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Symbiosis: The Art + Science of Audio Mastering
Audio mastering. The finishing touch. The final step before the distribution of a song to the masses. At its core, mastering is about finality; cohesiveness, balance, and consistency. After all the individual tracks are finished and the mix is completed, the mix engineer will provide a stereo track to the mastering engineer. From there, the mastering engineer will finesse and tweak the song using compression, EQ, etc. to get the cohesion and balance necessary for album or single song distribution!
The newest featured guest on Zodisms is Adam Grover: Mastering Engineer at the famed Sterling Sound in Nashville, Tennessee.
Zodlounge has been utilizing Adam’s ear and expertise for well over a year now, and we just keep coming back to him and Sterling. I was able to get some really interesting information from Adam, the mastering process, and his personal journey into the world of audio mastering.
— INTERVIEW —
ZOD: Tell me a little bit about Sterling Sound: what the mission is, and what your role is in the company.
AG: Sterling Sound has been around for over 50 years and is one of the top mastering facilities in the world located in Nashville, TN and Edgewater, NJ. We are comprised of 13 mastering engineers with a supportive staff of technicians, operations, and project managers spread across the globe. Our goal is to provide clients with reliable, consistent, world class masters complimented by our exceptional customer service. As a mastering engineer at Sterling Sound, I aim to bring out the best qualities of the recording and present them in a way that uplifts the music and creates something special for the listener.
ZOD: Explain to me what mastering is, generally, and then expound on your personal workflow and a “day in the studio”.
AG: The role of a mastering engineer varies project-to-project. We are essentially taking something that has been finished by the mix engineer and then adding to the production using EQ, compression, limiting and other tools in creative ways to deliver a product that is commercially acceptable. For instance, you can’t have a hip-hop record with a weak low end. You can’t have rock without a good punch. And you can’t have a country record with bad vocals. We provide the mix engineers and producers with checks and balances to make sure the mix they have been working on will stand up against other commercial releases and will translate well to multiple listening environments. In some ways, it is like photoshop for audio. The subject matter is predetermined and we go in to do touch up work. Sometimes the sonic change from mix to master is vastly different, sometimes it is not. It all depends on what the mix sounds like coming in. When starting on a mix, I have nothing enabled. I just want to listen to the song and get a feel for the production before introducing any tools. Finding the right limiter or signal path for the job is the most crucial step for me. So I spend a lot of time A/Bing multiple signal paths until the clear winner is heard. I’ll then compare the track to other releases that are in the ballpark of the production or other releases by that artist. When that sweet spot is found, there is usually nothing I can do within a couple tenths of a dB that can improve the track. That’s when I know it is ready.
ZOD: Tell me about your journey to Sterling Sound. Where are you from? And when did you first realize that you wanted to work in the music industry on the creative/technical side?
AG: I grew up in Virginia Beach, VA. Music started for me when I went to a Peter Frampton concert around the age of 7. A woman ran up on stage and took her shirt off while Peter played “Do You Feel Like We Do” – I knew from that moment on that I wanted to work in music. I started playing guitar a few years later, self-taught since we couldn’t afford lessons. I listened to a lot of Black Sabbath, Metallica, Pink Floyd and Metallica at the time. I watched MTV religiously to keep up with local music icons like N.E.R.D, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Clipse. They were looked at as legends in middle school. We would have beat battles on the lunch table using our fist for the bass and a pencil for the hi-hat/snare. When The Neptunes and Clipse dropped “Grindin”, everyone was banging that on the lunch table for the rest of the year. It drove the teachers crazy! haha!
My best friend’s mom had the hookup for free VIP tickets at the local venue, The Norva. We went to see a lot of crazy shows; Saosin, All That Remains, Norma Jean, Kottonmouth Kings, Cypress Hill, Children of Bodom, Avenged Sevenfold, Streetlight Manifesto, and many others. I was even kicked out of the venue on my 16th birthday for crowd-surfing. I remember on more than one occasion that the bands would thank the Front-Of-House engineers and venue for providing them with such great sound. That really stuck with me so I became committed to be the guy that provided bands with a “good sound”.
I started to play French Horn in middle school and I started taking it more seriously in high school. I attended an arts high school program called the Governor’s School for the Arts. That program really positioned me to get into college. It was there that I learned about the various music production college courses. I later went on to study Music Production and Technology with an emphasis on French Horn Performance at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT.
After college I landed a gig working with Andrew Mendelson at Georgetown Masters on Music Row. We mastered records for artists such as Kenny Chesney, Willie Nelson, Kacey Musgraves, Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Dan + Shay and many others.
In 2017 I learned of Sterling Sound’s plan to open a facility in Nashville. Ted Jensen needed a project manager, but I was also an engineer. We were able to work out a situation where I could manage Ted’s bookings during the day and master records at night and on the weekends. After working in that role for two years, I moved on to full time mastering.
ZOD: Zodlounge loves hiring you and Sterling for the vast majority of their mastering needs. How has the relationship between you and Zod been? And why has it been so seamless, both creatively and technically?!
AG: When pulling up a song to master, I’m listening for that secret sauce in the track that I can highlight and bring forth in the production. Sometimes it is the drum groove, the sound of the kick, the bass line, or the vocal performance. Something that is interesting in the production that I can highlight and use to pull in the listener. Whenever I pull up a track from Zodlounge, the direction I need to take the song is always a clear choice. You guys do an excellent job making great songs into stellar productions. Zod does this seamlessly across multiple genres, too. We’ve worked on R&B, hip-hop, rock, indie rock, country, pop and other genres together and I’m blown away how you guys are able to shift gears and chameleon over to another genre and really nail “that sound” for each genre. Brett, Tom, Aaron and Paige are also some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in Nashville. I think our friendship has allowed us to be open about the mixing and mastering stages and have constructive conversations about the art we create to be sure we are making something timeless each and every time. You guys really care about your craft and the people that create art in the community and I love you all for sharing that energy with those around you.
Today, we are going to dive in and learn about one of these companies in particular:
“Chandler Limited was founded a little over 20 years ago by our Chief Designer, Wade Goeke. While Wade’s journey into audio electronics dates much earlier, the beginnings of Chandler Limited as a company began by him building gear out of a closet in a rented house while living and working in Los Angeles. The first units were the LTD-1 EQ/Preamp and LTD-2 Compressor, and as Wade sold his first units, word spread fast amongst the cognoscenti of the recording industry and the company was born. With potential being shown, it can’t be stressed enough how supportive and nurturing Wade’s parents were in helping him get Chandler Limited off the ground. It’s interesting to note, the next ‘guidepost moment’ in the Chandler Limited story—which came quickly— was the introduction of the first EMI / Abbey Road Studios unit, the TG1 Limiter. A TG1 Limiter made its way to the iconic Olympic Studios in the U.K. and into the hands of its well-known producer and engineer. At about this time, EMI had purchased Olympic Studios, and staff from Abbey Road Studios went to visit the newly acquired studio, while there, the team noticed the TG1 in the rack and Spike—the proud owner of his TG1—spoke highly of it to the team. The Abbey Road team were impressed, however, since EMI had long since stopped producing its own equipment, back in 1974—keep in mind, none of it was ever built for sale to the public— it was perplexing to see this new unit. This event became the catalyst for the Chandler Limited and EMI / Abbey Road Studios relationship, and the equipment Wade is designing and we are building has extended the legacy begun by EMI engineers dating back to the 1930s, to this day.”
Q: You’ve been utilizing the Chandler REDD for going on two years now. What do you like so much about the mic, particularly on vocals?
Tom: I love how the low end punches and the top end isn’t harsh. It’s hard to achieve one without the other and the REDD does this. The built in preamp is also a great feature. I almost always run it straight to the compressor out of the mic. It sounds great on male or female vocals and you can really drive it to give it some edge.
Q: You don’t use this microphone only for vocals. What are some of your favorite applications for this mic?
Tom: My favorite use is as a mono room mic for drums. I set it in the middle of the room in omni mode and run that through the TubeTech CL1B Compressor. It adds a nice warm ambience to the drum mix. It’s also great on violin and cello. You need one great mic and I can think of no better than the REDD.
Q: Out of the numerous songs you’ve cut using the REDD, can you recommend one or two the reader should check out?
Tom: Check out “Bang” by TAELA for a female pop vocal.
For a male pop vocal check out “Here and Now” by Buddy Wright (Releasing May 8th).
For a more classic, intimate vocal listen to “Undertow” on the Zodlounge Spotify channel. A lot of great artists will be posted there with REDD all over those recordings.
Q: Have you used any of Chandler’s other gear (hardware or software)? If so, what stands out to you the most?
Tom: I am in love with the UA Chandler Zener Limiter plug-in! The Germanium preamp is one of my favorites.
Our last Zodisms guest, TJ Bechill of NEAT Audio, sold us the mic a couple of years ago. He had something to say about the Chandler REDD that stood out to me when talking to him. He said, “I just know that the REDD is a mic that every studio owner, producer, and engineer would want to have in their possession.”
You can find Chandler’s awesome products at www.chandlerlimited.com.
They sell their gear at Vintage King, Sweetwater, and many other pro audio retailers.
You can find these songs and links at www.zodlounge.com and follow “Zodlounge” on Spotify! Hit us up for an awesome experience with the REDD at 615-491-7053!
Zodlounge is going to bring new content in the form of interviews, blogs, and excerpts to their site for our readers and clients’ perusal. This is our inaugural post. Please share!
Most people have no idea how much preparation, planning, and hard work goes on behind-the-scenes within the music industry. From creative writing and studio work to record deals, gear, crews and touring, there are so many fluid, moving parts going on at once that one could not possibly see what truly transpires to get an act from studio to stage. Most often, people see point A and/or Point B, not the actual journey it took to get from one to the other. This is the proverbial “dirty work” that nobody notices. And this “dirty work” is crucial.
Each artist/act/band is different. They took a different path, even if just a slight variation from another. In the truest sense of the phrase, there’s not just one way to go about it.
There are three foundational necessities when it comes to putting on a show:
1) The Act
2) The Fan
3) The Gear
Conceptually, it is simple. Gear is the lifeblood of the show. Gear is what connects the artist to the fan.
Today, we are introducing TJ Bechill. He is owner and lead technician of NEAT Audio (Next Era Audio Technologies), here to discuss what standard gear is needed to put on a great show and how he blends tried-and-true tricks of the trade with new, ever-evolving technology to bring an artists’ show to life and connect them to their fans.
ZOD: TJ, tell us a little bit about what got you into audio in the first place.
TJ: It started with a love affair with music. My dad and uncle loved hi-fi stereo systems back when I was a kid. I focused on the bass when I was a young kid. We had these large-format speakers that put out a lot of energy. For you HIFI nerds out there, my favorite set of speakers were my uncles 2 pair of Infinity RS4.5. Later on, I started playing in bands and because my family was musical, there were instruments around the house. My parents really fueled it all. I ended up going to college for Music Technology at University of Saint Francis. After graduating, I started working at Sweetwater as a Sales Engineer.
ZOD: So, after years at Sweetwater where you built relationships with acts like Twenty One Pilots, Shinedown, and Bleachers/Jack Antonoff – you decided to branch out and create NEAT Audio LLC. Tell us a little bit about why and about what NEAT does.
TJ: NEAT builds playback rigs, wireless rigs, tour automation, and sells & installs studio gear as well. I started doing these sorts of things at Sweetwater, and it got to a point where I was needed on the road more and more. So, I decided to start NEAT and be available for acts anywhere in the country for anything they’d need… 24/7.
ZOD: It seems you navigate an ever-changing branch of the music industry. Any working artist has the potential to use pretty much everything you sell and install, correct? What are the basics that a new touring artist should be prepared for?
TJ: Control your controllables. Focus first on the things that can make your performance better. An in-ear split rig for monitoring is a necessity for performance and connecting to the artist. Playback rigs are used to supplement tracks from an album that cannot be replicated live without major headaches or hiring more players and crew. This gives the fans what they want and what they heard on your last album that then brought them out to your show.
ZOD: How does NEAT’s business model intersect with what Zodlounge does? They seem like two very different worlds, but do they work in conjunction with one another?
TJ: NEAT and Zodlounge have collaborated on everything from finding the correct studio gear to building playback and in-ear rigs for artists Zod has produced. Working hand-in-hand allows NEAT and Zodlounge to create a bridge between studio and live applications, seamlessly.
ZOD: What’s your favorite band?
TJ: Don’t go there. I have too many clients! Just kidding, I don’t really have an answer but my listening is greatly dictated by my mood.
NEAT deals in a vast array of studio and touring gear, and TJ’s 24/7 approach to servicing the artist is a breath of fresh air and stress-reliever in one of the most volatile aspects of the music business.
Contact TJ Bechill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 260-415-2563 for quotes and questions you may have regarding your live show setup! Mention this article to Zodlounge or TJ and receive a day-rate discount on NEAT Audio services.