20 Questions With Heba Kadry
If you haven't heard of Heba Kadry, then you clearly have been sleeping on some of the hottest independent records to come out in the past few years. Since moving into the mastering world in 2007, the Egypt-born engineer has been amassing quality credits from the likes of the Black Lips, Lightning Bolt, Wooden Shjips, Ty Segal, Slowdive and Palehound, while working in her New York studio.
Recently, Heba was kind enough to take a break from work to be interviewed for our new blog series, 20 Questions. Read on to learn more about her obsession with synthesizers and Brian Eno, the gear she uses in her studio and the advice she would offer those looking to get into mastering.
What is it about mastering that made you want to move towards that side of the industry?
I was drawn to it just because I knew absolutely nothing about it. I started out as a midnight shift recording engineer and studio manager assistant at a studio in Houston, Texas. I did that for a while and was feeling a little stuck. There was a little mastering sister company in the same building and one day the engineer had showed me his Sadie setup and what mastering was all about. Then I went to Tape Op (back when it was in New Orleans) and attended a mastering panel and was very enamored by it all. I think it was at that point that I had decided to move to New York and take a crack at it. If it didn’t work out I would just move back to Egypt and go back to writing jingles. Luckily that didn’t happen ha.
Is there a philosophy that you ascribe to when it comes to mastering?
Do not get in the way of the artist’s vision.
Can you describe your current studio set-up?
My signal chain relies heavily on my collection of vintage and modern analog EQ and compressors, but I use a few plugins. It's a hybrid process that splits roughly into 80% analog and 20% digital. I love DMG Audio and I use quite a few of their plugins on the front end before it hits the analog chain. Other plugins I like are the UAD Sonnox limiter, UAD Fairchild Legacy and Klanghelm MJUC compressor. With the object based editing tool in Sequoia, I can automate specific sections or regions within the track to pull out a desired feeling. I can adjust balances on instruments that might be buried within the mix without compromising instrumentation that fall in the same frequency range within the rest of the track. It's all precise work that allows me to get really creative and get more out of a flat mix with dynamic shifts that are not very exciting. Once it hits the analog chain, I use the Dangerous Liaison matrix in conjunction with the Dangerous Master to route the hardware I’m going to use and in what order. Also, if I decide to do any parallel processing as well. I may shift things around until I find the right chain that gives me the sound I’m going after. Then it gets converted by Lavry Gold AD 122 MK3 and captured back into Sequoia in real time. I also have to take recall notes… My least favorite part.
I have found that as more mixers are going exclusively in the box and departing from their console days, the expectation of the masters bringing more colour and harmonic content to their mixes gets higher. I think ITB mixes are sounding better and better as the plugins keep getting better but I think something still falls short in the mix bus especially where there’s a lot of compression going on, you can really hear it choke the mix. In the past, I used to opt for more transparent outboard gear and now I find myself going more for EQs and compressors that impart a very specific sound. But it really depends on the project and what the artist/producer wants so it's important to communicate and understand what they hope to achieve in mastering.
My monitors are Egglestonworks Andra I, which I love. A few years ago I bought John McEntire’s beautiful ATR 102 tape machine with 1/2” and 1/4” headstack for layback mastering. I don’t get analog tapes from mixers anymore so layback is what I almost entirely use it for. I actually prefer doing the layback myself because nine times out of 10, the tapes I used to get would be calibrated weird because the tape machine had never been tech’d in years and in some cases missing tones…Ugh worst case scenario, it’s like stumbling in the dark. So doing layback myself, I just have more control.
Lastly, I have quite a few meters including a DK meter, a custom VU meter from an old console and a couple more meters arranged in my session. Most recently I bought NUGEN Audio’s Mastercheck Pro to check my LUFS numbers especially now with all the new targets for streaming changing; I need to be able to see where I’m at. You can also preview all the psychoacoustic changes live through different codecs depending on which streaming service and internet bandwidth.
Why do you like working with Sequoia?
I use Sequoia by Magix because it's the best DAW I’ve ever used and it really fits my workflow and personality. DAWs are like an extension of yourself so you really have to find the right platform that works for you. I like it because I love automating with the object editor; it makes automation so fun but more importantly because the Magix team are such good people. They are very supportive of their customer base and they don’t rope you into expensive upgrades.
Do you make music on your own? If so, what kind of stuff are you into creating?
I do…pretty much all instrumental synth based. I have a cool little studio/workshop at home and I like tinkering and building synths. Nothing I’m ready to put out in the world just yet but maybe one day I will!
What do you think of the modular synth world? Do you have a favorite synthesizer or single module right now?
I think it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s the age of synths right now… We’re going to look back at this time one day and marvel at how cool it is. Thanks to SMD and how fast and cheap it is to get PCBs printed, they keep getting more clever, smaller and cheaper. The variety is really incredible almost to the point of intimidating. All the companies that are making them are small inventive independent companies with a loyal customer base like Pittsburgh, Make Noise, STG, KOMA etc.
I had a MOTM modular I built and sold just because I didn’t have enough time to play with it. At the moment, I’m sticking to semi modular systems like the Mother 32, which is very cool and sounds amazing. The Volca series is really amazing too... Tatsuya Takahashi is like my idol.
I had the incredible pleasure of taking a synth repair mentoring course with the legendary Jeff Blenkinsopp (of Analog Lab) last year before he left NY and moved out west. Hands down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Jeff is incredible and I learned so much. He also has amazing stories tech’ing Pink Floyd’s synths during the Dark Side of The Moon tour or working with Vangelis. Repair techs are such a rarity right now… I wish the few remaining would pass on the knowledge in the same way Jeff does.
What's the one thing you miss about living in Egypt the most?
Family, friends… Hearing Fairuz and Om Kalthoum floating from cafes and cabs on the street.
I know you used to write jingles. Do you ever make jingles just for fun now that you are out of the business?
No, I don’t. I really don’t have a lot of time to compose anymore and when I do it’s mostly to learn a new synth I just got or jam out a few ideas. If I had more time I would love to write more.
Favorite Brian Eno record?
Ouff… That’s very hard to narrow down. He has so many phases… It’s hard to choose one, but if I HAD to I would choose No Pussyfooting with Robert Fripp.
You can use only one compressor for the rest of your days in the studio... What do you choose?
GML 2030. I don’t think I’ve ever mastered anything with it bypassed. It’s really one of the weirdest, least intuitive compressors because it reacts to signal based on loudness perception using crest factor controls and other clever things like Hysteresis. It’s more psychoacoustic based and uses 3 individual detectors for different signals instead of one like most compressor designs. The gain reduction is very transparent as a result. The manual is kind of vague and like 2 pages long. It needs to be at least 15 pages long to explain how it actually works!
If someone came to you and said they were interested in getting involved in mastering, what would you tell them?
I would tell them to go for it. Mastering is such a terrific and crucial aspect of the recording process that a lot of people shy away from just because there’s not a lot of information about it. They don’t spend too much time on it in audio schools either. It's perceived as elusive and some kind of dark art, which it really isn’t. It’s just a very specialized process in a very controlled/treated room with full range monitors. People find that intimidating. I try as much as I can in my sessions to dispel that perception and explain what I’m doing to my clients. I think that’s so important. It breaks down this wall because some people sitting in the session feel so clueless that they can’t form an opinion or chime in about how they feel about the master.
If they are interested in pursuing it, I would recommend interning for a mastering engineer and shadowing them for a while… That’s the best way to learn. You’ll develop your own style eventually but starting with a solid base is important. The most crucial thing to learn for mastering is cultivating and train your ears to listen in a very particular way. You’re the last person in the chain so the pressure is quite high to quality control everything to perfection before it gets pressed and out into the world. Precise objective listening is the name of the game
What's an underrated spot in New York that you love to hang out at?
Achilles Heel. Terrific bar in Greenpoint. They curate amazing DJs including the Pace twins (Blonde Redhead), Steven Reker, Ron Like Hell etc. I love it…I DJ there every once in a while.
What's one piece of gear that you couldn't live without that you need on every session?
Sontec 432 C/9. That’s my desert island piece.
If you could master a record for any artist, who would it be?
Kate Bush, Missy Elliot, Eliane Radigue, Cocteau Twins (if they got back together), Brian Eno. Any one of those would be a dream.
What are some common mistakes made by artists who are sending you records and do you have any advice to help them out?
I think sometimes people feel the need to strap certain plugins on their mix bus because “they have to” or it’s like a rule or something they watched someone else do. It's more productive to use your ears to identify whether the tracks really need 5 compressors strapped on the bus or not, what exactly are you trying to solve. Sometimes it just not necessary.
Sibilance is an issue I encounter more frequently now, I’m not sure why that is, probably a combination of bad mic choices, over compression and monitoring that doesn’t translate high-end clarity very accurately. The S’s shouldn’t be louder than your actual voice. I recommend listening to the mix really quietly on headphones it helps expose issues like sibilance or clicks and pops. Label your files properly, be organized and listen to the final mix downs before you send them out. You’ll be surprised how many times I’ve worked on something that had a track muted by mistake.
Last record you listened to? Last book you read? Last movie you watched?
Jlin “Black Origami”, The Life and Works of Alan Dower Blumlein, "News from Home" by Chantal Akerman
If money and rarity were out of the question, what dream piece of gear would you add to your studio space?
Neumann VMS 70 lathe… A VMS 80 would be nice too!
It seems like many mastering engineers like to work alone, but I read in your Tape Op interview that you're open to artists being around during sessions. What do you like about having the artist there for mastering?
Mastering can be an isolating job… A lot of people don’t like attending, plus budgets and timelines might not allow attendance either. So when it does happen it’s a really awesome treat to be able to interact with the artist and get a more expansive view on the intention and emotion behind each song. You become a small unit or family for a few days and you feel less of a “cog in the wheel.” I definitely make sure people come prepared when attending sessions with a few reference albums they know really well just to get their ears tuned to my monitors and room. It's also a great ice breaker just to talk about records they love.
What record are you most proud of working on?
Recently: Slowdive’s first album in 22 years was a highlight. They’re one of my favorite bands ever. Diamanda Galas' At St Thomas The Apostle Harlem album and Mica Levi’s incredible score for Jackie.
If you could do any job in the world, what would be doing instead of mastering?
Designing and building synths.
Check out some of Heba's amazing mastering work in the studio by listening to tracks from the Black Lips, Slowdive and Mica Levi's original soundtrack for the film Jackie.