Interview with Mastering Engineer FRED KEVORKIAN

Our plant will only replicate your master no matter what it sounds like! It’s not the CD manufacturing company’s job to analyze the sound and give you feedback. Therefore, it is very important that you know the basics of mastering because it is your last chance to make your project sound right! This interview originally appeared on  Musformation.

After beginning his career in France, Fred Kevorkian has been working in New York for over 20 years. Initially an audio engineer at the internationally renown Sear Sound, he also has a thorough background in electronics as well as studio design. Since branching off and working as a mastering engineer, Fred has worked with some incredibly impressive clientele including Ryan Adams, Iggy Pop, The White Stripes and The Walkmen. Currently working out of Avatar Studios, we got together with Fred recently and dove deep into what mastering really is and how you can improve your recordings.

1. Mastering is a highly misunderstood and often argued process. From your perspective, what is the purpose of mastering a record and what is the role of the mastering engineer?

I would say that mastering a record is very similar to the editing stage of a movie. You are dealing with a bunch of scenes shot in various locations with different performances, light conditions etc… You need to select, edit, process and put them all together to create an exciting product. Dynamics and flow between the scenes are essential to achieve that goal.

For an album, it’s quite the same. The mastering engineer has to work off a number of songs, takes and mixes delivered onto a stereo format. Those mixes can sound very different from each other due to the various studios, producers and engineers involved with the project. It can be a very challenging experience to bring all these mixes together. At this point, equalization, compression, limiting and of course talent are the main tools available in order to get the desired result. Mastering is the last stage of the production where we can correct minor imperfections and still provide the final artistic touch.

Everyone in the business has heard these lines before: We will fix it in the mix! We will fix it at the mastering! But nobody has heard: We will fix it at the plant… Why? Because the plant will only replicate your master no matter what it sounds like! It’s not their job to analyze the sound and give you feedback. Remember, mastering is your last chance to make your project sound right!

With all the downloads, iTunes, and other popular music providers, our job as mastering engineers seems to be quite different nowadays. Instead of focusing on a whole story (The old “concept” album) we are often asked to make every scene (song) as exciting (loud and bright) as possible. We have to compete with the trend and keep the listener’s attention at any price! Even if each individual song can sound pretty good on its own, it is very hard to listen to an entire album. I guess, it is not meant to be anymore. It’s very tiring! Each song is treated as a single, and all the dynamics within the albums are gone! I am not a big fan of the loudness war and I try to stick with my personal taste as much as I can. But like my old boss (Walter Sear) used to say: “We are engineers, not music critics! You have to please the client if you want to stay in business!”

2. Give us your perspective on the argument of whether or not artists should attend their own mastering sessions.

First of all, most mastering labs charge an additional fee for attended sessions. I don’t think that makes any sense! I know why they do this, but I don’t agree at all with that policy. I think it is normal for the artist or the producer to be present for the final touches of an album, they worked so hard for so many months! Of course I don’t expect the client to make any critical sonic decisions in my room because they don’t know the acoustics the way I do. But they can certainly give me helpful advice about tweaking a mix that didn’t reach their expectation. They can also provide important information and guidelines on how they want the overall project to sound. Together we can try some quick editing ideas between mixes, some fades, cross-fades, or spacings that they had in mind for the album.

For me, it’s always easier to have the clients present in the room instead of trying to get in touch with them every time a question comes up for a specific issue. Is the count off supposed to be here? Is that weird noise part of the tune? Do I need to fade the song before the drummer drops his sticks, etc…, All these issues are time-consuming if nobody’s attending the session. Don’t get me wrong, it is often easier to work on my own on a well-documented project rather than having five guys from the band arguing about silly issues. This can be time-consuming and very counterproductive. When I work on my own, I will upload all mastered files on my FTP server at the end of the day and get some feedback within hours. I do work with a lot of European and international Indie bands that cannot afford the trip to New York and this seems to work just fine for everyone. We go back and forth until it’s right. The bottom line is that I will never penalize a customer who wants to be present for the session. It’s their call, not mine.

3. What’s the most common mistake you see bands making with the tracks they send to you?

A lot of times, I get mixes that are way off! The low end would be out of control, or it would be all mid-range etc… With today’s affordable tools and technology, I think there are no excuses for such a discrepancy! (Unless, of course, it is a deliberate artistic decision.) If you are working in a professional studio, make sure you are referencing your work with some of your favorite recordings. Each control room is different. Use near-field speakers as much as you can in an unknown environment. (Big monitors usually perform better at high SPL level which makes the room a big factor in the equation.) Bring your speakers if you are familiar with them. Most engineers use their own to avoid the guessing process.

I don’t expect mixes from home studios to be perfect. (Although I have heard some amazing stuff coming out of basement rooms!) I know, small project studios can’t provide the same acoustical accuracy as a high-end control room, but there are some simple rules you can follow to avoid basic mistakes. First, learn how to treat the acoustics of your room as well as possible. This is not easy, but it’s a must! There are so many websites available that provide very useful information. Then I would recommend listening to all your favorite CD’s or LP’s over and over through your monitoring system and tweak the room, the speaker position etc. until they sound right and you feel comfortable. All your work will reflect the quality of your space, so make sure it’s right!

Even if your room is not perfect, you will get a feel for how those recordings translate. I know listening to mastered records can be challenging and not a fair comparison, but at least you will get a good idea of the overall sonic balance. Often I find myself having to EQ a mix quite heavily to get it in the ball park. It might sound better, but it always leads to unwanted compromises. For example, if the bass guitar is way too big and I try to turn it down it will affect the kick drum, the warmth in the vocal and so on… This is why you need to listen to great mixes in your room as much as possible and tweak, tweak and tweak! Also, play your mixes in various known locations like your car, iPod, computer speakers etc… See how they translate and compare to similar recordings. Remember, most successful engineers don’t always have a perfect control room, they just learn to know their environment and work the problems out.

I am also surprised to see a lot of “high resolution” 24Bit/96kHz mixes that only peaks at -18dBFS or so. Why bother? if you are not using all the bits you are only getting a fraction of the resolution available. I bet all these mixes wound probably sound better in 16bit/44.1k printed just below clipping! Use all the bits available. It doesn’t cost more, it’s not difficult, and it just sounds better!

4. With so many people doing their own records in their bedroom, many artists are now trying to master their own material as well. Since you’re a mastering engineer, can you give us the case for why it’s good to get another set of hands on it?

I understand the reason why people are trying to do as much as possible on their own. I don’t blame them! It’s a lot cheaper and with all the software available why not take advantage and give it a shot? But, I also think it is wise to have a fresh set of ears to approach the mastering. Just like it is often important to have a different engineer mix the project. I usually notice that the artists are stuck on irrelevant issues instead on focusing on the overall picture. I believe that nowadays anyone with common sense and a lot of time on their hands can get a pretty good result at mastering a single song. But working on an entire album is a much different task. This is where experience comes into play, and will make a huge difference. Remember, a busy mastering engineer delivers over an album a day. Roughly 250 or more a year!

5. Do you always recommend a band to send along reference tracks or do you feel you can work without it?

It’s always very helpful to understand the band’s expectation. So I don’t mind listening to some reference tracks. But it doesn’t mean that we will get that same result. Nobody can make you sound like AC/DC if you’re not AC/DC! Most people think that mastering is going to do miracles and fix all the problems. Mastering can only help correct some minor issues or make good mixes sound even better. We don’t have a “Back in Black” preset button on our console! For a live band, the magic will only happen during the recording or the tracking session. After that, it’s only polishing! Having a few reference tracks will of course give the engineer an idea of the overall tone, loudness, brightness, compression, dynamics, etc., aimed for in the finish product. I always encourage my new clients to bring some of their favorite recordings with them if I am not yet familiar with their taste. Unless there is a specific request, I usually like to hear the mixes with no preconception. When I hear a song for the first time I know within seconds what it should sound like. Unless it’s already there, I will spend 15 or 20 minutes to get as close as possible. If I can’t get it right within that time frame, then we have a problem! Mastering should not be major surgery! Just icing on the cake!

6. A lot of bands who record and mix their own songs like to mix with a compressor on. Would you ever recommend bouncing a file with compression or do you always prefer a completely blank slate?

It is fine to mix a record with a 2 bus compressor or limiter as long as you know exactly what you are going for. Some engineers are coming up with some amazing mixes! I am sometimes very impressed. I don’t have to do anything! It sounds great and on top of it, it’s loud! I just have to do the best possible transfer to the 16Bit / 44.1KHz world! These guys are usually very experienced and have a lot of hit mixes under their belt. I have also heard too many over-limited mixes that are very difficult to work with. Mastering engineers rely mostly on transients and headroom. If it’s not there, it makes our job much more difficult or even impossible.

If you’re not sure, send the client your “pumped up” mixes for approval, but give the mastering guy some room! Print two mixes. One with your favorite limiter / compressor and one without processing. Bring both to the mastering session so we can have an idea of what was approved and work in that direction. If you want a loud record, my best advise would be to have it in mind from the very beginning of the project. It doesn’t only happen in mastering. It is key to pay attention to details during tracking and that will make a big difference later. Tuning, timing, phase accuracy, and of course the playing and the production are essential. Use appropriate compression on the individual tracks during the recording and the mixing stage. This will bring you closer to the goal you’re looking for. I know it’s not easy but this is why it’s an art!

7. On a technical front, are there any new tools/plugins/hardware you’ve been using a lot more of lately? Have their been recent advancements in the gear you use, or do you find yourself going back to the same tools?

I have been using pretty much the same tools for the past 10 years. It’s all outboard. Analog and digital as well. Just like well-maintained vintage gear in a recording studio, they are still hard to beat and they sound great! At this point, I know them very well. Technology is giving us a lot of options nowadays. Too many maybe! Every month new pieces of equipment and plug-ins are popping up. All these manufacturers are trying to recreate and emulate the old popular classics. But nothing is really new or exciting. A lot of engineers are hooked on all the latest stuff available instead of learning a handful pieces of equipment inside out. I do use plug-ins occasionally but mostly for restoration purposes. No question, combined with modern processing power, they work the best. De-Noising, De-Clicking, De-Buzzing etc., are just great and very effective.

Sometimes I also use a plug-in EQ with an extremely high Q factor or a Multi band compressor to address a very specific problem. But I must say, I mostly rely on my outboard equipment to get the overall sound of the record. Besides, I don’t like to stare at a screen full of numbers all day while working on a project. Remember, with a mouse you can only change one parameter at the time! To me, that’s frustrating and not so musical. I am not saying that mastering with plug-ins is not appropriate, I just like to work with what I know best.

8. Any final tips on what bands can do with their mixes before mastering that can make a mastering engineers job easier?

Besides the sonic aspect of the sources, it is very important to be well organized. If you have multiple mixes, pick your favorite one for each song and put them in a main folder or on a main reel. Keep all the others in a secondary location. Make sure you label all the mixes accurately in case the engineer asks for a vocal-up or for an alternate version. Have the sequence ready. Do your homework ahead of time. It will save you money and will get you better results by using the studio time in a more productive way. Personally, I do not like to work with stems. I cannot afford to spend an hour or two balancing tracks before even thinking mastering the song. Some engineers do (especially if the studio is charging by the hour). But I am not a mixing engineer and I will loose the initial motivation and excitement by the time I get the track to sound balanced.

If you have some edits in mind please do them beforehand. It is a huge waste of time to experiment during mastering. With all the software available I don’t understand why this cannot be done ahead of time. But don’t do fades unless you are sure. It’s always harder to correct a bad fade than to do one from scratch. If you are bringing analog tape, it’s very similar. Make sure all the reels are well labeled and organized. Using leader tape between takes is always a good idea even if you have all the timings listed. It’s visual and a lot faster to locate. Make sure that you print tones and document them accurately so we can calibrate our playback machine to your recorder. Always provide a digital back-up of all the mixes as well. Just in case!

9. Finally, you’ve amassed quite a number of credits and worked with some amazing, multi-platinum artists thus far in your career – what are your goals for 2010?

For me it will be just the same as the past 15 years: to provide the best possible service and of course to keep my clients happy!


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