RUSH – The Studio Albums 1989-2007 – Mastered by Andy VanDette

This week marks the release of Rush “The Studio Albums 1989-2007” box set, which includes every studio album from that period (duh) — REMASTERED — with the added bonus of the (in)famous 2002 “Vapor Trails” album remixed!

Photo of Andy VanDetteThe remastering was engineered by Andy VanDette, and the remix of Vapor Trails was by David Bottrill. It’s a great time to be a Rush fan!

We had the foresight to have cameras ready at a few of the mastering sessions (unfortunately not all of them). But we’ll share some of the behind-the-scenes shots with you here and a few comments from Andy about the mastering process.

Q: Can you compare the experience of re-mastering the Mercury catalog to the Atlantic albums?

Andy: Being the cutting edge technology band that Rush is, they were one of the first to embrace digital recording. Pushing the envelope to record 44.1 Khz 16 bit in the late 80’s seems a little short sighted today, but that probably felt pretty close to the cutting edge then. Early digital sounded very clear, but also very thin. I wish there had been analog safety copies of “Test for Echo”.

Q: Which of the Atlantic albums was the most significant for you?

Andy: “Vapor Trails”. I remember hearing it before it came out, and thinking “Wow, I guess this is why I will never work with Rush.” The snare and vocal were so overshadowed by low end.

Q: Do you have a personal favorite out of the Atlantics?

Andy: I have always loved “Snakes and Arrows”. The songs are fantastic. I can see how it turned on a whole new generation of fans. On the “Vapor Trails” tour, their fan base was guys like me. The shows I have seen the last four years have been increasingly diverse. Lots of families at the shows now. Last year I saw my first female air drummer!

Q: Which do you think improved the most?

Andy: Well… “Vapor Trails” of course. I see why they had a hard time remastering the original mixes. So much of their energy is in the bottom octave 20-40Hz. You can roll it off, but so much of the mixes’ punch came from that. It was just mixed that way. The David Bottrill remixes are very well balanced and musical.

Andy discussed remastering the first 15 Rush albums in 2011 here.

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Masterdisk Presents Choice Cuts with Andy VanDette

Masterdisk Choice Cuts Logo

Choice Cuts is a new blog series where we ask the question all music obsessives love to answer: “What is your essential music?” We kick off the series with our music-obsessed and ever affable Chief Engineer: Andy VanDette.

Gretchen Goes To Nebraska
King’s X – Gretchen goes to Nebraska
There is a soft spot in my heart for great three-piece bands. I remember the first time I heard “Over My Head” blasting out of Tony Dawsey’s studio. I have been hooked ever since. I love to see them live every chance I get. I keep hoping Alien Bean burns to the ground (in the friendliest, most non-violent way) so that I might have a chance to work with them again. I had the pleasure of creating a stereo crossfade on “Ear Candy” when they were mastering with Tony…

Go Radio album cover
Go Radio – Close The Distance
Because who wouldn’t love to sing “Go To Hell” to a former loved one at one time or another. A great melodic rock record.

Metallica album cover
Metallica – Metallica
I have seen them live soooo many times. Nothing grabs me like this pre-loudness-wars album, although I wonder where in the production chain the first note of “Enter Sandman” got clipped.

Tony C and the Truth album cover
Tony C and the Truth – Demonophonic Blues
My biggest hit album, that never was. 🙁 But I still love it!

Metric Live It Out album cover
Metric – Live It Out
I love the way Emily Haines goes from calm to crazed. She is one of the sexiest women alive today — besides my wife, of course.

Porcupine Tree In Absentia album cover
Porcupine Tree – In Absentia
What can I say? Hands down the best sounding album I have ever mastered. Tim Palmer is a mix god.

Seal album cover
Seal – “Kiss from a Rose”
Not the album that it came from — JUST “Kiss From A Rose.” I think it is one of the most perfect recordings of all time. Great song. Great arrangement, Great recording and production. It is soooo compressed but still musical. It was on the 1996 Grammy nominees CD, and they had to turn it down -4dB just so it didn’t obliterate all the other tracks. I use this and Porcupine Tree to check out different studios and monitoring environments.

Toto Farenheit album cover
Toto – Farenheit
Great songs; great production. I sing along with it when driving home late at night to help keep me awake…. Because you’ve never fallen asleep while singing, have you?

Rush Moving Pictures album cover
Rush – Moving Pictures
High school favorite (showing my age here) that always brings back momories of selling everything I owned to buy an Electro Harmonix Bass Microsynth pedal so I could make a WOOOOOSH at the beginning of “Tom Sawyer.” Richard Chycki did an awesome job on the surround mix. You MUST hear it.

Max Webster Universal Juveniles album cover
Max Webster – Universal Juveniles
Saw them open for Rush in high school, and I must say I didn’t “get” Kim Mitchell jumping around on stage in a gold spandex jumpsuit yelling “Check! Check this out!”. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized what killer players they were and how cool “CHECK!” really is. “In The Land of Giants” is my ringtone.

Tubes Completion Backward Principle album cover
Tubes – The Completion Backward Principle
Fee Waybill is God.

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Ask the Engineer: Andy VanDette on How to Choose a Mix Engineer

Ask the Engineer graphic

Ask the Engineer is a new series here on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production. Send us your questions at ask@masterdisk.com. We won’t be able to answer all of them but we’ll post answers to as many as we can. If you have a specific engineer you want to pose the question to, let us know that too.

Chief Engineer Andy VanDette is the go-to mastering engineer for many of today’s greatest artists. From prog-rock greats like Rush to iconic artists like David Bowie, international sensations like David Fonseca to rising pop stars like Jon McLaughlin, Andy can, and does, do it all.

Photo of Andy VanDetteQ: In our earlier posts (Mixing Like a Pro Part 1 and Part 2), we discussed how to get the most out of your mixes when you’re mixing yourself. Let’s say you decide you want to hire someone to mix your music instead. How do you choose the right mix engineer?

A: It would all be about what he or she has mixed in the past. The quality of the mix. To me, good balance between all the elements is a GIVEN with a good mix engineer. The thing I find hard to quantify is depth. I have had home recording clients take every recommendation, and they send me a rough mix and expect my comments, and the mix is good. The one thing I don’t really know how to tell them to do, and what knocks my socks off, is an engineer that not only gets balance, but also knows how to deal with depth of field. It’s what separates the men from the boys! Depth isn’t always about adding reverb. It’s not just turning the reverb knob.

Another question to ask yourself: What’s moving you? Is it some element of a mix that you love, or is it just the whole song, the whole vibe? In what monitoring environment did it grab your attention? Personally, I don’t get any good feedback from laptops and earbuds. I know the mix needs to do well there, but the audiophiles aren’t listening on earbuds and laptops for good reason — you’re not getting the full picture there. Listen to mixes you like on a system you know.

You have to pay attention to when the music reaches out and grabs you. When you find what moves you, see who worked on it. Then, if you find that different things that move you were done by the same person or team… that’s good information.

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Ask the Engineer: Andy VanDette on Mixing Like a Pro (Part 2)

Ask the Engineer graphic
Read Part 1 here.

Ask the Engineer is a new series here on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production. Send us your questions at ask@masterdisk.com. We won’t be able to answer all of them but we’ll post answers to as many as we can. If you have a specific engineer you want to pose the question to, let us know that too.

Chief Engineer Andy VanDette is the go-to mastering engineer for many of today’s greatest artists. From prog-rock greats like Rush to iconic artists like David Bowie, international sensations like David Fonseca to rising pop stars like Jon McLaughlin, Andy can, and does, do it all.

Photo of Andy VanDette with Dearly Beloved
Andy with Toronto band Dearly Beloved
Q: Last time we talked about how important the bottom end is in a mix. What is another common problem you see with mixes that come in from self-mixing artists or mix engineers that don’t have a lot of experience?

A: A common problem is the overuse of brick wall limiting before it gets here. Go ahead and use it to you heart’s content to get your mix approved, but make me a copy without it! If it turns out that you are an L2 god and I can’t top it, I will definitely use your version to master from.

Q: How often would you say that you end up using the version with the mix engineer’s limiting?

A: Not often; maybe 5% of the time I’ll use that. Limiting should only happen once in a mix’s lifetime. Multiple layers of brickwall limiting makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because I know “re-squaring” square waves can only lead to negative artifacts.


Check out Dearly Beloved’s latest album, Hawk vs Pigeon, mastered by Andy VanDette.

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Ask the Engineer: Andy VanDette on Mixing Like a Pro (Part 1)

Ask the Engineer header graphic
Ask the Engineer is a new series here on the Masterdisk blog where our guys answer questions about music production. Send us your questions at ask@masterdisk.com. We won’t be able to answer all of them but we’ll post answers to as many as we can. If you have a specific engineer you want to pose the question to, let us know that too.

Chief Engineer Andy VanDette is the go-to mastering engineer for many of today’s greatest artists. From prog-rock greats like Rush to iconic artists like David Bowie, international sensations like David Fonseca to rising pop stars like Jon McLaughlin, Andy can, and does, do it all.

Andy-VanDette-photo-by-Steve-HardyQ: What are the main differences you hear between mixes you receive from seasoned mix engineers and those you receive from less experienced mix engineers or self-mixing artists?

A: The difference between the big guys and less experienced engineers is usually the bottom. The way the kick and bass interact is everything: it’s the basic building block that I don’t really have a fix for if it’s not right. I have lots of tools that will add beautiful, airy top end; and I can spread the stereo image from NY to LA, but if that one basic building block isn’t right and the punch on the kick isn’t clear there’s not much I can do to fix it.

Q: Let’s say an artist is recording and mixing herself. What can she do to deal with the bottom end?

A: The first thing I would say is to consider hiring a mix engineer. But if you can’t or don’t want to do that, then here’s what I’d do. Listen to a lot of great recordings, and compare yours to the great ones. If you’re mixing on small speakers, maybe get a sub. (Though keep in mind that subs can be misleading so it has to be voiced correctly.) If you can’t get a sub, then try the car. The “car test” is basically the third set of monitors that I listen to everything on. Sometimes I get wonderful feedback, and other times I find a car stereo’s limitations! When listening in the car, alternate your mix with mixes you know and love and see how they compare.

Head over to Part 2.

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Masterdisk Presents: First You Get the Sugar

Masterdisk Presents First You Get the Sugar Graphic

First You Get the Sugar is an exciting young band from Montreal who are building an impressive career through sheer hard work, talent and positive energy. Their first, self-titled album was mastered here at Masterdisk by Andy VanDette last year, and it’s a powerful, polished statement of power-pop and classic rock intent. Not “classic rock” so much in terms of the genre, but “classic” in terms of offering those key elements we all look for in great rock: excitement, hooks, and maybe a touch of danger. The band made a big impression on us here at the studio not only through their music, but by their friendliness and positive attitude. Since that first album, First You Get the Sugar recorded three songs at the Converse Rubber Tracks studio in Brooklyn and brought them to Andy for mastering — all in a whirlwind three-day period. One of those songs is attached below. I hooked up with the band’s drummer, Daniel Moscovitch, on Facebook to discuss the band’s career so far. If you’re in Toronto for NXNE you can catch the band tonight at the Wrongbar.

Dan, thanks for taking some time for the Masterdisk blog. OK, let’s go through some basic dates… when did the band form & how did you meet?

Photo of First You Get the SugarAdam [Kagan] and Mick [Mendelsohn] formed the band in 2007. I answered a Craigslist ad, and it turned out that it was posted by their temporary lead guitarist at the time who I was actually good friends with, so I went to see them play at a club here in Montreal. By the end of the next week, I still had some of the hooks stuck in my head, so I went in for a meeting and right away we all knew it was a great fit. We spent the next year or so honing our sound and looking for a permanent lead guitarist, and that is where Alex [Silver] came in. He was actually a fan of ours, who we hung out with. We brought him in for an audition in January ’09, and we’ve been family ever since.

When did you make your first recordings?

Right after Alex joined us we knew it was time to make an album. One of my closest friends and long-time musical colleague of mine, Adam Stotland, came on as co-producer. He had just finished building a studio in his house, so the timing was perfect, and in April 09 we settled into his studio and hit the ground running.

What was the studio setup?

It was very simple. Good mics, through a very transparent Allen & Heath board into Samplitude. Most of the guitars were amped with a Fender Concert 4×10 cranked for natural breakup, and we also experimented a lot with a sweet vintage Leslie cab. We did a lot of layering, and luckily had all the time we needed to develop parts and build the songs from the ground up.

How long did you take to record?

Recording went through until about January 2010. At that point, we spent a lot of time making sure every second of every song was arranged the way we wanted it, and were looking for someone to do the mix. We finally decided on Glen Robinson, who splits his time between Montreal and NYC. He’s a truly amazing engineer with a custom gear list that is basically staggering. Fully customized old-school Neve comps and EQ’s, UA limiters, basically a dream setup. We had done zero mixing on our own before Glen got his hands on our work, so when we got the first ‘balances,’ our minds were blown by how much life Glen was able to breathe into the recording with his skill and gear.

With the mix in hand, I consulted a heavyweight producer in L.A. who I had become friends with over the internet. He was the one who recommended Andy VanDette for the mastering of the album. This was a no-brainer, and in August 2010 our debut album entered Masterdisk for 5 hours, and left ready for the world.

What kind of pre-production did you do, if any?

For our first album, pre-production was really centered around arrangement. We worked at our rehearsal space to get everything tightened up so we could be super-efficient when we were recording later. We did that for the Rubber Tracks recording as well, and it was even more important because of the way we recorded there compared to our first album. I have a nice little project setup at home with an M-Audio Profire 2626 and we laid down the tunes with a drum machine and recorded all the parts one by one into Ableton Live on my computer. It was very bare-bones. From a personal standpoint, it was that pre-production process at my house in 2009 that really gave me the bug to want to learn all I can about mixing, mastering and production in general.

How did you guys hook up with Converse?

When we released our album, we did all we could to publicize it. Converse Music Blog heard our album and decided to do a writeup on it and an interview with Mick from the band. When it was published, and I went to read it, I noticed on their site all the ads for their brand new recording program at Rubber Tracks in Brooklyn. I clicked the links and ended up signing us up an a whim. I specifically remember saying to the guys that I signed us up for this thing that would be amazing, but it’s probably a massive long-shot. Which it was, because a TON of artists signed up for it. When the email came in saying we were accepted, we just could not believe it. We’re always working on new stuff, so we had great material ready to go, And not only that, they were bringing in CNN and MTV to follow us through our 2-day session at the studio. [Check out the Converse video story at CNN/Money.]

What was the recording experience like there?

As far as approaches to recording goes, this experience at Rubber Tracks was a complete 180 degree turn from how we recorded our debut album. Our album took about a year-and-a-half to track, mix and master. At rubber tracks we had 2 days to record and mix 3 full songs. An ambitious endeavor to say the least! We put most of the music down live off the floor on the first day, and got all the vocals, guitar solos, and mixing finished on day two. This studio that Converse has is as world-class as it gets. Brand new API console, Fairchilds, Neves and all the goodies anyone could ever dream of. Tons of incredible instruments to choose from thanks to Guitar Center. Our engineer was Grammy-winning Geoff Sanoff, a real heavy hitter, and he is someone we would want to work with again any day. He really understood what we were going for and has the coolest and calmest demeanor, absolutely necessary for the pressure cooker we had been thrown into. Aaron Bastinelli is Rubber Tracks’ in-house engineer and a genius in his own right, and he acted as Mr. Sanoff’s right hand the entire time. Between him and Mr. Sanoff, we were in insanely capable hands, and we could really just focus on performance and leave the production to the masters. We left Rubber Tracks and came straight across town the next day to have Andy VanDette perform the mastering duties. Recording, mixing and mastering in the span of 3 days was a thrill of a lifetime. Definitely unforgettable.

Back to your first album — did you do the promotion yourselves or did you have help?

PR is a tough game. We hired the best publicist available for the budget we had at the time, and she turned out to do an amazing job. I’d recommend this approach to anyone. The press contacts that I have made over the years are great, but we’d have never come close to the same reach without some professional 3rd party help. The expense paid for itself and then some, to say the least. Of course, there’s never a guarantee of success when a publicist is brought in, so we were lucky that we had great songs that were recorded mixed and of course mastered to a level of world-class sound. All of this can be daunting to a band doing this for the first time, but if you dig really hard then affordable solutions are always waiting. My mantra for finding the right people to work with was this: irrespective of budget, start at the top and work your way down until you find someone that fits your budget. That way you’l get the best people to work with possible without selling yourself short. You’ll always be surprised by the amazing people that will come to your aid if you have the balls to ask.

Have all of the Converse tunes been released now?

So far, we’ve released two out of the three songs we recorded at Rubber Tracks as digital singles (on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, etc). We released “Pearson” in January and “Hannah” in March. The third single is called “No Surprise” and we’re going to put it out sometime soon. We have very cool ideas for the third release, which will most likely include a physical manifestation but the plans are still under wraps. I definitely know that when the time comes, you guys will be the first to know.

Excellent! Well, my final question is about the future of First You Get the Sugar. What are your plans?

The part of this job that I love the most is that in the spaces between our deliberate plans, amazing surprises pop up. All along with this band, I’ve found that if we keep pushing forward with baby steps, we keep growing. Especially looking back on the last year, we have made amazing strides, so many great things have happened that I could have never predicted. It’s really exciting to think about the year ahead and all that it might bring with it.

Tell me about your upcoming gigs.

We’re playing this Friday, June 15 at the NXNE festival in Toronto. Our set is at 8pm as part of the Converse City Carnage Showcase series at The Wrongbar. It’s going to be an insane night, we’re sharing the bill with Uncle Bad Touch, DZ Deathrays, the Death Set and Bass Drum Of Death.

In the Fall, we’ll be back in Toronto for Indie Week, and we are really hoping to be a part of CMJ in New York this fall too. Somewhere along the way this year, it would also be great to get back into a studio and record all the new material we’ve been working on.


Visit First You Get the Sugar online: http://www.firstyougetthesugar.com/

First You Get the Sugar on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/FirstYouGetTheSugar

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An Interview with Deolinda and Nelson Carvalho

Photo of Andy VanDette with Deolinda(This post is also available in Spanish.)

Andy VanDette (pictured with the band in the photo to the right) has been mastering music from Portugal and Brazil for years. One of his clients is the quartet Deolinda, who are now on tour in their native Portugal, as well as the UK and Germany, until June. Deolinda is Pedro de Silva Martins, his brother Jose Luis Martins (guitars), their cousin Ana Bacalhau (voice) and her husband Jose Pedro Leitao (bass), and together they play an optimistic and faster-tempoed version of the classically fatalistic fado. Their second album, Dois Selos e Um Carimbo (Two Stamps and a Seal), released in April 2010, hit the Portuguese charts at #1.

I spoke briefly with the band and their producer Nelson Carvalho, who also works with other chart-topping bands in Portugal such as Wraygun, Clâ, Virgem Suta, Sergio Godinho, David Fonseca, Ornatos Violeta, Rita Redshoes, Christina Branco, and others.

MW: How did you find Deolinda?

NC: They chased me for a while. I was not feeling too keen on working on what someone told me sounded like fado. Then I was sent a demo with a very nice booklet and the music was a very refreshing way of playing the old tired Portuguese fado. They knew what they wanted, all of the songs were good, and I connected quite easily with the members of the band.



MW: How is it to be a family quartet? Is the music-making more enjoyable? Or more complicated?

Deolinda: It is quite nice, actually. Being in a band is like being with your second family, because you travel together and go through so many things together. For us, because we are related, the process of getting to know one another, musically and personally, happened way before we were in Deolinda. When the band started everything just went faster and easier. The sound was already there, perhaps because the human connection was already there.

MW: How was this recording different than the first album?

Deolinda: With Dois Selos e Um Carimbo, we wanted to try out new things in terms of song structure, themes and sound, but we also tried to maintain some of the characteristics of our debut album, Canção ao Lado. So we decided to record all the songs live on tape, with all the musicians playing and recording at the same time.

NC: It was a live setup, with clear eye communication between them. Deolinda is more jazz ensemble, and less pop group.

MW: How did you find Andy VanDette?

NC: Pedro Tenreiro, A&R from Valentim’s label, introduced me to him on the first Suzana Felix album we did together. I like how he works and we have built a solid working relationship. He is great, and I don’t talk about people this way very often!

MW: Did your lives change because of the #1 song in the Portuguese charts? The Beatles say that people started treating them differently, did this happen for you, even in small ways?

Deolinda: Well, they did change. For the better, of course. We had other side jobs we had to ditch, much to our content. We became full-time musicians and did nothing but music, so it was quite a thrill to be able to do that. We did not feel that people in general started treating us differently. However, we can say that all our technical requirements for the live shows started being met by promoters without much negotiation, which has made life on the road quite a lot nicer.

MW: What’s next for Deolinda?

NC: Touring and touring and the next CD maybe, with me I hope.

Deolinda: Lots of mileage on our part, which means a solid and dynamic show, with every ounce of feeling and delivery we have inside of ourselves put into it.

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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.
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RUSH “Moving Pictures” Out Today in 5.1 Surround and Hi-Res Stereo

Great news! Out today: RUSH’s super-classic 1981 album Moving Pictures, in high-resolution stereo and 5.1 surround mixes! It comes in two formats: CD + DVD-Audio or CD + Blu-ray. Mastered by Andy VanDette at Masterdisk.

We had a YouTube teaser embedded in the post here, but it was causing issues for the whole blog in Safari! So we’re using a link now instead. Check out the teaser for the 30th Anniversary Moving Pictures CD, DVD-A and Blu-ray editions.

The pre-orders alone got the album onto the Billboard top 200 at #137. Not bad for a 30 yr old album!

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

Tape Op Magazine“I have worked with him a few times and he really cares. All you want is someone who can go the extra mile, and he has an affinity with the music. He’s a perfectionist — I once saw him discard a whole vinyl cut because he could get another half dB out of it — and I really trust him.
— Steven Wilson discussing Andy VanDette, Tape Op, Sep/Oct 2009


Porcupine Tree is one of the premiere progressive rock bands working today. They came up in the 90s along with bands like Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard, carrying the prog torch into what could be seen as the third wave of the genre. (For the sake of argument, and I’m sure there will be some, the first wave would be represented by bands like Yes, Genesis and King Crimson; the second by Marillion and IQ; and the fourth by The Mars Volta. And yes, this is a gross oversimplification which leaves out dozens of important bands and sub-movements!)

Two of Porcupine Tree’s biggest albums, In Absentia [Lava/Atlantic 2002] and Deadwing [Lava/Atlantic 2005], were mastered by Masterdisk chief engineer Andy VanDette. I spoke to Andy about his work on on these two very different records.

How did you get the Porcupine Tree gig?

Album cover of Porcupine Tree's In AbsentiaLuckily my friend Andy Karp — who became president of A&R over at Lava/Atlantic — whenever he could throw my name into the ring for mastering he would. A lot of artists have a mastering engineer that they’ve worked with before and that’s where they go. But Andy would get me shootout gigs for certain stuff — I got to do the Simple Plan demo that got them signed. I did a few records on Atlantic that never saw the light of day… and Porcupine Tree came along that way.

What can you tell me about In Absentia?

The thing about In Absentia is that was a record made the way that records used to be made. You had a big major label debut where they recorded in big studios, they hired a quality engineer to record the basic tracks, and then a mix god, Tim Palmer, to mix it all to half inch tape. I heard the first few seconds of “Blackest Eyes” and I thought, “OK, this is going to be a good day! this is going to be a day where I figure out ‘a half dB of what’ instead of “where’s the kitchen sink?”

Was Steven [Wilson, of Porcupine Tree] here?

Yes, Steven was here for the record.

He’s a pretty hands-on guy?

Oh yeah, definitely.

Was there much collaboration or back-and-forth in the session or did you work alone?

I think pretty much they let me work. You know, Steven liked what he was hearing so… we seemed to like the same things, so sometimes you just click that way with clients. I don’t really remember too much back and forth, there was more of that on the next record, Deadwing.

What was working on that record like?

Well, in contrast to In Absentia, Deadwing is an example of how records are made today, where the band doesn’t go into any studio, they record and mix it at home. Steven mentioned they were working this way pretty early on, and so I sent him an email and said ‘Well, if you’re going to do work that way, the hip thing to do is to mix in subgroups. We’ll rent a nice analog summing amp and we’ll put it all together once you get here.” So he ended up sending over his Mac with his Logic [Apple’s suite of recording programs] sessions on them, and then I rented the Dangerous Music summing amp and we put it all together that way.

Of course Murphy’s law says that if you send your Mac to a foreign country a week in advance it’s going to arrive at the END of the first day of the session you booked. So it was evening before I ran through a couple songs and mastered them quick, keeping the same kind of hands-off mastering mentality that I had with the first record. Because the first record… the mixes were so great that I didn’t have to do much.

But when I heard what I had done the next morning in my car I freaked out. I thought “oh my god this is horrible… is my system broken?!” When I got to the studio I checked it out in the other mastering rooms and I found out that nothing was broken; it just plain sucked. I didn’t roll off enough bottom. Once I started listening to the individual parts [in Logic] I thought, “gee that bass is awful thick… what’s going on there?” There were like five layers of kick drums going on [laughs] — too much to get the kind of clarity we needed. Since we had the option to change the mixes in Logic, that’s what we did.

Porcupine Tree Deadwing album coverThat day we pulled out In Absentia because we knew that people were going to compare the new record to it — and we could use it as a reference, even though the new stuff was recorded so differently. The new one would be its own entity — its own art — but it did have to compare on some kind of level. Once we did that things went much better and all of the changes that we made to the stereo mixes held up through the surround mixes.

How many stems did you output from Logic?

We broke it out to 8 channels, probably 4 stereo stems and stuck that through the analog summing amp.

And what does the summing amp do?

The final squish to stereo is done in the analog domain as opposed to the digital domain.

What’s the effect of using it?

It’s the depth thing. When you close your eyes how deep is the sound stage? I had done comparisons both ways [through the summing amp and not] and switching back and forth I could hear a much deeper sound field than the mixes that had come straight out of the digital domain.

And out of that you went into your…

Andy VanDette

My standard mastering rig. Because the mix issues were taken care of in Logic, that meant I didn’t have to do as much — there were no contortions anymore because anything that I would have struggled with were ironed out.

Do you know why they decided to record Deadwing like they did, rather than do another record like In Absentia? Was it budget?

I think that they were just so adept at recording themselves. Gavin [Harrison, the group’s drummer] had his own studio — why not do drums in his room where he has them all set up just the way he likes them? And Steven is very adept at recording himself — he had done it all those years before Atlantic. And yeah it was partially budgetary because the budget wasn’t as big for Deadwing as it was for In Absentia. The record companies had started tightening their belts by then and… although In Absentia was a great critical success I don’t think it sold numbers that turned heads at Atlantic records.

Deadwing was the last Porcupine Tree record you did?

Right, and then they did Fear of a Blank Planet [Roadrunner Records, 2007] which Steven mastered himself. And then I submitted for their latest record [The Incident, 2009].

But you didn’t end up mastering it?

No, I didn’t. I did master Steven’s solo record Insurgentes [2008] though.

What was the process of mastering Insurgentes?

It was about wrestling with the loudest sections of the record. Which are only 5% of the record but the 5% that I hold the most dear. The quiet parts were all nicely dynamic but when those really ultra loud sections come out the mixes had a screechy distorted quality that made me want to turn my monitors down, not up. So I worked on warming those sections and treating those sections so that they sounded raucously loud, but not abrasive.

Is that EQ work?

Some EQ work, some cutting different settings together. Sometimes you can make one setting and it works for the whole record. But we can get more forensic than that and use different treatments so that when it goes to the ultra loud section you can’t really notice that I’ve changed settings — or at least you’re not supposed to!

And Steven was happy with it?

I think so.

But you didn’t do the next Porcupine Tree record.

Well, one of the guys in the band was very concerned about compression — he wanted to make sure the new record didn’t have too much compression on it. So the group felt that they needed to be there for the mastering, but they weren’t going to be able to come to the States, so that was that. But Steven let me submit, which was cool. So I listened to a lot of In Absentia because I still say it is the Porcupine Tree record by which all other Porcupine Tree records will be judged… and I made something that was just a little lower [in level].

And what happened?

And pretty quickly I got word back that it was way over-compressed. So then I did one that was hardly compressed at all, but I guess I went too far in the other direction… In the end they were right, they needed to be there at the mastering studio so they could find the exact balance they were looking for.

The two albums you did for Porcupine Tree are big ones as far as fans are concerned. Do you get artists that come to you because you did those records?

Certainly.

Have you been doing much in the prog rock area lately?

Oh sure. The Heart of Cygnus CD that’s on my wall [Over Mountain Under Hill] is a recent one… it was named on Mike Portnoy’s [former drummer with Dream Theater] Top 10 list for 2009. And I’ve been doing some things more recently that aren’t out yet.


Thanks to Larry Crane of Tape Op for getting us the Steven Wilson quote when none of us could find our Sep/Oct 2009 copies of Tape Op! (Murphy’s law again.)

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