If you’ve followed T_A, are familiar with Make Noise Records, any of my past few releases, or Ninja Tune, you might be familiar with Shawn Hatfield of AudibleOddities – the go to Mastering Engineer for any kind of audio. I first learned about Shawn through his musical output, Twerk, and later found out he got into mastering. After having Shawn master something once, I was impressed and every subsequent release has gone through him.
I was born in Hollywood, CA and lived briefly in Southern California until my parents decided to head north, finally settling in the country just outside of Santa Cruz, CA. Being so close to vibrant San Francisco ultimately impelled me to settle in the Bay Area. After about 15 years of living in San Francisco, my wife and I decided to relocate somewhere a little less hectic and with more consistent weather. We ended up in Oakland, where it’s almost always sunny, a lot more laid-back, and there’s endless places to eat, shop, and ride our bikes.
My involvement with sound goes all the way back to my father and his love for music. A song writer in his earlier years, he played a bit of guitar and gave me a sense early on that music had importance. He also had a nice collection of records and a decent stereo system. Eventually I started messing about with the various knobs and sliders and when I discovered the EQ, it was a deeply profound moment for myself. I spent many hours there as a child fixated on that EQ, tweaking his various records until I thought they sounded better to my ears. Who knew, 30 years later, I’d be doing the same thing for work?
As I got older and exposed to more music, I fell in love with early hip hop and started learning how to mix and scratch records in the late 80’s. In the early 90’s I fell in love with electronic music and spent a few years DJ’ing techno out at local parties. At some point in the mid 90’s I started thinking a lot about the production aspect of music and started things off by buying an EMU ESI-32 sampler and a TR-909. I got the bug pretty bad and before I knew it, I had amassed quite a collection of old synths and drum machines and started cranking out the tunes. A couple of local 12″ releases led to several European contracts resulting in several albums and 12″s on labels like Planet Rhythm, Mille Plateaux, and Force Inc. With a bit of success at that point, I thought I was going to be a musician forever. But after touring through Europe I quickly realized I wasn’t cut out for that lifestyle and returned home disenchanted at the prospects of living off my music. At that point I decided to go back to college and become a nurse. Simultaneously, I was also learning a bit about mastering, as I had grown quite an interest in it after having my own music mastered by the legendary Nilesh Patel. The first time I ever got masters back from him, I was blown away at the difference in quality. It quite literally seemed like magic to me. I started learning as much as I could about mastering. Producer friends would come by with their new songs and we’d sit there with some basic tools, like a dbx 166A and a T.C. Finalizer and I’d “master” the songs as best I could. I’m sure the results were probably pretty poor back then but my friends seemed impressed and eventually I found myself helping my friends so much that I was unable to do both the nursing program, and mastering. Up to that point, I was doing engineering for free just as a hobby on the side, but I had an epiphany in class one day where I realized I was in college to get some arbitrary career, while I should just be focusing on music full time as a mastering engineer and somehow find a way to carve out a living for myself. I asked a few of the friends I’d been helping if they were OK paying up a little cash to continue helping them, and they were all a bit surprised I hadn’t asked sooner. I finished up that current semester as I’d been doing really well in school and didn’t want to drop out halfway through. But once it was over, I told all my friends to tell their friends that I could help them with mastering. Thanks to word of mouth, here I am today.
I stay motivated by absolutely loving my job. There’s really nothing I’d rather be doing. I’m already looking forward to the next day of work, even as I’m finishing up a long day of it. I get up every day excited to go back into the studio. It helps that I get to work for so many talented people from all over the world.
A mastering engineer does as little as possible, and as much as needed, to bend and shape a collection of songs into something that’s cohesive and coherent. We strive to remain transparent, but with just enough process to give the end listener the best possible listening experience on as many different types of playback systems possible. A mastering engineer will correct mix anomalies, improve overall frequency balance, and sometimes add a dash of color that can take a good sounding mix and transform it into a great one. We also handle the lesser exciting technical aspects of each particular format and ensure the music is properly prepared for each, whether it be CD, vinyl, MFiT, or Wave files. Each of these things have limitations and requirements, and it’s important that they’re handled appropriately. As an artist who’s been fortunate to have some of the best mastering engineers in the world work on my music, I’ve come to understand the importance of mastering on a very personal level. Having heard both the unmastered and mastered versions of my own music, it doesn’t even seem optional. Even if I know I’m never going to see a dime from my music, I’ll pay whatever it takes to make sure that what I put out there is the best it can possibly be.
When people submit projects to us, the first thing I do is open them up in an editor and look for headroom. Ten years ago, just about every project coming in was a solid block of audio maxing out at 0dBFS. There’s next to nothing I can do in situations like this so I ask if it’s possible to get new versions with some peak headroom. When I get those files, I give them a listen and check to see how they sound on my system. As a mastering engineer, I don’t feel it’s my job to overly critique a mix beyond things that just seem absurdly out of whack, like when your client’s mixed Trap music in headphones, and the low end tries to rip apart my woofers. But if things sound generally within the large range of what is commonly acceptable, I assume the person handing the files off to me did the best they could to get them sounding as close to what they wanted as possible. So I try to respect that while mastering and do as much as I can to both maintain the artistic intent, and maximize the sonic potential of the recording. It can be a delicate balance to strike and it’s a skill that can take decades to master.
Right now it’s a couple of different things, but really, the thing that’s my most favorite right now isn’t so much a piece of gear, but rather my current chain of gear. I’ve chosen pieces of gear that create synergy as a whole and it’s taken many years to find the right combination of pieces that fits my workflow and aesthetic.
But, within that chain, I am currently loving a pair of Dave Hill Titans. Dave Hill is the genius behind Crane Song equipment and the designer of the coveted HEDD192 A/D D/A convertor. His approach to designing equipment is very unique, and it’s obvious he has a deep fascination with distortion and harmonics and how they can be used to musically enhance program material. The Titan is essentially a very flexible VCA compressor that can be incredibly pristine and transparent, but also with some added options to dial in older vintage styled VCA sounds, as well as a very interesting feature that enhances transients through some form of harmonics applied just to the transient section of the signal. Combine those with the built-in parallel mix feature, and you have yourself quite a beast of color options. At the opposite end of its cleanest settings, it’s really quite dirty and dark. I’m finding it pairs up really well with another VCA compressor made by Roger Foote, called the Foote Control Systems P3S ME. Together, there’s very little I can’t do in terms of dynamics.
The other current fave is my Buzz Audio REQ 2.2 ME with Elma switches. It’s almost always the thing I start with. It’s got an uncanny way of rebalancing elements in a mix without affecting too much else. It’s very transparent and open sounding, and it’s as surgical as it is broad brush strokes. Tim Farrant, the designer, is a lvl70 wizard as far as I’m concerned because there’s some magic in this EQ, and hearing is believing. The other interesting aspect of this particular EQ is in employing a pair of steel core transformers that can be put into the signal path which adds harmonic distortion of varying degrees, chosen with a 6 position switch. It can really beef up the low end on material that feels weak. There’s been quite a few times where this sounded a lot better than trying to EQ the lows.
In mastering, my basic philosophy is “do no harm”, and typically that means doing as little as possible, while doing just enough to accomplish the task. It’s an art in subtlety. The most important part of my job is listening, not processing. And sometimes the best thing is nothing. Knowing when to do nothing is important. Just because I have nice tools, doesn’t mean they’re always needed. But because I know my tools so well, when I hear what needs to be done, I know immediately what to do.
I’ve been using Max/Msp for nearly 12 years. I started using Max when I needed a way to travel and do live music overseas without hauling all of my equipment with me. And it quickly became invaluable in the studio as a signal processor and sequencer. I mostly create algorithmic sequencers based on all sorts of wacky ideas I have that I can’t accomplish in a typical DAW. Mooquencer is an algorithmic sequencer I developed years ago that I’m always modifying and tweaking and its core functions have found their way into a lot of my music. I prefer working in Max for the flexibility of tailoring the software to exactly my needs at any given moment, and for its ability to realize a concept with just a few sleepless nights. Daily, it serves as the backbone for logging all the equipment settings for my analog mastering chain.
I’m not so into the plug-in thing, not because I don’t think they sound good, because they really do, but they don’t inspire fun the way hardware does. And when I’m having fun, it influences my decisions. You can hear that it in my work. Plug-ins are very clinical in use, and I think you can hear that in the way that you use them. But I still value them greatly, and they do get used on practically every project in some way, even if just as a final brick-wall limiting stage. Sometimes I’ll need to really dig deep with a parametric EQ to remove some errant frequency and that’s when I reach for DMG Equilibrium or FabFilter Pro-Q.
Workspace and Environment
First and foremost, my workspace must be perfectly in order. I can’t get down to business if there’s a mess in the studio. I know that works for some people, but I’m not one of them. I keep the studio pared down to just the essentials. If I don’t often need it, it gets put out of sight, in a closet or a drawer. I try to be as minimal as possible as I find clutter distracting and annoying. I also hate dusty gear and start each day by vacuuming and dusting the studio.
Another importance is natural diffused light. My mastering room has two windows that have an opaque thin material that lets a lot of light in, but can’t be seen through. And it’s great when the space has a good view of something. My last two rooms have had really great views of the city and surrounding mountains and it’s great to take breaks and look out upon the world.
Ergonomics are incredibly important. Having a Sterling Modular desk vastly improves my workflow by putting all the important equipment front and center so I can stay in the sweet spot when making critical decisions. I’m always moving gear around in the desk in an effort to perfect the location of each piece and how I find myself interacting when them as a whole. It’s a constant evolution. If I find myself hindered by something on a consistent basis, I make changes. Right now I feel like it’s about as good as it can get, but I’m about to add another piece of equipment to the mastering chain, and I have a feeling that’s going to throw things way off for a little bit!
When I was living in San Francisco, I felt more stressed, more uptight. I could feel the pressure of the city and I’m certain that influences the work directly. In order to get the best out of myself in the studio, I need to be relaxed. Living in Oakland turned the stress factor down quite a bit, and that lets me focus more on the love of what I do.
I’d love to have a studio out along the rugged coast of Northern California where the redwoods meet the ocean. That’s my dream location. I just hope I can figure out a solid Internet connection when that happens. I move an unbelievable amount of data back and forth every month!
Honestly, after a full day of work, the thing I want to hear most is silence. Working on music for eight to twelve hours a day leaves little energy left for other music, so I have to be very thankful that much of the music that comes in for mastering is enjoyable to listen to. I actually feel incredibly lucky to work for the artists that I do and I’m continually amazed at the music they make. It’s also important to give my ears a break after a full day so I can come back in the following day with fresh ears and a fresh perspective. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t listen to anything else ever. I have so many friends that make music, I’m usually just checking out their SoundCloud pages when I can find the time.
I can and do listen to Mp3’s but there’s something that bothers me about them when compared to Apple’s AAC format. Mp3, even when encoded with the best codecs, still has a perceptible loss in imaging and depth, as well as a softer high-end. Sometimes, in rare cases, the softening of highs can help an overly bright song, but it’s a terrible way to balance things since so much else is compromised. Sadly, whatever Mp3 codec and settings SoundCloud uses for streaming sounds the absolute worst to me. If I’m going to listen to lossy formats, I prefer them to be AAC, and especially MFiT AAC, which is Apple’s new “Mastered For iTunes” format, and isn’t just a bunch of marketing hype. It’s a real effective way of eliminating distortion from clipping at the decoding stage. You end up losing about a dB of overall level, but the fidelity is greatly increased and it’s completely worth it in every way to me. I really just wish we were all listening to uncompressed music, but I think that’s still a ways off due to the incredible bandwidth needed for streaming raw audio.