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.