Big George talks to the man responsible for the final creative stage in the production of many of the most successful records of the last decade.
I was looking at the credits on a CD the other day and, apart from all manner of 'Thank You's (a good deal of which are undoubtedly contractual obligations!), all of their roles seemed immediately obvious — Producer, Engineer, Photographer, Art Director, Make Up, Chemical Consultant (sniff). All, that is, except one: what on earth does "mastered by..." actually mean?
Now as luck would have it, I've got a pal, David Mitson (a man who used to sweep up in a smelly old rehearsal room in his home town of Stourbridge and then worked as a fork‑lift driver in Slough) who moved to the West Coast of America and managed to become one of the most in‑demand mastering engineers in Tinseltown! His career, like that of everyone else who gets themselves into a position of prominence without the assistance of a family member, is a catalogue of lucky breaks (not all of them good luck) and stubborn single‑mindedness.
David started out at CBS in 1986 as an unpaid runner for the Promotions Department. One day he was taking some advance radio‑station copies of the Rolling Stones album Dirty Work to be mailed out and, as he walked into the mail room, a guy was waving his finger in the air shouting "And I Quit!" David put the records down very discreetly and stood at the back of the room while the resignation speech came to its climax with the chap storming out. As the boss stood there scratching his head David did his best 'Jeeves' discrete cough and said "If I may offer my services..." That opportunity gave David more than a job — it gave him an education in the inner workings of the music industry. At that time there was only one fax machine in the entire building, and David was in charge of it. It was his job to deliver the faxes detailing sales figures, draft contracts and so forth to the various executives in the building, and from these he gained a solid education in the practicalities of the music business. But his most important break came a year later.
David used to ride an old Honda Shadow motorcycle to work and shared a parking space with another guy who drove a Motor Guzzi. They used to arrive at work at around the same and subsequently became 'biker pals'. This fellow worker was Joe Gastwirt, one of the most prolific mastering engineers on the scene today, and the man who gave a start to numerous leading lights of the contemporary recording world, among them Bob Clearmountain. One day Joe walked into the mail room and told David that Sony, who'd just acquired CBS, were building their own in‑house mastering studio. Joe was going to head this studio, and asked David if he wanted to become his assistant? After a billionth of a nanosecond, the answer was "oh all right then," and another successful career was born. LA excels in offering young artistic people highly successful careers, but mostly in the food preparation and service industry.
David Mitson: "I never just throw a record together. Everything I do gets my complete attention, because you never know..."
David found himself dropped straight in at the deep end — his first session was a five‑day, late‑night marathon with Jerry Garcia in the studio and Bob Dylan on the end of a phone, doing Dylan And The Dead. It mainly entailed spinning in audience reaction from a separate reel, but coffee needed to be made and his mouth kept shut. His next job as Studio Assistant was starting the second (and some say the definitive) Warner Brothers remastering of the Jimi Hendrix catalogue.
As the years rolled past, his reputation grew in line with his experience, so when Joe Gastwirt decided to branch out on his own, at Ocean View, David stayed at Sony as their Chief Mastering Engineer (he's now also an Associate Director) — a position he's held for the best part of a decade, despite being head‑hunted by the majority of mastering rooms along the West Coast.
The Work Of A Master
The job falls into four main areas, beginning with the mastering process itself. After an album has been produced and mixed down in a recording studio, the tapes are brought in to be mastered. The tracks are put in the correct order, a situation which can lead to a great deal of debate between artist and record company. The required gap between the songs needs to be determined — does the next track need to start after a short gap, on the downbeat of the previous song, or do you need a longer gap to deliberately break the mood? Would a crossfade from one tune to another work? The mastering stage is an opportunity to set the overall mood of the record — dark, bright, sharp and poppy, whatever it needs.
A mastering engineer may be asked to put together compilations of different tracks — usually recorded by different artists at different studios, perhaps from different decades — which need to be made to work together as a coherent album. Such compilations might include a Soundtrack, Best Of..., Tribute To..., Shameless‑Cashing‑In On... and so on. It's a big market — the majority of albums sold today are actually compilations!
Then there is the process of remastering. This involves taking something that has been previously released, usually in a different format, and adapting it for release via a new medium. If you can get hold of the original source material while it's still in good condition then there's no reason why it shouldn't be able to be remastered to today's audio standards, or pretty close. But when you're working on an old master that might come in as a tatty old 78rpm disc with loads of surface noise, then it's a case of trial and error, using all the weapons in the mastering studio's armoury to see which work best.
There will usually be some editing involved. This can mean simple 'topping and tailing' — cutting off count‑ins and guitar amp buzz and then fading the track out, using either a long fade over repeated choruses or tightly chasing the cymbal decay. In other cases, however, it can involve actual restructuring of the track — perhaps adding or subtracting choruses, shortening or lengthening the intro, removing profanities, or even individually tackling any number of infinitesimally small pops and clicks.
Oh My God, He Killed Kenny
One thing you can guarantee as a mastering engineer is variety — at the time of writing, the most recent project David had worked on was by those foul‑mouthed little blighters from South Park. Their Christmas Album (available at all good family retailers, regardless of the torrent of expletives) was just another in the long line of hit records to come out of Sony's mastering studio, situated a few blocks from Santa Monica Beach in sunny LA. Those sessions were attended by record producer Mark Shaiman and programme‑maker Matt Stone, with Trey Parker calling in his EQ settings and between‑track gap theories from the side of a pool in Hawaii.
In stark contrast, one afternoon a regular movie‑business client came in to put together the soundtrack for a low‑budget art‑house movie (shot on video). Probably the type that no‑one outside the two film‑makers' families would ever hear of. But a job's a job, and while the client lay in a flu‑induced fever, David took his usual professional approach to EQ and track‑spacing decisions. You might wonder whether he would devote the same care and attention to this project as he would to one of his many big‑time movie soundtrack albums (the sessions for Dead Man Walking, for example, were attended by the likes of Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder, plus assorted wives, girlfriends and movie people, all drinking wine and chatting at the back of the studio while David got his ears wrapped round a dozen tracks specially recorded for the film). The tracks for this particular art‑house film soundtrack, however, were rarely heard groovy old cuts, not specially recorded for the movie, and apart from the close‑to‑death executive suffering on the couch, there was nobody else there. But that film was The Blair Witch Project, the most profitable box‑office hit of all time, and as David said, "That's why I never just throw a record together. Everything I do gets my complete attention, because you never know..."
One of David's regular clients is Michael Jackson, although he doesn't attend the mastering sessions in person. A while ago he needed a single four‑letter word cutting out of one of his songs (This Time Around). It may only have amounted to a fraction of a second, but sometimes those are the cuts that take the most concentrated work. I think the client was pleased though, because when the record was released for worldwide radio broadcast it had the following credit: 'Michael Jackson: This Time Around (David Mitson Clean Edit)' — nice!
David has also just finished remastering what is universally acknowledged to be the first blues record ever, Mamie Smith's 'Crazy Blues', which was recorded through a primitive acoustic amplifying horn as were many early recordings. This was part of the 'Legacy' catalogue which has occupied a major part of David's professional life over the past ten years, working alongside legendary producer Larry Cohn (the man who, a couple of decades ago, dropped Sony boss Tommy Mottola when he was singer T. D. Valentine — perhaps if he hadn't, Tommy would now be singing at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, instead of being head of the most powerful entertainment organisation on Earth).
The Legacy label contains some of the earliest recordings from the whole of America's rich musical heritage. The sources they have to work with range from old 78rpm discs that need to be stuck back together, to well‑worn Dolby C cassettes. Their job is to bring whatever material they've got to work with up to a consistent and good‑sounding standard, suitable for release in any of the formats available today. When I asked David what it's like working on material performed by people who've been dead for over half a century, he said simply, "It's one less person to bitch about the mix."
One of his longer (two‑year) projects, and a personal favourite of mine, was the Taj Mahal boxed set In Progress And In Motion. One track on the album, 'Follow the Drinking Gourd', was Taj's musical interludes around a story narrated by James Earl Jones. The story could not be cleared for release and the only available version of the track available was a poor quality, scratched VHS cassette. From this David took snippets of the music alone and constructed a track that contained over two dozen major edits, although I defy anyone to detect a single glitch. Another project involved mastering previously unreleased tapes from the Rolling Stones' Rock & Roll Circus, where you can hear the mix radically altering during the tracks as the engineer struggles to get a balance for broadcast (though Jesse Ed Davis's guitar still sings out like a heavenly bird).
The Human Touch
David Mitson is far from being one of those media monsters who always knows 'what's hot and what's not'. In fact, the only radio he owns is the old AM tuner in his 1965 Cadillac! This often means that if he hasn't worked with a act before, he probably doesn't know who they are or what they sound like. So, before making any decisions about their material, he'll spend a good 30 minutes putting them 'in the psychiatrist's chair' to figure out what it is they're trying to achieve. What kind of sound are they after? Was it all recorded at one place or recorded over a long period of time in loads of different studios? Was it the same musicians used all the time, or is one track just grand piano and cello, while another features full orchestra and thrash‑metal guitars? While he's finding all this out, his game plan starts to evolve.
The relationship between a mastering engineer and a client will very much depend on who the client is — an established record producer will probably know exactly what he wants in every department, so David's job then is simply to do the producer's bidding and perhaps be a sounding‑board for slight EQ indecisions. However, a band in a mastering situation for the first time in their career will have different requirements.
Mastering is all about putting together a whole piece of work, rather than a dozen individual efforts.
In this case David will talk them through the process to give them a better understanding of what's going to be done. Then he'll get them to elect a spokesperson — everyone usually wants their bit boosted and the more people you have talking in the studio at once, the longer a job takes (the end result will often be less satisfactory too!). Tracks don't have to be mastered in sequence, and the first track he'll work on is one the band chooses as being the most accurate representation of their sound. Listening to that track very carefully, David will talk to them about what he hears, building a rapport with them and establishing what it is that they like about their sound, as well as more basic questions such as, is there the right amount of bass in the mix? Every track will have its own qualities and dynamics, but you always need to establish a common denominator for an album, or it just won't hold together. For David, it's not a matter of what the spectrum analyser calculates as the optimum EQ curve, it's a matter of feel, or as he puts it "I suffer from an emotional response to the music and I just fly with it. I spread my wings and take a leap of faith." David prefers to do all his processing — EQ, compression and so on — in the analogue domain, even with digital source material. He feels that music which stays entirely in the digital domain suffers from a lack of "Oomph", which can only be corrected through a bit of analogue fattening.
I asked David the fundamental question: Why, when an album has been recorded in a professional studio, overdubbed in another and then mixed by a top producer in a mega mixing studio, does it still need to be mastered? His answer perhaps sums up the essence of the mastering engineer's contribution to the process. "It's a different focus on listening. When they're mixing, it's about balancing the instruments and voices, not about what sequence the tracks will be in on the record, or whether it'll work making one track crossfade into another. Mastering is all about putting together a whole piece of work, rather than a dozen individual efforts."
In The Olden Days...
Being a mastering engineer used to entail primarily being a lathe operator, cutting blank vinyl discs from which the pressing masters for manufacturing would be made. More often than not it would be necessary to roll off more bass than was artistically desirable simply in order to fit all the tracks onto sides one and two (high‑energy, low‑frequency signals create wider, deeper grooves and so use up more of the available surface area). But then came CD technology, the first examples of which sounded, on the whole, appalling! Albums were transferred from third‑generation quarter‑inch tape copies of the production master by Accounts Office juniors, using steep '20‑20' filters, which excluded frequencies below 20Hz or above 20kHz. Even if you do not accept that listening is affected by frequencies beyond these limits, the 'brick wall' filters themselves introduced unwanted side‑effects into the audible band. The sound was about as clear as a pint of Ye Olde Gribles Grog™. It was a scandal, and what's worse, we, the highly gullible public, didn't complain about the substandard service we received. We merely waited for the next generation of the same CDs to be released, and bought them too.
Nowadays, at least one aspect of the mastering engineer's job is easier, in that the digital recording method of CDs and DVDs will take whatever spectral content you choose to give them, free from the constraints of trying not to eat up 'land' (as the cutting surface area on vinyl is known) too fast.
I'd Like To Thank...
David Mitson has worked with a large number of the planet's biggest‑selling and most influential recording artists, as well as salvaging a good deal of America's musical heritage. Apart from getting a handsome salary and his own parking space in Sony's vast underground car park, he has received tons of awards, gongs and citations. These are just a few of them:
- Celine Dion — Let's Talk About Love.
- Barbara Streisand — Common Ground.
- Neil Diamond — In My Life (also credited Producer and Engineer).
- Kenny Loggins — Yesterday Today and Tomorrow.
- Cool Running (Film soundtrack).
- Now and Then (Film soundtrack).
LIVING BLUES AWARD:
- Three of the Bessie Smith box sets.
- Blind Willie Johnston — Complete Work Mississippi.
- Willie Hurt — Complete Work.