When interviewing mastering engineer Chris Waite as part of my Industry Study assignment, I threw in some more technical questions to include in this project. Chris works mainly in traditional and jazz music genres, which is an arm of mastering where online forums and interviews are less fruitful than others.
Included below is the full email interview, however, there are just a couple of points I'd like to discuss in this article and ones which I'll certainly carry into my own mastering.
Firstly Chris' statement regarding not reinventing the wheel when it comes to mastering could well be a useful thing to keep in mind, particularly in the trad genre. The idea of being on friendly terms with the mixing engineers your working for is something which could be easily achieved given the tight knit community within Glasgow and Scotland as a whole. Engineers regularly master mixes for one and other and vice versa. This relationship can then allow you to produce a better end result. If you notice something which should really be a mixing problem, then you're able to have it changed by the mix engineer (within reason) whereas in other genres where the mastering engineer may not know the client or the mix engineer, they might be more tempted to work with what's there and 'do the best they can' so to speak.
Other points I found interesting include his approach to mastering Traditional Music and Final Levels. He describes how many modern traditional recordings aren't particularly natural, often featuring sub bass and heavy percussion and explains that treating this type of music as you would a string quartet would not serve the track as best it could. He also mentions that in his experience with jazz albums in particular that some tracks suit adding size and weight where others warrant the invisible approach. This is something I experimented with in my own mastering over the course of this ASP module and the result can be found in my audio mastering examples. Chris' comments regarding final levels were also intriguing to me. He said "I get the track to sound good for the track and if that’s at -15 or -10 in my opinion it doesn’t matter as that’s not why that was done". With so much talk regarding optimal levels for streaming platforms/digital distribution these days and the magic -14 LUFS number, this surprised me somewhat. While of course I'd expect Chris not to shoot for 'loudness war' levels and in general be an advocate for dynamic range, I found this approach quite refreshing although I'm not sure I'd be brave enough to let something out the door at -15 in the current climate.
Q: Anything you've learned with experience that you wish you'd know when starting out?
A:Don’t try and reinvent the wheel if there are faults with the mix get that fixed in the mix. This is easier when you have regular clients which brings me on to my next point. Get pally with the engineers and artists you work for. Find out how they work so if an issue ever arises you can say, for example, “try putting the side chain on your stereo buss compressor for this track.
Q: Are you always mastering on speakers in the same studio? Would you ever consider mastering at home for example?
A: Always. The variable in the mastering stage is the source. So by keeping the listening environment the same with are able to objectively judge the source. The monitors I use (barefoot mm45s) have a feature they call MEME that elmulates and NS10, an auratone or a high end hifi speaker. I never touch them in a mastering session even though they are very useful for mixing and tracking. If I’m listening out for clicks and pops i may use a set of headphones but thats it
Q: Do you master mostly in the box or out the box? What do you go OTB for?
A: Im in the box. I had a couple of outboard pieces years ago but I preferred the UAD plugins and I can, and often do automate EQ moves. I am however keen to get some kind of valve coloration uint for mixes that come in a little cold or brittle but as I mentioned earlier I doubt believe a rack of expensive stuff will do the job for me and if i do break out of the box again it’ll be to address a problem rather than just looking “super dope” on instagram!
Q: How does your approach differ when mastering traditional music as opposed to other genres?
A: Not really for the genre to be honest as trad music has so many facets now. I feel we cannot treat a banging set of reels with sub synths and heavy bodhran/percussion as acoustic. Even the way acoustic guitars or pianos are tracked and processed these days isn’t particularly natural and i like it. So at mastering to treat a track like that as you would a string quartet recording wouldn’t serve the track as best it could. However, certain tracks, think Duncan Chisholm slow air or a Gaelic song do not need excessive limiting and level. It’s a case by case thing. If found with jazz albums there will be some tracks that will suit adding size and weight and others that want the invisible approach. The his is another instance where a relationship with the mixer is always handy. Today I worked on a track where the mixer said “you can really go for it in this one” and “the artist thinks the bottom end is too big” so I have a green light to add some flavours I believe to suit the source and I can take the low end if it needed.
Q:How do you approach final levels when mastering trad music? Do you ever send streaming versions? or does one version go to all platforms?
A: I never shoot for an lufs number. And going for loud is only to suit the source. I would say I’m a fairly gentle mastering engineer when it comes to levels and I have little interest in slamming a track to get it loud. I will slam a track if it’s necessary though but nowhere near some of the levels we have experienced during the peak of the loudness wars. I get the track to sound good for the track and if that’s at -15 or -10 in my opinion it doesn’t matter as that’s not why that was done.
I’ve never needed to do a streaming version. The only times I’ve done alternate versions has been for vinyl pressings where I will back off the limiter if needed- which isn’t every time. I’ve had albums where the same version went on cd as vinyl as it didn’t feel right with excessive limiting.
Q: Which DAW do you work in?
A: Protools but very very slowing migrating to wavelab. It’s totally different and I’m not clever enough!