A couple of months back, you may well have enjoyed Part I of our interview with leading mastering engineer Simon Heyworth, conducted at his beautiful state-of-the-art Super Audio Mastering (SAM) facility in Dartmoor, Devon.
In the second part of our tête-à-tête – and once again with a little help from Simon’s fellow SAM engineer Andy Miles – Heyworth continues to demystify the complex creative mastering process while also giving you audiophiles some insight into what makes the set-up at his facility, built inside a 19th century granite-walled threshing barn or ‘roundhouse’, sound so incredible.
MF: Simon, what was mastering like when you first became involved in the process back in the 1970s?
SH: When I was mixing and going to the vinyl cut as a youngster, I learnt that producers and engineers used to mix records really, really well and as accurately as possible. The A-side and the B-side were all done and all you really had to do to cut the record was to add maybe half a dB at 10K on track three, adjust the bass here and there and do some hi-frequency limiting or something minor like that. It was a work of art, it was cut together as an album and it was mixed in such a way that it was finished and there was no more to do aside from getting the music onto vinyl. In those days, it was a five hour operation or less. Of course, sometimes it was more complex and it was all hands on deck with different EQ’s for each track and so on. You would then cut an acetate test disc, you went home and you listened to it and, if you liked what you heard, you’d ring up and say, ‘Okay, go for the cut’, and it would then go off to be pressed. You would receive a test pressing, which you also needed to approve. For vinyl, that part of the process has not changed. Cutting or mastering was a job done in a very short space of time because a lot of time had been spent on the mixing and on getting everything absolutely right. The main difference now is that people send you individual tracks that are not cut together. They’ve been mixed but they haven’t – a lot of the time – even got a running order. We might have to do an awful lot more to it and our work can be really cut out adding EQ and compression to make it all more present and then dealing with the loudness aspects of music. But, of course, this is not true of every album project. Sometimes it can be very simple and the work is wonderfully crafted and so the trick is to make it just that bit better and not mess it up. I recently mastered a song for a Dutch artist called Glennis Grace and it was a case of just taking it to that next level where you go, ‘Wow, that’s a great performance, recording and song!’ I like to make it feel like it is just in front of the speakers. We call it ‘incremental betterment’, a phrase coined by Robert Fripp with whom we work.