Mastering Engineers | The Finishing Touch

Dec 1, 2010 8:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



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Fred Kevorkian of Kevorkian Mastering

Fred Kevorkian of Kevorkian Mastering

Wells: I’m someone who works with a lot of independent artists, where the artist is also the engineer, but they’re not professional engineers: They have a DAW and maybe they’re recording in their practice space, they’ve read a lot of magazines and gone on the Internet to try and glean information that they can apply in their environment to get their project created. What I see missing from that equation right now is a real depth of understanding of the terminology. People throw around a lot of terms—“dither” is a good example—without understanding what “dither” does.

They know they need to do it, but are you talking about dither with or without noise shaping? Once they go beneath the surface, there isn’t much understanding. People have a lot more access to information now, but the deeper understanding is still at the very top level with professionals. I think it’s a reflection of the times because when you look at how many directions people are pulled today doing their work, their music, their social media—e-mail, text messaging and phone—there’s not a lot of time to dedicate oneself to really becoming proficient in something like audio engineering when you also need to be the musician and the manager and the promoter and whatnot.

Marcussen: We see everything imaginable—including, I’ve got to say, plenty of really fantastic, well-put-together projects that already sound great. But we also see things that come in already distorted for you. [Laughs] We see things that come in with a little pre-mastering “help” on them. You get the call: “Can you master from an MP3?” Well, technically, yes, you can, but do you want to is the question.

There are definitely times when there’s a problem that surfaces in the mastering room and then we have to go back to the client and see what they want to do. I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t say, “Hey, these files look funny,” or, “This tape doesn’t have stable tones”; whatever the flaw is. The good news is that today most of this stuff is correctable.

DeMain: The percentage of unlabeled files is actually pretty small. We do stuff from all over the world now because the Internet has made it so easy. Someone sees your name on a CD they like and all of a sudden we have clients in Italy and Sweden and France and England, Australia, South America, Scandinavia. Files exchanged over the Internet are always labeled properly and pretty much always have an e-mail with all the info. But then you still get the odd disc in the mail that’s just a CD with the files on it and there are no titles or sequence and sometimes no phone number, et cetera. It does make you scratch your head sometimes.

On the other hand, I’m actually surprised at how many great-sounding mixes I get from places you would never expect—mixing in the box or maybe a little home studio. The level of mixing has gotten a lot better. But my big complaint is that many mixers still think they need to do some kind of mastering to the mixes before it gets to me. So a lot of times I get stuff that’s been over-compressed. Then you have to explain to the client, “Well, I can’t really get that sound because you’ve already stamped it in a sense with what you have done to it, so it’s going to be tricky to get some punch or openness anymore because you’ve already taken it all out.”

How often do clients bring in specific records they hope you can somehow “match,” and is that a good thing?
People come in with their benchmarks, and say, “I like the XYZ album. It always has made me feel good. I’d like my record to feel like that.” That’s often the case. Sometimes you can look at the picture from a mastering perspective: Is it a warm record? Is it a loud record? Is it a lo-fi record? Is it a super-hi-fi record? Is it aggressive? I’m trying to see what they’re hearing on that album and then try to apply what I know to their project.

DeMain: Sometimes I get clients who come in with two or three other records, and say, “I want my record to sound like this.” I don’t mind giving it a try, but I’m really not into that because every time I’ve done that in the past, I’ve ended up having to re-do it because it never comes out right to everybody’s satisfaction. I know “the customer is always right” and all that, but the reality is, you’re not that artist, you don’t have the same guys in your band, those aren’t the same songs, you didn’t record it at the same studio with the same engineer, and the same guy didn’t mix it through the same equipment. So if I can make your record sound like that with just a couple of EQs and compressors, I might as well be a miracle worker. My philosophy is, everything becomes what it’s going to be. In other words, I listen to it and I make it the best it can be for what it is. Obviously, I can push it in a direction—I can push some more bottom end into it to make it sound more rock, or a little more “top” for the country sound or whatever. But I find it really hard to copy other CDs.

Kevorkian: That doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes I wish they did, but most of the time I’m glad they don’t. Somehow, the sound of the reference records my clients bring to the session often has nothing to do with their mixes. I guess they have very high expectations. Unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to transform a mix; we can only enhance its quality and make it more compatible for the real world. A good-sounding record is not only the result of a good mastering job. The arrangements, the production, the recording and the mixing are all key elements. If the magic is not there in the flat mix, it won’t happen after the mastering session. At that point, you have to be very diplomatic and explain to the client what can or cannot be done to achieve their goal. You have to lay out the limitations of the process. But even if the reference source is way off, I can still pick up what the artist is aiming for—loudness, brightness, warmth, dynamics, et cetera—and I will do my best to make my client happy.

Wells: I encourage people to bring a reference because, especially with independent artists, they’re usually using one or two records to benchmark their mixes against, and that also represents partially what they’re hoping to achieve in mastering. It gives me a ton of information when I hear their mix and what they’re using as a reference for what they’re trying to achieve, so we can get to the common language faster that way.

What they’re going for will often come across more quickly and more easily by listening to something, rather than talking about high end, low end, warmth, air, sizzle, fairy dust—all these terms that are really personal.

Are there any pieces of gear you’re particularly hot on at the moment?
The coolest thing I’ve gotten recently is actually an upgrade to something I’ve had for a while. It’s a digital compressor made by Weiss. I had the DS-1, which is a really nice box, but it was sort of the first one out of the chute, so I upgraded to the DS-1 MK3, which does all this new stuff I never could do before with that type of compressor.

My favorite overall piece of gear is still my monitoring system. I have Lipinski [707] speakers and a Carl Tatz PhantomFocus System, and I don’t know if I could do what I do without that because I can hear everything so well.

Wells: My Dangerous Music mastering console is the coolest piece of gear I own. Period. Additionally, I can’t say enough about my Dunlavy [SC-V] speakers. The detail, clarity and, most importantly, the lack of coloration is amazing on these speakers. They are as flat and as truthful as it gets.

Marcussen: We’re always adding things. Our move into the new place is a three-year project, and we were very fortunate that we were doing this just as Cat-6A—the latest 10-Meg cable—came out. In the new studio we can move data around so much more easily and our rooms are tied together better. Whatever comes down the road, we’ll be ready.

Kevorkian: I haven’t bought any major new piece of equipment in a few years. The last thing I got was a pair of Chandler LTD2 compressors—mastering versions—that complement very nicely my Manley Vari-Mu, which also has step controls for mastering applications.

But I’ve basically worked with the same setup for the past 10 years. After all, recording and mixing engineers still rely on 40-year-old pieces of equipment to get the result they’re looking for. I own all the analog and digital outboard gear I really need. They are still very musical by today’s standards. Too many options are not always a good thing for me. I’d rather know a handful of pieces of gear inside out. Just like knowing my room and my monitoring system. It’s critical.

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