Greg Calbi: Exclusive Interview on Mastering Techniques

Today we’re here at Sterling Sound where we’ve been for about 12 years in the Chelsea Market, beautifully designed and I am really happy here.

Granted the storms and the vicissitudes of the music business over the last 12 years. The amount that’s needed to master a record really has diminished a lot, because of having, basically, digital files. They sound strange, but when you have mixes on analog tape of an 8-hour session, at least 1,5 hour I mean, it sounds incredible but.. this is a tremendous saving for a client not to have to spend an extra $500 to rewind tape.

When given more time to experiment you can probably come up with something a bit better, so.. you’re kinda working with budgets, in a time constraint, and by doing that you have to learn to work more efficiently.

The main element with mastering, I think, is never really be satisfied. There’s always something better, that you could have done and you can’t do but I think that drives you forward. And, it’s… really, very necessary I think to do your best work.

Number 1: Accurate listening environment.

You know, over the last 5 years particularly there’s just an endless amount of problems in the low end and the reason for that is rooms where people are working are not tuned properly, so they really don’t know what they have in the low end..

and they will admit that they don’t know exactly what they have in the low end. But to achieve.. a balanced room, in a home environment, or in a low-budget studio, takes a tremendous amount of financial resources and constant tweaking and attention.

Number 2.. talking about Sterling Sound and particularly in my room, the access to analog tools along with plugins.

Ok so, we have the space, we have the ergonomics to be able to accommodate you know, maybe 8 or 10.. compressors, limiters.. different tools that are accessible and ergonomically set them so I can actually hear them.

Whereas in a home studio, all kinds of impediments to that would occur.

So there’s another sense, an ergonomic sense that has to be taken into account.

And the third thing would be a professional who has the experience to, you know, not to master one record that sounds good but to constantly turn out products from completely different sources you know, I do probably 150 records a year you know, you want to be able to.. to work with somebody who is a professional who can take what you give him to the next level and it takes an understanding of your genre and of.. you know, of what..

what things are supposed to sound like in his.. in that professional’s imagination, in his ear.

You know, when I hear a vocal in here I know that that vocal sounds a certain way, I’m in the same exact environment I’ve been in this room for 12 years I know what things are supposed to sound like and when something’s even a little bit off it occurs to me immediately.

Stem mastering is something which is very, very connected to the politics of the project, before it gets to you.

It’s a combination of the relationship with the mixer to the mastering guy, but the of the mixer also to.. whoever his client was be it the band or the producer or if he’s the producer then the band or whatever.. To come in to a mastering session with stems introduces a certain vulnerability by the creative person.

Just break down your mix into categories: So, you got your drums on one stem, you got your bass on another stem, you got your background vocals on another stem, you got vocals on another stem.

Ah, let’s go.. keyboards, you know.. horns, whatever.. synths. Ok.

Now, each one of those stems everything can be broken out with a D/A converter, into the Dangerous box, right? And then that box outputs to stereo, so immediately..

there’s an enhancement that comes from having less information kinda jumble.. jumble together inside the “desk” of Pro Tools.

At that point, now.. I have the mix.. and I have the elements, and I also have an analog output of each of the elements..

So, for example: a singer who has a very, very kind of high scratchy voice and used a very bright microphone.. now, I want to enhance that vocal and I am able to use an analog equalizer and add some richness or an analog compressor to handle the peaks.

You know, particularly with vocals, but also tremendous help with bass, because you can handle bass and bass drums separately.. Ok, the usual mastering dynamic. “I’ve done my work can you sonically enhance it to make it better?” That’s one level. Now, the next level of stems is: “I’ve done my work, but I don’t really know what the relationship should be between the elements on these stems, which could be guitars, drums, bass, vocals and whatever.. keyboards, synths, reverbs or whatever.

Ok now: somebody that comes in with that feeling in their production, is coming in really kinda naked in terms of, like.. “Have I done a good job or not?” – so that’s why I think that 90% of the time or 95% of the time, not a good thing for a producer or engineer to project that vulnerability.

However if the situation in the record has been such that there’s been so many elements in the mix because of the budget, because of the geographical location of the of the musicians: “ok, we had to do the guitars in Wyoming, and then we went to a studio in Miami to do the drums and blablabla”, and it’s been this whole pudge project thing so that everybody in that project is off-balance to begin with perfect opportunity to come in with stems and let somebody outside the project, evaluate it and have the ability to balance it a little bit.

Anything that gets to the goal line to me is, always.. I am happy to help and that was one thing, with the Dangerous box, that we’re able to get really a good result from the stems. Now.. that being said, once we start talking about this idea 3-4 years ago, a lot of people started to setup their home studio so that they were actually doing the same thing before it got here.

So, you know, it’s kind of like a hybrid, like the mastering kind of spills over into the mix, the mix spilling over to the mastering.. you know: we all really do the same thing! I really do like to add at least one piece of analog gear every year.

It kinda lets you re-evaluate the rest of the stuff in your rack.

Let’s have a Focusrite, an API, this Prism, Maselec.. and I have a Manley.

Each one of them has a high-pass filter.

Each one of them sounds completely different..

but they sound much closer to each other then to the BAX.

It’s been a great addition to the room, I mean, it’s something which.. there’s not a single.. project that goes by, without me checking out to see what it does in the low end because it has a very distinct quality in the low end of.. being able to.. harness the low end without altering dynamics.

Now, if the mix doesn’t need those dynamics the BAX doesn’t do enough to help you bring it in But, if the.. if the bass drum and bass are recorded in such a way where those dynamics are really necessary to make the mix work..

there’s nothing that works like the BAX.

It adds a 3-dimensional quality in the bottom that I don’t have with any of the other pieces.

It actually is a pretty go-to for.. for the low shelf in terms of adding a little bit of clarity to the bass. – 74, right? Ah, sure.. 74. More than any other frequencies occasionally I pick.

not too much up at 230 but that’s a frequency which generally is a roll-out frequency rather than an add frequency.. Every single thing I do in the low end it’s always the go-to and it’s the first go-to when I hear harshness.

The way it has to roll out some harsh frequencies between like.. what it is: 3.7? 3.4, 4.8, I mean, I.. again, it’s a constant go-to when something.. I use the word irritating when there’s an irritating element to guitars or the vocals or the mix in general.

It as a way of.. smoothing, without taking away, like.. to kind the sound of a reverb and kind of smearing everything up.

The hardest thing to do is to equalize something which is both bright and dull at the same time, which is frequent well, not frequent but it happens! So, you know, it’s nice to have the BAX, for that! What I do now is I do captures.. I listen to a mix, I get an idea what I wanna do and get something close, on usually on a Focusrite first, and then capture like 20 minutes of that, then immediately try the same frequency pretty much the same frequency on the BAX.

From on the BAX fine, then I shoot the BAX out with the Prism, when it comes to low end, So, all this is like 30 seconds once so on the boom, boom, boom – back and forth and then get an idea.. everything starts to take shape at that point.. Mix starts to open up, have some dimension, and then once I settle on that, I’ll so another song or two..

And it seems like there’s a.particularly with international projects it seems to be much more all done in the same room.

There’s a consistency in terms of production, Anything from Spain, from Italy, from France, usually, it’s not like in the US where you can have 12 songs in like six completely different studios, producers or whatever.. So, you know, if I am settling on the BAX for doing something, I usually stick with that for the whole album and if I get to a song where it’s no longer working or it doesn’t feel so good then I kind of go back.

So it’s all these quick captures all I can say is the BAX is a very big player in I’d say 80% of what I do, in terms of participating in the shootout or actually being used.

And that does the perfect example where stems being valuable, because once you start taking out the super highs from a stereo mix, you just kind of take the life out of it. There’s no way.

What’s going on musically in the low end? What’s the bass player doing? How can I make this record as warm as possible without making it muddy? So, you’re shifting the focus away from the high end.

Very, very dangerous territory. This is like: instantly alert, like.. ‘This is going to be a tough day’.

But.. That would be.. my first impulse is to Just see.. ok: How’s the vocal sound? Can the vocal be richer? Can the guitars have a little deeper sound? Once I get something, I go back to the mix and I set the mix up so that the peak level of the mix flat, is exactly the same peak level to my ear and to my eye on the meters and then, when I go back and forth just be completely, brutally honest even if I spend half an hour on a song.

What am I loosing? Because that’s what that’s what the person is going to be listening to before it gets here.

He’s listening to his mix! And a lot of times he’s listening to his mix 8dB lower! So I gotta listen to that and I gotta say: ‘Ok, even though the other one would hurt my ears, it just sounded more exciting!’ ‘Ok, now I have to re-trench.. go back.. spot the difference, take a little bit out, find it as a spot, and then.. Also, at one point, you gotta say to yourself: ‘Ok, there’s a limitation to how good this is gonna sound.. let’s anticipate what the client is trying to do with the mix.’ And.. if people like high end and like their ears to be singed and they like the excitement and the.. and that frenetic nature of the top.. Give the people what they want and make them happy! I recently had a run of 2 or 3 albums where the cymbals were way too loud on the drum recording, and if musicians are involved in the production part, they really.. they really loose high end, those guys! Like drummers, you know, if they’re involved those sounds.. just don’t bother them! And they really impede listening to a record loud.

And, we all like to crank up and listen loud, but no one wants to get hurt listening loud, you know? And I.. Anytime there’s an album, and there was one, one time.. I forgot the name of it, but I remember the.. there was no cymbals on the drums, I was like: ‘This is my dream come true!’ It sounded so listenable, you know!