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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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”.