Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Interview With Mastering Engineer ANDY VANDETTE

I'd say when it comes to making an album, mastering is the least understood part of the process for most artists. It's also a very important part of the process in terms of maximizing the sonic quality of your music to ensure it can compete with other commercial releases. Many artists will spend a great deal of time tracking and mixing an album (months or even years) and if it's not mastered properly, all that work can be destroyed. Ouch, it hurts to even say that!

I asked Andy VanDette to lend his knowledge and experience to help us understand this crucial step a little better and I'm very excited to share this interview with you as I think what he has to say is absolutely invaluable to anyone who's getting set to have their album mastered.


Like many Masterdisk Engineers, Andy VanDette started out as an intern (Summer of 1984!). By 2000 he was promoted to Chief Engineer, with a growing collection of mastering awards from the US and around the world. Andy started out by supporting Masterdisk's top engineers. Beginning with digital editing and vinyl cutting, he learned the art of mastering from the best. His technical abilities helped him adapt to the individual style of each engineer, and the ever changing demands of the industry. A classically trained musician and "band guy" of many years, Andy draws on his musical background for direction. He enjoys his Strat, PBass, and digi plugin heaven at home whenever time will allow. Most importantly, Andy has got wide-open ears, a wide-open mind, and he knows how to use them. He listens closely to clients' individual needs and looks forward to the challenge of completing their creative vision.

1. How did you get into mastering and how long have you been doing it?

In 1983, I had approached Bob Ludwig about doing an internship at a recording studio. He was an investor in Boogie Hotel-Port Jefferson, Long Island-Foghat’s old Studio. I came to NYC for an AES convention, and had a short meeting with him. I was blown away. I had never met a guy like him. As we spoke, he was cutting vinyl sides, making EQ changes while the 1/2” analog master ran, and taking phone calls. Yet he still had a friendly focus on me. He said he would talk to the studio manager and see what he could do. To my surprise he asked, “But why don’t you want to do your internship at Masterdisk?” I was floored….. “OMG, Bob Ludwig wants ME to scrub his toilets and file his tapes?”, I thought.

By the end of the summer, I HATED mastering. “2 tracks? Stereo Left and Right? That’s all I get???” I thought, “I am a musician. I was born to sit behind the Neve and watch the flying faders”. Being a vocalist and bassist/keyboardist in all my bands (a Geddy Lee Wanna-be), I thought I would sell out early and find a comfy jingle studio. Some of my friends had done demo vocals on jingles that ended up used as finals. The $ound of residual$ $ounded pretty $weet to me.

A couple bad gigs out of college, I was desperate for work. Masterdisk had invested $250k in a Direct Metal Mastering lathe. They kept stringing me along telling me that I would assist Bob with the new lathe, but demand was slow to ramp up. It ended up that the receptionist had fallen in love with a Corey Hart bandmate, and was moving to Canada. When they offered me her position, I jumped at the chance.

I became a full time employee at Masterdisk in February of 1986. Since then I have held every position here except owner and accountant. I created every invoice issued by the company for 3-4 years and supervised the billing after that. I used to book sessions for Bob Ludwig, Howie Weinberg and Tony Dawsey. Tony was nice enough to let me use his studio mornings, nights and weekends. Whenever he wasn’t using it. I was able to build my mastering clientele.

2. Name some other mastering engineers whose work you respect.

I respect all the engineers I have worked with, and would like to think I learned at least one thing from each of them. Among the engineers I haven’t worked with, I like Big Bass Brian. I love what he did on Rush's “Snakes and Arrows” and his work with Dr. Dre.

3. Mastering is a bit of a mystery to most musicians. Can you explain in plain English what mastering is and what the importance of it is in terms of the final product?

I often say a mastering engineer is to music what a colorist is to film. The colorist combines all the shots--whether it is the night shot on location, night shot in the studio or SGI computer generated special effects shots--and turns it into a believable scene when u watch it. I do that….with sound.

Mastering is the last creative phase and the first manufacturing phase of recorded music. At bare minimum, I will put the songs in the correct order with the correct spacing. A studio like Masterdisk has a reputation for being able to maximize a mix’s sonic potential at the same time. Some records can get very complex. When a major artist has five different producers, working at five different studios, it becomes more of a challenge to make all the tracks fit together on an album like a “family”.

4. Describe some of the things you can and cannot do during mastering in terms of altering a mix.

I have lots of gear….and with it I can alter many aspects of a mix. I can add glorious top end, without making it sound brittle. I can spread the stereo image from one coast to the other….but there is one thing if u mess up, I have no fix….. To me 90% of audio quality comes from the definition between the bass and the kick drum instruments. Too much bass, and I won’t be able to get my “hooks” into anything punchy for the kick.

5. What are some common mistakes mix engineers make that can cause difficult challenges for you when you’re mastering their project?

Listen carefully to your mixes. Especially for distortion on the vocal peaks, or just peaks in general. That kind of thing NEVER gets better in mastering--only worse. Any kind of minor distortions become obvious when I do “The Big Push” up to CD level.

6. What advice can you offer to mix engineers to help them maximize the potential of the mastering process?

I try and tell people how depressed I get when I don’t get to be the one to overcompress and add too much bottom. Chances are I have a better brick wall than what you will find in a recording studio. Go ahead and print mixes with whatever you like to achieve something closer to “CD level” for client approval, but then print mixes with out that crap on it for me. And while you are at it, send me one with everything LOWER except voc, kick, and snare.

7. For all the gear nutz out there (this includes me), tell us about some of the key components of your mastering set up.

When Bob Ludwig was Chief Engineer, he specified NTP 179-120 Compressors, Neumann OE-DUO EQs and Sontec Eqs for all the mastering studios, so we could follow his notes and cut lacquer on his projects. When my studio was upgraded from editing suite to mastering studio in 1995, I demoed lots of gear. I would master the same project two days in a row. First day was through the demo gear dream-chain. The second day, through my old favorites. It showed me what great gear I had already! The NTP Compressor is the best rock compressor I have ever heard. Since then I have come across some “must-have” pieces like the GML 8900, the Manley Massive Passive and the Tube Tec SMC 2B.

8. Please tell us about some of the projects you’ve mastered recently that have piqued your interest musically.

2010 has been great for me. I’ve had nine top 10 albums in Portugal. Three of those debuted at number one. I also had a #1 in Germany (Fanta 4), a #3 in New Zealand (Katchafire), and charting albums in the US from Framing Hanley, NeedToBreathe, and Atomic Tom. I continue to listen to albums I mastered for Paul Langlois (The Hip) “Fix This Head”, Florence K “Havana Angels”, and Mother Mother’s “Eureka”. I am impressed by their depth and layers. I hear new parts every time I listen.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Producer/Songwriter MURRAY DAIGLE on Radio Play

Getting your songs played on the radio is one of those little mysteries within the music business that I think has many artists somewhat perplexed. "Why do they play all that shit on the radio?? My tunes are way better than what I hear day in and day out!" I've been guilty of saying those exact words in the past, but now I realize that getting upset about the way things are won't get me any further toward achieving my goals.

The key to unlocking these mysteries is simply a matter of educating yourself on exactly how these things work from the inside out. Ignoring the realities and hoping and praying that one day a music director at a major radio station will realize how incredibly brilliant your songs are probably won't yeild the desired results. So, to help us understand a little bit about how things work in the real world, I've brought in one of my best friends and studio partners, Murray Daigle.

Murray and I have been working together since 1989 and during that time we've written a shitload of songs, recorded and released many albums and toured internationally. Murray has been responsible for developing many acts that went on to sign major deals including Not By Choice, Cauterize, and Outmatched. Most recently his focus has shifted to mainstream pop music and he's written and/or produced several songs with his writing team at VicPark Productions ( for artists such as Aleesia, Adriana Lombardo, and Neverest, achieving a great deal of success at radio.

1. Firstly, to help artists understand where they fit into the equation with their music, briefly describe the end goal that a commercial radio station is in business to accomplish.

Radio stations are in business for one reason… to sell advertising for profit. How they accomplish this is by constructing a “sound” & “brand” that relates to and attracts a specific demographic audience. The true value of a radio station lies in its listeners. The bigger and more loyal the audience is, the higher the ratings and therefore, the more the station can charge its advertisers. What you need to understand is that quality of music on the radio is solely judged by whether or not the audience will enjoy it enough to leave the station on and keep coming back. Most discussions I have with artists/bands that want radio play aren’t aware or willing to address these realities… they just want their music to play, regardless of whether it fits with the radio station’s format or agenda. If you want to be on the radio, sound like the radio. And no, that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative or have your own sound. In fact, I would say you have to be more creative and work waaaaaaay harder to come up with great music that fits within these boundaries. There are exceptions to every rule of course; however, failure is usually a result of people who plan on being the exception.

2. Getting your songs played on radio is not something you just decide out of the blue to do one day, so what steps should an artist take before they even consider trying?

The trick to every element of an artist’s music career is consistency. To even be considered for major market radio play you need all your ducks in a row. Having a great song that fits the format you are after is superfluous…. What you need beyond that is a great website and social media presence and hopefully a great touring schedule. Yes, I said web & touring. The first thing a music director does when faced with a good song by a new artist is go “check them out”--website, facebook, tour schedule, media, Google search (yeah, they know that trick too). If your band looks like a group of high school kids with no real interest from anyone then why would they play you? How are you going to draw the all-important demographic to their station? They are selling the dream and vibe to their fans just like you are trying to do. Once your ducks are in a row with your BEST promo effort and look possible it’s time to get a Radio Tracker on board. They are experts that can help you build a radio strategy. So many things affect a single release including timing, station selection, which markets to approach and how to link radio to your other PR efforts and touring. The earlier you get a tracker onboard, the better. I even use these guys to consult during the writing and mixing of tracks!

3. What are some of the main formats on commercial radio and are there any differences regarding the procedure for getting playlisted?

In relation to stations playing new pop & rock music there is Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR), Adult Contemporary (AC), Hot Adult Contemporary (Hot AC), Rock Radio (divided into “hard rock” and “alterantive”) and Country Radio. Other music sub-genres are all the same chart. There are also other formats including mixed format, community, college, oldies, urban, jazz, classical and talk, which essentially are non-issues for most new contemporary artists because they either don’t play new music or they are rated so low that it doesn’t matter to advancing ones commercial music career. Yeah, I said it, college and urban radio are a non-issue in this country as far as I am concerned. That doesn’t mean that urban music isn’t HUGE in Canada, just that most of the bigger artists in the this genre play on the CHR stations.
One thing to understand is that basically CHR & Hot AC make up what is considered “pop radio”. These stations have another sub-divide referred to as ‘HIT RADIO’… basically that is a station within these formats that will ONLY play the top 50 songs on the chart. It was explained to me early in my career by one music director (MD) this way, “We don’t make hits, we just play them”. Unfortunately for indie artists, these are generally the biggest stations in any given market.
Basically, your tools and approach are the same for all formats. “Sound like the radio“, have great media, web and PR to back you up. Hire a radio tracker that is experienced in YOUR genre and format.

4. What’s the proper way to pitch and submit a song to radio if you’re an indie artist trying to break in?

I always recommend aligning yourself with a professional radio tracker, and the earlier in the process the better. Let them help you get a strategy and pick an appropriate song.

5. How long did it take you to get your first song on radio and what steps did you take to achieve this?

As a producer & mixer, I have had numerous tracks on the radio over the past 10 or 12 years, the best reaching mid 50’s on the Billboard US Rock Chart. (The US market is still the biggest, most important music market in the world, and the Billboard Charts are the biggest indicator of commercial radio success). This was the result of the record company’s efforts and I really didn’t play a role in the radio promotion end of things. As a songwriter, the first song I had that made hit status was about 2 years ago. I was heavily involved with the artist in hiring a radio tracker and carefully picking a strong single. We even touched up mixes and added a few things to the track to make it more palatable at CHR. I had already been a full time professional producer and studio owner for 16 years, with numerous major label credits under my belt and literally hundreds of independent projects. I was no stranger to the music industry and had worked with dozens of extremely talented writers in a producing capacity when I decided to shift my focus to writing pop music--and it still took me about 2 years of full-time writing to get my first track to that status! It isn’t easy, but this is a song-driven industry. A “HIT” forgives all other shortcomings; that can’t be said for any other asset of a band's or artist’s career and efforts.