Grammy-winning engineer Sean Magee on the mastering process, the gear and the age-old ‘analogue versus digital’ debate.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Creating a release-worthy professional music recording is a bit like baking a cake. The composer or artist gathers as high quality ingredients as possible (song ideas, players etc.), they might experiment a bit, settle on their final recipe, mix it all together and put it in the oven—i.e. writing, recording and mixing a track. When it comes to presenting the cake to a hungry public, you need to add icing and decoration: in the world of music, this bit is known as ‘mastering’.
Since Laced Records works on a mixture of releases on vinyl, CD and digital including new albums like No Man’s Sky: Music for an Infinite Universe, track compilations like Hotline Miami and live/orchestral recordings like Final Symphony—all with subtly different mastering needs—we thought it would be fun to speak to one of the audio wizards known as mastering engineers.
Enter Grammy-winning engineer Sean Magee, specialist in analogue vinyl cutting, who has been a part of the mastering team at the world famous Abbey Road Studios in London for 20 years. As well as being entrusted with huge projects such as The Beatles In Mono vinyl remasters and albums by Pink Floyd, U2, Tina Turner and Iron Maiden, his versatile skills often see him work on “a rock band before lunch and Bach sonatas and partitas in the evening”.
But what does ‘mastering’ actually mean?
To a layman, the difference between a modern mastered track and an unmastered one can be imperceptible, other than a slight boost in volume and a vague sense of increased sheen. The process can seem like voodoo magic—even to people in the music business—with mastering engineers sitting right at the end of the studio recording process, ready to sprinkle fairy dust over a track.
Sean breaks down the nuts and bolts: “Mastering is making masters, literally. We take studio recordings—also called ‘masters’—and assemble them into a physical production master that can then go to a CD or vinyl factory. Part of the process is fixing problems and, if necessary, enhancing the sound with EQ [equalisation] or compression depending on what the client may want.”
The mastering process
Sean receives the final mix of a track either as a digital file (e.g. a 24-bit WAV with a sample rate of 96kHz or even 192 kHz) or as an analogue reel-to-reel tape. With a high resolution digital file, he will load it into a digital audio workstation (DAW—think Pro Tools or Apple Logic, although Abbey Road uses SADiE).
The audio signal will be run through an EMI TG12410 mastering or ‘transfer console’ (a desk with loads of knobs and sliders!) and, if necessary, he’ll run it through a ‘chain’ of audio processing units (e.g. a Chiswick Reach Valve Compressor), applying a unique combination of compression, limiting (gently capping the overall volume) and EQ as appropriate.
A dark art unto itself, compression is the process of shaping the overall sound of something (an individual instrument, a vocal or the whole track) so that, put simply, the quiet bits are louder and the loud bits are either quieter or more consistent. Highly compressed modern pop music, especially whilst being broadcast on commercial radio, sounds consistently loud so that the listener can hear all the parts, all of the time—especially the lead vocal. This stands in contrast to classical music or jazz, which can go from complete silence to very loud and back again several times over the course of a piece—it has a higher ‘dynamic range’ which mixing and mastering usually aims to preserve in a more natural way.
At this stage he will carefully listen to an individual track on special ‘monitor’ speakers (such as B&W 800D’s Bi amped with Classé CA-M400’s) and tweak settings accordingly. If an album is made up of tracks that were all recorded in similar circumstances—for instance, each track on Final Symphony was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra in the same room at Abbey Road using the same microphone set-up—he might not need to spend as much time checking other tracks as the first.
One of the most important parts of being a mastering engineer is tuning your ears to the room you’re working in. The material of the walls, floor and ceiling, the size and shape of the room, where the speakers are positioned (and how good they are) and where the engineer themselves sits can all subtly affect what they hear. Since Sean is aiming for the absolute best possible sound, his familiarity with his room—mastering room 6 at Abbey Road—is essential.
It’s often ideal for the mastering engineer to be a different person to the mixing engineer—a fresh pair of ears. Similarly, using a different room to the mixing engineer can also help reveal different sonic aspects of a track.
Depending on the project, to finish up Sean will ‘bounce down’ high resolution digital audio files or cut a vinyl master using the Neumann VMS-80 (pictured) lacquer cutting lathe.
Given the potential permutations available he tries to “keep everything as simple as possible—that way any alterations are usually very small and it’s less to write down!”
Vinyl and orchestral considerations
In terms of whether vinyl requires specialist mastering compared to digital or CD, Sean comments: “It’s not too different. The medium has various things to watch out for, as do other formats.” In essence, a great sounding final master will sound great across each format.
A professional mastering engineer is trained to spot any problems such as ‘clipping’, where a track’s volume goes above 0db, possibly causing unintended distortion. A crucial part of the job is tidying up the relative volumes of each track—individually and in relation to other tracks on a record.
Because of the typical sonic differences between pop/rock records and orchestral ones, the mastering process has to be adapted to reflect the nuances. He explains: “The biggest issue is management of dynamics. The full dynamic range of an orchestral recording is way more than the usable range of a vinyl record, for instance, so I have to manually ‘ride the fader’ by hand to make the quiet parts louder and loud parts quieter. The level changes happen over the course of 10 or more seconds, so the listener wouldn’t notice them.
“Apart from that, they’re mostly the same between genres—we cut as loud as we can within what we can fit on a side.” The ‘cutting level’, or volume, and amount of bass on a track will affect how many minutes of music can be crammed onto one side of a vinyl disc—a vinyl master is physically limited by what can be sent to the lathe cutting head.
This can even affect the track order, as some plants will recommend that the loudest tracks are positioned at the beginning of a disc to avoid ‘inner-groove distortion’ as the needle nears a disc’s centre.
Analogue vs digital
Asked whether it would be practical to go ‘full analogue’, i.e. skipping all digital equipment and computers in the process, Sean says: “Direct from the tape with no 1’s and 0’s involved sounds amazing and isn’t too much of a hassle to do. If the source I’m given is tape and it’s in good condition, then I may elect to do it this way because I can.” In terms of whether he prefers it to digital, he replies: “I think it’s a case of the situation you find yourself in when listening. An excellent recording is precisely that, whatever the medium—I like both.”
If anyone in the world was going to be an analogue purist, you’d think it would be a vinyl audio expert working with the best equipment in the world. Surprisingly, he is a modern music listener like any other: “Vinyl was the format I grew up with and I still have many of mine. But I don’t feel a need to listen to vinyl at home—I don’t even have a player—as I get to do it every day at work! I tend to listen to music on my iPhone whilst commuting. I’m not too worried about how it sounds—I just want to hear the music.
“The vinyl revival is a pretty good thing. The fact that the section of society most avidly buying vinyl records is teenagers is fantastic. It brings value back to music and reinforces the idea that it’s not disposable. As for people buying vinyl for the sake of looking cool whilst using bad quality turntables… it’s their business at the end of the day. The fact is, they’re buying it and if they buy it, then they need me to cut it. Hopefully the trend will see me to retirement!”
The home of the Fab Four
Abbey Road Studios is probably justified in its boast to be “the most famous recording studios in the world”. It was established in 1931 at a time where record labels such as the Gramophone Company (later EMI) owned studios and thus controlled access to professional recording. Fun fact: it was previously simply ‘EMI Studios’ before The Beatles, who played a pivotal role in building the reputation and myth of the place, named their 1969 album Abbey Road—the studios were subsequently renamed in 1970 to capitalise.
Sean adds: “Abbey Road’s reputation has been built over 85 years. It was the first purpose-built studio and some of the most earth-shattering records have been made here. I’m very proud to be a small part of its history and it’s a great motivation too.”
Here’s a video of him talking through his various aspects of his process: