‘The Mastering Engineer’s Journey Is The Destination’
The evolution of a new single begins with a songwriter and ends with the mastering engineer. The building blocks in between; production, vocal performances, instrumental performances, editing, mixing, etc… are all essential in the process of ending up with a fantastic song. But mastering is the book end that can make or break a beautiful project. It’s the icing on a cake, the nitro finish on a Fender, the Crossover in a speaker. The M.E. provides the ‘je ne sais quois’, which makes all the difference in each listener’s experience. But who are these acoustically blessed geniouses and how does one chart a course for a mastering engineer career? ThatsMyGig.com was stoked to catch up with Brian Lucey, Grammy Award winning mastering engineer. He has worked with esteemed artists like The Black Keys, Lucinda Williams, Dr. John, Cage the Elephant, Ringo Starr, Marilyn Manson, Arctic Monkeys, and more. Brian was cool enough to share about his journey to success, what life is like as an in demand M.E., and how to know if you’re ready for a career as a mixing engineer.
By: Derek Williams
TMG: Tell us about your musician days, prior to sound engineering.
BRIAN LUCEY: I was playing guitar at age 11- nylon strings, then my brother’s ES-335 … taught myself from albums, a lot of old blues, some rock. Black and gold ’67 Les Paul in high school- I miss it. Played Rush and Bowie and AC/DC. Sang cover songs from wider genres with a cheap acoustic guitar in college, at a weekend bar. Met some guys in NYC on Bleeker St. in a bathroom at an open mic night, at 19, and was full-time with them six nights a week for a long summer. ’67 Jaguar. Eventually left college, played in a lot of bands as the hired gun, found my way to Guitar Craft courses with Robert Fripp from 1991-1997. Meditation daily. Intentional living. Being a channel for music. Symmetrical scales in 5 and 7. Teamwork. Cooking, and cleaning toilets, and living in the craft of music making, not the commerce. Formed a rock band in 1994-2008, playing guitar and singing. Made 5 records. The last one I did all the tracking, mixing, mastering, singing/guitar/piano. Insane. Started engineering in the mid 90s by observing those I hired. Was tracking, mixing, and producing: eventually using 2″ Ampex machines. Massive debt in this era, juggling credit cards against my humble house. Chasing tone. The sound in my head. Started mastering in 2000. Eventually mastering took over and is really where it was always headed, yet I had no idea. Creative living is like that. On the one hand the future presents itself as a surprise, and on the other, it was an inevitability we didn’t see coming.
TMG: Tell us more about that transition from musician to full-time mastering?
BRIAN LUCEY: I am mostly interested in music. Money is simply a necessity. I stopped being a musician professionally early on: as it was too much of a compromise on my vision and taste. I’m more of an original than anything else, and that seldom pays unless the stars line up. I’m definitely not a whore for a gig, and I hate bad authority. Relying on the music biz for money is a potential disaster to your spirit as a human being. This I learned from Robert Fripp. So I was proud to have a day job. Door-to-door political causes one summer, nursery work with mulch and trees the next, furniture deliveries for many years… seeing people as they really are, in their homes, and walking them through a tough moment- where what they ‘thought up’ became real. That was much like mastering actually, taking people over the threshold. A lot of lessons in those days. Eventually, I did furniture sales and then interior design with my mom in Ohio- high-end homes, small and big jobs. Using my taste and working with people’s taste. It was more practice for what I do now. I was always playing music and recording music, but I was free to do what I was moved to do, in my own time. No compromises. No need to make money from the trends of the day. Eventually, mastering took over my time and I was making enough money to stop the W-2 and go 1099. It happened organically over a long period of time. I was all about the process, not the results. You have to commit to principles and standards, and the process, then, can have it’s effect. Too many people are ambitious and manipulative without merit. Principles like ‘Honor Necessity’. What do I need? Honor sufficiency. How much is enough? And service. It’s all service. To music, to other people. Serve yet don’t be a slave: to people, to the music biz. There is a balance line. Most people either serve too easily and lose themselves, or can’t serve without resentment and ego issues and power struggles. There is a balance to be found where you keep your integrity and are useful to the world. There is joy there and some money there, too. “When I master a record, you get all of me, because that’s what it takes to be great at this gig.”
TMG: How do your skills as a guitarist and vocalist affect how you work as an engineer?
BRIAN LUCEY: Well, everything I did plays into now. That’s life, right? From testing tubes, and pedals, and speakers, and getting great tones- to songwriting, and recording, and tracking my own vocals to 2″ tape, no edits! And then building studios, or dealing with people in sales, or on deliveries when they were stressed; and, watching my mother run a small business with principles, and be a professional artist with integrity; as an engineer, I’m all about music that moves people, and there is a cocktail that I pour:1 part frequency balance1 part harmonic distortion1 part transient to compression balance1 part mid side shape, to suit the style. Combine that with altering my work for the sequence, and overcoming resistance to negativity by intuiting how the world will hear it… and you’re getting close to understanding the subconscious manipulation that is my work. I want you to feel and love it, and for it to move you… within 3 seconds of listening and in 30 years. That takes everything I know about music, people, engineering, business, etc. When I master a record, you get all of me, because that’s what it takes to be great at this gig.
TMG: For readers who may not know, could you please explain the exact role that a mastering engineer holds in creating the final product?
BRIAN LUCEY: We make the master, technically. But, the money is in the artistic dimension. It’s like color correction on a movie. You don’t write it or act in it, or direct it or edit it- none of that traditional creativity. But you can change the entire mood and the way it’s perceived by the color and the flow of colors. That’s powerful. You can also upgrade the way the acting and direction and editing is felt and understood. Some people are about ‘flow’ without the upgrade. I don’t see mastering as a clinical job of flow only, and believe we all have a hand in the energetic result. So, we might as well jump in. I have only failed my clients when I was too respectful and not myself fully. Respecting the source always happens, but I have yet to hear a mix that could not be improved, and altered anew given a sequence change. Manipulation is not always bad, we all want what we want and go after it. It’s especially a positive when we connect people emotionally to music as it was intended to be felt. My job is to connect with the broadest audience, the most deeply. To improve every record beyond the usual expectations of the team. The tools are common to mixing: EQ, limiting, compression, etc. It’s the quality of the chain and the monitoringand the enginneer’s ear that makes it different. Mostly it’s the overview aspect, we don’t deal in parts or style.
TMG: Why did you make the move from Ohio to Los Angeles and what was that transition like?
BRIAN LUCEY: I love Columbus, best local music scene I’ve ever been around, if diversity of great talent is your measure. The people are open and sincere, and generally down to earth. It’s always been my chosen home, not just where I’m from. Many opportunities to move came and went. Seattle, NYC, Austin, Portland, Nashville. After my dad died in 2013, I was simply needing a change and a challenge, and left the place I love. I had done all I could do artistically from Columbus, and wanted to see what it would be like to move to L.A., and not need anything from it (that’s not how most people come here, and I feel for them). I had my clients, and momentum, and accolades and loyalties built already. I felt that in L.A. there was a creative swell happening, and there are so many music makers at the highest level here. I wanted to connect with them, and to make their work even better than it had been. I remember meeting Geoff Emrick, who recorded the Beatles, on a Grammy red-carpet event, and thought, “if he’s here, who else could be here?” Turns out, a lot of people making music. The licensing connections, the weather. It’s going well so far. I love my new studio.
TMG: What was it like, working with Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney of The Black Keys?
BRIAN LUCEY: Dan and Pat are both great. Dan is a smart guy with great taste and he’s always learning. We have the Ohio thing, that only Ohio people know. No bullshit I guess you’d call it. Merit-driven confidence. Pat is similarly smart and savvy, also humble and he’s funny. Pat was their engineer in the beginning. He doesn’t get enough credit for his chops. He mixed a Tennis record once: best mixes I had heard that year, and I hear 400+ mixers a year. Lately, when I see Pat he thanks me every time, and he doesn’t have to do that. He understands, they both do: real life. Dan is always onto the next project. He works nonstop it seems: not sure when he sleeps. I met Dan first in 2008, working on Hacienda and Jessica Lea Mayfield. He never said a word about The Black Keys, and they were doing well. He was “Dan, a producer from Akron”. It was a long time before I knew his main gig. They have cool parents and are brothers. I admire their whole team. It takes a team to do anything, and they have it. They’ve worked hard and smart for a long time and deserve everything they’ve earned.
TMG: You have mastered records for many artists, including the new Lucinda Williams, recent Cage the Elephant, last year’s Marilyn Manson comeback, the breakout record from Chet Faker, of course The Black Keys last three records, Counting Crows, and Dr. Dog, David Lynch, and even the Ringo Starr Band. Do you prefer a specific genre and does that affect your work on other genres?
BRIAN LUCEY: Music is music and people are people. It’s electricity down a wire, to a driver that creates magic in midair. Subjective taste doesn’t apply in my gig. Nor does judging and picking favorites. I connect people to music, the universal language. I actually don’t respect M.E.s who are genre specific, that’s just a mixer’s helper who makes a master. Mastering should begin with mixes you love or at least ‘like’, and go up from there. I am known for some styles more than others, yet I do all styles, each year, and have no favorites.
TMG: As an engineer, how did you first get your name out there? Did you market yourself using specific platforms, or would most of your work come from recommendations?
BRIAN LUCEY: I’m 100% by referral. I was doing well for the 10 years before TBK “Brothers”, but that helped a ton. It’s all about one song, one record, one client. When nothing was more than 500 or 1000 CDs printed per record, I used to want the artist to have 3 friends who got excited, so even if the band broke up- I would have more work. Today I’m fortunate to do many records that sell in big numbers, so I don’t have to think that way. I just want to exceed expectations and make people very excited, about the singles, and the whole. I want to heal the recording process and make a great memory. And, I want to upgrade the day of everyone who listens. That’s really my secret aim- to vibrate the world to a better place, one song at a time.
TMG: We have read that you believe there are six steps to creating a great record. Tell us a little about each step.
BRIAN LUCEY: I have it up to 7 now (laughs). Pre production is its own big thing, after Arrangement. Briefly …
- Inspiration Silence becomes sound. Chaotic, fun, playful, exciting.
- Arrangement. The song idea is made more complete and digestible by being formed.
- Pre Production. Hugely important. Tempos, BPM, arranging the process of the recording, planning… and planning to be flexible in the moment.
- Performance in the room. All about tone and vibe, and the vision becomes real, in pieces, here. Performance is everything. Drums. Vocals. The rest.
- Tracking Engineer – a unique skill set.
- Mixing Engineer – we know what this is.
- Mastering Engineer.
At best, each one moves the ball forward, and perfectionism does not get in the way of excellence. It’s a balance. Momentum is the name of the game. Taste + skill + momentum = a better record than we could have known. Fear is a killer, at any step. Perfectionism is fear. Technical thinking is fear… musical thinking is not.
TMG: What are some mistakes that can hold a mastering engineer back from achieving his/her best work?
BRIAN LUCEY: Like anyone doing anything, ambition and fear are the killers. Mastering, I believe, is best done by people who have done all the steps for many years. You can learn the craft young, but without broad musical and engineering experience, you will never have the balls to be anything more than a safe mastering engineer- and there are many of these. We need people with broad experience mastering, who know how to get involved in the process and how to lay out. It all takes so much time and most of us are impatient. Fear is a killer. In mastering, that’s expressed through technical thinking or conceptual listening that impedes actual vibrational listening. And, perfectionism is a fear based approach, music is the language of emotion and connection and elevation. It’s not a math or science project at heart. Those are only the means.
TMG: In your opinion, what is the difference between a good and a great song and what role does the mastering engineer have in this?
BRIAN LUCEY: Well, we don’t write songs, we just make them all seem like they’re “great”. A great song to me, pre mastering, is something that connects, and, through connection, uplifts and builds community- while being intimate and personal at the same time. It balanced the universal with the personal. It seems to be written for me, and yet we all feel that same way, together. It could be any style, as long as there is honesty from the artist, anything can work. Even a seemingly depressing song is uplifting to the right person from the right artist. Music is the language of emotional connection. Of community. A great song connects. If there was one way to do it, I would write a short book, but it’s always in the moment with the artist and their audience: present and future. I can say that because I hear a couple thousand songs a year, I do often hear what will be successful, what it a great song and production, and style has nothing to do with it. Nor do the trends that are now. There is an objectivity in great music. It’s undeniable. It overcomes all doubters and cynicism and trends du jour.
TMG: What are your thoughts on the “Loudness War” and its effect on music today? How have downloads and streaming changed the quality of audio? Does this change your approach to mixing or mastering a song?
BRIAN LUCEY: Loudness war is mostly over, but will never be over. The mostly ‘over’ part is the compression lust that was way overboard for a time. People are better about it these last five years, as they became educated, and tired of the compressed junk. The part that will never die, is that deep-in-the-monkey-brain… louder is better. So we have to work with that reality. I have made loud records, but they moved air and were emotionally engaging. As far as streaming data, I master for one result, and it’s compressed down to whatever works for the label or artist. But I make one definitive record. My ear likes low end and low mids and not too bright, and that helps- I think. But not by my intention. Just by grace, I hear a way that ‘data compresses’ well.
TMG: What are some of your current projects, and how do you spend an average day?
BRIAN LUCEY: Many cool records from known people lately. Ringo Starr Live, with so many guests- like Bettye Lavette, Ben Harper, Ben Folds, Brendan Benson, the Head and The Heart, Joe Walsh. With Don Was, Peter Frampton, and Steve Luthaker in the band. I did the new Lucinda Williams- out in early February, with Bill Frisell on guitar. The Last Shadow Puppets is great- out soon. The Kills new record is great- out soon. I do a lot of pop and alternative pop in Australia. Many songs on Triple J from Eric J Dubowski- a great (American) mixer, working over there. Average day? I work late and get up late. Cate, my assistant, is in Ohio, and we Skype almost every day- some days more than once. Daytime for me is revisions and admin., and delivering master DDPs. Nightime is new work and creative time. I have my studio at home, so I can go from waking up in bed, to the studio, anywhere between 12 noon and 5pm. I work until 2 am or as late as 5 am- 7 days a week usually. Unless we go back to Ohio or something. Eric J jokes that I work 24 hours a day, but I don’t. It just seems like it to clients, and that’s okay. The smartphone was a real game changer. It’s all about the flow of my day. I look to have peak energy for the new records and be in a more clinical mood for revisions and DDP delivery. I have clients all over the world, so they are always doing something 24/7. Sometimes the time zone thing can be a real advantage to meeting deadlines in Australia or Europe. Cate helps with the emails and invoices and sets my schedule via Google docs, then I alter it so that I’m inspired, and the day works out well. Each day is a unique event, and they’re all different, yet the same. I’m here working most of the day. Balancing the need for immediacy with timeless awesomeness, to make a person or a team of people happy. I watch TV to chill, dumb shows like NCIS or sports, or Netflix in bed. We have a hot tub on the roof to relax my back, I have scoliosis pretty bad. There is some gym equipment here that I get on some days, to not get fat sitting on my ass always. I try and get up often, but many hours often pass in this very same chair (laughs).
TMG: Do you have any final tips for our readers pursuing careers as audio engineers and/or mastering engineers?
BRIAN LUCEY: The engineering life is hard. And if you’re not really needing it down deep in your bones, then you honestly shouldn’t bother. Not being elitist or rude- but do something else. Life will be better. Same goes for musicians. Get a day job and enjoy your passion in your free time. Needing money really changes how we look at a thing. If committed and needing to do this professionally, you will have to find where your temperament and skills work best. Who are you really on the inside, and how can you be of service of others? It’s all service, no one cares about you unless you help them. That’s real life, we are all selfish- but in this together for a time. Find what environment suits you, that’s important. For example, I was not especially well suited to produce, as I’m too impatient, and to some souls… that seemed bossy. Yet some people are great at dealing with an artist under stress, and they love the co-creation of producing. I’m best working alone at odd hours, on nearly finished work, as I like overview, subtlety, and the control in no one touching it after me. You are you, so find your place and look to serve, and prepare to suffer for a very long time in service of music, and in service of those who give music a voice. I had a day job for a long time, to allow me time to develop myself on every level musically- without needing to be someone’s helper to pay rent. That worked for me. Yet it might not work for you at all. Everyone is different and has a place, somewhere.
If you’re an engineer for 10-20 years and have a musical ear that’s top notch, and a mind for overview, you can maybe master. Being able to hear where a work is headed… and objectively what is needed… in 3 seconds of listening, then maybe you’re ready to go. A mentor is great, but I couldn’t teach my life or my taste per song while still doing the work. So, I don’t do interns. Mastering is not for everyone because they hear parts and don’t do overview well. Or they need to put themselves on it too soon, for their identity and ego. Or they are afraid to get involved. It’s a balance. Mixers hear parts; mastering folk hear the overview. Different worlds really, mixing and mastering. Each has a unique mindset, plus skill set. Mastering is really tough to do well. There are some people without the skills giving mastering a bad name right now. The skill set is very long. If you insist on mastering before you’re 30 or 40, get a great room and monitoring going. At the very least, you will do no harm with a great room.