Mastering is a dark art. Ask any successful recording artist and they can name on one hand the engineers they trust with the job of sprinkling that magic pixie dust on a track to make it a polished, finished product. These guys spend years honing their skills, collecting techniques and equipment to deliver the best possible results. But don’t misunderstand me, they can’t work miracles, and if the premaster you send is muddy at the bottom end or too shrill in the tops, there is only so much strategic EQing they can do to remedy that.
My guy is Rob Small. He runs a successful mastering house in Leeds servicing a wide range of clients from record labels like Stereo Productions, Artform, Toolroom Records, Alive, Bonzai Progressive, for artists as wide ranging as Paul Woolford, MK, Hot Since 82 and Hernan Cattaneo through to Flo Rida and Pitbull; the man knows his onions! In fact many in the industry consider Rob to be the industry standard such is the success of his work. I caught up with Rob between tracks to discuss his life in music, what made him choose sound engineering and his thoughts on the state of the business to date.
Hi Rob, hows life?
Very well, thank you. I’ve not been back long after spending a little bit of (well earned) time with family & friends in Ibiza. Right now, it’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m relaxing at home before the weekly mayhem of hectic studio sessions begins at 6am tomorrow.
You’ve been a mastering engineer for nearly 7 years now. What has been some of the defining moments in dance music for you?
The years have flown by very quickly, and some fantastic things have happened to me throughout this period. I’m still relatively young, being nearly 29. For most of my elders/peers, I think the early 90’s acid house scene and the rave culture in itself would be pretty the the defining moments of dance music emergence. But, for me, I think one of the most defining periods as a DJ & producer was around 2006 to 2009, as (for me) that saw the release of some incredible electronic music. Not so much the ‘Ping Pong’ Minimal sound, but more the likes of Dopplewhipper, Mouth To Mouth, Erotic Discourse etc. I think that without me being really into that stuff back then, I wouldn’t have had the balls to release some of the weird stuff I did back in 2009 on the likes of Evasive & Electronic Petz, which surprisingly was quite well received by the likes of Hawtin, Garnier, Nick Warren, Luciano and so on.
Events-wise, there has been so much happen over the years it would be very difficult to pin-point any sort of definitive moment, but honestly, in that time frame again of around 2006 to 2008 onwards, I think what my friend Shane Graham has done with ‘Cocoon In The Park’, ‘System’ and the Mint Club/Mint Warehouse clubs here in Leeds are pretty much THE main things which help cement my position in the industry. Being in the midst of everything he did early on and having a lot of encouragement (and plenty of kicks up the arse!) from him around 8 years ago really helped. To be honest, I wouldn’t know some of the people I do now if it wasn’t for him. So in retrospect, the music and events of 2006 to 2009 are the defining moments for me. The defining moments of being a mastering engineer so far have been me working on material from the likes of MK, Paul Woolford, Ronaldo etc and having 80% of the material I master reaching massive success. Having master music for artists who I have grown up listening to is something of a personal achievement to which I’m constantly smiling about.
How did you get started in studio engineering and who were your inspirations growing up?
I’m not going to use the usual “I grew up listening to Kraftwerk and was destined to DJ & produce ever since my Mum got me some headphones for my 10th birthday’” shit, because that just didn’t happen. I grew up listening to all kinds of stuff, ranging from ELO that my Mum listened to, to Kenny Rogers that my Dad listened to. I think my first ever actual vinyl was by East 17! Haha, I’d rather admit that than make something up and say my first record was by Moodyman. I was introduced to electronic music by my older sister when I was around 8 or 9 years old, when she played me ‘Westbam – Wizards Of The Sonic’, I was a real Sega/Sonic Geek and the Westbam track was a favourite, so even though I didn’t fully understand what I was listening to, I’d still say that listening to so much different stuff growing up played a big part in inspiration.
Let’s face it, anyone who says that they fully understood the essence of music in it’s entirety when they were under 10 years old is either a musical genius or is talking out of their arse, so admittedly, I payed little attention to it all thereon until I started to understand music better, and I began to collect music from around 11-12 years old. Then I started to dabble in production. I worked on music production as I was growing up using an old Commodore Amiga. I never really did anything using that, though. I was only a kid and it was far too hard for me. Then I gradually got into other DAW’s, and starting Ableton Live on Version 3 (or maybe 4)
I think around 10 years ago, which opened up a lot of windows for me in terms of production possibilities. I’d always been a fan of computers, sequencing and arrangement and I knew quite a lot about the entire producing and recording process, but oddly I never released any music until around 2008. I’d still done stuff for other people before then, but as I released more and more of my own music, I found myself being asked to produce more for other people. Not ‘Ghost Producing’, though. It was more for people with ideas in both their heads’ and their DAW’s yet didn’t have the technical ability to finish them off. So, I’d offer to finish the production off for them and write the arrangement/layering for a price.
Some people did want full tracks producing from start to finish using their own ideas, to which I had no issues with, as they always paid well and that’s simply the way of the music world – engineers have been around since day one. However, I’d never be expected to sit there and make a full track using my idea’s, as essentially that is Ghost Production and the fee’s I’d given didn’t cover that sort of work, so I’d meet with them first and ask ‘What sort of sound/direction are you looking to go into?”. If I was answered with a blank look and a shoulder shrug then I’d politely reject the request and offer some advice on what to do before coming to the studio, which I still do to this day. I never intended to do what I’m doing now, it was more an organic & natural way of me getting into studio engineering rather than something I set out to do from day one.
I’m sure your studio has changed over time, what has been the biggest improvement in making music, and conversely what single element has been your biggest personal pet hate?
Well, I’ve had two studios. The first one was great and I used it for years. It was well kitted out and efficient, but didn’t perform well in the room mode aspect and there were certain things in there that drove me bonkers, so I had to build another studio, which came at the cost of a few of my drum machines and keyboards. The studio I’m in now has been especially designed and acoustically treated to deal with mastering & mixing and over the past 2 years, I have kitted it out with some great gear for the job.
My biggest improvement in mastering and making music over the years has been understanding dynamic range measurements, harmonics, frequencies, layering, and learning about what compression actually does rather than just slamming it on everything, which is actually one of my pet hates – one of many! My main pet hate, as with all engineers, is the dreaded ‘mastering plugin on the premaster’. There’s nothing more annoying in our line of work.
Something which has popped its head up from time to time over the last 5 years is the notion of Loudness Wars. Whats your take on this?
Ok, it’s like this: If a client wants their track loud, then I make it loud for them. My opinion on it, however, is that it’s not great. I posted a video some time ago on my social media page about the original mastering of a Michael Jackson track from the 80’s and the remastering of it for a re-release from a few years ago. The remaster was pushed extremely loud with a really low DR value of something like DR5, yet it sounded ok, but when run at the same volume as the first master and compared side by side, it sounded a little bit worse and there were also a lot of frequencies missing, essentially proving that loud/compressed masters aren’t always of benefit.
The only thing that extreme loudness does to music is takes away it’s warmth and soul. If a client asks for the master to be loud then I usually say “You’re not doing your music any favours by pushing it so loud, the gain knob on a dj mixer is there for a reason and adding a few dbs on a mixer is worth so much more that squeezing more db’s out of the master”, and I’ll even make two versions of the master to show them how it sounds without that extreme gain. 9/10 clients who ask for this loudness actually choose the version with less gain, but I do get the occasional client that asks for it louder. Ultimately, it’s their music and their money, so if they want it loud then I’m at their mercy.
You’ve started a consultancy service for fledgling producers. What was the idea behind that, and what benefits does it hold for both parties?
The idea behind that was pretty simple. Artists would send music over that had quite a few issues in the mix. These issues would (most of the time) only be exposed when run through any sort of mastering processing, which essentially took time to expose & correct. Sometimes I couldn’t master it at all and when I’d feed back, the client would say “Can you mix it for me…?”. Now, the thing is, any mastering engineer will tell you that unless the artist can attend the studio session for the mix, it can be quite a long and drawn-out process. The engineer needs to mix the track (which takes a long time when using outboard kit), then send over the proof. If the artist is in another country then there’s the time difference, so you’re waiting several days for feedback. Then the artist might require changes (which is natural), then the whole recording, prep, email and reply process starts again and a job that should/could take one day if the artist was to attend the session actually takes a week when it’s unattended. Not only that, but some tracks simply didn’t need mixing down, they just needed tweaks.
Where some engineers would have taken advantage of this and would have offered to mix the track for quite a lot of money yet would only involve minimal work, I’d rather have a clients trust and repeat business rather than trying to make quick bucks. So, I thought, that if a client sends me their track, I’ll run it through the kit and see what it needs and I’ll offer feedback on exactly what to change/improve for an overall much better mastering. The £5 covers my time spend running it through the gear and analysing the track/writing down the feedback. So, this way it works out much better for both myself and the client rather than them having to spend £200 on a mix and master, and me having to possibly spend multiple sessions on it if the artist can’t attend – everyones onto a winner and the result is fantastic.
Aside from poor mix downs, what have been some of the other challenges for you running a business in the electronic age?
The main challenge is running a business in itself. There are a lot of engineers out there for people to choose from so staying at the forefront IS the challenge. I use the electronic age to my advantage. I need to be innovative in all aspects in order to stay relevant. I have a great team of people around me and I run business idea’s and strategies by them all – constantly, so this and my absolute 150% undying dedication to what I do is what helps running a successful business in the electronic age.
Are there any artists you’ve mastered for that you’ve thought “Yeah, they’re going somewhere, these guys are going to be big!”
Yes: Ben Pearce, Josh Butler, Tough Love, Jamie Trench, Hector Couto, the list is endless…
How does one become a mastering engineer? College/University? Or does getting a job in a studio and working your way up produce the best engineers?
Well, for me, I never set out to do what I’m doing now. I set out to DJ and produce music. It was only when I used so many other expensive mastering houses only to see very little results compared to my ‘home masters’ at the time is what made me do what I’m doing now. Yes, learning helps. I’d be a lier if I said that I was completely self taught, because I’m not. I’ve done courses, learned from professionals, asked questions and payed a lot of attention to everything around me in order to perfect my product and work flow.
I think experience plays a big part, and I also need to say that you can either do it, or you can’t. I know of people who have degrees in music technology but struggle to create a good master (and they admit this and use me to do it for them), yet I know of guys in Germany who are completely self taught with no schooling, college or university knowledge and they are absolutely incredible at what they do, and it’s those people that I take the biggest inspiration from. So, having that natural ‘ear’ for mastering plays a massive part. Anyone can produce a fairly decent track nowadays given the endless possibilities and ease of productivity with the user friendly DAW’s at present, but not everyone can create a good master even with the abundance of home-mastering plugins.
So lets get on to the engineering side of things, whats in the studio now for mastering, and also for your own productions? Have you any favourite toys?
There’s all kinds of stuff laying around, some of which doesn’t get used much anymore and others that’s used every day. My main bits of kit in my rack are my SSL/Manley units for compression and EQ as well as other bits from TC Electronics, TL Audio etc that I use on inserts/patchbay. I’ve got some old Lexicon, Roland & Korg gear that’s collecting dust now but I’ll start using them again soon when the project is right. I used to use a huge 32 channel analog mixer but it just took up far too much room and sadly that’s also collecting dust in storage. It sounded awesome too, just far too big, plus, I’m getting superior results using the inserts from the patchbay into the RME ad/da converters rather than using the mixer back into the computer. I’m thinking of buying the entire Roland Aira range after Christmas as well, as I’ve heard great things about them.
Would you ever consider ghost production, and how do you feel about these producers who are happy to let someone else profit from their wizardry?
Well, I need to be honest. It depends on the money I was offered to produce for someone and if I was being credited for the work. I have mixed feelings on this subject. We’re in an age where people will pay an extreme amount of money for fame. The DJ is the modern day rockstar, and some would give anything to be in that position. If a producer wants to sell their wizardry for an x-amount of money then so be it. It’s not something I think about to be honest as it doesn’t effect me, nor is it something I’m asked for. I get asked for so much mastering that it’s hard for me to even think about producing for someone else at the moment. Do I think it’s wrong that people are making a fortune in gigs from releasing the work of someone else and not even crediting them for it? Yes, I do. Do I think it’s wrong for a producer to be paid in excess of £1500k for two days studio work to make a track for someone else? No, I don’t. I just think it’s wrong when someone hits mass success and doesn’t give the real producer an ounce of credit for it.
I’ve had many labels ask me to master my own tracks. Do you think the system works now; the whole record industry model? How do you see the future for small independent labels going?
I think the future is bright for small labels to be honest. If you’re going to run a successful & professional label, then the first thing you should do it weigh up your costs and be prepared to pay for remixes, mastering, artwork, promo etc. Mastering is a sales criterion. I’ve said this before. Great mastering makes the difference between a good release and a ‘wow!’ release, no matter how big or small the label is. When there’s guys like me offering quality mastering for £10 to £15 per track, it really does leave no room for excuses for cutting corners and not getting it done. Where there’s good music, there’ll be a good label in my opinion, and that deserves a good mastering on it’s releases too.
Theres a bunch of plug ins and mastering tools native to DAWs these days. Are you finding that young producers are attempting to master their own work more?
Yes, and doing so without fully understanding the physics behind what they’re doing, thus damaging potentially fantastic music. If you care about your music, then leave it to the professionals. On-board mastering tools can be ok, but most of the time they’re just slamming the life out of the master buss.
Well, its been enlightening to speak with you Rob. Thanks for letting us into the murky depths of the Mastering world. Just to finish off, what advice would you give to aspiring engineers who want to become Mastering gurus like yourself?
Thanks, it’s been a pleasure. My advice: Learn, make mistakes, learn from them and build on that. Make sacrifices, stop going out and getting smashed and instead channel some of that energy into perfecting your craft. Get a plan together and aim to do something that’s standout to what everyone else is doing. Remember, there are a lot of engineers to choose from – so why should they choose you?