Piper Payne is the Owner and Chief Mastering Engineer of Neato Mastering, and a Co-Founder and the Chief Product Officer for Second Line Vinyl. An avid enthusiast of audio education, Piper has worked with the SF Chapter of the Recording Academy, the P&E Wing Advisory Council, AES SF Chapter and Women's Audio Mission. On top of all that, Piper has found time to master music for nationally renowned artists like Third Eye Blind, Madame Gandhi and Geographer.Recently, Piper was able to take some time out of her busy schedule to chat with us for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about how she got started mastering, her innovative incogNEATO: Remix service and her penchant for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.1. How did you get started making records?I don't remember which record was the first record I ever made. I mean, I started out just taking classes in electronic music composition where I was getting into programming MIDI patches and trying to get better at understanding how music is made. Eventually, I found that I really enjoyed the recording-side of making music rather than the composition-side because I think I was a little bit better at it from the start. It came a little bit easier to me.
I suppose the first record I was ever a part of was actually as a drummer. I had a band in high school and we made a little EP thing. That wasn't anything I made myself. I just went and took classes, you know? I became halfway decent at it and continued on doing that and decided I wanted to major in it.
2. And what led you to mastering?In grad school, I was studying classical recording and refining my technique. Classical recording requires a skill set that takes many years to get sharp. At that time, I was working for an archival tape transfer company and I was asked by the consulting engineer there (who happened to be a mastering engineer), to come over to his studio because he was looking for an assistant. I was enthralled by the idea of mastering because I could be extremely detail oriented and work on every kind of music under the sun every week. That kind of was it for me, I just didn't want to do anything else.3. You apprenticed under Bob Katz for a while, right? What were some of the most important things you learned from him?Reverb choices will make or break your mix. Never turn your back on technology. Louder is not necessarily better but when needed, kick it in the ass.4. Tell us a little bit about how you started Neato Mastering.As much as I have a lot of fearlessness and confidence about the decisions I make, it felt weird to have to make that decision, like somebody had to actually tell me, “Go fucking do this.”I worked with a mastering engineer for the better part of seven years and when it was time for me to set out on my own, Neato was a fairly easy transition. I had done all of my own billing, taxes and scheduling. When I decided to move to a new studio I had to find a new location, but all I was really doing was a brand change. All of my clients came with me and most of the personnel from the studio came too.I was having a hard time trying to figure out what to call it and someone asked me what I wanted the feeling to be. I wanted it to be "Thumb's up," you know? Like, "fucking great," "awesome," "neato." That was all I was trying to say and Catherine said, "Why don't you just call it Neato?" I was like, "I can't do that."
So I went through a couple of other potential names and it just kept coming back to it. Neato was the most obvious thing, the most organic, the most natural feel for what I was becoming. My friend, Chris Dauray, came through with a really amazing logo and I was pretty hooked on that name.
It's kind of weird because all you have to do is have someone say, “Yeah, you can just do that.” It's like you have to have someone's permission to call it what you really wanted to call it. That's kind of a metaphor for just going out and trying to do this thing. I just need enough people to pull me aside and tell me you should go out and do your own thing. "You'll kick ass at it, you'll be fine. You have permission to go and be in charge of your own success or failure, go fucking do it."5. What's an average day in the studio like for you?💃6. You use a lot of analog gear and digital processors. What EQs are you reaching for most often?The GML 8200 and the Mini Massive are EQ staples of my console. In fact, they're the only EQs in my console! I couldn't live without my Mini Massive. Van, if you're reading this, reissue the Mini Massive!7. What about compressors?I don't use compression. I use depression! I have a Rupert Neve Master Bus Processor and a Manley Slam Mastering Edition that I use on many projects. My go-to in the digital realm is the Fab Filter Pro-C and I love the API 2500. I also really love the new code port for the Softube Weiss DS-1 and I definitely could not be without the Leapwing Audio DynOne plugin or the new Waves TG Mastering Chain.8. What's of the quirkiest piece of gear or plug-in that you frequently use?My brain.9. What do you do in your free time, when you're not making records?Browse Reddit! No, I barbecue. I like to smoke meats, not in a euphemistic way! I like to play board games. I like to watch nature documentaries. I like trying to find friends that aren't in the music industry. It's not possible. When I'm not working on my own client's records, I'm probably helping a few folks do other records.10. What's your favorite place to eat?Chop Bar in Oakland, closely followed by Smitty's Barbecue in Lockhart, Texas.11. What's the best book you've ever read?Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, probably.12. What's one of your favorite albums of all time?Rome. It's the Danger Mouse, Jack White, Norah Jones, Daniele Luppi collaboration. It's one of the best albums, start to finish, that I have ever heard. It sounds awesome, the songs are great. I love the concept, which is that it really comes from nothing. It's just a super cool idea to put a record like that together and all of the folks that worked on it are top-notch, awesome people.13. You offer some unique services for a mastering house. Can you tell us a little bit about incogNEATO: Remix?That name is really great, right?! A lot of people are working on their own mixes and their own projects now. Gone are the days of labels being the clearinghouse or the thumbs-up stamp on the quality of a mix. This is an issue with production on these projects; the person who is doing the recording and the songwriting and the playing and the mixing and (hopefully not, but sometimes) the mastering, they wear a lot of hats.That is a lot of extra energy and a lot of extra brain power, so much so that I don't understand how people have time for it. If one little thing that I can do to serve the project is to have a better mix happen, I'm going to do it. It's not about ego, it's not about somebody being better at this skill or that skill or better at mixing than recording or whatever. It's about finding the right people to contribute to the project because the right people are going to make that project awesome. It's not about equipment, it's not about time, it's not about money — it's about the people that contribute to it.I'm lucky enough to know a lot of amazing mixing engineers, that not only could use more projects, but are also incredibly under-valued in the album making process. If I can help to connect, on the “down-low” even, some mixing engineers to contribute to the project, so that's one less thing the artist has to worry about, then hopefully the whole project will turn out better.To be honest, it's kind of a selfish endeavor. If I can have a mixing engineer whose work I know really well and I know exactly how they are going to contribute to the project, it makes my job way easier.The incogNEATO mixing or remixing service came about because I had a lot of artists that would bring me mixes that were just not ready for mastering. They had no idea how to contact a mixing engineer or how to talk with them so I helped facilitate those conversations. I helped to identify some folks in and outside the area at different price points that would contribute to the project really well. Because of this, I'm able to make sure the project gets done quickly and on-budget and it ends up better than it would have been had I just mastered the original mix I was brought.There are also times where the artist brings me a mix where they can't get the original mixing engineer to do a better job, so they would like to have someone do a couple of little tweaks to it. It's still the original mix with just a few small technical adjustments by a proper mixing engineer. The artist can do it incognito and if their buddy mixed it in their garage as a favor. They don't have to hurt their friend's feelings, they can just get a better project in the long run.14. You also offer vinyl-cutting services through your other business, Second Line Vinyl. Why do you think vinyl is making such a huge comeback?Vinyl never really went away. The infrastructure around creating vinyl definitely went through a twenty-year period of the best plants and the best technicians either retiring or closing or dying. Now we have a bit of a vacuum for really great plants being able to meet the capacity of the workload. In the late 80s and early 90s, when CDs became the format most that most folks wanted to consume music on, vinyl kind of went through a sales slump.Now that CDs are starting to go away with streaming dominating the market for portable listening, folks are craving a physical format and a way to hold the album in their hands that streaming just doesn't allow for. The artist is still craving a way to show off their work not just audibly but visibly, to have a packaged album rather than just a bunch of songs in a playlist on a streaming service. Additionally, with streaming being the way for people to listen to music portably, music creators and engineers are missing a way of actually having their work credited properly. Liner notes are still the gold standard for credits on music releases. So there are a few reasons as to why vinyl is coming back, but I don't think it ever really left. I think that the infrastructure around creating it had a dip, but now we're starting to see it come back.15. What's your personal vinyl collection like?My vinyl collection is only the entire Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass catalog—original pressings only.16. What's one record you wish that you had worked on?Know Better Lean Faster by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. She's my white whale.17. Who do you think is making great records right now? What new music have you been listening to lately?Lots of people are making great records, but in particular you can't deny the one-two punch of Vance Powell and Pete Lyman. I really like female pop music. I love Demi Lovato. I love.... I don't want to say it but I love Selena Gomez. I definitely have some guilty pleasures and that's all in there. I do want to shout out SHY Martin and her song “Forget to Forget.” I think it's just a really simple song and I love it.18. What has changed most about your engineering technique over the years?It's gotten worse by far. ;) My original engineering techniques were focused on a high fidelity kind of sound and I was only striving for something that was as perfect as possible. Now my approach, and I think my outcomes, are just as technically correct as before, but the finished product has much more life to it. I think the engineering techniques that I use now are, not necessarily heavy handed, but I will go down the road that I think the project wants to go. I don't fight the mix as much anymore.19. If you could go back and change one thing about your journey, what would it be?Don't buy those jeans, they don't look good on you. Drink more water. Pay more attention to how the decisions you make impact other people.20. What's one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?Don't go chasin' waterfalls.Want to hear some of Piper Payne's mastering work? Continue below to hear tracks she has worked on from Madame Gandhi, Ray Coooper and David Earl.
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