Dave McNair has been playing, recording, mixing, producing, and mastering music for more than 30 years and has worked with a wide range of artists including Los Lobos, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Patti Smith, Miles Davis, Willie Nelson, Angelique Kidjo, and John Mayall. He now works for New York City's top mastering house, Sterling Sound.
I interviewed McNair for Tone Audio magazine, this is just a small part of it.
Q: How has the mastering engineer's work changed from the days when analog audio ruled the roost?
When they were cutting records from analog masters, mastering engineers were caretakers of rather fragile analog signals. It wasn't an easy thing, trying to get it from Point A to Point B without losing the music. Back then the mastering engineer didn't compress or limit the signal all that much, you wanted the end user to hear all of the punch and leading edge dynamics. But now that things are so clean on the recording end mastering is a bridge from mixing to the duplication process. You might be adding the color that might have once been added by analog processors or mixing consoles.
Q: 'Color,' is that the same thing as sweetening?
Right, I'm chasing this idea, I want to make CDs sound like LPs.
Q: By adding complementary distortions?
Not always, but sometimes. I want to get more of the effortless sound of vinyl on CDs.
Q: It's pretty complex, but I agree, analog distortions can sound more musical than digital, even high-resolution digital.
Right, they add flavor, texture, and harmonics, but I'm not speaking for all mastering engineers; many still use a very simple path and stay away from enhancements.
Q: Like compression, you guys love compression. But the music was already compressed during tracking and mixing, why compress it again?
Not always, maybe 20 percent of the time I get stuff that's not compressed enough. That's only because there's so many more new-to-the-game, semiamateur engineers making records these days. They're recording some really great, artistically valid bands, but it winds up sounding like a documentary style of recording. They leave it to the mastering guy to make it work, so I need to make the sound more dense, gluing the elements together. … Read more