Q&A: John Greenham (Expanded Interview)

Jul 27, 2010 12:28 PM, By Matt Gallagher


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In early 2010, Greenham mastered <I>Ceremony</i> from pianist/composer Omar Sosa, which features Sosa’s remarkable collaboration with composer/arranger/cellist Jaques Morelenbaum and Hamburg, Germany’s NDR Big Band.

In early 2010, Greenham mastered Ceremony from pianist/composer Omar Sosa, which features Sosa’s remarkable collaboration with composer/arranger/cellist Jaques Morelenbaum and Hamburg, Germany’s NDR Big Band.

Is it now easier to keep tracks sounding good while applying compression?
I think the technology has improved greatly, especially on the digital side. A very interesting form of compression is achieved with tape, which I use quite often. The tape process deals with the transients in a very musical way. I’ll get somebody’s mixes at 44/16, I’ll hit the tape, I’ll go from the tape into the compressor if it needs any additional compression, and then I’ll capture that at 88/24. I’ll bring those files back into the workstation and they’re usually pretty close to done at that point. Basically I get the analog flavor in everything and then I make fine adjustments with plug-ins. That way, if people want changes, you don’t have to go through the entire analog process again so it’s much quicker. Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have considered using tape in mastering. But now a lot of stuff that people are bringing is kind of flat sounding because it’s all-digital. The tape brings it to life.

What are some of your key pieces of equipment?
The Barefoot Mastering Stack speakers [manufactured by Barefoot Sound in San Francisco], which I got when I moved in here, are really pretty good. They’re very accurate in the low end. Also, they’re fun to work on. They give you a lot of music to listen to. They also translate very well, which is the Holy Grail of monitoring, really. This is probably the easiest monitoring rig that I’ve ever worked on to get good results, consistently.

The ATR 104 [2-track, 1-inch tape recorder] is a beautiful machine that has tube electronics built by Tim de Paravacini of Esoteric Audio research in England. There aren’t that many of these machines around. Bob Ludwig has one at Gateway. Sometimes I’ll just run stuff through the electronics and not even hit the tape because that has a really interesting sound all of its own. People love the sound of tape although it doesn’t work for everything. For example, in R&B, [clients] want [their tracks] to be very clean and crisp, so you wouldn’t want to put that through tape. So it’s not the universal solution for everything.

I use the Elysia Alpha compressor a lot for mastering. It’s a great box. Trust the Germans to build something like that!

My mix rig at the moment involves the Mytek [8X192 Series AD/DA converter], which is an 8-channel box that I‚’m liking quite a bit. I’ll have four stereo pairs that I split out from the workstation, and I find that that’s enough, although I might get another one of them at some point and have 16 channels. I had elaborate ideas about using lots of analog gear in mixing but I find the UAD plug-ins are pretty good, especially at 2x sample rates, and these days recall-ability is the key.

As far as the workstation goes, I like Sequoia for mastering, and I use it for mixing too. It’s very versatile, and it comes with really good plug-ins. Additionally I’ve got the CubeTec mastering plug-ins. They give you a great sound, but it’s not really a sound that’s emulating any piece of analog gear. They just really work well. Then I’ve got the UAD-2 card with all the plug-ins that emulate the analog stuff. They sound great, as I said, especially at higher sample rates.

Jeff Sheridan in Los Angeles actually built the system for me. It’s a Mac Pro with Windows and the Mac OS on it as well, so I can use either platform. I’ve been experimenting with Logic lately but I’m not all that impressed with the way it sounds. Sequoia on XP with the RME AES card sounds really good though, I think.

I’m curious about your background. How did you get to where you are now?
That’s a question that I ask myself all the time [laughs]. I think Paul Stubblebine says it best: “There’s a particular assortment of character defects that go toward making a good mastering engineer.” Seriously, though, for one thing, I was given the opportunity—by Paul, actually—to do work on some top-notch gear and that’s very important. Your work is only going to sound as good as the gear you’ve got.

I also played music for many years. I know what it’s like to stand on a stage with a Marshall half-stack and a Les Paul, and what that’s supposed to sound like and how the audience reacts to it. That helps. I feel that I understand music, and that is how I’m able to do my job. I’ve also done a lot of recording and mixing and I like many different kinds of music. What I try to do in here—with whatever kind of music it is—is to try to make it exciting so that people will be moved when they hear it.

How did you end up choosing mastering as your favorite part of the music production process?
One thing I found interesting right away was how with one very small EQ move you could open up the whole program. It’s quite magical, really. You do very small but precise things in mastering that have a big effect.

There isn’t really any sort of career path for it any more. Again, it’s probably good if you’re a musician and I think it really helps to understand recording and mixing. Originally mastering was basically putting music onto the release format in a way that would work from a manufacturing point of view. Back in the ’60s, the first thing you learned [if it was felt you showed promise as an engineer] was how to fit the stuff on the medium appropriately, and then after a couple of years of that, they would put you back into recording and mixing and you’d have an understanding of the parameters of the whole thing. For that reason it was known as “transfer” back then. Then certain people started pushing the envelope in mastering: more low-end, more level. There’s that loudness thing again. They became known for their sound, and became independent. These days there isn’t that framework to bring someone along, though.

What have you learned as a mastering engineer?
I think one of the most important things is to send people on their way with a product they can be excited about and proud of. That way they leave with added momentum to go onto the marketing/promotion phase. Also whatever you did on the last record that worked really well, don’t try and do it on the one that’s coming in the door [laughs], because sometimes if something works really well you tend to want to use it again because it’s your new thing, but it’s probably not going to work a second time. You just have to rely on your instincts and your aesthetic sense to figure out how to help the music to be more engaging and exciting and clear your head of any preconceptions. When you get there you also have to know when to stop as well!

Sometimes I refer to mastering as closure. People come in and in some cases they’ve been working on these records for years, in various parts and bits and pieces, and then they finally got their nerve up and put it all together and they bring it to you, and then you hand them the CD, and what you’re really saying is, “It’s done! It’s finished; now you can move on with your life! [Laughs] Now you can start working on the next record.” In the end the clients rely on you to tell them the process has reached a successful conclusion. They listen to you because you’ve been down that road so many times before. It gives them the confidence to move on.

All aspects of record making are a constant learning process. Essentially, with the music we are given, we are just trying—as [composer/pianist/percussionist] Omar Sosa said‚—to find the beauty in it. And the beauty is not necessarily melodious; there’s beauty in ugliness, too, if that’s what the idea is. As a mastering engineer, first and foremost you’ve got to get behind the music and the artists vision, you’ve got to love it and feel passionately about it otherwise it won’t work very well, and ultimately allow it to speak directly to the audience, and get all the technical stuff out of the way.

Matt Gallagher is an assistant editor at Mix.

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