Rock Music And Gynaecology - Mastering Media Blog

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Rock Music And Gynaecology

An aspect of the mastering engineer's job that is often overlooked is the "people skills" it demands. Often sessions involve meeting artists for the first time, making them feel at ease, gaining their trust, listening and learning about what they want from the session, and then navigating the delicate process of explaining what you're doing with their music and why. All within only a few hours.

As a mastering engineer who is also a musician, recording and mixing engineer, I have a great deal of empathy with both artists and engineers - trying to make a great record can be a demanding, grueling and sometimes emotional process. People often express insecurities about what they've achieved, be it in the performance, recording or mix, and I always try to focus on the positives in what they've achieved, even where there may problems that need addressing. And I hope that I come across as friendly and supportive in the process.

Recently though, the importance of all this was brought home to me even more strongly than usual. Last month I did a really enjoyable session for an unsigned band called the millionstars - gorgeous, quirky, ethereal british acoustic pop with mild electronica influences - cellos, bassoons, beats, breathy vocals and bass clarinet - how could I not love this stuff ?

The session went well and I felt it had been a great success - the recordings and mixes were excellent to begin with, the material was catchy, clever and varied, and in the mastering I was able to add a whole extra dimension of "width" and "gloss" as Rose and Malcolm had hoped I would. We found we had a lot in common as far as our musical tastes were concerned, we had a good laugh, and at the end of the day we all agreed the album sounded great. Job done, and I went home a happy man.

So, imagine my surprise when I was absentmindedly surfing a few days ago and found themillionstars blog, where on 03/07/08 Rose said:

"we went to get our album of songs "mastered" this week. It is a Dark Art... 

...our good friend Mark compared it to calling out to a total stranger in the street to babysit your children. There you go. Perfect. all those tiny fragments of song in your head, the strands of experience, the homespun, uncomfortably, possibly-inappropriately heartfelt lyrics, brought out and recorded and melded together, and then letting them be played VERY LOUDLY to a complete stranger in a room full of boxes and lights. (One word, girls: Gynaecologist...)

anyway!... we have an album. and it feels like us."

Initially I was amused by this, but then I started to feel a bit uncomfortable - Rose was saying I made her feel as if she was visiting a gynaecologist !?!  I'd hoped my "bedside manner" was better than that... so I sent her a slightly worried message, and thankfully she reassured me that I'd misunderstood.

"oh no... it's just the process, letting someone else hear each strand of a song... [a bit] like doing my music exam grades all over again"

And then she added a comment to her blog:

"[Ian] made me feel as comfortable about my voice, bassoon-playing, glockenspiel-mangling and general flouncing-about-on-the-piano as anyone has ever made me feel.
if you're ever considering mastering anything, look him up...  He'll make it sound beautiful, and soothe your soul."

- which has to be one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me professionally ! So, all was well with the world again. But it reinforces the point of this post:

Mastering engineers need to be sensitive. 

Not only to people's musical intentions and the genre they are working in; not only to their possible insecurities on a technical level as far as the recording goes, but also about the music itself. Even though people often ask me if I like their music, it had never really hit home in quite this way - until I read Rose's comment - that my customers might feel judged by a mastering engineer on an artistic level as well as a technical one. But of course they do ! Often the mastering studio is the first place musicians have their art listened to by someone other than close friends and family or long-term fans - it's natural they might feel uncomfortable, and it's important to be aware of that. Especially since the critical listening environment and constant repetition puts everything under the microscope even more than ever before.

And finally, we need to realise that the mastering session is actually the first step of a new phase for the artist - all their hard work is about to be released for scrutiny, review and criticism by the world at large, and we represent the first concrete example of that. It's up to us to make sure that transition is as comfortable as possible, as well as ensuring that the music sounds the best it possibly can when it arrives "out there".

It's a big responsibility, I hope I can continue to live up to it.


Gord Wait said...

You're right, it is a good article!
It may be that the title is putting people off.
(Your mailout mentioned it hasn't seen a lot of traffic)

ianshepherd said...

Thanks ! You might be right, but that's OK. The title is a sightly obscure joke - I don't mind the post being a special treat for people prepared to make the effort to read it :-)

Megan said...

Great article, Ian --- I'm glad you kept the title. I'm a project manager and this really made me think. I'm brought in when the pressure's on and suddenly someone has to ask for help rather than managing every detail of their project or business themselves. I try to be sensitive and not change the essence of anything while offering ideas and support, but it never hit me how VERY vulnerable a person or team might be at that point. I'm feeling honored and blown away by the beauty and power of being present as something new is being born, and they may be painfully aware that they've brought a relative stranger behind the curtain before the mess has been cleaned up. As a female, the imagery is very powerful. I'm bookmarking this to remind myself to be much more aware and sensitive. I think it will make a difference in how my clients feel about my presence and contributions at the birth of their beautiful "baby."

ianshepherd said...

Hi Megan,

You're right, this stuff must apply even more in situations where someone may already be feeling like they messed up - whereas hopefully most of my clients feel pretty good about their music, and even better when they leave, but we can't take it for granted.

I'm sure the people you support end up feeling better at the end of the process.

Thanks for the comment, it's great to hear back from people :-)


Dulla said...

Applies to all engineers in the trade especially in the live arena where small bands sometimes are at the complete mercy of some high & mighty engineer.
I, as an engineer shall be trying to better myself anyway.

Thomas Coolberth said...

In the same sense, the budding musician needs to be gentle with himself as he goes from composer, to performer, to engineer in his basement studio.

Confidence in ones self is the key ... I try to remind myself of the stories of he pros doing take after take after take to get it right.

Ian Shepherd said...

Thanks for the comment, Thomas !

You're absolutely right, we should all cut ourselves some slack, sometimes :-)

caro snatch said...

yes i would go as far to say it is 50% technical and 50% people skills job, being a recording engineer.

sensitivity means honing your craft, always learning, trying to leave yr ego out of the studio and really being present with who is there and where they are at on their journey.

i call my job acting as a midwife for people's music/sound :)

i elaborate in this post

good reminder! will share :) said...

been so busy doing it for so many decades i honestly forgot what it would look like to a neophyte thanks for the recall bro

James Scheffert said...

Great post, Ian. I think the title is great, it should always be an attention grabber and it certainly is in this case. I had to do a double-take when I first saw it. But then I laughed.

I completely agree with an engineer needing to be both understanding and friendly, but subjective at the same time. It's almost like playing good cop, bad cop, but you're the only person playing. And this not only goes for mastering engineers, but producers, mixers, anyone who is involved with the artist and their work. It takes a lot of courage to put one's work out there for scrutiny.

Also, thank you for keeping this blog! I'm currently following the e-mail course on mastering and there's a wealth of helpful points in there! And I listened to your mixes on Spotify, very excellent work!

Ian Shepherd said...

Thanks James, glad you liked the post !

stevekeys59 said...

Hi Ian,
The title analogy is especially good for females I imagine, and perhaps gynaecologists. But on reading, far from feeling excluded, I certainly found resonance. In a small localised way I've had my material and musicianship out there in the cold light of public scrutiny for more years than I care to recall but the prospect of baring all to the professional industry has always filled me with fear of failure.

Ian Shepherd said...

Hi Steve - glad it made sense for you - letting the world see our work is definitely an act of bravery, for all creatives... including me !

Grover Lee said...

Thanks, Ian! A great reminder of how we see our "children", our musical creations. In school we are encouraged by our teachers that we have potential. When we hit 'the real world', we are very sensitive to the message: 'you suck'! So, I say often "I KNOW I suck. Tell me WHY ... if you want to help. If not, then %^&(# off!" And still we try to be sensitive souls to the joys and heartaches of our fellow journey takers in life. There are those in the music business I've seen during 25 years of living in Nashville who offer false praise in hope of getting cash from beginning musicians or songwriters. We need accurate feedback. Neither false praise nor withering criticism, but the balance that comes when someone who cares about you and your endeavor advises you in an encouraging way. The truth spoken in love is always best. Like your client, most times we know we don't measure up to the perfect ideal we have in our minds. Letting us know that's Normal, is a priceless reminder.

Gary said...

A very good subject indeed! Very well done, Ian, although it reminds of the old joke, "I'm not a gynecologist but I'll have a look!"

tony hudspeth said...

intimacy .
cant see the problem ..
going to a mastering studio is not as bad as sending your work to a producer or letting the studio engineer listen to your vocal line in solo.. then out comes the molodyne -
now that is a reason to feel your are being put under the microscope.

i think however if a band /artist/producer or mix engineer submits there first piece of work to the mastering guys then yeah but its the mix that gets the scrutiny not so much the song...

great Blog Ian and your site is oooozing with great tips
five star rating from me

tanks and pls pls more of the same

Eddy Bugnut said...

good article, different and original insight

Brian Dodson said...

Ian, great article. I too, am bookmarking this for a reminder from time to time. Being a live engineer myself, for a mega-church, I interact with a lot of first-time/beginner or unsure musicians (ours are unpaid, volunteer only). So, being able to easily and assuredly provide some confidence and ease to these folks is a must for the performance I/we are looking for. That level of "bedside" manner is vital at all stages of audio production. Makes everyone's life easier, and better end result ensues. Great article, man, loved it

Brian Dodson said...

Ian, great article. I too, am bookmarking this for a reminder from time to time. Being a live engineer myself, for a mega-church, I interact with a lot of first-time/beginner or unsure musicians (ours are unpaid, volunteer only). So, being able to easily and assuredly provide some confidence and ease to these folks is a must for the performance I/we are looking for. That level of "bedside" manner is vital at all stages of audio production. Makes everyone's life easier, and better end result ensues. Great article, man, loved it

Jasmin said...

I am really impressive on your nice tips. I have gotten such tips from-

DaveStuff said...

Found this link from your email today...
Was gonna check out the Millionstars songs...But the links did not seem to take me there...

Anyway I been checking out some of your articles :))

Jason Benzon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Tom Steger said...

Really great article, Ian! I've always had a sense (a debilitating sense, actually), that I was "babysitting someone's baby".

But maybe deeper than that even: Human beings in general are almost always on the defense against "judgement and assessment".
When we put the "baby" under the proverbial microscope (mastering studio tools), sometimes it can get a little too intimate for some folks.

Thank you for the great insight, and the brilliant tools, articles, and for your commitment to making music that moves and inspires the humans...

Tom Steger

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