy with XARC, I do try to have a bit of a “life” outside of work. Completely (or at least somewhat!) outside the scope of XARC, I consider myself an avid amateur (digital) nature photographer. At a later time, I will probably post some of my pics and talk a bit more about that.

One of my other larger and more time-consuming interests are finances and financial markets. I particularly enjoy tracking my investments, subjecting them to extensive analysis, and otherwise following the ups and downs (all the while trying to take advantage of both) of many international stock markets.

Also very important to me is one of my closest companions – he’s of the furry feline variety. Charly Vauck (a cat!) is a fixture in the XARC studios, and even works for food only (although he’s not particularly skilled at mastering, at least not yet). I’ve included a picture of him below:

Charly The Cat

In terms of sports, I’m not too big of a fan of much other than Formula 1 and Stock car racing. Of course, Michael Schumacher, the German national legend, is my racing hero! I also love to play Snooker as often as possible.

Perhaps not surprising at all given my work, I also have been quite involved in the music side of things as a hobby (and sometimes a few commercial releases) too. I used to be fairly accomplished on the soprano flute, but I’ve lost my touch in recent years, and I am really quite “rusty.” I’m still quite the piano virtuoso though (and if enough people ask, I’ll have to perform a little virtual concert here). For the past dozen or so years, my main musical genres have been mainly melodic/epic/electronic music (i.e. trance, dance, techno), but also with a healthy mix of world-ethno-jazz fusion with Western beats. I’ll quite likely feature some of the artists I particularly enjoy from those genres in later posts (and maybe even some of my own work now and then), however a couple relatively large “influences” of mine in the fusion category are Deep Forest and Enigma.

Unfortunately, being so busy with XARC, I don’t really have the (large quantities as a result of my perfectionism streak) of time that I need to compose much of my own.

In terms of vacations and getaways – I do try to take a vacation every year whenever possible, sometimes for just a couple of days, sometimes for longer. This year, I attended the Fawkes / Faucks / Fauks / Vauck / etc. family reunion (during May) in Switzerland, along with many other family members from all over the world who are realted to Guy Fawkes, the famous British conspirator. Usually though, I try to ‘escape’ to some place sunny and warm, provided there’s a lot of musical tradition to find oneself in, and also where there are some good parties (i.e Ibiza!)

If anyone has any other questions about either “me,” please feel free to ask 🙂