As one of the world’s leading mastering engineers, Vlado Meller has enjoyed great success — and his share of controversy.
As his career enters its 45th year, Vlado Meller has been wondering where the next generation of Vlado Mellers will come from. “Today it is almost impossible to get the proper, hands-on training that is necessary for young people interested in a mastering career,” he says. “There isn’t really a formal school for young people to become mastering engineers. Music schools teach pretty much everything but mastering — it’s barely mentioned in their curriculum, if at all. I’ve seen books about mastering, but a lot of the people writing these books didn’t come from a true mastering world. Not to mention that mastering is a multi-dynamic process, and a book is a one-dimensional tool.
“Obviously, it was a very different time in the studio business when I started working in mastering, when record companies owned mastering studios and recording studios. It was part of my job to be trained right there at the studio by qualified, experienced cutting engineers. This kind of opportunity doesn’t really exist any more. There are a few lucky ones who’ve gotten hired as assistants by a few mastering engineers around the country, including my trusted assistant engineer. All others are relying mostly on information from the Internet, YouTube, and a few publications written by people who probably haven’t actually mastered a project. There are chat rooms and forums full of people interested in mastering, exchanging ideas, techniques and such, but unfortunately it’s unlikely to lead anyone to a real mastering job.”
Meller’s own career as a mastering engineer has been stellar, to the point where it would almost be easier to list the famous artists he hasn’t worked with than those he has. Nevertheless, few would envy him the experiences he had to go through before he got into the business. “I was born in former Czechoslovakia,” he relates. “After graduating from technical high school in Kosice, Slovakia, I decided to pursue electrical engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague, Czech Republic. Parallel to my technical education, I was receiving musical education for violin until I graduated from high school. This integration of analogue electronics and music formed my foundation and future. In September 1968, after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, I escaped to Vienna, Austria, along with thousands of other young people at that time. I became a refugee, and after seven months as a refugee in Austria and Italy, I was allowed to immigrate to the United States, and that’s where my journey in America started.
“I had an opportunity to go for an interview in October 1969 with CBS Records studios through a friend who landed a job as a tech there. I was hired in December as a tech support person at their recording studio in New York, and eventually it led to my mastering job a year later. I was trained by the top senior mastering engineers at the CBS Records studio and gradually developed my own style over the years as I worked with various producers, mixing engineers, artists from CBS and outside labels. I’ve never left the mastering world since. In 2013 I decided finally to go on my own and moved my mastering studio to Charleston, South Carolina.”
The last 15 years or so have witnessed the closure of many once-successful recording studios, as musicians have turned increasingly to recording and producing their own projects. The absence of a seasoned professional in the recording process makes the role of the mastering engineer, for Meller, even more crucial. “This rise in home production is exactly why I feel that mastering is more important than ever. We are here to consult, advise and double-check the mixes that are sent in for mastering. The results of home productions vary greatly; some of them are professional and ready to be mastered, and some are unfortunately not quite there yet. This is where our advice and objectiveness can go a long way for the client to go back, correct the mixes accordingly and hear a difference in the properly mixed/mastered song. That is always greatly appreciated by clients, which is ultimately what it all comes down to — a client that loves how their mastered record sounds is a happy client, who will more than likely come back for another album. That is how a successful mastering engineer develops repeat clients.”
It’s clear from Meller’s vast discography that he has been particularly good at this aspect of the business. From Celine Dion to Kanye West, when artists have worked with Meller once, they tend to use his services again and again. “The majority of my clients are repeat clients,” he agrees. “It’s hard to say what it is, but I think I am able to translate what someone tells me they want to hear in words into the language of sound. Every mastering engineer represents different sound. We create a unique sound for each particular record. One can give the same album to three different mastering engineers and you’ll get back three uniquely different finished products. The artist/producer/label will decide whose sound they like the best, and it doesn’t matter what speakers you use, what gear you use, or what sample-rate converters you use, it is all about the sound I deliver at the end of the mastering process. They are the ultimate judges. If they like the sound, most likely I’ll be mastering their next project. The mastering engineer develops certain relationships with the artist and producers, and if they like my particular sound from previous albums, they will continue to work with me.”
One thing that has changed over the years — and which has helped to make possible Meller’s move away from the big city — is the widespread shift to unattended mastering. “Thanks to the digital technology available today, delivering files for mastering is very efficient and convenient. The artist and producer don’t have to be present in mastering sessions. Some of them want to attend the mastering, but once they’ve worked with you, they know your sound, and they’re comfortable just sending files for mastering. This is happening more and more. And of course the budgets have to do a lot with that decision too. After the album is mastered, the files are sent back to clients for their final playback, listening, comments, changes and eventually approvals.”
Other trends in the music business have tended to undermine the sonic cohesion of album projects. Where once all the tracks on a long-player would typically have been recorded in the same studio and with the same production team, it’s now often the case that the only unifying factor is the artist him- or herself. “Today’s albums are recorded in different studios, with different producers and different engineers, so it makes it more challenging for the mastering engineer to compete in this business,” agrees Meller. “This is where an engineer’s experience shines. Each track requires a different mastering approach, different signal processing, and different effects to achieve one unified sound from track to track, throughout the album. The client expects the mastering engineer to deliver an album which will sound like one unified recording. That is the art of EQ’ing. Books and YouTube clips on this topic that you can really learn something from are hard to come across, if they exist at all, and it’s truly one of the most important aspects of mastering today.
“I evaluate the master I receive from client the same way, regardless of who mixed the album. My job is to create the sound the client will be happy with. On many occasions I will confer with the mixing engineer, artist and producer to get a clear idea as to what they are specifically looking for in the final sound of the record. This is a very important aspect in my final mastering approach. Mastering engineers are typically the last independent opinion on the whole project, so we can look at the project objectively. It doesn’t matter how many engineers worked on the album, how many studios were involved in the production, there will be one and only one mastering engineer chosen by the artist, label or producer who will deliver their final master. Artists typically have their favoured mastering engineer with whom they will work based on their past experience. This is where relationships and past discography is very important. This is our resumé.”
Of all the trends that have occurred in music over the last 25 years or so, Meller’s name has become attached to one of the most controversial: the pursuit of ever-louder digital masters, at the cost of natural and musical dynamics. Some of the most high-profile projects to have attracted criticism for their lack of dynamics are albums that he has worked on with legendary producer Rick Rubin, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication (1999).In every case, insists Meller, the quest for loudness is a response to the wishes of the artist and producer.
“Every mastering engineer creates his or her sound, but the artist, producer, and their respective teams will decide how loud the record should be. The transition from vinyl to CD opened up an entirely new way that records are mixed and mastered. It was physically impossible to cut ‘hot’ vinyl, even though artists wanted it very much to be, especially in rock, pop and hip-hop music. So CDs definitely led to this whole new era. But in reference to any sort of ‘war’, I master various genres of music, from classical and jazz to hard rock and R&B, and what it comes down to is that I master the music the way the artist wants their CD to sound, plain and simple.”
Anyone wishing to emulate Meller’s techniques for creating loud masters will be disappointed to learn that it’s not a matter of applying one simple technique or piece of equipment. “I do have techniques in creating certain types of sounds that artists and producers love and seek out, but these are the types of consequential decisions that make each mastering engineer unique and give them a truly signature sound, and they’re really difficult for me to just sort of gloss over or summarise. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and you know, Frank Ocean and Frank Sinatra have looked for different types of things in terms of how much bass the song should have, or how loud it should be.”
Fortunately, for those who do want to understand the detailed choices that Meller makes in real-world mastering contexts, that knowledge is available — at a price. In addition to his core mastering business, he’s now offering three-day workshops in his South Carolina suite where younger mastering engineers can study and learn from his methods. It is, he says, his way of trying to fill the void that has been left by the closure of record label mastering houses such as CBS, where people like Meller himself received on-the-job training.
“I started doing these workshops to provide a one-on-one, hands-on experience in a real mastering room with real mastering gear under my supervision. I like to think that the decades of mastering experience I have within a wide range of genres and artists — Kanye West, Pink Floyd, Shakira, Michael Jackson, Metallica, Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Paul McCartney and so on — has been about more than just padding my resumé. It’s provided me with the knowledge to teach future students who want to pursue a mastering career.”
There have been many reports over the last few years suggesting that vinyl is making a comeback, in part because of its supposedly superior sound. Vlado Meller has limitless experience of vinyl cutting, and still offers it as a service, but cautions against believing the hype. “There is a renewed interest in vinyl, but I truly believe it is more of a boutique niche than a lot of articles would have you believe. I’m being asked to create masters for vinyl more than I was seven or eight years ago, but it’s not a big part of our business. Today’s music delivery is all about downloads and streaming.
“There’s been a lot of talk lately about quality of sound coming from vinyl. For some, vinyl sounds warmer, but that’s because of physical limitations of that particular medium. The limited frequency response of vinyl records combined with the limited response of consumers’ playback systems all affects the final quality greatly. Consumers who were vinyl enthusiasts are likely to have become accustomed to that sound over decades of listening. There are just too many variables affecting the final sound on vinyl, whereas digital recordings do not have these kind of limitations. This is why so many people think vinyl sounds warmer than a CD — the frequencies which had to be rolled off on vinyl suddenly show up on the CD in full force. So compared to vinyl, the CD suddenly sounds ‘harsher’ and more brittle to a consumer who spent decades listening to vinyl records.
“Mastering vinyl is a very time-consuming process. It has a lot of physical limitations — it’s just a fact of physics and nature of that media. Let’s start with the length of the side. The longer the side, the more difficult it is for the cutting engineer to preserve the quality of the original recording. Every frequency represents a different shape in the groove itself. If there’s too much low end, the groove will swing too much, to a point that the turntable arm/cartridge/stylus will skip, or the worst-case scenario is that there will be momentarily no groove at all. If there’s too much high-frequency content, the groove will have extremely jagged edges. Again, the stylus cannot correctly play back and track the ‘V’-shaped edges of the groove. If there’s too much level, the programme cannot fit on a standard space on the vinyl side without sacrificing the overall level. That is where the mastering engineer has to decide what to alter on that particular programme to fit the complete side without any problems that a consumer could encounter when playing the vinyl.
“There are too many variables that could affect the playback sound of the final pressing. Diameter and width of each groove are other critical issues with vinyl. A record uses constant angular velocity, so the best sound on the vinyl is on the outside; as the groove diameter decreases toward the centre, the quality of the playback decreases accordingly. Then you take into consideration the eccentric force under which the playback arm is being pushed to one side of the groove, so the problems increase. The only way to correct that problem is to have a linear tracking turntable. But how many people have that? If one would cut the same song on the outside diameter and the same song on the inside diameter of the record and try to compare the two, the difference in quality will be obvious even to the average ear. Again, there’s a physical limitation of a smaller groove and tracking error on the inside small diameter. Sometimes the producers would make sure that the best tracks were always on the outside and less dynamic, quieter tracks would be on the inside. The sequence of the album had to be created accordingly with vinyl in mind.
“Last but not least, a major factor is the quality of the turntables the consumer will play the record on. Let’s assume a good audiophile-quality turntable will play the record fine, but what about somebody who will play the record back on a cheap mass-produced record player from the ’70s or ’80s, and now it skips or distorts? The cutting engineer’s responsibility is to make sure that the vinyl will play back without any problems on the cheapest turntable commercially available. In my cutting days, I had two turntables in my cutting room. One was a souped-up, top-of-the-line model with the best cartridge, counterweights and stylus available at that time. But my final test was done on the cheap Garrard all-plastic turntable, the same turntables manufacturing plants used for their final QC. If my cut skipped or caused any problems on that turntable, I had to change the overall level, EQ, and decide which frequencies to roll off just to get an acceptable playback. That is unfortunately the reality of vinyl. The physical limitations are too many and not only on the mastering side. Manufacturing has its own problems. Records go through too many plating phases and processes before we see the final pressed commercial version.”
“Every piece of gear I use for mastering is specifically selected by me: the speakers, the EQs, the converters, the digital workstations/editing systems,” says Vlado Meller of his purpose-built mastering suite at Truphonic Studios in Charleston, South Carolina. “The gear has been carefully tested, evaluated and listened to over and over. These are my tools which shape my sound. Every mastering engineer has different preferences in gear they use — we all go for a certain sound and the individual gear selection will help shape that sound.”
Meller is a longstanding advocate of PMC monitors, so it’s no surprise that these are central to his setup. “For a mastering engineer to decide how to approach the mastering of a new project, it first of all requires correct speakers. Only then can one make the proper adjustments to the sound. Over the years working for CBS Records and Sony, I had the privilege of testing various speakers from top manufacturers. The imaging, transparency and frequency response while playing back various genres of music I have mastered convinced me that PMCs were my choice.”
The suite is set up to cater for all eventualities, with a mixture of analogue and digital gear. “I have outboard digital EQs, digital limiters/compressors, and a digital and analogue patchbay. I have seen very few analogue masters in the past three years, but if there are clients who still want to use tape as their source for mastering, my room is equipped to handle analogue as well. Various analogue EQs, compressors and limiters are available to be patched in the chain. But the fact is 99.9 percent of new project masters delivered by clients these days are digital files.”