Adam Dempsey on Audio Mastering
Adam Dempsey has been mastering for over 25 years and offers some insight to what many find a mysterious craft. He has written a great article clarifying some myths regarding mastering focusing in on the misconception that mastering makes things loud. Adam currently works from Jack The Bears studio, Deluxe Mastering in Brunswick, Melbourne. He took some time out of a busy studio schedule to answer some questions regarding audio mastering.
1. What is your background and how did you get into the business?
I’d always been involved with music or toying with tape machines, and initially fell into mastering, seeing it as a means of getting into studio mixing. I soon relished its subtleties, attention to detail and the “celebratory” aspect of helping the final completion of an artist’s work.
In the 80’s I got a start volunteering with a local radio station, then some mobile DJ work, played drums in bands amidst live mixing, being a farm hand and kitchen hand, some casual work as a boom mic operator, some study and volunteering at RMIT’s student radio SRA (now SYN FM). I then found myself landing a job mastering for cassette tapes, running two rooms. You’d get one room running (recording via graphic EQ to 1/4″ tape) then get the other room, monitoring off DAT sources. You dared not leave the room in case of missing a digital glitch, and if there was one – start again! Quality control as inherent in mastering was (and is) paramount. EQ’ing so that the transfer best suited cassette was a craft, too.
Within a year I was mastering for CDs and having to learn to work a computer (Sonic Solutions – the first dedicated mastering DAW) rather than splicing tapes! We were the first place in town where you could get a CD burnt and blank discs cost $30 each. Still, it was better than running CD Masters to U-matic video tape (the original Sony CD master standard known as PCM 1630) and testing for the error rate to be within specs.
I’d known Jack (Tony) from when he was at Sing Sing studios and I’d bring in the odd tape machine if he was hiring one, and when he built the studio in Brunswick we teamed up and it’s just great working in a dedicated facility.
2. What do you think is a huge misconception about the mastering process?
That it’s some kind of “fixed” process left up to the mastering engineer, involving making things wide and as loud as possible, or “radio ready”, or that an artist needn’t be involved in the process. It’s a constant education about such myths and we’re more than happy to shed light on those because it helps with the final result. Believe me, while mastering is craft of experience and listening skills it’s no more a “black art” than, say (from the view of someone who’s not a mechanic) taking an engine apart and putting it back together.
3. What is your philosophy when it comes to mastering?
Firstly, it’s a service business. You’ve got to serve the interests of the client and make a connection with their project whilst retaining objectivity. In terms of sound – every job’s a clean slate. Make it sound great (with any subjective considerations taken on board) via a really accurate and full range system and it will translate best everywhere else. There’s no second-guessing required.
4. What do you expect from artists before they come to you?
Be really happy with your mixes! We can be a sounding board to help improve mixes if requested, and the better they are when they come in, the better they’ll be when they make a first impression to the listener – and you get only one chance at that!
Also, take your time with recording and mixing. There’s really zero advantage to booking a release launch, only to then rope everyone involved into stress mode in order to meet a self-imposed deadline. Ideally, get some time away from the tracks after mixing. Live with them a bit. Get a feel for how the tracks sit in context of one another. When all’s sounding great and you’re happy, then book your mastering. Any concerns, discuss them with the mastering engineer ahead of time – we’re here to help.
5. What are some common problems you find artists bring to you?
By far, most common are issues with bass – and that’s a broad term but the lowest octave is most difficult to nail in mixing, unless you’re working in a really great, treated room with full range monitoring. Other than that, there may be things such as vocal level, or mistakenly bouncing things out in mono, or tiny clicks from a power supply in tracking or mixing. Tip: if ever in doubt about the mix balance, run off multiple versions (labeled accordingly) and this will cover your bases and potentially save time in having to arrange re-mixing.
6. What are your thoughts on the Melbourne scene at the moment?
I still consider Melbourne to be Australia’s “music capital”. The diversity and talent never ceases to amaze me! Years ago I heard that any night of the week there were about 3,000 gigging acts in and around town. And we’re lucky in having a plethora of independent community radio stations.
What really gets me is the sheer ignorance by commercial stations of the talent we have here and across the country – ie the real music industry. (Surely the fraction of a fraction of a percent of the music getting “high rotation” on commercial radio is actually the minority, not the mainstream!) The appalling decision by our federal broadcasting authority in 2010 to exempt digital commercial stations from already meager quotas for local content needs to be reversed – and artists can help demand that. So yes – there is massive potential. Become a member of Music Victoria and your local radio station.
7. Top 5 records to listen to?
I grew up with Dark Side of the Moon. Also can’t go past anything by John Lee Hooker, OK Computer, Disintegration (yes – one of the best albums of all time), French artist Keren Ann for arrangements, and for sheer reference in terms of mixing genius and dynamic range, tracks like Billie Jean, Original Sin, Back in Black…
8. What are some your fave albums you’ve dealt with?
Stand outs would have to include Luluc (minimalist & atmospheric); Jordie Lane’s debut; The Ovals and The Fearless Vampire Killers – both bands with their brand of psychedelic influenced rock; Tobias Cummings’ ‘A Trophy’; Way Out West (a very original mix of western & eastern influenced jazz); Lloyd Spiegel (brilliant guitarist); The Orbweavers with their local-themed songs; and some raw jazz works of drummer legend Allan Browne. Then there was the comeback album for 80’s soft metal band White Lion – it’s just so genuine (and not slammed!). I’ve also long been a fan of singer/songwriter Sime Nugent, and loved mastering the debut album of guitar-pop by Drawing Arcs – mixed by Brent at Headgap Studios with utmost attention to dynamics, it’s a thick and tough sound minus the angst and compression!
Adam is also a proud 3RRR and 3PBS subscriber discounter.
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