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Eleh & Denis Blackham: Mastering 'Location Momentum'

img  Tobias

Was there a request from the artist or the record company about what exactly the mastering with regards to „Location Momentum“ should concentrate on?
Touch are an excellent label to work with, because the are totally focused on the particular project they send me to master; they are also completely passionate about it. If they are not 100% behind the project, it doesn't get released. I have mastered many released for Touch since I first started working with them around 1989, and they always let me do do whatever I feel works for the project. Every project, every track, and every artiste is different, so there is no set mastering format. Every track is mastered separately but with an overall feel so the whole album works when played from beginning to end.

From what I've gathered, before touching the dials and knobs, mastering often begins with trying to get an impression of what an artist wants to achieve. What were your impressions on „Location Momentum“ when it arrived on your desk?
Mastering is a strange thing, and after 41 years of it, I still do not understand why I have been so popular and still in such demand. I firmly believe I was born with whatever it is within me to master music; that certain something inside that instinctively guides me to making the correct decision on the sound I end up with.

  I can master totally in digital, totally in analogue, or a combination of both. I normally use the combination route, as some use of valves can add some warmth and cohesion to the music. It also depends on the project. Some artistes have a good recording set-up, and are technically very knowledgeable, so the mixes I receive are of a high standard, and very precisely mixed and laid out. In these circumstances, I may not need to do very much at all, and probably only work in digital, trying to keep their mixes similar or the same as their originals. I may just need to adjust the levels track to track, tidy up the starts and ends, and add the spaces between tracks, or create crossfades to blend the tracks together.

  The Eleh album is the first I have mastered for the artiste, so I am always pleased when they like what I have done. You never know exactly what the artiste is wanting from their music or soundscape. I have got it wrong a few times, but generally I just seem to play a piece of music and know how it should be. The sound has to come out of my monitoring system and affect me inside. It's very difficult to explain, and like I said earlier, I don't really know what it is, it's just a feeling that tells me it's right. I'll master and send the first version to Touch and await a reply. With the Eleh album, after the first mastering, they decided to change the order of the tracks and also change the spaces between the tracks.

  Sometimes when an album is mastered, it can sound quite different to the original, and take on a new feel. Tracks that used to sit together might flow better in a different order. The spaces between tracks are vital to achieving a smooth flow to the whole album. I think it's a shame that many people these days often just listen to one track at a time instead of the whole album. To be able to sit down, press play at the beginning of an album and be immersed in the music until the end is a wonderful experience. It's something I was brought up on, those concept albums by The Moody Blues, The Beatles, etc where each track stood out on its own, but was an integral part of the whole. A lovely way to listen, be taken on a musical journey and forget everything else.

  Jon Wozencroft at Touch is not only a superb photographer and sleeve designer, he is also responsible for the gaps that end up on most Touch releases. I provide the initial mastered version for them to listen to, and then Jon messes with the gaps, fades, crossfades until he is happy. We have a few emails back and forth, and sometimes one or more versions until he, Mike Harding and the artiste are.

"Location Momentum“ has an incredibly physical and intense sound. In which way, would you say, did your mastering contribute to the experience?
Well I think the original Eleh mixes had it all there. I didn't want to change the overall feel of what I'd been given, as the sound and musical balance was good. I was fairly gentle in my approach to mastering the album, just some gain adjustment and enhancing certain frequencies to make it work for me, hit that button within me that says yes! and makes me smile.

Eleh has often been credited with a strong focus on the lower frequencies. So did you merely boost the Bass or was the job more intricate than that?

It's more than just turning up the bass, and I was not aware of Eleh's taste when I mastered the album. As I said earlier, Touch usually give me a project without any sound suggestions, so I just press play and do what works for me. The style and feel of the mixes would guide me to what should be enhanced or subdued. Some mixes can come to me with a lot of very low bass frequencies that sound fine on good speakers, but can cause problems on smaller, less efficient systems. Part of my job as a mastering engineer is to provide a finished project that will sound good on a wide variety of systems, from an expensive hi-fi to a pair of iPod earpieces. That's not easy, especially with bass. Sometimes you have take away or restrict certain frequencies, adding more of others and still end up with a sound that has the correct feel.

There is an almost sculptural, three-dimensional quality to the recording – without giving away too many of your secrets, how was this achieved?

I think it's partly due to my in-built instinct of what works. You have to have an understanding of frequencies, something I had read about before I became a mastering engineer. I have a map in my head of frequencies and what instruments sit where in that map. I know what frequencies to adjust to get the desired result. You also need excellent monitoring and an acoustically treated environment to work in. I have a lovely room which I built myself. It works for me and my ATC 100 monitors allow me to hear everything perfectly. I do not use nearfields, but I do occasionally use headphones as a double check.

  The other thing worth mentioning is I work alone these days. Apart from close friends, and long standing clients, I stopped having attended mastering sessions a few years ago. It takes some time to get acclimatised to a room if you're not used it, and also the monitors may seem strange to begin with. This can just add confusion, so I work alone, with the client trusting me to come up with something that is just what they want. I get it right most of the time. ..

Did it in some way matter to you that some of Elehs previous albums had been recorded with the Vinyl format in mind and that there may therefore have been a personal preference for a particular sound-aesthetic?

I mastered and cut vinyl for twenty seven years before I gave up physically cutting lacquer masters. Maybe because I am totally familiar with the format, I can achieve something that works in both formats. I don't think "Oh this is for vinyl, I 'd better do this or that". I just do what I do and confident it will work both ways.

Would you say that working for artists like Eric Clapton or David Knopfler is  much different than for artists like BJ Nilsen and Eleh?

For me every artiste is the same, just a different style. I treat everyone with the same attention to detail. They are all making music for the public to enjoy, just in different ways. I'm lucky that I'm comfortable working with a wide range of musical styles. I can be working on one, two or three different types of music every day. I could start my day with rock, then a soundscape, and finish my day with folk. I'm usually mastering ten hours a day, five or more days a week. Some days it's just one album, and other days I could be mastering three tracks for one client, one for another, and so on. So my style of mastering has to be able to adjust very quickly. I enjoy many types of music, so I can really enjoy mastering BJ or Eleh, and go straight into a country music project and enjoy that just as much. As a mastering engineer, I tend not to be listening in the same way a consumer listens. Clients can ask me what I think of a track, but I'm listening in a technical way, and not from a "This is a great track" point of view. I don't really hear the album for what it is until the label send me a finished copy, and I can enjoy holding it, enjoying the sleeve design, reading the sleeve notes and credits, and then putting on the pressed disc.

Homepage: Denis Blackham / Skye Mastering
Homepage: Eleh
Homepage: Touch

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