Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange wins Grammy

Congratulations to Frank Ocean and Island Def Jam for winning the Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy for “channel ORANGE!”

Special thanks and congratulations to Karen Kwak and Scott Marcus at Island Def Jam.

“channel ORANGE” was mastered at Masterdisk by Vlado Meller with Mark Santangelo assisting.

Photo of Frank Ocean and Vlado Meller at the mastering session for Channel Orange
Frank Ocean and Vlado Meller at the mastering session for Channel Orange

Inda Eaton’s “Go West,” and How To Choose a Mastering Engineer

Photo of Inda Eaton in ConcertInda Eaton is a globe-trotting singer-songwriter-performer-bandleader now based in eastern Long Island. Her music has found favor with fans of rock ‘n’ roll, country, and acoustic music all over the world since she started touring behind her first album “Thin Fine Line” in 1996. Her latest album, “Go West,” was recorded by Cynthia Daniels at Monk Music Studios and mastered by Randy Merrill and is set for release on June 15, 2012. Inda took some time out of her busy pre-release schedule to fill us in on some of the details of her new project.

Hi Inda, thanks for taking some time for The Masterdisk Record. That’s a great video you have on your site on the recording of your new album [below]. I like how you’ve talked about the music as illustrating a feeling of anticipation — of something new coming up “around the bend.”

I try to be in the moment – but I can’t help but think that there’s something greater around the corner…it’s quite possibly an American thing.

You worked with (engineer and studio owner) Cynthia Daniels on “Go West” — how did you choose to work with her on this project?

Cynthia is a good friend and kick ass engineer who had just finished her state-of-the-art John Storyk studio in time to track “Go West.” Cynthia and Eve Nelson (piano/co-producer) had worked together on Chaka Khan’s ClassiKhan album and have a great working relationship. “Go West” has Cynthia’s fingerprints all over it. A great engineer cannot be overlooked: the vibe, the room, the competence. Cynthia has seen it all. We were in great hands. Beyond that – we had a great time.

How long have the songs on “Go West” been around?

“Go West” was written in three writing chunks with the last song being completed on the morning of the first day of tracking. Most of the songs had live “show life” to let them breathe. I taped every live show for the past three years to listen back for the cool stuff that only happens in the moment. I came to the conclusion that we needed to track all the songs live in a live room. There’s no substitute for musicians tracking together, looking at each other, feeling each other out and playing the energy. All of the songs were written with live, seemingly out-of-control performance energy in mind.

Cover art for Inda Eaton's Go West albumThat’s an interesting process — taping all the shows and learning from them. A very methodical way of seeking out something that’s very wild and hard to capture. Are you more methodical or spur-of-the-moment as an artist?

I’m more spur-of-the-moment improv with a great blueprint in the background. I prepare and analyze, but when on the stage – it will be what it will be. I didn’t know this when I was younger. Now I get it – it’s freeing. “Go West” is a direct result of controlled chaos.

How did you choose Randy Merrill to master “Go West?”

When I came back from mixing the tracks at Eve Nelson’s studio in LA – we needed a mastering engineer and didn’t know where to begin. The recommendations were flying around, but they didn’t fit the project. Other than sitting in on some sessions for past projects, I didn’t really know much about mastering and so I ended up charting the history of mastering since 1973 and came up with the coaching tree. I found out that many of the original mastering gurus are still working and the the history traces back to very simple roots. In an ideal world – I wanted someone from the 2nd generation of mastering engineers that I could relate to with a mutual understanding and respect for creating an album – not a collections of songs on a disk. I found Randy Merrill immediately on the Masterdisk website and then his name kept popping up on blogs/chats about mastering. From there we had a discussion about the intention of the music and our shared background of growing up with albums…I knew he was the right one. Randy knocked it out of the park. I truly believe that he is heading toward the path of mastering guru for our generation. I’m glad that I got in the door early.

I wish everybody approached finding a mastering engineer the way you did! Honestly, that’s one of the best stories I’ve heard. So what’s next on your schedule? The album release is set for June 15 — is there a tour? Promotions?

Currently we are about to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to sell pre-orders, house concerts and all kinds of value to get the promotion off the ground. Our next official date is June 15th for the release and concert out here in Amagansett at the Stephen Talkhouse. We were just out west in Wyoming for a sneak preview at the prison, schools, clubs and art council – the response was overwhelming. This summer is all about spreading the word with shows, radio, print, handshakes, hugs and barbeques. The ‘Go West’ release will be as organic as it was created. ‘Studio to Stage’…’Go West’ is all about the live interaction.


Visit Inda on the web at indaeaton.com.
Inda on Facebook: facebook.com/inda.eaton

Ellen Fitton on Working with Arif Mardin and Becoming a Mastering Engineer

One of the benefits of having a music career in New York City is that you get to meet and work with some incredible people. Take mastering engineer Ellen Fitton.

Photo of Arif Mardin by Alan Light
Arif Mardin
When Ellen started out after college, her first stop was Atlantic Records, working as the assistant of the famous producer Arif Mardin. Mardin started out at Atlantic as Neshui Ertegun’s assistant (how’s that for lineage for you?) in 1963. Over the years he produced records for Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Willie Nelson, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and Queen among many, many others.

Ellen told me a little about her early experiences in the music business with Mardin and how she became a mastering engineer.

James: Hi Ellen, thanks for taking some time out for the blog. So when were you Arif Mardin’s assistant?

Ellen: 1985, at Atlantic Records, which was basically my first big gig. I was there for a couple of years, working for Arif and his engineer Michael O’Reilly. He was responsible for the Rascals and the Bee Gees and then Chaka Kahn. Many great artists from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

James: What was he like at the point you were working for him?

Ellen: He was the consummate old world gentleman. He must have been in his 50s. He was a balding guy with reading glasses, still with the button down shirt and a tie a lot of the time; but he’s totally hip. And he knows about every artist who’s coming and going and everything that’s happening at the time. You think when people get to a certain age they sort of “age out’ of popular music. But Arif was not only current — he was cutting edge. People like the Stones were coming to him and saying “Would you do this track with us?” because he was able to know what the next thing was going to be. It was great watching him work, and watching him put together a record. I especially enjoyed learning to edit from him.

James: By observing or was it more hands-on?

Photo of Ellen Fitton
Ellen Fitton
Ellen: At that point, by observing. Because we were still cutting tape. Towards the end, yeah, I would cut. But watching him at the reels I learned things like you don’t necessarily want to cut on the kick or downbeat. Cut on the snare — you know, knowing where to cut. It’s not where people would expect. You do it where it will be less noticed. It was really interesting the way he would edit together something… make a song…

James: That’s interesting — intuitively you would think that you would edit on the “1”

Ellen: Yes on the downbeat. That’s where everybody wants to hear the edit. But almost always the editing is somewhere else.

James: What was your role at that time?

Ellen: Second engineer. So I was a tape-op, setting up the mics, recalling mixes — because there was no total recall at that point in time. All the note taking. I remember vividly when I screwed up a punch in on a Chaka Kahn session. And it was weeks before he let me sit behind the remote control of the machine after that. It was one of those things where I was really really tired — like 14, 16 hour days. And then here’s this guy — at that age — who’s tireless. I’m ready to drop and I’m a kid but he had just boundless energy. When you work for someone as long as I had worked with Arif, all I would need to punch in would be a nod of his head. He didn’t want the artist to know necessarily when we were punching in and out — he just wanted them to sing and he would take the bits that he needed. This one day I was really tired and I thought he was going to nod, and cue me in, but he didn’t, and I punched in. And of course… “she’ll never sing that note again!” (Laughs) As it turned out, we ended up getting something better. But he didn’t let me forget that for a while. Which is a lesson learned. It’s part of the process.

James: When and why did you make the transition from recording to mastering engineer?

Ellen: It was not a conscious decision. In the late 80’s as I was transition from an assistant to engineer, the studio business was changing. Studios where closing left and right. After Atlantic was closed down, I was working as an independent engineer on pop projects at various studios. One day a friend mentioned to me that Sony Classical was looking for someone with recording chops who could also read an orchestral score. I had never considered my career going in that direction, but thought I would check it out. I was chosen for the gig and really enjoyed the work. In between recording dates and post production for each release, I would do reissue work for the classical label as well. When the classical recording work began to slow down, I began doing more reissues, classical at first, but then when Sony realized I had pop experience I began doing pop reissues as well. The frontline work just naturally followed, and one day I realized… I was a mastering engineer.


Read more about Ellen Fitton at the Masterdisk site.
To book Ellen for your next project contact Peter Cho at peter@masterdisk.com.

The Cuddle Magic All-Analog Vinyl Project

Here at Masterdisk HQ today Scott Hull has been mastering the all-analog LP version of Info Nympho, a new album by Brooklyn/Philly band and songwriting collective Cuddle Magic.

This is the real deal – the old school way to make an LP.

As you can see from the photos below, Scott first spliced together the master from the original 1/4″ tape in his mastering room. Then, once the master was edited together, Scott took the tape to the cutting room, where he and Alex DeTurk got it ready to go onto lacquer. They then listened closely, familiarizing themselves with the program and taking note of any adjustments they might need to make during the cut.

Alex did the cutting once all of the mastering decisions were made.

While hanging around documenting the process, I’ve happily heard many of the songs, a few times each. It’s a beautiful recording and the LP is going to sound fantastic.

I should mention that Info Nympho is a Kickstarter project — one that successfully raised its funding goal on September 1. Sweet! Check out what they did here. Find more about Cuddle Magic at their website: http://www.cuddle-magic.com/

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Andy VanDette Discusses Mastering Porcupine Tree’s ‘In Absentia’ and ‘Deadwing’ Albums

Tape Op Magazine“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?

Album cover of Porcupine Tree's In AbsentiaLuckily 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.

Porcupine Tree Deadwing album coverThat 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…

Andy VanDette

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 [2008] 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?

Certainly.

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.)

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Scott Hull on the Production of La Monte Young’s The Well Tuned Piano (Gramavision 1987)

“The first choice is clear. I’m confident that La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano will receive little competition as the most important and beautiful new work recorded in the 1980s. Young’s achievement is unique, the recording a technological triumph.” — Kyle Gann, FANFARE November/December 1987

“…this marvelous recording of a landmark piece in contemporary music and the work that probably coined the categorical term Minimalism is born. The Well- Tuned Piano is an extremely insular, calming and personal work and a masterpiece at that. Listening to the entire five-hour-plus composition [one] discovers something new each time.” — Brooke Wentz, DOWN BEAT August 1987


The Well Tuned Piano
The Well Tuned Piano (Gramavision 1987)
The 1987 edition of La Monte Young‘s The Well Tuned Piano on Gramavision records (full title: The Well-Tuned Piano 81 X 25 6:17:50 – 11:18:59 PM NYC) is something of a holy grail for experimental, avant garde, and minimalist enthusiasts. The multi-album set was released in CD, LP and cassette editions, which, as of this writing, go for hundreds of dollars on the used market: the set is out of print.


The Well Tuned Piano is a very long (approximately five hours on the Gramavision recording) piece for just-intuned piano. Its construction is part composed and part improvised and involves series of cycling themes and sound clusters (called “clouds”).

Bob Ludwig is credited with mastering the Gramavision recording of The Well Tuned Piano, and his then-assistant (and current owner of Masterdisk) Scott Hull is credited with digital editing, which was no small task in the case of this particular recording. In fact, it was rather epic.

One July afternoon I sat down with Scott and asked him to go back to the days he spent in 1987 editing this storied recording.

THE WELL TUNED PIANO

JB: What was your role in the production of the album?

Scott Hull: Digital editing would have been my title though the task took on a life of its own. It was very unusual to take so many days to edit an album together.

The deck they used to record The Well Tuned Piano was a Sony PCM-F10 — one of the first digital recorders. The piece was a five hour continuous performance and the only recording medium that was capable of doing that in 1987 or 1988 was Beta 1 F1 — a slow speed video deck capturing 16 bit 44.1 digital.

Scott Hull
Scott Hull

The first part of our process at Masterdisk was getting the F1 transferred to a professional format. Because you can’t edit the F1 [tape]. There’s no method of doing digital tape editing and the music ultimately had to be cut up into sides: the ultimate destination was for CD, vinyl and cassette. Each required their own side splits and it’s a continuous performance: no breaks, no intermissions. It is a continuous performance that creates a meditative sort of atmosphere continuously.

The first problem was to transfer all the F1s to a 1630 tape system, which is professional digital audio that could be edited. But the F1 didn’t want to play particularly well. And we also had a problem because this piece was so continuous and repetitious — the themes come back again and again in cycles — that it was very hard to tell where you were in the piece just by listening. Even the composer would have trouble telling where he was in the piece unless he could listen to a significant portion of it.

We needed to find a way to time-stamp the thing. And the beta tape that was used had time code, but my professional 1630 Sony audio machine wouldn’t read it.

Bob Bielecki was the recording engineer on the project. He was known for doing some pretty wild and interesting performance art recordings, so he knew the kinds of editing challenges involved. He’s an astute technician as well — so he understood that the time code that was coming off the beta tape wasn’t clean enough for my editor to read it — and he figured he could fix it. He asked me if I had some parts he could use. We went into the shop. “Well what do you need, switches or something?” I said. He says “I need an op-amp or a transistor or two and I need a couple resistors and something to attach it all to.”

This was the evening — the session didn’t start until 7 or 8 at night — and the technician was gone. So I showed him the drawers in the shop. He rattled around for about 20 minutes and came back out with a little board that had standoffs on it, he had wired a cap around a transistor, put a couple resistors on there, attached an input connector, a volume control and an output connector. He made a time code reshaper in the shop while I wandered around wondering “what are we going to do next?”

I plugged it in and tweaked it a little and the damn thing worked. I suspect that it still sits in a drawer somewhere around here because I didn’t throw it out. I thought it was a marvel. [Ed – we did in fact find it, in July 2011; now pictured below.]

So we got the time code reshaped. It was necessary because sections of the tape had to be transferred more than once to get a proper playback. And now, thanks to Bob, each time you played back that same stretch of tape you’d get the same code so we could line it up.

JB: Why would you have to have multiple transfers to get a good playback?

SH: The slow speed beta format liked to drop out. If there was a drop out, we’d have to go back and change the tracking manually — basically fiddle with the area of tape that it was having trouble with — and figure out a way to get through it. You couldn’t generally get through the tape in one whole pass.

So, the first night was sitting with this piece attempting to get the F1 beta tape transferred to 3/4″ digital. That took many hours. I don’t recall whether we even started editing it that night or whether that was another night.

La Monte Young photographed by John Fago
La Monte Young (Photo: OtherMinds©John Fago)

Eventually we created a running master of the entire show, split across 3 or 4 U-matic tapes with overlap. I had to recreate the F1, basically, but smooth out the overlapped edit bits. Each one of these edits had to be acoustically scrubbed-to. The time code would get me close, but I’d need to be more accurate. So I was using room noises — chair squeaks and stuff — in the recording to tell definitively if it was lining up exactly. It would have been possible to do edits in the music, but it was easier if you could find a steam pipe squeak or a bang. Because there were some occasional steam pipe bangs — you’ll hear them in the recording. We were able to seamlessly remove a couple that were in spaces where there was no music. But in the midst of the performance when somebody shuffled around or a chair moved or something there was no way to get it out with the technology we had then. Now, you might be able to get it out. Maybe you wouldn’t want to anyway — we were going for authentic representation of the event.

By the way, at the performance people were invited to bring whatever they needed to make themselves comfortable for several hours because the piece was very long. So they were sitting on pillows and blankets, some were curled up… I assume some of them fell asleep at different times, coming in and out of consciousness while listening to this thing. Because even the engineering team fell in and out of consciousness while listening to this piece! (laughs) It was very difficult to remain completely engaged for, you know, 5 or 6 hours at a time. It was just exhausting.

I don’t believe LaMonte came in for any of this. I think it was just Bob Bielecki and I doing the assembly. It was very technical.

Next we got word of where the side-breaks were supposed to be. Like how long each LP side was going to be, and where in the performance we should break for the CDs. We all needed to make sure it didn’t break in the middle of a sequence of musical events.

From the three tape running master we created three tape sets of LP, three tape sets of cassette and 3 tape sets of CD masters. Each with the appropriate fade-down at the end of each side, and fade back up.

We created the CD master first, and then we put one additional fade in the middle of each CD to create the album. I think we found the CD breaks first because we didn’t want to create more than we absolutely needed to. So after the CD masters were made the decision was made where to make the LP breaks.

I really have no idea how many days and nights were spent on assembling this thing. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. It would have been impossible even with the foundation that was funding it to actually bill for the time and the equipment that was being used for the durations that were really needed. There was only one way to do this well, and it required completely tying up a room that was normally booked for $200-250 an hour. And this is back in the 80s!

The technology today makes this so simple to pull off that it’s really easy to forget how hard it was to do this digitally. But they really wanted to guarantee that the performance was captured the truthfully. They wanted a running master from top to bottom.

After we got all the running masters together La Monte came in to listen to them with Marian Zazeela. He wanted to listen through the whole thing to hear the fades — to listen to it as a consumer would listen to it.

I got them comfortable, got the music playing back in the room, and asked them if they needed me to be in the room. They didn’t, which was good! Quite frankly at that point I’d heard this piece in its entirety about twelve times. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sit through it again and show the respect it, and they, deserved. I didn’t want to be in there looking bored! So I waited outside.

Photo of Bob Bielecki timecode reshaper
The impromptu timecode reshaper by Bob Bielecki
Shortly into the playback, La Monte came out to find me, looking worried. He said there was something wrong, and asked me if there was some way that the music could be playing at the wrong speed. I was immediately very concerned because of all the work we had done up to that point — we were essentially done with everything!

But there really wasn’t any way that this could have been running off speed because it’s digital, and all locks to clock, and everything about that is pretty stable. So I came back in and La Monte asked me to play a section of it, and then it got to a spot where the piano was holding a tone. And he said “There! Right there! Like that — that’s a spot I mean”. And I was very confused because I didn’t know what he was hearing. I was expecting him to be talking about something that sounded like it was warbling — you know, changing pitch.

So I stopped the music, I asked him to explain what it was that he was hearing, and we talked about it a little bit, but he suddenly stopped talking. “You hear that?” he said. I didn’t know what he was hearing. He said “I’m hearing beats NOW! There’s something in the room, even without the music being played.”

So I started shutting off equipment until I figured it out. The Sony 1630 tape recorder we were using was a big, professional video deck with a significant motor inside it. And a fan to keep the motor cool. I had two of them in the room. And these fans were running at ever so slightly different speeds. With the two machines running there was a very slight modulating sound, and it was affecting the way that La Monte was hearing the beats and the relationships within his music. The fans were effectively superimposing additional “beats” on the top of his music! His hearing was that sensitive.

I didn’t need to have both decks on while we were doing the playback so I shut one of them off and I covered the other deck with acoustic foam to cut down on the amount of noise. And then I played it back for him and he said “That’s it! It’s perfect!”

JB: The “wrong speed” question must have confused you initially considering that in digital, tape running at the wrong speed would not effect pitch.

SH: Right. It’s something we just believe in: word clock is word clock. We know now that information that’s been converted to analog and back to digital can show some microscopic drift, even with digital. Especially with workstations. But this was digital audio on video tape so it’s all referenced to video sync. Word sync is derived from the video interval sync so there’s just no way that it’s running off speed. Well, I should say that when everything’s working properly there’s no way for it to be running off-speed. La Monte was just trying to guess at what could possibly be causing the reaction he was having; this unpleasant feeling that he had.

After La Monte’s approval we went on to make running masters for the cassette, the vinyl and CD. And each one of them had to be listened to in real time; proofed for dropouts and for any other problems.

And we had one other problem through this whole process — a technical problem. During these years CD run time was generally 65 to 70 minutes. But albums started getting longer. That’s when the reissues were happening and people were trying to put out longer and longer CDs. So they came up with longer tape formats because the original 1630 tape format was a 60 minute format. Then they came out with one that was 74 minutes, and then 75 minutes, and finally these 80 minute tapes which gave you a bit of buffer at the head and tail.

Well those 80 minute tapes didn’t play so well in machines that hadn’t been modified for them. And so one out of five of all these tapes I’d pull out of a box to try to use on The Well Tuned Piano would fail. Sometimes after we had already done the whole process the tape would get a crease — it was very thin Mylar. So many of our sessions were interrupted with me lifting the cover off the tape machine and taking a crinkled tape out of the thing and figuring out where it had been damaged, monitoring it up to that point and then doing an edit in the midst of some abstract tone cloud. So there was a lot of time spent just fighting the technology to get it done.

Then I assisted the cutting engineer who was Bill Kipper I believe. Bob [Ludwig] was credited with mastering on it, but it was essentially transferred with Bob Bielecki’s sound and EQ. And the vinyl I believe was cut by Bill.

JB: What would you say is the main thing you took away with you from your work on The Well Tuned Piano?

SH: It was one of my first experiences with an artist where I learned that just because you don’t hear something you can’t say it’s not there. I mean La Monte’s hearing was absurdly accurate. Even if you can’t measure what an artist is hearing, they’re hearing something. So I learned that my first reaction can’t be “oh, you must be hearing it wrong.” That’s definitely the wrong approach.


The quotes at the top of this post were selected from a collection of press quotes at the MELA Foundation website.

Scott Hull has continued his work in experimental and avant garde music throughout his career. He regularly masters albums for independent artists and labels in the experimental music field, and has mastered all the releases on John Zorn’s Tzadik label since 2001.

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Interview: Mastering Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 with Tony Dawsey

Jay-Z The Blueprint 3

Tony Dawsey is a Masterdisk mastering engineer with a long list of hit records under his belt. In the interview below, Tony discusses his experience mastering Jay-Z’s 2009 hit record, The Blueprint 3.

Tony, you’ve got a lot of fans online — people who love the records you’ve mastered.

I hear that a lot, that people like the way my records sound. And it’s a compliment, it makes me feel good, but I realize it’s not just me, it’s a group of people that come together to make the record sound right.

Did you hear a lot in particular about The Blueprint 3?

Yeah the last Jay-Z album I got a lot of people sending emails and just showing love and saying that they love the way it sounds, that it was loud but not too loud and so on and so forth. It definitely makes you feel good when you’re part of a project that people admire for different reasons.

When you work with Jay-Z does he attend the sessions?

He normally comes at the end to go through everything and make sure it’s the way he wanted the spacings from track to track. Out of the 9 albums we’ve done together, he was only here for the whole album once. That was American Gangster a few years ago. I came in on a Sunday, spent the day with him, and went through the whole record. Other than that normally it’s Guru, his engineer, and myself, and Jay normally comes in at the end just to make sure everything’s okay.

“Empire State of Mind” was huge.

Yeah, it was! Jay was in and we were going through the album just making sure everything was the way he wanted it. We got up to the 5th track on the album — “Empire State of Mind” featuring Alicia Keys. I said to him, “This could be an anthem for New York. With the Alicia Keys hook I find it’s so uplifting and motivating. You need to get the word out to your people!” And little did I know, not only was it Jay-Z’s first #1 record, but the Yankees did pick it up as an anthem for New York on their way to another Word Series championship. They even invited in Jay-Z and Alicia Keys to perform it during the play-offs, so, it was kind of special. I’m not going to tell you I “know” what record’s gonna do well out there, but I know what moves me. I was born and raised in New York and I loved that record — it really moved me in a positive way. It was my favorite record that year. I felt really glad that I got to work on it.

Photo of Tony Dawsey
Tony Dawsey
Did you do anything particularly different in the mastering of that record?

The equipment I used on Jay’s record I tend to use on all records that come my way. I know Guru is a very good engineer, so I know for the most part it’s going to come in sounding very very good, and I’m just hired to enhance what he’s done already. I can’t say I do anything special or use any type of equipment on that record and not on anybody else’s record. Most of this gear you can find in mastering studios all over the world. There’s nothing secretive when it comes to the equipment — it’s how it’s used. People gave a lot of love for that album, winning Grammys, so on and so forth, and I let people know it’s not just me. I’m just one of the engineers that worked on it.

You’re extremely modest.

At my stage, at the mastering stage, I have the last word on the EQ and so forth. But people need to know that Guru has a lot to do with the sound of the record and I just represent the “icing on the cake” which is what I’ve been saying for years when it comes to mastering.

This wouldn’t be an interview about mastering if we didn’t touch on loudness.

Whether or not I use compression really depends on what I’m given. Sometimes you need some compression just to push everything out front and so forth. But these days a lot of people mix very very loud, so a lot of times you don’t end up needing compression because of that. But it really depends on the project. You just gotta take ‘em individually and deal with them. And try things. I use trial and error. I’ll listen to something. I may try to put in the NTP compressor and see if that works, or I may try and use a Manley compressor or something to see if it works. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

Thanks Tony. One last thing: How did your relationship with Jay-Z start?

There was a referral. At the time I had did about 3-4 albums with Ruff Ryders. The artist was DMX. Then Lenny Santiago, who worked over at Def Jam as an A&R man, had asked the guys from the Ruff Ryders who they used for mastering because they liked the way the DMX records always sounded. They told him, “Check out Tony at Masterdisk.” The first Jay-Z album we did was La Familia. That was kind of a collection of different artists under Rocafella Records. It’s been a wonderful relationship, doing a lot of albums for Rocafella Records and 9 albums with Jay-Z.

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MASTERING AN INDIE PROJECT: The Diary of an Obsessive Artist, Part III

This is the third and final part of an article about the mastering process by singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien. Read Part I and Part II. Visit Kirsten online at www.kirstenthien.com. -James Beaudreau


Modern Mastering Miracles
In my song called “You’re Not Mine”, I was the “engineer” (with my Mbox, laptop, and hard drive) for the electric guitar session (at my guitar player’s house). We got a great performance and it sounded clean at the time, but with the dump trucks and other outside noise coming in the window of the “monitoring room” (a.k.a. the living room), I had recorded a couple of short, but detectable, channel overloads that I never heard until we got to the mixing studio. At the mixing stage, we tried and tried to fix the distortions with Pro-Tools but just could not do it. Re-recording was not an option for us from a time/budget standpoint, so I had to live with it. When mastering time came, I wanted to make sure, at the very least, that Scott had heard the crackles so he could make sure that his mastering didn’t do anything to accentuate them. Of course I also asked, “is there anything you can do to make them less noticeable, or even disappear?” Scott zoned in to the track for about ten minutes to see if he could mitigate the problem. I stayed quiet as he worked in this weird “hi-frequency-only” mode that literally made me feel dizzy. He went to headphones and I was out of the loop, until he switched the mix back on and played me the two “crackle segments”. I was speechless. The crackles were simply gone! It was a miracle. Now that I know this little trick existed, my mind raced to all my annoying mouth pops, and a drum-punch clip that we could never fix, and I knew I had a few items to attack using this little trick later!

Kirsten Thien
Kirsten Thien
Miraculous Limitations
Even though I was thrilled to have my channel overloads and a few other similar annoyances fixed, that type of surgery can be time consuming. Ten minutes here and there add up, so the best thing is to come in with the cleanest mix you can. However, when you’re mixing and your mixing platform and engineer can’t seem to fix some pop, click or momentary distortion, consider trying to handle it in mastering. Be wary of trying fixes if heavy reverb, delay or other effects are applied around the problem. That will make the fix more difficult, time-consuming and possibly not even feasible.

Song Order, Gaps in Between and We’re Done!
The last thing we did was clean up the beginnings and endings of every song. We set the final order and began working on the appropriate time delay between each song. At this point Scott had a suggestion about switching the order of songs two and three, putting the slower “You’ve Got Me” third, and the more up-tempo “Thank You for Saying Goodbye” second. Having already decided, then re-decided my song order about seven times before walking in the door with my drive, I already knew that in the pre-mastering environment, putting “You’ve Got Me” after “Thank You” just wasn’t working. For some reason, one of my strongest tracks, “You’ve Got Me”, just sounded momentarily disappointing coming after “Thank You”. I thought it was the tempo, or going from one key to the other that was creating this little let down. But when we tried the order post-mastering, it was incredible to see that problem disappear and the song really represent well in that very same order I had rejected at home! I can’t put my finger on exactly what made it work, but something we did in mastering made those two songs work in that particular order.

We were done! We stayed pretty much on schedule after subtracting lunchtime and some extra chatting here and there. Scott explained that he would keep the “real-time master”, which is the best copy that can be made from the computer. His assistant would create four reference copies for me to pick up in a couple hours or the next day. I could then listen and “live with the master” for a few days or as long as I needed to decide if we wanted any touchups or to change a song order. When I was ready to pull the trigger, Scott and his crew would handle sending the best copy to the manufacturer. (And of course I asked him if there were any particular manufacturers he liked.)

After-Hours Chat
I asked Scott a few questions I had been mulling over during the session. I wanted to know how much time he spent on a big-budget album compared to an indie project. His answer surprised me: unless there are major problems with a mix, he usually finishes any LP master in about the same time frame — a one-day/8-hour session. It’s the revisions and multiple mastering sessions that drive the prices up. At its most extreme, Scott divulged an experience he had with an unnamed Grammy-winning artist he worked with years prior. Having already re-mixed several times and re-mastered over the course of two weeks, the album was finally sent off to manufacturing. A few days later, during a mastering session to prepare singles, the artist turned to his producer and said “Why didn’t we put background vocals on this song?” He began singing a harmony part and it was clear that it was important enough to act on. Calls were made over the next few hours, and within days, the presses were stopped on the CDs at manufacturing; background vocalists, producers and engineers flown in and out of town quickly; and the background vocal track was actually laid over the mastered track right in the mastering studio before the master was sent back out for replication. That last-minute change cost them, but the song and the album went on to win several Grammy awards.

I hope to someday have a budget that allows me to follow my creative impulses at any point in the process, but that’s not today. If I want to win a Grammy on my budget, preparation, good research, and being willing to spend money on the important things are the only way. In the end, I got the same mastering treatment as the Grammy-winning artist — the same ears, experience, skill, equipment, and listening environment. My record sounds polished, ready to be heard anywhere, and I’m I’m proud to present them to my fans. Now, everything I’ve lived and breathed for over a year is sitting in my little hand, and I’m faced with the question that Scott says he hears often as the mastering session winds down: “So what the hell am I going to do with myself tomorrow?”

A FEW ARTICLE “BONUS TRACKS”

How Scott Fixed the Clicks
Clicks and pops are mostly isolated to the high frequencies, so Scott isolated everything in the mix above 15k. He generated a soundwave of just that frequency range, so that he was able to see and manipulate the problem area in Sonic Solutions. His adjustments were done at a level of precision that we would never get in the Protools environment. Sonic Solutions and his other gear used in the mastering process are designed for this type of precision. At the same time, the problem has to exist in a pretty narrow EQ range and if there’s heavy reverb/delay on the problem, you can’t isolate it as well. In layman’s terms, average harmonic content is figured for the problem region and for a small region before and/or after the problem. Using mathematical algorithms, Sonic Solutions generates a mirror image of a specified range of the sound wave and reforms a single non-clicking wave using “interpolation”. (Get your old math books if you don’t remember that one.) The tool is very different from anything that is done in the recording studio environment and “should not be tried at home”.

Some Factors that Make Mastering More Important than Ever
MP3s – Especially for indie artists, the first listen that many people will have of your recordings is from a super-compressed MP3 file, and possibly through computer speakers. If you do not master your tracks, you have less control over what will “pop” out in this format.

Home recordings and traveling hard disks – Many, if not most of us, nowadays do some recording or editing of our tracks in a home or project studio. We record and mix in a number of different locations before the project is done, adjusting as we go along. Drawing all these disparate sounds together into one cohesive unit is a major task of the Mastering Engineer.

More competition through greater access to recording gear – Almost anyone can come out with a CD today, with very little expense. The barriers are down, but the desire for the best quality music hasn’t gone away. People make decisions very quickly (like, in seconds) when it comes to judging new music. Don’t let some funky frequency, disparate volume levels, or a mix that sounds right only in your own studio be the cause of your music or artistry being dismissed too quickly. Other artists, producers and even industry folk may see through this to your undeniable talent, but the general public is not as forgiving. Make sure they want to buy your next CD too!


I hope you enjoyed our presentation of Kirsten Thien’s excellent article about the ins and outs of the mastering process. Check out the album which was the subject of the article, You Got Me, here.

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MASTERING AN INDIE PROJECT: The Diary of an Obsessive Artist, Part II

This is the second of a three-part article about the mastering process by singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien. Read the first part here: Part I. Visit Kirsten online at www.kirstenthien.com. -James Beaudreau


People Get Ready
Preparation is key for staying on budget. When you consider the hourly rate you’ll pay for a good mastering facility, your preparation becomes exponentially more valuable than it was even when you were preparing for studio recording or mixing time. Even if you negotiate a day rate, you will pay more if you go over a certain amount of time — or you’ll have to cut corners when you run out of time. My biggest fear was running out of time or money because of things I could have avoided. Here are a few things I did to get ready.

Kirsten Thien
Kirsten Thien
  • Talk to the engineer: I found out his process for using alternate mixes. Could he work directly from my stems in Pro-Tools to create alternate mixes on the spot? Or is it better to have important alternates already bounced down to stereo mixes? What is the fastest way for him to get the files into his system? Tell them the bit depth and sampling rate of your highest-quality mixes. (If you’re mixing in 24-bit or higher, don’t compress to 16-bit for the mastering engineer. His equipment for doing this is much better than yours and he should do it after other mastering techniques have been applied.)
  • Prepare Files: I created a folder on my hard drive called “All Master Mixes” that would hold individual folders for each song. Within each song’s folder was a Pro-Tools Session of the master mixes of that song, along with the associated audio files. This is where all my alternate mixes were. All of these files and folders had already existed in different places on my hard drive, depending on when or where we mixed it. But I copied them all over to this one “All Master Mixes” folder so my mastering engineer didn’t have to search around the hard drive to find the files he needed. (This came in handy later, as you will see.) I re-named audio files to names that make sense, like “Vox Up”, “Bass Down”, etc. (Be careful not to accidentally disassociate your files from your session if you rename.) Finally, I also added one additional folder that had a Pro-Tools session with the choice mixes lined up in order on a single stereo track (45 minutes long), and copies of the choice mixes only in the session’s “Audio Folder”. This is where we would start off our mastering session and where the engineer could grab all my audio files to drag to his system.
  • Alternative: If you’re not working with a hard drive and have CD’s or DVD’s from several studios and mix sessions, try to at least make a screen shot of your various file structures and make notes on each alternate mix for each song. Give this to your engineer as reference so he’s able to see his options on each song as he masters and as “problems” present themselves.
  • Song Order: I’m a big believer that song order on an album is super-important. There are the commercial goals of the record to consider, but, more importantly, it’s your last chance to affect the flow of your tunes and how they affect listeners who hear the album as a whole. I spent hours listening through to different song orders and making notes. I also got some outside advice because by this time, I’m sure I had lost my objectivity! Even if I didn’t stick with the “final” order I came up with (we eventually did change the order), I was sure of why I picked this song order and its advantages and drawbacks compared to other song orders. Mastering would affect how each track sounds next to another, so anything was possible when we got to the end of the session. Nonetheless, we had a really solid starting point.
  • MASTER CLASS – DAY OF THE SESSION

    I eventually chose Jigsaw Sound in SoHo because their new engineer, Scott Hull, came highly recommended. [Scott was at Jigsaw in 2005. -Ed.] My research on him made him my top choice in my price range. It turns out that the fit was more than serendipitous. I chatted with co-owner of the studio, Dave Ares, before the session and learned that he and his partner Mike Iurato started jigsaw in 2001 specifically to fill a need they saw in NYC. “We were seeing so many indie records that weren’t even being mastered b/c the budgets wouldn’t allow it.” says Dave. So they created a top-level mastering environment, and offered it in a price range that made it accessible to indie projects. Over the past 3 years, Dave has seen many an artist come through the doors with anticipation on their faces, and watched them leave, sometimes ecstatic and dying to get their product out, and other times devastated and wondering what they did wrong. I thought this was a good person to get some advice from, so I asked him for some tips on preparing for a successful mastering session. He came up with some great ones.

    Inexperience with the process will cost you time (and money you don’t have): Even if it’s your first session, do some research ahead of time so you’re not completely surprised about how the process works.

  • Don’t be too attached to your mixes: You’ve been listening in your project studio, on headphones, on many systems. Be open to what the mastering studio environment reveals about your mixes and be prepared to hear EVERYTHING. It’s a vulnerable place to be, but you’ll have to quickly face your mistakes and work with the engineer to make your mixes and your album the best they possibly can be at this stage. That is, unless you have the cash to go back and do some re-mixing or re-recording.
  • Be open-minded, but don’t go with too many choices to make. Have your song order picked out ahead of time. Have your “choice mixes” decided on. Song order, or which mix you master from can easily change during the session but your familiarity with your choices will save you time (read, money) during the session, and ultimately, it helps you get toward the best product you can achieve on your particular budget.
  • Listen to your engineer’s advice. He knows this room better than you do, and he should know how masters from the room sound all over the outside world. If you agree on vision with your engineer, his input can be very useful at this point; so make sure you listen.
  • Keep track of time and the big picture of your album: “I’ve seen lots of artists get too zoned in on one small piece of the whole album in the mastering session”, Scott tells me. “You’re dealing with a stereo mix at this point, so there’s a limit to what you can fix without messing up other parts of the album”.
  • Get some rest the night before your session, and especially let your ears rest: I agree! If you haven’t attended a mastering session before, I probably cannot convince you of how draining and demanding it is on your ears and your brain. If you have attended a session, you know that at the end of the day your ears physically hurt and you’ll be more tired than after running 10 miles. So get some rest and don’t listen to loud music the night before your session.
  • Scott Hull
    Scott Hull
    SCOTT HULL –- Quiet Please. Mastering Session in Progress.

    When you walk into a well-designed mastering room, the first thing you notice is that it is completely and utterly silent (except for the ringing in your ears). You almost feel like you’re in outer space, and the words you speak just disappear the minute they come out of your mouth. This environment is created to be the most unforgiving, transparent, and revealing listening environment on Earth. Be ready to hear every little thing when the music comes on.

    Scott and I said hello a bit, plugged in my hard drive, and started the session off with opening up the tracks in my ProTools session. We started listening to the songs at a low-to-medium volume. While the music played, we talked a little about the goals of the project. “A lot of times, the music tells the story on it’s own, but one thing we have to talk about is the ‘volume question’.” Scott explained.

    If you hadn’t already noticed, do an experiment and play (in chronological order) some CDs that you’ve purchased from 1995 to today. Especially in the last few years, you’ll hear a noticeable volume increase over time. Pop music, particularly music that is driven by radio play, is getting louder and louder. The loudness does not only affect the actual and perceived volume, but also the overall sound presentation because of the extensive compression and limiting that is used –- it’s crunchier, there’s less “space between the notes,” and there may be less overall dynamic range because it starts out loud so it only has so far to go. The “volume question” is one that even the big-budget producers and artists are grappling with. We indie artists who want to compete with the big boys need to give some thought to the question and work with our mixing and mastering engineers to make sure that our intentions for both commercial success and artistic expression are carried out.

    After he had listened most of every song, Scott had a good idea of where the mixes and album were going as a whole. He found some areas he knew he’d want to work on to improve the overall sound. And then he got to work on Song #2. “As I listen through,” Scott told me, “the starting song sort of picks me.” It turns out that a lot of times, the 2nd song is a good place to start because it gives some guidance as to how far you can push the envelope on the first song. You want the first song to pop and attract attention, but if it pops too much and Song #2 doesn’t lend itself to that treatment, you could end up making it sound a little flat.

    When we got to Song #3, I noticed Scott looking around on my drive while the choice mix was playing. Next thing I know he turns and asks me if I mind if he checks out the “Bass_Reg” mix. When he heard a “problem” with the mix I had chosen, he went straight to my drive to scan my alternate mix choices for the song. Since they were all in a folder named after the song, and had file names that told him what made the mixes distinct he was able to find his alternatives very quickly and keep us moving forward. I took a moment to pat my self on the back, feeling at the height of organization!

    We mastered a couple tunes, and I could totally start hearing a major difference. As the end of Song #3 played, the bass was ringing oh-so quietly for what seemed hours after everything else died. I had never heard that before. Easy to “fix” in this case, but Scott told me that one of the most common mistakes made in studios is either abruptly cutting off quiet parts at beginnings and endings, or, alternatively letting something very quiet (chair creak, voice click) stay in the mix that shouldn’t. The mastering environment is unforgiving in its exposure of these little bits. In a recording studio, with computers and gear whirring, there is a limit to what you can hear through the speakers. Before you print a mix, make sure to listen through headphones or you might end up in mastering and find all sorts of little sounds popping up or disappearing inelegantly.


    Go to Part III.

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    MASTERING AN INDIE PROJECT: The Diary of an Obsessive Artist, Part I

    In 2006, when her album You’ve Got Me was released, singer/songwriter Kirsten Thien wrote an article about the process of mastering a record from an independent artist’s perspective. It’s really one of the best primers I’ve ever seen on the subject. Happily for us, Kirsten chose Scott Hull to master her record, and there’s a lot (starting in Part II, posting tomorrow) about what a mastering session with Scott is like.

    As of this writing, in June 2010, Kirsten is in the process of wrapping up the recording of her third album, which numbers among its guests the great guitarist Hubert Sumlin (Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf). Visit her online at www.kirstenthien.com Thanks to Kirsten for allowing us to post “Mastering an Indie Project”! -James Beaudreau


    Kirsten Thien
    Kirsten Thien
    As an indie artist with high hopes, a marketing plan, and an album full of material, the challenge of realizing your musical vision while sticking to your budget can seem insurmountable at times. You know that after the CD is complete, you need some dough to promote your album. But as recording, editing, and mixing expenses add up you start to have fewer options for finishing the project before running out of cash.

    Because it’s a bit of a black box for many artists, mastering is often one of those expenses that gets slashed to a bare minimum. There are lots of programs emerging that add mastering to the list of things you can now do at home. You could also buy or “borrow” a program/room and master your project on your own. Or maybe you’ll consider a mixing engineer who recently started mastering in his recording studio. These are all options for the budget-conscious, and are better alternatives to not mastering a record at all. All these alternatives considered, I decided that mastering by an experienced mastering engineer, in a carefully designed listening environment, would be the best way to ensure that my recording would sound the way I intended it to no matter where listeners were tuning in.

    From Recording to Finishing
    Like so many of us do now, I financed my entire CD project out-of-pocket. We scrimped to get the most out of every dollar, learned to do a lot on our own, and had to make some compromises to save money. Part of that meant being very flexible in how, when, and where everything was recorded and mixed. Some basic tracks and vocals were recorded in a great studio environment; some were done in well-equipped project studios, and I did a fair amount of recording with my Pro-Tools rig in living rooms of guitar players, kitchens of harmonica players, and in my own apartment. Dan Myers, the mixing engineer, was our first stop on the highway of pulling everything together. He mixed almost every track on the record, but even so, mixes were done over the course of 6 months and in two different studios (Dumbo Studios in New York and Mixolydian in Lafayette, NJ). Even so, there were two tracks recorded and mixed by other engineers entirely in a totally different studio environment. This is where “mastering” valiantly entered the picture, so we could be sure that the differences that made each song unique were not a distraction to the listener.

    Choosing an Mastering Engineer and Room
    The decision on where you will master your record and who will engineer the session is going to depend on many factors. Here are some things I took into consideration:

  • Budget: That again. It was clear that with my expectations of what mastering would do for my album, I would be paying more than $1000. How much more I could afford or even stomach became the question. I put on my best negotiator’s hat and made sure that the engineers or assistants I spoke to knew this was an indie project. I also found out every way they cut a deal. Having some flexibility (time) may help you get a deal on the price. Mention if you are willing to be “on call” to do your session at the last minute when a top-paying session is postponed and the room would otherwise be empty.
  • Recommendations: Nothing beats recommendations to get you started in finding engineers to look into. Ask artist-friends, musicians, read liner notes of indie and small label projects that you liked. Especially remember to ask your mixing engineer who’s mastering work he can recommend.
  • Location: If you’re not in a major music town, this will be a big one — use someone local? Or travel? If you decide to use a mastering engineer that isn’t near you, that could actually work in your favor on the budget side if you’re willing to set up an “unattended session”. More on that later. If you are in a major music town, don’t forget to consider mastering facilities that are outside of town, whose prices might be lower because overhead is lower. Being willing to travel will expand your options, so don’t rule it out.
  • Unattended sessions: The “unattended session” concept was totally new to me, and it brought some mastering facilities I thought I couldn’t afford into my realm of possibilities. Some mastering engineers offer a lower price for an “unattended session” as it gives them the freedom to fit your session in between scheduled projects. It may also give them the chance to hand your project over to their assistant engineer to do most of the work. But if you are confident that the lead engineer you have chosen is of high caliber and wouldn’t let anything out of their room without their stamp of approval, you might get extra bang for your buck with this approach.
  • Vision of the mastering engineer: Do you want a more scientific, or commercial, or an artistic view on the mastering of your project? Mastering is your last stop in the creative process, and it’s an intensive 1-day collaboration before you go to market with your product. There’s not much time to warm up and get to know one another. Understanding the engineer’s vision can help you make the right choice and help things run more smoothly and quickly during the session. Use the internet to find interviews that your engineer has done in the past. That’s also a good way to learn more about the process.
  • The engineer’s experience in your genre/style of music: I wanted to know that my engineer had worked on projects similar to mine, as well as projects that I knew and respected. If you’re in a heavy rock band, think twice about going to master with someone who’s known predominantly in the jazz world. Yeah, he’s a pro and should do a great job, but is he faced with dealing in your market and its unique requirements for radio and sales on a regular basis? Most engineers work on a huge variety of projects, so its easy to come up with a good list no matter what genre you’re in.
  • Equipment: There is some standard equipment in almost every top-notch mastering studio. The environment and tools are crucial to the best possible mastering job, so make sure to review and compare equipment lists of your top choices. “Sonic Solutions” is pretty much the industry standard mastering platform for the pro-mastering facilities, and there are about 10 pieces of gear that are really common tools used by the top mastering engineers. Make sure you consider the equipment list along with your other factors.

  • Go to Part II.

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