A Look Back With Scott Hull

Nirvana-Nevermind-coverHi, my name is Mike Cervantes and I am currently an apprentice at Masterdisk in NYC. Aside from learning mastering from my mentor Scott Hull, I get to connect with all of you on the various social media outlets and of course participate in the odd jobs that need attention around the studio. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to learn under someone like Scott. He has seen a lot of changes in the industry during his time as an engineer and has many “old war” stories and gray hair to prove it!

Masterdisk has a lot of history and there has been a lot of albums mastered under the company’s name that are considered a cornerstone in influencing many of the top artists in music during the last five decades. As someone who grew up listening to and was inspired by a small handful of these records, I of course came into this apprenticeship with questions to ask my mentor.

Scott and I thought these stories and past experiences might be interesting to others too, especially if some of them haven’t been shared or been told from the perspective of a mastering engineer who was involved. So this is the beginning of something new and hopefully frequent enough to keep your interest.

Recently I was with Scott while he was casually listening to the Rage Against the Machine debut album from 1992. Scott had mentioned the time of it’s release was around the same time that a few other sonically different and successful albums came through the door at Masterdisk. “NIRVANA!” is what I wanted to say out loud, but of course I kept my mouth shut so I could hear the man speak. The albums he was specifically referring to were Nirvana’s Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream.

In 1990, Masterdisk had just moved into their new (now previous) facility on 45th Street in Midtown Manhattan. The typical albums coming in around this time were by artists like Sting, Hall and Oats, Phil Collins and many others that possessed a much cleaner sonic character. So when these early 90s grunge type records came through the door, they sounded very different compared to those latter albums coming into Masterdisk. Scott explained that these different albums were “technically crisp sonically, but intensely dark melodically and texturally where the songs jumped right out of the speakers”.

Scott remembers distinctly remembers hearing Nevermind the first time and it made him feel compelled to listen to it closely. “It sounded different. It had an attitude. Butch Vig was a sounds craftsman for that record.” Scott deeply dug in and studied the album “because of the production and sounds, and of course it drew you in by the music”.

Around this time in the 90s, Scott had built a small garage studio in northern New York where he tracked and mixed grunge type bands during his down time from Masterdisk on the weekends. “We’d start tracking on a Friday night and by Sunday night we’d have a full record mixed and completed”. A small number of the bands Scott was working with had previous experience working at Smart Studios in Madison, WI (Butch Vig’s Studio). One band had recorded at Smart with Butch and drove the masters tapes from Wisconsin to Scott’s garage studio to be mixed. When Scott heard those tracks, it was then that he really started to admire Butch’s sound and became a little jealous because it was so good.

Scott’s role on the Nevermind album was in the editing and post production as an assistant. After the album was mastered, it needed to be edited and put together with the gaps finalized. Back then it was done in the digital tape format and that process often led to spending time with the producer and possibly talking about what went into making that record. In this case, Scott didn’t get very much insight on how Butch had sonically made the album. At the time, Scott didn’t know “if it was a record that we’d still be talking about 20+ years later, but I knew that I liked it and there was something about it that was really appealing.”

Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream was another album Scott was drawn to (also produced by Butch Vig). Something Scott appreciated about Butch Vig was “the albums he produced didn’t sound like him, they sounded like the band. There was an aesthetic to it. There are times when artists work with certain producers where you can immediately tell what producer they worked with because that producer’s sound is reflected through the music. Butch never really had that effect on the music he produced for other artists”.

As most know, both albums had incredible commercial success worldwide and played a major role in launching each band’s career into the stratosphere. Since I first came in contact with the music on Nevermind, I’ve read and heard many stories about how it changed music and even popular culture. I find it interesting to ask *qualifying individuals what their first reaction was hearing Nevermind when it was released in 1991. To me, it was really cool asking Scott to share his experience, especially since he was involved in the album’s final stages of production and heard it before the rest of the world. There are definitely more unique albums that came through the door during the early nineties and I’m sure Scott has a lot more he could talk about. But these were the one’s Scott happened to mention right away.

If you’d like to share your first reaction to either of these albums, we’d love to hear it! Please leave a comment below.

*In reference to those who are old enough to remember that period of time, ha! I was only 4 years old when Nevermind was released, so I obviously have no memory of that period of time. But the intro of Smells like Teen Spirit was one of the first things I learned on guitar in the late 90s, so I was exposed to the album within the same decade it was released.

Does The World Really Need Automated Mastering?

Mastering ConsoleIt’s here – Today – you can get your song “mastered” by a computer. Landr.com and it’s heralded as a breakthrough for starving artists and the reviews all sound something like: “It sounds great for free.”

It’s an, albeit, very sophisticated computer algorithm. That means that someone created a program that analyses the music and makes many thousand of assumptions about what would sound good. And then it chooses a few of those parameters to adjust your music without you having to even think about it.

Funny, as musicians making records, we don’t use free guitars or free drum sets (usually, except for the odd Junk Band 🙂 ) We don’t re-use free bass strings, and a free bass player is just a bad bass line waiting to happen. So, why should we expect free pro-audio services to be anything better than the toy surprise in a cracker jack box? We know it’s not good or even fun, it’s just free. But we want so baldly for it to be good, so we call it good. And a whole lot of people then assume it must be good. It’s loud. But if you never hear what a really good mastering engineer can do, then is it good enough?

For any of you who have worked with me, you totally get how automatic-anything is just not the way I roll. I work on such culturally- and genre diverse-projects that nothing can be repeated.

I’m not saying this from the “the machine is going to take my job” point of view. I mean, how could the machine know what I’m hearing or feeling? If my thoughtful, enlightened mastering can “beat the box” every single time—and it does or no one will pay my fee—then, what we are doing is lowing the bar,every day, on the quality of our collective art.

So what’s so bad about automatic processing? We can match some of the recording parameters to known “good” masters, and, if it differs in some significant way, then make changes. And then ask the engineer or artist if it’s better or worse. Woa.. wait a second… that’s not automatic, you still need human decision making.

Or, you can send off a master to several different cheap or free mastering sites and see what you get back. That’s really just simple trial and error. That’s “I don’t know what to do with this recording, so I’m going to let the machine try something. And if i like it, then i’ll keep it.”

But how would you know it’s good if you don’t know what it should sound like? Did i hear someone say, “it’s good enough?

We as musicians emulate the rock/classical/blues legends from our past experience. We also create brand new art that is a blend of all that we know, and are striving to contribute and communicate. Do you really think that Eric Clapton, or Miles Davis, Mozart, Pavoroti, or Sting ever said, “That’s good enough”? I seriously doubt it.

So are we living in the shadows of legends, or just posers, doing the minimum we have to to make a song? Don’t you sweat the details when you arrange a song, and practice it, choose who best to play the parts? Isn’t that all done with great pride in the outcome? Why do we not consider the potential loss from a poorly executed master?

Because we have been conditioned to believe that it doesn’t matter all that much.

I think it is seriously past time for us to re-name the ubiquitous term “mastering.” The word master is so overused, and improperly applied. Mastering, done with care and professionalism, incorporates so many more elements than just making a mix loud or bright. Communication with the artist/producer is so important. Making expertly crafted masters, repeatable EQ settings, and a work flow that doesn’t rely on happy accidents. That’s Mastering and that deserves the term Master. Like, in it takes 10,000 hours to Master anything, or, as in a Masters degree.

The word mastering also has to be followed by the desired format and or configuration. Mastering for cassette, for CD, for download, for iTunes, and, now once again, for vinyl. But the term mastering doesn’t apply to the mix engineers finalization of the mix. You might think of that as “mix-plus,” when the plus isn’t a thoughtful or reflective decision, but one of “Is it loud enough so the artist won’t complain?”

Some mix engineers who have their own rooms that they have worked out of for some time, can and do Master in the classic sense. But I contend that on the projects that these engineers mix, it is nearly impossible for the mix engineer to be truly objective. This is not really what Mastering is about.

Mastering isn’t a commodity, there isn’t any equivalence when comparing $50 mastering with $300 mastering. They are different—as different as the individuals (or computer algorithm) themselves.

A young band member recently told me of his band finishing their record. “We were talked into using the name-brand guy who charges over $4,000 to master an album. We really shouldn’t have spent so much on mastering.”

There was no mention of the sound. Did it come back sounding a lot better? When they questioned the results did the mastering engineer offer to try again? Was advice given regarding how the mixes sounded? Did the experience feel like the M.E. (mastering engineer) was part of the team?

My guess is this mastering engineer didn’t do ANY of these things. So the only way to describe the mastering was by complaining about the cost. Since expensive is generally good, then this should have been great. But when the experience isn’t great, you complain about the price when you should be complaining about the quality of the service.

So, is automated mastering (or even mixing) coming to your project soon? If you really can tolerate the bar being that low, and you are convinced that whoever you are making music for won’t care enough to justify the difference, then I think you should go for it. It’s cheap and fast and there is no messy communication with other humans to screw up your virtually isolated day.

But, if you do care about the art, and you are curious about what mastering really means, then send in your track for an eye opening experience. If I can’t beat the box, you win…