Company: Vlado Mastering
Clientele: Paul McCartney, Metallica, Barbra Streisand
Mastering veteran Vlado Meller has worked in the business for nearly 50 years and has mastered everything from hip-hop to classical. He began his career at CBS in 1969. Seventeen years later his division was acquired by Sony. When it shuttered in 2007, Meller moved on to Universal but soon it too went the way of Sony. Afterwards he spent a short time at Masterdisk until it became clear that he needed to strike out independently.
How often do you speak with a mix engineer and at what point does that happen?
Often. They have the same interest in the project as I do. If a mix is bad, I’ll be the first to be attacked because people will think the mastering engineer messed up the project. If I hear something wrong with a mix, we’ll have a nice consultation. I’m not attached to the project , so I can tell them what I feel. Mastering engineers are the X-ray of the mixers.
What are the best ways to communicate with clients so that you’re sure you can give them what they want?
The mix engineer already knows what the artist is looking for. Do they want dynamics? Warmth? They’ll tell you where [the client] wants to be. Often an artist will send a song they like from another album and that’s where they want their loudness. That’s the immediate guide for us.
How do you help clients communicate what they want from you?
We discuss the project and I ask about the specific release––CD, streaming or something else. They tell me how they want to hear it. Often they compare the sound of previous albums I’ve mastered and that gives me an idea of what they’re looking for. I’ll prepare separate masters for the various formats: CD, Spotify, whatever.
The number of formal engineering education programs seems to increase constantly. Why are there so many? Are they worth it?
There are a lot of engineering programs, but they’re all about mixing. There are workshops for mastering, but only a few. I’ve started several myself.
A number of online music players employ loudness normalization. Are you mindful of this when mastering? Does it create unique challenges?
I’m becoming mindful of it and we follow the rules. With the streaming services, I caution clients that Spotify will lower a song 10 dB and it won’t be the same. So they might as well prepare the lower level with more dynamics and they’ll have a better quality [master].
Because of multiple platforms (Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, etc.), do you sometimes give artists more than one master? Or do you try to give them one pass that will sound good universally?
I give them more than one. I’ll do one for iTunes. A vinyl master is completely different. You can’t put the same sound on vinyl that you hear on a CD. The level is too high and vinyl wouldn’t play it correctly. If it’s under 17 minutes per side, maybe it’ll play. If it’s more than 25, the record will skip from beginning to end because the cartridge stylus can’t track it; it’ll be thrown out of the groove.
How does automated mastering compare to mastering done by an engineer? Is it a serious threat?
I don’t believe in it. What kind of algorithm can they have that will be able to distinguish between hip-hop and classical? They can definitely enhance the sound, though. A slight EQ on anything can make it better. But there can’t be one rule for all types of music.
What happens with vinyl reissues? Are they always mastered for vinyl?
The ideal reissue would go to the original tape. If it’s older than 25 years, it’ll be quarter-inch. You’ll try to create a brand new sound for it because you can create a better one now than you could 20 years ago, thanks to EQ.
Many artists want to get their stuff in film or on TV. Are there any special considerations for mastering for those mediums?
For TV, yes. Congress passed a loudness act several years ago. There are certain requirements as far as levels go. You can’t go crazy with them. You can still create a dynamic sound, but the level has to be gentle. It can’t be a CD level.
It’s been said that monitor setup is the most important tool. What do you use? How has your setup evolved?
I’ve stuck with PMC monitors. They’re massive. They don’t color the sound, they don’t take anything away from it. I can play 20 or 30 seconds of a mix and I’ll know exactly where to go; what frequencies should be corrected.
What contributes to the truest sound?
Speakers are the most important thing. You can get the cheapest EQ, but as long as you have the best speakers, you can create the sound you want. Spend money on speakers, not plug-ins, EQs and compressors.