Old Lyme, CT, July 29, 2014: Since forming in 1968 and subsequently releasing more than 20 studio albums including classics like Fragile, Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans, Yes built its international success on the very foundations of progressive rock. Still very active as one of rock's most influential bands, Yes recently opened their latest chapter of musical innovation with the release of Heaven & Earth. Produced by the legendary Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, David Bowie) and mixed by Billy Sherwood (Nektar, Motorhead), Los Angeles-based Mastering Engineer Maor Appelbaum got the call to put the finishing touches on the classic band's latest sonic creation, keeping his Sennheiser HD 600 audiophile grade headphones close by.
Appelbaum, who runs Maor Appelbaum Mastering and works across a broad range of genres, chose to use the Sennheiser HD 600s as a studio reference tool to bridge the gap between album production and listener. Over the course of the project, he listened as both a technically minded professional and as a passionate music fan, with the ultimate goal of delivering an emotionally engaging listening experience. In the conversation that follows, Appelbaum discusses the ins and outs of mastering a modern day classic.
What is your role as mastering engineer?
I bring an objective ear to the process. Since I haven’t heard a project before, I can listen like a fan yet have control over the outcome. I am the buffer between what is created in the studio and what finally arrives to the listener's ear. My ultimate goal is to help create a better, more emotionally engaging listening experience. Part of how I do this is through critical listening, which is evaluating how the music's 'feeling' is presented from a frequency perspective. In making my evaluations and decisions, the tools I use are very important to me. For example, I have an excellent monitoring system with many sets of speakers so I can control how these frequencies are presented. I also use headphones to help me hear other details that might be missed by speakers.
How did you begin working on the new Yes album?
Billy Sherwood and I have collaborated on many albums together, and in the past two years I have mastered around 20 albums that he has worked on. He is very well known in progressive rock circles and we have a very good, longstanding relationship. One day he called me asked me to master the new Yes album and it was a great surprise. Once the mixes came in, I wanted to take them to the next level, while keeping the openness of the recording and all the dynamics in tact.
How can headphones help in the mastering process?
They are a great tool for checking the stereo spread and also evaluating low level details — which can consist of room tones, reverberation and other items. Speakers are important in helping evaluate the dimension in a production, but in most cases they are in front of you. On the other hand, headphones are essentially surrounding your head and can really help you figure out if your imaging natural or if it feels artificial.
When did you decide to rely on headphones in the process?
Once I figured out the processing chain that I wanted to use, I listened to the project on headphones because I figured that listeners of this album would include audiophiles as well as people who enjoy listening to headphones — not just people who listen through earbuds and speakers. I think you always want to make sure that the product sits well with the clientele, and of course Yes has many fans that are bound to listen on headphones — both 'old school' fans who grew up with headphones and hi-fi systems and 'new school' fans who grew up listening to music on computers. Today, music fans want to have a better production system, but portable — that’s why I think there is more sales of headphones than ever before.
Why were you drawn to the Sennheiser HD 600s?
A friend of mine bought a pair and he was really excited about them. He kept after me and I realized that if he was enjoying them that much, I should really give them a shot on the Yes project. It was the first time I bought anything sight unseen, solely on a recommendation. I got them, put them on my ears and said ‘Wow - these really sound good!’ I didn’t feel like they were hyped and they sounded very natural. They had all the detail I needed, and were very comfortable - which can be important over long sessions. Also, the frequency response was never piercing and didn’t fatigue me. I took them off, listened to my speakers, then put them on again and realized that the HD 600s sounded very close to my speakers — as much as a pair of headphones can.
What were your specific goals in mastering this album and where did the HD 600s play a role?
For this album, it was very important for me to hear a three dimensional sonic image — not just with speakers shooting straight at me. Using the HD 600s, I could hear the entire panoramic spread in great detail — it was very revealing. With speakers you can also hear this, but with headphones it is better because they sit right on your ear, there is nothing in between you and the music. On an album like this, where everything is very open, hearing things this way is very important and the HD 600s were perfect. They sounded like a nice pair of expensive, audiophile speakers, but on your ears.
Can you describe the overall design and form of the HD 600s?
The build quality is excellent. Its padding on the HD 600 is just right, and the tension is loose enough that you don't feel an exorbitant amount of pressure your ear. Also, they are not too heavy, so you don’t feel like there is something bulky on your head. The cable is super flexible and the plug is robust. Overall, I love the sound quality and the HD 600 is very comfortable to work with. I am very impressed and I think I will be using them more and more.
Sennheiser is a world-leading manufacturer of microphones, headphones and wireless transmission systems. Established in 1945 in Wedemark, Germany, Sennheiser is now a global brand represented in 60 countries around the world with U.S. headquarters in Old Lyme, Conn. Sennheiser's pioneering excellence in technology has rewarded the company with numerous awards and accolades including an Emmy, a Grammy, and the Scientific and Engineering Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
You can find all the latest information on Sennheiser by visiting our website at www.sennheiserusa.com.
1) Maor Appelbaum, Mastering Engineer
2) The Sennheiser HD 600 headphone