English mastering engineer Chris Pavey has been working in the music industry for several years. With a great knowledge and understanding of the recording and mixing process, the mastering engineer used his past experiences to develop his craft. After studying Music Technology, Pavey started to exclusively focus on mastering.
Pavey worked with many established artists such as Allan Silva, We Are All Astronauts, Kant Sleep; and more recently, he mastered the smash pop single ‘Old Friend’ by English singer/songwriter Jules Rendell.
When did you start working as a mastering engineer?
I first started mastering back in 2013. At that time I had already been mixing and recording both in the studio and for live/location productions for a number of years.
What lead you to this job? Is it something you always wanted to do?
Very interesting question! I had steered everything I did from the age of about 14 towards music and especially making records. I worked at a studio in my hometown Southampton, completed college courses and ended up going to University to study Music Technology. It was there, when working with other students on various music projects, that my attention was grabbed by the mastering process. I knew straight away I wanted to do this, and that I wanted to immerse myself in the technical and musical aspects of mastering.
For those who don’t know much about mastering, what would be your definition of it?
Excellent question as it is often misunderstood!
Mastering is the final process in the long chain of audio production. It is the finalising of any audio for distribution use, either physically (CD,Vinyl,) or digital (streaming services or downloads). Mastering can have many steps involved or just a few. What is required of me will be different on every project and unique to that project.
What are the different types of processing involved in mastering?
We use many of the same processes as mix engineers and producers do, however our tools are often much more specialised, and unfortunately normally a great deal more expensive!
In my studio I use equalisers, compressors and limiters - both digital and analogue - and sound field tools for controlling the stereo width and field, to just name a few. I also use a range of sound restoration tools for ‘fixing’ and removing unwanted noise or for cleaning up older recordings, for example from tape.
You worked on different genres so far. Could you describe your work process?
I have worked on many genres and it’s always exciting to work on a new style when one crosses my path. My work process is mostly the same no matter what the genre; what changes is how I use the processors and tools.
Listening is always the first step, and I mean really listen. The most important tool in a mastering engineer’s tool box is their ears - which when combined with an acoustically treated room and a quality monitoring set up, it allows the engineer to accurately assess the project. My room and monitoring have a very flat frequency response and therefore what I hear from my speakers is accurate and not coloured or hyped in any way - so any changes I make I know are exactly the correct choices. It is only after carefully listening and understanding the sonics of the track do I then touch any processing.
Another important part of my process is having a dialogue with my client - really making sure I understand their goal for the music, and the sound and direction they want their music to go in.
What are the steps you need to follow to master a record properly?
Always keep in mind that a mastering engineer should do no harm. Everything we do should enhance the record. Sometimes there are compromises that have to be made, but every compromise should be weighed out for the best possible outcome.
There are not defined steps as such; if you have the knowledge then you let the track you are working on at that moment guide you as to what each step should be - rather than just following one formulaic approach.
But the things I’m thinking about when listening to a track that are common on a lot of mastering projects would be…
How is the track balanced? Is it overly bright in the high end or booming in the bass frequencies? Are there any phase or masking issues?
How do the tracks flow in the album or EP, is one too loud compared to the others for example? I’m listening for errors or mistakes - things that might have been left over in the mixing stage.
How do you approach a Pop record?
I would approach a pop record, as mentioned before, like any other record. Listening to what is there and how I can enhance the sound regardless of its genre.
The ‘Pop’ genre is so varied that it would be difficult to pin it down to a set of steps even in the broadest sense.
What do you do if you receive a “bad” mix? How do you make it sound better through your mastering?
A bad mix is always a touchy phrase as ‘bad’ is such a subjective term. I always try to see what’s good about a track before I focus on any downfalls. I think that’s just an important way to approach life as well! Part of mastering is being a sort of ‘quality control’ person, to catch things that may have been over looked in the studio. If a track has been worked on for 6 months say, the people involved can often become ‘ear-blind’ to certain aspects of the recording and clients are often surprised with things that I highlight to them. They never knew they where there and then suddenly they say ‘how did we miss that!’.
If there were issues with the track I would open a conversation up with the client about it in a professional manor and try to help them rectify the problems. I try to have a personal connection with all my clients and remove some of the anxiety that there can be around sending off a track for mastering. This way I can help them fix problems rather than just me rejecting it and saying go back and try harder, which is an awful thing to do, and doesn’t solve anything. Often I can help with mix changes - and I have had excellent responses from clients that I have assisted - then everyone ends up achieving the best outcome.
I can fix an array of issues through mastering though. Well crafted, subtle eq can fix a muddy vocal or a part that is poking out a little to much for example. But it’s always best to go back and adjust something in the mix if possible.
Why is mastering important?
Artists and bands often have a hard time getting their art out there, and when it is heard you may only have 10-15 seconds to grab someones attention. Whether it’s someone on a bus flicking through Spotify, or a record label listening to the 50th track that day of unsigned artists. A well mastered record will stand out and will make a great record come across to the listener in the very best way possible.
How would describe your signature sound?
I don’t think I have one? I try not to put a stamp on the work I do. Obviously I will sound different to another mastering engineer as they may not have the gear I have, but I try to be as true to the sound the mix engineer or producer has created. So maybe that’s my signature sound! I will go in the direction sound-wise that the client wants me to. This is especially important if they are tying to be very specific when crafting a sound for their album or EP.
Did you get any personal advice from another mastering engineer? Who was it from?
I have been very lucky with the mentors I have had, and the experience I have gained from them, from my first studio job to teachers and lectures. But in my industry its very hard to train under a mastering engineer as it’s just not the same industry it was 10 - 20 years ago. What is great though is the community of mastering engineers is not massive, and often everyone knows of or has a small connection to someone else. Through the AES (Audio Engineering Society) and forums we all exchange ideas and discuss the hot topics of the mastering world.
I do watch very closely the work and wisdom of a few mastering engineers that are very active in our community. One being Ian Shepherd in particular. He’s extremely knowledgeable and experienced and more importantly he is very generous with that knowledge.
It’s not strictly advice but, even though he’s a well established engineer, he shows a hunger to know more and often discusses new ideas within the community. I think that never being complacent in what you know, and always looking to improve what you do, is an important part of being successful in whatever you do.
And what is the advice you would give to someone who’d like to be a mastering engineer?
Listen to music, all music, never close yourself off to a genre. You need to be familiar with everything that’s out there now and what has been in the past. That way what appears next won’t be such a surprise!
Know your technical and musical knowledge. We use a lot of scientific tools and musical tools in often equal measures in mastering. It’s always handy to know what frequency middle C is or what an earth hum is and how to deal with it on a recording for example.
Any mastering engineers you look up to?
I have a great amount of respect for a few engineers in my field. Ian Shepherd, Bob Katz and Pete Lyman to name just a few.
What do you like the most about music?
That’s got me thinking!
For me it’s the emotions it can make you feel - it hasn’t always got to hit you like a train, it can be subtle, but a great song will always make you feel something.
What are your favourite records of 2017?
Ah! I always find that question hard…
Loved Foo Fighter’s Concrete and Gold this summer, great to see them come back with something very powerful. Gorillaz’s Humanz, was a nice surprise as well back at the start of the year, as too was Bonobo’s Migration.
Lastly I’m going to have to big up a track I have worked on I’m afraid!
Jules Rendell’s new single - Old Friend. As soon as I put it up in the studio I fell in love with it. Even if I hadn’t mastered it, it would be in my music collection. I play it to everyone and everyone loves it!
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