Ed Woods is a UK Mastering Engineer based at Blackdog Studios whose credits include Manic Street Preachers, The Who, Lisa Ronson, Idlewild, The Futureheads and Tom McRae. Ed originally started as a recording engineer before moving into Mastering. I caught up with him for a chat about how he approaches this in his own way.
KMR : How did you start out and was Audio Engineering always something you've been involved in?
EW : I guess I've always been interested in music. I played the piano from an early age and then later Bass in a few bands. As a kid, I had a Commodore Amiga and a very simple midi sequencer program. I can't remember its name but it only had 4 channels, so you had to double up parts across the channels if you ran out of space.
Later, a friend bought an 8 track digital to record our band with in the practice room, a Roland I think, and after a few efforts doing that I became very interested in the whole process. It was really interesting, I got a cheap drum mic set and bloody hell we were recording!
KMR : The joy of making music! ..or just a noise anyway
EW : Yeah probably more of a noise! We'd do the drums in the practice room and then take them off into an M-Audio soundcard, and then we'd just mess around and I started recording with other bands.
KMR : Did you pick up all the techniques from Magazines, Sound On Sound, Future Music etc?
EW : Yep totally, all those magazines, and reading about recording techniques. But after comparing the sounds I was getting with the CD's I had it was pretty obvious that something was going on with those tracks that wasn't happening with mine!
I started trying out working into a load of compression/limiting in the computer, just to see if I could get the levels roughly the same with my favourite CDs. I didn't have a great deal of luck, but it made me look into the whole mastering thing as a process that could be very important to the overall sound of a track, and the experience of listening to an album.
KMR : So this was this something you developed into over the years?
EW : When I had my first proper studio job working for producer Sean Genockey, there was a mix that he decided needed a bit of 'jazzing up' before he sent it on to the client. I remember saying that I might be able to something with my setup and he let me have a go just using my plug-ins at home!
I'm not sure what happened with the track, but a few weeks later another mix came along that needed some juicing up, this time the mix was also sent to a proper Mastering house. I remember it coming back and listening to mine and the mastered version and they were virtually identical! I was surprised, to say the least.
After a few years of 'loudifing' and mixing jobs, I got my first chance to master an album for Sean’s good friend, producer Dave Eringa, probably around 2007. I think that was the first album I did. This was a pretty momentous time for me, as getting paid was not something I was very used to. It went really well and it was the start of working with Dave and Sean as a mastering engineer on lots of interesting projects. I guess it grew organically from there to where I am now.
KMR : What do you feel makes a good Mastering Engineer?
EW : I think it's very very important to be objective. Trying to treat the tracks individually, like each one is a new thing can be a bit more time-consuming, but I think that’s really important. There is a balance between how they work together and individually. Having a bit of the individuality, especially these days when people just cherry pick what they listen to, is key.
KMR : Limiting is obviously important for Mastering - what do you prefer to use, is it hardware, software, soft-limiting etc? What do you find does the job the best and why?
EW : I try to do as little 'conventional limiting' as possible at the moment, just a dB or so of hardware. Waves L2 is enough for me if limiting is needed. I start hearing the negative effects pretty soon after that. I've tried most of the other well-known limiters and compressors. The Slate FGX is really great if you need to blam the level right up.
I realise the hardware and software L2 should be the same, but they just aren't. I also have the soft limit on the Lavry Gold and the Roger Mayer 456 which both make appearances on lots of tracks I work on. The 456, in particular, is a very interesting unit. You need some understanding of how it works and the best way to line it up, as it has a fixed threshold. But after you have found how you like it to sound, it's very addictive.
KMR : What do you use for dithering and sample rate conversion?
EW : Ok, so I try not to do any sample rate conversion. I play it back at the source and then record to whatever I want. I do prefer to work at higher sample rate. I have one digital process which is the L2 hardware and it definitely is a bit better at the higher sample rate.
Dither, I use on the LAVRY gold, it’s got the HPDF, and the Flat which is really great. The HPDF give a little bit of sizzly zing on the top end
The only thing for me is 24bit Dither which is really important I think. I’ve noticed a few mastering guys going on about it, and there’s something in it.
KMR : Clocking - do you use internal/external clocking?
EW : I clock to the Lavry Gold A/D on the printing side of my setup, it's got 'that' sound that I'd heard on many records before owning one. Perhaps the internal clocking would be more 'correct' for the other digital bits in the studio, but I prefer the sound of the external clock at the moment.
The quality of the power supply is also incredibly important, both to the digital and analogue bits. At Blackdog Studios, we have spent a lot of last year looking into how we could improve and clean up the power and it really makes a big difference.
In the age of the bedroom studio, this is an aspect where the more dedicated spaces can really win out over the home setups, but it seems pretty overlooked. The power supply to the digital gear: converters, interfaces and computers can make quite a difference. I use a battery and linear supplies for the digital playback side of my rig, and the difference over the switching power supply is quite big.
I had to ask my friends to check prints I had done to make sure I wasn't going mad! I also think things like mobile phones can interfere with the converters a bit. May sound bonkers I know, and perhaps it's specific to some of the units I have, but after checking it out, mobiles go on airplane mode when I'm working now!
KMR : Do you like people being present when mastering or is it mostly via email these days?
EW : I don’t mind, yeah I do a lot via email as it's convenient and easy. But I’ve got a few clients I’ve worked with over the years and it’s really good to have them down. Also if somebody who has a strong idea of how they want to sound that’s cool as well.
KMR : Do you use a lot of M/S and parallel processing?
EW : I try not to do M/S processing unless I have to, as it seems to do a little something to the bottom end I personally don't like. But sure, if things are feeling really out of kilter it can be the only thing that will get you past that problem. Parallel compression can be great for getting some more punch into the sound, and also to inflate a boring sounding mix. I've a few different approaches to it and it can be really helpful.
KMR : What's the best way for a client to provide a master for you? Do you mind some mix processing as obviously quite a lot of us Mix Engineers use compression to mix through?
EW : I don't mind how the client approaches their mix as long as they are aware of what they are doing and the limitations that can come with any processing they do.
If they have created something they really like and it has a great energy then that's the most important thing for me. Technical problems such as too much compression, EQ or level will always come second to whether or not the client has got their message across. I see it as my job to see that message through to the final product that people will hear.
KMR : What do you find makes the biggest challenge when Mastering, is it trying to please the artist or label, or try and compete with the Loudness War without destroying the audio...and your sanity?
EW : I think the toughest thing is when the clients’ expectations of what their mixes can sound like greatly exceed the actual potential that they have. It can be awkward to explain that sometimes they need to go back and look at the mix again.
I try to take as many cues as I can from the mix, that's their communication to me. Of course, that can get you into problems, as occasionally what they've done with the mix isn't what they want. But I try to listen sympathetically and fix problems as well. It's really a balance between fixing a problem here and there, and not affecting what they want to get across.
Another difficult thing can be when the artist/label sends multiple mixes over to Master. I've had over 30 for a single track before. Keeping track of all that and working out which mixes to work with can be a challenge.
KMR : 30 versions !? I know of Mastering guys getting stems to mix / master - does this happen to you often, have you had to ‘fix a mix' in the mastering stage often?
EW : The most extreme I’ve done was that 30 mastered mixes of one track... I just tried to do the best I could, and give them what they wanted. How we resolved it, as there were various different arrangements, was we ended up cutting up parts from the different masters I did. It looked chopped up and it was really hard, but we had good communication and this was extreme, but it did well that one!
KMR : Are there any genres you’re more comfortable working with or any you prefer?
EW : I’m open to everything and I do pretty much all genres, Rock, Indie, Electronic, Techno, Classical, Folk etc. If you look at the artists I’ve worked with, the ones you might know are bands and singer-songwriters, all ‘recorded stuff’ as I guess that's what has carried out into the world, but I do all sorts really.
KMR : Mastering for mp3? I know last year I'd been doing a lot of House/Dance mixes and I definitely checked it at various mp3 / AAC rates and tweaked them to make sure that these mixes had the 'energy' of the WAV - as they were going straight on Beatport / iTunes etc. How do you approach it?
EW : Well I only do that if a client wants it to be Mastered For iTunes, normally I make mp3s for a client if they ask, but I wouldn’t specifically check. The AAC seems to be the best algorithm. I use Apple Tools for Mastered For iTunes and make my adjustments, usually in the bottom end. I don’t enjoy the mp3 sound, but it’s just how it is.
KMR : Do you think listeners can hear mp3 and then the WAV difference? I feel there is a noticeable positive appreciation for the higher sample rate or WAV over any mp3/AAC when I've demonstrated it, but I guess it’s just education and opening this to as wide an audience as possible?
EW : It is a difficult one, as I do like it and when I’ve taken the 24/96 files I’ve done you can hear it, but you’ve really got to have your playback system sorted to appreciate the differences.
KMR : I also do find that with certain genres of music, working at a higher sample rate shows up a little ‘too much detail’ as well...more than I needed on some amps etc....
EW : Yes, I think if you’re doing it in the computer then it has benefits, that’s come along a lot. There’s something with the digital offline stuff that I’m not too sure about. Playing back from one system to another does open you up to other problems, but if you set it up nicely and keep it in control it works for me. It takes a little longer as you have to do it all in real-time, but that’s all good.
KMR : I like that, as you probably listen differently?
EW : Totally agree, you do listen differently. I like that as you’re hearing it all in real time you can hear everything all in one go. There’s nothing wrong with ways that other people work, this is just how I prefer to work, it takes a bit longer but that’s ok.
Almost all the processing, if I’m doing any, is analogue, and I think you do hear a bit more, it’s the small things. Most files I get are at 24bit 48k.
KMR : When I have to work inside the box, sonically it’s very interesting, but I feel it can get a bit 2-dimensional.So the first thing I do is add some harmonic distortion to tracks. Then it starts to have the energy back again. I feel working totally in the box can sort of ‘flatten’ the sound too easily?
EW : I totally agree! - and it’s one of the reasons why I don’t go for the plug-ins if I can help it, I have the Algorithmic new ones, and if I have to go there, these are what I use as they have a very musical sound.
But it’s like my Waves Hardware L2 versus the software, it should be the same as the software, but I was so surprised it’s just not, it’s after the Lavry, so it’s being clocked from that….
KMR : Yeah that would help!…
EW : Haha, yeah! I end up clocking the L2 from the Lavry, and it's got a power supply in there, so it’s got to be doing something.
KMR : I know you use both Monitors and Headphones - what do you find works the best and why?
EW : Recently I've been working with the Audeze LCDX headphones and they are truly remarkable. When paired with a great amp and D/A, they give you a great sound. I've not heard bottom end like that on cans before, it really is all there! The decisions seem quick and obvious too. It's probably not for everyone but I'm really enjoying the LCDXs at the moment.
KMR : Favourite EQ?
EW : There’s a few I like, the API 5500, and I love the Dangerous BAX, the Earlybird but less as an EQ, it’s a flavour thing - just running through it. I love the sound of the BAX, and it has really responded very well to the upgraded power supply we’ve done, more 'holographic' than it used to be. It’s like a transparent but very musical design. Very clean but it’s doing something as well.
KMR : Favourite Compressor?
EW : We’ve also got the Phoenix, it doesn’t get used all the time but when it’s right, it’s right. The Dangerous Compressor is in use quite a lot and when I used to do mixing I was just gonna’ say I used our Dramastic Audio Obsidian all the time. That ‘SSL’ sound but with the bass still there, and those transformers...
KMR : Yeah I love my Obsidian...
EW : Yeah I think equipment can be inspiring. I think this is a big thing about gear that doesn't always get talked about. You get a great compressor, let’s talk about the Phoenix for example, as it’s a good one. It doesn’t always do the thing, but when it does it’s so inspiring - it’s just magic.
That’s what I don’t get from plug-ins, there’s something missing.
KMR : What are you listening to currently?
EW : Mainly old stuff, but recently it’s been a lot of the David Bowie tracks…
KMR : I was just a bit too young for the 70’s stuff, so I got into him in the 80’s but I felt he was one of those guys who did great pop music with a twist.
EW : It was interesting pop music, and I also thought what was quite sad was it’s very hard for people these days to be that sort of artist, and make it that big. The music industry as a whole isn’t making those sort of people, it’s like Lemmy as well. I’m not in any doubt that there are people every bit as talented out there, trying to do it, struggling to do it, but it may not happen for them at this moment. It’s such a shame.
KMR : Your Studio is burning down and you can only grab 3 things..what would they be?
EW : Haha...probably lunch, my shoes and keys...
But I’d grab my headphones for sure, and just try and pick up my whole rack under one arm!!
KMR : Thanks for the interview Ed!
photograph by: www.rebeccacresta.com