A Conversation with Rob Mathes, Co-Producer of Sting’s Symphonicities

Rob Mathes
Rob Mathes
Rob Mathes is a musician with a very broad set of talents: he’s a celebrated composer, arranger, and producer – and those are just his main gigs. Rob has a number of critically lauded albums to his name, including the cult favorite Evening Train, as well as many production and arranging credits with high-profile artists such as Lou Reed, Bono, Panic! At the Disco, Tony Bennett, Elton John, and Rod Stewart.

But Sting’s new album Symphonicities, which Rob co-produced, is — even for an artist as successful as Rob — something different. “This is easily the most significant project I’ve been a part of,” he says. “It’s very difficult to describe — it’s incalculable how important Sting’s music was to me coming up.”

Symphonicities features Sting singing in front of orchestral treatments of some of the greatest songs in his canon, arranged by some of the best arrangers in the business, like David Hartley, Steven Mercurio, and Rob Mathes himself.

Rob brought Symphonicities to Scott Hull here at Masterdisk for mastering, so we’ve had the pleasure of being able to work on this remarkable record, and also the pleasure of working with and talking to Rob, who is as gracious and humble a guy as you’ll find in the music business. On a break from his current project — producing the debut album from Glee star Matthew Morrison — Rob took some time to discuss Symphonicities.

I asked Rob what it is about Sting that made him such an important influence.

He has this extremely rare thing: the whole package, the presence and charisma of a rock star but alongside superb and deep musicianship. From a musicological standpoint, he understands rhythm so deeply, and his melodic sense is incandescent. Listen to some early Sting records; they have beautiful melodies. Take the melody out and it’s beautiful on its own. He had the foresight to collaborate with Stewart Copland and Andy Summers and to marry that amazing sense of melody with the exciting punk rock and reggae rhythms in The Police. Like “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”: alongside the ferocity of that groove, the melody is like Gregorian chant! And then to see Sting grow, and leave The Police, and then write songs like “They Dance Alone” and “We Work the Black Seam” …he’s amazing.

Symphonicities
Symphonicities
Rob’s involvement in the Symphonicities album came about in a remarkable way. Chris Roberts, the president of Universal Classics and Jazz, made the initial introduction. Chris had been talking with Sting in the early stages of the project, and suggested that he meet with Rob based on his broad experience in both classical music and pop. So they did meet, and they discussed the music, and Sting asked Rob to show him some arrangements. Typically, at this point, an arranger would either produce a printed arrangement to be performed remotely for the artist, or he’d produce a demo recording using high-quality digital samples of orchestral instruments. But Rob did something remarkable.

This is Sting. There is no freaking way I am going to write arrangements and send them out to be performed without my being there. You put the chart on the stands, and it can sound OK, but it will probably need some work. And your typical demo recording, even with the greatest sample library in the world, wouldn’t be effective enough. The first impression is everything. So something in me said “I already have a session booked at Abbey Road in February…”

Rob had the studio time booked at Abbey Road for one of his own projects.

I know the results I get at Abbey Road — the quality of the sound. I’ve recorded easily one hundred projects there over the last decade. I adore that room, the sound of it — it’s legendary. Just put a microphone above the orchestra; it sounds like God. So my gut reaction was that if I could create the tracks exactly as I wanted them, Sting would get a truer picture of what I could do to bring a legitimate symphonic approach to his canon.

So I went back to my hotel room after the meeting and I asked my wife, “Would it be insane to ask Sting to pay for the studio time and musicians so I can record these arrangements for him? I’ll pay the travel costs and do the work for free. He can pay me if he wants to use my stuff, otherwise, he doesn’t have to pay me anything.”

Rob told me, “honestly, if he hated what I had done I would have wanted to pay some of the studio cost back to him!” Sting, remarkably, agreed to the plan. “Sting saw the fire in my belly”, said Rob. “Going out on that limb is the reason that all this happened.”

Sting
Sting
I asked Rob if he had always conducted his career with such confidence. He said:

That was the boldest suggestion I ever made to an artist. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that it altered the further course of my life. I mean, the idea came out of the air. It was almost a God thing. Some people were skeptical about me doing it this way – they said that it was going to be an awfully expensive demo. But with all of the extraordinarily gifted people on the planet, the only way to get yourself heard is if you’re insanely passionate about what you do.

Symphonicities was released digitally and on CD this week, to strong sales and critical response. Before our interview, early in the morning on the album’s release date, I had read the first three reviews I could find, and they were all positive. But Rob knows that some negative opinion is an inevitability, especially on a project that orchestrates rock songs.

My approach was to meet Sting’s records directly face to face; not try to cop them but to create an orchestral version with the energy of original. But if critics say anything mean, can I learn from it? One example is a criticism I received of the arrangement for “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”. The critic said that the track was a little “Disney” in a few moments. That’s not what I was going for! So I listened to it again, with this in mind, and realized that I had always had a suspicion about the chorus. There are these underlying Cuban rhythms there in the song, but I hadn’t really brought them out; I didn’t go for the jugular there. So, I went back into the studio and added percussion, and fleshed out what was just implied before. I’m proud of it. This new version, which is going to be called the “Bronx Street Fair Mix” should be available on an upcoming vinyl edition of the album. So in this case, a negative review turned into something positive.

Now that the record is finished, Rob still has nothing but praise for Sting. I’ll wrap up with a few quotes plucked from a post on Rob’s blog, dated July 15, 2010.

He is constantly learning and endlessly curious. [Sting] recognizes the gift he has received: the reality that so many people want to hear him sing these iconic songs. He just wants to keep it interesting. I admire him for it and working on this project was a privilege. Above all listen to that voice. Just extraordinary!


Rob’s blog writing is full of insight and energy. Read it here: www.robmathes.wordpress.com. And his website has some great content, including video and music samples. Visit here.

Fill out my online form.

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.

Fill out my online form.

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.

Fill out my online form.

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.

    Fill out my online form.

    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.

    Fill out my online form.

    Masterdisk: Over 35 Years of Vinyl Mastering

    I’ve just been over at the Masterdisk website editing some of the text on our Vinyl page. It’s a good article that was originally put together by Scott Hull to highlight why a) a potential mastering customer might want to master for vinyl as well as digital; and b) what’s cool and different about vinyl. Though it has a more of a sales bent than what we normally post on the blog, the content is excellent and I wanted to share it with blog readers that might not normally get to our main site. So here it is: “Masterdisk: Over 35 Years of Vinyl Mastering”. I hope you enjoy it. – jB


    The Masterdisk Lathe
    The Masterdisk VMS-80
    Have you considered joining the recent vinyl revival? Masterdisk is one of only a few companies worldwide that has been continuously making masters for vinyl. We have more experience cutting masters than nearly any other facility. Before digital, vinyl record mastering was Masterdisk’s sole business, and we were at the top of the heap. Producers would fly to New York from England on the Concord Jet just to have their records mastered at Masterdisk. We are very proud of that heritage and master vinyl records with great attention to detail.

    Not All Record Cutting Equipment is the Same.
    Masterdisk has maintained one of only a few existing VMS-80 lacquer cutting lathes. It is quite simply the finest disk cutting lathe ever produced. With it’s “modern” 1980’s technology, a master cutting engineer can fit a longer side at a louder level than any other lathe. You will find that many disk cutting businesses that have sprouted up recently are not using this superior equipment. Even experienced cutting engineers can’t produce the same results on lesser quality lathes. Channel separation, distortion specs, bass quality and transient integrity are all vastly improved with our cutting equipment. And modern enhancements and modifications extend the low frequency response, improve high frequency tracking and allow us to cut a louder and more dynamic record.

    Experience Counts.
    Record mastering was and is an apprentice-learned craft that took several years to master. Young engineers and studios have to experiment with hundreds of variables to try to achieve a high quality cut. We’ve seen all of the problems and pitfalls that can beset a vinyl project, and we get it right the first time. Choose your vinyl mastering engineer carefully. We can make your records sound amazing!

    Masterdisk VinylPlating and Pressing.
    Once your record masters are cut you’ll need to get them processed, plated and pressed into vinyl records. This too is a process where lots can go wrong, so choose a pressing plant with a great reputation. Give us some information about your project and we can help match you up with the best pressing — standard or any degree of “deluxe” — for your money.

    What’s Cool About Vinyl?
    People really cherish their record collections. Why? It’s because records provide a musical experience that you want to come back to. Vinyl returns us to a time when music was something to set aside some time for, not just something that you put on as a background to a day’s activities. Records are a very tactile and visual experience. Full-size artwork, combined with the hi-fi sound, makes vinyl a more immersive musical experience. And vinyl holds its value much better than CDs; on the collector’s market some vinyl trades hands for three figure sums. Whether it’s being spun on a high quality playback system or an inexpensive USB turntable, vinyl is resonating with people because it provides a rich experience and value for money.

    Loud Records vs Loud CDs.
    There are virtually no level wars on vinyl: the length of the sides and the depth of the bass in the recording dictate how loud the sides can be cut. In some music genres — like rock, hip-hop or pop — the compression and limiting used to “make it loud” can actually make the music sound small on vinyl. Interestingly enough, a heavily limited and compressed recording cannot be cut to sound as loud as a recording that has most of its dynamics intact. The cutting lathe needs the slightly quieter sections to help make longer sides fit better. If you know in advance that you are going to make vinyl, consider asking your mastering engineer to make a separate master for vinyl or at least making a second pass that has less peak limiting and allows the music to breathe. The vinyl will sound better, and it doesn’t have to be heavily limited to sound loud.

    Masterdisk VMS-80Cutting from Analog Tape.
    Masteridsk is one of only a small group of dedicated mastering studios that can truly cut to vinyl directly from analog masters. Specially modified tape machines are needed to do this. There is a small computer in the lathe that needs to know what music is coming before it reaches the cutter head. This “preview” or look-ahead signal tells the lathe how much room to leave on the disk so that the next wrap (groove) will clear the previous wrap and not collide with the already cut groove. So, if you don’t have one of these specially manufactured preview tape machines, then you simply cannot cut from tape to the lathe. Many studios that claim they can cut from analog actually have to send the audio through a digital delay box, and send that digital signal to the preview and main converters. There is a lot wrong with this method, and because of that, most studios are not completely clear with their clients about their signal path to the lathe. If you have analog masters, you really should — if at all possible — plan on cutting directly from them. The record will turn out better.

    Cutting from Analog Tape: Panic at the Disco
    In 2008 Scott Hull cut the Panic at the Disco album Pretty. Odd. straight from tape. Scott says, “I did two distinctly different masterings for the record. One was only for the CD. It wasn’t terribly loud or compressed, but it had a competitive level and sonics for radio play and shuffling in iPods. For the vinyl, however, I re-mastered straight from the original analog mix down masters. This meant that I had to edit the heads and tails and splice the original master together. It was like it was 20 years ago! The bottom line is that the final product really sounds amazing.”

    Expect the Best from Masterdisk.
    Please call to talk with one our project coordinators about your upcoming cd and vinyl mastering. It doesn’t matter if you mastered your music at another facility or if you used one of our engineers. We will process your order, cut your record, and help you understand all of the details, with all of the quality, integrity and professionalism you would expect from Masterdisk.

    Fill out my online form.

    We Hear More Than We’re Supposed To Hear: Mastering Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature

    Steely Dan - Two Against Nature
    Two Against Nature
    I’ve had the pleasure over the years of working with many great artists. Watching some of the masters of our business do what they do best. It’s been a behind the scenes look, a close up, without the cameras and public attention. In this environment you really get to see who these creative people are. One of my experiences was with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan.

    I was mastering their Two Against Nature CD with them in my mastering room. We had spent many hours over the course of several days getting all of the songs exactly the way they wanted them. Using the right equalization, the right level, fades and timings. There was one song that Donald was not content with. We experimented with EQ frequencies and such for quite some time. What was interesting about this was that even the most minute changes in EQ had a profound impact on the mix.

    Steely Dan’s songs are mostly very sparse, carefully crafted sounds blended so that the individual elements aren’t immediately apparent. In this case the overall sound of the song needed to be a little brighter, as in more “present” compared to the other tracks on the record. But when EQ was added to make it brighter, one or more of the elements of the mix moved more than the other elements. In this way the EQ changes were more like mix level changes. We eventually came to a debate over whether we should add 0.2 db of EQ at 1,400 Hz or add 0.2 db of EQ at 1,250 Hz. The difference between these two settings would ordinarily be completely inaudible to most people, unless they had trained their perception. For Donald however, who was deeply aware of how his record sounded, the difference was huge. At the first setting one of the shakers in the mix seemed to sound louder and dominated the mix in a way it hadn’t before. At the other setting the snare seemed louder, which was the intention, but it was too much. He asked me if we could split the difference, but at the time 0.2 db increments were the smallest change available and there wasn’t another option. If I recall correctly what was finally decided was to not add the EQ. The track would be a tad less present than there other tracks, but the balance between the instruments would be what he wanted.

    Be very aware of how a piece of music makes you feel. While manipulating sound with modern technology, perfection is often confused with better. Good, better and best are feelings inside that are linked to the emotional reaction of the listener. Perfection is often not the most emotional or compelling attribute of a recording.


    “We Hear More Than We’re Supposed To Hear” is excerpted from Scott Hull’s extensive article “Ramblings about Music from a (Not Quite Yet) Mad Mastering Engineer” in the Tzadik/Hips Road book Arcana III: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn. Arcana III is available from Downtown Music Gallery and other online retailers.

    Fill out my online form.

    Masterdisk’s 18 in SPIN’s 125

    SPINDid 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)

    Randy Merrill’s Mastering of Darcy James Argue’s “Infernal Machines”

    Infernal Machines
    Infernal Machines
    On Tuesday, May 12, 2009, New Amsterdam Records released a remarkable new big band album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society called Infernal Machines. Not a traditional big band album mind you, nor is it exactly like the updated big band sounds of, say, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Argue’s band goes one further than what was heretofore the most “modern” big band sound by adding loops and rock guitar treatments (among other innovations) to his palate. Argue has called it a “steampunk” big band, and it’s definitely fresh sounding.

    The album went on to collect a number of honorifics, among them the Best Debut of 2009 nod in the Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll, a 2010 Juno Award nomination for Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year, and inclusion in over 70 Best-of-2009 lists including those from the New York Times, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal. Impressive in general, and especially so considering that Infernal Machines is a 34-year-old composer and bandleader’s first record.

    Masterdisk engineer Randy Merrill did the mastering honors on Infernal Machines, and is proud to have been a part of a great project like this one. Randy has been at Masterdisk since he came over with Scott Hull when Scott purchased and took over operations at Masterdisk in 2008. Prior to the move to Masterdisk Randy had been Scott’s Production Engineer with Scott Hull Mastering, and prior to that he spent five years at the famous NY studio Avatar (formerly known as Power Station).

    Tracking room at Bennett Studios
    Tracking room at Bennett Studios (Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
    Darcy chose Randy for the gig because of Paul Cox, the tracking and mix engineer on the album. Darcy said, “Paul had worked with Randy before on other projects and recommended him extremely highly. We did audition several mastering engineers, but most of them seemed to have an awful lot of trouble hearing the kind of sound we were going for. Randy offered to do a test mastering of one of our mixes, and from that it was clear that he knew exactly what this music needed.”

    And it was a complex job. Actually, the making of the album was an intricate process from the beginning. The tracking was done at Bennett Studios in New Jersey. Of the recording session Paul said, “I’m used to larger ensembles, but the more mics, the more wires, the more wires the more room for problems. From a technical and production standpoint, though, the only real challenge was that at high sample rates (96k) with as many channels being recorded simultaneously (about 40) ProTools will not let you punch in smoothly.” The tracking was 95% live, according to Paul, with “some solo or patchwork overdubs here and there.”

    Darcy in the Bennett Studios breakfast nook
    Darcy in the Bennett Studios breakfast nook. (Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein)
    The mix for the album took two months, mainly due to the fact that the individual musicians had been close-mic’d, and it took a lot of work to “balance those elements together in a way that sounded natural and open, especially considering the number of voices that occur in this music compared to, say, a four piece band,” Paul said.

    The attention paid to the recording and the mix paid off though, and then it was down to putting on the finishing touches through the mastering process. Randy said that the mastering session, which both Darcy and Paul attended, was fun and productive, but he mentioned that it went all night. As Darcy tells it,

    “Yeah, we started at about 7 PM at night and wrapped around 9 AM the following morning. This was my first record and it was intense and unbelievably stressful. Paul and I had basically turned our entire lives over to editing and mixing this record for the previous two months solid. There was a stretch near the end where I was literally living in Paul’s East Village project studio, working to the point of total exhaustion and then crashing on the floor in the isolation booth on a pile of blankets. We had already missed two previously-scheduled mastering dates because the mixes weren’t ready. The March 9th session with Randy was our Hail Mary session — as late as we could possibly push it and still have the CDs back from the manufacturer in time for our release date. Even then, Paul and I were tweaking stuff in the mixes right up until the last possible moment.”

    I wondered what had taken the majority of the time — sequencing? EQ adjustments? Darcy explained,

    I had settled on the sequencing long before going in, and there were only a few minor EQ adjustments required. What we needed from the mastering process was, for the most part, loudness. We (deliberately) used very little compression in the mix — a touch here and there on individual instruments, but for the most part we preserved the extremely wide dynamic range of the source material (a mostly acoustic recording of an 18-piece jazz orchestra). What we wanted as a final product was a sound that preserved the feeling of extreme dynamic contrast, but also makes sense when someone puts their MP3 player on shuffle and it comes up between tracks by, say, TV On The Radio and, like, Mastodon.

    To pull off the right dynamic balance a number of the tracks were mastered in sections and then put back together. “It’s a tricky thing, because we wanted the compression to be basically invisible. There is a very small sweet spot between something that sounds powerful and something that sounds squashed. Thankfully, Randy was able to hit that consistently,” Darcy said.

    Randy Merrill's mastering room at Masterdisk
    Randy Merrill's mastering room at Masterdisk

    Randy has a pretty even-keeled demeanor, a definite asset in a high-pressure recording environment. I asked Darcy about the tone of the session.

    Randy was very chill but very focused, a combination I appreciate. I am sure he sensed how much blood and toil had gone into every stage of this record, how hard we’d worked to get to this point, and how much we were counting on him to bring us over the finish line. Despite the marathon 14-hour overnight mastering session, I never once got the sense that Randy was operating on autopilot, or took any shortcuts in order to try to wrap things up.

    When you put as much into a recording as Darcy and Paul did with Infernal Machines, you need to make sure that the final stage is handled by a mastering engineer that’s going to do his damnedest to make every ounce of that work pay off. “At every stage, Randy’s only concern was about what was best for the music,” Darcy said, “It really felt like he believed in it as much as we did.”


    You can purchase an Infernal Machines CD or mp3 download directly from New Amsterdam Records’ website, or through retailers like Amazon.

    Darcy James Argue is a NYC composer, bandleader and blogger. Read up on all DJA plots and machinations at his blog, Secret Society.

    Paul Cox is a recording and mix engineer based in New York. Paul freelances and owns the studio La Sala, where he does most of his mixing. Recent projects include the editing of George Crumb: Winds of Destiny for Bridge Records, which was nominated for a Grammy for best contemporary classical composition; the recent completion of the editing of all ten Beethoven violin sonatas performed by Gary Levinson; and the imminent launch of Metaphonic, a production company that will represent both Paul’s own work and the work of his colleagues.