Of the three stages in the process of making a record — tracking, mixing, mastering — it is only mastering that happens behind a veil, performed in optimized listening spaces, employing speakers and amplifiers that cost more than your car and racks of specialized equalizers, dynamics and spatial processors, and metering tools that suggest actions of the highest precision and the finest touch. The fact the recording artist herself is typically absent from the mastering proceedings only reinforces mastering’s mythos of secret knowledge. Its art is one of final touches performed upon artifacts that are, for all intents and purposes, already finished when they arrive at the mastering shop.
Mastering is the final process by which a record is readied for its audience, and it is an entirely audience-centric art. It must account for the varieties of ways in which that audience will be reached. Vinyl, CD, streaming, and broadcast delivery, for example, each requires significantly different preparation and specifications. Mastering considers the whole spectrum of real-world listening conditions in which music is to be encountered, from audiophile lairs barely less fussed over than the mastering studio itself to car speakers, public-address systems, and a cell phone on a table.
Mastering engineers attend to consistency and coherence between songs on an album, not just loudness but also balance, character, and spirit. Mastering engineers are tasked with translating artistic intent to aesthetic experience, supporting the listener’s perception that a record all comes from “one place,” emotional and physical. It is a weird conflation of most practical and most esoteric concerns, equally subject to romanticization and snake-oil debunking.
Given that mastering involves a transaction between one set of sensitive ears and a finished stereo mix with the directive to “tread lightly,” mastering studios are able to turn out huge volumes of work, unlike recording studios, where tracking and mixing can each take weeks or months and involve numerous engineers. As a result, there are far fewer mastering engineers out there and far fewer openings for them. A handful of big guns master a rather shocking majority of the music you hear.
Enter Jamal Ruhe, an agile independent mastering engineer in the Hudson Valley who honed his craft working out of West West Side Music, Alan Douches’ storied mastering facility in New Windsor, and who has since begun his own enterprise. A storied player and songwriter in his own right, signed to a major label in his early 20s, Ruhe’s impressive resume of mastering credits in his seven years at West West Side and in the years since his 2017 departure includes work with Guided by Voices, Titus Andronicus, Jim Adkins from Jimmy Eat World, Built to Spill, indie darlings Frankie Cosmos, and the legendary San Francisco band Death.
Ruhe is especially invested in the work of friends and locally residing national acts: Grammy-winning Children’s producer and artist Dean Jones, Saugerties-based songwriter Laura Stevenson, Porches, New Paltz spawned indie punk sensation Diet Cig, every note of serious music that I have ever released, and — because this is the very essence of mastering — “many more.” Many, many more.
John Burdick: Mastering. WTF?
Jamal Ruhe: I have a very broad definition of what mastering is, based on my experience and how things are handed to me. An artist team, whether that’s someone at home with a four-track or video post, where 15 people are involved in decision-making, gets to a point at which they are at their maximum. They’ve made it as good as they can make it. They give it to me to finish it.
That can mean repairing things, that can mean borderline mixing things, that can mean sweetening things, that can mean just turning things down, getting things to fit. A significant amount of my time is spent putting things in the right format for distribution — vinyl, streaming, YouTube, broadcast. A lot of it is clerical: knowing your formats, your loudness codecs, your targets.
But on the front end, it is pretty elastic. People give me everything. Mixes of records, iPhone recordings (as you well know).
JB: I have an idea about literary editing. It is less a highly specialized skill than a hat you put on and that brings out the editorial perspective in you — any engaged and sensitive writer can play the editor role. When you put on the hat, you see things differently than when you are, say, doing your own writing. I wonder if mastering is somewhat the same.
JR: I do put on a mastering hat. It is a different perspective than the other roles in recording. It is 100 percent about delivery. It is about how the music is perceived. It is not even really about what the artist thinks about it. People get married to the first form of a work, if it has a certain spirit for them. Mastering is concerned with how that spirit translates — how it is supposed to be heard, not tethered to the way it was created.
You want an artist to feel good, but mostly you want it to relate to their audience what they want it to relate. That translation is very nuanced. An artist’s work inspires in them what they are trying to deliver, innately. That’s problematic. You have to translate it to get that same point across to as many other people as possible. And that comes down to translation, whether that means equalization, dynamics changes, depth of field, loudness. You can go on and on about it. But when you change something, that can be traumatic for an artist.
Theoretically, the goal of the mastering engineer is to do as little as possible. Or nothing! That would be the ideal. I would get something and I would send it back and say, “This is perfect. This is done.” In fairness, I have never done that.
JB: You have played every role in music, instrumentalist and songwriter, live engineer, studio engineer and producer, and now mastering engineer. Is that a typical route to the mastering chair?
JR: Most mastering engineers do not come from the world of making records. They come from the world of audiophiles. Listeners, fans. They have a commitment to excellence in playback, which is something we don’t hear enough about in music making in my opinion. In the Eighties and Nineties playback was something everyone longed for in their houses and cars, something nobody cares about any more. The masses are not concerned with it. They sell more headphones on noise rejection and how well you can talk on the phone with them than they do on how good they sound.
It’s a dramatic change. It is good to have mastering engineers as a bulwark against that. Our emphasis on hearing things played back as intended is a net positive. There are countless millions who love their music and who have never heard it played back on even a decent playback system, I mean even a good pair of headphones. They have never anything like what the music was intended to sound like.
JB: Should mastering engineers have genre specializations?
JR: It can go either way. What you love is what you are going to do best. But I have done stuff that was well outside of my wheelhouse that clients were very happy with, because I did my best to make it translatable. When I am working on something I don’t like, I am often surprised by how well it turns out. It’s a regular occurrence.
JB: When something just seems aesthetically wrong to you, when you just don’t see eye-to-eye with the very intent of a work of art, and it’s irremediable, what do you fall back on?
JR: Musical choices never bother me, but to give you an example of something I don’t like: truly, ideologically objectionable stuff, where I have to stop working and take a deep breath and remind myself that my values as a person mandate me doing this job [laughs].
JB: Jingoistic modern country?
JR: No, no, worse than that. I don’t mind modern country. I lived in Nashville for years and years and have tons of friends who are country session players. I am talking about stuff I couldn’t support or condone on any level, but if I believe that people should allow me to say what I want to say, I have to let these guys say this, and do it. And the project I am thinking of sounded phenomenal. That’s the worst part.
JB: What are you listening for when you master? Are you thinking about every playback scenario, all the way down to cell phone speakers?
JR: So much about mixing and mastering, as technical endeavors, is about proportions, about there being enough of this and not too much of that. Proportions are what frame anything, and that is true in visual art as in music. Color timing in the film world is a very similar thing. Something looking natural to you is about proportions. Something sounding like it is in a room with you is about proportions.
If I am handed a dance-hall track, I know that they want a low end profile that is loud and that hits hard. And that’s going to happen — they mixed it that way. That’s one thing about genre. If it is something that defines the genre, you can be sure they already did that. Whether they give you too much of it is usually the question. Like, in today’s post-blues world, you’re going to get enough 2 KHz. You’re going to have enough guitar.
On a dance-hall record, you’re going to want a certain low end thing to happen, and then you are going to create proportions around that. What to move around to do that, there’s many approaches. Whatever leaves the least amount of fingerprints is what you are going to want, but that low end thing, you are going to want that to come across in as many playback scenarios as possible. There are rap records where when you put the phone down, it is going to shake the table. That’s what is mandated. It is going to ruin the music if it doesn’t do that, and they’re not going to be happy with it. It’s not genre-correct.
But that kind of playback translation is a secondary function of things being done right. The better I have gotten at my job, the less I worry about different playback systems because the more things just fall into place.
JB: Speaking of audiophiles, what do you think of the myths that attend mastering — the dark and occult arts of it?
JR: $200 a linear foot for speaker cable? It gets pretty out there pretty quickly. Like lawyers and doctors, mastering engineers can be very threatened by people understanding what they do, and there’s a little bit of obfuscation, glamorization, marketing hype about how “you’re never going to understand what I am really doing.” I think you can. I think I could teach any engineer the technical aspects of mastering, period.
Maybe not the taste part, or the taste for the business. Dealing with many, many clients, navigating that is not for everyone. If you’re a my-way-or-the-highway type of person, this is not the job for you. If you’re the type of person that is hyper-sensitive to blame and takes things personally, this is not the job for you. It is a job in which you subjugate your artistic opinions to your clients’. You use them, you leverage them to help the client, but if they are at odds with your clients, you just gotta put them in your pocket, because you’re not helping anybody by going to war for them.
I don’t want to overemphasize the role of the mastering engineer. That would be ridiculous, given my position. There are terrible-sounding records that are important, good, and successful records. I mean, broken-sounding records [cites one off the record]. A lot of stuff in the dark ages of early digital, a lot of garage rock records from the Sixties, amazing important records that just don’t sound good. For me to say that how someone masters the record is the be-all and end-all of how the record is going to be received, I don’t believe that. It’s about the art itself. If someone masters the record in a way that doesn’t ruin it, you’re halfway there
JB: Certain specific ways of sounding bad and naïve get mythologized and fetishized and then become a target, a way people want to sound. Desirable, iconic. Proportion and balance may be universal elements of good sound, but then there is a whole dimension of culturally defined good sound — cool sound, which can be bad sound.
JR: I have to reject that premise. The bad sounds that become fetishized, they weren’t bad to begin with. They may have been bad in the context of the era, or not what someone intended, but history proves that it is what had the vibe, what contained a core element of the message of the work. That can be said of super-high-gain metal-core guitars. The majority of the world thinks that that is a terrible sound. Go around China, Africa, South America and play that for some people who speak Quechua or Urdu, they are going to say, “Wow, you have really gone out of your way to create the most horrible sound in the world.”
And it is the bedrock of a genre! Not because it is horrible, but because that reaction is part of the message of the music. The point is “I am upset and I am projecting.” If that sound conveys a message that is integral to the work, sometimes you feel the need to moderate it as an engineer, but you can’t get rid of it. That’s a mistake.
For more about Jamal Ruhe and mastering, visit www.listenupmastering.com