Recently we had the opportunity to do an interview with seasoned mastering engineer Mike Wells. Located in San Francisco, CA and with a client list too long to display here, Mike knows his stuff as one of the best. We did the interview as a classic Q and A session. Below are the results of this session.
Q: What hardware unit is at the top of your 'wanted' list at the moment and why?
MW: Well the #1 unit I wanted for years (day-dreaming of in true gear-fetish fashion!) I picked-up about 2 years ago, and that was the 'Dangerous Music Master' mastering (transfer) console. From the moment I watched Bob & Chris give me a demo of it on the AES show floor I saw how many problems it would solve, and how elegant an upgrade it was, from my "frankenstein" console I had constructed myself. Since receiving that piece I've been pretty darn happy. I'm reviewing a couple of potential compressors now (Shadow Hills, Pendulum Audio) in which one may come on as an addition, but at this point it's all improving the recipe rather than missing ingredients.
There's a custom gain control unit I'm building now to provide more flexibility within an outboard process, I guess I could go into some "wow wouldn't it be great" type of lust-after items, and those would be a pair of Eggleston Works Ivy's, and maybe some of Daniel Weiss' boxes. The gear thing gets a bit tricky in that you can certainly lust after something, but there is a significant period in which you need to spend with it before you are using it on billable projects.
Additionally, get to the point of familiarity with a piece of gear wherein you can mentally decide "this piece is the right choice used this way", etc... that type of reflex comes from really knowing the unit deeply, so constantly attaining new gear may steer you away from getting the most out of what you have at the moment. I should take my own advice, ha!
Q: What software plugin/program is at the top of your 'wanted' list at the moment and why?
MW: The only software I'm pursuing now is a Sequoia upgrade (my mastering DAW program), since gear-wise it's purely a hardware situation at my studio.
Q: What kind of hardware/software are you missing and why?
MW: I'd like to take a step back to answer that question. There was a point when I felt I was missing something, that being the Dangerous mastering console. Before it, I had the "frankenstein" console I mentioned earlier, but it in no way had the elegance of the Dangerous console's design & implementation. With that piece, I was finally able to do *true* A->B, gain matched comparisons from the same D/A converter (built into the Dangerous Monitor). I was finally able to do analog M/S encoding/decoding. I gained the ability to perform width enhancement within the signal path, controlled by the Dangerous Master unit. I could finally monitor in M/S along with stereo & mono. The unit added a wonderful pre and post gain control to the
outboard signal path. It's worth mentioning all these features. This piece really is a standout in the industry and deserves a lot of attention.
Q: Which artist you wouldn't mind calling you in the middle of the night for a mastering session gig?
MW: The May Fire.
Q: What's your take on the whole online mastering 'movement' thats becomming more common nowadays?
MW: At the moment, physical media is still the dominant deliverable (the compact disc), and that does appear to be changing fast, as more artists are choosing digital distribution as a final deliverable. That said, the internet makes it easier for people to start mastering businesses in places other than areas with a high music industry population (NYC, LA, etc...).
I do see potential for my own and other mastering studios given the current internet model. Stirrings in the ISP world & legislature may change that (see the "Net Neutrality" initiative on the web for more info). In it's current state, as I've seen implemented consistently around the web, there seems to be a large disconnect in workflow and client interaction with the "strict" online mastering community. At the end of the day it's still a people business, and shops located in remote areas who only communicate via email and FTP... well I think that will substantially hold their growth potential back.
Beyond the basic first step of the online mastering community we are seeing today, there are some important questions on the horizon, such as:
-How will clients review materials in the future?
-What format will the final masters be delivered in?
-Will mastering engineers take on the encoding process to release assets into the digital distribution channel? Should they?
-What responsibilities will mastering engineers have with regard to release metadata?
Q: What do you think is the most common mistake made by the rookie mastering engineers?
MW: Making claims ("world class", "the best", "radio ready", etc...), and rate-gouging (eg: would you purchase teeth cleaning at $10/tooth from a "world class" dentist?) Potential clients aren't stupid, and see through that stuff pretty quick.
Q: After checking out the D-Box I was wondering if this was THE unit for those mastering engineers who are starting out with IN THE BOX mastering and are looking for a smart solution to get into OUT OF THE BOX mastering as well.
MW: My studio started-off in a DAW environment (mastering "in the box"), and I can tell you I *WISH* the D-Box was available to me back then. It simplifies so many functions of not only monitoring, multiple monitor selections, and is a great entry into the outboard world. Immediate solutions with room to grow. Dangerous hits the mark again.
Q: What advise you would give to aspiring mastering engineers?
MW: With more and more people making records, there's more opportunity for everyone in the recording chain. My advice is to be realistic. Set your large goals (your studio/gear list, client-type, location, all of it) and start where you are in a realistic, honest way. Find clients at your level, "real" clients are *paying* clients. Gain experience, charge a fair price and deliver great work. Keep learning, be curious about all aspects of business. Get
involved in your community. Go to shows, conferences, networking events. Meet bands, engineers, everyone you can. It's people that matter, way more than the gear.
Mike Wells Mastering
We want to thank Mike Wells, Paul J. de Benedictis and Wouter Veltmaat for their co-operation in this Q&A session.