A: Yeah, I’m a bass head. It’s the first thing I deal with. Do I want to enhance it? Do I need to take something off? Because it’s got to sound good. As tight and punchy as possible. It’s totally key to get the bass right. You need that clarity down there.
Q: Has that always been your approach?
A: Yeah, I’d say so. I was working on a lot of different kinds of stuff in the late 80s and 90s. Indie rock, hard rock, all kinds of stuff. Now a lot of people come to me and say “I want that bass that you get in that record” and they name a particular hip-hop record I mastered. Back then they would say, “I don’t want it to sound disco.” OK, I say. But really, it’s in the mix. I enhance what you’ve already done. That’s the role of mastering. I always say, it’s the icing on the cake.
Q: Any tips for mixers when it comes to getting the bass right?
A: Make sure your speakers aren’t lying to you or your mix isn’t going to be right. Your monitors should be as flat as possible, and you should be very familiar with the way they sound. Also, make sure your listening environment is treated. You can’t just put sheetrock up and expect to be able to hear what’s in your mix.
Q: What about people that mix mainly with headphones?
A: Hm, well…
Q: It sounds like you don’t recommend that.
A: Sure you can do it. People work in all different kinds of ways. But if you mix a lot with headphones, make sure they’re GOOD headphones — and you’ll still need good speakers and and a treated monitoring environment to check your mixes.
That’s it for this time — we’ll have further interviews with Tony in the coming weeks on a variety of mastering and music subjects. Stay tuned…
Choice Cuts is a blog series where we ask the question all music obsessives love to answer: “What is your essential music?” This time it’s Tony Dawsey’s turn.
He’s well known for mastering hip-hop classics, but not as many music fans know about Tony Dawsey mastering jazz. So the title Tony selected for his first “Choice Cut” might surprise some readers: Urban Knights‘ self-titled album, released on CD by the GRP label in 1995.
“That’s my favorite album of all time I’ve worked on,” Tony says. “Maybe it has something to do with it being jazz; it’s upbeat and it puts a smile on my face.”
The album, which has instrumentals and vocal tunes, features a core group of Ramsey Lewis (piano), Grover Washington Jr. (saxophone), Victor Bailey (bass), and Omar Hakim (drums).
Ramsey Lewis started his career in the 50s, playing straight-ahead piano trio jazz, and scored his first hit in 1965 with the iconic soul-jazz album “The In Crowd”.
Grover Washington, Jr. started in the soul-jazz field in the 60s, and started making records under his own name in the early 70s for Motown and Verve. Like Ramsey, Grover eventually had “crossover” hits in R&B.
Victor Bailey got his first big break replacing Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report. Talk about having some shoes to fill! He’s gone on to be an extremely in-demand sideman in jazz, fusion, funk and R&B as well as a leader of his own projects.
Drummer Omar Hakim also spent some time in Weather Report, but he got his first break with Carly Simon. He made serious waves playing with David Bowie on “Let’s Dance,” and Sting on “Dream of the Blue Turtles” and has been on many hit records since, while still keeping up his fusion chops.
So “Urban Knights” is a sort of soul-jazz / R&B / pop supergroup.
“I can listen to it any time,” Tony says. “I’ll listen to it when I’m home — I can sit down and listen or it’s something that’s nice to have on when I’m doing stuff in the yard or whatever. I’ll play it in the car — though it depends on what kind of driving I’m doing. Sometimes it’s Biggie Smalls in the car! But probably not a month goes by that I don’t listen to Urban Knights. Some people will probably be surprised at that, thinking I listen to hip-hop all the time or something. I do listen to hip-hop, but I listen to a lot of other stuff too.”
So glad to see French Montana’s album “Excuse My French” (Bad Boy/Interscope) at the top of the Billboard “Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart this week! Congratulations to French Montana, Bad Boy, and to Mastering Engineer Tony Dawsey and Assistant Mastering Engineer Tim Boyce. Great to see you at the top of charts where you belong, Tony!
This week I’d like you to hear from one of my master cutting engineers, Tony Dawsey. Tony, like myself, started mastering before there was digital recording of any kind. Well, we’re not that old. But at that time, everything we did was focused on producing the highest quality vinyl records imaginable.
I sat down with Tony and asked him a few questions about vinyl, and about his experience as a cutting engineer. Here’s a couple of short excerpts; I hope you’ll enjoy listening to the full interview below.
What lessons from the early days still stick with you today?
Good isn’t good enough when it comes to perfecting your craft. That’s equalizing somebody’s project or cutting it. A lot of things can go wrong in cutting and you want to make sure none of that happens. You don’t want to cut a 25 minute side with a worn stylus. That’s not cool.
What was your path to cutting your first record?
Well the shipping room was right next to Bill Kipper’s studio, so in between my responsibilities early on, I’d drift in there with him and just watch him. He did a lot of classical music as well as other things. He ended up showing me how to cut vinyl.
The nominees for the 53rd Grammy Awards were announced last night in Los Angeles, and we’re thrilled to see our clients up for honors!
Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint 3, which was mastered by Tony Dawsey, is up for Best Rap Album, and two of its songs have been singled out for honors too. “Empire State of Mind” is up for Record of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and Best Rap Song. Another album track, “On to the Next One,” is up for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group and Best Rap Song. We did a brief podcast about Tony’s work on The Blueprint 3 back in June, you can listen to that here.
Laurie Anderson’s track “Flow,” from her album Homeland (mastered by Scott Hull) was nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Competing with Ms. Anderson for that award is “Orchestral Intro” from Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach album, mastered by Howie Weinberg. Can they both win, please?
Finally, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is up for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album award for Infernal Machines, (mastered by Randy Merrill) which was released on the non-profit-model record label New Amsterdam. We’re thrilled about all of the nominations, but this one is especially satisfying because New Amsterdam is a relatively small operation and it’s great to see independent work recognized. And because it’s a darn good record! We took an in-depth look at the making of “Infernal Machines” back in April. Check it out here.
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.
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.
Did you see SPIN magazine’s feature this week (in the mag and on the web) about the “125 Best Albums of the Past 25 Years“? There was a lot of tweeting going on about it, as will happen whenever anything as contentious as a “best of the past 25 years” list appears in a major publication. I enjoy a good list myself, so I was all over it. And I thought it would be neat to figure out how many of them were mastered at Masterdisk. Just ’cause. So here’s a list of 18 albums from the 125 that were mastered at Masterdisk. There’s probably more, but some credits proved difficult to track down. If you spot one that I missed, please let me know!
125. Moby – Play (1999)
99. PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
92. Jay-Z – The Black Album (2003)
88. Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)
79. The Breeders – Last Splash (1993)
70. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
67. Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (1985)
61. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)
44. Beastie Boys – Licensed To Ill (1986)
39. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
38. Run-DMC – Raising Hell (1986)
25. Nas – Illmatic (1994)
19. Jay-Z – The Blueprint (2001)
17. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
14. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)
13. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)
6. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
4. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
On a recent Friday evening gathering at Masterdisk, Tony Dawsey and I were having some pizza and talking about his first hit record, La Bamba, the soundtrack to the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic. Tony told me a great story about that record and I made a mental note to follow up with him and get it down to share here once we got the blog launched. So I did, and here we are! But before I tell you about La Bamba let’s rewind a little.
It was 1980 when Tony started working at Masterdisk — in the mail room. He was a student at FIT, studying photography, and Masterdisk was just a job to help him through school. But it turned out Tony wasn’t in the mail room for long. First it became his job to make 15 ips analog tape copies of master tapes for use in cassette manufacturing. Then he started learning how to master records, and eventually he got to handle some of the “COD” customers — that is, folks who would come in off the street looking to get their record mastered. They weren’t asking for any engineers in particular, so the more senior engineers would let Tony take the gig.
Eventually he would sub for some of the engineers when they weren’t available, which is how the La Bamba job came about. Producer Mitchell Froom wanted Bob Ludwig, who was Vice President and Chief Engineer at Masterdisk at the time, to master Crowded House’s single “Don’t Dream it’s Over” but Bob couldn’t do it, and Tony got the job. And Mitchell liked how Tony’s work sounded. Later on, when Froom was producing La Bamba, he asked for Tony.
Around the time of the soundtrack’s release, Tony had some other important things going on: he was getting married. Before the wedding the first single off the album, “La Bamba”, was getting big in New York, but hadn’t necessarily spread. But when Tony and his wife got to Hawaii on their honeymoon, they found that “La Bamba” had made it pretty far indeed. “We got to Hawaii and it was blasting out of cars…. you’d just hear it everywhere,” Tony said. I asked him how it felt to have just made his first big record — and to find out about it on his honeymoon. Tony said, “It was amazing, it was really something. I felt very blessed.”
Back in New York, Tony said that things weren’t immediately that different for him, despite the fact that the record was huge, “except that when people found out I did the record they would say, ‘oh, that was you?’ — and it would be a feather in my cap.” La Bamba was the number-one album on the Billboard Top 200 for two weeks in September 1987.
Despite its success, La Bamba wasn’t the record that made Tony’s career take off. “I think it really started later with a few other records,” he said, “one of which was the Kris Kross album.” While the backwards-dressing teen rap stars aren’t exactly household names anymore, their 1992 album Totally Krossed Out (Ruffhouse/Columbia Records) went 4 times multi-platinum and made the number-one spot on the Billboard Top 200 twice. But that’s the beginning of a different story…
(Consequently, the Crowded House single was a hit too. It was released in February 1986 and reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.)
(Billboard chart positions and sales figures from Wikipedia.)