It is a cliché that mastering engineers are the unsung heroes of record production, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Even casual music fans could probably name a fair few famous producers, but many of those same people probably don’t even know that the mastering process exists. Nevertheless, every record that you love has gone through this process, and whilst mastering obviously can’t make a bad record good, mastering engineers do leave an undeniable sonic signature on the tracks they work on.

Below, we discuss a few mastering engineers who are at the top of the game. This is by no means a definitive or exhaustive list; these guys have all just worked on records that we love. These are names that are worth remembering, as top level mastering can be affordable for even amateur musicians and producers. You may never be able to get Dr. Dre or Mark Ronson to produce your record, but you might well be able to get your new single mastered by the same guy they use.

 

Bernie Grundman

Grundman is one of the most prominent names in the mastering world. Even as a young child he was fascinated by recorded sound, and from the age of 14, when he first experienced high quality sound, he was obsessed. After a stint in the Air Force, working in electronic warfare, he went to Arizona State to study electrical engineering. Shortly afterwards he moved to Hollywood and after a couple of years at Contemporary records he moved to A&M, which was at that point in 1968 still a new label. After 15 years, and more than 100 gold and platinum albums, he started up his own Bernie Grundman Mastering studios. Grundman has mastered such classics as Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and Dr. Dre’s ‘The Chronic’ in a career that has seen him work with a huge number of the industry’s biggest names.

Bernie_Grundman_Mastering

photo by David Goggin

 

Bob Katz

No article about mastering engineers would be complete without a mention for Bob Katz, the writer of the definitive book on the subject. If you want to learn how to master your own recordings, or you are interested in becoming a mastering engineer yourself, Katz’s ‘Mastering Audio: The Art And The Science’ is a must-read. Katz writes clearly and eloquently, but is also able to draw on tremendous experience in the industry. Katz has mastered three Grammy winning albums and has worked with artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Emmy Lou Harris and Winton Marsalis. Like many of the names on this list, he is an audio obsessive. Never content with resting on his laurels he has a history of inventing innovative equipment to improve the quality of audio recordings. His first 21st century invention was the ‘Audio Recovery Processor’, an entirely new idea in audio processing. It is uses “psychoacoustics to extract and enhance the existing depth, space, and definition of recordings”.

Bob Katz Mastering

 

Emily Lazar

The world of mastering, much like the world of music production in general, is undoubtedly male-dominated. However that is starting to change, and this is thanks in no small part to trailblazers like Emily Lazar. In 2012 she was the first female producer to be nominated in the ‘Album of the Year’ category at the Grammys, for the Foo Fighter’s ‘Wasting Light’. She followed that up this year with a nomination in the same category for Sia’s ‘Chandelier’. Since opening her studio, The Lodge, in 1997 she has worked with a huge number of top-level artists. Alongside the aforementioned Foo Fighters and Sia, she has been used by artists ranging from Beyoncé to David Bowie to Tiësto. Her approach to mastering is perhaps more artistic than some of her peers; “From a technical standpoint, although I had studied and gotten degrees and worked really hard to be on top of my technical game, it’s not really my focus. I don’t like sitting around and talking about gear or plug-ins or settings on gear. I use the whole thing as a more artistic and creative experience.” It is clearly an ethos that is working.

Emily Lazar Mastering

 

Bob Ludwig

Ludwig is another engineer who has worked with some of the industry’s biggest names; Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Daft Punk, Nirvana. He has been running Gateway Studios for over twenty years and has some interesting ideas when it comes to staying on top of the mastering game. He realises that listening is a physical process, and works to make sure he is in good shape for sessions; “I treat my job like an athlete treats theirs in that I always try to be sure I have enough sleep, eat the right foods and not abuse my body so I am always at 100% at the start of every day ready to go to work with maximum attentiveness.” He also provides a very neat summary of what a mastering engineer’s primary goal is; “by far the most important thing is to be sure every second of the record is sounding as good as it possibly can be and that all of the relationships between the songs flow properly.”

Bob Ludwig Mastering

 

John Davis

Metropolis is one of the most famous studios in London, and they have a number of excellent mastering engineers on their roster, but Davis gets onto our list for the way that he spent 2014 working with the very best in emerging British talent, as well as with rock royalty. In the last year he has mastered new albums by FKA Twigs and Royal Blood, whilst also remastering the Led Zeppelin back catalogue with Jimmy Page. In 2015 a huge amount of mastering is done remotely, without the artist ever meeting the mastering engineer. Like many other studios, Metropolis does offer this service, but Davis much prefers having the artist and producer present when mastering a record. He clearly states his ethos; “music is all about feelings and emotions, so a trust has to exist between artist and engineer. This direct input from the client enables [me] to take their music to a place where the tracks are enhanced and become ‘super-real’, maximising all the positive aspects of a mix and ironing out any potential problems”.

john davis mastering


Rick Rubin is a producer that really doesn’t need an introduction; from his pioneering work with Run DMC and the Beastie Boys through to his classic recordings with Johnny Cash, he has cut a unique and inspirational figure in the world of music production. This month he started annotating song lyrics on the website Genius (formerly ‘Rap Genius’). He has poured forth his views on many songs that he worked on, including tracks by Kanye West, Slayer and Jay-Z, as well as the aforementioned Beasties and Johnny Cash. He has also commented on a number of tracks that he didn’t work on and his comments are often illuminating. We have trawled through his annotations so you don’t have to. Here is what we learned.

 1. Being a producer can be about giving an artist confidence in their own ideas

Recording the music is only half of what being a producer is about. Just as important is knowing how to get the best performance out of your artists. Rubin recently produced Damien Rice’s “My Favourite Faded Fantasy,” – the singer-songwriter’s first album in eight years. After such a lengthy break from writing and recording, Rice’s confidence was occasionally in need of a boost:

“I would try to help him finish or just help him get out of his own way. Sometimes I’d say “I don’t think this line is good enough.” But, in this case, he wrote a lot of things that were really good and he just never felt confident enough about them, so it was more about empowering him.”

Perhaps surprisingly, even the great Johnny Cash benefitted from the confidence Rubin had in him. When the producer started working with Cash, the singer was at a low ebb in his career:

“People didn’t care about Cash for a minute. People hadn’t cared for long enough that he was dealing with that reality. It’s like that with so many grown-up artists. They feel this fear of competing with themselves. The thing that he needed to know was that all he needed to do was make great music that reflected who he was at that moment. He didn’t need to compete with himself.”

Cash was at a point in his career, where he felt that all of his best work was behind him, but his work with Rubin sparked a late career renaissance. This was born out of the confidence that Rubin had for the project:

“We’re going to take as long as it takes, like it’s the most important thing in the world, and make the best record of your life. When I said that to Johnny, he looked at me like I was insane. It was just such a foreign concept that he could do something great. I think he was still in a mindset of like, “My chances aren’t good for having a number one single, so why would I write songs if I can’t have a number one single?” It was just changing the philosophy — none of that matters.”

2. It took a while to get Johnny Cash to record ‘Hurt’

The records that Cash made with Rubin are made up of covers, and both the singer and the producer came up with ideas for what those songs could be. Cash’s powerful cover of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’ is undoubtedly one of his late-career highlights, but it was a song that he needed convincing to sing:

“There were a lot of songs that he needed to be convincing about. Eventually, he trusted me enough that if I felt strongly about something, he’d do it. I would send him compilations of CDs of songs to listen to, and I remember that on several compilations in a row, “Hurt” was the first song. There’s just something about it. I imagined him saying those words being very powerful.”

3. Sometimes, as a producer, you just need to not get in the way of the band

This is particularly true of Rubin’s work with Slayer:

“With them, it really is about, it’s so specific, what they do, that really so much of the job is just not getting in the way. As long as you don’t interrupt them being Slayer, it’s probably gonna be good. They have a flavor. It’s like the Ramones.”

Specifically, his super-tight recordings allowed the band to play faster and harder than any band had done previously. This is exemplified by his work on their ‘Reign In Blood’ album. In 1986, when the album was released, a lot of heavy metal was drenched in reverb and delay – Rubin got rid of all this, lending real clarity to the recordings – all that was left was the brutal playing of a band at the top of their game.

4. You can’t always predict whether a room will sound good

One of the main things you take away from Dave Grohl’s 2013 film on the Sound City studio in California is that it is, as Butch Vig says: “kinda dumpy”. Despite this, some of the greatest albums in rock history have come out of that studio. Rick Rubin recorded the Tom Petty album, ‘Wildflowers’ there:

“You could do a computer rendering of exactly what the best-sounding recording studio would be, and you could build it, and it still might not sound like anything. I mean, there are weird rooms that’ve been there for a long time, and a lot of people have recorded in them. Sound City is a good example. It was not very well designed, acoustically. But it sounded good!”

5. Rubin doesn’t like his hip-hop too slick

Surprisingly, Rubin isn’t a huge fan of The Chronic – the career-defining album of that other hip-hop heavyweight producer, Dr. Dre:

I never really listened to The Chronic. I guess I never liked smooth? Same with Puff, who really brought R&B into it. I preferred hip-hop when it was nothing like R&B. I love breakbeats and B-boy style drum machines. I never liked the slick stuff.

6. Sucker M.C.’s was a defining moment

You could never accuse Run DMC’s ‘Sucker M.C.’s (Krush Groove 1)’ of being too ‘slick’. Just brutal drum-machines and fierce flow, this track was a turning point in Rubin’s life, and therefore a pivotal moment in hip-hop history.

“Sucker M.C.‘s” was radical. It changed me. It was better than everything else.”

The track was produced by Russell Simmons. Shortly after ‘Sucker M.C.’s’ was released, Rubin and Simmons would form Def Jam – the label that defined hip-hop in the 1980s.

7. Sometimes you can’t compete with the magic of those first demos

There are numerous stories from music history where an original demo has captured some kind of magic that subsequent recordings just can’t capture. Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ is one recent example. Rubin experienced this on Johnny Cash’s ‘American Recordings’ – and had the nerve to put those demos out as a record.

“American Recordings was demos — it wasn’t even supposed to be an album. We recorded ideas, and then went into a studio with a band to play it again. And it wasn’t as good. When American Recordings came out, it was well-accepted. And Johnny couldn’t believe it. He could not believe it.”

8. Some of his greatest records just couldn’t be made today

The early days of sampling were a completely lawless free-for-all; it was the musical equivalent of the Wild West. Before artists realised how much money they could make from other artists sampling their records there was a real ‘anything goes’ atmosphere. Perhaps something has now been lost, as certain records from that era, by acts such as De La Soul, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys could never be made today:

“I cleared the use of “Back In Black” with AC/DC and they loved it. But this was in the days where no one knew what sampling was. I remember playing it for Malcolm Young on headphones backstage at an AC/DC concert, and he was like, “Who played guitar on that?” And I was like, “I did.” I mean it’s a combination — there’s samples involved too, but I’m definitely playing. And I programmed the drums.

You couldn’t do it today.”

9. There is some great unreleased Kanye in the vault…

Apparently there are alternate versions of the songs on Yeezus that are as good as the ones that made it on to the album. In fact, Rubin and West have even talked about bringing out an alternative version of the album featuring some of these tracks:

“There are versions just as good as what’s on the album, just different. I know as a fan of the album, I’d like to hear that. Maybe some day, whenever he wants. But it exists! That shit exists.”

10. He doesn’t agree with Kanye on the best album of 2014 though…

Undoubtedly the biggest story to come out of this years Grammys was the fact that Kanye West was pretty unhappy with Beck getting the best album nod ahead of Beyoncé. However, it appears that Kanye’s producer doesn’t share his views:

“I absolutely love Morning Phase. Probably my favorite album of 2014. It’s definitely his best. I like it a thousand times better than Sea Change.”


The Hottest Sound on the Net, February 2015

The NAMM Music trade show took place at the end of January and the product that really seems to have captured everyone’s attention is Korg’s recreation of the ARP Odyssey. The original is a classic analogue synth, originally produced in 1972, that was used by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Devo and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

This recreation has been produced in collaboration with ARP co-founder David Friend, and the original circuitry has apparently been completely reproduced in this update. This being 2015, a few additions have been made too. We now have the options of a headphone out, and Midi and USB connectivity. Furthermore, there is also a drive switch, not included on the original, that makes the VCA distort – a very nice addition if you enjoy a little grit in your synth sounds. ARP produced three generations of the Odyssey, each with a different filter circuit that had its own unique character. On this new model you can switch between each of these three different circuits at the flip of a switch.

The Odyssey will be available to buy in March. Take a look at the video below to see Herbie Hancock and Cory Henry discuss the synth.


Have you ever tried watching a film with the sound turned down? It sometimes only becomes apparent quite how essential the musical score is when you take it away. A musical score performs many functions, and we will discuss a number of those here. The composer Aaron Copland, who produced some classic film scores himself, divided the functions that film music can perform into five categories. By taking a look at each of these categories in turn, we can discover some of the wide variety of ways in which film music can affect an audience. Of course an audience won’t always know that they are being influenced, even manipulated, by the music – but don’t doubt for a second that they are. If you use the following tips when you put together your film score, you will ensure that your music takes on a powerful story-telling role in your film.

1. Create A Sense of Time & Place

Music can be a fantastic shorthand that can set the scene in a matter of moments. We hear the sound of a sitar and immediately we are in India, we hear Buddy Holly and we are in 50s America. The mind makes these connections without us having to think consciously about it – an audience can be transported instantly to a specific time and place before they have even seen an image. Here is an example from the opening of George Lucas’ American Graffiti. We actually hear the music before we see anything at all, and already we start to get a feel for where and when the film will be set.

Bill Haley & His Comets – ‘Rock Around The Clock’ from American Graffiti

2. Create Or Underline Psychological Refinements

We can use music to tell the audience what a character is thinking. Sometimes we know that a character is angry, and the music just underlines this fact. Other times, maybe the character isn’t showing any emotion at all, and this is when we can do some very interesting things with the score. Take a look at the clip below from the Royal Tenenbaums; the actors do very little, but the music tells us a story of unrequited love. We learn a huge amount about the on-screen relationship very quickly through the use of Nico’s ‘These Days’ on the soundtrack. You don’t necessarily need a song with lyrics to do this of course, although that is what has been done in the example below. In fact, when you are performing this technique and there are lyrics in your piece of music, you have to be careful not to be too literal or this can come off as a bit cheesy. Look for words that say what you are trying to convey in a more roundabout way.

Nico – ‘These Days’ from The Royal Tenenbaums

3. Use Music As A Neutral Background Filler

This may seem counter-intuitive. Why bother with music if it going to be ‘neutral’ – if it is not going to do anything? The great thing about this is that it means we can gradually transition the music out of being neutral, and into being dramatic, or tense, or sweet – often without the audience noticing. They will begin to feel a certain way without ever thinking about why. The clip below shows a classic example from Sunset Boulevard. The music sits below the voiceover, and becomes what is called an ‘underscore’. Of course it can then increase in presence at any time to emphasise some part of the on-screen narrative.

Franz Waxman’s score for Sunset Boulevard

4. Build A Sense Of Continuity

Quickly cutting from one location to another could be sonically quite jarring if all we had were sound effects. Music can smooth these transitions beautifully. Sometimes leaving a final chord ringing out over a change in scene can ease the audience gently into the next part of the narrative. The classic use of music in building continuity is of course in the montage, and montages don’t get better than this! Notice how we hear relatively few sound effects in this sequence – the sonic focus really is on the music.

Bill Conti – ‘Gonna Fly Now’ from Rocky

5. Underpin The Theatrical Build-Up Of A Scene

This is what we tend to think of when we think of film music; a score underpinning the story, making the drama more dramatic, making a love scene more intense. The chilling, atonal build behind Heath Ledger’s speech in the clip from the Dark Knight is a great example. It gives us a window into the Joker’s character (as per point 2 above), but it also underpins the narrative of his story, getting shriller, more intense and more manic as the story progresses. A great example of why Hans Zimmer is such a sought-after composer.

Hans Zimmer – ‘Why So Serious’ from The Dark Knight

Sometimes scoring the opposite of what is happening in the film can be even more effective. This probably isn’t a technique that should be used very often, but once in a while in can be extraordinarily successful. The torture scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is a classic example of this technique; the violence onscreen seems even more brutal when you contrast it with the sunny pop of Stealers Wheel on the soundtrack. This final clip maybe not be one for the squeamish:

Stealers Wheel – ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ from Reservoir Dogs


The Hottest Sound on the Net, January 2015

Much as the self-titled Beyoncé album dominated conversation a year ago, D’angelo’s surprise release of ‘Black Messiah’ was a big talking point in the music world this December. The sprawling, swirling psychedelia of the album recalls Sly Stone, Prince, Curtis Mayfield, even Hendrix in places and has had the critics in raptures. The LA Times called it “as vital as it is sublime”, while Pitchfork declared that “Black Messiah pulls together disparate threads few predecessors have had the smarts or audacity to unite.”

Interestingly, the album was recorded to two-inch tape, and the dense production is fascinating in places. ?estlove of The Roots has a hand in the production and you can see him discuss the album in a lecture he gave to Red Bull Music Academy way back in 2013 – “This album has taken eleven years to make, but the amazing thing about it, is that it still sounds like it came out tomorrow”. It is particularly interesting to see him discuss the ethos behind his drumming on the album; “What kind of drum beat have I never, ever played before?” The interview provides an intriguing window into the thought process behind a remarkable new album.

See the full lecture below (the D’Angelo album is discussed from 1:27:17).

 

Lecture: Questlove (New York, 2013) from Red Bull Music Academy on Vimeo.