As a child, music was easy company. It brought comfort in spades when the world didn’t make sense. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate music for its ability to motivate, focus and inspire me. I still try to find the music that feels like a soundtrack for life.
My love for music led me to play the drums from the age of twelve. With the mere existence of Jeff Porcaro, Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta and Stewart Copeland, I could barely think about anything else. I played as long and as often as possible. I attended four years of private lessons with a great teacher. During those lessons, we spent as much time talking about life and philosophy as we did drums and I began to appreciate the power of ideas expressed through music. I was inspired by music and felt connected to the people making it. I discovered in time that there are experiences available in group improvisational spaces that can stun the musicians, and yet what is experienced as a group is only possible because of the musical mastery of individuals. Musicians participate in a completely unique expression of community every time they play.
I’d played the drums on an album, enjoyed hanging around for the mixing process and at the end, I thought we were done, but when the producer started wrapping the mixes to be couriered to Nashville to be mastered, my curiosity was piqued. I asked him why he was sending it, and when he told me what the mastering engineer would do, it was as though everything in my life that had happened before that moment suddenly made sense. I’d discovered a creative contribution that married art with engineering, and which perfectly suited my particular orientation to music. I’d describe myself as a ‘musical aestheticist’ because I’m less interested in the lyrics and more interested in the presentation.
I went home, pulled out the booklets from my entire CD collection and discovered that about a third of my collection had been mastered by one man – Bob Ludwig. I wondered just how much influence Bob Ludwig had on my enjoyment of music.
The first year brought a few exciting opportunities and a steep learning curve. In my second year, my mastering workload grew five-fold as the South African industry responded positively to the new guy. I moved to Magix Sequoia, invested in a pair of BM12S Dynaudio sub-woofers, two Cranesong Hedds, a Manley Massive Passive EQ (Mastering Edition), a Manley Vari-Mu (Mastering Edition), and began making plans for the next studio which was to be a definitive step forward for me.
The embers of the global market inferno of 2008 were still glowing while record labels adapted their business models to profit from music streaming. This slowed the pace and scale of music productions in South Africa. The changing landscape inspired changes of my own. By building a studio at home I was able to see more of my family and use the opportunity to experiment with gear and acoustics.
While at Jacana Road I replaced my Dynaudio monitors with Unity Audio Boulders and Avalanche subs. I also tried (and rejected) the RND Master Buss Processor, Manley SLAM, TKlizer, TK BC2-ME, Tegeler Vari Tube Compressor and Lavry Blue conversion.
I tried and kept the Maselec MLA-2, and after hearing the Prism ADA 8XR, I knew I wanted it at the heart of my chain. Plugins didn’t feature much in my chain outside of the task of digital brick-wall limiting.
There were signs that plugins were a viable alternative to analogue gear, but I wasn’t ready to give up my expensive gear habit just yet. Instead, I started a fresh round of investment. I moved to a studio in an existing studio complex, bought the Prism ADA 8XR and the API 2500 and fired up a fresh round of marketing hype around the new pieces. Clients responded positively and I had exciting projects in the diary. Still, it was there that I learned the limitations of the hardware I was using. A trusted and experienced client persuaded me to experiment with plugins instead of the tube gear I was in the habit of reaching for, and his observations on my work with plugins arrested my attention. I was being rudely awoken from my analogue dream with all its flashing lights and was beginning to grapple with the prospect of being able to do a better job with all digital tools.
By 2018 I moved the studio home again as I prepared to move to the UK. I began experimenting with mastering with headphones by investing in a pair of Audeze LCD-X. I mastered all projects in the box and on headphones for weeks in a row to assess the results. I sold my prized Manley Tube gear to facilitate a purchase of the Maselec MEA-2 and a 1997 SSL G384 bus compressor. It was the first time in over a decade that I was without a tube or two in the signal path. Plugins were doing almost all the work in my masters.
I resisted the most profound transformation of my career, which was to move away from hardware toward plugins for mastering because of the weight of the decision and the time it took me to get the gear in the first place. I was also getting consistently better results by mastering with headphones. Eighteen years spent working in a traditional studio meant I was able to quickly identify how these remarkable headphones had removed the last remaining obstacles to nearly perfect monitoring.
In 2021 I moved to England. The pace and scale of the changes I’ve made have left me better equipped than ever to make the judgements and subjective changes needed for great masters.
I like to see mastering as a variable outcome. If you send your mix in for mastering, when it comes back it will occupy a place on a continuum between little or no audible change, to virtually unrecognizable. That is because it’s the mastering engineer’s work to convert sonic events to musical events – to listen to a feature of the recording and decide if it is musical, or if the feature will better serve the overall presentation if altered. So, a song can come back from mastering completely unaltered and still be considered mastered, because mastering is the process of having an objective specialist adjust your song to his internal benchmarks of musicality.