Fifty Sounds of Gray

Posted by Rob B

Mastering is not for the faint-hearted, but that's not to say one cannot experiment and refine their craft, paving the path to success. From retail manager to award winning mastering engineer, Matthew Gray has had an interesting journey so far - one that can inspire us all.

Fifty Sounds of Gray

 

With a comprehensive catalog of successful chart topping records to his name, Matthew Gray started out just like most of us do - driven by a genuine passion for music, letting it guide us along the way to success. But while professional recognition might be the goal for many, it's the actual journey that matters the most. Matt explains:

How did you first start mastering music?

It really started as a love for music. Since the age of 3 I showed an interest in rhythm and took up the drums when I was 15. By the time I was 21 I was playing in several bands; one in particular had moderate commercial success. For me it was working out how I could make a living from music and I’d always been interested in the engineering side of music production. I guess it first started off when I bought an Apple PM5500, an Audiomedia 3 soundcard and Cubase VST and began recording and mixing some bands in the mid-to-late 90’s. I loved it so much I decided to quit my management job in retail and study sound engineering to further hone my technical knowledge and engineering skills. In 2000 I landed a job as a commercial producer for radio network Austereo, and it was there that I cut my teeth on Pro Tools and began recording some touring bands as part of my role for live-to-air and pre-recorded exclusive Austereo recordings which were played across the national Australian radio network.

During my five-year stint in radio production, I began recording, mixing and mastering some bands after hours and on weekends in order to build my name. Radio was a fantastic stepping stone while I was building my dream career. It was also around this time that I realized that I was competing with a couple of my close friends for recording and mixing work as we were all operating within the same city and often the same circles of people. One day it hit me like a bolt out of the blue what I needed to do: rather than compete for the same work my friends were going for, I could compliment what they were doing by offering mastering as an exclusive service. Once I started down that path, there was no looking back and I’ve been doing just that ever since. The first 5 years it was part time and a bit slow to get going initially but then it started to pick up. At that point, in 2005, I left radio and have been mastering full-time ever since.

What is it about mastering that resonates with you more than production or mixing? 

A big part of it is my personality: you have to have a certain personality and headspace for mastering so it’s definitely not for everyone. I’ve always been a perfectionist and very good at identifying problem frequencies or tonal imbalances, so recording and mixing for me was often a very exhausting and frustrating experience; musicians showing up with poor quality instruments, old drum heads or strings, and cheap amps, then not being able to nail their performances. So I would spend hours carefully fixing every little thing I could, quite often down to micro level detail, until it was sounding as good as I could get it to sound. It was mentally draining for me and I’d usually wind up spending way more time on a project than I was getting paid for.

Recording and mixing engineers aren’t usually wired like that: most times they see the bigger picture and piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle and often gloss over, or spend minimal time correcting, small issues and just fix the more obvious problems. That wasn’t me though; in trying to perfect every little thing I would sometimes lose the vision in the process.

Mastering, on the other hand, is all about the fine details and I’m usually limited to a stereo mix or a handful of stems. All the hard work of tracking and mixing is done and then it’s just down to how good I can make a two-track mix sound. This was a much better fit for me personally: now I was hearing the big picture with fresh ears for the first time and could hone in on what needed to be done in order to present that picture in the best light possible.

Can you share with us what you're working on at the moment?  

It really changes from day to day; a lot of my work is booked in last minute and usually with tight deadlines. In one week I could be working on several different projects and several different styles of music. About 70% of my work is within Australia and the other 30% is from international clients including the USA, Russia, Brazil, Singapore and more. It really helps keep the job interesting for me and I actually prefer the diversity rather than getting branded with one particular style or genre. Yesterday, for example, I worked on a worship album for a church in Indonesia, then did an EP for a Sydney, Australia-based female pop artist,  followed by a 90’s-style rock EP for a band in Melbourne, Australia. Other times it might be hip hop, like the album I did recently for New York artist Skizzy Mars, or a country record or a metal band.

Favourite piece of gear you’ve used recently?  

Right now it would be the Hendy Amps Michelangelo, which is a stereo ganged custom built tube Equalizer. It’s a very broad-stroke kind of EQ but helps to affect the overall sound quickly and in a way that’s very musical without getting in the way.

What advice do you have for young engineers working on their own tracks in terms of getting a polished sound at the end of a mix? 

If the music is destined for commercial release and the client has the budget, seek out a professional mastering engineer that has a proven track record for making quality-sounding masters, hopefully on albums you’ve heard and revere.

If, however, the client doesn’t have the budget or isn’t looking to sell or get their music on radio then I’d suggest listening to your mixes on a number of different playback devices including a car, ear buds and Hi-Fi systems to check for bass problems and general equalization and mix balance issues, then correcting and continuing this cycle until a consistency is achieved that is acceptable on all devices. Quite often it also helps to reference to other music you love the production on that’s in a similar genre or style to the track you’re working on. It helps to match tonality and levels.

Digital vs Analog mastering – why?

Digital has come leaps and bounds over the last 10 years. It’s almost superfluous what you use these days; what matters most is whether your room acoustics and monitoring can be trusted to translate well outside your room.

For me personally, I view all processing, digital or analog, as part of the one toolkit, which gives me the ability to choose the right tool for a particular task. Digital processing is great for precision and transparency; digital equalization or dynamic equalization is ideal for cutting or reducing problem frequencies; digital compression and limiting allows transparency when adjusting levels or making mixes more dynamically consistent. I prefer to use analog processing for tone, colour and general shaping; it’s often the inconsistencies with high-end analog gear that adds an interesting texture or detail and depth to a mix which digital struggles to do convincingly, be it tube gear, class A, transformers, a certain opamp or analog tape. Having both digital and analog gear at my disposal allows me to do more than just using one or the other exclusively. I like to call it ‘hybrid mastering’ - the best of both worlds combined.

How many different sets of speakers do you normally use when you master a track and how do you use these?

For mastering, I’m a firm believer in not over complicating or confusing yourself with multiple speakers. If you have a well-designed and thought-out monitoring environment with an accurate, full range set of monitors that you can trust and that is proven to translate well outside your room, then get to know them and only use those monitors exclusively. It’s all about being able to trust what you’re hearing and making the right decisions based on that.  

This is not the same advice I’d give to a mix engineer where they’re often working in less-than-ideal monitoring environments, in many different studios and rooms, with different types of monitors.

I do, however, have my subs on a separate switch so if I want to hone in on the upper end of the bass range, around 50Hz and above, I can do so without being swayed by what I’m hearing in the subs. This helps when making equalization decisions on the low mids, for example for the punch of a kick drum, or to ensure the body of the bass guitar is still cutting through on smaller speakers. 

Can you demystify ’mastered for iTunes’ compared to regular mastering?

Mastered for iTunes, also known as MFiT, is a higher fidelity format Apple introduced in recent years. To qualify a master as MFiT, it has to be 24-bit with sample rates from 44.1kHz up to 96kHz and it has to be able to pass Apple’s AAC codec test to ensure there are no inter-sample peaks (ISPs) that exceed 0.0dBFS. In layman’s terms, MFiT is a more dynamic, higher resolution format. Once it’s encoded by Apple’s AAC 256kbps codec it still sounds every bit as good as a 16-bit 44.1kHz PCM (uncompressed) master even though the file size is considerably smaller than the corresponding wave file. Apple has certified me to produce MFiT content, which means Apple will accept masters I produce as they will pass Apple’s MFiT criteria.

Standard iTunes would be treated in the same way as if I was mastering for CD. It’s always presented to Apple as 16-bit 44.1kHz wave files and usually leveled to be competitive with other artists from the same genre of music.

Finish this sentence: If I wasn't engineering music, I'd be...

Spending time with my wife and kids, building classic cars and playing drums. 

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