The mastering process of a record has always seemed to be one of the more elusive parts of the music industry. What exactly are they doing? Why is it necessary? How do they do what they do? Mastering engineer Scott Hull wants to clear up some of the rumors for everyone.
Based in Peekskill, New York, Hull is the owner of Masterdisk and has worked with the who's who of the music world; Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, Steely Dan, Madonna, Whitney Houston, The Rolling Stones and many more. He has seen and done it all throughout his illustrious career.
For the latest interview in our 20 Questions series, we sat down with Hull and took a deep dive into his history with mastering and his philosophies on the topic. Read on to learn more about some of the common misconceptions and how you can better prepare your own work for the mastering engineer who is working on your next record.
1. What made you decide to get an internship at Masterdisk? Why there? Why mastering?
This is a funny story. I was in the middle of my sophomore year at a four-year recording arts program at SUNY Fredonia. This is in upstate New York, not far from Buffalo. My classmates had started talking about what they were going to do for their summer internships. We had an active internship program with studios all over the country.
I went to the dean of our department (he was the entire department at the time) Dave Moulton to ask him for ideas about where I should intern. I got to his door and he was on the phone. He asked me to wait a minute as he wrapped up the call. “So what can I do for you,” Dave says. And I say, "I was thinking about a summer internship. Do you have any suggestions?"
He suddenly looked puzzled. He looked at the phone then looked back at me. “Hmmm, how about Masterdisk?” I asked, "Is that really possible?" He said, “I just this minute got off the phone with Bob Ludwig who is looking for an intern this summer." I always say, "My internship found me."
I had no specific desire or even understanding of mastering at the time, but I did understand what the opportunity meant. I jumped at the opportunity to work alongside those icons of the industry.
2. What was it like working at Masterdisk in 1983?
VINYL. Analog Tape. IBM Electric typewriters. Messengers. No Internet. No ATMs. No portable phones [Laughs]! I just wanted to set the stage for the younger audience. That was 35 years ago.
There wasn't any digital recording equipment of any kind. You recorded your mix to 1/2” or 1/4” tape. All processing was in real time and every cut was performed in real time. Like all the songs, one after another in a continuous side for the record.
Bob was very busy and he routinely mastered two complete albums in one day, start to finish with reference lacquers! The first session would arrive before 10 AM. I might help set up the tape machine while the people settled in for the session. Most of the time, they had been up through the night finishing the mixes. Often the mix engineer was still making notes on the tape boxes and choosing final mixes. The songs were very quickly put into sequence, razor blade editing and Bob started his run-downs.
Within a couple hours, his EQ notes were ready and we loaded lacquers on his two lathes and reference disks were cut, two at a time. While he cut them, the production office hand types the reference labels and I would help package them. The next session was waiting in the lounge. Bob ate a quick lunch while I set up the second session tapes and the process repeated.
Fast, accurate, creative, perfect. That was how it went down every day. It didn’t matter what genre he was mastering for.
This breakneck schedule is what afforded me my first real unique opportunity. Digital recording started to show up in 1984 and I was the only one on staff that had ANY spare time. I took the manuals home with me and soon I was the in-house digital callboy. I mean, whenever any of the engineers got stuck with a set-up that they couldn’t figure out, I was dispatched. Bob even sent me occasionally to other New York recording studios to help his clients make sure they were up-to-date on the latest procedures and equipment. Change was normal.
3. What’s the biggest lesson that you learned from working with Bob Ludwig?
I remember his answer to most of my questions was "Perfect is close enough." I probably repeat this to myself or to others every day even now. This was the answer to nearly any question when I wasn’t sure if I had done the task to Bob’s satisfaction. If it could be done better then it should be done that way.
Oh and the other answer was always “The manual is in the shop.” That was the answer to most of my operations questions. It was assumed that I could read and understand user manuals and schematics and signal flow. I studied the blueprints for the consoles and even re-translated some Japanese manuals to real English for the benefit of the other engineers. I learned a lot from the manuals and I remembered where that info was for quick reference when we needed to retrieve it later.
I cannot remember one time when a client was ever lied to or deceived or given something that wasn't perfect. Sure, mistakes happened, but we always owned up to the error and fixed it. "Perfect is close enough."
4. What are a few simple ways that engineers can prepare better source material for you to produce a vinyl release?
To be honest, vinyl is a very robust format. I think too much has been printed about its limitations. Haven't we all heard amazing vinyl played back? So I don't think we have to go beyond saying that the mix should sound really good [Laughs]! If the mix sounds good and is well balanced, it will cut well.
One big concern is mastering for vinyl by an engineer that is not going to cut your vinyl. Mastering for vinyl is mastering for a specific lathe and for a very specific disk cutting engineer. It's very hard for a mix engineer to know what will or won't cut well. Just as hard for a digital mastering engineer. I see a lot of people making the mistake of compensating their mix "for vinyl" based on the writings on the internet.
5. Give us three specific tips.
My recommendations are:
Step One: Do NOT use peak limiting except for strictly creative or aesthetic reasons. Louder mixes do not cut as well as mixes that breathe and have wider dynamics.
Step Two: Know who is cutting your record. Talk to them. They will tell you if there’s an issue with your mix.
Step Three: Trust your cutting engineer and use their ears and years of experience to guide you through the cutting and pressing process.
6. A lathe is essential to what you do. Talk a little about the Neumann VMS-82 lathe at Masterdisk. What’s special about this particular lathe to you?
Neumann put some serious development into their 1970s lathes. They are the workhorses of the record business. The 1980 series lathes, like mine, added technology that allows the cutting engineer to put more level and more bass on a side than you can with older lathes.
This lathe is easier to cut on than older lathes. It monitors several cutting factors that you have to monitor manually with older lathes. In short, this lathe helps me cut cleaner, hotter and more accurately. I can say that it is one of the tools that plays a big role in the sound and quality of the final product.
7. When it comes to mastering, what is an indispensable part of your workflow?
[Laughs] My ears! Really, I can do an adequate job of mastering with any tools, as long as I can hear what I need to hear.
That means having a mastering room and speaker and amp combination that tells me the truth. Most smaller speaker systems do not tell you the whole story. I have found that the selection of the gear has a small impact on the finest details of the final product, but my intentions, my expectations and my relationship to the artist/producer is what usually has a great impact on the sound.
8. Ears are truly the ultimate tool, but what about some specific gear you use?
I find myself using most of the same tools I have used for many years. I have added some plug-ins to use for very specific fixes. Rarely do I rely on plug-ins for the overall or general tone and attitude.
Some of the tools that get the most use are:
⦁ Classic Sontec equalizers
⦁ Manley Labs mastering equalizers and compressors (Massive Passive, Variable Mu, Slam!)
⦁ Dangerous Bax equalizer
⦁ Avalon equalizers and compressors (2077, 2055, 2044)
These tools give me access to all of the tone changing parameters I need and I know them very intimately.
9. Do you use any digital gear in your workflow? Any plug-ins?
Limiter plug-ins when I'm forced to, really accurate and clean EQs when I need some subtle and transparent tone adjustment. I don't reach for emulations. And while it's pretty mysterious to me, I almost never use multi-band compression. With all due respect to those that do, it just doesn't sound good to me.
I really can't stand the single purpose plug-ins. They only work for me maybe one in a hundred tries and I just get too tired of trying them and having them not work.
I think you have to pick a group of plug-ins and really exercise them and find out what they can do. I also think you have to do null tests and determine if your plug-ins are doing more collateral damage than you think they are. By listening to the difference (NULL), you can then train your ears to hear what the plug-in is "also" doing besides what it's advertised to do. You will be surprised how much "color" and lack of fidelity you impose with some "vibey" all-purpose plugins.
10. What are some common misconceptions about your job and what you do at Masterdisk?
For many years now, on the internet, we have all extolled the virtues of mastering. Maybe to the point of mixers thinking that we can solve any mix dilemma. However, the changes we make are subtle yet effective and necessary. Mastering is NOT or at least should not be just about making the mix loud.
The misconception I see the most is when a less experienced mixer thinks that a high priced mastering engineer can fix things that really needed to be addressed during mix-down. Yes, a carefully chosen EQ can make it appear that the vocal is a little more forward in the mix. But that doesn't mean that mastering and EQ can save a mix where the vocal is buried.
I think many people forget that mastering is almost by definition a series of compromises. I can make the bass punchier, but that will affect the other guitars or low drums. I can make the percussion sound livelier, but then the vocals may be too harsh. Each change in EQ or dynamics has an impact on the whole. What we are looking for is a balance where we optimize the positive attributes and minimize the negative.
I can master from stems and I can mix and have fixed my client's mixes for them or with them. That is one way to have a big impact on their music, to help them move forward, to learn and mix better the next time. Sometimes I can help them fix those imperfections before mastering, so that I can focus my mastering on other important details.
11. Some mastering engineers prefer clients to be in the room, while others don’t. Do you prefer attended or unattended sessions?
I generally like to have a consultation with my clients before I start mastering. I like to find out, in their words, what they think about their project. How do they describe it? Who is their audience? I find this a lot easier to do that when the producer and artist are with me.
These days, we all do a lot of mastering that is unattended. My concern with unattended mastering is that it starts to appear that you just put a song in one side and a mastered song comes out the other side. What we do is actually so simple, but it's so profound when it's just right. I know my clients appreciate what I do and how much I've influenced their record. When they attend the session and hear it "become a record," they often say, "It's still the same, but better, and so many of the little things that were bothering me about the record are not there anymore." It's really hard to have that connection by email, but we try.
Once I have found the direction and the center (in my head) for the record then I prefer to work alone and I can process the entire album in just a few hours. My work is more consistent and of one thought and mood.
12. You’ve worked on countless classic albums, but what has been your favorite mastering project from throughout your career?
I have really enjoyed so many of them for very different reasons. It's extremely hard to pick 12 let alone one.
Bruce Springsteen was very cool and approachable. Donald Fagan can hear everything. Butch Vig is such a versatile producer. Sting rode his bicycle to the session and the producer challenged him to a push-up duel in the lounge. Chuck Mangione would listen while balanced on his head. Ozzy, wow, just wow. I really liked working with Joe Jackson even though he comes across as arrogant. Diana Ross was honestly scary to be around. Listening to conversations between Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson, brief glimpses into the world of Paul McCartney, John Williams, Elvis Costello... I can’t stop.
Every day the music touches me and brings me joy and tears. A song about a brother lost to a drug addiction, songs to reflect on and remember 9/11, songs that hit me right where I’m at that moment. I guess those are my most memorable.
13. What are some records that you look to as sonic inspiration again and again?
I've had the great fortune to re-visit some of my work this year. Garbage 2.0 was a big record for me 20 years ago, and this year I re-mastered from the original tapes for vinyl and digital. And just this week a record I have always had running in my head. Whenever I ask, it's there, like a friendly earworm, Freddy Johnston’s "Perfect World" and it's going to be made into vinyl finally.
I feel more nostalgia for the older projects, I do miss the way the music industry worked back then. We worked in the same room and collaborated on art/music every day. It's not quite the same when the music comes and goes as digital files.
I really enjoy hearing that others find inspiration in the records I've mastered. I hear that a lot about the Steely Dan Two Against Nature record. Other times, I hear of how people were influenced by very eclectic artists like Shuggie Ottis' "Strawberry Letter" or William Onyeabor "Fantastic Man" who have inspired so many other people to do great things.
14. What is life like in Peekskill, New York?
It's surprisingly cool. I love the Hudson Valley area of New York state. I grew up not that far from here and because of that it feels like home. I boat in the Hudson during the summer and Ski in the winter up north. It's certainly NOT Manhattan, but there is a very nice blend of cultures in art, food, architecture, music, and multimedia. Just recently, the town celebrated its collective creativity with a weekend of art, music, multimedia, photography, sculpture, ceramics, poetry and cutting-edge technology. The town has been “up and coming” for a while. My space is a renovated factory once used to produce yeast and vinegar by the Fleishman’s company. It's kind-of an office park but with 15-foot high ceilings and windows overlooking the Hudson River. Not glamorous, but perfect for me now.
15. What’s the last album you listened to, book you read and movie you watched?
I'm really getting into making live (direct to disk) recordings, so right now I'm listing to a bunch of Sheffield labs recordings on vinyl of course. Getting ideas and studying, personally, I'm exercising my songwriting skills again. I had been dormant for many years and I missed my creative side. Right now, I'm collaborating on several projects that I hope will be realized on vinyl. I master so many diverse and eclectic works for John Zorn's Tzadik label that I rarely get bored with the music I'm working on. Every day, it's something new. I have to admit I don't read as much as I'd like to. I seem to take everything in aurally. I've been to a few professional dance events and a poetry and painting performance that I found inspiring and thought-provoking.
16. Aside from gear, what is something you need at every session in order for you to be able to work?
Coffee, natural light and rest. I can't do what I do without time away to rest, but also just to re-set my ears.
17. What’s your favorite place to go eat at when on a break from working? What’s your go-to order there?
Any place will do during my workday, food is more a requirement than an experience. I do enjoy a good grilled Swiss and tomato on rye with a slice of turkey. It takes a while before I can get a new place to get it right, not too greasy, not to dry and not too sloppy.
18. What is some advice that you would give to someone who was interested in pursuing a career in mastering?
I got here through an internship and being an apprentice. It was nearly ten years as an apprentice before I had the skills to be competitive. That's a long time for people today. Most won't even stay with one career that long. Like so many other people I know, I just didn't quit. I could have and at times wondered if I should have, but I showed up every day, ready to be perfect and engaged and excited to make great things happen. My last four assistants are all pro mastering engineers. Well, there were a lot more than those four, but the four that showed up every day and worked at being perfect, didn't quit and are doing very well as mastering engineers. You have to be prepared for it to take a long time.
19. What is it about mastering for vinyl that keeps you coming back to the lathe day after day?
I think cutting vinyl is the ultimate expression of the craft of mastering. It's how I learned what mastering was before we had any of the tools we commonly use today. I think you have to be completely on top of your game to master and cut vinyl for discriminating producers. You can get lost in the mechanical and material frustrations, but if you insist on making the music the star, in the end, it feels really good to have put so much effort into it. It seems people really appreciate it when it's done exceptionally well. Isn't that all we can ask for?
20. What do you see in the future of vinyl? Where does it go from here?
If vinyl continues to be in demand, I think technology will start to come into play. There are more modern processes that could be used to aid in making vinyl. The issues are still the start-up costs of these alternative processes. There will likely be some completely NEW lathes made before too long, but I don't think vinyl has to change to continue to be successful. It’s a format with deep roots and now a well established die-hard fanbase. Everyone I talk to is either making a record or wishes they could make a record of their music.
Check out some of Scott Hull's incredible mastering work by checking out songs from Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, John Mayer and Garbage.