Interview by Alison Richter
Mastering engineers are often the unsung heroes of recorded music. While most musicians understand production and engineering, mastering — that critical final step — isn’t always paramount in their studies. With technology making it easy for anyone with a decent computer and an Internet connection to record and release an album, and consumers now turning a less-discerning ear to handheld devices as a means of listening to music, mastering may not factor into the picture.
Big mistake, says mastering engineer Bernie Grundman, the man behind Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood, Calif. Grundman is one of the most well-known and respected names in the industry, having mastered countless gold and platinum albums over the decades. An award-winning engineer, Grundman holds lectures, workshops and seminars worldwide and is the name that artists, producers and engineers turn to for that final touch. Among his roster: The Doors, James Taylor, Supertramp, Rod Stewart, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Prince, Dr. Dre and Van Halen, including the band’s long-awaited 2012 release, A Different Kind Of Truth.
Mastering is a complicated art and something of an unknown to many. Bernie Grundman recently took time out of his very hectic schedule to explain the details and take a meticulous look at the history of the process, as well as share his observations about the state of recorded music.
[Van Halen mentions]:
Let’s look at A Different Kind Of Truth as a walk-through example of what the process entails: what the album sounded like before it was brought to you, what you did, how you did it, and the end result.
An album requires a lot of consideration because it’s got to flow and feel comfortable to the listener from tune to tune. That has a lot to do with how it’s spaced and how each tune hits you after you’ve heard a complete tune. There’s a certain place where you’re ready for another one, but it has to be comfortable. It can’t be too loud, too soft, vocals too loud, vocals too far down or whatever it is that all of a sudden disrupts your comfort. In mastering, because these things are done over a long period of time, a lot of times we try to iron out some of the differences from mix to mix so that it does flow and feel comfortable to the listener but does not all sound the same, because that would be boring. That’s one aspect. The other aspect is what I was talking about earlier. We’re going to try to make this thing compete and get the most out of the mixes, optimize this mix so that it’s going to be more effective in its communication ability and its ability to attract people’s interest. When we manipulate the sound, we have to get on the same wavelength on these recordings as the producer intended. It’s good to have them here so that we can make it more effective and get a better experience from this music. You wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. You might be able to make it more balanced in some ways, with similar amounts of bass and treble and all that, but what you really want to do is find the important elements, the things that tell the story of that piece of music in a way that it communicates well. We have to be open emotionally to these things and judge what does and doesn’t work. There was a time when this could go back and forth for months, but not often anymore because no one has the budget.
With the Van Halen album, I did some stuff with them before, but of course there was a very good mixer, Ross Hogarth, on this album, and when we have really experienced, good mixers, it makes our job a lot easier because they’ve already zeroed in on what’s important. We’re trying to do justice to a good recording to bring it up to a competitive position. That affects the mix and the spectrum balance and so forth. One thing we’re looking for is to make it sound the way it sounded out of the studio, if it’s a really good mix, and this one was very good. We want to lose the least amount possible in this process. Ross was here for the mastering. We did some equalization, and some of it contributed to it and some of it just kept it the way it was, the way that it was balanced and so forth coming out of the studio.
With each different kind of music, various things are more important than in others. In hard rock, it’s about energy and excitement. If you do too much screwing around with it, you lose some of that. All of these things are important. A lot of these things we do are to make the album flow and have a certain kind of continuity, but with Van Halen, these are incredible players, so their recordings are a pleasure to work on because they’re so well performed. A lot of stuff isn’t as well thought out as theirs, and this album is terrific; it’s as great as ever. It was mixed very well, and we have a lot of custom things in the system to try to preserve it. We have a very elaborate equalization system and there’s something like 35 or so frequencies that we can manipulate. We can’t do that many at a time, but we have a lot of choices to fiddle around with the spectrum and try to make sure that we’re getting everything we can out of the music.
Our system is all custom. We built the compressor and computer here. We have a whole tech staff. We’re unusual in that way. We license a certain software called AudioCube, but we put it all together ourselves so we can use special power supplies and special wiring because all that stuff makes a difference. Even the processors, the converters and all of that are hot-rodded. We rebuilt the amplifiers and put our special beefed-up linear power supplies in everything. Our system is hands-on and we’re always comparing this and that and making sure we’re moving in a positive direction, trying different things and trying to make the signal path cleaner and cleaner. There are eighteen people that work in this studio and another nine people in Tokyo.
Your philosophy is “less is more.” What is the key to that philosophy? When does it become too easy to do too much?
If I can get away with it, I would rather stay cleaner and get out of it what I want. Even our system is built that way. It’s built so that even though we have all those choices, we only need to have in the circuit what we’re using. We have it so that we can bypass everything whenever we want to. We’ve got it built in such a way that if we’re not using one, we switch it out and it’s bypassed completely; it’s not in the circuit at all. It all adds up. A lot of this stuff you could say, “It’s in, it’s out, it’s hard to hear any difference.” Some of these things are very subtle, but they add up, and if you do a lot of manipulating, you get down to the end and all of a sudden it’s “What happened? That doesn’t do the same thing to me. It doesn’t have the presence and excitement that it used to have.” You go all the way back to what you started out with and you go, “Uh-oh, I’ve lost a lot here and I didn’t notice it because I got used to this sound. I added another thing, I got used to that, and all of a sudden we’ve gone too far.” That can happen in mixing, it can happen anywhere, where all of a sudden this thing isn’t what it used to sound like, so we have to be careful.
That’s why we have a way of compensating for all that we do, so that we can always listen to it at the same level that we started it. We can constantly compare back and forth to make sure we’re not losing any of the great qualities of the original mix by doing too much fooling around and manipulation. We’re very careful not to lose the good stuff that came in, but hopefully we’re going to add stuff that will make it even better. A lot of these recordings have certain aspects you want to preserve and some areas you want to improve, but sometimes the areas you want to improve affect the areas that you want to preserve, so we’re constantly comparing and preserving. We have to try all kinds of different things to get it to where you want it to go, if possible. Sometimes it isn’t possible.
I have clients who’ll keep on working at it for a number of sessions. The Van Halen recording didn’t take that long. It only took a few sessions. For us, it doesn’t have to take a long time if it’s a good recording. You might spend five or six hours on it, maybe eight hours. I don’t remember how long it took, but I don’t think it took long because it was done well and it was pretty much there. These guys are some of the best. Sometimes we’ll set a whole album up, but they’ll send in a corrected mix after they heard it mastered. They’ll say, “The voice is too far down. I’m going to send you a new mix with that adjustment on it.” So we listen to that, put it into the assembly and send them a new ref. Sometimes it goes back and forth like that for a while.
[Read the full interview at Examiner.com]