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An interview with renowned mastering engineer Greg Calbi

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Masterfully Done

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Greg Calbi has had quite a run as a mastering engineer — 43 years, to be precise — and he's still going strong. He’s mastered over 8,000 albums during that time, many of them classics.

Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, David Bowie’s Young Americans, Paul Simon’s Graceland and John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges are just a few of the titles in his massive discography. His more recent work includes albums by John Mayer, Bob Dylan, Nelly Furtado, Slater-Kinney, The New Pornographers, Minus the Bear, and many others.

A testament to his talent is that he’s never been out of work since he started in the business back in the early 70’s. He’s worked through the changeover from analog to digital, the rise and fall of the CD, and the decline of the record industry. “I came into this when I was 23 years old and now I'm 68,” Calbi says, and then jokingly adds, “Why I don't have more money, I don't know.”

Calbi spoke with us recently from his studio at Sterling Sound, a world-class mastering facility in New York City.

0737 GREG CALBI Portraits Juan Patino PhotoGreg Calbi Top 40 Portraits Package 4 4 14
Greg Calbi in his studio (photo by Juan Patino)

I remember I interviewed you for a magazine maybe eight or nine years ago, and you still had a lot of analog stuff in your studio and didn't have a ton of digital. Now I assume that's changed?

Yeah. We've all adapted to combining the strongest points of our analog processing with the plug-ins and all the new software that's come out. There are some great companies. Every mastering engineer has a favorite. I've been working with iZotope Ozone 7. It has completely revolutionized what I do here. It has a way of combining with my analog stuff where I can use the plug-in equalizers and maximizers and have the flexibility to be able to offer alternatives that are not too time-consuming or expensive to the client. Whereas in analog, everything was basically real time. When we used to work on tape, everything was like, rewinding the tape, playing the tape. But this is the kind of thing where you can create something and just capture it and have it. And then I can offer the client alternatives, which is very important because clients don't attend the sessions as much anymore.

So, most of the time you don’t work with the clients there?

Years ago, I'd say 70% of the work was attended by the client. Now my work is probably 35% attended by the client. But most of the guys here [at Sterling Sound] have only like 10% attended sessions. So, what we do is we set up a workflow, where people send us the material. We pick it up online, it gets put on our server. I’ll play with it in here, I give them something, and put it back on the server. They get it back. If they want a remix, they send one back on the server. All of this collapses the time, and it makes it so much easier. It makes participation for the client much, much simpler. To the point where you can actually do a session that way.

On some of the classic albums that you did, were the artists in the studio with you? What was that like?

It really varies from record to record. Usually, if it's attended, it's the producer, engineer, and sometimes the artist. Sometimes they come in. Norah Jones, for example, comes in. She likes to listen in the studio. She likes to kind of get a sense of what the record's all about sonically, and re-evaluate the mixes to see if any further work has to be done on them. But some artists you never see or meet.

For example?

I've done like twenty Bob Dylan albums but not only have I never met him, I've never spoken to him. His message goes through one of his managers, Jeff Rosen, and then Jeff will tell me basically what Bob is thinking, and then I kind of give something back, and then Jeff will give it to Bob. So there's an intermediary. 

Any good anecdotes about artists who attended your mastering sessions?

Yeah, one of my favorite ones, and this is going back into the '70s, when I worked on a Harry Nilsson album called Pussycats. I was working on it in the mastering room and Harry shook hands with me and he listened for no more than about a minute. And he turned and looked at me and he said, "I hate these fucking places." And he turned around and walked out. [Laughs]

Wow.

What's happening at that point is basically, it's finished, and the artist has to live with whatever is in that mix and whatever is in that performance. And some people want to move on. Depending on their own security with their performance or whatever. For example k.d. Laing has some of the keenest ears of anyone I've worked with. I only worked with her for one day, on an album called Smoke, back in probably the middle of the 90s. And k.d. was the perfect client because she was demanding, she wasn't pushy, and she had great ears. She had the ears to understand what we're doing. Some people really don't hear what we're doing. And they could be great artists. But she really heard every nuance. Somebody like Mike Brecker, fantastic artist, probably understood everything about his intonation on the saxophone and his breathing and his pauses, but, as far as EQ and stuff like that and overall sonic balances, he didn't have a sensitivity for it. And he would kind of just shrug his shoulders and say, "Whatever you guys think."

It’s interesting that it varies so much from artist to artist.

To some people, it's just really like part of the social ending of making an album; and kind of just finishing it up emotionally. Like Emmylou Harris came in, and just started a conversation about her life and her mom and her daughter, like she was a friend for years. But really almost no discussion about the work or what was happening [in the session]. Just a little talk maybe about the sequence. Because this is the place where the sequence has to be determined.

Did you ever have a whole band in there? Were they every too rowdy for the mastering session?

It's not a matter of getting rowdy. A couple of things happen: If a band comes in, a lot of times if there are multiple writers in the band, they'll have like way too many songs, and a discussion comes up as to which songs are going to be on the album.

So that's not always decided by the time it gets to you?

You'd be surprised how many of these decisions are put off until the very end. Sometimes people come in, they have the eleven songs, and they know the order, one through eleven. But sometimes they have no idea, and sometimes they seek my advice. And if there are multiple writers in the room, there's the politics that goes on with people making sure their songs get on because of the copyrights and everything.

Back to the subject of the influence of digital technology, the ability to recall things instantly has certainly been a double-edged sword on the mixing side, because it makes it hard to completely finish something. I assume it also affects the mastering process?

Mastering : Ozone 7 standalone screen
Calbi has integrated iZotope Ozone 7 into his workflow, and he even wrote a bank of presets that come with the software

The whole thing is, it's the discipline, it's the commitment really. The biggest difference between the digital world and the analog world, in terms of music production is, you really had to commit to something in the recording studio in the 1970s, when everything was analog. If you didn't get it in the studio, you had to rebook the studio, you had to reset the studio up, it was very difficult to get back to where you were, so the pressure was really on. And everybody worked with that in mind, it was a completely different mindset. Now it's all process. Even when people come to the mastering session, they'll come and they'll give us alternatives to the mix. It could be the stem of a particular instrument that you can add more of—not just equalize the instrument but to add more of it. The lack of having to commit can extend the project. But at some point, people run out of time or money, and have to make a commitment. It reminds me of Woody Allen, when he does a movie. He says when he finishes a movie, it's only because it's due, it's never really finished. He doesn't even remember one movie that he couldn't go back and improve.

Earlier, you mentioned iZotope Ozone 7. I know you did a bank of killer presets that comes with it, which anyone can use to get some pretty amazing results. But what’s your thought on DIY mastering? As a mastering engineer, it's the kind of thing that can take business away from you, but on the other hand it's inevitable to a certain degree.

It's a business that's so financially challenged, it really comes down to the resources that somebody has. Somebody who mixes a project and masters it themselves, doesn't get the advantage of some professional ears getting involved and saying, "This could be even better." I think if the budget exists, it's to a mix engineer's advantage to have his work gone over by a mastering engineer and possibly improved. There are mixers who master their own stuff who are really great, but they're really few and far between. It's possible, but it takes a certain kind of listening. And you need to be able to separate from all the stuff that goes on in mixing, and listen to a song in terms of its dynamics and shape and texture and tone, and not get distracted by this bass drum thing or that vocal punch-in, or some other little level.

Right.

It always amazes me. I'll listen to a song and somebody will turn to me and say, "Do you think the guitar solo was loud enough in the second eight bars?" I go like, "If I listen to that, I'd be listening to the mix, but I'm listening for mastering, and it's a different kind of listening." Then when I go back and listen to it I can evaluate it. But it's all about focus.

But you do corrective things. Like if there was a mix where the guitar solo was too loud and they couldn't go back and remix it for whatever reason, you would try to deal with that, right?

Absolutely. If it's really egregious, and it's not a matter of taste. Sometimes somebody comes in and the vocals are so outrageously loud that I have to tell the person, "Listen, I've got to say that this is off the charts, it’s just wrong." And then they'd go back and send me another one. If the vocal is that loud, it would be very hard for me to balance it to where it would be correct. But it would be a tough decision that I need to make, whether to tell somebody that something needs to be remixed. It's not good practice as a professional mastering engineer to do that, because people are looking for support, and they're not necessarily looking for criticism. You have to learn your way through that. You have to get involved with the people. Be delicate. You know, it comes from the experience of doing this for so long.

What's the biggest sonic issue you have with mixes that are submitted to you?

The most common is that the low end is not accurate, it's not well recorded, it doesn't have a good overall sound. Everything from 200 cycles [Hz] down is mass confusion. And that's because monitoring environments are so unreliable. It takes a really experienced engineer working in an environment that he knows — and you'd be surprised how many people have to work in environments that are new to them. The bottom-end problems are difficult. Too much bass drum, or under-mixed bass because the speakers have a lot of extra bass, and you can't really get anything to happen in the low end in the mastering. That's one of the main problems.

What else?

Overdriven vocals and grainy guitars are another problem, where people are just hitting their electronics too hard and don't seem to have a sensitivity for that kind of distortion. What happens is, when you master that — and in mastering you make everything clearer and more vivid — so it becomes almost more distorted. Like it just starts to sound really irritating. And that's also a big problem. And that also has to do with the internal structure of mixes in the box. Mixes where people are driving things a certain way and are not sensitive to it. A lot of the professional engineers I work with now have evolved into doing everything in the box, and their stuff is crystal clear. They just know how to setup all the gain stages.

I wonder if mixing in 32-bit floating-point format has changed the quality of mixes, since you can't clip it so easily?

It's not the resolution. It's hard to accurately describe this, but it's just the temptation to put in so many musical ideas into one song because it's so easy. Most things are too cluttered. And what happens is, when people approach a song and approach a production, they spend so much time on certain elements that they don't want to take them away at the end. The temptation is there to over-clutter, and from a mastering point of view, because we're dealing only with frequencies, that makes it really difficult to strip stuff away and make it really clear and tight and clean.

So, it's more an arrangement problem than it is too much compression or something.

It's the technology leading to a lack of discipline in the arranging, and a lack of confidence in the parts. Because it's so easy to put new parts in. It's what we talked about before, the inability to commit. We'll try this, we'll try this, we'll try this.

When you’re mastering, do you ever check to see how the mastered mixes will sound as MP3s or in other compressed formats? I think Ozone has a feature that lets you do that.

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The Career Highlights section from Calbi's Sterling Sound webpage

I don't actually, because there are so many different variations of how much depth you can get, depending on the bit rate. But I do check my stuff on Spotify, I have Spotify hooked up in the studio. They do a really good job. There's some kind of tiny compression that goes on with the stuff, which I actually have no problem with. I haven't done any kind of shootout with Apple Music and Spotify.

But you don't you think it's worth checking how it will sound in lossy formats like MP3?

I just feel like there's so much variation in how people listen. Just headphones, for example. Every single pair of headphones has a different balance. You can just drive yourself crazy. I just try to make it so I like it better than when it was given to me, and I feel like I've taken it as far as I can. And that the person who sent it to me also feels the same way, and at that point I let it go and see what happens.

But it’s got to be loud.

Loud is where it's all happening. The mastered version has to be both dynamic and loud. If it's loud and not dynamic they don't like it, and if it's dynamic and not loud they don't like it either.

What are your thoughts on the revival of vinyl? And how does it impact you?

It impacts us because it gives us an additional item to bill for, and it's very profitable. And we can really be helpful, because Sterling Sound has always had great lathes, and we've always been well known in the world for our vinyl cutting. We never gave up. A lot of mastering people in the 90s sold their lathes off, but we've never not had lathes here.

Good move.

And the vinyl thing to me has to do not as much with sonics, as it has to do with people kind of making a record their own, in kind of a visual, tactile and musical sense. I think it's very meaningful. People really want to have something and hold something, as opposed to just listening to it. The revival is really about 10 years old now, a slow ramp up. What people have been finding, even big labels, is that it's a profit center. It pays to spend some money and make these things sound good. We have certain techniques that we use in the vinyl mastering to enhance what we do digitally. It's really more of a de-enhancement for vinyl, because you take away some of the processing, in order to strip it down, so that the vinyl has a somewhat different feeling to it. Artistically, it gets a little cumbersome, because if you do that and it changes too much, the producer will get it back and it won't really sound like the record that they approved, the digital version. The digital version is always the approved version. To actually master for vinyl the way it should be mastered is beyond the budget of almost everybody. There are very few people who have it done. Keith Richards had the budget for it on the last album. It's a budget thing. To do it correctly — we do a version of "correctly," which is not that expensive. It only adds on maybe $500 to the cost of the production. But to specifically master for vinyl, it would take another $5,000, and very few people have that. It takes a whole day. There's all kinds of different things you could try, above and beyond. Again, then you get into the thing where you have two different sounding products out there, which you may not want to have. 

Aren't there physical issues with mastering for vinyl where you have to cut out some of the really low frequencies so the needle doesn't jump up and down?

We try not to do that. In the old days we would do that to get them to be loud enough, because the vinyl was what was played on the radio, and it was really important [to be loud]. The time thing is really the biggest factor with vinyl. Because once you get more than 22 minutes on a side, the volume of the actual disk is lower. And when that happens, the surface noise becomes louder, and the thing becomes kind of distant sounding. The art of this is really to try to squeeze in the most level, with the alotted time you have for the A and the B side. We have a very experienced guy who's been doing it for about 40 years. He's excellent, and has great equipment. From a sonic point of view, it's a little tricky. It's a compromise that you make, in taking into consideration the budget and the amount of time somebody wants to spend on it. I think vinyl is great for consumers, because it brings the user an emotionally better experience. I think the bands find this, and they love having records at the table at the end of a concert to be able to sell them at 25 and 30 bucks a pop.

Thanks, Greg!

You’re welcome.

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