Photo: Tearle Ashby
Andy VanDette is a busy, A-list, mastering engineer at the Engine Room studio in New York City, and in his own operation, Andy VanDette Mastering. He’s mastered some legendary titles ranging from the re-mastered Rush catalog to Porcupine Tree’s biggest titles to major rock and pop records and concert videos from the likes of Dream Theater, David Bowie, and Whitney Houston. Suffice to say he’s got the right creds to talk about quality record mastering.
Unlike typical mastering engineers, VanDette is also sought for a nearly-lost skill: he masters and cuts vinyl! With the resurgence of vinyl as an audiophile’s desired listening medium, he’s probably busier mastering for vinyl today than over the past two decades in their entirety.
“I refuse to master specifically for ear buds.”
MPc: How did you get into mastering?
AVD: It was mastering Kid Rock’s Devil Without a Cause that connected me to Andy Karp at Atlantic Records. Tony Dawsey mastered the “street” version of the album. When the album started blowing up, the label had nothing they could play on the radio, and Tony was busy. I got to work through the album with Andy. By the time he listened to my rambling stream of consciousness, he thought I knew something about mastering [laughs], and was kind enough to throw my name into the ring any time a project didn’t have a hard core mastering direction. Through that association, I got to master some historic projects…. Simple Plan, Rush, Uncle Kracker, and lots of other great records.
I had attended a “Recording School”—SUNY Fredonia—during the analog recording heyday, primarily to record my original music. As graduation approached, reality started setting in. Masterdisk’s chief engineer at the time, Bob Ludwig, was part owner of a recording studio in Port Jefferson, Long Island—Boogie Hotel. It had been owned by the ‘70s mega-band, Foghat. I came to meet him during at the Audio Engineering Society convention in 1983.
I had never met anyone like Bob. He was using two lathes to cut two master lacquers simultaneously, while adjusting the gear, taking phone calls, and talking to me. I was blown away. When we finished our meeting, he agreed to introduce me to Boogie Hotel’s studio manager, and added “But why don’t you want to do your internship here?” I was awestruck. We arranged for me to intern at Masterdisk, Monday through Friday. Then, at Boogie Hotel on weekends.
Well, Boogie Hotel never happened, but I settled into Masterdisk’s tape library and got busy. By the end of the summer, I had enough of mastering. "Two tracks? Stereo left and right? Thats all I get?” I thought, “That’s not enough for me… I am a musician… born to program the flying faders.” Long story short, after a couple bad gigs out of college, when Masterdisk called and offered me the receptionist position, I jumped at the chance. Over a few years, Bob’s production engineer, Alan Moy, taught me how to read Bob’s notes and cut vinyl. Tony Dawsey let me use his studio mornings, nights, and weekends to build up a mastering clientele.
MPc: Andy, let’s start with the most fundamental question about mastering: art or science?
AVD: Or Neither? [laughs] Somedays… I would say it is much more science, if there is vinyl cutting involved. With CD mastering you just have to make it sound good. You are not limited by the physics of creating a groove that can be played back by a consumer’s needle. And that’s a big wild card. You don’t really want to engineer a production for a crappy cartridge at the end of your project. For CDs today, I refuse to master specifically for ear buds. They give me no musical satisfaction. If you listen on those, you are not really a music fan.
I have had producers insist I do that; the result is a project so pre-emphasized with low frequency that it is unlistenable in my car. At the same time, I do know when I master a project, adding as much low end as possible, will help it “travel well” to other monitoring environments with limited LF response. Directly opposite of mastering in the vinyl heyday, when hiding as much high frequency as possible was the goal.
“Analog processing on loud mixes tends to soften the transients
and diminish the definition.”
MPc: We mix in a studio at a mix desk but master in a mastering lab. Can you tell us about some of the key differences between the typical mix environment vs. your mastering lab, in terms of both the construction of the room as well as the main tools you use? Related to that, how much of what you do when mastering relies upon outboard gear vs. working in the box?
AVD: I would say mastering studios are much less of a “lab” then they used to be. Maintaining a cutting lathe requires a more lab-like environment to keep it clean and free from external vibration. Mix rooms have more of a ”studio” feel to them. The mastering rooms I have worked in felt much more like a super-cool living room. Of course it is great to have some of the characteristics of a mix studio in mind. Floating the floors reduces noise from the spaces around it. The mastering studios I have worked in all had parallel walls, just like you would find in a living room.
Difficult to say about processing. Every mix is different. Generally speaking, the louder the mix is when I receive it, the greater the chance that I will choose digital processing. Analog processing on loud mixes tends to soften the transients and diminish the definition. I am a big fan of all things Sontec, Manley, Tubetech, Dangerous. I am currently using a Forssell A/D, D/A with Sequoia DAW. I master everything at its native sample rate, and then SRC for what ever is needed before the final limiter. This gives me an extra set of high bit rate, high bit depth, less limited masters for vinyl cutting. On the digital side, I love all things Weiss, UAD, SPL/Brainworx/Plug-in Alliance, Sonnox, Slate, along with the biggest (and 100% legal) Waves bundle you can afford.
Photo: Alex English
MPc: What are your thoughts on the whole “Loudness Wars” thing? Is it finally behind us? And what role did you have in it, or not? [laughs]
AVD: [laughs] Hahahaha. Behind us? I wish. Although I am seeing the new standards and tools to turn down the outrageously loud recordings so lower level recording can compete. That’s a little unfair to us that work hard to make music clean, clear and loud. Will you enable it on your listening device? Mastering has always been a loudness war—even in the vinyl heyday. The Neumann SX-74 butterhead set a new standard because it enabled cutting 20% more HF on a disk without distorting.
I believe my masters are a contemporary kind of loud, not cutting-edge loud. They compete well within their genre, but not above and beyond. Some clients push me beyond what I believe is tasteful. So be it. At the end of the day, it is their album. Anyone that thinks I can dictate to them, to lower the level, is crazy. I find gigs go better when you never tell the client “No.” The mastering engineer that tries to convince a client that lower/less bright is better, is the mastering engineer that doesn’t get the gig.
MPc: Do you create separate masters for different distribution platforms such as for CD, or for MP3, streaming, or vinyl? What are the considerations? And what do you recommend for indie artists who maybe can’t afford to have four or five different masters?
AVD: No one can afford to master for four different formats. Sad but true, that the vinyl is usually cut from the 44.1K/16-bit CD master. Of course I have some vinyl-specific tools to help “shoehorn” the music onto that medium, like de-essers and elliptical equalizers. As far as data-compressed formats, most clients don’t have the budget to master specifically for them as well. Apple’s tool kit for Mastered for iTunes was a major advance in production flow. Before that, we had to use two command-line driven procedures. One small syntax error and it would all crash. We were not able to hear the before encode and after in real time. One mastering engineer described the original technique "like polishing your BMW in the dark, then turning the lights on to see where you missed."
You should read the Apple iTunes mastering documentation. It is pretty accurate. Then, you can weigh out the reality of maintaining 1dB of headroom to avoid intersample distortion, and techniques for making up that 1dB. I spent hours listening to the Rush catalog, comparing my AAC encodes to the CD masters. I have a couple of techniques for making them sound more like the CD, but you have to be my intern to get them out of me. [laughs]
“All the lathes out there are now at least thirty years old!”
MPc: You’ve become the go-to guy for mastering releases for progressive rock artists. Are you a fan of the genre?
AVD: YES! I could not be happier. I like many genres of music. I was a classically trained trombonist, and bass player/vocalist in bands through high school. When I got to college, I joined a band that had a bass player that could slap circles around me (I just mastered his album, check out TearleAshby.com) so I picked up a guitar and keyboard rig, and hacked my way through our strange mix of covers by Genesis, Yes “Tempus Fugit," UK “In the Dead of Night,” lots of Rush, King Crimson ”Frame By Frame,” Thomas Dolby “White City,” some top 40 for the ladies, and some originals.
MPc: A lot of what you’ve mastered lately has been re-mastering of pretty classic material, like most of Rush’s back catalog. What’s wrong with the old red-book masters besides being a bit quiet compared to current releases?
AVD: Specifically with Rush… I had listened to the 1997 remasters for years. My goal wasn’t to make them louder, but less compressed sounding and a little warmer. With most listeners hearing those classic recordings on laptops other LF challenged devices, I wanted a little more thump down low. I also thought some were always loud all the time. I hope my mastering let the verses take a step back, so that the choruses could be a "step up" dynamically from the verses.
MPc: What percentage of mastering sessions are attended vs. unattended? Do you have a preference work-wise? And how long does it typically take to master a pop or rock record with eight to ten songs?
AVD: I enjoy client-attended sessions, but almost all my sessions are unattended. Much of my clientele is international. With fast Internet access, I think it is better for most people to save the travel expense and check out the reference WAV files I send them in their favorite listening environment, rather than sitting in the session, out of the sweet spot.
It typically takes me six to eight hours to master a ten-song album. Then I like to review it on fresh ears the next morning in my car on the way back to the studio to make sure all the parts fit together as intended.
“If your mix is bashing the top of the digital scale constantly,
you are distorting your stereo bus.”
MPc: You’re one of the few guys who still knows how to cut vinyl. How does one truly “make a record,” and have you been overwhelmed with requests for vinyl work lately?
AVD: I am cutting more vinyl than when I was at my last studio, but I think many clients cheap out on vinyl cutting. They don’t understand that all the lathes out there are now at least thirty years old! The Neumann VMS-82 lathe arrived at my old studio two months before I did in 1985! Just like with a car that is thirty plus years old, it might look good, but what is under the hood is equally important. I am lucky enough to cut everything at Taloowa. I have always said, “If anyone knows what I need better than I do, it’s Chris Muth.” I worked with Chris before he went on to become product designer at Dangerous Music. Being a musician, he has a much greater sense of what sounds good—not just what specs looks good on paper. He has to keep his lathe in pristine condition, to help him troubleshoot and fix other lathes around the world. Other studios are keeping their classics together with chewing gum and duct tape because of restriction on their budget or access to parts. Taloowa probably has the best sounding lathe in the USA, if not the world.
To make a good vinyl transfer, a recording needs to have open but controlled top end, because of the way the RIAA pre-emphasis/de-emphasis curves work, and mono LF phase below 100Hz so the needle won’t skip.
Photo: Drew Raison
MPc: A big trend we’ve noticed in mixing is the application of mix bus compression prior to mastering. Many mix engineers insist that compression across the master bus becomes an integrated part of the sound of their mixes. How has this impacted your job as a mastering engineer, and what advice do you have for mix engineers so that they can achieve their artistic goals and still leave you room to work in the mastering lab?
AVD: Keep in mind that the mixes I heard from Chris Lord Alge, Andy Wallace, John O’Mahony, Steve Hardy, and Mike Ferretti all have their signature compression on them, but were not bashing the top of the digital scale constantly. This leaves me the headroom I need to maybe tweak the LF up or down to match the other mixes on the album. I do not think tasteful compression is an issue. The issue comes with mixes being delivered for mastering at CD level. If your mix is bashing the top of the digital scale constantly, you are distorting your stereo bus.
Brick wall limiting should only happen to a mix once. Re-squaring the square waves always makes the fur on the back of my neck stand up. I know there will be artifacts when I am forced to do that. I totally understand that mix engineers want to deliver a mix to their clients that will compare favorably to CDs that their clients will compare their mix to. Make additional versions of the mix without that for mastering. If it turns out that you are the god of L1, I will gladly use it, but chances are I have something better.
Want Andy VanDette to master your next project? Reach him directly at email@example.com.
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