Among his many credits as an engineer, producer, programmer and artist, Jon Astley is perhaps best known for his award‑winning work remastering classic albums from the likes of The Who, Abba and George Harrison.
"Since I've been doing this, a lot of people have said to me 'It's great working with you because there are no secrets. You explain everything you're doing.' And I realise now why I hated taking my stuff to mastering engineers when I was a producer. I do try to make sure that my clients know exactly what processing is being applied, and I always A/B things at the same level so they can really hear how it's being affected." Mastering is no black art to Jon Astley, merely a logical step in a process with which he is intimately familiar in its entirety, having made the classic career progression from teaboy to engineer, then engineer to producer and finally mastering engineer (with a spell as a Fairlight programmer and artist in his own right thrown in for good measure).
From the elegantly appointed mastering room in his Georgian town house overlooking the Thames, Astley, feted in recent years for his award‑winning remastering and restoration work with The Who, Led Zeppelin, Abba, Level 42, George Harrison and many more, recalls starting out in the audio industry in 1972. "I really wanted to get into the film industry, but there wasn't a film industry in the UK then, so the next best thing was recording music for films. I went to Olympic, because they did a lot of that. I actually met the owner in the pub and said 'Please can I work in your studio?' and he said 'Can you start on Monday?'
"Of course, I was making tea for two years before I was allowed to really do anything, but I was lucky enough to start working with Glyn Johns and became Glyn's right‑hand man for the latter part of his stint with The Eagles and for Joan Armatrading and two Eric Clapton records. It was a fantastic time because Glyn was the man that everyone wanted to work with and a great engineer — he'd often just go and reposition a mic and the sound would change quite dramatically. I was mostly running around for him, wiring, miking up, but then later, he wouldn't even show up sometimes. Eric Clapton's 'Tulsa Time' we did from start to finish without him and played it to him the next day, backing vocals, the lot!
"I started to work with Glyn out of the studio as well — we did some live recording in America — and then he asked me if I wanted to do The Who with him. That was potentially a little difficult for me because Pete Townshend is my brother‑in‑law and up to then he and I had pretty much kept apart, professionally, but I said 'As long as I'm working for you, Glyn, I don't see that there's a problem.' Then, three months into the project, Glyn ran out of patience with the band and left! They came to me and asked if I would I finish the record and that was how Who Are You became my first production job."
Astley was not entirely comfortable with all the responsibilities of the producer's seat, however. "You always have to be watching the budget — I remember often thinking 'Christ, we didn't achieve anything today and we've spent a thousand pounds.' I felt very guilty about the wastage and I didn't enjoy that side of producing. That was one reason why I bought a Fairlight I when they first came out and got into programming stuff, because I could see the way that a lot of pre‑production work could be done, and tracks could be assembled before going into the studio. I realised that as sampling time got longer, I could actually sample whole bits of backing vocals and guitar parts and that's when it started to get exciting to me.
"I suppose I was looking at it as a way of cutting corners — 'If we get a backing vocal in the first chorus that's perfect and the track's been done to a click, we can just use it again on the second chorus and that'll save us half a day of singing.' It made budgeting so much easier. You could schedule four days to do a single and you knew as you walked in with your backing track that you'd be singing by day two, doing the guitar solos by day three and mixing it on day four. But I took it to extremes, though, and started to make records that were practically all Fairlight. After a while I found myself thinking, 'I actually don't like this any more — I really don't like these bands.' And that's one of the reasons I stopped producing at that point, because I just didn't like the music any more. All those great 'playing' rock & roll bands that I used to work with had disappeared. So now I'm in heaven because I am remastering them all!"
"Very soon after I started working with the Fairlight, I delivered a Marilyn Martin record to Atlantic in New York and I got a phone call at my hotel from the head of Atlantic and he said 'I need to see you in my office tomorrow.' I thought 'Oh shit.' When I went in he said 'I want you to make a record for me.' I said 'OK, who is it?' And he said 'No, I want you to make a record for me as an artist. I really like your production work and I understand that you do all the programming yourself. Can you sing?' I said 'I think so.' And he said 'Go and make a record.' He didn't even want demos. So I made a fairly rough and ready record for Atlantic called 'Everyone Loves The Pilot', based on Fairlight I, and then the following year I got an all‑singing, all‑dancing Fairlight III and I took it to extremes. I made this record that was practically all Fairlight and delivered that. Pete Townshend told me that he used it as his benchmark in the studio for quite a long time, because it was just so 'perfect'."
Jon Astley's career move into the more specialised role of mastering engineer was no more planned than his sudden elevation to producer on Who Are You. "In 1996, The Who asked me to oversee their reissue/remastering program, so I started to reassemble the album masters, which was actually quite difficult as a lot of them were missing. In a lot of cases I was looking at copy masters and safety copies. But as I was listening to this stuff I started to think that perhaps it would be more interesting to actually remix a lot of it, so I went back to the record company and asked if they would entertain the idea of me faithfully remixing the eight‑ and 16‑track masters. I had already done this on some tracks for the boxed set we had done just previously, and everybody liked the results there so they agreed.
"I went to Andy McPherson's Revolution Studio in Manchester. He's a great friend, a great engineer but most importantly a great Who fan and he knew exactly what was right for it — in fact, as we got further into the project, he went out and bought an old plate echo to help us faithfully recreate exactly what it would have sounded like in the '60s and '70s. For mastering, I took those remixes to Tim Young at Metropolis and I went to see Bob Ludwig, who used to master my productions from the '70s and '80s and I spent a lot of time with him, going 'What does that do?' and 'Do you prefer that to that?' and dragging him out to dinner so I could pepper him with questions. I must have bored him rigid. But he was wonderful and gradually I became aware of what mastering was all about and what was really going on."
The Who's Live At Leeds album is regarded as one of the band's finest, but the original live tapes presented a major technical challenge. "As everyone knows, there was a mains plug hanging out of the wall somewhere in the system, producing this constant crackling on every other track on the eight track. Bass drum, bass guitar, vocal... and guitar — nothing too important! Sometimes it was just intermittent, and other times there were whole rows of them. It was so bad that Pete hadn't even mixed some of the tracks.
"The CEDAR processors really came to the forefront on this one. They worked brilliantly on the bass and bass drum: the only thing you could hear them working on was the guitar, where they just took the plectrum off the front. I had to treat that slightly differently. I use the De‑hiss, De‑click and De‑thump plug‑ins within SADiE, and I've got a hardware De‑crackler in case I have to work with vinyl. The off‑line processes just work beautifully: even the Auto ones will usually be right first time. Just occasionally I'll have to tweak the start and end point because the total area you are applying it to can sometimes affect whether it works or not. People often find it hard to believe that you can take something out without affecting the music, but you can. The first time I used the CEDAR De‑hiss, I was just amazed. Suddenly I could hear all this echo that I hadn't been aware of because it had been covered up by tape hiss. There are some very clever guys there at CEDAR.
"On the original vinyl of Live At Leeds they put a little note on the label saying 'The crackles are intentional'. So when I remixed it in '96 and used the CEDAR De‑crackler to clean it up, I wrote on it 'The crackles are gone!' It's a nice record now. But some of the Who fans still come up to me at gigs and say 'You completely ruined that track because you took the hiss away.' I say, 'What are you comparing it to?' They say 'The one I've got,' so I just say, 'Well, play that then!'"
Astley cites the ability to maintain perspective as one of the most important aspects of the mastering engineer's job. "You mustn't get so locked in to the details that you lose sight of the overall picture. And you have to know when to stop — you have to know when you've done as much for the track as can be done and when applying any more of a process will actually start making it worse.
"I tend not to do alternate versions — I stop when I like it and let the client decide. I don't vacillate as a mastering engineer. But I do like feedback from clients though. I really don't mind, and expect to go back and revisit things. I am always willing to try something else.
"Suddenly mastering seems to have become all‑important — louder, brighter, faster... People are using their Finalizers and their Pro Tools mastering plug‑ins and so much stuff is just too crunched. People aren't letting dynamics happen. Volume seems to be everything, even for record companies. But as soon as volume becomes the primary issue, you're into crunchiness and less dynamics and it's such a shame because CDs could be so much nicer.
"Sorting out a whole lot of apparently little things is actually a large part of what I do. A lot of people have not got a running order sorted when I get the tracks, so as soon as you put them in running order you become aware that some of the transitions don't work or that there are level differences. Sometimes they'll have tried a running order and just thought 'Oh, that'll be OK when it's mastered: track two slightly brighter, track three slightly louder.' A band whose album I had already mastered called me yesterday and they had decided that they wanted to use a different version of the single, which was track two on the album. So I dug out the one I mastered six months previously and pasted it in, and the album just died when track two came in because it sounded 2 or 3dB quieter than the rest — actually it was just as loud, but it sounded quieter. That's one of the mistakes that people often make: just because it peaks at the same level doesn't mean it's going to sound as loud. That's typical of the sort of work I often do.
"Some records are quick — Catatonia's Paper Scissors Stone was done in a day with Clive Langer here with me, and I revisited two spots, which took maybe an hour, two days later. That would be a quick one, whereas something like Tori Amos' Strange Little Girls album took two weeks to master. It's not unusual with me for an album to get mastered three times. One thing I like to do is to master it and give people a copy and say, 'There's your record. This isn't finished. Go away and listen to it. Call me Monday.'
"Most people think of mastering as something where you walk out of the door and that's the end of the process. I like it to be much more creative than that. Decisions have to be made with the perspective of a couple of days. Sometimes I'll listen really quietly to an album that I've done and I'll think, 'I wish that intro was a bit louder.' So I might take that section, which may have peaks that are already 0.1dB off zero, and just push it up against a limiter to gain another 1, perhaps 1.5dB. The beauty of doing that inside something like the SADiE system that I use is that you can just tail it off after the intro and get rid of it for the rest of the track. Little tricks like that can make all the difference. Everything is recallable now and that makes it so much easier to just make these little tweaks. Although I do still write everything down as well. Sometimes you just can't get back to something that you had before — it's inexplicable but probably to do with where the moon was!"
Whilst he is keenly aware of the potential pitfalls arising out of many domestic surround systems' origins in the home‑cinema market, Astley remains a fan of mixing in 5.1.
"The most horrifying thing is that people are selling these systems where the TV speaker is the centre speaker in a 5.1 setup. That does very peculiar things because it's not the same as the others. You know that not everyone is going to have their surround speakers in the right place, but you can only get it sounding right on the system you mix it on. Bob Pridden and I have just remixed Who Are You in surround and it's great fun. We used to spend days in mixing trying to get all those beautifully recorded, big sounds to come out of two speakers, but you just don't have to bother in 5.1. As soon as you start to place things around in different areas, you no longer need to thin them out or place them further back. You can hear all the sounds as they were recorded without them fighting against each other. A lot of the Who stuff that I did was sequencer‑based, and if you just pull that stuff forward in a surround mix, the band have suddenly got their own space. It's beautiful. You don't have to fight for space for everything."
Remarkably, there are no tape machines at all in Jon Astley's room. "If I get anything contemporary on analogue, these days it's on half‑inch and I will go out to wherever they mixed it and lift it from the machine it was recorded on — there are just too many vagaries in half‑inch line‑up, especially at the bottom end. If the studio is getting back off their machine what they want to hear, I know that if I take my Genex and maybe some DCS converters out to their studio, I can come away with what they are listening to at 96kHz. Working from the Genex is great, as I can zoom around sections quickly, unlike working with tape."
With the Genex as the primary replay source, the next unit in the mastering chain is usually Jon's Sintefex Replicator. "I use that mostly for valve‑sounding EQ, as that enables me to keep it all digital — SADiE have just put this old Decca EQ in it for me. Then it goes into my Weiss EQ1, the new linear phase model. It has a smoother sound, but it puts a 250mS delay through the system, which isn't great when you are working on a DVD. The next thing I'll go through is the Weiss DS1, if I just want to catch vocals that I think haven't been looked at properly in the mix, and very often I will go into my TL Audio PP10, which is the warmest digital compressor I've ever heard in my life — it's got the most horrible front end to it, especially if you are working in surround, but the sound makes it worthwhile. I use the soft‑knee compressor in there. Finally I'll throw it into my TC Electronic System 6000, which I mostly just use as a brick‑wall limiter, although sometimes I'll use the three‑band compressor if I want to get it sounding like a Finalizer! Obviously, every job differs in little unique ways, but that would be a typical processing chain. I knock stuff in and out all the time to see what it's doing.
"My compression settings won't actually change that much from track to track. I'll tweak the threshold to suit the material; ratio will be between 2:1 and 3:1, as I'm only affecting the top few dB. There's a parameter called Softness on the PP10 — I've no idea what it does, but it goes between 7 and 8 and it sounds great! Finally, there's my SADiE system [see box].
"On modern stuff I'd very rarely need to EQ anything beyond one or two dB in maybe a couple of bands, but I can get fairly radical with EQ for remastering. It's funny, but top and bottom seems to always sort out what's missing from any track from the '70s, but during the '60s the top end was horrible, so you actually don't want to bring that out. The original tapes from the '60s will often be OK, but the masters are horrible at the top end. With George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, I felt there were complete bands of frequencies totally missing because it had been bounced on eight‑track three or four times, with slightly faulty line‑ups. Everything around 5k was just not there, even though Phil Spector had probably been adding tons of it every time he bounced because he loved that area so much. So sometimes you just have to get radical with it, but in that instance I could dial in a great big peak and it made no difference at all, because there was just nothing there for it to work on. I had to make it wider and work with what was there on either side of the hole! All Things Must Pass was possibly the most challenging thing I've done — just the amount of hiss on it was overwhelming."
"I bought my first SADiE in 1992 when I was a producer, as a studio tool just to edit albums together. I became known as 'Doctor Fixit' — I used to work with Chris Kimsey a lot. There was a live album that we did for Johnny Halliday from four nights at Parc des Princes. Chris was in Metropolis — four studios with four engineers — and I'd be running around, taking a guitar solo and flying it in to night three and taking a vocal line from night two and putting it into night four, and that's how the whole album was pieced together. I thought, 'this is the way to do things'. We assembled the album on the SADiE too.
"When I went to mastering I just used to take the SADiE with me. I even went to Bob Ludwig with two Who albums, Quadrophenia and Tommy remixed, and he mastered from the hard drive. My current SADiE system is an eight‑in, eight‑out Artemis and it's great. It does everything that I want it to do and it sounds good too so long as you clock it externally."
Although such painstaking restoration work often requires all his expertise, Astley also cites the recently released Tori Amos album Strange Little Girls as one of his more demanding mastering jobs. "For the first time I mastered the tracks in running order. We'd start each day by playing what we'd done the day before. Tori is not a volume freak at all, she just wants to hear certain things in the music that she knows can be got out of it in mastering. Sometimes she'll try to bring out a vocal and then she'll say 'OK, go back to the earlier setting for that chorus.' Then the mastering practically becomes part of the mixing process. Tori will want to use a specific EQ just for a part of a song, if that's what works. I do that myself sometimes too, if I'm working on my own. I will listen to something that I've had a couple of goes at, and think, 'Well, I really like it up to there, so why don't I just use that bit and then set up something else for the next bit and edit it together?' Obviously, I can hear the edit, because I know where it is, but if you don't take it to extremes, people never know.
"On Strange Little Girls I had seven bands of EQ that would vary from point to point in the track. I tend to get an overall EQ that I like for most of the track and then revisit parts and edit those in on the SADiE. Sometimes Tori would say 'Let's use that verse that we did from the other day.' Sometimes even 'Let's use that word that we did the other day.' But she's got extraordinary ears. You can play her a CD made in one machine alongside a CD made in another and she'll be able to tell you which was which every time. I couldn't tell you, so I don't know what she's listening to! But she's consistently right. She has hearing from another planet. There was one occasion when I had forgotten to switch on my external clock so the SADiE had used its internal clock and Tori came to me and said 'This CD you've made doesn't sound right.' I thought about it and looked at the system, and there it was — I hadn't switched on the clock. And then I could hear it too. The top end just wasn't as clean, so there must have been a bit of jitter or something."
Among Jon Astley's many production credits is Eric Clapton's live album Just One Night, which threw up an unusual technical difficulty: "The main challenge on Just One Night was that Eric wasn't supposed to know that I was doing it. I put up all these mics and the manager came running in saying, 'No, no, no! If Eric sees that he's going to know it's being recorded!' So I had to hide the audience mics and I had to take splits off the PA mics and I had to duck and dive backstage at the Budokan and keep out of everybody's way. I built a studio in one of the dressing rooms and just had all the cables coming in. And I sat there all afternoon and daren't venture out in case any of the band saw me. I got no soundcheck — I just had a roadie go round the drums and I just guessed levels. I thought I'd lose two or three songs sorting it out, but we'd got two nights recording. As the band started I was poised over the mic gain controls on the board and as they went into 'Tulsa Time' all the needles were peaking at zero and it was just perfect. I thought, this sounds quite good just as it is — don't touch anything! And that's how it went down. It was all the first night, which is why we called it Just One Night. That first night was just brilliant.
"I got slated in the press for it sounding like a studio record, but the only thing we did to it was to overdub one bass note where there was a key change in the middle of a blues and the bass player went 'booonnng', on the wrong note! He came into Olympic when I was mixing it and we matched it up in 10 seconds and replaced that one note. There was no spill problem. These days we'd just copy a note from somewhere else in the track and paste it in."
There's no bass trapping in Astley's mastering room, and consequently he limits his monitoring to compact PMC LB1s. "These do actually give me a very true bottom end. Clients have also said to me 'This the first time I've heard it in a sitting room.' And I really like that. When I'm mastering I get used to working at one particular volume, and when I'm just listening back to stuff I'll be about 18dB below that — quite quiet — and I use a Crookwood 5.1 monitor controller to set the monitoring levels. The PMCs are very good at showing up little vocal ticks and clicks that have made it through the production process. When I've finished something, I'll also listen to it on headphones, listening for noises and stuff that you just won't notice on speakers.
"The bottom end is sometimes through the floor in some tracks these days, but it really doesn't matter as much as it used to. You get dub records with lots of really low stuff, so why can't you apply that to a pop or rock record? I do sometimes see the cones moving excessively and it turns out to be some sample that's been shifted down two octaves that people were just not hearing on their home studio monitors. Actually I did that myself with Bob Ludwig. I took him something I'd done on the Fairlight and I must have touched a key without being aware of it in the studio. Bob suddenly said 'Jesus! Look at that!' His cones were moving at about one cycle. That's one of the dangers of sampling, if you can't hear what you are doing down there. I look out for it now. Sometimes I apply a steep roll‑off, perhaps an 80dB cut at 10Hz. I had an artist sitting in here once who said he could hear it when I put that roll‑off in, and I actually began to hear it too, even though you would think this room couldn't possibly allow you to hear stuff down there."
Astley has gained industry recognition for his remastering projects, but his work on classic albums also has to face the toughest audience of all — obsessive fans. "I got an award for remastering the Led Zeppelin BBC stuff, but actually it had never been mastered in the first place, so that went fairly smoothly. However, I also did a lot of Abba stuff, and there are dropouts on a lot of that which are quite severe in some places. There was an Abba fan who wrote to me saying 'Why does the backing vocal on the second line of the second chorus of 'Dancing Queen' now not go on as long as it used to on the vinyl version?' I couldn't think what he was on about, but when I looked at the file, I saw that there was a dropout there and I had taken the first chorus, which was just the tiniest bit shorter and pasted that in to sort out the dropout. The 'anoraks' out there are your greatest friend and your worst enemy.
"I'm being slagged off by the fans for the new version of The Who's Live At Leeds [see box], because they wanted to hear the tracks in order. Andy McPherson and I have mixed the Tommy section that originally came in the middle of the show, which has never been released before, and I decided that we should put it out with the show as it was, with the new tracks that we mixed in '96, and that we'd put the Tommy section on a separate CD. That way you can hear it in its entirety without having to stop halfway through. The Who fans hate it. They say they want to hear the show just as it was. You just can't please everybody!"
- Volume isn't everything. Don't crunch.
- A good clock source makes a huge difference to digital systems.
- A/B frequently.
- Make sure you listen at a level you can remain comfortable with for several hours.
- Stick it on CD and live with it for a while.
- You can't get the gaps right without listening to the whole album.
- If you are referring to other material, make sure it is playing through the same converters as the track you are mastering — import the reference track into your editor, if necessary.
- Don't put too much top end on everything — I was probably guilty of that for about the first two or three years I was doing this.