Piper Payne

A drummer turned mastering engineer, Piper Payne is a Bay Area audio professional who I’ve long admired. She has worked with the likes of The Go-Go’s, Shannon & the Clams, Third Eye Blind, and LeAnn Rimes. She has advocated tirelessly for greater inclusion in the industry via The Recording Academy, Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), and by serving on the board of SoundGirls.org. Her forthrightness and positivity in conversation helps shine a light on how much progress still needs to be made regarding achieving greater equality, and how vital it is for us all to actively fight to maintain what progress has been made.

What brought on your move to Nashville from the Bay Area?

I work with Infrasonic Mastering now. [Owner and principal mastering engineer] Pete Lyman asked me to join the family. He invited me to move down to L.A. a few times, and I wasn’t ready to leave the Bay Area. But then he called and said that things in Nashville were going really well. Nashville is a great community, and is a bigger market. I fought leaving the Bay Area for so long, but all the signs seemed to point that now was the time. It was like a red carpet welcome mat had been laid out. Not being able to buy a house and have more in my account than one month’s rent, when I was already charging as much as was possible in the market and working 12-hour days, I either had to make my Oakland business even bigger and hire more staff, or join a larger company where I would have more support. Infrasonic is such a great home and company, and Pete is one of my best friends. We have five engineers, and two are women; so we are doing pretty well in that regard. Mastering is my day job and first love.

Do you think that things in the industry are becoming more democratic? My experience back in the 1980s was that engineers were usually condescending to just about everybody, and even worse if you weren’t a straight, white male.

I am so happy that we are having this conversation. It is very timely. Just like the loudness wars are sort of over, the days of the “asshole producers” are mostly over now, too. It just won’t fly anymore. Even the assholes have to tone it down a bit. Producers and engineers that make it all about them and not the record, they might get hired once but not a second time. If you want to get hired again, you have to be nice. It’s not cool to be an asshole in the studio anymore, in the same way that people are not doing blow on the console any longer. There are rules and regulations about discrimination. Everybody’s money is green. Whether you are a woman or come from a different background, and no matter what your level of experience.

Do you feel that the industry is becoming more professional and adopting more of the workplace norms that exist outside of the entertainment world bubble?

Much more professional. I was lucky to never really have to deal with too much discrimination, though I’ve run into my share of jackasses. For the most part, I was very fortunate. I have heard stories, and realized a few years ago how bad it often was. Leslie Ann Jones [Tape Op #74], Mandy Parnell, Leanne Ungar [Berklee College of Music (#30)], Sylvia Massy [#63], Janet Furman [Furman Sound], EveAnna Manley [#101], Darcy Proper, Leslie Gaston-Bird, Emily Lazar, Lenise Bent, Maureen Droney [The Recording Academy], and Susan Rogers [#117] – all of the wonderful women that went before me did hard time. Those people are my heroes. They went through the shit – things like engineering an entire album and maybe only to be given an assistant credit, or even no credit, by a male engineer. That said, we have a long way to go; from men making decisions about women’s bodies, charging more for women’s insurance, or it remaining difficult for a woman to open a business. It is hard for anybody to make a living in music. It might be harder for women. But this is not “woe is me,” and women that indulge in that are hurting other people that are working very hard and not asking for pity, but rather for equality. But bad stuff still goes on.

What are some examples of that?

There are still a lot of stories of sexual harassment. Or showing-up and being asked to make the coffee. Or working twice as hard, but making half as much. When I was teaching audio engineering in college [Los Medanos], there were usually only one or two women in every class of twenty-some people. I once even got up to three women, which I thought was pretty cool. [laughs] But you have all of the dudes crowding around the console and pushing each other out of the way to see what I’m talking about. Meanwhile, the women, for the most part, are sitting in the back of the class. This was only four or five years ago. I started noticing that whenever I asked a question, the guys would just start shouting out the answers and they were wrong most of the time. But when I called on the female students, they would have the answer immediately. They felt the pressure to be right, but the guys rarely seemed to feel that same pressure. I started realizing how different the educational experience is for most women than it is for men. I began stressing equal time and space for everyone, and that everybody in the room is a future colleague or boss.

I know you said you’ve been pretty fortunate, but what are some of experiences of discrimination that you have had that have stayed with you?

One time when I was front of house engineer for a club, a well-known band from Germany was coming through. The barback was shadowing me that day, since he wanted to learn a little about engineering. So when the band’s road manager came in, he refused to speak to me. He insisted on speaking to the barback, instead; a kid who knew nothing about audio, except that I had taught him how to coil microphone cables! Another example: I was openly lesbian and partnered, but when I first started mastering I was dressing very feminine. Some men tended to “hit on me.” There was this one guy who called and booked time and said he would bring the mixes with him to the sessions. But he showed up empty-handed and just wanted to sit on the couch behind me and talk. He basically wanted to just buy my time in order to hang out. Then, the second session, he still didn’t have the mixes. So he said, “Let’s go get a coffee for a minute.” And then he came clean and asked me out. You know, something like that is never going to happen to a young dude in the studio.

To be stalked like that.

From that point forward, I required that someone send me at least an MP3 beforehand; so I was forced to change my practices.

That sounds traumatic. How awful that it actually involved you having to change your business practices as a result.

Years later, that guy popped up again and sent some emails… and he still didn’t have an actual project! It is disturbing to think what could have happened if it were late at night or when my boss and manager weren’t there.

What is your definition of  mastering?

At its core, mastering is format conversion and quality control, as well as the end of the creative process and the beginning of the manufacturing process. I have been working on a career in this for more than a decade. Right now, there are a lot of young mastering engineers coming up and a lot of them are very interested in pushing the envelope creatively, but what’s being lost is the technical side. Mastering engineers are taking a collection of songs and getting them ready to go out into the world – whether it is vinyl or streaming – and there are so many new formats; almost a new one every day. Credits and metadata are a lot of what is getting lost. Artists are in such a rush to get things out, and content is being consumed even faster that it can be created. A lot of basic housekeeping is being forgotten. It is hard enough already to get credits and to have your career documented. I’m lucky to even get the correct spelling of the artist name and album title from a record label before I start mastering a record!

Piper Payne

What’s on the internet is not the bible, but a lot of people defer to whatever they see or don’t see there. What do you say to a younger person that has bought all the tech hype and narrative? Why should they even bother to hire a professional?

I’ve built my career with indie artists. If they want the best results, they are going to want their record to sound as good as possible. A lot of artists were forced to learn all these technical skills, and now they feel like they have to do everything themselves. There were so many people that had experiences of having the control taken away from them, and even having records released before artists were happy with it. We are engineers. We are in service to the project. At the point that we become more of a pain in the ass than a help, the artists are going to discard us. Anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a mastering engineer. But you really need to know everything about digital and analog theory. You have to be a jack of all trades. Every day I get an email from someone who says they want to become a mastering engineer. Paul Stubblebine was a my main mentor. He said he’d be happy to help me. The reason I moved to the Bay Area was to learn how to cut lacquers with him. He said, “I can teach you 90 percent of what you need to know in about two days, but the other ten percent will take ten years.” The speed of decision-making and learning to listen intently – that took me ten years. Any idiot can learn how to deal with a mastering compressor. Any idiot can learn when to use a linear-phase filter or not. But making the connections between sounds is what takes forever. It took me ten years to cut ten minutes off of mastering a track. [laughs]

Experience can’t be faked. There is something that comes from that level of immersion where the depth of what is absorbed cannot be fully articulated.

It is the repetition, the problem solving, and the law of big numbers. Smaller samplings don’t reveal as much information to be able to identify patterns well. Through meditation I learned to listen and notice something and then let it go. You notice that the kick drum sounds one way and then you go on to notice some new information. You remain present, but let the sound flow over you. It allows you to take in so much more information more quickly. That form of listening only comes from hours and hours of repetition. When I sit down to master, I am trying not to think too hard about the process as much as I am trying to feel it. I try to deal with the music somatically, to designate a body reaction to every sound. If a vocal has too much 900 Hz, my throat might tense up. If the kick drum feels like there is too much 110 or 120 Hz in the low end, my belly starts to tighten. Checking in with my whole body as I listen is invaluable. Does my left arm feel funny? I might be having a heart attack, or there might just be too much 2 kHz.

The two are the same thing. [laughs]

That’s what you can’t get from checking the internet. That’s the thing you can’t get from reading Bob Katz’s book – and I highly recommend that book [Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science] to anyone. You can read Bob’s book 15 times, and maybe finally then kind of begin to understand it. But that still won’t teach you how to know why a James Brown record from the sixties sounds like it did. You need a mentor to sit you down and say, “That compressor timing is wrong. Try it this way.” Someone who has come before you, cares about you, and has already made all of the mistakes.

I’ve worked with John Golden [Tape Op #121] since 1987. One of the main reasons he caught on with so many indie labels was that he listened to the whole record before doing anything. That was revolutionary in comparison to many places that acted as if your record bordered on being a bother and that they were doing you a favor. John loves music and tries not to judge it aesthetically, but instead to make it as strong a version as it can be.

John is one of the best ever, and he is a really nice guy. But imagine being him when vinyl came back. Being one of the only professional lacquer cutters at the start of the millennium? So the new mastering engineers, can they throw an [Waves] L2 on it and make a record louder? Yeah. Can they do what is needed to prepare a master to make a good lacquer? No. Respect for the craft is important. Many people have spent their entire lives developing skills that now some people think they can just pick up off the internet in minutes. But respect goes the other way too. Just because somebody is new doesn’t mean that a veteran cannot learn from them also.

What are some of your early memories about becoming conscious of discrimination?

I went to a school outside of Detroit that was about 40 percent Arabic. Having that kind of diversity makes you more tolerant, outgoing, and accepting. It especially hit me after 9/11. The news trucks parked outside of my high school, just waiting for something to happen. They were hoping for a major incident. My friends were so heavily based in peace, love, and understanding, yet they were being vilified, and suddenly violence was what was expected from them. From that point forward there was no fucking way I was going to ever allow anybody to be discriminatory in my career. That was an important moment of realization for me. We can make the world better by making the studio zone itself healthier. Kindness and respect for different and new perspectives can be mutually beneficial.

People are often confused and will say, “I treat everyone the same.” But what is needed is to make an active effort to insure that everyone has the same, or similar, opportunities. If someone who has less opportunity is treated the same as someone who is privileged or already “made,” the result is not equality.

I am not bashing, but AES [Audio Engineering Society] has like 95% white males and it is a trade industry organization that is struggling. That should say something…

Right.[laughs]

It’s more than just that companies stopped running ads with guys with neck beards being handed shiny recording tools by beautiful women. More important than that not being cool anymore is recognizing that companies who are more welcoming, and are promoting diversity and inclusion are having greater success. The companies that are good at that, and do it, actually make more money. It’s not just about altruism. It’s not even about a fair shake. If you have no other reason; it’s about money. Whatever the reason, I don’t care. Just do better.

It’s at least a starting point.

As long as you sincerely try, you will progress. If you take even a tiny step in the right direction, it is better than doing nothing at all.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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