What do Björk, Beach House, Slowdive, Liturgy, !!!, The Mars Volta, Deerhunter, Explosions in the Sky, serpentwithfeet, and Ryuichi Sakamoto all have in common? Mastering and mixing engineer Heba Kadry. Born and raised in Egypt and now residing in Brooklyn, New York, Heba has become a cornerstone of the music community.
What is mastering?
I’ve developed several analogies over the years. My favorite one is from Miho Hatori from Cibo Matto. She said that a mastering engineer is basically like an art curator. The art is finished; it’s pretty much complete. But a curator has to find the right space and the right pieces. You have to tie them together in a journey, select the framework, select the lighting, and select the placement. [You need to] create the journey that makes it feel like an experience.
What made you want to move into mastering?
I was an engineer in my mid-20s. After Egypt, I was an engineer at this studio in Houston, called SugarHill Recording Studios. It has an amazing history. It’s actually the oldest continuously-operating studio in the United States. Being a midnight-to-dawn engineer, I got the dregs of the Houston music scene. The learning experience was wonderful, but I couldn’t find myself. I loved recording, but I was too intimidated to mix. I was like, “Well, mastering is this last frontier that I know nothing about, so why don’t I check that out?” I knew New York was the place to be to do mastering. It was so naïve, honestly. I sold my car, packed my bags, quit, and declared, “I’m going to start from scratch and see how it goes.”
I read that you attended a mastering panel at a TapeOpCon in New Orleans.
That was a turning point for me. I didn’t know anything about mastering. I went there with all the SugarHill crew. I heard Greg Calbi [Tape Op #86] speak at this conference. It was wonderful to listen to him talk about his work process. There was something about mastering that seemed very soothing. Any mastering engineer that I saw or met at the conference seemed so collected and together; like such a soothing, inspiring person. I decided this was something I needed to investigate.
So you packed up and went to New York?
Yeah. I interned at a big studio in the city. I couldn’t get my foot in as an engineer, but I got hired as a studio manager. I would go into the studio and try to figure something out. I started to get to know bands, and I worked on a band that were friends of mine. They were signed to the Thrill Jockey label in Chicago. Bettina [Richards] at Thrill Jockey said, “Hey, I have this new band I signed, and they have their new album. Do you want to work on it?” It turned out to be Future Islands. That was a launching pad for me. At that point, after doing it for a little bit longer, I thought, “You know, it’s time to do this on my own.” Then I partnered with Timeless Mastering. I was there for about six years. Now I’m building my own studio.
What is the studio going to be like?
Building a studio in New York is pure and utter pain. It’s amazing anyone still builds anything in the city. But I do love the city, and I do believe in it. It took six months to find the right space. I can’t afford to buy a space in the city, so I have to lease. The leases are really short, and the landlords don’t want you to build anything. It took me a while until I found a spot in Dumbo. The landlord’s pretty chill. I’m working with this amazing designer, Jim Keller, of Sondhus. He’d never done a full mastering room, so he was excited to work with me. We got the design sorted, but the construction… Permitting is a nightmare. It took a long time to get that sorted, but we are very close to the finish line. It’s a cool room; nice and big. It’s got windows, which is pretty crucial for me. At this point in my career, I think it felt like the right time.
Where are you working in the meantime?
I am sharing with Josh [Bonati, Bonati Mastering]. He’s a mastering engineer in Brooklyn, and he also happens to be my husband. I am working out of his space during the night. It’s a little bit intense. At Timeless, I kind of had a nasty split and had to leave very unexpectedly, well before the time I wanted to leave to transition into my new space more smoothly. Josh kindly let me use his room for a few months in between until my space is ready. I’m spoiled, because Josh has a Northward Acoustics room, which was designed by the top designer in the world, Thomas Jouanjean [Tape Op #135]. It’s as perfectly tuned a room as you could possible imagine, so I can’t get too used to it! [laughter]
How do you approach each mastering session?
I try to encourage dialogue. Communicate with your mastering engineer. People want to dump their files on me and be like, “Yeah, do your own thing, man.” The more information they can give me, the better! I can do a better job. Anything about what intention for the mixes was. What they envision mastering to be. What the expectations are. Is that achievable? Could anything be tweaked in the mixes? That first step, right before mastering, is when a lot gets ironed out. Sometimes I have to kick back mixes and be like, “This needs a bit more work.” Or, “This is giving me trouble. Maybe fix this thing.” The approach varies. Ultimately, if the producer or artist or whoever’s making all the sonic decisions gives me all that information, if they have any ideas about references, what they like – even if it’s not in the same genre – it gives me an idea of what their ears are calibrated to. I like to try a few tracks first, because I work on an analog console. My gut instinct about a record could be completely off from what they had in mind. Let’s say someone sent me a bunch of mixes and they say, “Do your own thing.” Then I master the whole thing, send it back, and they say, “This is not loud enough! This is not compressed enough.” A lot of times, people say, “Make it dynamic, but loud.” But that makes me think, “Okay, that’s a bit of a contradiction there.” I have to wade through a lot of what people think they want versus what the mixes can offer. Obviously the goal is to give the client something they’re over the moon about and happy with; something that exceeds their expectations. I always tell people, “Don’t use mastering to fix problems. Use mastering to be the sweetener; to be the cherry on top.”
But a lot of the times that doesn’t happen. With a lot of home recordings, people are not monitoring properly. People lean on mastering to fix a lot of problems, which is fine, but it takes more time. I might have to ask for stems. I might have to ask for mixes that cater to whatever they’re looking for if the mixes are not offering that. It’s a bit of a minefield. I have to gauge the client. The client might be very open and want me to be creative a. Sometimes when I work with bigger mixers they say, “Look, I’ve worked my ass off on these mixes, and I’m happy with them. Just make it louder.” I’ll want it to feel like I didn’t do that much, but that does actually still take a lot of work.
Are you getting involved much earlier in the process, in some cases?
Sometimes. When it’s a couple of producers where I’m their go-to person, maybe they’re mixing out of town, not in their own room, and they’re not really secure about where they’re at. They’ll want a second ear, so they’ll send me the tracks and say, “If you have any notes, please let me know, because I don’t trust the room that I’m in right now, and I trust yours.”
There’s no better feedback than your mastering engineer. The goal is always to have the mastering do as little as possible to a mix.
It’s true that when you really understand what mastering does, how it can change mixes, and maybe even master yourself, you’ll really become a better mixer. I only really realized that, and had a true appreciation for mastering, when I very unexpectedly got hired to mix a Björk record two years ago.
How did meeting Björk and mixing her Utopia album come about?
I got connected to Björk through Robin Carolan, who runs Tri Angle Records; a really amazing indie industrial noise label. Björk liked the sound of a lot of records that came out of his label, which I mastered pretty much 95 percent of, like Vessel and Evian Christ. Harsh, very pounding industrial noise. She sent me an email and right off the bat asked me, “Do you mix?” I said, “No, I don’t!” She asked, “Can you work with stems?” I said, “Yeah, I definitely can work with stems, but I do not mix.” She thankfully said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” I remember going to her house in Brooklyn and meeting with her. She started playing me the tracks and letting me know what she had in mind. I was peeing in my pants, not uttering a word! I’m in the presence of true greatness; one of my idols. She was so humble, so cool. She said, “Alright. I’m going to start sending you tracks, and then we’ll go from there.” She did start sending me stems for some tracks. Honestly, I very naively thought, “Oh, so she’s still in production phase, and she wants someone based here in New York where she’s at to tie things in for her.” That’s where I thought that I would come in, and then eventually a proper mixer would mix this album. Months go by, and I go to Iceland. I was with her and Arca [Alejandra Ghersi]. At some point, the stems started to break down into multitracks. We were doing a lot of production choices and straight-up mixing processes. I still truly thought someone else was going to mix this. We were at a party; she has all these fun brunches and invites people over. She was introducing me to someone and said, “This is Heba. She’s mixing my album.” I was like, “Wait. What am I doing?” I thought, “I’m going to trust her 100 percent. If I suck, she’s going to tell me that I suck and she’s going to fire me.” She didn’t do that! [laughter] It ended up being such a wonderful process. It was a lot of hard work. It was a whole year, but she brought in another mixer, Marta Salogni – a fantastic mixer. She’s Italian and lives in London. She mixed half the album, and I mixed the other half. We joined forces on a couple of songs. I trusted what Björk wanted to do. I met up with her a couple weeks ago. We were sitting with a bunch of people, and I was telling them, “I’m mixing this new project.” I said, “Yeah, you can blame Björk for making me a mixing engineer when I really am not.” I still don’t think of myself as a mixing engineer. I think that is a product of engineers being told that you have to stick to your own lane. I think mixing engineers can usually dip into mastering, but not the other way around. That’s a bit more of a no-no, but I also think that’s bullshit. Maybe that’s changing. With my experience, I thought, “Well, maybe I can mix a record!”
The fact that she was comfortable forcing your hand to mix her record puts you in a position where you were really paying attention.
Oh, yeah. I knew this was the chance of a lifetime. Like I said, if I blew it, then I would still have no regrets. The reason why Björk has always been so ahead of everyone and such an amazing, creative artist is because she’s a collaborator. She knows that she has to find the best in people to make the best art. I was with her throughout this whole experience, so I got to see her team and how she works. She has a small team around her – people she’s worked with for decades. It’s like, “Wow, an artist at that level who’s always been independent since the age of 19?” She knows to give back to the people around her, treat them well, and to collaborate. She has this cool way of telling us what she wants, but not dictating it. She’s a true collaborator.
You mentioned Björk’s brunches and collaborations. You wanted to talk about community?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting how, generationally, I’ll talk to some of the older engineers, and they came up in an era – cutting or mastering engineers in the ‘60s or ‘70s, and even techs – everyone was so guarded about their work and what they used. Obviously, the world of audio and recorded music was still developing. Cutting techniques were changing, and people were trying to achieve superior quality. Everybody guarded the way they worked, and it was hard to get information. Everybody worked in an isolating fashion. In the past, even though people were guarded, there was still a studio around every corner, so people would still meet up for lunches or at events. Back in the day, AES used to be a huge event with huge budgets. There was money to be made. Today the music industry is at a weird juncture. Artists are not getting paid. Nobody’s making money off of selling records. It is beyond disheartening that people are making records and then making pennies off of streaming. The only way they make money is by touring relentlessly, or maybe selling physical vinyl. I see a lot of these artists become tired. It’s exhausting to tour relentlessly. Maybe, at some point, they might think, “Fuck this. I quit!” That affects our community. It’s a trickle-down effect. I’m not talking about Top-40. I’m talking about independent artists, who maybe 10 or 15 years ago they could make a record, sell thousands of units; and they could still eventually save up, buy a house, and continue to do their thing. You’d have to stream a track one million times to make minimum wage today. What independent artist can compete with that? The people who make money are the Top-40 artists. That whole middle class is barely making money and scraping by. It’s the reason why there are no mastering studios in Manhattan anymore. It’s the reason why people have leaned into home recording. I’m all for that, of course. I think we wouldn’t have artists like Arca if it was the era of only making albums in proper studios. Home recording and DAWs getting better, and plug-ins getting better; all of that has democratized the entry into the world of audio for everyone. That’s great. It’s reduced the gatekeepers to whoever can make music. But, at the same time, then we start losing experts. We start losing the people who are specialized in this art. Mixers, mastering engineers, repair techs; all that starts to diminish. As a business, as an engineer, I have to make this decision. I need to keep the lights on, and I need to be able to tech my gear; but I still have to remain affordable. How do I reconcile that? It’s my eternal struggle. Everybody’s like, “No, raise your rates. Go for the maximum.” But then I’m alienating a whole bunch of people, and I don’t want that. That’s not how to foster a community. It’s something I think about a lot, and it bums me out.
Wanting to get paid for having experience is considered by some to be a negative mark against you…
It’s truly mind-blowing how devalued the expertise of an engineer has become. Making that decision to become an audio engineer only pays off after many, many years. Until you can get to a point where you’re able to state, “This is my rate, and I’m not going down. Either work with me or not.” Be confident. In the past I’d be far more insecure, and I’d say, “Okay, I can do it for $50. Sure, no problem.” Think about any other technical field. Let’s say you want to be a doctor. I’m not comparing audio engineering to being a doctor, which is, of course, a whole different thing. I’m talking about the structure of making it through. After you come out of medical school, you intern at hospitals, but you still get paid for your time. They understand that they have to invest in you. Eventually you can start your own practice, secure a loan, and start your own clinic. With anything else, you’ve got some security. Not the case with audio. We have no security, no health insurance, no retirement; this is purely almost entirely freelance, at this point. I don’t want to depress people, obviously. If you’re a young engineer, the beauty and the reward of actually becoming your own engineer is wonderful. I’m doing exactly what I want to do with my life. But this is a long struggle. It’s still difficult. Building a studio in Brooklyn is hard, but it’s definitely worth it in the end. I hope!