As one of the senior engineers at New York's Sterling Sound, Chris Gehringer has mastered some of the biggest hip-hop and R&B hits of recent years.
Sterling Sound is one of the best-known mastering houses in New York, if not America, with a team of highly respected engineers working in individually equipped rooms. The company has been in business for over 30 years, much of which was spent in a facility on Broadway, but it relocated two years ago to new premises in the Chelsea Market building in the Chelsea area of the city. Sterling is one of the biggest mastering studios in the world, with typically around 30 percent of the material in the US chart being mastered there — and that's on a bad day! In fact, during the first year after relocating Sterling-mastered projects were nominated for no fewer than 64 Grammy awards, covering almost every musical style.
The accommodation provides seven mastering studios, with separate production and editing suites, machine rooms, private lounges and offices. Whereas most mastering studios tend to use standardised equipment in each room to ensure consistency, Sterling encourages its engineers to specify whatever equipment they feel they require to get the job done, recognising the different preferences of each engineer, and the differing demands of the material with which they work.
This is not the only unusual aspect of Sterling, though. Besides all the usual facilities expected of a modern mastering house, Sterling are among the first companies to offer the novel option of 'e-Mastering'. This uses proprietary software to enable clients to deliver raw master recordings as WAV files to the studios via the Internet. The system is claimed to be totally secure and completely reliable and enables clients from all over the world to benefit from the skills base at Sterling without necessarily having to attend a mastering session in person, or even ship the tapes.
Another popular facility is an 'After Hours' program which is intended specifically to appeal to the more budget-conscious labels and emerging artists. Essentially, the mastering rooms are used by freelance engineers during what would otherwise be dead time. The scheme benefits everyone as the engineers expand their experience and client bases, and the customers enjoy working in top-flight rooms with state-of-the-art equipment at very attractive prices.
The six staff mastering engineers each have an assistant and between them cover the whole gamut of popular music, from rock and pop, through jazz and R&B, and on to hip-hop and pretty much anything else you care to mention. The senior mastering gurus at Sterling include Chris Athens (specialising mainly in hip-hop and R&B), Greg Calbi (working with artists like The Strokes, Paul Simon and Branford Marsalis), Tom Coyne (hip-hop and R&B), Ted Jensen (the chief mastering engineer, who specialises mainly in heavy metal), George Marino (the 'king of rock & roll'), and the subject of this interview, Chris Gehringer — who also tends to specialise in hip-hop and R&B.
Like many in this profession, Chris Gehringer's 18-year mastering career can be traced back to his school days, when he started tinkering with band PA systems. This inevitably developed into an interest in recording, and led on to an academic training at the Institute of Audio Research. After graduating Chris worked in the live sound scene for a while before moving on to a small mastering facility in Haworth, New Jersey in the mid 1980s. The impetus for moving into the realm of mastering was really his interest in sound for its own sake, and he considers mastering to be the 'top shelf' of sound — the final step in the process.
When he started mastering he worked mainly with punk rock and hardcore music, and from these small beginnings Chris progressed to larger mastering facilities, teaming up with Tom Coyne at Frankford-Wayne, and then moving on with Tom to the Hit Factory in 1988. Chris started to specialise in hip-hop and R&B while at the Hit Factory, working on projects by artists such as Naughty By Nature, Mobb Deep, Wu Tang Clan and PM Dawn. After 12 years Chris moved on to Sterling Sound, where he has worked on projects by artists such as Nas, Fat Joe, Dru Hill, LL Cool J, and Musiq. He also mastered Shaggy's Hot Shot, which sold over six million copies in the US and over 12 million copies worldwide. Most recently, Chris has mastered MUL-TY's Made 4 Love, 702's Star, the Stevie Wonder tribute LP, and various as-yet-untitled albums from the likes of Keziah Jones, Roy Hargrove, Sarai and the Dandy Warhols.
I asked Chris how he built his reputation with hip-hop and R&B. "I really like hip-hop — in the mid-'80s it was the new alternative music, it wasn't really popular then, but I liked it so I tended to do those jobs, and people then started to like what I was doing. It's the same for R&B really, and I'm a sucker for a big ballad! I do a lot of French music because hip-hop's second biggest market is in France. I also do a lot of Latin music too, which I enjoy because it's all about the sound, with acoustic guitars and 10 different kinds of drums, which helps to give it all a really big sound.
"I don't really treat different musical styles differently from each other. I just listen to the track and go for a sound — I decide if there is enough top, if the bass is big enough, are the vocals loud enough — and just do what I think is needed. I think people come to me for the general sound that I do. I think mixes are really all over the place with R&B and hip-hop today. There are so many different producers and mixers working in this field that if you do an album there could be 13 different producers, mixers and studios on the record. The challenge then is to decide which is the best-sounding mix, and why, and then make everything else stand up to that reference sound to make the whole thing sound like a homogenous record."
Chris's mastering room is fabulously well equipped. For a start, each mastering room is built as a floating shell within the building, with all the noisy equipment and computers kept in machine areas outside the mastering room itself. The centrepiece of Chris's room is an analogue transfer console designed by the in-house technical chief, Chris Muth. As in most mastering rooms, most of the outboard is built in to the transfer console, and Chris's collection of analogue toys includes Avalon 2077 and Sontec MES 430B mastering equalisers, as well as a classic Neve equaliser. Dynamics are handled by a Manley Vari-Mu compressor, a Maselec MDS2 de-esser and a Prism MLA2 compressor.
As we talked through the equipment in his room Chris commented: "The Sontec EQ and Manley compressor are my favourites. Actually, the Sontec has been with Sterling for a long time and it has a lot of good karma in it! You just have to turn the knobs and they make music — to me it is the ultimate tool. Sometimes, I find that just inserting something else into the signal path does the job I want. For example, putting my Neve EQ in line without even switching the bypass off changes the sound! That can be really nice, adding to the sound in a subtle but important way. I guess it's the transformers or something, but putting stuff in line can often be enough to do what you want."
Although Chris prefers to work in the analogue domain, he also has some impressive digital processors including a Z Systems six-channel mastering EQ and a Weiss DS1 de-esser and compressor/limiter. Converters are obviously critical in mastering applications, and Chris uses the GML A-D along with Prism AD2 and DA2 units. All his digital editing is performed in Magix's Sequoia workstation.
I asked how Chris preferred to work and he explained: "Usually, everything that comes in on digital I convert straight away to analogue using my Prism D-A, and process it through my analogue console. I then recapture it using either a 'tweaked' GML A-D for 16-bit jobs (it sounds great on hip-hop and R&B), or my Prism A-D for 24-bit files. The Prism is a little more open-sounding than the GML."
As for replay sources, all bases are covered at Sterling, but in Chris's room, the pride of place goes to an ATR102 half-inch analogue tape machine. All the other sources are digital and include a Tascam DA45HR (the unique 24-bit DAT recorder), a Sony R500 DAT machine, a Tascam DA98 multitrack, a Genex 8500 recorder and a Pro Tools system.
"Masters come in to me about 30 percent of the time on half-inch analogue tapes, 30 percent on DAT, and the rest on other media like Pro Tools and CD-R. People are bringing in more Pro Tools Sessions these days, which is great — as long as it is a mixed stem and not the raw multitrack project!
"I'm the biggest advocate for a good-sounding half-inch, but sometimes I'll stump people by playing the CD-R or the DAT against the half-inch and show them that the DAT sounds better. The thing is that people don't always record to half-inch like the 'old school' guys did. They would maybe do a pass at zero level, then again at maybe +1dB and then perhaps lower, and they would listen and really hear what was going on with the tape so they could use it to its best. People don't seem to do that any more, they just slap it down on half-inch because they think it's going to sound 'phat', but I've had tapes which have been completely misaligned, and twice now I've even been sent completely blank tapes — that's always a good one!"
Chris's monitoring is a stereo pair of B&W's flagship speakers, the passive Nautilus 801s, driven by seriously large (and expensive) Classe Omega power amplifiers. Chris explained: "I can listen to these all day, but I don't listen that loud and people are often surprised, especially because I work mainly on hip-hop and R&B. I think there is a huge misconception that you'll hear more if you turn the speakers up — but it's when you turn them down that you'll hear everything. When I'm doing an 'unattended' (ie. working on a project alone without a producer or the artist sitting in) I have the music just 'whispering' out of the speakers — you can talk over it easily — and I find that's how I do my best work. You can hear so much more when listening at a low level, and playing loud just burns you out."
The Sequoia workstation is perhaps not particularly well known in mastering circles, which have traditionally been dominated by Sonic Solutions and SADiE DAW platforms. The software is written by the makers of Samplitude and it is a high-end fully equipped PC-based platform which offers a very credible alternative to the Sonic and SADiE. Like most mastering engineers, Chris was brought up using the Sonic but when that platform started to be phased out he and his colleagues tried a variety of alternative platforms before deciding to adopt Sequoia. They found the learning curve was relatively shallow and consider it a very fast and easy-to-use platform. The Sequoia systems in each mastering room are networked with a central server and data is backed up to DVD.
Chris explained: "I moved on to Sequoia really easily. They unplugged my Sonic one day, I did an album on Sequoia two days later! At first I was a little slower than usual because I had to do a lot of right mouse-clicks and menu pull-downs to find the functions I needed, but now I have my own set of QuicKeys set up so it's really fast. There is often a lot of editing involved in hip-hop because of the need for different radio versions and so forth, and Sequoia makes it really easy to do that."
You can't talk to a mastering engineer these days without the conversation turning to the issue of loudness. Chris has some strong views on the subject: "Everybody's problem is level. Everybody wants the loudest disc and it's a real roller-coaster ride. I really hope someday that everyone lets all that go. CDs are so much louder than any previous medium, but I don't know anybody who says 'Your disc is louder than mine, it's going to sell more!' People buy music for content not for level. With the radio stations today using all that processing and digital limiting everybody's stuff is topped off at the same level.
"People ask me all the time to make their tracks loud, and I just try to make it as loud as I can until I hear it distort and then back it down a little, and that's the record. But even then I have guys that tell me 'No, it's got to be louder!' — and I say 'If you're going to tell me what to do, then it's your record!' I really like it when people give me the tapes and say 'Go ahead and do your thing' — I feel like I'm free to do my best work then.
"I don't use anything that says '-izer' on the end, but I get some projects come in here which have been really heavily processed at the mix stage. Sometimes I simply can't add any level at all because they are that loud already. The mix is turned into a square rather than being able to breathe, and the whole thing is just killed. Then again, some people really like that kind of sound though — it takes all kinds."
I asked Chris if he had a routine way of working with each project. "For hip-hop and R&B projects I usually start by loading the main, clean, instrumental, and a cappella versions of each track. If it's a four-minute track, just loading these different versions into the system can take half an hour. The equalising typically takes me about 45 minutes for each song — sometimes it's quicker, I might play the track through twice and know that I've got it just right, but other times it might take 15 passes before I'm happy!
"The EQ and dynamics go hand in hand — you have to do both at the same time. Generally what I do is put the whole album together and, as I'm working, I compare each song to each other. When I get to the end I listen right through the whole thing, and then hearing it as a whole I might decide that song five, say, needs a new approach. So I might go back and redo that track with the Sontec EQ instead of the Avalon, for example."
To close our discussion I asked Chris what he liked to listen to when he was relaxing. "What you do, and what you listen to for yourself, don't have to be the same thing! At home I listen to things like the Foo Fighters, Beck and Coldplay — I basically listen to rock because that's what I grew up listening to and I really like that kind of stuff. I don't do a whole lot of listening at home, though — I have a wife and three kids, and my wife prefers me to be 'dad' when I'm home rather than 'Chris Gehringer: Mastering Engineer'! But I don't have any trouble switching off, and it really helps me keep my feet on the ground."
Thanks to Olivier Ametchie for his help with this feature.