A Look Back With Scott Hull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Family Treasure Saved

Haynes_Victor1Some days I am working on a brand new recording to hi resolution digital.  Other days, a recent live to 2 track analog blues record. But today was an interesting experience.

I received a request to transfer records to digital.  Snore.. right that’s not so amazing.  But what I was sent was really cool.

I have transferred and cleaned many 78 rpm records.  They always are a challenge.  The playback turntables of that era were clunky, and since few people owned a lot of 78s, they were usually played a LOT.  This causes all sorts of playback issues, skips. distortion, scratches and pops, and that constant swish of a commercial mass-produced 78.  I have a restoration tool that can reduce many of these unwanted noises, but there is always compromises.  So much so, that I had actually forgotten what a virgin 78 sounded like.

Seventy-Eights are a handful to transfer. There was virtually no playback standard when they were new. Each label used a pre-emphasis EQ, and real collectors had complex setups with different EQs and curves so they could get an accurate playback.  Different width styli were used throughout the years, and if you didn’t use the right size stylus, you would damage the disk even more.

The process of transferring 78s is mostly trial and error, then adjusting the final tone for what appears to be normal.  You can’t guess at this; you really have to have a great ear and good EQs.

So, when I opened up this package I was pleasantly surprised. Inside was a near-virgin 78 record that had been cut on a lathe as a one of a kind record.

Back in the day, small record cutters (disk recorders) existed.  They were used like a tape recorder would be used: to capture a live performance so that it can be played back later.  These particular disks must have been cut and then put away for 60 years.

The transfer went smoothly. There was plenty of surface noise and quite a few pops, but a whole lot less than would be heard on a circulated disk.

Sample 1: Original 78 RPM Recording (1952)

 

Sample 1: Restored by Masterdisk

 

The story behind the story goes like this: After my client’s mother-in-law passed away, the family went through a storage facility where she had her “stuff”.  (George Carlin used to do a routine about how much we like “our stuff”.)  I’m sure there was a lot of mothballs and old lace. But they found in this room, these 3 disks.

What it was was a “studio “ recording of his mother-in-law at the age of 9, playing a series of difficult pieces of music on piano.  She was truly gifted at such a young age.  She announced each song, and at the end stated the year and date and her age.  I was floored.  Just to think that they had survived—probably a hundred different opportunities to be thrown out or forgotten about.

The good part is, these records cleaned up very nicely.  The tools I use to take light ticks and pops off LPs worked great. Then, when I sat back and listened down to the entire performance, I was again shocked at how high fidelity the recording was.  It was at least as full and rich as the best analog tape recorders of the time.

I had one other experience like this: My own grandmother had been shopping in a general store in Tippecanoe, Ohio in 1953, and as she came out, she was greeted by a man—a bread salesman—who had a portable disk recorder. He did a “man on the street” interview with my grandmother and pitched to her the breads from the company who sent him.

Each of her five sons said their Sunday school verse for the recording, and, like magic, years later, there was my father at age 9, and my uncle as an infant, crying in the baby carriage.

This record was cut onto a plastic disk with a thin cardboard core.  The plastic was worn and gave way in spots, but with painstaking care, I managed to put it together and clean it up. I played back the record at a slower speed (because the needle was hopping all over the place).  This disk had been played a lot and was in really poor shape.  I did this restoration about 18 years ago.  The tools for restoration have improved 100 fold since then and are much faster too.

So, even if you aren’t a hoarder, you just might find a funny looking little record in your grandparents attic. Treat it carefully, have it played by a professional, and treat yourself to the time capsule experience.  For fun, I just played this recording from 60 years ago for my two daughters.  They never got me meet my grandmother (or my father for that matter).  I think it’s pretty cool that these recordings have survived.

Sample 2: Original 78 RPM Recording (1952)

 

Sample 2: Restored by Masterdisk

 

 

Benjy King

Photo of Benjy KingIt is with great sadness that we announce the death of our friend, Benjy King, on Thursday afternoon, September 20, from complications from an accident on Wednesday night. Benjy was an extremely talented musician, producer, arranger and recording engineer who will be missed by all of us, and by the many musicians, listeners and friends who loved him and his work.

Benjy was a true multi-instrumentalist who could play piano, organ, synth, guitar, bass and drums expertly. He was also an accomplished singer. Over the course of his career, Benjy worked with many of the world’s top session musicians, artists, engineers and producers. Scott Hull, Al Schmitt, Will Lee, Lincoln Clapp and David Santos are counted among his many professional admirers.

In addition to his numerous talents, Benjy had a personality that could light up a room, and a wealth of stories from his adventures in music that could keep those lucky enough to hear him in rapt attention for hours.

The world has lost a vibrant talent. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Benjy’s family and friends.

Ask the Engineer: Tim Boyce on Improving Your EDM Mixes

Masterdisk Ask the Engineer graphic

Ask the Engineer is a new series here on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production.

Our first question goes to engineer Tim Boyce.

Q: What are some of the most common problems associated with the dance mixes you receive for mastering?

Photo of Tim BoyceA: The most common trouble I see often isn’t a problem in the mix, but overlooking the importance of the arrangement. Often there’s just too much going on at once, and the mix looses clarity. For example, a mix might have a kick drum and a few different bass lines overlapping. When a speaker makes sound it’s either pushing forward or pulling back to create physical waves in the air. That’s what our ears respond to: air-pressure. For a good, clear, powerful kick drum – which is a critical element of dance music – the speaker needs to be able to cleanly move through its full range of motion. If the speaker is being told to do a bunch of different things in the same frequency range at the same time, it will be ‘fighting’ itself and you won’t get that big clear sound that you want. I think this commonly happens when producers are focusing on the individual sounds/samples of the track and don’t pay as much attention to the overall arrangement of when those sounds play together.

If you look at the top producers making dance music right now, you’ll see a heavy focus on arrangement. Each instrument has its place. Take dubstep for example. Powerful dubstep mixes typically use one or very few sounds at once, so that each sound can have its full sonic impact. Each sound has its place, in time and in the mix. It’s very sequence heavy, and sounds more massive by actually being pretty minimal.

A lot of people try to fix the busy-ness and muddle of their mixes by using tons of EQ, but that’s not the best answer for clarity. I think it starts with the arrangement — so start there and make sure all of your key elements have the space around them to come through clearly.


Tim Boyce’s specialties lie in world, dance, dub, hip-hop, ethnic, remixed, and other genres, and his production credits include French Montana, SLDGHMR, Deathrow Tull, MSTRKRFT, Nightbox, and RAC. Tim’s creative desire to breath life into a static space allows him to finely tune an album into a living movement, not just a passive listening experience. If you need cutting-edge mastering, Tim’s your engineer. Get more info at the Tim Boyce page on the Masterdisk website.

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LAMC: Music Industry Tips #2

Tip #2: Exposure is the name of the game.

The conversation at LAMC panels moved into licensing. If you are interested in licensing your music, it will help to have a more complete picture about how that world works. Getting your music into the hands of licensing companies such as DMX or Lovecat Music is only one part of the puzzle. You may also have to make changes to your music to fit into a scene or rerecord a song on spec, without guaranteed pay.

Mary Nuñez of Sony Latin urged artists to always prepare instrumental tracks for use (read: master your instrumentals along with your main mixes), and keep your stems ready to hand over to the licensing companies as well.  You never know what element in your song matches a scene in a commercial or film and what will need to be pushed or downplayed in the mix. 

Nic Harcourt of KCRW agreed: “younger artists who are growing up in a different world from legacy artists, are a lot more hungry and realize that getting their music placed in TV commercials, movies, games, whatever, is probably the only way they’re going to make a living doing music right now.”

Randy Frisch at Lovecat Music and Anita Benner at DMX were particularly encouraging of artists submitting their CDs; they’re always looking for ways to bring new artists into the fold.

Regarding getting picked up as an independent Latin artist, Anita Benner said that with the growth of the Hispanic market in the U.S., clients are starting to appropriate more and more Latin music. “So, anywhere from a jewelry store that targets girls, to hallmark stores in middle America, Champs, every major fashion brand that you can think of, Victoria Secret, Best Buy, they’re all starting to incorporate Latin music in their programming. It’s really a tremendous platform,” she said, “simply walking down the street, you can’t escape us.”

DMX reaches almost 200 million people a day through various marketing venues, and as an artist, it can be a real boost to have such exposure, especially since radio play for independent artists is practically impossible.

Nic Harcourt hit the nail on the head when he said: “whether it’s placement in a commercial, or a major band that get’s their music in a TV show, or in VH1, exposure is the name of the game. It’s really frightening that the outlets and TV commercials still are a way, in some cases for breaking a band.”

The process at DMX is fairly simple: you fill out the contract in ten minutes, send in a CD and it takes up to two weeks to get into the system and then 30 days before you’re in rotation. “It’s a novelty,” says Benner, “to be able to walk into Nike or Puma or West Elm and hear your song playing.” And apparently it goes further than that. Some shoppers have turned into music bloggers who, through guesswork, post unofficial playlists for stores like Abercombie & Fitch. Within the microcosm of the shopper’s world is a growing online music community, another potential audience pool.

Josh Norek of Nacional Records recounted his surprise at placing Nortec Collective (pictured above) on a 30 second spot in a scene where Anthony Bourdain is eating tacos in Tijuana. The day after the show aired, all four of their albums were on the iTunes Latino Top 20. “And that surprised me,” said Norek, “because its a foodie show. I’ve had examples with shows like Breaking Bad, where we had a really good sales bump, but I wasn’t expecting a food show where it was just brief use. So I felt a little less bitter about the small licensing fee, because we saw a reaction where people liked the song and went on iTunes to find it.”

As an independent artist, try every route to get your music heard, because you never know what the outcome might be.