Interview with Chris Athens
Chris Athens is a senior mastering engineer at Sterling Sound, one of the world’s premier mastering facilities. Chris has mastered albums for Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, Nas & Damien Marley, Ciara, Pitbull, Coldplay, Erykah Badu, Weerd Science, Ben Folds Five, and many others.
I recently caught up with him to chat about his philosophies, approaches and techniques as a mastering engineer. Enjoy!
At what point did you decide you want to do mastering, rather than some other phase of production?
When I started at Sony Music Studios, I fully intended to become a rich and famous mix engineer. That was my plan, but because of my lack of experience they wouldn’t hire me as an engineer. Eventually I got a job at the studio in their tape library. It was an entry-level position and it was the only one I could get. I was in the library for 3 years or so, and during that time I had the good fortune of becoming friends with several very talented mastering engineers – I delivered master tapes to them everyday – so I spent a lot of time with these guys. One day it just sort of clicked for me that this was something I could do.
You learned under Vlado Meller. What would you say were the most valuable things you learned as his assistant?
I didn’t assist him for very long. But I knew him for a long time. I was very interested in cutting vinyl and he was kind enough to teach me how to cut while I was still working in the library. It was the first thing I learned how to do as a mastering engineer. Cutting vinyl was how I started my career. It was probably the most valuable thing anybody has ever taught me. When they promoted me out of the library I became Vlado’s assistant for a few months. After that they moved me to the night shift in another studio making tape copies and doing edits and such. It was all extremely glamorous.
Let’s say you get a brand new record in from a brand new client. Aside from listening for over-modulation, what’s the first thing you’re thinking or listening for?
The first thing I listen for is consistency, unless a record is intentionally inconsistent you want the record to have a consistent flow. That’s part of what makes a record sound like a complete work of art. Or a complete artistic statement. I spend a lot of time listening to the record before I start working on it. One of the advantages of working with digital files over analog tapes is that digital files give you the ability to quickly move from one section of music to another to get a very broad sense of the overall sound. In the old analog tape days listening to all of the tracks before you begin working on them was extremely slow. Very time-consuming. It’s helpful to know where the journey is going to end before you start… or at least to have an idea.
Let’s say a record is over-modulated, what are some of your techniques for easing that up or otherwise putting the record in its best light?
The first technique is shame! I shame the client into doing a recall that doesn’t sound like shit. When that inevitably fails, the second technique is to lower the track so it doesn’t distort anything else in my chain – to avoid distortion on top of distortion. Beyond that, re-invigorating a mix through fancy trickery like transient designers, expanders, and certain forms of compression that enliven a mix that’s already over-compressed. To some degree it’s turd polishing, but if you’re a good enough turd polisher people will pay you for it. People make music and want their music out there, so I take what I’m given and give them back something better.
One thing I’ve said many times is that you have a great knack for exposing the details and subtleties of a recording – I think it’s one of the things that makes you unique as a mastering engineer. What are some of your techniques for getting all those nuances to become more apparent?
I’m not sure to be honest. The techniques are a game of inches. For me it all starts with the gain staging of my analog gear. I know my gear really well and it’s been tweaked for the highest possible performance. With most of the analog gear here there’s a sweet spot where the gear sounds best. On a particular track you may want to push things a little bit harder to generate a small amount of harmonic distortion for instance, but it really depends on the music. I like using my tube console in this way. It’s super clean and fast with huge headroom but I can push it in a way that does some interesting things when it’s appropriate. I suppose it also has something to do with how I use my compressors and EQs. I try to bring out a little bit of detail without losing too much of whatever front to back dimension the mix has. I don’t really have any secrets. I think I use the same techniques everybody else does. I guess it’s just the way I use my gear and the choices I make, but I suppose that’s what everybody would say.
I tend to compress before I EQ, so the EQ has a “bigger” effect – kind of my attempt to get the details to come up.
I bracket my EQs – depending on the dynamic range of the song. I try not to kill the power of the dynamics before I have to. It’s a less is more situation as often as possible. So I tend to put a little compression first before the EQ, just for a hint of control before the EQ. And then a little compression and EQ after for vibe. Sometimes the compressor is the last thing sometimes it’s not.
Your ability to focus low end is off the chart – it’s another one of those things that I think sets you apart from the pack. Can you share some of your techniques to that extent?
I think number one is that I love low end. Low end is part of what gets me off about good sound. I’m kind of focused on it to begin with. Some people are more into top end, or aggressiveness in the midrange. I feel like if I don’t get the low end right it won’t satisfy to me. In the age of laptops and earbuds, maybe that gets by sometimes. But the way I listen, low end is critical.
I can’t say exactly how I do it because it changes. I think it’s me knowing my room and speakers really well. And really wanting it to be great. As much as I love huge low end, I don’t like unfocused low end. And I can’t afford that anyway because of the loudness thing. Unfocused low end isn’t an option.
A lot of my clients send extremely hot, loud, limited mixes to me as references. Most of the time they expect that my masters will be as loud or louder than their references. The trouble is, to my ears limiters have a tendency to choke the kick drum and the low-end. At least the way most people use limiters. It’s sort of a 2 dimensional sound to me. When possible, I try to match or exceed my clients reference level while keeping the low-end freer and more three-dimensional. It’s a combination of subtle adjustments, EQ, compression, clipping, and every once in a while (and I hesitate to say this) I sometimes use a subharmonic synthesizer in a parallel circuit. That last one is a “don’t try this at home” technique – because I use it so subtly – you don’t even hear it unless you’re in my room. It creates distortion in like an octave. It’s a dbx, but the design is very clever. It sounds like shit if you use a lot or use it wrong.
Having said that, I use that device less than 20% of the time. And it either works or it doesn’t. When it doesn’t do it’s magic or it’s too obvious, no tweaking usually helps. But it’s more about my intention.
You said your process changes – how often are you experimenting?
As a mastering engineer the bread and butter is consistency. But to be honest, I experiment in subtle ways all the time, and it’ll briefly change how I work. And I may leave that stuff or it may change my work for a long time. I don’t do the same thing all the time.
Any recent changes to your approach?
Last time that happened I was using a plugin I really liked, and another plugin I used previously. I dropped the one plugin for the new one. For shits and giggles I compared the new plugin with the old one I had left behind. I kind of discovered a new setting in the old plugin. In the end I found a combination of the two that worked for me. Usually what happens when I do a record or a song is I just do it, and then I move on. But occasionally I will spend an unnatural amount of time on one song. I think good engineers – engineers who strive to do a great job and put focused effort and attention into it, all do that. There’s always a balance of consistency and experimentation.
Your probably the only mastering engineer I’ve worked with that has a rack of guitars in your room. How often are you putting that MIDI keyboard to work and pulling the guitars out?
Not as often as it would lead you to believe. Those guitars are mostly for me. I got into this line of work because I’m a musician. I still love making music… And I don’t sleep much so if I find small amounts of downtime I like to do some production work. I collaborate with my friends, all of whom are better musicians than I am. It keeps me grounded and it reminds me why I do this. I like being around my instruments and being able to pick them up if I want to. Once in a blue moon I do something really weird like record a part for a record. I’ve done stuff like that with the Neptune’s and with Erykah Badu. I recorded meatloaf in my room once. Sorry to name drop. It’s just kind of funny.
As soon as I got my first room at Sony I brought in my MPC 60. It just made me happy.
Now – one thing people might not know is that you are a skilled mixing engineer as well. Do you enjoy mixing? How often do you mix a project?
I’ve averaged mixing maybe 3 or 4 records and 10 or so singles per year – sometimes not nearly that much. Last year I did 2 records and a handful of singles. It depends on how busy mastering keeps me, and how interesting the mix project is. I don’t actively chase mixing. Mixing is a labor of love, it keeps me sharp and interested in audio. Mastering is really my bread and butter. As you know it’s a big time and energy commitment to mix a record. I do it because I like it, but I keep it to a minimum.
Let’s talk mastering for iTunes. Is it the next thing, or is it too little too late? How would you address AAC as a medium?
It’s so too little too late, but I say that as a cynical fuck. But I’ll say this – any move toward higher quality, even one that is kind of a sidestep, is a move I can appreciate. I would prefer that the world starts taking music seriously again, and take advantage of the high res files. Rather than using algorithms and such, and perceptual hacking, in order to fit decent sound into a small file. It bums me out that it’s still the direction we’re heading. The convenience factor is high, and the models are moving towards streaming. So I get it. Digital technology has come so far – we have the ability to deliver exquisite sounding work if we want to. But there doesn’t seem to be much market for that. It’s not convenient enough. It takes too much time to download. It takes up too much space on your iPod or phone. I’ve listened to the new encoding algorithm extensively. It’s pretty remarkable what Apple has done with it. It’s so close to the original.
If mastering for iTunes gets people thinking about better sound, I’d kiss Apple right on the mouth for that one.
You work at Sterling Sound. You’ve got the top guys in the business twenty feet from your office. I could run through the list, but I’d have to name everyone who works there. Do you get competitive with these guys? Do you share techniques? Do you share projects?
Do we get competitive? YEAH. There is more testosterone in this building … We are highly competitive people. We share projects grudgingly, and with some resentment. We do it and we are gentlemen about it. We don’t share techniques very much. It’s kind of every man for himself here. Sterling has attracted highly competitive, ambitious, really excellent engineers. I don’t feel like I need advice from the other Sterling guys cause I think I’m better than them, and I think they feel the same way about me. My first week on the job I told Tom Coyne I was going to put him into early retirement … But he just won’t go away.
Have you ever had an assistant or intern, or schooled some of Sterling’s after-hours cats? What was that experience like?
My last assistant was with me for about six years – and yes he owes everything to me. I taught him everything he knows but not everything I know. For someone with limited intellectual prowess he does quite well. I have definitely been the mentor… But I may have to kill him if he becomes too successful.
Do you want me to leave that part about intellectual prowess in the interview?
Oh yeah, I hope he reads it!
Ha! Ok. So, last question – as a top dollar mastering engineer what’s your philosophical take on the new DIY aesthetic in the music biz?
I’m totally with the DIY aesthetic. The reason I do this is at heart I am a DIYer. I’m a high school dropout. I have no education in engineering. I learned it all through doing it. I can totally relate to people who feel like they want to do it all. They want to buy pro tools and make records and do it themselves.
In defense of professionalism, it’s also a smart attitude to know you don’t know everything, and that music is ultimately a team sport. And having good teammates elevates your game. You can be brilliant by yourself. But, you may find that if you work with people who really know what they’re doing, that back and forth – the friction, the tension, the challenge – makes everyone’s game better.
DIY aesthetic does not mean you want to work in a vacuum. Working with other passionate people with the kind of experience that compliments what you do is the fastest, and in many ways the cheapest way to accelerate your art. Don’t just search YouTube. Get in touch with people who know what they’re doing – find yourself a scene. And learn from and be inspired by other people. There’s a whole world out there beyond your computer screen.