Stephen works out of his own studio in Dublin called Analog Heart. He was a member of Dublin band Uptown Racquet Club and has released electronic music under the moniker Iquinn.
So I began by asking Stephen how did he go from musician to mastering albums?
“Actually, both of those situations were a big influence on how I got involved in to mastering. When I did the Iquinn Seed album in 2002 and sent it off to get mastered, it came back with a sound I wasn’t quite happy with. Some of the tracks that were delicate/subtle in parts were now much more aggressive. I thought I knew about the mastering process, but hadn’t really been through it as a ‘client’ before.
“For me that experience wasn’t exactly positive, as I was basically told ‘no, it has to sound like this.’ Which was nonsense. A mastering engineer should always work with the artist/band so they’re getting something back that they’re really happy with. I’d just spent 9 months working on the album and then someone comes along and alters the intentions of my mix! I had made some mix mistakes, but the communication was very poor and I came away from that experience unsure as to why the engineer had made certain changes.
“So that really focused my attention on mastering, what is the process, what are the reasons for doing x/y/z. I’ve always been interested in sound from a very early age. My parents were in bands and there was always music equipment scattered around the place. So being around equipment/music was a very natural environment and from an early age I was either just sitting listening to music or messing around with mics and recording gear.
“I’ve been in bands since I was 16 and my father had a PA, so I got to grips with that and ended up doing live sound off and on for about 9 years. Then I got into digital audio around ’97 and I’ve worked a lot in that area. Near the end of the Uptown Racquet Club days, I was in the middle of mixing and mastering some tracks we’d recorded and fellow member Donnacha Costello just said to me one day, ‘I think you could be a great mastering engineer’.
“He bought me a book on mastering for my birthday that year and that was really the point where I thought maybe this is something I could be good at. After that I spent a long time studying, researching, practicing and just listening to music, lots and lots of listening! When I got to the point where I felt I really understood what needed to be done at the mastering stage and how to achieve it, I managed to persuade a few people to let me master their records! And then other work came on the strength of what I did, and that continues to be the case.”
You always hear of bands wanting to work with certain producers and I wondered when it came to getting an album mastered was it the same situation?
“Maybe . . . to a certain degree. When you’ve finished your record and you start thinking about mastering, you’ll either go with someone you’ve used before that you were happy with, or someone that’s been recommended by people you trust. It’s largely a referral business. I’m not sure how much ‘weight’ your name has? I imagine a lot less than a producer. I just try to do really good work and some days you get a call/email, some days you don’t. That’s about as far as I think about it.”
So now for the question I really wanted to get an answer for. What is mastering and how long does the whole process take?
“An often-used analogy is, mastering is Photoshop for audio. In the same way you might use Photoshop to change elements of a picture, lighting, contrast etc., in mastering you’re working with a finished piece of music and you’re manipulating it in such a way that makes subtle changes to how it is perceived. It’s kind of like a QC process; you’re checking for any type of problem, digital glitches, clipping etc. It’s also about balancing frequencies.
“If a track was mixed in an environment that maybe had some issue where what you’re hearing wasn’t accurate. One example would be if the speakers are in an acoustically untreated room, or the listening or speaker position wasn’t quite right, You might have what’s known as a ‘null’ at a specific frequency, this would be like a dip in that frequency. So while you’re mixing you end up sort of filling that hole.
“Now outside of your environment, that frequency is now very prominent. That’s of course simplifying things, in a typical environment you’d have nulls in many frequencies and also peaks. The same can apply to mixing on headphones; there are similar issues there also. So the mastering environment needs to one that’s as accurate as possible, so that you can hear a problem and adjust if necessary.
“Your goal is to fix any problems and then try and bring that piece of music to its potential, sonically, using EQ, compression and limiting. But it has to be done in the context of the style of music, and with an album, it’s about trying to achieve a cohesive sound from track to track. The tools you use are dependent on what you think a mix needs, nothing is used by default.
“It’s also an objective set of ears. After you’ve been working on the same mix for a while you might not realise that maybe an element is too forward or too far back in the mix. So you use your experience to give feedback, there some issue might benefit from a tweak at the mix stage. That’s a regular aspect of the work. Another aspect is what’s usually described as ‘translation’. You want the music to sound as consistent as possible across as many playback systems as possible. You’re never going to be able to please everybody’s set-up, there’s so much variation in speaker type/size and the same with headphones. But you try your best.
“And of course, LOUDNESS is part of the process and it has been pretty much since the 50’s. It’s a frustrating and important aspect of mastering. Generally most music you hear now is being mastered too loud and it can make listening very fatiguing. But it’s also happening at the mix stage, mixes with compression/limiters on every channel.
“When used right, these are great tools every song has a point where ‘this is as loud as this can go before we start sacrificing the quality of the sound’. And you can easily go past this point during the mix stage, never mind the mastering stage! The loudness aspect isn’t going to go away anytime soon, so you just try to find ways of getting it loud without sacrificing the sound and try and get to the point where the client is happy and doesn’t come back and say, ‘it’s great, but it’s a bit quieter than band x/y/z.’ So there are a number of different aspects to the work, but you treat them as a whole.
“In terms of working time I tend to spend about 5-6 hours mastering an album; but I’ll take regular breaks to sort of ‘reset’ my ears. I also like to do a quick review the next day or two, to make sure I haven’t made some mistakes!
“Your ears can become accustomed to a certain type of sound during the process, so something that really stood out at the start of the session, now doesn’t seem as big a problem 6 or 7 track in. You take a break and come back and it’s like ‘wait, that’s not right all!’ I find that if I do a review the next day there’s usually one or two tracks I’ll tweak.”
Stephen set up his own studio himself and I wondered how long a project like that took to complete?
“I’m still working on it! The room is everything. It’s a constant work in progress. Every 6 months or so I take out my measurement mic and software, run some tests, think about how I can improve on what the tests are showing. And then work out what I can afford to do! But I’d say it probably took 3 years before I felt I didn’t have to constantly second guess myself, where my work was translating well outside of the studio. I’m planning another major overhaul with the acoustic treatment this year, so it a constant refinement process. I’m working towards a particular goal, in terms of the kind of mastering room I want and equipment wise. I’m not there yet, but I’ll get there one day.”
Stephen has mastered an awful lot of Irish bands release over the last few years and I asked him which was he most proud of and does he have a favourite?
“Definitely the Thread Pulls album means a lot to me, not really in a mastering context though. I engineered and worked on the mixes, so I spent so much more time working on it than I ever would on a mastering project. It was such a great experience, creatively and personally. Peter and Gavin are two of the finest people I’ve ever met, and I’m a really big fan of their music. So it was dream job for me.
“Mastering wise, there’s definitely many that I’ve felt really good about, where I feel I made the right choices. A lot of the time it’s when you get a really good mix and you’re able to take it somewhere new, better. And a big part of how you feel about a project is the interaction with people involved. The connection and communication is a really important aspect of each project.
“2010 was a particularly great year for me, I think every project I did last year I’m really proud of the work I did. The Popical Island stuff has been great and the Squarehead Fakeblood 7”, the Patrick Kelleher 7” on Skinny Wolves, that was really great too. There’s tons, all the projects that go to vinyl are probably my favourite, I work really hard to try and get them to translate well to that format. I still love putting a record on the turntable, it forces you to sit down and actively listen.”
Last question I asked Stephen was when a band comes to him with their recorded album do they know how they want their record to sound and are they open to change?
“Thankfully people seem to trust my judgement and that can be great most of the time, but sometimes it can be hard to match expectations when you’re not exactly sure what they are.
“But normally they’re at the stage they’re happy with how it sounds. Your goal should always be ‘do no harm’, but try and make it sound better. If a mix is great, then it’s great! A good mastering engineer should have the courage to be able to step away at times and leave a mix alone if it’s already as good as it can get. That doesn’t happen very often, but there are times where a mix needs very little work to reach its potential. You can make all sorts of audible, drastic changes, but that doesn’t mean you should.
“But if you’re not happy, talk to your mastering engineer and explain what you don’t like, maybe give a reference from somebody else’s album if you’re having trouble communicating what you want. No mastering engineer can make you sound like someone else, but if there’s a problem, a point of reference can be helpful.
“The important thing is communication. With projects that come in, it’s either someone new, so you work really hard because you want to impress them. Or it’s someone you’ve worked with before, so you work really hard because you want them to come back again! The philosophy I try to adhere to is – never make a change unless it results in something positive.”
Analog Heart is the studio of Stephen Quinn.
If you would like Stephen to work on your project or would like to know more about mastering check out Stephens’s website www.analogheart.net