Ask the Engineer with Matt Agoglia: The Art of Sequencing

Matt Agoglia is a mastering engineer with a deep love for the album format. Talk to him about one of the recent albums he’s mastered — he always seems to have one that he’s particularly excited about — and you’ll pick up on just how keen his attention is to the nuances of the long-player. Matt is passionate about the album as an art form, and it shows in his work: listen to his work with legendary singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris, or the pop-punk group Sleeper Agent, or avant-pop composer Mikel Rouse and hear for yourself.

Since this is the first “Ask the Engineer” that Matt’s doing, I thought we’d have to start with that very ephemeral but all-important aspect of the album art form: sequencing.

photo of Ventures vinylFirst of all, when we’re talking about sequencing, we’re not really talking about song order, right?

That’s right; I don’t really deal with song order. That’s usually dictated. Often the spacing isn’t though.

Do you ever get asked to contribute to the song order?

Clients sometimes ask for my input. The important thing is to have a storyline, a thread. To have highs and lows. With the song order you play around with those feelings. Make a journey out of it because you know, some people still listen to records all the way through!

What’s important about the gaps between the songs?

In the mastering stage you’re taking your mixes and turning them into a listening experience. How each song sits and breathes can enhance a listener’s enjoyment of the record. And that’s what mastering is about. Enhancement.

So how do you do that?

A couple different ways. You get projects where the artist has a specific idea about how each song should go into the other. Crossfades and things like that. Sometimes it’s very elaborate and they’ll send me an mp3 mockup and I can recreate it.

Other times, if we’re not doing elaborate crossfades, I ask myself how much time my ear needs to settle before the next song comes in. A lot of people like these really fast-paced records and I don’t think that’s ALWAYS appropriate. You can rob a listener of a better experience of your album by smashing it all together. It’s nice to have a mix of short and long spaces. Take the listener on a journey, and make it a pleasant one. Maybe it’s quick in the beginning then maybe you need an intermission. It depends on the music, of course.

So it’s by feel?

Yes. And you can really enhance a listener’s perspective on the songs. Music still has energy after the last note has died off. Sometimes the emotional response needs to subside, you need to have that time between songs. That’s what sequencing can add to a project.

Is there any particular technique involved?

A lot of times when people are sequencing, they listen only to the last few seconds of a song before trying to determine the gap before the next one. It’s really not ideal; you want to feel the energy of the full song in order to determine how much of a rest you’ll need before moving on. So I’d say that ideally, you’re going to get the best sequencing by listening through the whole album while you’re making your decisions. You’ll spend more time doing it this way, but it’s worth it.

Exciting News: Matt Agoglia Is Promoted to Senior Engineer at Masterdisk

It’s only a few days into 2011 but it’s already shaping up to be an eventful year at Masterdisk HQ in New York City. Scott Hull, mastering engineer and the owner of Masterdisk, announced this week that mastering engineer Howie Weinberg has left his longtime post at the studio to strike out on his own in California, “where the climate suits his clothes” (as the old blues tune says). Scott, and the rest of the Masterdisk staff, wishes Howie the best of luck in the future.

In his place, Scott has promoted engineer Matt Agoglia to the position of Senior Engineer. Matt served as Howie’s right-hand man for three years at Masterdisk while building his own mastering clientele. Matt is taking over Howie’s mastering suite, and will continue mastering records using the same gear that he and Howie have been using for years. This classic mastering suite has been used for mastering iconic albums by The White Stripes, The Clash, Wilco, Nirvana, U2, Public Enemy, Pixies, Sonic Youth and many more.

Matt Agoglia in His Studio
Matt Agoglia in his mastering suite.

About the departure, and the promotion, Scott said, “Of course we’re sorry to see Howie go, but this is part of how the mastering business has always worked. No one stays at any one place forever. Young engineers work with senior guys, and learn the finer points of the craft. When spots open up, the younger engineers step up to move the torch forward. I started my career as Bob Ludwig’s assistant. And when Bob left Masterdisk for Maine I was promoted to Chief Engineer in his old room. Matt’s a very good engineer, and his clients have been very happy with his projects over the past few years. I have total faith that as more people get to know his mastering style, he’ll be very successful here.”

Recent records Matt has worked on include Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach, Spoon’s Transference, Wavves’ King of the Beach, and Rogue Wave’s Permalight.