Beginning his foray into music as an artist, John Golden has been mastering records for nearly 50 years, a time span very few share. I started making records back in the 1980s, and had the good fortune to be referred to John back at the very start of my career by engineer/producer Kevin Army (Operation Ivy, Green Day). John has guided me from having made some of the worst albums imaginable (and I do not intend that as any reverse grandiosity, but mean that the records were literally horrible) to winning a Grammy, and I can say without a doubt that I’ve learned more from John than any other single person about recording. He brings to music a generous, nonjudgmental spirit, having worked with artists as wide ranging as Earth, Wind & Fire, Iggy Pop, Sonic Youth, Brian Eno [Tape Op #85], Tom Jones, Sir George Martin, Air Supply, Sonny Rollins, and the Hawaiian music legend Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – to name just a few. He has also done extensive catalogue work for underground labels such as Sub Pop, SST, K Records, and Kill Rock Stars. Golden Mastering is in its 24th year, and John’s children, JJ and April, master alongside him while his wife, Diane, handles traffic and business.
How many singles and albums do you estimate that you have mastered in your career?
I did a rough tally back in 1994 and it was already well over 10,000, even back then. The problem with getting an accurate count is some people credited me differently as John Golden or Johnny Golden. And a lot of people didn’t credit me at all! Since the artwork always took longer to print than the music to be pressed, often labels didn’t even know in advance who would be working on it. At K-Disc I often did three albums a day. That was not uncommon, at all.
I first met you in 1987 at K-Disc in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard.
And that’s where the transition from major to indies began to take place. I remember distinctly doing a single for Black Flag around 1982. It was on SST and this engineer named Spot [Tape Op #13] came in with this 7-inch reel of tape. It was a song called “TV Party.” I threaded the tape and listened to it all the way through. Then I listened to the B-side. After that Spot said, “How come you listened to the whole song?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I went to this other place and the guy up there played the intro, skipped to the middle, and then went to the end. Then he just rewound it all and cut it. I’ve never seen anyone play the whole thing through. That’s awesome.” So the word got out, “Hey, there’s this guy over at K-Disc that listens to the music the whole way through!” [laughter]
So how did you feel about that transition?
Punk rock was a far departure from the type of program I was used to doing – like jazz, blues, and R&B. But word got out through that one single, and K-Disc became kind of an independent scene. I started working for Sub Pop doing the “Singles Club.” Calvin Johnson started doing a record club for K Records [International Pop Underground]. I could hardly keep up. I would work weekends, and I always worked 14 hour days. I just couldn’t get anything done in eight hours. During that time digital came out. Before that, you cut the records in real time. People now are used to working with a mouse and a computer. It’s a one-way ride with vinyl; there is no stopping. All of the levels, fades, and EQ were done live. If I made a mistake, I had to throw out the lacquer and do it all over again. I had to watch and document the tape machine counter times for EQ and fade times, since it was too late to fade by the time that you saw the tape leader. Digital changed everything – I could make EQ cutting copies without loss of generation. Every Tuesday and Thursday was SST day, and Sub Pop was Wednesday and Friday. I did SST’s entire catalog until around 1990 or 1991.
Since you work with a great diversity of musical forms and genres, what do you see as the similarity in your work?
To hopefully create a sense of continuity throughout the project. The mastering process tends to expose and emphasize problems in the recording, so it’s important for artists to listen to their mixes very carefully and be sure they are as perfect as they can be before mastering. I take a reserved approach with mastering. I go into it with the idea that I feel I need to absorb what the project is. I also like to listen all the way through, just to hear it at least once without doing anything so that I have a concept of where it is coming from; but I also want to know if there are any deviations in the mixes or songs, and if they are intentional. I feel better decisions are made with this approach. I am a little more conservative than some, in that I feel that the recording and mixes the artists and engineers are sending are ones that they are already happy with, and I want to respect that.
What are the biggest differences in the quality of mixes you receive in the digital versus analog eras?
With digital, you have to be very careful how you record, because of how flat and quiet that format is. With analog tape there is the inherent tape noise, as well as the tape’s EQ curve that tends to have a sound that is pleasing when carefully done. Tape saturation can be controlled by the recording level, creating a type of compression sound that can only come from tape.
What are the most common missteps you hear with recordings? And what advice would you give engineers to improve the final product?
Choosing the right microphone for the intended purpose is very important. Too many tracks of the same guitar sound tends to reduce clarity and definition, which makes the mix cluttered and busy. Layering guitars all in the same register can also add to the congestion.
What effect do you think gets overused?
There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s compression. Compression inside the mix is one thing. During recording it’s wise to use compression cautiously. With a wild vocalist, try riding the fader instead of heavy limiting. Occasionally we get mixes with a lot of compression on every instrument, and that makes everything begin to stand in one position. There is no individuality, and no space in the mix. Then, to make things worse, they’ll take that and compress the stereo bus.
The life and dynamics just get squashed right out of it.
I always tell people, “If you use 2 dB of compression to hold things together, that’s great. But if you use 8 dB over the mix bus, you might lose or change the feel dramatically.” You can always limit more after the fact, but if you put it on the track, you’ve bought it. If you’re not careful, compression can reduce a lot of clarity and life from things that people want to sound open and spacious. There was a project that I got last week. They did it all in the box and the only note they gave was that they wanted it to sound “old school.” There was so much compression on this thing. It sounded so mushy. There was no clarity on the percussiveness of the beat. It all sounded like it was overdubbed with the same microphone, so there is a pile-up in frequencies everything ends up crowded. A certain amount of compression can be musical. At Wally Heider’s Studio 3, we had four Urei 1176 limiters. That’s it; four! For the most part, we didn’t limit the bass, the kick, the snare, etc. And with the acoustic guitar, chief engineer Bill Halverson actually used it as an effect and created a sound with the limiter. It’s the one you hear on [Stephen Stills’] “Love the One You’re With.” So the old school sound generally comes from not messing with things! [laughter]
How do you find the original intention through all of this noise?
Over the years, a lot has changed. With today’s wide range of recording styles, it’s important to be able to find the human element, or emotion, in a song, wherever that may be. Once you connect with that, you have a path to maintaining or highlighting the musical intention.
How did you start out on this path?
I built a little 2-track studio in my parent’s attic. I used to record track 1, then bounce onto track 2 while adding a part, then back and forth, losing fidelity. I couldn’t go backwards on anything. If I wanted to change something, I had to start all over from scratch. I did have a Fender Echo tape delay. It had a variable tape head, so I could adjust the delay between the record and play heads – a quick slap or a long bounce. There was also a spring reverb for the guitar. My band had gone to a professional studio in Pittsburgh that had two Ampex 2-track machines, and I would watch what the engineers were doing. They would always leave space for the vocal in the mix. Drums and bass on one channel, guitar and keyboards on the other. Then they would mix those down together onto one track and record the vocal to the other track. Then they would do a mono mix. There was no stereo, even though there were two tracks. There was not even stereo broadcasting yet. I had only five microphones in my studio – AKGs and Shures – and no limiters. The songs were recorded on a mono mixer. I controlled the balance by moving the mics around – closer or further from something. The only option was to physically change the position of the mic. The snare and hi-hat was mic’d from underneath, since there would be too much cymbal or tom tom otherwise. Working this way is how I began to figure out how things sounded best. I learned a lot by building that studio. It was a great training ground. My band was pretty busy playing three or four nights a week during that time. I was also signed to Warner Bros. Records, where I recorded the single in my attic. The next thing I knew, I got a box of records in the mail. They had taken what I had done and overdubbed it without me knowing – they put background singers, some percussion, and bass on. It started to get some airplay, but then I received my induction notice and was drafted into the Navy. I served at the Naval base where sonar was developed.
What came next?
When I got out of the Navy I worked at that same studio in Pittsburgh [Gateway] where I did my demos. By then they had a Scully 4-track 1/2-inch, which was amazing to us at the time. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I worked there nine months. But the owner hadn’t paid me for nine weeks, and I had been married six weeks to my wife, Diane. I loved working there, but I was in a position where I had to make a move.
So what did you do?
Dick Glasser was the one who signed me to Warner Bros. He and his brothers used to record song demos in my attic, and they later went into jobs in A&R, publishing, production, and management. I called Teddy Glasser out in L.A. and explained that I couldn’t make a living in Pittsburgh, and he told me, “I can’t sell something I don’t have.” He wouldn’t promise me a job unless I came out to California. I said, “That’s a little scary.” But my wife and I packed our wedding gifts up in a ’64 Econoline van and drove across the country to California. We arrived in L.A. on a Thursday and were invited to Teddy’s apartment in North Hollywood for dinner with his family. He said to come down to his office the next day. The MCA Publishing office was right across from Capitol Records. He made a few phone calls and told me to go to United Western Recorders, and he also called Wally Heider. He said, “Wally doesn’t need anyone right now. But he’s willing to talk with you.” United Western had the big room where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin recorded, as well as the famed Studio 3 that was used by Brian Wilson, Jan & Dean, and many others. They didn’t need anybody, and Wally Heider said he didn’t have any openings, but he liked me. He said there was a guy upstairs who was leaving soon and, “When he does, his job is yours.” The guy was cutting dubs for publishing houses. It was a Neumann lathe with a Westrex mono cutter head. Wally said, “Go ahead and come in Monday.” This was Friday. I had arrived there Thursday afternoon, and on Monday I was at work! I went into what he called Studio One. It had an eight position, three bus UA mixer that they called the Green Board. It was a rotary console, with dials instead of faders. I think that is the console Neil Young later purchased. Then I went into the bigger room [Wally’s Studio 3] and the control room had a 1-inch, 8-track. I couldn’t believe it – I had just seen my first 4-track that same year.
What did you do for Wally?
I started by cutting publishing demos. Wally had the accounts for the publishing divisions of A&M, RCA, and Columbia Records. This was 1968, before there were cassettes. Publishers would call the secretary and say, “We need three copies” of a specific song. “Pull reel #138, and we’ll have a messenger there in 20 minutes to pick up the dubs.” There were all these reels of tape and we would cut a lacquer ‘dub’ – a 7-inch – of these tapes to be used as song demos. We had the entire Carole King and Gerry Goffin catalog, as well as Paul Williams – all incredible demos of songs that they had written. I would watch over the shoulder of the regular guy, and then when he went to lunch I would take over. Eventually he quit and I got that job. After that, the traffic office scheduled me in Studio 3 to second engineer for Bones Howe [Tape Op #64]. Wally called it Studio 3, it was named after Studio 3 at United. I didn’t know anything about that room; I had come from what was essentially an elaborate PA mixer with a 4-track Scully [deck] in Pittsburgh. They let me in the room for a little while by myself, and I had the maintenance guy show me how the patchbay was set up. I seconded behind Bones Howe for three years, setting up all of the microphones, headphones, and running the tape machines. I learned so much from Bones, just by sitting in the back of the control room and staying quiet. He had such a pleasant manner about him; I never once saw him get mad. There were times I knew he was upset, but he would never show it. I have a great respect for him. He took me under his wing and gave me my “basic training.” Wally had myself and two other guys second engineer – even though we were all first engineers – for the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album [Crosby, Stills & Nash]. It was something we all knew was a hit; everyone who worked on those sessions knew how good it was.
How did you get into mastering?
Working at Wally Heider’s, I eventually got into engineering on my own – tracking and mixing. I loved it because of the creativity. Some of the projects that I was working on needed to be mastered, which at that point in time meant lacquers being cut. I always suggested Artisan Sound. Bill Halverson and Bones Howe used Artisan, and I was amazed how good the records sounded. Artisan’s owner, Bob MacLeod, got really busy and needed help, so he called me and said, “Your mixes sound so good. I don’t have to do anything to them, just a little touch up here and there. I think you hear like me.” I said I actually liked recording and didn’t really want to get into mastering. But he kept calling me. After four calls, over a few months, he said, “Come to dinner with me, and I’ll make you an offer that you can’t refuse.” I told my wife, Diane, and she said, “At least I’ll get a free meal!” He offered me a percentage of the gross, as well as insurance. This was more money than I was able to make at Wally’s. I went straight to Wally – I’d been there three years already – and Wally said, “If you don’t take that offer, you’re a fool.” He let me know, “If things don’t work out, you’ll always have a place here.” Although I missed recording, I never went back. I was in over my head right away. I would cut the lacquers that Bob had already run down and listened to, and he would give me longhand notes on the settings. I did that for six months or so before I started doing projects on my own. I worked for him for three years. And then I started getting calls from a guy in Burbank, Kent Duncan, owner of Kendun Recorders, the new guy on the block.
And how did he hear about you?
Larry Cox had been a second [engineer] with me at Wally Heider, and he went on to be a producer. He told Kent Duncan that he had to hire me, so Kent kept phoning me at night when I worked. Eventually I had dinner with him, and he made me an offer that was better than what I was making at Artisan. When I went back to Artisan that night; Bob was there and he told me that he couldn’t afford to pay me anymore… and I had just accepted the new job three hours before at Kendun! Kent had just done Innervisions for Stevie Wonder, so they were the new “big thing” in town. I worked there for seven and a half years. Things were starting to change at Kendun, so I gave Kent a year’s notice before leaving. He wanted to lease me the cutting equipment; but that deal was complicated, so I went to work for K-Disc, who had started a new place in Hollywood not long before. After 12 years it was rumored that the parent company – which was mainly a manufacturing plant for raw vinyl for pressing – might be selling K-Disc. I thought about buying it, but the corporation always had an excuse as to why not to sell it. I gave them one year’s notice and started to put the pieces together to start my own business. Before I even opened, people were sending projects to my home mailbox. I started my own business in 1994 with my daughter, April. My son, JJ, finished recording school in London and joined us later, even though he originally wanted to be a tracking and mix engineer. Looking back, every single step, from first picking up a guitar as a kid, I wouldn’t change anything.
What are some of the advantages of having a family-run business?
Sometimes April, JJ, and I bounce things off of each other. When a situation comes up that is unusual, we pool our ideas together and make suggestions. It’s a luxury – something I often wished I’d had in the past.
How have your methods matured over the years?
There are days where I come in, listen to a project, and say, “This is not the day to do this.” I’ll listen to it and go home, or go on to another project. Maybe it takes a day or two before I have a handle on it. The music can be so different than what I’ve been working on that I have to step away for a while.
How do you feel about the “loudness wars”?
When you get into mastering you do a cross section of music, and you begin to draw lines between them. People are beginning to back off on a lot of level. They send notes in that say, “We really like the dynamics of our mixes. But we want it loud.” [laughs] I approach things cautiously; when loading it through the outboard gear into the computer, I usually leave room for the master to be brought up in volume. That way the real-time master can be adjusted for loudness later if desired, without having to reload the songs again. Often people request that I redo it louder. But then, after I’ve done it, they come back and say, “I see what you meant. I like the original best now.” Unfortunately, people often want to compare their sonics to a record that had a year and half to be made, and a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars! Our primary goal is to make people happy. Sometimes we will be asked to do things that are questionable, in our own view, and could sound better if it wasn’t processed so much. We will usually make recommendations, but ultimately we try to accommodate the clients wishes.
What’s the record number of remasters that you have done?
“Touch-up” or “revisions” are more the words. These are usually things that they are now commenting on that they should have told us to begin with. Sometimes people send mixes in and say, “Do what you want.” But then, afterwards, they want specific things – the bass louder, the kick quieter. It’s better to get the mix as perfect as you can before you send it out for mastering. One thing that Diane asks people beforehand is, “Do you like the mixes the way they are?” You have to like what you are sending. Mastering should be the icing on the cake, not baking the cake. A lot of musicians recording themselves will rely heavily on the mastering process to save the recording. Mastering will be an improvement. But you can’t turn mud into gold. The better it is when it comes in, the better it will be when it goes out. It’s always recommended to live with your mixes for a while before mastering. About 60 percent of the masters get approved on the first version. Then there are some artists that will go back and actually remix or edit some songs afterwards. They hear things after mastering that they didn’t hear before. Sometimes they’ll say they want it brightened up, but really what they are hearing is too much low-end. You take a little low-end off and bring the overall level up, and guess what? The master gets brighter. Mastering notes can also be particularly difficult when international translation is involved. I have to listen to the audio, look at the notes, and try to interpret. We have clients from France, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Sometimes it involves some guesswork, and it often takes a few emails back and forth, but, for the most part, those projects work out well with good communication.
With download technology, things have returned to more of a singles mentality versus the long-play album. How have you had to adjust to the idea that people might only be listening to one song at random?
I still like to do mastering as if it were going to be heard as an album, from start to finish. If someone wants to play just one song, that’s their choice. There will always be people that will want to hear the whole work as an album. Sometimes we will be asked to master a single, so that will be treated as a song by itself without being influenced by other songs before or after it. If that song later becomes part of an album, it may need to be adjusted to fit in with the other tunes.
How does working on music affect your ability to appreciate music outside of the studio?
I don’t mind peace and quiet! Occasionally I’ll play a CD I mastered years ago, and enjoy the music for the songs and musicianship without any thought of the mastering process. I rarely go to live shows. It’s just mixed so differently and loud that I don’t enjoy the experience. There have been shows that I thought did a really good job with the sound, and at reasonable levels, but I always take, and usually wear, earplugs.
To what degree are you able to enjoy music without the occupational hazard of hearing the sonic flaws or strengths?
Almost never. I’m always looking for that one little part that just doesn’t seem right. I do the same thing when I watch a movie; I love to find filming mistakes, although I’m not able to find as many as I used to, since CGI and digital re-touch is so widely used now. The computer has given us the ability to make everything “perfect,” and, to some degree, un-human. Thank goodness not everyone applies that aesthetic to their recordings, but I find the most interesting and listenable music are ones that were recorded live, for the most part, and without any pitch correction on the vocals!
What are the key elements for cutting lacquers well?
There is really no short answer! Knowing what will play back properly from a record has to be part of cutting. There are limitations to the vinyl record that dictate what can be cut and still have it play back with minimal distortion. Most everything can be cut by the lathe, but not everything can be played back and sound the same.
What frequencies do you see most neglected?
The warmth area is between 150 or 200 and 400 cycles. I am not fond of the word “warmth.” To me, it’s basically trying to make it sound like the tubes and consoles that were used in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There was no such thing as Mogami, Canare, and other high-end wire that they have now. They used cheaper microphone wire that unknowingly changed the sound from the instrument to the recorder; there was a signal loss from one end to the other, and they used lots of transformers. Unfortunately, there are not too many computer programs that can replicate that sound well. Less is more. In your mixing, consider the fact that you may not need four or six layers of guitar. It’s so easy to do when you have endless tracks, but things can get too busy and congested very fast. These days you can do anything you want, so knowing when to say, “That’s enough,” is part of the art. When we had just a 2-track, you had to know what you wanted to do with a song before you hit record. Then it went to 4 tracks, then 8, then 16, and we were like, “What are we going to do with all of these tracks?” Then it went all the way up to 24, and we knew that no one could ever fill up 24 tracks! That’s impossible. [laughter] Now with digital, you have 150 tracks. I don’t know how engineers deal with it. I honestly don’t.
You can’t even look at all of the tracks at the same time.
There’s one other aspect: there seems to be a lack of commitment. Many times we will get various mixes – vocals up, vocals down; snare up, snare down; background vocals here, no background vocals there. They’ll send all of these versions in and then they want us to decide which one to use. We’re not the producers! We could certainly pick one, but most likely it won’t be the one they want. Instead we ask people to listen to their mixes carefully and if they’re not happy with it at their end, then don’t send it in. I had a guy last week ask if I “take stems”! We have done work with stems before, but why do you want us to decide where things need to be? [laughter] You’re the producer; you’re the artist. Having said that, if something seems way off, I’m always going to stop everything and make a phone call, or send an email, to clarify any concerns before continuing.
What’s the best information a client can give you before you begin a master?
What we really like someone to say is, “Our favorite song of all these mixes is this one.” And then we will listen to that one first, and that gives us an overview of what they are really looking for.
A place to start from. A template.
Exactly! And then we will approach the rest of the master in that manner. But so many times they are in such a big hurry, and then they are always discouraged. “Man, I wish we would have had time to do this or that.” I have another line: “There’s never enough time to do it right the first time... But there is always enough time to do it over.” It really is so true.
What are your plans for the future?
I don’t see myself retiring, but I could leave tomorrow and JJ and April could run the business, no problem. But occasionally idiosyncratic challenges come up with the lathe that 50 years of experience can help with. I just finished lacquers for vinyl pressing of 11 live sides of the Grateful Dead. I’m cutting a bunch more albums of Lee Hazlewood for Light in the Attic. The thing about mastering that keeps my interest is the variety in music. I just did an album of solo harp and voice from a woman that was recorded in the 1960s. We can go from that to one of your projects, like the Malawi Mouse Boys, and then on to death metal and R&B. It forces me to keep my mind open, and it keeps the job interesting.
Ian Brennan has produced four Grammy-nominated albums, and won an award for Tinariwen’s Tassili album. He is also the author of four books, including How Music Dies (or Lives): Field Recording and the Battle for Democracy in the Arts. His latest project is the Tanzania Albinism Collective White African Power. He was interviewed in Tape Op #116.
How different is your taste in music from your father’s? And how has that affected your work?
Not that different, really. From a mastering perspective, we both appreciate similar qualities in songs and recording styles. We all grew up listening to the music our dad was into, and we all enjoyed it. I have a lot of positive memories that are linked to the music from the ‘50s through the ‘70s because of him. I later got into a lot of the pop/rock alternative stuff that MTV was giving us in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This was all before I listened to music as an engineer, but those sonic seeds were being planted and I probably gravitate towards those aesthetics today because of it.
You were formally trained in engineering. What do you see as the advantages, and disadvantages, of learning through a set system versus “on the job?”
After playing and recording songs at home with friends, I went to SAE in North London in 1995. It was a great experience all around for me. The advantages were being exposed to a teaching staff and using their recording studios, which were equipped with large format consoles and tape machines. They had just gotten Pro Tools, but nobody really knew how to use it yet, so it just sat there. The internet hadn’t really taken hold, so unless you landed an intern job, recording school was the way to be taught and get practical time with that gear. After graduating I worked in a small 8-track studio called Pathway. I also worked as a supervisor at SAE for a few years. I would help students with signal flow and other questions they had during their sessions. Me and another supervisor would also clean the studios and toilets for some extra pay. If you’re motivated and curious you’ll get a lot out of the school experience.
So when did you transition from tracking and mixing to mastering?
Wow. It’s been almost 20 years already. Where do you stand on the digital versus analog debate?
The only debate I feel is which to use for what purpose. Aside from the sound, there’s a different interaction with the music for me when I’m using outboard gear. It’s all about inspiration really. For example, when you pick up a guitar that feels great and sounds amazing, you may be inspired to play something you never played before or write a new song. Same goes for the gear we use.
What three small steps could artists take that would make your job easier – both in the tracking process?
1. Use a mic that suits the vocal or instrument whenever possible. Also use a de-esser if the vocal calls for it. Doing a little de-essing during the recording and then a little more de-essing during mixing, if needed, can help a lot.
2. With acoustic recordings make an effort to get it right in tracking. (i.e., don’t rely too heavily on the mixing and mastering stages to compensate for vibe on individual instruments.)
3. Be true to your art, be original, and most of all be sincere with everything you create.
And the mixing process?
1. Have a constant volume level position on your monitor control that you always reference the final mix from. If you’re constantly changing monitor levels, your perception of the mix is most likely changing with it.
2. Before submitting an album of mixes, work out a sequence and listen to them at one volume for context. This can often highlight areas that need additional attention.
3. Learn the limitations of the vinyl format and plan accordingly. Even if you don’t plan on releasing it on vinyl now, there’s a good chance these days it will end up there at some point.
3. Be focused on the balance of the instruments more than the overall loudness of the mix.
4. Some people use a limiter to get the mixes loud for the band to approve. If you’ve done this, please let us know and also send them in with your final mixes so we hear what the band has been listening to. This is an important part of the puzzle that is often overlooked.
What do you guess will be the future technology for delivering music in the next decade or so?
My guess is we’ll probably see vinyl records continue to grow, along with the use of digital audio files, cloud, and subscription services. Maybe we’ll see the rise of CDs in the near future… who knows?
How does working on music affect your ability to appreciate music outside of the studio?
It does affect how and what I listen to at home, but I don’t really feel I’ve lost anything because of it. In a given week I’ll be working in some capacity on between 10 and 20 projects. That’s a lot of information and personalities to process and relate to. If I listen to music at home for pleasure it’s usually something that I liked before I was an engineer, or something that I didn’t work on recently. I’m working with music all week, so at home I’m usually not that critical when listening to non-work related stuff. I also listen on pretty generic systems at home, I keep the sonics casual so I can enjoy the songs instead of analyzing them. It’s a conscious decision.
To what degree are you able to enjoy music without the occupational hazard of hearing the sonic flaws or strengths?
When working on an album sometimes the musical content of the song itself hits me right away. Other times I’m struck by all of the sonic issues. Many times, at the end of a session or when some time has passed, the music begins to get my attention more than the sonics; I love it when that happens.
A lot of mastering engineers are very heavy-handed. Along with that, many of them master at ear-splitting volume. What are your thoughts on that?
When working on an album, I listen at low to moderate levels for seventy-five percent of the project, then check and make any final tweaks at louder levels to see if it’s still comfortable. For one, it’s better for the longevity of your hearing. The other thing is that you can hear dynamics and transients better if you listen quieter. When your ears get tired and saturated, then you don’t perceive dynamics and delicate musical elements well at all. I get mixes sometimes where everything is squashed and flat with reverse dynamics [verses loud/choruses quiet]. I think they must have been listening at super loud levels not to hear that. The objectives can change dramatically from project to project. Sometimes very little is needed. Other times it’s necessary to get heavy handed for corrective or creative reasons. Many sessions are unattended, with no instructions, so we mastering engineers go off of experience and what we feel preserves or improves upon what we’re given. If a delicate touch or a heavy-handed approach isn’t what you’re looking for, then you should communicate that to the engineer up front. If that engineer is unwilling or unable to accommodate, then maybe they’re not the right person for your project. It’s all a matter of human interpretation of other people’s art.
What are the three best pieces of advice that you have been given about sonics and engineering?
1. From my own experience: Listen to your clients. You will learn the most from trying your best to accommodate their wishes.
2. Consistency. Always have a familiar and consistent source to make critical judgements about the sound. Whether that’s a pair of headphones, a car stereo, or in your studio. This means the place where you’ve listened to many types of music and recordings over a long period of time.
3. Less is more.
What are the three most common myths that you hear repeated about recording and music-making?
Myth #1: “Don’t put a compressor over the mix bus if you’re going to send it to mastering.” This is true in some cases but not all. If you use a compressor on the bus and it sounds good, and is holding things together in a nice way, then by all means leave it there. Removing a bus compressor that you’ve just used to balance the mix is not really a good idea in my opinion. If it’s for loudness only, then take it off. If you are unsure, then send both compressed and uncompressed to the mastering session. However, the only thing to consider is how the compression on one song will relate to the next song in sequence. (i.e., a squashed rock track may sound okay on its own, but then you have an open acoustic track following it and you get have a massive shift in fidelity when listening through to both.)
Myth #2: “The vinyl version is going to sound way better.” While this can be true, it’s not always the case. Some recording and mix styles are better suited for vinyl than others. It’s important to recognize these aspects early in mixing/mastering so they don’t cause delays later on. Vinyl does sound great, and is a very different listening experience. It demands your attention in a certain way that keeps you engaged with the music. That’s part of what’s fueling the renewed interest. But it does have its limitations.
Myth #3: “We can make it sound old in mastering.” While this is possible in some cases, the truth is that what really makes a recording sound older, or “classic,” starts in recording with instrument choice, playing style, engineer, and equipment, and follows through to the approach and choices made in mixing and then the mastering. Ultimately, mastering should be the final piece of that puzzle.
When did you start mastering?
I started mastering in 2010, after over a year’s apprenticeship with my father.
What are the three main lessons you learned from your father about mastering?
I have worked with my dad since 1994, and I have learned a lot from him! I think that the most important thing that I have learned is to treat all projects with the utmost care and respect. I always observed that my dad put his full attention and talent into everything he mastered, regardless if the mixes are from an accomplished engineer/producer or someone just starting out. I learned to focus my attention to detail, because in mastering the small details can make a big difference! Another thing I learned was to develop a working habit of always double-checking things.
What are your earliest memories about being in the mastering studio?
My earliest memories are from Kendun Recorders when I was about 7 years old. I remember the lounge areas the most. There were pinball machines and an all glass coffee table fish tank. I remember climbing a ladder that went up to a loft filled with pillows. I also remember being impressed with an echo chamber that was newly built and down the street in a different building. The whole place was the height of ‘70s coolness.
You came to mastering organically, by working alongside your father on the nontechnical side initially. What elements made you want to crossover into engineering?
Becoming a mastering engineer was a gradual progression for me by just doing what was needed at the studio. I started out in this family business by booking sessions and talking with clients over the phone about their projects. (This was before the internet). I would take down their notes, comments, and instructions for the session. In addition to that I would also answer questions that they would ask about the mastering process. If I didn’t know the answers back when I was just starting out I would ask my dad. We were very busy from the start of the business, and I was fortunate to have hundreds of conversations discussing mastering. Then I started doing DAT backups, making CD-Rs, doing editing, and then doing the small EQ or revision requests clients would want to have made. I did a lot of assistant engineer work for a long time, while also handling the general running of the business. I think the process for me was realizing there was room for me in the family business to become a mastering engineer. It was a good career decision, and I was already familiar with so much about mastering. What intrigued me the most to want to go fully into mastering myself was that I wanted to cut lacquer masters for vinyl production. Maybe it’s because of how much I enjoyed playing records growing up, and playing records that my dad had mastered, that I was drawn to that aspect of mastering.
What is the most common mistake you see with projects?
By far the most common mistake I see is too much subsonic low-end and a lack in definition between the low-end instruments – mainly the bass guitar and kick drum balance. This can be an obstacle in mastering for both digital and vinyl. Vocal sibilance is also a problem I see a lot. It is especially a big problem for vinyl, and has to be attenuated for the average turntable to be able to replay the disc properly without distortion.
How does your style differ from JJ or your dad?
I think my style/approach to mastering is very similar to my dad’s. And I have been working in the same room as him with the same gear as him. I’m the day shift and he is the night guy. I think all three of us are probably more similar then we are different. For me, I think that every project is different. I don’t think I have a specific style, because every project requires me to be unique and shine the mastering light on areas when and where they are needed.