JML Mastering

Q&A

What music you were exposed to growing up?

Capital Radio and Radio 1 were always playing in the kitchen when I was young, so I was exposed to contemporary ‘70s music from an early age! More importantly, I was always exposed to music. My mum had several Van Morrison LPs in her record collection. My dad preferred classical and jazz, but he did have a soft spot for ABBA too!

As for me, I was a massive Beatles fan from the word go. Once I had saved enough pocket money to buy each and every Beatles LP, one by one, over many years, I moved on to ELO, Bowie & Clapton (in that order!).

As a scarily-dressed teenager, I went to gigs to see bands like U2, Depeche Mode, The Alarm at Hammersmith Palais, The Smiths at the Lyceum, with Billy Bragg supporting. I was even lucky enough to be at Wembley Stadium for the Live Aid concert. You can clearly spot me in the crowd during Elvis Costello's set. Looking gormless, I might add, but what a truly amazing day! I was so thrilled when I was given the job of co-mastering it at Metropolis with my colleague Twig. 

Really, I guess the ABBA thing and '80s music in general definitely rubbed off on me - I’ve always been a sucker for a decent bit of pop!

And your musical background. You were playing in bands in Colorado? Can you tell us something about the experience?

Yes, I played guitar & sang in bands from my school days. So, by the time I got to university, the band scene was just something I gravitated towards by instinct. I played guitar and sang back-ups in a band.

Once I graduated, I ended up following the drummer back to his hometown of Boulder in Colorado to start another band over there. I was the singer and rhythm guitarist.

We mainly played covers, but I’d chuck a couple of my own tunes into the set to see if anyone in the audience complained! We’d play gigs in the evening and I’d moonlight as a laundromat attendant by day. Fun times!

Could you tell us a little about your time working at BBC Radio 1?

I was just back from several months in the States, a bit disillusioned with the band thing. We weren’t on track to become mega-rich rock stars anytime soon, so time for a reality check!

Anyway, Radio 1 was my first real job after university. My job title was Messenger & my role was to distribute promotional stuff to the DJs & their producers. It sounds insignificant, but I soon realized I was someone the record pluggers really wanted to get on the right side of. I was their go-between!

As a result, my record collection started to grow and grow with an endless stream of promo CDs, plus I was being invited to lunchtime showcases and evening gigs most days of the week. The perks of that job were fantastic!

After a few months as the Radio 1 Messenger, it was time to let someone else enjoy life in the fast lane!

More often than not, pro mastering engineers begin as mixing engineers. Did you work as one at Metropolis before moving into mastering? 

Not at Metropolis, no. But I did start my studio career as a mixing engineer. I was hired by the production music library Soundstage, which had a 24-track studio with a very nice big live room.

I learnt a lot there, on the job, and I learnt very quickly, due to the sheer diversity of music genres coming through that studio. One day I'd be recording & mixing an opera singer, another day I’d be recording & mixing a piano recital, string quartet, or jazz band, or stripping off stereo pairs from an Akai sampler for a dance track. I played guitar on a few tracks and even composed a couple too.

As well as recording and mixing all the studio output, I was editing & compiling the tracks for the company’s CD releases, as well as editing them into stings and jingles. I got pretty darn good at editing as a result! I also started EQing and compressing my mixes after a while. I guess you could say I got my first taste of mastering at Soundstage.

I joined Metropolis as an editor in 1996, but soon progressed to become a mastering engineer in my own right. My mastering room at Metropolis was equipped for EQ'ing both stereo & 5.1 surround, using analogue or digital paths, as well as vinyl cutting on a Neumann VMS 80 lathe.

Could you explain some of the differences between mastering for MP3, CD and Vinyl?

Well, when I was a mastering engineer at Metropolis in the mid to late ‘90s & early ‘00s, mastering for MP3 didn’t enter into the equation at all. The majority of the material I worked on was destined for CD release and mastered solely with that in mind.

If the tracks were destined for vinyl release as well as CD, we would cut the lacquers directly from the full resolution EQ’d masters, but always modify the source according to the limitations of vinyl. The level would always be dropped by a few dBs to an acceptable level for cutting. High-pass and low-pass filters were usually put in place, as well as HF limiting to stop distortion. If space was tight on the lacquer, or a track had a particularly stereo low end, we’d add an elliptical equalizer into the signal path to narrow the stereo below certain frequencies. That was how we did things.

These days, mastering for MP3, AAC & other lossy formats is commonplace, so there are considerations to be made. When mastering for iTunes or SoundCloud, for example, it’s important to keep the files at full resolution throughout, without any conversions, as well as leave enough headroom to reduce the risk of clipping when the processing takes place.

Ultimately, I remain mindful that the tracks need to sound great on the widest possible range of playback systems. But, then again, that’s really always been the aim of a mastering engineer, hasn’t it?

Does radio format require it’s own master, ideally?

Not if you’ve mastered it at a sensible level in the first place, in my experience. Bearing in mind that radio stations add their own compression for broadcast, overly loud & heavily compressed masters can just get excessively squashed on the radio and deteriorate in listenability as a result.

But, to answer your question, less bassy radio mixes and quieter production masters with less compression and limiting are not unheard of.

Have you ever had to send back mixes because they weren’t cutting it?

Yes, I’ve definitely suggested to clients that remixing the track might be a wise idea, rather than attempting to fix a mix in mastering.

Depending on the actual problem, a client may have far more success by revisiting the multi-track, rather than trying to achieve a compromise by doing it in the stereo world.

That said, if remixing isn’t an option, I’m totally happy to work with what I’ve got.

The loudness wars seem to have reached peak loudness. Thoughts on its direction?

Things have definitely calmed down a lot compared to the mid-90s when I first joined Metropolis. Back then, it seemed everyone was after ridiculously loud masters.

These days, I master at more conservative levels. Some clients still do ask me if I can go louder and of course I will, if that’s what they’re after.

It’s important to understand that there are certain genres of music that just have to be super-loud. Try giving a quiet master to a Trap music artist! He’ll just go and find another engineer! So, yes, I can go really loud, if that’s what the client wants...

On the whole, though, I think lots of stuff is being mastered at more sensible levels nowadays and really sounds better as a consequence.

Many new artists that are producing themselves attempt to master their own material. What are the dangers with this?

I just think there comes a point when you can’t see the wood for the trees.

A mastering engineer brings a different perspective and a much needed objective approach to any recording, not to mention a specialized skill. It’s as simple as that.

Do you prefer notes or guidance from the artist before starting on each track or album?

Not really, but I’m totally happy to aim towards a specific sound or feel, if my clients have one in mind.

Usually, I just take a track where my gut feel leads me, then get feedback from clients after my initial EQ. I may hit on a sonic direction they hadn’t considered before; or I may just be barking up the wrong tree! We always get there in the end, though, one way or another...

Can you name some records that have really impressed you with its mastering that you almost wish you’d cut that?

“Uptown Funk” is a great example of a recent well-mastered record, in my opinion. It was mastered at a relatively modest level, so it still retains a refreshing amount of dynamics and energy. It just sounds fantastic on the radio as a result!

Most memorable sessions you’ve worked on?

Most of my memorable sessions are memorable for the wrong reasons! Like a confrontation with a well-known drum & bass artist one night! I politely ushered him out of the studio in the end, while he ranted & raved like a prima donna!

Other memorable sessions include my first encounter with a mainstream artist. Everyone has to get star-struck once in a while, don’t they?

These days, I work alone from my home studio, unattended & undistracted, so I am spared all the excitement of my formative rock ‘n’ roll years at Metropolis!

Thoughts on digital streaming and its effect on the industry?

I think it’s brilliant and I’ve embraced it wholeheartedly. For the consumer, what’s not to like? Portable music, wherever & whenever!

Artists need to embrace it too, since it’s the way their audiences are choosing to listen to music these days. The popularity of streaming is growing and growing and not going to go away. Music streaming companies just need to ensure both the artist’s & consumer’s needs are taken into consideration and catered for.

As a mastering engineer, the limitations of compressed formats present new challenges. I’m conscious of them and trying to progress with them, just as the quality of music streaming is progressing too.

Why would someone come to you, rather than work with engineers at big studios?

I guess convenience, competitive pricing, and a quick turnaround has to be a major plus point to the mastering service I offer.

I can’t boast racks & racks of gear like the big studios can. Instead, I prefer to stick to a select range of mastering tools I trust. By narrowing down the choice element, I can just get on with the task in hand, using what I know and like, and get great results quickly, without faffing about.

Most importantly, I can offer over 20 years’ experience in the world of mastering and can assure my clients they’ll end up with professional masters they can be proud of!

The limitations of compressed formats present new challenges. I’m conscious of them and trying to progress with them, just as the quality of music streaming is progressing too.