Q&A with mastering guru Rob Small
Nov 2012 14

Where some label nowadays feel that mastering a release is overrated, it should in no way be overlooked as something not worth spending some time and money on. It definitely can lift a record into a proper level of musical sweetness and blow up big on a dancefloor.
Our mastering guy from the UK is no other then Rob Small who not only masters for a wide variety of dance labels, but also produces some pretty damn good records too.

Check out this interview we did below and for more info you should definitely check out his website and facebook.

Q&A WITH MASTERING GURU ROB SMALL

Where are you from and how did you get into the music business?
– I’m from Leeds, which is a vibrant city in the North of the England.

Music has always been of interest to me. To be honest I think that I pretty much wanted to be a part of the Electronic Music culture in some form ever since I left school. I never really had much interest in anything other than computer games, sci-fi films and music. I know that sounds incredibly geeky, but it’s the truth!

Where did you learn the craft of mastering records?
– This is something that I get asked quite a lot. Usually I’m asked “Where did you study audio engineering?”, or “Who taught you how to master records?”, when in actual fact neither questions apply to how I learned the audio mastering process. I learned everything from working extremely hard, and trial & error.

First and foremost, I need to point out that me mastering records wasn’t my original intention when I first started producing music. Basically, I produced a lot of tracks when I was younger, but I didn’t have much money to spend on getting my tracks professionally mastered primarily due to me not making any money from my tracks and having very few paid dj gigs at the time. So, ultimately my best interest was how I could make my tracks sound bigger. I would compare my tracks to the tracks that were produced by artists that I loved, and would often say to myself “How the f**k did these guys get their tracks to sound so good?!”. I learned about frequencies, processing, mixing down, paying attention to detail, and started to play around with various mastering plugins on my own tracks but at the same time I also sent my tracks to various mastering houses to hear their versions of the mastering. Some of them weren’t very good, whereas others were excellent – but very expensive. I set my standards for the excellent sounding masters and made the decision to stop going out partying, save some money and learn how this final process worked. Again, I did this as I really could not afford to pay for every one of my tracks to be mastered and I was worried that some labels did not have sufficient in-house mastering when I signed to them. So I wanted to eradicate the need of a mastering engineer thus saving myself some money and also make it so the label would not need to alter the sound of my track.

I have had a few successful releases over the years, some of which have received high chart positions on Beatport. As a result of this I managed to receive quite a lot of paid dj gigs which funded my studio that now consists of a powerful Apple Mac computer, high-end software, some outboard hardware, and also funded books and extensive tutorials. For quite a while I became a little reclusive and I put my social life on hold. My time was spent reading, studying, building a studio, producing, comparing, and studying even more (which actually became quite an obsession) until I was asked by some local producers to master their records as they really liked the sound of my own tracks. I agreed to master their material but they would have to pay me for my time to which the producers happily agreed. I didn’t have a website, Facebook page, any sort of promotion or advertising but the word of my mastering work and it’s quality travelled like wildfire and within a year I was receiving mastering requests from literally people from all over the world! I knew that I had a responsibility to make the best work possible for these labels and artists so I continued to study & learn, and now I’m here talking to you 😉

Since then I have had my website designed, promoted my business and have mastered over 3000 tracks for some of the worlds leading electronic artists & labels, and my client list keeps growing.

Why do you think artists still need to have their tracks mastered by an expert, even with all the plugins and tutorials available these days?
– Professional mastering is not only a sales criterion, but it’s also a way of helping your tracks stand out when submitting demo’s to labels. It show’s that you’re taking your music seriously and that you’re making an effort with the sound of your material. Some of the new mastering plugins are great, but can have disastrous effects on one’s tracks if not used properly and the presets on them are just terrible, especially for electronic music, and in truth they just don’t sound like some of the hardware that they supposedly emulate or try to recreate. It’s nice to use both high-end plugins & outboard gear combined, but for compression & limiting you really can’t beat hardware. A mastering engineer will have worked on hundreds of tracks and will be able to hear things that the producer can’t. The engineer will know what frequencies to trim, boost, compress and will also remove things that shouldn’t be there. Not to mention the engineer having a properly calibrated monitoring system & acoustically treated studio that is designed for the job. Some producers make tracks in the corner of their bedroom with bad acoustic surroundings. All the plugins in the world can’t help that so it’s best to get fresh & experienced ears around your music and get some professional help & advice. Producing music & mastering music are two completely different things which can easily be confused and put under the same category. Producing is one thing, and mastering engineering is something different entirely.

How do you stand out in the sea of mastering possibilities?
– There are a hell of a lot of unbelievably good mastering engineers out there with pretty much endless possibilities. My way of standing out is by being as professional and friendly as possible, building up a great relationship with the client, offering advice on how to improve mixes prior to mastering, keeping my rates low but not too low as to compromise the quality of the work as there’s usually a correlation between price & quality with most mastering engineers, sticking to a strict schedule & delivering files on time, and offering fantastic aftercare. I’m not in this to make a quick buck as my clients will agree with. I take a lot of pride in what I do as I respect the client for putting their faith in me to master their tracks and essentially putting the finishing touches to their art. I know of some guys that simply download the latest cracked Waves bundle or Ozone plugin, slam some eq, compression and limiting on the tracks in Logic, ask for a really low fee and fool the client into thinking that their tracks have been professionally mastered for a great price. That is not mastering, that is merely boosting the volume of a track. These guys won’t last long and should really have more respect for people.

Can you name some labels that you work for?
– Inmotion Music, Artform, Outland, Strom (of course), ALiVE Recordings, Memoria, Cream Couture, Blockhead, Waveform Recordings and about 50 more 😉

You also produce music yourself. Can you tell us something about that?
– I’ve produced nearly 100 House & Techno records now. Most have been released, some haven’t. Some of my releases have hit the Beatport charts numerous times, and have been released on the same EP’s & compilations as Martin Landsky, Steve Bug, X-Press 2, D’Julz, Hakan Lidbo, Umek, and Shur-I-Kan amongst many others. My tracks mainly appeal to the older generation of dj’s as they’re quite ‘Out There’ and have sound characteristics of music that I grew up listening to. The support on my releases over the years has been overwhelming and producing music is something that I love. I’m producing more for myself now. By saying this I mean that my productions are less contrived and more based on idea’s that I want to express and experiment with, and not a House loop with some skippy snares, white noise and a booming bassline.

What was your recent remix/release and how did that come about?
– I have a forthcoming release of an original track on a somewhat legendary UK Deep House imprint called ‘3am Recordings’. The label is run by a close friend of mine called Al Bradley. They are around 10 years old now and I work closely with them as I’m not restricted with my sound and they’re very easy to get along with. This release is called ‘Fear & Loathing’, and comes with 3 additional remixes. One of which is by Jamie Anderson who is not only one of my biggest inspirations but is also a friend.

You can preview the track here:

My recent remix was a Deep House cut on Starlight Unlimited. This was originally a remix that I made a few years ago that I thought was never going to be released. It was released a couple of months ago and was surprisingly successful throughout the summer after hitting the Deep House chart on Beatport. I also have various material to be released on Artform, Younan Music, and I’m working on new material for my own label that I co-own with Ross Richards, called ‘Tug Underground’.

Any final words of advice for artists on how they can improve their tracks before mastering?
– Please go easy on the processing! An over processed premaster tends to result in an over processed final master. Try not to clip your mixes and keep the channel’s of your DAW well below 0dbs and out of the red, that is unless you’re wanting that distorted sound. Also, trim away frequencies that are not needed in the mix. For instance; trim away everything below 150hz – 200hz on your Hi-Hats as this is a frequency range that is not needed on this instrument. By removing a frequency that is not used on the specific instrument you are in actual fact freeing up overall headroom, thus creating more room to make your master more punchier and louder (if needed). Premasters that are not properly mixed using correct frequency attenuation and exported with the correct overall ceiling room in not only individual channels in the mix but also on the master output usually tend to break up & distort quite easily in the mastering process and are restricted from being made louder. Try to use the best plugins you can afford and have the maximum processor & memory in your computer to handle such plugins. Finally, and this is something I encounter every day – switch off the plugins on the master output channel if you’re sending your track to be mastered! Leave some room for your engineer to do his work and make sure your transient peaks are present and not flattened off by heavy compression & limiting.

– Rob Small Mastering –
Web: www.robsmallmastering.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/RSMastering