Masters of Mastering 2012

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Ryan Smith

Company: Sterling Sound

Clientele: James Taylor, Cyndi Lauper, Beyoncé

Contact: http://sterling-sound.com, 212-604-9433

Ryan Smith started as a recording studio assistant in 1995. Some years later he took a job with New York’s Right Track Recording. His career took off when he tagged along to mastering sessions and thereby broadened his repertoire. He moved to Sterling Sound in 2002 where he heard that Ted Jensen was looking for a new mastering assistant. He jumped at the opportunity. Lately he’s been remastering Aerosmith and Stevie Ray Vaughan reissues and cutting vinyl.

What are the best ways to prep a mix for mastering?

Make sure that everything in the mix is in balance. That’s the hardest thing to change. And when we do, we’re not doing it optimally. We also like people not to overly compress their mixes. If you come to me and say, “Can you make the acoustic guitar quieter?” that’s a tough thing to do with an EQ. The bread and butter of mastering is EQ and compression.

Have the do-it-yourself mastering tools improved to the point that musicians can achieve a better than passable master at home?

It’s not impossible but what you can’t get at home is the listening environment. When you check something on your home speakers or Mac, you want to be sure that the content that’s there is really there. The most important tool for a mastering studio is the monitoring setup.

What’s the ideal format for mastering-ready mixes?

Most people send WAV files. Ideally, they’re the highest resolution that makes sense for the project. The higher the better – 96k, 24-bit WAV files are great. I also love to get stuff on tape but I realize that’s cost-prohibitive these days. One of the things that frustrates me is when people send 44k, 16-bit WAV files. I always have this inkling that there’s something better out there.

Do artists ever send you MP3s?

If I get an MP3, I always go back and ask, “Are you sure there’s nothing else you can send?” They must have made it from another format. One of the downfalls of the digital age is that people can get careless with files. If that’s the only thing available, I’ll use it.

Last year Apple began selling higher fidelity AAC encodes. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the Mastered For iTunes initiative. What’s your take on it?

If fed the right stuff, their new algorithm sounds way better than what iTunes used to offer. Apple finally released the tools to hear what happens when our music gets compressed to AAC and decoded on the listening end. Songs will come off iTunes sounding much closer to the original. They’re accepting 96k, 24-bit masters and are hinting that they’ll accept even higher in the future.

What’s the biggest mastering challenge you’ve ever faced?

Learning how to cut vinyl. It’s a different mindset than CD mastering. That’s what the older guys here, like Ted Jensen or Greg Calbi, started with. It’s a challenge to do it well but it’s very rewarding. There are many more limitations because it’s a mechanical medium.

What does the future of mastering hold?

It’s more important than ever to have good mastering. If you’re not recording and/or mixing in a real studio, this is your one chance to be heard in a professional environment and optimize your music before it’s released.

What do you say to people starting out as mastering engineers?

If you can find a place where you can tap the knowledge of people who’ve been doing it a while, that’s the best way to learn quickly.
Having a relationship with other engineers was my biggest advantage.

Any final advice?

Sometimes people in audio can get a little dogmatic. I try not to be that way. For artists, it’s their music and it has to sound the way they want it to sound.

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