Recently we caught up with Grammy Nominated Mastering Engineer, Glenn Schick, to talk with him about how his new mobile mastering rig has changed his workflow, and how he continues to "Serve the Music".
Plugin Alliance: What was the first piece of gear you owned?
Glenn Schick: Actually that’s kind of an interesting story. I was originally a tracking and mix guy, and I was working with this rock producer, who was kind of a big deal in the ’70s & ’80s — that ya know I kind of idolized. We were doing some mixing projects out in Trinidad, of all places. We got to really bond and one day after we came back from one of these mix projects in Trinidad — he stopped by my home in Atlanta, and he dropped this Neumann rack of gear off to my house.
It was all these old Neumann SP Transfer Console EQ’s, compressors and filters that were separately racked. Somebody had cannibalized a Neumann console. He said “I think you’d be a good mastering engineer guy, you should try this.” So I said “Nahhhhh, get outta here.” So he said “No no no, seriously, just try it.”
So I went and I tried to master, and I say “tried to” specifically, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I tried to master a project I was mixing at the time… And the client loved it – and I was like “this is crazy.” (chuckles)
I did it a couple more times and the clients were really happy… and I loved doing it. It was way more pleasurable to me than my mixing environment was. It felt like a natural fit. The Neumanns were my first piece of gear for sure, and broke me into the whole field.
PA: Do you remember the project that earned you your first Mastering Engineer credit?
GS: It was a Goth band from Atlanta… Oh god, what is the name of it? It was probably sometime around ’92 or ’93... The Changelings!
PA: How did your career in the music industry begin?
GS: That’s kind of interesting too – well at least I hope so. I started as a musician; I was a rock-n-roll guitar player growing up in New York City. I played with a bunch of different musicians and groups in the ’70s & ’80s.
I guess this was right around ’79–80 — I was playing in a group and we we’re recording in a studio. I remember I was playing some guitar, and there was a knock on the door. This guy said “Hey! Could you come play on my track?” So I said “Sure.” So I went over next door, and we became buddies. It turned out that this guy was one of the first rappers in New York and I was playing some of the first hip-hop music ever made in New York City. We ended up working together at B-Boy Records in the South Bronx. So at that point we were all self taught; we’d engineer and produce and box-up and do everything basically to make the records – ship records, record records… That guy’s name was Spyder-D. We did like a ton of acts on B-Boy Records, back in the day. That’s how I got my professional start anyway.
PA: For our readers that aren’t familiar with the process, what is mastering?
GS: I think it’s changed over the years, for sure, I think some things remained consistent, and some things have changed. It’s funny nowadays where most people come up to me and they say “Oh, isn’t mastering just making it louder?” Unfortunately, it’s gotten kind of that rep over the last few years because so many amateur engineers come into the picture and don’t really realize what goes into prepping a master.
Mastering to me is quality control. It’s a final polish, it is corrections, it is your take on what the texture and sound of the music should be. It’s the last part of the production; it’s post-production for music but – I think people have kind of lost track of what the input is. I had a client actually, just this week–I’m going to be doing a master for them coming up and they said “Well, I understand you’re a really busy guy and stuff. If you can’t do it, we’ll just put it through our stuff at home.” Like “oh by the way.”
We’re kind of marginalized by some people, and idolized by others.
PA: Out of all the engineering disciplines, what attracted you to mastering?
GS: Mastering to me is interesting because… I’m a bit of a perfectionist by nature and tracking and mixing you could never really achieve perfection because there is so much going on, and so many details, that for somebody like myself it pulls my focus in so many places at one time that – it just gets to me. I’m frazzled by the end of a mix session because I’m watching 800 things.
Mastering is not a 3,000ft view of your mix, it’s a 30,000ft view of your mix. You’re seeing a much larger perspective and you’re dealing with a big picture instead of tiny details. Even though things can get (granular?) in your work, you’re still always looking at the big picture. That’s what you’re working towards, as opposed to, trying to just get that bleed out of the snare drum mic today, and ya’know, driving yourself crazy cause you can’t.
PA: How has mastering changed since you got started?
GS: Well, there are a couple of very obvious things. Formats have changed a lot and the discipline itself has changed. I mean, I still do the same basic thing I did 20 years ago, but I do it in different ways now. I’ve changed my work methods, I’ve changed my workflow – 20 years ago most of the stuff was coming in on ¼ inch or ½ inch tape, so it was a lot of preparation that was involved then. Also, the (digital) workstations and things like that were really cumbersome at the time.
There was a lot of – you dealt with a lot of preparation; with tapes, alignment, cleaning – you dealt with preparing your sessions, making sure all your equipment was fully functional because all the analog equipment that we used at that time was finicky, and still is. Everyday you’d walk in and your stuff sounds a little bit different, and you’d try to sort why is was a little different that day, maybe your tubes got a little older, maybe something is just a bit hotter than it was yesterday so it’s running a little different. So everyday was a bit of a challenge at that time.
The other thing too is that you’d spend a lot of your day cataloging things. You’d setup a setup, then you’d start writing down all your settings and you’d have to do these really painful tape backups on the DAW’s that we had at the time, and those things would take an hour run a tape backup on one project. I used to have an employee, that fulltime, just restored and did backups of our workstations. His whole job was to put stuff together on a computer, and to backup, and to restore tapes.
PA: Your motto is “Serve the Music”. How do you use this concept in your approach to the mastering process?
GS: Well, ya know, being that I’ve been doing this for a while now, you reach your maturity. I think the older I get, and hopefully the wiser I get the more I realize – you don’t have to do that extra thing and turn that extra knob, or put that extra piece of gear on things sometimes. It’s really having the judgment and discipline to know when to not do things. We have some great mixers that we work with sometimes and that last thing I want to do is to ruin their good work. They work really hard, some of these guys are super talented and really know what they’re doing and they do things on purpose to get a sound. Unfortunately, I think a lot of mastering houses undo that right away because they throw it through a chain automatically, they put their signature piece or touch on it, they have their little tricks they like to do, their techniques and all that stuff, before they’ve even really listened to anything.
The “Serve the Music” motto is really to kind of say that, “We’re really not putting our egos in front of the tune. Your music comes first, and then we’ll try to do our best to make it sound as good as it can.”
PA: What are some common problems you see in the materials you receive, and how do you deal with them while continuing to “Serve the Music”?
GS: I think part of it is learning that the word “No” is part of your vocabulary. It’s ok to say no to projects, and we do quite often actually. Not in a “No, we don’t want to work with you” but “No, this project is not ready to be mastered right now, and here’s what you could do to maybe fix it,” or “here’s some qualified people that you could go see that will help you with this.” We probably turn away around 40 or 50% percent of the stuff that’s submitted because it’s not ready to master, and the people will be wasting their money by coming to see us at that point.
We refer a lot of mix guys, and production guys, we have a whole “recommended” list that we send out about 6 times a day. It’s a good thing because we want qualified people to be working on music and we want to help the clients to achieve something. You’re not going to buy a Pro Tools rig and have the skills of some expert mixer that’s been doing it for 25 years.
That’s extremely valuable that you provide potential clients with resources to help them better their craft instead of just accepting a project that isn’t ready, or just turning them away.
We try to do it in a way that they could make use of the resources, but if they can’t, we’ll also give them a very honest critique of what’s going on in their mixes, if they want to attempt to fix it themselves. I’ll tell somebody “Your vocals don’t have enough compression” or “you’ve got weird stuff in your stereo field” or “you’ve gone cuckoo crazy with your — whatever”. We’ll try to give them as much feedback as they can understand, depending on their skill level.
PA: From a mastering engineer’s perspective, what are some tips for music producers looking to get the best results out of the mastering process?
GS: I would say there are definitely some things you can do to help a mastering guy. One is keeping things what I call “To their true selves”. So, if you have any instrument or vocal, or anything that you’ve recorded — it should sound like what that started as. A snare drum should never be so sharp and bright that it doesn’t sound like what it started as. A vocal having all of the midrange scooped out of it until it doesn’t even sound like that person anymore. I tell people that I’d much rather have something sound natural, and not be hyped or the brightest star – everybody tries to make superstar sounds when they put things on a track, not everything needs to be a super star sound.
Plus, once you’ve kind of tweaked things, and processed them to death, it leaves the mastering guy no room to work. If they want a little sparkle, and sheen, and they’ve already cranked the heck out of the high end, I’m gonna’ have some issues there. I can’t make it any brighter cause it’s already been brightened to death.
Those are the things I try to tell people: keep it natural, keep it true to what you started with, and think of it in terms of a visual too – think of a soundstage, think of where the performers are. I get clients sometimes who pan lead vocals hard left/right and I’m like “what singer is sitting on the side of the stage singing?” It’s one thing if you want it for effect of whatever, but novice mixers make those kind of mistakes. It’s easier to understand re-creating the experience of a performer performing in front of me.
PA: On to your exciting new rig…
PA: Can you tell us a bit about the mobile mastering rig you’ve created?
GS: Basically, I was traveling to Los Angeles a lot. I was working with the Recording Academy quite a bit. It would take a lot of my time — I love the Academy and think they’re a great worthwhile organization to work with, but I was losing a whole bunch of gigs when I was going out there. I’d get called “There’s a Chris Brown single here waiting for ya, if you don’t take it in an hour you’re not gettin’ it” kind of thing and I was like “Gahh! It would be so great if I had some kind of thing I could travel with, that I could actually do a quality mastering job with.” So, that was kind of the origin of how this started.
I started to just kind of put together this system, based off of a laptop, based out of necessity of not loosing my jobs. I wasn’t expecting it to be the new way I was going to work, but it’s kind of turned into a whole new way for me to work now and has made my old studio, and the old way of doing things, kind of not needed anymore. I work in a much different way than I did a year ago, or ten years ago, or twenty years ago.
PA: So it sounds like the creation of this system, at the time, was a solution to a particular problem, but has kind of become a way to service the client in a new and innovative way?
GS: Yeah, as a matter of fact, we had done all kinds of – I was hard-sell analog guy for a so many years. I remember when Dirk, from Brainworx approached me, he sent me an email saying “Hey, I see you’ve tried one of our plugins” or whatever. At that point, when I was putting together this little mobile thing, I had no intention of ever working with plugin as a major part of my workflow. I basically wrote back to Dirk and said “I don’t really work with plugins, I’ll never use those damn things — leave me alone, I don’t want to be a part of your Facebook or anything else.”
Unfortunately, I really stuck my foot in my mouth because now I’m using the heck out of that (Brainworx) stuff now. (laughs)
PA: Wow, so did plugins help you realize this system, or did they come after?
GS: They came after, because honestly I was imagining I was still going to have to work doing things the way I used to. We had both traditional, and proprietary analog ways of doing things, that I thought were superior, and it wasn’t until I really learned what some of the new stuff sounded like — in the past, five years ago or even two years ago, I’d try some plugs and go “Nope. Still not good enough”. There were one or two that I could listen to and say “That’s not horrible, but I’d still prefer to work analog.”
It really wasn’t ‘til this past year where I kind of went “Wow, it’s not only good, but this might even be better than some of my old analog gear.” That was a pretty hard realization to ponder.
PA: What are some of your “go-to” plugins and how do you use them in your day-to-day work?
GS: One of the new tools that I’ve been using is the bx_refinement. That’s a really nice plug, it’s one of those plugs that’s kind of not really very obvious when you pop it on. You throw it on something and think “Oh it sounds the same.” It’s a tool you need to learn to use, it’s not one of those obvious stick it on there, hit preset number three, and everything sounds great. But, if you’ve got some engineering chops and kind of get a feel for how the plug works, it’s a really versatile plug and can really bring a nice sheen and polish to things. It can smooth out some really nasty things, it’s a real kind of, it’s a subtle and nice tool, and (in) mastering – you don’t really want sledgehammer tools, you want things that are subtle. It really fit the bill and I’ve really been enjoying using it.
PA: Are there any other plugins from other brands that you use?
GS: Honestly, I’ve tried other stuff and some of it’s ok, but I’m pretty much almost exclusively using all Brainworx stuff.
PA: How long have you been using plugins from the Plugin Alliance family?
GS: I would say, probably a little over a year now . We’ve had a couple #2 records this year – in fact no one has every made any comments other than “Wow, your stuff sounds better than it ever has.”
PA: So we diverted a bit from the mobile rig so let’s get back to that.
PA: Has this system changed the types of projects you’re able to accept?
GS: Well, it’s changed my workflow. First of all, I can usually tend to clients much quicker so our turnaround is much quicker than it ever was. The other thing that’s really quite amazing is uh – we did an album this year for an artist named Future, and it was a pretty big project, it had Kanye West, Pharrell and Andre 3000 on it, it was a pretty All-Star thing, a fairly big record at the time. I actually took my mobile rig, I was in Atlanta – I’d done some of this stuff out on the West Coast too, but as the album got closer and closer to its finish, I was actually going into the A&R guy’s office and doing stuff in his office. It was crazy! I was finishing this very high profile project in an A&R guy’s office. I did some of it in a hotel room in L.A. Actually, the craziest part is I uploaded the production masters at a Starbucks. I was tagging on their WIFI and uploading productions parts for a huge record, at a Starbucks at like two in the morning.
PA: There must have been some growing pains associated with setting up this system, what were some of the biggest barriers to implementing and using this system as an effective mastering platform? Without giving away any secrets of course.
GS: For whatever it’s worth, my mastering comes from my experience. 1000 people could setup my rig, and it’s not gonna’ sound like my rig because it’s not me behind it. Tools are just that, they’re tools. I don’t do any kind of secret mojo that people ask “What’s behind the curtain”, “What’s that special black box you’re using”. I’ve always done my stuff with EQ’s and compression – just your basic mastering tools. People have always been reasonably happy with it. At the end of the day, you don’t go to a restaurant because the type of pans the cook has. I tell people that about mastering – Don’t come to me because I’ve got this kind of EQ or this kind of compressor, come to me because you like my work, because I could do it with anything.
My mobile rig is no special, super exclusive piece of gear that was designed by Martians on Chronos-7 or something, they’re things you can buy in a store, but you’re not gonna’ get my chops unless you come and see me.
PA: How has this system changed your workflow?
GS: It’s made it much more accessible for clients to get mastering now. It’s made it accessible for me to not be tied to a room anymore. So, I’m a much happier human being now that I can not have to worry about running back to the studio, at all times and hours of the day if I’ve got an important client I want to service at that point. So, now the studio is always open, when I want it to be, of course I set hours and rules and things (laughs) like that. If I do decide I want to work on a Sunday afternoon and it’s raining out, I can and I don’t have to drive across town to go do that. That’s one nice thing.
The other thing is that now the client gets their stuff much quicker, my workflow is much faster and we have the ability to bring the mastering studio to the recording studio. We can master on the spot – a client can make revisions if he doesn’t like where his mix is sitting in the master. The ability to kind of think on your feet and work quickly is just – it’s great, love it!
PA: How has the response from clients been?
GS: It’s been interesting. I thought there was going to be kind of a “how could you do this”, “you’re a traitor, you’re not doing analog stuff like you use to” – we used to have these great Francis Manzella designed rooms, and we still do, but that’s what we were known for. You come into our facility, there’d be several suites going with engineers and these beautiful rooms, nice lighting the whole nine, and now I’m basically coming in with a backpack and plop myself down. I can go where the mixer is and we can master right there, right then, and it’s instant gratification. The clients are loving this!
I can tell you, the A&R guy from the Future project was blown away. He was not only getting good service, but he was getting great quality stuff instantaneously in front of his eyes, at his convenience. There is something pretty magical about that…
PA: Your website (www.gsmastering.com) labels you as an “avid foodie”- It’s Friday night, you’ve had a long week but you’re feeling great, what are you cooking tonight?
GS: You know lately I’ve been hitting a lot of Mediterranean food so, last couple things I cooked – I cooked, it was a dish from this Ottolenghi Jerusalem cookbook, which is a really awesome cookbook. It was like a base of hummus with chopped sautéed lamb on top and it’s kind of bathed in a sauce with lemon and vinegar. Then topped with pine nuts and fresh mint… It was just delicious.
PA: Now that we’re all salivating, it’s 20 questions so we have to ask — animal, vegetable or mineral?
GS: Hmmm? I think I’m gonna’ go animal on that one.
Keep up with Glenn Schick at the following locations.
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