Don Grossinger and the Art of Mastering

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Don Grossinger and the Art of Mastering

Unless you’re a recording industry professional, you may not have heard of Don Grossinger. But the odds are good you’ve heard his work. Grossinger has been a mastering engineer for over three decades, and the list of musicians whose recordings he has worked on includes the ultra-famous—The Rolling Stones, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, The Flaming Lips, Tony Bennett—as well as less prominent clients from rock and pop, jazz, Latin, gospel, classical, hip hop, and folk, plus countless dance singles.

Don Grossinger’s own career has followed the course of decentralization that has characterized his entire industry. For decades, he was a staff engineer at several top mastering houses—Frankford/Wayne, Masterdisk, and Europadisc—but now works for himself. Don Grossinger Mastering continues to attract customers from around the world. Among the challenges Grossinger faces in this “home studio” era is assuring that musicians understand the importance of what he does. Bob Katz, in Mastering Audio: The Art and Science, explains, “It is the last opportunity to enhance sound or repair problems within an acoustically-designed room—under an audio microscope.” Compromise at what Katz refers to as “the last creative step in the audio production process” can undermine the musical experience for audiophiles and general listeners alike.

The mastering engineer’s job description has evolved profoundly. The most obvious change involves the artisanal skill that a mastering engineer, by definition, once possessed. “Learning to master and cut vinyl was a critical part of my training,” Grossinger explains. “When I first started doing this, vinyl was still the most commonly used medium for playback. So you had to learn how to cut vinyl. In doing that, you also had to learn how to control sibilants and to center the bass, and how much bottom you could put on something without potentially running into overcut problems. There was a whole chain of things that grew from that one skill. I love cutting vinyl. It is specialized and I’m very lucky to have the experience to be able to walk in and cut a lacquer. It’s not something you can do from buying a package of software plug-ins over the Internet. You can’t buy a lathe and just set it up and go. It’s not a casual thing!”

Mastering engineers have steadily assumed a more activist role in determining the sound of a recording, for reasons both philosophical and methodological. Once they were viewed purely as technicians. The task of producing a lacquer wasn’t considered a high-level function and was assigned to a “transfer engineer,” frequently a junior employee. “At Frankford/Wayne Mastering Labs, we had white lab coats,” recalls Grossinger. Attitudes changed in the late 1960s. “Dominick Romeo, who mastered for Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass LP (among many, many others) was one of the first mastering engineers to begin making subjective improvements to the client’s master tape. There was resistance from the record companies who, frankly, didn’t want to pay for yet another qualified engineer to work on the project. When somebody breaks open a brand new avenue of artistic endeavor, there are always people that push back. It began to get prevalent when the artist saw there could be noticeable improvement by making these changes—and that it was possible to do so with the technology of the day whereas before, perhaps it hadn’t been.”

The creative function of the mastering engineer has been further advanced by delivering “stems”—individual components of a mix—to the mastering specialist. “As a mastering engineer, one got a stereo mix to master. Recording engineers had only three-channel mixing desks or recorders. So, you would record the drums, using as many microphones as you needed, and then bring those down to one fader on the board. All the drums would be on one channel. A decision was made about the mixed sound of the drums that would carry over to when you put the vocals on, or added the guitar tracks, background vocals and additional percussion. But that drum sound is what you would work with from that point on.

“A skilled mix engineer can still make decisions that will remain ‘fixed’ throughout the process, no matter how many recording channels are used. But ‘stems’ allow you to put off that kind of decision. Instead of getting a two-track master, you get one with many stems. One stem might be the background vocals; one might be the lead vocal, one the rhythm section. The mastering engineer is being asked to do what the recording and/or mix engineers are supposed to do.” Grossinger continues to receive industry-standard stereo mixes from his clients, which continue to yield satisfying results. He notes that some mastering engineers “like the additional control that stems allow because you can make decisions within the mix that ordinarily would have been done before they got to you. This results from indecisiveness during the mix sessions.

“Tapes and audio files vary greatly in recording quality. The incoming quality of the recording determines the amount of work needed to make the final result sound good and be competitive in the marketplace. It is the job of the mastering engineer to walk the tightrope: the sound must be true to the artist’s vision but also saleable and pleasing to listen to. That is why a mastering engineer must work in familiar studio surroundings (to make accurate assessments of the supplied mix and required changes), have a vision of what the finished mix should sound like, and have the tools to get it there. I give the entire program a good listening and evaluation. Typically, there is still some audio polishing necessary. I do as little as possible and as much as necessary.

“Reference LPs were sent to the artist and record company for explicit okay; when CDs came in, we made recordable CDs for approval. Now I send files. Many clients engender the greatest respect. Bob Ludwig and I were amazed by a request from Brian Wilson to make EQ changes in his solo album Brian Wilson that were incredibly minute and detailed, yet valid. Years later, Bob sent me a master on analog tape for Wilson’s Smile project. The all-analog cut went exceptionally well and Brian sent me an autographed single and a thank you as acknowledgment. That was one of my happiest achievements.

“The best mixes require very few changes. Mixes that have flaws will require hours of work. This is true for vinyl, CD, or digital download. Besides signal processing, the mastering engineer is responsible for cleaning up intros, removing noise, creating artistically pleasing fades, and spacing between tracks so the program flows musically.”

Grossinger knows the marketplace may demand things he doesn’t necessarily agree with, including the tendency for popular music to be ever-more compressed so that one song will sound as loud as the next. Grossinger says, “I tend to master so that the peak level of the music sits at -0.1 dB on the digital scale—just below digital zero which, theoretically, is as loud as you ever want something to go. After that, I like to let the dynamics of the music live. If the peak sits at -0.1 dB, nothing is louder than that and everything else is lower. I compress only as much as is artistically called for and I like to leave it that way. I will send the artist something to evaluate and approve. If they evaluate and say ‘It sounds great but we want it to be louder’ I can say ‘Well, that’s fine.’ It’s like a Western. If some guy’s shooting at your feet and he says ‘Dance!’ you say ‘How high?’ Some types of music—dance music or hip hop, some rock ’n’ roll—might, subjectively, need to be loud and abrasive and in-your-face. And compressed. It’s horses for courses. Classical, jazz, or acoustic bluegrass music—you wouldn’t want to do that.” Changing standards may potentially end the loudness wars; a shift from peak-level normalized music to loudness-normalized music is reportedly underway.

Another challenge is the reality that a great deal of music is now listened to through cheap ear buds and puny computer speakers. Should that affect the practice of a conscientious mastering engineer? “If somebody makes me aware that it’s going to be listened to pretty much only on ear buds and computer speakers, I might change things. Apple has a set of parameters that they recommend you use to master for iTunes specifically. Their algorithm takes into account that it’s a lossy compression system, that it’s going to sound a little harsher, that the reverb trails are not going to be as smooth in fades, and that you don’t want to have too much low bass because it’s not going to be translatable to little computer speakers. But I still like to think my work is going to be enjoyed in the best possible way: I master with big speakers, but check the end product on a variety of known systems.”

Don Grossinger is brave enough to discuss his future work prospects. Again, technology has been the driving force—specifically the disappearance of vinyl as a mass-market commodity and the feeling that an MP3 level of resolution is adequate. “The whole economic structure of the market changed in the 1990s,” he observes. “There was less work in the mastering studio and some production engineers were let go. Senior mastering engineers were still doing the sonic work, but were sending the record company one digital master, which was cloned for CD manufacturing for various markets, as opposed to eight sets of lacquers.”

Perhaps more insidious has been the proliferation of software that allows non-specialist engineers (and amateurs) to fashion themselves as mastering engineers. “There are more people doing their own mastering using available software and/or recording studios—especially smaller studios—offering ‘free mastering’ services for their clients. This completely defeats the main value of a mastering engineer, that being to provide a master done in a ‘known’ space which translates well to the outside world and an unbiased, fresh perspective from which to make sonic decisions. To make mastering decisions in the same environment as the recording and mixing compounds any sonic deficiencies of the recording space. Also, obtaining software does not a mastering engineer make.”

I ask Grossinger if he worries that the mastering engineer is becoming an endangered species. “I want to think not,” he says. “I firmly believe that quality will win out and people will continue to see the value of a dedicated mastering engineer. I absolutely love doing it. But it’s different. There are many more people calling themselves mastering engineers. Some do it very well and some don’t. There’s a reason you see the same names pop up on so many projects—these guys have learned how to go about mastering. There used to be more high-end mastering studios. Now there are many smaller places; it seems that most private studios offer some kind of ‘mastering.’ As the current owner and operator of a small mastering studio catering to the indie market, I do see how that can be made to work successfully, if standards are adhered to. When correctly and sympathetically done, mastering is the best insurance policy an artist can get to make sure their music sounds as good as it possibly can in a competitive world.”