In the modern day everything has its quick fix, even music. Every process that a track, EP or album must go through has been quantified, calculated and packaged in some algorithmic service at some point along the line. Whilst this is great for those that want a fast and ‘by-the-numbers’ result, it numbs us to the care and time that goes into such processes.
Mastering is certainly one to mention in this instance. The amount of mastering services where an artist can just throw their track into a dropbox and have a semi-refined version pooped out is staggering. It desensitises musicians to the intricacies of the craft, making the mastering process seem like a tribulation. It begins to feel like an old-fashioned and even outdated part of the journey to a finished product; as if it is something that a band or artist had to get done back in the bad old days, before we were adorned with such omnipotent mechanical mastering services.
Equally, for artists that have a passion to learn the process, it can feel like an incredibly convoluted operation. One must acquaint themselves with programs and plugins that they may have never encountered before. And the effects of these plugins can be incredibly minute, further adding to the feeling of laboriousness. It’s not hard to understand why so many artists turn to automated mastering services rather than realising the power the process can give to them.
For Angel Marcloid, the realisation of mastering’s power happened in stages. The first of which (as many self-mastering artists will know) came in the creation of her own music. In the 2010s she found that it was a great deal easier to learn the process of finalising a song or EP herself, allowing for the completion of well-rounded projects without the need to pay for the process to be done externally (save for the cost of the software/hardware required).
An obsession with music and the systematics of sound engineering combined with a passion for a ‘music-based job’ allowed Angel to absorb knowledge and know-how fairly quickly. And after helping out a few friends by polishing off their projects, she started to realise that the ability to master a track, album or EP to a professional standard could be a full time job. Of course, this is often easier said than done, but mixing and mastering has now been Angel’s full-time job since 2019.
She continues to use her skills to augment and refine her own work. And though her relationship with mastering is the topic of the article, her own artistry is always more than worth exploring. Angel’s musical output can be evidenced in her three most prominent musical projects over the last few years:
Fire-Toolz: arguably the most dynamic of the projects, Fire-Toolz finds Angel amalgamating facets of a number of different genres into brutish sonic weapons. Listeners shouldn’t be surprised to hear glistening jazz-infused synths align with Angel’s own harrowing screams as musical epochs wage war on a multicoloured battlefield in deep space. (Rainbow Bridge was released via Hausu Mountain on the 8th of May. You can read the listencorp review here)
Mindspring Memories: often exploring feelings of longing, nostalgia and melancholia, Mindspring Memories fits nicely into the slushwave genre. Rich undulations of sound buffet and sway, complimented often by smouldering saxophones and twinkling twilight pianos. Tracks can stretch over 20 minutes as the listener becomes hypnotised by the pulsing instrumentation. (You can read a listencorp review of Remembering Your Earth Form here)
Nonlocal Forecast: releasing Bubble Universe! on Hausu Mountain Records last year, Angel explores a more new-age direction with crisp midi-sounding brilliance under this moniker. Pristine sounds swipe across the stereo field in this elegantly presented world. (Listen to Bubble Universe! here)
The worlds created by these three projects alone are incredibly precise and refined, and this is certainly owed to Angel’s mastering abilities, alongside an obvious creative passion and skill. There is a thin film of brilliance that gives each project a very identifiable sheen. They sound complete, comfortable in their sonic environment. Unsurprisingly, Angel describes moving back and forth between the mixing and mastering processes millions of times to achieve this, but even she will sometimes opt to have it mastered by a sound engineer to keep it sounding fresh.
But what is more striking than the precise mastering on her material, is the time and effort she has put into others’ work.
One need only skim the contents of www.angelmarcloidav.com to understand the creative appetite Angel exudes in her mastering work. The textural warmth of jazz-fusion band Space Heater’s Gazebo. The slick, dark energy within queer rapper Chris Conde’s Die Happy. The bouncing bubblegum delight residing in Chicago-based electronic duo ‘MAGIN’s Lose4u. All incredibly different styles, but all have had the guiding touch of Angel Marcloid’s mastering abilities. All artists have entered into a solemn pact with Angel to try and find the perfect sound.
To someone that is not knowledgeable of what is required in the execution of an audio engineering job, it can sometimes be assumed that mastering is a very systematic exercise, much like those algorithmic services mentioned at the start. The artist presents their work, indicates what needs to be fixed and accentuated, the engineer does these things and the job is done. But Angel maintains that exploration is vital:
‘A good mastering job depends not only on the meters and each element’s ability to sonically fit in and play a crucial role, but the overall emotion and vibe of the music. The intention, and vision. And then what completes that is knowing how to translate that into the settings on your hardware and software. That’s a key thing.’
Such rhetoric of implementing a concept like sadness or rage into actuality through the mastering of a song may seem vague and intentionally mystic to some. But for an audio engineer that adores music, this is the task. To hear an emotion or feeling and promote it through various effectors, be it a multiband compressor or reductive equaliser.
Those engineers that do believe the process to be without soul or spirituality run the risk of button-pushing, and ending up with a song that sounds passable but doesn’t necessarily enhance their artistry or the artistry of their client. This seems to be the focal point to Angel Marcloid’s mastering process. The energy that came about in the making of the music shouldn’t be restricted when it gets mastered. That energy should be harnessed, accentuated and proudly presented.
When asked for any particular types of music that she enjoys working on, Angel expresses a fondness for lo-fi projects, which stands in contrast to a lot of her own pristine-sounding work. The challenge of keeping the corrupted and affected aesthetic of it rather than trying to clean it up is one that proves fun and challenging. This can be heard in the remastering of the fantastic 猫 シ Corp.’s Sunday Television. Upon listening, you might be inclined to check your mixer connection and push the volume up a few notches. The sound seems damaged and cloudy. But when you take an extended amount of time to listen to the album in its entirety, you can hear that this is intentional. The mastering of each track doesn’t serve to clean the sound quality in any way, but instead embraces the grainy and flawed sound of the album. The corruption is what makes the album interesting.
Take Current Regional Conditions for example, the third track on the album.
At its base, the instrumentation consists of a descending saxophone trill, a slow-moving drum track and a squelching bass line. Each part helps to conjure visions of weather maps lacquered in contrast, appearing alongside adverts for home living conveniences that now reside in some horrible scrapheap somewhere. But, what context does the engineering of the track situate us in? If the artist and sound engineer had been striving for a rich, warm sound, we’d hear a full, confident instrumentation bursting with life. We’d hear pristine bass and drums working together, blasting full-colour images toward us. We’d find ourselves at the centre of a beautifully designed living room set. We’d be smiling happily as we relaxed on our brand new three-piece suite, gazing at the fantastic weather outside.
This is not what we hear, instead the artist reaches for a deteriorated, faded sound, and Angel picks up on that in her mastering. So instead, we find ourselves in a hazy remembrance. A flawed memory. A booming, inhuman voice alerting us to the regional weather. We hear the TV speakers waver and falter underneath the invisible hand of static, that unseen corporate affecter behind the curtain of the so-called ‘roaring nineties’. We can hear every glitch and smudge in that American pseudo-wholesomeness that 猫 シ Corp. presents.
Now contrast that with RXM Reality’s blood blood blood blood, another project Angel has mastered. A song like QUEEN TIKI couldn’t be further from that lo-fi sound. Trappy percussion drives the track straight at the listener, as vocal samples swirl around in the distorted ether. Every single sound is clear and unhindered. Any distortion heard is intentional, strategically placed to achieve that loud, hypermodern electronic sound.
RXM Reality and 猫 シ Corp. are two very different artists with contrasting sounds. However, it doesn’t take a sound engineer to hear how Angel Marcloid has helped these creators further assert their production styles.
When it comes to work methodology, Angel has three feline clients whose needs reach far beyond the simple mastering and mixing of a song. They keep her and her partner on their toes, but she finds herself working most of the time from around 9AM to 9PM. Admitting that it might not be the best work schedule, it is clear that it is much more than a job for the Chicago-based artist. To make the sonic decisions that a sound engineer must requires passion, and this passion is apparent to anyone who knows Angel or keeps an eye on what she is up to via social media. And judging by the stark differences between the two aforementioned mastering projects, those that approach Angel for her services make sure not to make her job too dreary.
In terms of personal tastes, the lesser-explored realms of 80s and 90s jazz-fusion are dogeared as a particular penchant at the current time. Providing a means of relaxation and creative influence, the jagged sequences and scales of the genre can definitely be heard in the sound of Fire-Toolz. Funnily enough, there is not a fantastic amount of well-recorded jazz-fusion available. The artists and songs that Angel finds herself listening to are usually poorly recorded and often only available to listen to at a measly 128kbps. Of course, it would take a lot more than data-decimating compression to strip contemporary jazz artists of their positive, mellow sequences and floating chord progressions. But, the duty to keep her ears wide open to a wide range of genres is one done for pleasure as well as professional research.
When it comes to advice to any wannabe sound engineers or those that want to refine their own creative works, Angel suggests a surprisingly simple method:
‘Go to YouTube, find no less than 5 videos that are at least an hour long on how to master your track. Try to find different genres and different channels. You might hear some bullshit from one of them that the other 4 will correct. You may find that two people say one thing, two say another, and one is impartial. This is important. Make that your 101. And don’t skimp out, because the amount of time you invest and the more well-rounded the education is, the more you’ll be able to know how to work with different scenarios. Oh, and train your ears!! All the knowledge and plug-ins in the world don’t mean much when you can’t hear the difference between a 20ms and 120ms attack, don’t know what “muddy” really means, can’t hear when something is out of phase, etc.’
Mastering is unfortunately a subjective practice. Though there are things you should and shouldn’t do, when it gets into the minutia of the process, it’s up to you. In this case, the more opinions, theories and tricks you absorb, the more well-rounded your approach will be. And if there is one thing that is a great asset in this world of easy fixes, it’s the amount of free tutoring available on things like mastering. Youtube is a catalogue of different sound engineers helping you to master different types of music. It is refreshing to hear Angel Marcloid say that these videos shouldn’t be passed off as unhelpful. If you are serious about mastering music, you have to become a hoarder of moves and method. You never really know what sort of song will land in your DAW, so it is imperative you gather as many different techniques as possible. It is through this diligence, and an unflinching interest in music that Angel is able to make those decisions that push something from being a good project to a fantastic project, and enables her to master the art.