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Bob Katz- The Lost Interview- Part 1

Before we get started, let me explain what I mean by "lost" interview. We didn't find a secret tape hidden beneath the studio down the street, covered in dust and rotting away. No, not that kind of lost. 

Through all that has happened with ProRec in the past few months, you've just probably never seen this interview. So we're bringing it to you here in it's entirety, filled with great information and insight from the man who brought us "Mastering Audio" and the K-System metering method. Due to the length of this interview, we're splitting it up over two parts. Enjoy!

If you are unfamiliar with Bob Katz, you can visit his website at http://www.digido.com where you can learn even more about the mastering process in addition to about Bob himself. 

PR– Can you tell us how you got started in audio production and what made you choose mastering as opposed to other areas?

BK– Well, I was a clarinetist and a musician who started in music around the age of ten. I was also very much into electronics. I took apart tape recorders and tried to put them back together again, and I think that the two just sort of got married and turned into audio production over time. Everything that I did in high school and college eventually led in this direction. So it seems that I was "destined" to be an audio engineer. In high school, I took a tape recorder to various concerts and recorded the concert. In college, I joined the radio station and I became the production director for the radio station. In addition to recording various groups, I also set up and put together the production equipment. So it was like both sides of my head got exercised.

And you asked what made you choose mastering over other areas. Well, I think mastering was an off-shoot of the fact that I liked recording direct to two-track. I liked recording groups live. And when you record a group live, you really have to know what it should sound like, what it’s balance should be, and there’s a natural inclination there. And I was always trying to, after the fact, see what I could do with an equalizer to restore some areas that I might not have gotten right during the live mix. And that was a form of mastering. And when the clients that I had recorded would often come to me and I would take a Dolby SR tape or a Sony PCM-F1 recording and copy it over to a tape and edit it and run it through an equalizer while monitoring on my system. And also, I think that a lot of mastering engineers, though not all mastering engineers, are some form of audiophiles. We always used to fool around with our audio systems at home and try and make them sound the best that they could. And in mastering, getting familiar with what live music sounds like and also what a really really good reproduction system sounds like is a precedent, and I was always into that. I was head of my local audio society in New York for a while, and what can I say, it all came together.

PR– A lot of people getting started have many misconceptions about mastering. What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions, and what exactly IS mastering for those who get these misconceptions. Can you give a brief explanation of mastering as a process?

BK– Well, I actually read a misconception about mastering that was written by a fledging mastering engineer in one of the magazines. He wrote that, while gearing himself to try and get a job, and gearing himself for the readers, he wrote that the job of mastering was to make the loudest possible recording. Well, I really think that’s a BIG misconception, since mastering is not about making it loud. Perhaps part of our job, at least in these times, is to see how “loud” we can make it without hurting the product, or without hurting the sound. And those rules get broken a lot, even by me sometimes when the client demands an even “louder” recording. Now I put that in quotes, but let’s get rid of the quote/unquote, and let me tell you what I mean by “louder”.

When I say “louder”, I mean louder in FRONT of the consumer’s volume control because obviously the consumer is the one that has control over the ultimate listening level. First thing that happens when you put a CD in the car, what do you do? You go for the volume control, adjust it, and then you listen. It’s inevitable, that that’s the way that you listen.

So when a producer, and this is another misconception, puts in a reference CD that comes from the mastering house and compares it with another CD without adjusting the volume control on his CD player or system, he’s not doing what the consumer would do. And he may make a misjudgment that the CD which I make or someone else makes is lower or not as punchy, when really it’s just a little lower in average level and has to be turned up manually. And that is a real problem because loudness trumps everything. Loudness trumps EQ. Loudness trumps compression. Loudness trumps a lot of things, even if it sucks.

PR– I know through my experience in the broadcast world that most songs are delivered with hot mixes, then converted to a lossy format, and thrown through more compression and a hard brick wall limiter, then nudged just above what the FCC allows in volume, and we end up with a big jumbled mess. And this is what people are used to listening to, so this is what people think the consumer wants.

BK– Well, that’s another issue, is what people are getting used to listening to. Which is actually a psychoacoustic phenomenon that we’ve all experienced. It’s just that the degree of distortion which is capable of being produced today by the digital equipment is so much greater than the degree of distortion before, and the rate of increased distortion is so much greater. Whoever invented the electric guitar created a sound which no one had ever heard before. That was new, that was distorted, and that was louder. That was part of the evolution. But whoever took an electric guitar recording and put it through a digital compressor that has a higher ratio and a faster action than any analog compressor ever designed, and then put it through a peak limiter that’s faster and more powerful than any peak limiter that was ever designed before digital, has been able to make yet another “louder” recording. And because the race has always been on, now the weapons that we have are nuclear instead of conventional.

PR– Was mastering even designed to change the sonic qualities of audio, and SHOULD it change the sonic quality?

BK– Originally, the first mastering engineers were technicians who wore white coats. That’s what they did in Britain, they wore white coats. And their job was completely technical and not at all aesthetic, or at least theoretically not at all aesthetic because their job was to translate the sound from the tape to the vinyl disk with as little alteration as possible, and to deal with the technical limitations of the vinyl medium. But as time went on, the first boutique mastering studio was probably Doug Sax’s in Hollywood. And it was brought about because producers were looking for more than just this interpretation. They were looking to see if they could get a little bit more from the tape than that. And Doug responded to that by producing the first independent mastering studio. From that point on, I would have to say that at this point in time, especially with the advent of project studios where a lot of musicians have become engineers, sometimes by osmosis and not intent, they had to become engineers due to the current economics of our industry. As a result, there are probably three philosophies of mastering that could occur when a tape or file is sent to a mastering engineer for mastering. So let’s go over it.

The first is that the mix was excellent, absolutely terrific. And that the producer is looking for the best translation with little alteration of that mix to the mastered product.

The second is that, maybe there are a few mistakes or problems, that the mix wasn’t quite that good, but mostly good. And the producer is looking for some corrections and fixes to his otherwise excellent mix, and take that to the next level of polish and improvement that could be done.

And the third is that no one was satisfied with the mix, they just couldn’t get it right, and they’re looking for major transformation. Perhaps they are looking to take a recording that sounds like group XYZ and turn it into group ABC, which is one of those misconceptions, that you think that with mastering you can really transform something. Well, the fact is with the tools that we have, we can transform a mix into something else, but it’s never going to sound as good as if you had mixed it with that intent in the first place.

PR– When you’re looking at a track mastered by an inexperienced mastering engineer, outside of trying to be loud, what’s the most common mistake you hear when listening to those works?

BK– Nothing. Really, the less experienced the mastering engineer, the more problematic. So probably the next most common mistake is to make all the songs sound equally loud, even if it’s just a ballad. This kind of ties into the overall loudness issue, but not exactly.

PR– What are some things that can, or should be done during mixing to make the mastering process more productive for the mastering engineer?

BK– I think the best thing that I can recommend is very very simple; translation. Get out of your ivory tower, stop mixing all alone in your own little studio, and number one, take your recording around and listen to it on as many different systems that you may be familiar with, or maybe unfamiliar with if possible, and see how your mix is translating. If it’s not translating, generally go back to the drawing board and try mixing again to deal with that problem. That will solve almost 90% of the issues that could happen when you get into mastering, and save a heck of a lot of money too.

The next thing is communication. If you’re thinking of mastering, and you have a mastering engineer in mind; as soon as you’ve finished your first mix and you think you’re happy with it, send it off to that mastering engineer for his or her criticism and judgment of how that mix is sounding to see if it’s ready for mastering or if there are further things that can be done in the mixing that would make an even better master. If you can take care of these two areas, you’re going to have an excellent master.

The rest of what I could say is relatively specific to equalization or problems in different frequencies and more common issues that occur. But if you yourself as a mixing engineer do those two things I described, then almost all the other problems that could arise will become evident.

PR– If a song is mixed properly and all the communication is there, is it possible that when the mix is done and it’s sent to the mastering engineer that there could be possibly little or no work for them to do?

BK– Oh, absolutely. The better the mix and the less that I have to do, chances are the better the master that will result. Now, that’s not to say that there are a lot of things I can do to take a recording from a great recording up to a better level. But the principle still remains that if I don’t have to do fancy equalization or compression, there will be few artifacts, and if it’s a good mix, it should make a great master.

PR– Well, that seems easy enough, though I guess a lot of people don’t end up following that plan?

BK– Oh my god, I don’t know if it’s an ego problem, or inexperience, or “I can do this myself” which is part of the ego thing. But when you get the benefit or opinion of an experienced professional who listens to recordings that come from many different parts of the world, and a different recording every single day, we really have a wide perspective.


Look out for part 2 of this interview, coming within the next couple of days. You don't want to miss it!

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