Bernie Grundman’s Mastering Masterclass
The Grammy award-winning audio engineer explains his approach to post-production
From an early age, Bernie Grundman knew that he wanted to make sound his life. He followed this early interest throughout his time in school and the Air Force and on to Hollywood. After a spell working for legendary jazz imprint Contemporary Records, he became head of mastering at A&M Records in 1968.
Grundman’s time at A&M resulted in hundreds of platinum and gold recordings, including Carole King’s Tapestry, Steely Dan’s Aja and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In 1984, he established his own studio in Hollywood, Bernie Grundman Mastering, where he has continued to turn most of what he touches to gold, including Prince’s Purple Rain and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. In 2005, 37 of the releases he worked on received Grammy nominations.
In this edited excerpt from Grundman’s Fireside Chat with Red Bull Radio regular Frosty, the veteran audio engineer explains his approach to mastering music, explaining how formative experiences shaped his passion for sound quality.
Readying For Release
All mass-produced music – whether destined for CDs, streaming, vinyl or download – goes through someone like me as a final stage. If you want to sum it up, it would be post-production for the music industry. We get it after it has been recorded and mixed, and then we try to optimize it, give it some consistency and make it sound good on any system you play it on. It’s hard to optimize it for every speaker system, but you want the music to perform reasonably well on everything. That’s our task.
Throughout my childhood I was very interested in music. I remember watching my dad play old 78s. As a little kid, I was fascinated by the fact that this thing spinning on a turntable was making all this sound. I was probably only four or five years old.
If you want to be in the mastering business, you can’t be prejudiced.
Later, I had a really cheap, jimmied-up Rube Goldberg kind of [listening] set-up. I put it together from an old jukebox that my dad had got somewhere. I had this little turntable and arm that I mounted on a piece of wood, but I would be listening to his 78s. I didn’t know anything about what audio could be, but it was in the early ’50s when LPs were coming in, and I was able to play LPs on it, too. It would go that speed so I was buying these big band records, but I didn’t know that much. I wasn’t really motivated when it came to sound [reproduction] – I was just listening to the music.
When I was 14 I got a motor scooter. I was underage, driving it around Phoenix, Arizona, but it was a small town then. There was this small little strip mall that I used to ride by on my way back and forth from the center of town. There was a new shop there called High Fidelity Sound Systems. I could see through the window that there were all these speakers sitting on shelves, amplifiers and all the components. This was a place that tried to sell high-end audio. I wasn’t aware of that, but I saw the equipment in there and it caught me eye. It was like, “Wow. What is in there? I’ve got to go in there.”
One day, I pulled up there on my motor scooter and I walked in. I’m looking around at all this beautiful equipment and the guy that ran the shop said, “Hey, do you want to hear something? I’ll play you something.” So he put on this record, and I’m telling you, it changed my whole life. It was like the clouds parted. I was shocked at how great the sound was. I just could not believe it. I was just dumbfounded.
It was a Leroy Anderson record, which is classic pop stuff. The record was of course mono. It must have been a new release – this was the early to mid-’50s – and sound was actually getting pretty good then. From that day on, all of my money went to records and audio equipment. I was hooked.
Every Saturday, my dad would take me into the center of Phoenix, drop me off and I could hang out around town. There was this one main record store. They mostly stocked things that I knew. They were just big-band records like the ones my dad owned. But one day I was looking at the records in the bins and I saw this record that looked interesting to me. There were pictures of the musicians on the back of the album. It had a certain aesthetic to the way the cover was done. I thought, “I’m going to buy this album and see what it is. It just looks so interesting.”
By then, I had a little bit better soundsystem, though it was very small with just one speaker. When I put this record on the same thing happened to me as when I’d heard really good sound for the first time. I was just totally sold straight away. It was bebop jazz: Clifford Brown and Max Roach. I happened to pick what was probably one of the most important albums in the history of jazz, Study In Brown. That album just hit me over the head. From that point on I was looking for anything on the EmArcy label. I was primed for it, I was ready to understand what it meant, what bebop is, the essence of it... up to a point.
I mean, any great art like that actually has a lot of durability and it also has more depth than you realize at first. But you know something’s there, so you revisit it all the time and get more out it. It seems to be endless what experience you can have with it and what you discover. I feel the same way about classical music and even some pop music is that way.
I got in with a crowd of people that were all beatniks. They had these coffee houses with poetry [recitals] and everybody was reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Some of it was kind of superficial, I know, but I was into the music. I got to know a lot of the musicians in Phoenix. By then, I had some recording equipment. I would go around town recording, just for the fun of it. I’d go to some cocktail lounge and just put my microphones up, record the music and then take it home and listen to it. I was a little bit of a snob at the time because I felt that jazz was superior [to other music].
At this point I’d like to bring up a very important aspect of the way I think about music. Over the years, I’ve had to re-evaluate the way I look at music. When it really comes down to it, music is a very emotional experience. It’s an emotional portrayal of our experiences as human beings. We all have the same emotions. Depending on the style of music and where it comes from, the way these emotions are portrayed may be different than what you’re used to, but it’s the same emotions being portrayed.
There’s music, such as classical pieces, that has a long, emotional story, and the music will take you on a big emotional journey. Then there are things that are very narrow in a way, but they’re just as important. They might only be for dancing, or for parties, but the guys that specialize in that want to make records that make everyone jump up and dance. That has just as much value. Live and let live.
Mastering is about trying to make that connection with the emotional message of the music easier for the listener to experience.
If you want to be in the mastering business, like me, or even a mixer, you can’t be prejudiced. You might prefer a certain kind of music, but you have to realize that whatever kind of music walks in that door, if you’re prejudiced, you’re not going to be able to connect with it in a way that you can help it. You’re going to have a lot of trouble understanding it, and then understanding whether or not you’re doing anything that’s going to improve the emotional connection that this music is supposed to make with the listener.
In my mind, mastering is about trying to make that connection with the emotional message of the music easier for the listener to experience. That means making the elements that are important to this portrayal available to the listener. You won’t know how to do anything to that music unless you feel it. You have to know that when you start twisting knobs and using whatever tools you’re going to use to manipulate the sound, you have to know what it is doing to that music emotionally. You have to be open emotionally to this music and how it’s communicating with you.
Over the years, I’ve had to develop an understanding of that and be able to connect with whatever comes in the door. The person or people who made it believe in it, even if it’s, say, polka music, so you have to believe in it, too. If you don’t believe in it, it probably isn’t going to feel right because there’s something you’re going to bring to it when you’re really passionate about it and you’re connected to it. There’s something you’re going to bring to it in the way you produce it even, the way you mix it that’s going to help it connect better and be a bigger experience to the listener. All this is true in mastering as well.
So even if it is polka music, you need to be open enough emotionally to sense whether or not you’re doing anything beneficial. The example, like I was saying, is if this guy is making music that gets people to jump up and dance and party at a party or whatever, if you tried to do the same [mastering job] with classical music it wouldn’t work. It’s impossible for the orchestra to get anywhere near that kind of rhythmic feeling, because it’s too cumbersome. It can take you on all kinds of journeys, but it won’t get people to get up and boogie. From that standpoint, dance music is important. It’s a part of life. It’s an expression of things that are human.
When I teach this in seminars, I’ll say to students, “Here you are sitting at the console and somebody comes in with music that you’ve never heard before. You put the music on, but how do you know what to do? Do you just start twisting knobs? Do you just make it loud? Is that mastering?”
A lot of people think mastering is making things loud. Well, that’s a certain competitive aspect of it because a lot of people respond to loudness, especially if it’s louder than the one that came before it. They’ll notice it at least, but there’s a lot more to it than that. What it comes down to is, “You can develop this,” but it does take experience.
My job is to help the producer and artist realize their dream of what they hoped the recording could be.
Now, I’ve been in it a long time. I’ve heard some of the best of just about anything you can think of on my system, so I have an advantage. I know when it’s a good record and when it’s doing the right thing. That’s the way it is when you spend a lot of time with any kind of music.
There are certain recordings that are going to stand out as being really effective. They just do. Any great record will do that and it becomes part of your standard in your head. You know what it could sound like or you know how powerful and how effective, say, a hip-hop record could be if it’s really done well, but you have had to listen to a lot of different ones so that you know which ones are great. It’s like homework, and it’s good to listen to them on your system. But often, things can still be better. Let’s keep aiming higher. That’s a big, important part of it.
If there’s a kind of music that I don’t relate to quite as well, I remember that it’s still human expression. In this case, I think it’s a good idea not to think that you know what the best thing is for this record. I could just adjust the sound and maybe take it in a different direction that maybe the producer didn’t have in mind. It doesn’t mean it’s not a valid direction, just that the feeling you’ve cultivated might be more aggressive than he wanted. Maybe he wanted it something a little more romantic or something a little smoother.
My job is to help the producer and artist realize their dream of what they were hoping the recording could be when it’s done. Anybody that’s made a record knows that it’s never as perfect as you thought it was going to be and there’s always something maybe that could be better, because you’ve struggled over the mix or whatever. When you put it all together, it’s close but it’s not what you’d hoped. I’m there to try to help you get even closer to what your idea was for your record.
I prefer to have the client with me so that I can try a few things and get an idea of the direction that I’m taking it, that’s going to interface with what they were hoping for. I’ll say, “Here’s what you brought in. Here’s what I think is going to help it to be a much bigger, more engaging experience. What do you think? Am I in the right place here?” I like to get feedback from the artists I’m working with.
Nowadays we get a lot of files that are just sent in, so we send tests out once we’ve done an unattended session. Most of the time it’s right or they want it to go even further in a certain direction, but it’s a process. Just like mixing, it can take a few tries. It’s a trial-and-error thing. You’re experimenting. Sometimes I don’t know exactly what I should try, so I’ll try a few things to see what it’s doing to me emotionally. Some things work, some things don’t. Sometimes you have to know when to leave your hands off of it, that it’s actually pretty damn good the way it is.
I remember one particular recording that I felt was pretty much transformed as I worked on it. I was really surprised how much more it became after I’d worked on it, compared to what I had received. The artist really liked what I had done.
It was an album by Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 which had a lot of acoustic instruments. The mix was OK, but some of the most important elements of Brazilian music were not showing up. They had concentrated too much on one area of the spectrum because they were trying to get this punchy bottom and all that. As I worked on it, that thing got so big that it got to be so real and natural-sounding that I even impressed myself. I was surprised at how good it could be.
What was hidden in the recording was really there to find. What I found really brought the whole thing to life. To me, it was a greater musical and sound experience, just the naturalness and realness of it. Part of this was because of the equipment we used, which we built ourselves. We built it so that it doesn’t interfere with the quality of the sound. There’s a lot of equipment around that manipulate sound, but there’s a byproduct of unnatural sound from those.
That’s why we build a lot of our own equipment. All of our processors, we go through them and we put our line amplifiers in them. We also put our own power supplies on them, because people often cut corners to try and make things smaller with a resultant loss of sound quality. We always use our ears. That’s the only way you’re ever going to be able to tell if you’ve got something better than something else. You can’t go by specifications, you can’t go even by what people tell you, you have to do a lot of comparisons, because there really is nothing out there that will test a circuit or test equipment that can tell you what you’re hearing.
A lot of newer engineers have their heads so buried in their computers that they are intoxicated by the technology.
The tests that are made on equipment are very primitive. There are only a few basic tests for modulation distortion, harmonic distortion and so forth. These give you an idea of the cleanness of the system but don’t tell you what it’s going to do with complex information. That puts all of these things to the test. When you put something on through the equipment, like music, you can have two pieces of equipment that checkout basically the same on whatever test equipment we have, but they’ll sound entirely different.
Sound quality will always go downhill as you do more processing or manipulation. There’s a price to pay, no matter how good the equipment or even our system. I’m not advocating only thinking about quality, because if you do that, musically, the kind of effect you want probably won’t be there.
If you want quality, then it’s all about the music. If you’re working with jazz or classical, you want the sound of the instruments and the environment, but that’s it. But pop music is different. Sometimes it’s constructed in such a way that you don’t want the instruments to sound the way they naturally do. You want to create a new sound that’s going to get people’s attention – something that’s going to sound interesting and attract listeners. So all this layering that goes on, all this stuff that goes on with pop music makes it a whole other art form. In this case I don’t advocate only thinking about quality.
If there’s something you want to do with the signal that’s going to contribute to the effect that you’re looking for – whether that’s a musical effect, something that will enhance the emotion or distortion to give it an edge – then do it. It doesn’t matter. There are no rules.
You have to realize that you want to get more out than you’re losing. You have to be careful of that because we have a lot more equipment now, many more things we can manipulate and so much more we can do. We can change the pitch of the singer, we can make the tempo perfect, we can do all of these things in the computer and you can strangle the life out of it and pretty soon it sounds like a machine. A lot of newer engineers have their heads so buried in their computers that they are intoxicated by the technology. They’re so fascinated by what they can do to manipulate the signal that they’re not listening to what they’re doing to the music.
There are of course distortions of what the original instruments sounded like that are actually very, very effective. I just did an album of old Michael Jackson stuff that was used by DJs. On the version of “Dirty Diana” there are some sections where the producers distorted these cellos. It’s very, very effective.
When you hear some old recordings like those, there are some pretty amazing things achieved by modification. They’re not only very effective but also moving. Musically it’s a great experience and that’s what it comes down to. I don’t care what you did to it: if it’s a good musical experience and everybody connects with it, that’s more important. Maybe you bent something here and there, but how did it feel as a whole experience? That’s what’s important, I think, because you can get too mechanical about this stuff. You can get too precise, to the point where it has no feeling anymore. It’s just a machine.
When it comes to what we call the sound stage, when the recording that you’re going to work on comes in, you’re hearing whatever they created in the mix to portray all of the instruments and the vocalist. You’ve got all of these components that you’re trying to place in front of the listener.
The best mixers know that you have to be able to create a space and an environment where this music lives, so that you can actually move the listener into that area. It’s a very personal private area that exists for this music. It’s like lifting you out of your seat in your house and moving you to this new place, this magical place, where you’re at one with the music. Now, that’s the goal, and that’s a really hard thing to do. The best mixers can have the musicians right there in front of you, but you can walk inside there and there’s a sense of feeling, depth and environment. You’ve got an atmosphere, but you haven’t lost the presence either of those people being right there.
When you get so close to it, you don’t hear it as a complete musical experience. You have to always be able to stand back and hear it as a whole entity.
This is very hard to do because when you work with reverb and echo, you can wash the whole thing out and everything starts running into everything else. I don’t even know how they do it. I’m not a mixer, but when I play stuff from the best mixers, it’s like you’re in a whole new place. They’ve taken you someplace special.
Bruce Swedien, who did the mixing on most of Michael Jackson’s albums, is one of the best mixers who ever lived. The Thriller album is a great example. Michael sounds like he’s right in your face, but you feel like you can walk around in those mixes. It’s pretty amazing the sound stage that this guy can create. That album and others such as Off The Wall are special in a lot of ways musically, partly because Quincy [Jones] was involved. Thriller is up to about 110 million in sales now, which says a lot.
Some artists I have worked for were more hands-on than others. Joni Mitchell wasn’t, for example. A lot of the ideas about the way to go with the mastering came from conversations between the engineer and myself, or I just did them the way I thought they would work, and the did. It was the same way with Prince.
When I was working on the mastering for his early albums he didn’t really say much. He let me do what I thought was going to work and maybe made slight suggestions here and there. I really knew my monitors and my system, and I had a pretty good idea what would work. For Michael Jackson’s Thriller, I don’t even think anyone else was there [at the mastering session]. I think I did it all myself.
I had no idea how big that album was going to become, although I knew it was very strong. In some ways, as an audiophile, Off The Wall sounded better. There are various reasons for that and they’re quite technical – the tape used was different, for example. It just had a more natural, realistic sound to it, but Thriller was definitely a very strong album.
Take a Break
I’m lucky in that I don’t suffer from ear fatigue. A lot of mixers listen loud and the artist wants to hear it loud, as they get excited about their own music. We don’t play really, really loud so I don’t really get fatigued listening – certainly not physically, anyway. If you’re listening to loud music it can be wearing and you can’t really think very well after a long period of listening.
If I’m not getting what I want out of the recording I’m working on, have run out of ideas or am not sure what to do next, I’ll stop and go for a walk around the studio. I’ll maybe goof off, chat to the engineers a bit and then come back. A lot of times when I sit down and put the music back on, it will just come to me. “Oh, I know what this needs!”
When you get so close to it, you start to hear it all split up and you don’t hear it as a complete musical experience. You hear components and aspects of it, but it’s not all together anymore, so you’re not objective. You have to be objective but you also have to be able to be specific. You have to always be able to stand back and hear it as a whole entity and the way the whole thing is coming at you.
Mixers have this problem, too. They get to the point where they only hear the individual pieces that they’re working on – an instrument, effect, vocal or loop – but they’re trying to put it all together. So they need a break too, at times. You need to step back. I’ve had experiences where I’ve worked and worked on something and I never was happy with it, then a month later I’ll hear it on the radio and I’ll go, “Wow, that sounds great. What was I thinking?” I was just in that place where I just felt maybe I could do more.
Beats By Bernie
I’ve mastered quite a few major hip-hop albums, such as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. When working on hip-hop music, the main thing that I care about is that it has got to feel good, rhythmically and flow wise. It’s about the continuity and the phrasing. There has to be a flow and continuity that feels good to me.
That was one of the first breakout hip-hop records. I don’t even know whether Dr. Dre was sure about the way it should go to begin with. I mean, the content was there, but as far as how should it be mastered and what should we do, I’m not sure. I don’t even remember now what we did, but we worked on it together, we did what we thought would work. We did labor over it a lot. We touched it up and tried to make it competitive, but we didn’t want to change it a lot because it was so well done. We just wanted to enhance it and help it be what it became.
When I look back on my 50-year career, I realize how fortunate I’ve been to be able to work in something that I’m really passionate about. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity or don’t even find that passion. If you’ve found the right thing, passion will pull you through anything. You’re always going to be there ready to be available to achieve what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re just totally focused in there.
When I’m working in here, I don’t want anything to distract me. I don’t want to have anything that divides my attention. Even when a client comes in and works with me, I don’t want to do any of the mechanics like editing, or assembly, or fades. I just want to listen to it. I only want to do the sound and how it’s going to communicate, because there are two different parts of what I do: one of them is mechanical and one of them is more creative, and it has to do with staying with the emotions of this recording of whatever it is. I want us to keep in touch with it as I’m manipulating it. I don’t want to stop that and then do some other editing or other things that they want me to do and then go on to the next tune. I want to stay in that moment.