By Markkus Rovito
Nobody knows exactly what Glenn Schick is up to right now. The man himself doesn't even know what he's going to be working on from day to day until he checks in with his home base in Atlanta. Chances are though that he is mastering new tracks from one of the hottest rappers in the world, somewhere in the world: Iceland, Thailand, LA-LA land—probably somewhere on land, but then again maybe on a plane. See, Schick does not need to sweat it out in a studio to master a #1 album. His mastering rig fits comfortably in an overhead compartment, making him free as a bird to travel wherever the music or his fancy take him. But it wasn't always this way.
Schick did not simply purchase a laptop and a software suite and proclaim that he would pioneer a new lifestyle for a mastering engineer. His saga began as a New York rock musician in the late '70s, and in the '80s, he played on some of the earliest hip-hop records in New York. That lead to engineering and producing hip-hop for B-Boy Records, who put out material from New York greats such as Boogie Down Productions and Cold Crush Brothers. After relocating to Atlanta, a colleague convinced him to try mastering, which he soon found to be an ideal discipline for perfectionist, big-picture type people such as himself.
By the early '90s, Schick was mastering music professionally, and he set up a deluxe, all-analog studio—Glenn Schick Mastering—where he worked for about 20 years. He became a regular client of some of the biggest southern rap stars, such as T.I., Ludacris, Young Jeezy and 2 Chainz. However, he has also spread out from his hip-hop background and earned a reputation for mastering all types of music. His resumé includes such names as Elton John, Widespread Panic, Justin Bieber, Drive By Truckers, Indigo Girls, Of Montreal, and hundreds of others.
The Incredible Shrinking Studio
You can read more about Schick's background and transition from the traditional mastering studio to a mobile setup in our previous interview "20 Questions with Glenn Schick," where he calls mastering "post-production for music," which he's always done with simple tools like EQ and compression. While the type of processing tools has remained the same, the form and technology of those tools began to change for Schick when the improving quality of audio plug-ins ran up against his professional imperatives.
"About four years ago, I was doing a lot of work for the Grammys, so I was flying from Atlanta to L.A. maybe 12 weeks of the year," Schick told us in a recent interview. "I kept missing all these great gigs because somebody would need a song right away. So I set up kind of an emergency back-up [laptop] system. When I started working with the tools, it amazed me, because I was Mr. Analog, I-will-never-work-with-a-plugin guy, and it had gotten so much better than what I heard in the past that it made me reevaluate everything. I took the studio out of the equation, and it was mind-boggling. The fact that I could do real work with a portable setup blew my mind. I do not have a studio in Atlanta anymore. I just have an office there."
When Schick started to put together his laptop mastering system, a producer friend recommended Brainworx EQ plugins to him, and he started using the bx_digital V2 EQ. "I really, really liked it," he said. "It felt familiar immediately, like a comfortable tool in my hands. Their products have really changed the whole way I work."
Because Schick was so used to the analog world, where boutique manufacturers often deal in custom gear, he contacted Brainworx founder Dirk Ulrich to see if he could get a custom plug-in with some special requests in it. Schick laughed and affected his best German accent to recall what Ulrich told him. "Dirk went, 'no, no, no. It's very complicated. You can't have one plugin just for you.' That's when I looked through their catalog and incorporated some of the other stuff, like bx_refinement, bx_saturator V2, bx_XL V2 mastering limiter and a bunch of other stuff. But I tend to be a "less is more" guy. I don't use a ton of plugs when I master. I just have my few favorites. It's all not quantity, it's just getting the right stuff out of it."
Besides a laptop with software, Schick's mobile mastering rig includes an Antelope Audio Isochrone 10M high-end atomic master clock and Pure2 mastering AD/DA converter, which fit into a 3-rackspace bag that goes into an overhead compartment. For monitoring, he uses several pairs of custom in-ear monitors from JH Audio.
"Over the years I've developed some proprietary techniques for fine-tuning the monitoring, as well as the mastering," he said. "I do things in the box I don't think anyone else does right now, and I also do things with my monitoring I don't think anybody else has maybe even tried. It's taken years to fine-tune, but it works great now. My in-ears can range from 6-12 speakers in each ear, so they're quite complex pieces, and their reproduction is quite amazing. We use to have a Francis Manzella-built studio with several rooms and $100,000 speakers, and I easily better all that. And I put it in a backpack."
Better Lifestyle, Better Masters
Schick's compact mastering method has afforded him new freedoms—both the freedom to work where he wants to and the freedom of recovered time. Not only does he not have a commute to the studio, but he can also concentrate what used to be a 10-12 hour day into what's often just a morning of work.
"As an analog mastering guy, you'd have to write down all your settings to do a recall, and come back to it later and set everything up the same," he said. "And it would sound totally different, so I could never really get a proper recall. Now when we work on big projects, they throw recalls of mixes at you every 20 minutes and sometimes 10 new mixes of the same track in a week. In the old days, we wouldn't even be able to handle that. Now it's easy. It's like click, click, click, done. And the clients love it. I'm able to turn things around faster, but more importantly, the quality is better. I really was shocked that I was getting better results with my in-the-box setup than I ever was with my analog stuff. And my clients immediately heard it."
With his easy mobility, Schick has taken to mastering music on location if the client wants it. He can show up to the artist's studio and master tracks in the lobby, passing files back and forth on a USB thumb drive.
The work/life balance is also hard to beat. This summer he spent about a month in Iceland, working with a couple dozen artists, including Agent Fresco, whose album he did went to #1 in the country soon after. Yet it's not all business when he's travelling. "One of my clients in Iceland and I went caving in lava tubes," Schick said. "How cool is that? You never get to do that in the studio. And now we're friends, and that's really a rare thing. For the last 10 years, I sat in a box watching a clock waiting for people to show up, and it got less and less fun, you know? Now I live life, and it's fantastic."
Later in the summer, Schick mastered rapper Future's album DS2, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart. It was a very late-notice project that was released only seven days after it was announced. Schick had to work extremely fast on it, but was able to take on the project even though he started it in the basement of an Air B'n'B rental in Reykjavik, Iceland and finished it in Thailand. "If I was working in Atlanta, I don't think there would have been any advantage," he said. "In fact, because I was 8, 11 or 15 hours ahead, they'd wake up every morning, and everything was done. So it was even an advantage to an extent."
After a couple of months in Thailand working on some new 2 Chainz material, some stuff from Russian clients and whatever else came his way, Schick headed back to L.A. Soon after that it will be off to Seoul, South Korea to work on as much K-pop as he can get his hands on. After that, who knows? All the world is his soundstage.
Another Prime Gig
While Schick loves his music to be high-resolution as much as the next in-demand mastering engineer, he's also approved by Apple to offer Mastered for iTunes services. Not only that, but his last fixed address in the United States was in the Seattle area, where he became the exclusive mastering engineer for Amazon's original music initiative. For example, Schick worked on the recently launched Amazon Prime Acoustics playlist, featuring artists like Train, Deer Tick, Michelle Branch, Five for Fighting and Tokyo Police Club.
Schick said he got the Amazon job because they said they knew he could handle it, and he's been very pleased with the way they have given him the freedom to do his job as he sees fit. He was able to have direct interaction with all the artists and talk them through his process. "I actually was able to make the Amazon volumes lower than what's on most of the crazy-level stuff now," he said. "So when they play on streaming sites, it's not going to be distorted or super loud. It's going to sound good, because they let the mastering guy pick the volume. That's cool. What company does that? I do a major-label album, and they're like, 'loud, louder, louder!'"
Schick's Motto: "Serve the Music"
Whether it's a major label artist, or an independent band on a shoestring budget, Schick strives to focus on customer service, and that includes rejecting projects or sending music back to the artist for refinements if necessary. He still listens to everything before booking a mastering job, and if the music isn't ready for the mastering phase, or he hears something that could be made better, he'll send it back and offer them suggestions.
"We've always offered that as part of our customer service, and we don't charge for it," Schick said. "A lot of engineers forget this is a service industry. We're here to make people happy. I still work my butt off to make every client happy," Schick said.
That effort has translated into a lot of repeat customers whom Schick watches improve from very primitive in their mixing skills to being good enough that he doesn't need to send back their first attempt. And those lower level artists make up a huge part of his business.
"Those big-dollar jobs don't come in like they used to, but that was never the bulk of what our work was anyway," Schick said. "We do our chunk of big artists every year, but we also do hundreds of indie artists every year. Those guys are our bread and butter. People think we must be so expensive. We're not."
Ahead of the Pack
Even though music production, video production and other media fields have seen the barriers to entry shrink and the tools move inside the box, Schick still looks at audio engineering and master engineering in particular as a slow to adapt. In fact, he thinks he is still so far ahead of the curve that many of his peers either don't understand what he does or are in awe of it. And while he's very helpful and encouraging of his clients to get up to speed with their mixing skills, he's not in any rush to help his mastering competition catch up with him.
"This didn't happen overnight," he said. "It took four years of developing new techniques that made my stuff sound good again. It's not a simple plug-and-play formula or a piece of gear that you can buy. You've got to put your time in like anything else. Even though I'm doing some things I did 20 years ago, a lot of what I'm doing is totally new. I think a lot of people just don't know how to do it. They'll have to put in their time and make their path. I think it'll happen just like it happened with home studios. You know, not everybody was an instant home-studio genius. It took people time to figure out."