Andy VanDette On Remastering 15 Rush Albums

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

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

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

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

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

James: How did you get the gig?

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

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

James: What was next?

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

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

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

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

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

James: What was the condition of the masters?

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

James: Were you surprised by anything you found?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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!

Masterdisk Presents: Quorum

At Masterdisk we don’t just master releases by bands from big labels, though that is an important part of our business. As the years have gone by, we’ve seen our independent clientele grow steadily to the point where independent artists are now a majority of our business. The music industry, despite all the doom-and-gloom, is a really interesting place to be right now.

We’ve had this idea kicking around for a while: why not write about some of the independent bands that come through our studios? We hear a lot of great music on a daily basis: quirky, intense, beautiful, heavy, slick, rough, you name it — it comes through here. So we’re going to try out our idea by highlighting a recent project that came to us via our Indie program. It’s the Russian neo-progressive rock group Quorum, and their album Klubkin’s Voyage, mastered by Graham Goldman.

Artwork for the Quorum album Klubkin's Voyage.

Graham is one of our younger, up-and-coming engineers. He’s recently worked on a number of sucessful albums for the Relapse label, by bands like Tombs, Rabbits, Broughton’s Rules, and Kill the Client. When Graham isn’t busy (which is becoming more rare) he occasionally takes on a client that comes through our Indie program. That’s how this particular gig happened: Quorum contacted us through the Indie website, and requested a free mastering sample. Graham had some time in his schedule and took the assignment.

We thought the Quorum project would be interesting to talk about because of its unusual qualities. First, the band wanted their album to have a lot of dynamic range — they didn’t care whether it was loud or not. Second, the album is essentially one long piece, which was later broken up into individual tracks. Third, it’s a concept album — essentially one long story — which, in true prog fashion, makes use of recurring themes and other classically-derived techniques. And lastly, the band’s from Russia, and we don’t have a ton of Russian clients (we’d like to have more!) — it’s interesting for us to hear what bands are doing there.

I interviewed both Graham and Quorum member Dmitry Shtatnov for this article. First up, Graham Goldman.

Masterdisk: Do you listen to much progressive rock yourself?

Graham: I listen to all kinds of stuff, so this project wasn’t really that far-out for me.

Quorum: Klubkin's Voyage, Part Two (excerpt) by Masterdisk-NYC

Masterdisk: And Quorum came to you through the Indie program?

Graham: I did do a sample for them. But they sounded like they were pretty sure they were gonna come here before I did it even. We didn’t end up using the sample on the album though. I did a different version of it for the record.

Masterdisk: Why didn’t you use the sample?

Quorum
Graham: Well usually when we do the samples, you’re really trying to catch their ear and give them what they want — we know from experience that most bands want it kinda loud and maybe more heavy-handed than I would end up doing on the rest of the project. A lot more heavy-handed actually.

Masterdisk: But they liked it.

Graham: They thought it was good — they liked the general sound of it.

Masterdisk: You’ve mentioned that the band wanted the record to be very dynamic.

Graham:
The main challenge with the record was to keep it listenable — where you’re not having to adjust the volume all the time, but it still has a huge dynamic range. They weren’t concerned with how loud it was compared to other records.

Quorum: Klubkin's Voyage, Part One (excerpt) by Masterdisk-NYC

Masterdisk: Kind of unusual, right?

Graham: Yes. That’s really unusual. I find that most of the time, even when people say they don’t want a loud record, they do. You know, you send them a record that’s not loud, and they want it louder. You’ve got to figure out what kind of music it is, be a little bit of a psychic as to what kind of volume they’re going to want. You can usually tell from the way the mixes sound.

Masterdisk: So how did you pull off the balance?

Klubkin's Voyage

Graham: I didn’t do a whole lot of compression. There’s some mild compression on there but basically it was just a matter of trying to control the loud parts a little bit and also adding some make-up gain to bring up some of the softer parts a little bit. But it was a delicate balancing act to not crush the loud parts at all and not make the soft ones too soft.

Masterdisk: Did it take a long time to do?

Graham: Yeah, I spent some time on it. He [Dmitry] had already sequenced it himself at home, so I had him send me an mp3 showing me exactly what he wanted [in terms of transitions]. I got kinda stoked once I started working on it — and really wanted to make it perfect for them. In the end they didn’t have any revisions at all — just a couple little things. The only thing we messed around with was moving some of the crossfades.

Masterdisk: As a mastering engineer, having this kind of detail come from a client is a plus?

Graham: If an artist has a very specific set of goals they’re trying to accomplish, then it’s really helpful for them to spell it out in as much detail as possible.

Quorum: Klubkin's Voyage, Part Three (excerpt) by Masterdisk-NYC

INTERVIEW WITH DMITRY SHTATNOV OF QUORUM

Masterdisk: How did you decide to use Masterdisk for your mastering?

Dmitry: When it came time for mastering, our mix engineer contacted his friend at a local studio who referred us to Masterdisk. I decided that it was the right place when I saw Genesis and Rush albums in the discography.

Masterdisk: What features were important to you in the mastering?

Dmitry: Our goal was to make sure we preserved the dynamics. Many modern albums including our personal favorites make their sound closer and closer to white noise because of the “loudness war.” It’s hard to listen more than an hour of highly compressed rock or metal. Actually I think it may even cause headaches or toothaches. Our album contains a continuous story and we wanted to make sure it would be comfortable to listen to from the beginning to very end. Of course, all other industry standards like field widening, normalization and spectrum equalization is implicit.

Masterdisk: Could you name albums that served as models for the sound of your record?

Dmitry: In the very beginning of the mix process we were influenced by some classic records of middle/late 70’s: Trick of the Tail, maybe some ideas from ELP, Zeppelin and Rush, but the final mix moved away from that.

Quorum: Books and Dreams (excerpt) by Masterdisk-NYC

Masterdisk: What are your plans for the album now that the mastering is complete?

Dmitry: We plan to release it as a CD but also plan to offer downloads. After the first two weeks of release even the least famous albums appear on torrent trackers. After that your tracks appear as paid (what a paradox!) ringtones or pseudo-legal mp3s automatically by some php-scripts. Our real goal in making a CD is to make material evidence of our existence and give some collectors something new to put on their shelves.

Masterdisk: What are your plans and goals for Quorum?

Dmitry: We plan to record some old songs, most of which will be in two languages, then make a non-conceptual but more sophisticated and dark album, and then try to write an opera or other large form. We already have detailed plans for all of this — seriously!

Fill out my online form.

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.)

Fill out my online form.