“I have worked with him a few times and he really cares. All you want is someone who can go the extra mile, and he has an affinity with the music. He’s a perfectionist — I once saw him discard a whole vinyl cut because he could get another half dB out of it — and I really trust him.
— Steven Wilson discussing Andy VanDette, Tape Op, Sep/Oct 2009
Porcupine Tree is one of the premiere progressive rock bands working today. They came up in the 90s along with bands like Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard, carrying the prog torch into what could be seen as the third wave of the genre. (For the sake of argument, and I’m sure there will be some, the first wave would be represented by bands like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson; the second by Marillion and IQ; and the fourth by The Mars Volta. And yes, this is a gross oversimplification which leaves out dozens of important bands and sub-movements!)
Two of Porcupine Tree’s biggest albums, In Absentia [Lava/Atlantic 2002] and Deadwing [Lava/Atlantic 2005], were mastered by Masterdisk chief engineer Andy VanDette. I spoke to Andy about his work on on these two very different records.
How did you get the Porcupine Tree gig?
Luckily my friend Andy Karp — who became president of A&R over at Lava/Atlantic — whenever he could throw my name into the ring for mastering he would. A lot of artists have a mastering engineer that they’ve worked with before and that’s where they go. But Andy would get me shootout gigs for certain stuff — I got to do the Simple Plan demo that got them signed. I did a few records on Atlantic that never saw the light of day… and Porcupine Tree came along that way.
What can you tell me about In Absentia?
The thing about In Absentia is that was a record made the way that records used to be made. You had a big major label debut where they recorded in big studios, they hired a quality engineer to record the basic tracks, and then a mix god, Tim Palmer, to mix it all to half inch tape. I heard the first few seconds of “Blackest Eyes” and I thought, “OK, this is going to be a good day! this is going to be a day where I figure out ‘a half dB of what’ instead of “where’s the kitchen sink?”
Was Steven [Wilson, of Porcupine Tree] here?
Yes, Steven was here for the record.
He’s a pretty hands-on guy?
Oh yeah, definitely.
Was there much collaboration or back-and-forth in the session or did you work alone?
I think pretty much they let me work. You know, Steven liked what he was hearing so… we seemed to like the same things, so sometimes you just click that way with clients. I don’t really remember too much back and forth, there was more of that on the next record, Deadwing.
What was working on that record like?
Well, in contrast to In Absentia, Deadwing is an example of how records are made today, where the band doesn’t go into any studio, they record and mix it at home. Steven mentioned they were working this way pretty early on, and so I sent him an email and said ‘Well, if you’re going to do work that way, the hip thing to do is to mix in subgroups. We’ll rent a nice analog summing amp and we’ll put it all together once you get here.” So he ended up sending over his Mac with his Logic [Apple’s suite of recording programs] sessions on them, and then I rented the Dangerous Music summing amp and we put it all together that way.
Of course Murphy’s law says that if you send your Mac to a foreign country a week in advance it’s going to arrive at the END of the first day of the session you booked. So it was evening before I ran through a couple songs and mastered them quick, keeping the same kind of hands-off mastering mentality that I had with the first record. Because the first record… the mixes were so great that I didn’t have to do much.
But when I heard what I had done the next morning in my car I freaked out. I thought “oh my god this is horrible… is my system broken?!” When I got to the studio I checked it out in the other mastering rooms and I found out that nothing was broken; it just plain sucked. I didn’t roll off enough bottom. Once I started listening to the individual parts [in Logic] I thought, “gee that bass is awful thick… what’s going on there?” There were like five layers of kick drums going on [laughs] — too much to get the kind of clarity we needed. Since we had the option to change the mixes in Logic, that’s what we did.
That day we pulled out In Absentia because we knew that people were going to compare the new record to it — and we could use it as a reference, even though the new stuff was recorded so differently. The new one would be its own entity — its own art — but it did have to compare on some kind of level. Once we did that things went much better and all of the changes that we made to the stereo mixes held up through the surround mixes.
How many stems did you output from Logic?
We broke it out to 8 channels, probably 4 stereo stems and stuck that through the analog summing amp.
And what does the summing amp do?
The final squish to stereo is done in the analog domain as opposed to the digital domain.
What’s the effect of using it?
It’s the depth thing. When you close your eyes how deep is the sound stage? I had done comparisons both ways [through the summing amp and not] and switching back and forth I could hear a much deeper sound field than the mixes that had come straight out of the digital domain.
And out of that you went into your…
My standard mastering rig. Because the mix issues were taken care of in Logic, that meant I didn’t have to do as much — there were no contortions anymore because anything that I would have struggled with were ironed out.
Do you know why they decided to record Deadwing like they did, rather than do another record like In Absentia? Was it budget?
I think that they were just so adept at recording themselves. Gavin [Harrison, the group’s drummer] had his own studio — why not do drums in his room where he has them all set up just the way he likes them? And Steven is very adept at recording himself — he had done it all those years before Atlantic. And yeah it was partially budgetary because the budget wasn’t as big for Deadwing as it was for In Absentia. The record companies had started tightening their belts by then and… although In Absentia was a great critical success I don’t think it sold numbers that turned heads at Atlantic records.
Deadwing was the last Porcupine Tree record you did?
Right, and then they did Fear of a Blank Planet [Roadrunner Records, 2007] which Steven mastered himself. And then I submitted for their latest record [The Incident, 2009].
But you didn’t end up mastering it?
No, I didn’t. I did master Steven’s solo record Insurgentes  though.
What was the process of mastering Insurgentes?
It was about wrestling with the loudest sections of the record. Which are only 5% of the record but the 5% that I hold the most dear. The quiet parts were all nicely dynamic but when those really ultra loud sections come out the mixes had a screechy distorted quality that made me want to turn my monitors down, not up. So I worked on warming those sections and treating those sections so that they sounded raucously loud, but not abrasive.
Is that EQ work?
Some EQ work, some cutting different settings together. Sometimes you can make one setting and it works for the whole record. But we can get more forensic than that and use different treatments so that when it goes to the ultra loud section you can’t really notice that I’ve changed settings — or at least you’re not supposed to!
And Steven was happy with it?
I think so.
But you didn’t do the next Porcupine Tree record.
Well, one of the guys in the band was very concerned about compression — he wanted to make sure the new record didn’t have too much compression on it. So the group felt that they needed to be there for the mastering, but they weren’t going to be able to come to the States, so that was that. But Steven let me submit, which was cool. So I listened to a lot of In Absentia because I still say it is the Porcupine Tree record by which all other Porcupine Tree records will be judged… and I made something that was just a little lower [in level].
And what happened?
And pretty quickly I got word back that it was way over-compressed. So then I did one that was hardly compressed at all, but I guess I went too far in the other direction… In the end they were right, they needed to be there at the mastering studio so they could find the exact balance they were looking for.
The two albums you did for Porcupine Tree are big ones as far as fans are concerned. Do you get artists that come to you because you did those records?
Have you been doing much in the prog rock area lately?
Oh sure. The Heart of Cygnus CD that’s on my wall [Over Mountain Under Hill] is a recent one… it was named on Mike Portnoy’s [former drummer with Dream Theater] Top 10 list for 2009. And I’ve been doing some things more recently that aren’t out yet.
Thanks to Larry Crane of Tape Op for getting us the Steven Wilson quote when none of us could find our Sep/Oct 2009 copies of Tape Op! (Murphy’s law again.)