It’s the dark art of the audio world. Most artists don’t know what it is, and most engineers and mixers struggle to define it. With the quality and accessibility of plugins today, many young producers are trying their hand at mastering, usually with less-than-pleasing results.
Luckily there are still a few true professionals left who are dedicated to the art and skill of mastering; who are able to deliver loudness, clarity, translation, and flow in a way that leaves the rest of us asking how. Troy Glessner is one of those men, with credits ranging across genres and including heavy hitters like Underoath, August Burns Red, and Devin Townsend.
I discovered Troy years ago when I realized that many of my favorite records had his name printed in the credits, and I’ve trusted him to master almost every mix of mine since. I love what he does, and it’s always right the first time. I decided it’s time that I ask a few questions and get a glimpse into his gear, philosophy, and workflow. And if you’re still mastering your own mixes, I hope this interview inspires you to check the back page of your favorite albums and try to connect with a real professional to master your projects. Trust me, you won’t go back.
I could never really relate to the desire to become a mastering engineer. Why did you get into mastering, and what was the journey that lead there?
In junior high we used to play in my parents’ garage. The way we recorded was bouncing back and fourth between cassette decks with RCA cables that allowed us to add one track at a time. It was very crude, but once we had the song tracked I would play it in my car and think something was missing. I had no idea what mastering was, or even that it existed at the time. I just knew that when I bought a commercial release, it had a different aspect to it that my crappy cassette deck bounces didn’t have. It was an aspect beyond my format limitations. So I would bring our final cassette mix into the house and run it through the Technics 30 band graphic EQ on my parents’ home stereo to even it out, control low end, make sure the mids would be pokey but not too pokey. I didn’t know it, but I was mastering. It was a VERY natural step of the recording process for me. I was doing it on my own before I knew the job really existed.
What qualities make a good mastering engineer compared to a mixer?
Mastering is a different mind set. You have to zoom way, way out from the tracks to look at 12 or 14 songs as a group and find the common thread that holds them all together…and exploit the hell out of it to create something really solid, a cohesive work of sonic art that all flows. You also have to be super microscopic with EQ and compression. Mastering is all either super zoomed in or super zoomed out. Mixing to me stays more in the middle. You focus on individual songs and take into account the others you have worked on along the way, but the mixer’s job is to exploit the sonic strengths of the songs. I exploit the sonic strengths of an entire group of songs
How much of your chain is analog compared to digital? Do you think there’s a big difference these days between mastering completely in the box compared to using outboard gear?
I’m neither an analog guy or digital guy. I go with what works. I have both analog and digital, and I use both. I don’t have a set signal chain that I use on everything. Generally the more transients the material has, the less analog I use. For example, I can’t go super analog on a real technical metal record, dump it to half inch, run it through a rack of tube compressors. This idea sounds romantic and awesome right? Wrong….if I were to take a metal record with a ton of punch and transients on the kick and snare and run it through a bunch of old gear with old slew rates and tubes that react slow as crap, I’ve just removed part of what makes metal powerful. I can’t blur all that out with a bunch of vintage type gear. It would simply be bad. Now the opposite is true for folk-type Americana stuff. Lots of analog tends to add character to these recordings, especially if they were all done digitally in the first place. A little half-inch tape bounce and a Pultec goes a long, long way in those cases. In the end I suppose half my gear is analog, and half is digital.
Can you tell us your favorite piece of hardware and your favorite plugin?
Hardware favorite? Ears. I have a love-hate relationship with gear. Usually I hear in my head within 5 seconds of hearing the chorus of a song what I want to do with it. I spend the next hour or more screwing around with gear trying to get that sound to come out of the speakers. I could master 20 records in a day if it wasn’t for all this gear getting in my way. So hardware tends to frustrate me. My speakers, my room and my ears are a constant that I don’t have to mess with. The rest of the hardware frustrates me on a daily basis.
The old stock Steinberg multiband compressor. They have since eliminated it from newest versions of Nuendo and Wavelab. It’s continuously variable and you can draw ANY compression curve into any of the 5 bands with a continuously variable crossover. It’s incredibly difficult and non-intuitive to use, but I love that thing. I could write a book on that plug I think [laughs]. It’s sad they got rid of it and replaced it with a much more set-and-forget type of plug. But with how the old one was written you could really, if you knew your old gear well, mimic almost any old compressor you have ever heard.
What software platform do you use?
I’m a big Steinberg guy. I’ve done beta testing for them in the past, and I love the company and the end product they put out. I use Nuendo for digital playback through the analog mastering desk, and I record back into Wavelab for assembly. I used Sonic Solutions for years, but just got really tired of how they operated as a company. Too much proprietary hardware, interfaces, approved burners, ect. Much has changed at Sonic over the years and I think most of what I hated is gone, but I’m very happy with Steinberg. I have been using whatever hardware I want for years. I firmly believe hardware and software should be separate entities. I use Cranesong conversion to get in and out of the digital world.
What are your monitors of choice? Do you listen very quiet, loud, or vary the volume?
My mains are custom Tannoy Little Gold 15’s with a big ass sub.
I monitor at all volumes depending on what I’m doing during the mastering process. If I’m judging song volumes from track to track for consistency, It’s a really really low monitor level. If I’m working on low end it’s a medium volume, just to where the low end fills the room.
I also take in to account the style of music. I have to check and work on a metal record at a pretty decent volume because that’s where a lot of people will listen to it, whereas a singer-songwriter type record not so much. I’ll spend most my time at a medium to lower level.
I do all my assembly fades, transitions and song spacing on headphones first at a medium to low volume, and then check it on speakers after.
“Mastered for iTunes” – what does it mean and is it getting more common?
Mastered for iTunes is basically Apple taking into account that MP3’s and the conversion to MP3’s cannot handle the same types of volume as the AIFF or Wave format. We have all heard our overheads and hi-hats turn to crap with MP3 conversion. Mastered for iTunes means the mastering engineer has been approved by Apple, and the mastering engineer is taking into account the MP3 /ACC format, and has used their tools to preview what the conversion to the lossy formats will result in. A Mastered for iTunes master I do generally has the digital brick wall set to -0.8 db instead of -0.2db like when I do CD/WAV. The extra headroom usually transfers better over to the lesser MP3/ACC format, and also the master is delivered to Apple in a 24-bit, 44.1k and up format, rather than 16/44.1.
I’ve done Mastered for iTunes for a few years now and I will say it’s a good thing for mastering engineers to be aware of.
What’s your take on the loudness wars? Hate it? Don’t care?
This is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades, the format has just changed. I remember reading about how Apple Records in the 60’s was mad at Motown Records for cutting really loud vinyl, distorting the cutting head in hopes of getting the attention of people/DJs/radio station programmers. Trying to be loud in rock is nothing new.
It’s all about tone. Clipping a signal is a very powerful tool. Distortion is a beautiful thing, it’s how and when it’s used that can go wrong.
I’ve said this in an interview in the past, and I’ll say it again here. As long as when I put on a master and it makes me want to turn the volume knob up and sit back and listen, I’m totally cool with what has gone on. I don’t need to see dynamics charts or waveforms on the screen to see how much it’s clipped. I boil it down to the basics. If I put a record on and I want to turn it up, I’m fine with it. Now if I put it on and I feel like it’s yelling at me sonically through the speaker, and no matter what volume it is I keep wanting to turn it down, well then someone screwed up somewhere because a rock record should make you want to turn it up.
Are things changing?
I would say overall that CD /digital WAV volumes have stabilized and backed off a bit from a few years ago when everything was really crazy. I think everyone in the industry was really trying to see what the format could handle, and some really ugly records came out. Records that you wanted to turn down or off, instead of on and up.
Mastering is still a bit of a mystery to most artists. What do people need to know about mastering?
There’s nothing to know here…It’s a black art to which only a precious few have been given a gift to truly understand, and you just have to take what we say as truth!
…joking. Mastering is still very subjective. Every mastering engineer has his own style, how he approaches what he does, and I think sometimes bands confuse a record that they like with a sound they like. They will hire a mastering guy because of a record they bought that he did, but really they like that record for what the band did, not necessarily for the tone/sonic feel and flow of the record. Simply put I guess bands need to separate a sound they like from a band/album they like when choosing a mastering engineer. Bands and mixing engineers need to honestly ask themselves, will our 2 styles go together to make something great? You don’t hire a dentist to fix your back, and you don’t hire a mechanic to paint your car, so bands should separate the tone and feel from what the band has written when choosing a mastering engineer.
Second, I think there’s this big misconception that mastering just makes stuff loud, when in reality that’s only about 20% of what I do. Loud is the really easy part. The hard part is keeping something punchy, clear, and consistently fun to listen to from track to track without it getting boring, and then also creating the consistency of all the songs as a whole. When it comes down to it, some songs give, some songs take, but the record as a whole needs to feel like a complete sonic thought by the time I’m done. Every record is different when it comes to this. The more sonically diverse a record is, the more time is spent. Some of the most challenging work I do is compilations, where you have 10 to 16 songs all from different studios ,mixers, and bands, and somehow we need to get it all to go together.
Any tips for mixers on how to deliver the best product for you to work with?
Send me a test mix. There is no charge for my opinion on what can be improved in a mix. I do this for a lot of mixers, and then a lot of them also pay me to do a test master. In a few cases I have some artists/mixers that will pay me to master the entire record, and after they hear the master they’ll go back and make mix changes with all the mastering in mind, and we’ll master it all over again.
What are the biggest or most common mistakes people make when delivering mixes for mastering?
I think using too much 2-bus limiting is the biggest by far. Once that punch is removed from a mix by a stereo limiter/compressor, it tends to be very hard to put it back in. I do understand needing to use some L2 or whatever to send mixes to bands to get mix approval, but send it to your mastering guy both unlimited and limited so he knows what the band has been listening to, and still has the raw file to work from. It’s kind of a silly game we play with our clients regarding loudness, but it is what it is right now. As long as the end result is stellar, I’m fine with it all. ◊