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.

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