Andy VanDette On Remastering 15 Rush Albums

Image of the Rush Road Case boxAs a long-time Rush fan, I’m glad to be able to bring you some inside-info about the new Rush “Sectors” box sets that came out this week. They consist of all fifteen of the band’s Mercury albums, from their debut Rush (1974) to A Show of Hands (1989), in three separate boxes, each with a single album in 5.1. (The surround-sound albums are Fly By Night, A Farewell To Kings, and Signals. Moving Pictures is available separately.)

All of the albums — both the CD and 5.1 versions — were remastered from original sources by Masterdisk Chief Engineer Andy VanDette. I sat down with Andy to discuss his experience mastering this classic catalog.

James: What was it like being the guy to get the call to master the Rush catalog?

Andy: I grew up in Buffalo, which is pretty close to Toronto, and I was in a band. Buffalo radio kind of sucked, but Toronto’s was much better. And of course they played a lot of Rush. I idolized Geddy Lee: I had the Rickenbacker 4001 and a Traynor bass amp, and my senior year of high school I spent everything I had to get the Electro-Harmonix bass synth so I could make that “wooosh” at the start of “Tom Sawyer.”

Photo of one of the boxes of Rush master tapes.
Unpacking one of the boxes of Rush master tapes that arrived here at Masterdisk.
So when I first came to Masterdisk and saw all the Rush records on the wall — I was blown away to be here. To see Geddy Lee come in all those times [when he would attend mastering sessions with then-Masterdisk chief engineer Bob Ludwig] was incredible. When I got the call to do the Moving Pictures remaster earlier this year it was like a dream come true. When I got the tapes I just put them up and sat back and listened without doing anything! Then to do the whole Mercury catalog — there no is no way to describe the feeling. That’s like going to the moon and back.

James: How did you get the gig?

Andy: It was through Richard Chycki. I mastered the Needtobreathe album The Heat which Richard had mixed. We got to talking and he told me that he was working on Snakes and Arrows Live — would I want to master it. Would I? (Laughs.) I mastered the CD and surround. I have to say, it’s great mastering Richard’s work. Some mixes I get need a bit of “reinvention”, let’s say. But not Richard’s — his mixes are rock solid, and what you’re hearing on those records is his sound.

After that I did Retrospective 3 which was a great project. This is the one that has the remixed tracks from Vapor Trails on it — and it was great to get to master those and to see the positive reaction that met those tracks online.

James: What was next?

Photo of the Rush master tape box side one
The master tape box for the Rush album, side one.
Andy: I believe it was R30 for blu-ray. This would have been 2009. I made sure it was way less compressed than it had been on the R30 DVD [released 4 years prior]. The compression had distorted the balances in the mix, pushing the guitars way forward. And then I did the Working Men compilation.

James: Which brings us back to Moving Pictures. I remember you mentioned that the first master tape you received had some audio missing?

Andy: Yes, the first time Moving Pictures was released on CD, the first half second of “Tom Sawyer” was missing. I received that master — a digital transfer of the master tape in this case — I think it was the one from the band’s archive. But otherwise, it sounded like I had always remembered. And of course I’m using some of the same gear that Bob Ludwig would have used when he mastered the albums originally: the NTP compressor, Neumann OE-DUO EQ and Sontec EQ. I got another master from Iron Mountain, and I used that to fix the missing audio.

James: What was your overall approach to the catalog remaster?

Photo of Andy VanDette with Geddy Lee
Andy with Geddy Lee circa 2001.
Andy: I wanted to do as little as possible so that the masters could truly speak for themselves. Being recorded in the vinyl era, they were optimized for that medium. People like more bottom end these days — and with earbuds and laptops as the primary playback monitors, it is understandable. I tried to nudge them in a warmer, thicker direction, but not cloud the guitars or the legendary Neil Peart snare.

James: What was the condition of the masters?

Andy: Handling analog masters that are over 30 years old makes people nervous. (Laughs.) I cleaned the tape heads after every song to make sure tape shedding hadn’t even started. Indeed, some tapes didn’t sound as good as others — after all, they’ve been sitting on a shelf for however many years. In some cases the 192 kHz digital master tape copies from the Rush archive sounded better. I think those transfers would have been made about seven years ago.

James: Were you surprised by anything you found?

Photo of Caress of Steel side one master tape box
Caress of Steel side one.
Andy: Some of the albums weren’t as thin toppy as I thought the were going to be. And for some I had a better source than the 1997 remasters. Some are brighter and clearer. Grace Under Pressure I tried for three days to make the tape transfer that I did sound as good as the existing CD. I figured that with the kind of care I put into the transfer — and having the original source — it would be a no-brainer; that this would be better than what’s been out there. But it just wasn’t the case: the tape didn’t age well. It had lost lots of clarity. So I ended up using the 192 kHz transfer.

The master for the first album [Rush] was a surprise — there was no shedding off the tape at all. There was still lots of top left. I imagine it had been baked before, and stored well afterwards.

James: Were there any “issues” along the way?

Andy: All the World’s a Stage — what can you say. It’s really hard to make great live recordings — even today. Unfortunately, the original tapes for this one didn’t give me much to work with. I was a lot happier with Exit Stage Left. The tape transfer I did sounded better than any of the previous releases that I’m aware of.

Photo of Fly By Night side two master tape box
Fly By Night side two.
James: Anything else fans should look forward to with these sets?

Andy: Well on Fly By Night I was really impressed with how well Richard [Chycki] brought the feel of the original album into 5.1. That classic snare sound remains intact! On A Show of Hands — I think that the clarity and punch came out more than in the previous releases.

It was very important to me that these be the best representation of the catalog possible and I think we accomplished that. Look, I’m a fan. When I put up Hemispheres for the first time I nearly cried. I may not have been able to muster every bass riff, or sung every high note in my band, but the memories of trying were overwhelming. I could not let Rush fans down. Each and every one of these albums got the deluxe treatment.


Good news for iTunes customers: Andy is currently preparing iTunes-optimized versions of all of the masters. He says “it’s a slow process, mostly song-by-song work. But it’s worth it — these versions are going to sound a heck of a lot better than what you would get without the optimization at the mastering stage.”

Photo of the Grace Under Pressure master tape box
Grace Under Pressure.
Photo of Rush master tape box side two
The Rush album side two master tape box.
Fill out my online form.

Three Vlado Meller-Mastered Albums In the Billboard Top 10 This Week

Cover art for Michael Buble's album ChristmasWe’re very proud to say that Vlado Meller and Masterdisk currently have 3 albums in the top 10 of the Billboard Top 200! Michael Bublé’s album Christmas is at No. 2, Susan Boyle’s Someone To Watch Over Me is at No. 7, and Il Divo’s Wicked Game is at No. 10.

Congratulations to Vlado Meller and his team: Mark Santangelo (assistant mastering engineer) and Peter Cho (booking manager).

http://www.billboard.com/charts/billboard-200#/charts/billboard-200

Childish Gambino’s Album “Camp” Released This Week on Glassnote Records

Camp cover artWe’re excited about Camp, the new album from Childish Gambino (aka actor/comedian Donald McKinley Glover — you might know him from the NBC sitcom Community), which was released on Glassnote Records this week.

Personally, I’ve heard about this album for a little while now, since it was mastered here at Masterdisk by Vlado Meller. Peter Cho, Vlado’s booking manager, had heard it a number of times over the course of the mastering process, and he was blown away by the record, and told me so. He flagged it right from the start: this album is going to be a hit.

Check it out for yourself. I’ve got some links below to listen to the album (I’m not sure how long it will be streaming at NPR, but it still is as of today), and to some early critical response as well.

Hear the album at NPR:
http://www.npr.org/2011/11/06/141934309/first-listen-childish-gambino-camp

Or on Spotify:
http://open.spotify.com/album/3g18ADJiQO3BNLIVZRENb1

Buy it at Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Camp-Childish-Gambino/dp/B005LS4N22/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1321472732&sr=1-1


PRESS:
Consequence of Sound gives Camp 4.5 out of 5 stars and says “Gambino can really rap. Scratch that; he can really, really rap, plus sing and emote and put on a show better than 90% of his hip-hop counterparts.”

XXL gives Camp an “XL” and has this to say: “Taken on the whole, Camp is full of top-tier lyricism, honesty, uncertainty and triumph. Childish Gambino is on his way to becoming a real hip-hop force, heading in a direction all his own.”

Paste gave Camp a 9.1 and had this to say: “No song seems out of place and every single one will be your favorite the moment you listen to it because of extremely quotable songs. Childish Gambino provided an album that is so raw and still so peaceful that even after a dozen times listening to it, Camp still doesn’t get old.”

Alternative Press gave Camp 4.5 out of 5 stars and said “Childish Gambino is more than just a rapper, and Camp is more than just an album: It’s a stone-cold classic.”

Fill out my online form.

Sleeper Agent CD and Artwork Giveaway on Facebook

We’re having a contest over at our Facebook page! In cooperation with Mom+Pop Records and Rolling Stone “band to watch” Sleeper Agent, we’ll be giving away 5 copies of the band’s new CD “Celabrasion,” each with a numbered, hand made (and in some cases, signed) 11×17″ poster!

The Masterdisk Facebook page: facebook.com/masterdisk

Sleeper Agent is a young band from Kentucky who play an ecstatic brand of rock-pop. Spin magazine called their album “Celabrasion” “a dozen deliriously catchy gems… it’s the sound of high fives and Maker’s Mark spilling from the speakers.”

Celabrasion was mastered at Masterdisk by Matthew Agoglia. In the video, Matt discusses the process of mastering the album and his approach to mastering in general.

To enter to win one of the 5 CD/poster packages, all you have to do is to name your favorite energetic rock/pop song — from any era — and the artist that recorded it in the comments on the Facebook post. We’ll choose 5 winners at random on Thursday, 11/10 at 1 p.m. (New York time). At the end of the contest I’ll create a Spotify playlist with all the song entries.

These are the posters we’re giving away:
[nggallery id=2]

Jane’s Addiction’s “The Great Escape Artist” Debuts on iTunes Today

Cover of the album The Great Escape ArtistCapitol Records announced that the new Jane’s Addiction album, The Great Escape Artist, debuts today on iTunes! Vlado Meller mastered the album here at Masterdisk, and created an additional, unique, iTunes-optimized version. Here’s a great quote from the Capitol Records press release about The Great Escape Artist:

JANE’S ADDICTION lead guitarist DAVE NAVARRO says, “We are psyched that people will have a chance to hear our whole album before they buy it and we applaud iTunes for standing up for great audio too.”

Step right up here to stream the album in full, for free! http://www.itunes.com/JanesAddiction

Facebook Vinyl Giveaway: Javelin’s “Canyon Candy” EP

Head on over to the Masterdisk Facebook page to enter to win a copy of the limited edition vinyl 10″ release of Javelin’s Canyon Candy on the Luaka Bop label!

Photo of the Canyon Candy label
Canyon Candy Side B
Photo of Scott Hull with Canyon Candy
Mastering engineer Scott Hull with Canyon Candy in the Masterdisk back lounge.
Photo of Alex DeTurk with Javelin's Canyon Candy
Cutting engineer Alex DeTurk with Canyon Candy in front of the lathe.
photo of the Canyon Candy runoff groove with Masterdisk stamp.
Note the MASTERDISK stamp in the deadwax and Alex's initials to the right.

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/

[nggallery id=1]

Fill out my online form.

Scott Hull on the New Sting Box Set “25 Years”

I thought we’d take a moment to highlight a particularly interesting release coming up that was mastered here in-house by Scott Hull: the 3 CD, 1 DVD Sting box set 25 Years (due out September 27 on A&M Records). I sat down with Scott and he took me through the process of mastering this ambitious project. Hope you enjoy.

James: Hi Scott. Can you tell our blog readers about the new Sting set?

Scott: It’s an overview of Sting’s solo career — a 25 year span! Considering how production styles changed over that time, it was a very interesting challenge to make it all sound compatible. And really, not only was there a difference in the productions, but there’s just about every genre except metal in there! Rock, jazz, classical, folk… a very wide range.

Image of Sting box set 25 Years
James: Who is the set for? Diehard fans? New listeners?

Scott: I believe the intent is that it’s for both, which makes for some balancing. The established fans want the music to sound like they remember it, but new fans might benefit from a fresh think. I can tell you that this is not just “louder, brighter” mastering. The set has to communicate the core elements of Sting’s music: the drama, passion, intensity, creativity, whimsy — all of it. Some songs are intended to be big and some are delicate. The box balances that so a listener can put it on and hear the similarity and contrasts of the music through all the permutations of Sting’s career. We took an enormous amount of time to make sure we stayed true to the music while putting it in a new context for today’s listener.

James: When you say “we” who else do you mean?

Scott: That’s the producer, Rob Mathes, and Sting and his team.

James: Rob was very hands-on during the Symphonicities and Live in Berlin projects. Was that the same here?

Scott: Rob was there at every step of the mastering, sometimes attending, sometimes virtually. He was very interested in source selection — in making sure we found the right versions of songs. The complete and final versions.

James: Was there some difficulty in securing sources?

Scott: Some. It’s something that I’m starting to see more and more: a serious problem with the documentation of lots of music created in the 1990s and 2000s. As artists moved to smaller studios and home studios in the 80s and 90s, documentation practices went downhill. So now, years later, we find ourselves looking for masters, in boxes that aren’t comprehensively labeled, and in digital files that have no metadata. Is it a mix master? A flat transfer? The remastered version? The word “master” becomes meaningless when it comes to sorting out the files. In the case of the Sting materials, there was a little difficulty in a couple cases. At those points we had to just listen, compare with our ears to determine what version we had, and come as close to the intended result as possible.

I’m going to get on my soapbox for a minute — and this isn’t related to the Sting set per se. But this metadata problem is a big issue. There’s 20 – 30 years of digital recordings made now that have no metadata associated with it to tell you what it was made on, the sampling rate, or the machine. digital You’ve got 24/96 files that you have to closely scrutinize to find out if that’s the native sample rate or if it’s been upsampled. The metadata is only as accurate as the person entering it.

James: Can you give me any specific examples from the Sting project?

Scott: We received many files from Iron Mountain for Bring On the Night (the 1986 2 CD album) — they scoured the vaults and we found that all they had was the remastered stuff. We had to compare copies of the original and remastered CDs against the files we received to determine what was what. Eventually we found what we needed but it took some sleuthing. And keep in mind that this is a very major artist recording for major labels. You can only imagine what we sometimes go through trying to find the best sources for independent artists or artists who recorded for small labels.

James: Can you mention any surprises for fans on the new set?

Scott: Some songs from Dream of the Blue Turtles were remixed, and even if you loved the original versions these make for a great new experience. And overall, I think the context of the whole set really makes for a surprising listen — you kind of get a new look at some of this music you may have known for years because of how the songs now sit next to each other. I think the fans are going to love it.

Fill out my online form.

Masterdisk Presents: The Smoking Flowers

Masterdisk Presents is a blog series spotlighting some of the incredible artists we work with. Each episode will be a behind-the-scenes look at all the different aspects of music making in the new “Indie” music industry, focusing on the technical, creative and business decisions of the artists. We’re thrilled to celebrate these artists and we hope that you will find the insights into their motivations and methods interesting and useful.


Kim and Scott Collins — The Smoking Flowers — are a Nashville husband-and-wife duo that play a style of music they describe as Southern Gothic Folk. Their influences range from Neil Young to Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles to Gillian Welch — so a Smoking Flowers tune may bring you some rock and roll, or a gentle country waltz, and many things in between. One thing’s for sure – the Smoking Flowers bring you a classic sound (in more ways than one), and they bring it with passion.

Their upcoming album, 2 Guns, was mastered by Andy Wilson at Masterdisk. Andy was particularly impressed with this album — from the songs, to the recording technique, which Andy said “is something you don’t see often nowadays.” It was recorded all-analog in Nashville, live, with minimal miking techniques. For a mastering engineer, this can present some unique challenges. Andy said, “There’s definitely going to be some room noise and some bleed; it’s organic, and it sounds like a real band. More artists are recording this way again, live and together — the way it used to be done. I didn’t want to do much limiting and compressing — I wanted to make sure to maintain the dynamics.”

The bottom line is that it sounds great. Hear for yourself…

I asked Scott and Kim a few questions about the new album.

Masterdisk: Hi Scott and Kim; thanks for answering some questions for us. 2 Guns is a beautiful sounding record. Who were the engineers and how did you choose them?

S&K: We worked with two separate engineers on the 2 Guns album. The primary engineer was Adam Landry. He engineered five of the eight songs (“White Flags,” “The Wrong Kind of Man,” “Pistol Whip,” “El Matador,” and “Heart Darker”). We met Adam several years ago by sharing the bill on some shows with his band The Sways. Later he started his own private studio in Sylvan Park. We just really adored his true commitment to analog, nothing hitting anything digital until the mastering phase. And most importantly we loved the very unique sounds, especially with vocals and drums, that he was getting. Really dark but extremely present and round. Adam had produced a couple records with Scott’s brother (Middle Brother‘s Middle Brother and Pete Molinari‘s Train Bound for Glory) that we really liked sonically. We just really thought the soundscape was a perfect fit for this new Smoking Flowers record.

Chad Brown, who is ironically very good friends with Adam, was our other engineer. He recorded three songs (“Golden State,” “Devil in Drag,” and “Twilight”). We first met Chad many years ago when he engineered and mixed a Kim’s Fable record with Kim. He subsequently did a Pale Blue Dot record, and also was the engineer for The Smoking Flowers debut album Sweet as Port. Chad has been a natural choice for us on many occasions throughout our careers. He totally understands what we do inside and out, aesthetically and technically. It’s nice, and very special, to get to a point in a working relationship with someone where you sometimes can communicate without even having to say a word. That’s Chad at this point.

M: Where did you record?

S&K: Playground Sound, The Toy Box, and Studio G. All these studios are in Nashville. Playground Sound is in Sylvan Park. The Toy Box and Studio G are in East Nashville.

M: I understand you recorded this record with minimal miking — pretty unconventional these days. Tell me about what brought you to the decision to record that way.

S&K: Well, sometimes it’s just the nature of choosing to record to tape (which we have done for most of our career). At Playground Sound, we were tracking on an 8 track machine with 1″ tape. So right away you are limited from the normal somewhat gluttonous options that you have in many modern recording scenarios. We were certainly aware of this going in, and actually embrace these limitations because in our opinion they enhance your production decisions. It makes you commit to what is truly important. If that means multiple people playing or singing multiple things around one mic, then that’s what you do. You also have a cutoff point, or ceiling, so to speak, which is always helpful. You are prohibited from overkill. You’d be amazed the drum sounds that are possible with just 3 or 4 mics. And the beauty of the drums being picked up in the vocal mics because of tracking everything live in a small room with minimal isolation… with just the right amount of tape delay. At The Toy Box we were on a 16 track machine with 2″ tape, so we had a little more headroom, but a very similar fidelity. We wanted this album to sound very classic, hard to pinpoint in era or genre. We feel this recording approach helped to achieve that.

M: How did the recording sessions go?

S&K: Pretty much everything you hear is what went down live. Things like piano and tambourine were, out of necessity due to space limitations, the only real significant overdubs. We love and are very committed to tracking our 2 part vocals together at the same time. We believe in really singing, you know, together, and giving a true performance. We rarely play a song more than 2 or 3 times in the studio once we know the arrangement. Most of the keepers on this album were first or second takes. On one song (“The Wrong Kind of Man”), the keeper was the first time we’d ever even attempted playing it with our band. Some of the others we’d been playing out live for a while already. We love the art of allowing each take to truly be its own separate performance, completely different from one another, with some takes having different strengths than others, and then recognizing the one that has what we like to call “the spook”… which is tough to describe but it’s that special intangible recipe of feeling, moment, execution, and urgency.

M: Are the songs all new?

S&K: Yes, in a sense that they are all less than a year or two old and have never been released. Some were brand spanking new, written just days before being recorded. Others we had been playing out live for a while.

M: Do you do everything yourself? i.e. label, PR, bookings, etc.

S&K: Up until very recently, yes. Total classic DIY, occasionally working with some freelance booking agents. We are, however, about to begin working with the indie label Broadstroke here in the U.S. and possibly with their sister label Wichita in Europe. This new album 2 Guns will be the first release with their support. You can never totally abandon the DIY ethic in this day and age, though, so we will still be very involved in every aspect of our career.

M: What’s the record’s release date, and how do you plan to promote it?

S&K: Still ironing out the details, but likely a late summer / early fall release for the entire album. We are, however, releasing two singles from the album digitally (on iTunes, etc.) ahead of time that will be out and available to hear/purchase by the time this article is printed. So please check them out ! 🙂 As we mentioned, it’s a very grassroots world when it comes to promotion for uncompromising indie artists, so we want to thank Masterdisk for taking an interest in our new album 2 Guns and for featuring us. It was a pleasure to work in a place with such rich history, and to work with a standout engineer in Andy Wilson who really understood and maximized the nuances this album.

M: Thank you, Scott and Kim – the pleasure was all ours.


I was also happy to be able to speak briefly to engineer Adam Landry about analog recording. Here’s what he had to say:

Adam: I have an Otari MTR-90 with 8 track 1″ heads. This is my primary medium, although I have a ProTools system that I use sparingly on certain projects. The Smoking Flowers project was tape only then we mixed it down to a digital 2 track mix. I love tape for all of a thousand reasons. Primarily the sound is far more authentic in every way, and creatively, tape forces decisions in the moment. Editing or “fixing” later is a horrible side effect of the digital age and whether you are pop or avant garde indie noise music, we are all susceptible to those pitfalls. That’s why I prefer to avoid them entirely. The true vision of the artist and composer come through when you record exactly what is happening. Then at the end of the day, it just sounds better too!


Visit The Smoking Flowers at thesmokingflowers.com and listen to more music at the band’s Bandcamp page.

Masterdisk Presents: ZELAZOWA

Masterdisk Presents is a new blog series spotlighting some of the incredible artists we work with. Each episode will be a behind-the-scenes look at all the different aspects of music making in the new “Indie” music industry, focusing on the technical, creative and business decisions of the artists. We’re thrilled to celebrate these artists and we hope that you will find the insights into their motivations and methods interesting and useful.


This Masterdisk Presents post features New York-by-way-of-Philly band ZELAZOWA, whose new album Love is Lunacy was recently mastered by Matt Agoglia.

As Matt put it, “Love is Lunacy is a strong record, with great songs and performances — and it was recorded and mixed really well too. The kicker is how they have woven some of their musical influences through the record while keeping the sound fresh and exciting. It’s a record that you can listen to and discover a new layer with each spin.”

I spoke with ZELAZOWA’s lead singer and guitarist Bryan Weber, as well as recording and mix engineer Steve LaFashia, via email.

BRYAN WEBER – ZELAZOWA LEAD SINGER AND GUITARIST

Masterdisk: Hi Bryan. Give me a little background on the band.

Bryan: ZELAZOWA came together as a band around 2000. The four of us basically grew up together in the suburbs of Philadelphia and were always playing music together in some capacity. Kyle (the lead guitarist) is my younger brother, Terry (the drummer) is one of my oldest friends, and Ian (the bass player) is actually Terry’s cousin who I met years ago. It wasn’t until we officially created ZELAZOWA though and struck out on the road that things really started rolling (in my personal opinion). Since 2006 we’ve pretty much been touring all over the U.S. and Europe, releasing our own records, and having a ton of fun along the way. We even made it into this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue for our song “You Say Love”, which is pretty cool. [“Say You Love” was chosen as the official song for the 2011 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue online video teaser. You can view it here. -JB] Continue reading “Masterdisk Presents: ZELAZOWA”