The Brooklyn-based mastering engineer Josh Bonati boasts an enviably expansive list of clients across genres, having worked on projects for the likes of Zola Jesus, Mac DeMarco, the Men, the Soft Moon, Pharmakon, Omar-S, HEALTH, Amen Dunes and many more. The mastering expert sat down with Vivian Host of Red Bull Radio’s Peak Time to discuss his custom-built Carroll Gardens studio and the ins and outs of vinyl cutting and mastering in this digital age.
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I imagine there is an overall theory to mastering, but do you have to learn anything in specific differently, or do you use different machines when you’re working on dance music rather than rock?
No. It’s the same gear, but cutting-wise you do have to do things a little bit differently because you’re trying to cut the records fairly loud. That’s what DJs want, and you do have to kind of abuse the equipment a little bit to get it to sound good. It’s the reason why some cutting engineers are sought out maybe a little bit more over others. There are older guys who don’t want to cut dance music and cut it loud and potentially damage the equipment. I’m a younger whippersnapper, so I don’t mind kind of risking it.
I’m sweating bullets sometimes, because dealing with the lathe, you could damage it if you’re cutting stuff too loud. You have to push that. Cutting LPs and stuff, which are usually at a lower volume, it’s a little safer, but I love it. I love the challenge of cutting louder and shorter dance 12"s. It’s really fun. I think that’s sometimes when vinyl sounds its absolute best, some of those 12"s.
You’ve got to channel your Jamaican dubplate-cutter vibe on the dance music stuff, because they’re definitely known for pushing it in the red but somehow making it sound good.
It’s true. Pushing the bass, kind of throwing caution to the wind on some of that. It’s weird, though: You have to be risky, but you also have to be super cautious at the same time. The lathe looks like a small little triangle. That’s actually the cutterhead that’s doing the actual cutting. I’ve just got a cutting stylus instead of a playback stylus. It’s like your turntable, and that has some really tiny coils wound through it, that if you cut records too loud, you’ll burn out those coils in the cutterhead, just like a filament in a light bulb or something. When you smoke the head from cutting stuff too loud, they’re really expensive to repair, and there’s only a tiny amount of people who can repair them.
There’s not very many people that cut records, and there’s an even a tinier amount of people that repair equipment to cut records with, whereas back in the ’90s, if you were slamming stuff and you blew a head up, it was easier to get it fixed. Now it’s scary. You don’t want to blow anything up.
If you just pay attention to what tracks are where and the length of the side, you’re way ahead of everybody.
Let’s pull out a bit for people who are like, “I don’t even know what mastering is.” Can you define what mastering is?
Mastering is basically finish-work. If you think of recording and mixing as the people who build the house and do all the construction and everything, and then there are the people who come in at the very end and tidy up and make it look nice and ready for sale – the people that do all the painting and all the finish-work, that’s kind of like what mastering is in general. General audio mastering. I do that for every format.
The vinyl mastering, what that part specifically means, is the cutting part. We have this giant machine. It looks like a refrigerator on its side, with a big turntable sitting on top of it. That’s kind of what a lathe looks like. [It has] a much bigger platter than a normal turntable, really heavy. It’s like 700 pounds. You’re actually cutting the master disc on that machine, so that’s actually what vinyl mastering is.
What sorts of things do you need to know in order to master vinyl that you wouldn’t necessarily employ with digital mastering?
I have a two-part answer, if I could just hijack this for a second. I’ll give my PSA about what [are] the two critical things to know when people are doing that, because I have this conversation all the time. You have to be a little bit more strategic with your thinking than you do with digital mastering. The two things that are critical are the length of the side on a record, and basically what material, what song you put at the end of the side. Basically, shorter is always better in terms of program time. The overall volume of the cut is related to the length of the side. If you have a super long side – 24 minutes is an example of a pretty long side – you’ve got to turn the volume down to be able to physically fit all the grooves onto the record. You have to physically fit these grooves on there. You have to squish them together, and the only way to do that is to turn the volume down, make the grooves wiggle less so you can pack them in and pack all that time on the side. There’s a reason why loud 12"s are short. That’s between six to eight to ten minutes, because in order to get that kind of volume, you’ve got to cut bigger grooves. You’ve got to have more space, so you can’t put a bunch of time on a side and cut it loud.
The second thing – and this is the thing that really tortures me everyday with cutting records – the worst thing about records is the fact that the sound quality is not the same over the entire length of the side. It actually is best at the outer diameter of the record, the beginning of the side, and it kind of gets worse as you go in. In fact, the last inch of the record is, I’m sorry to say, a real shitty-sounding area of the record. If you can help it, it’s nice to not be able to put music there, because the potential for distortion starts to go up like crazy. I could play you myriad examples of records that are pretty crunchy-sounding at the end of the side. It can make your record sound so much better. If you just pay attention to what tracks are where and the length of the side, you’re way ahead of everybody.
I never realized that the way that the record is cut could actually determine the track order that people are choosing.
If you go back and look at records in the ’80s and ’70s, pop records, you’ll notice that things like the ballads are always at the end of the side. It’s this technical limitation that they knew about, and the workaround was to put the quieter songs at the end. Most people think that was just a straight-up artistic decision. It might have been, but it was also they were bearing in mind [that] if they put the loud song at the end of the side, it gets crunchy. There are of course records with the loud songs at the end of the side, and some records only have loud songs on them the whole time, right? Metal records, like death metal records and stuff, it’s just loud the whole time. If you notice, they get pretty fuzzy sounding towards the end of the side. It’s kind of a bummer. Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it. That’s the torturing thing about it.
I’m sure everybody out there collecting vinyl has experienced this, where some records are just cut really well and super loud, and some sound terrible. You’re not going to go repress 500 or 1,000 records after that.
No. It comes down to, if you get a record pressed... You get a test pressing from the pressing plant and you should scrutinize that as much as you can for the pressing mistakes, but there could be cutting mistakes too. If your record skips when you get it, that’s a cutting mistake. It’s not the pressing plant’s problem. They just press the thing. I spent a lot of time quality-controlling people’s records that I cut, because it’s just part of the process.
What are the most common errors that you encounter or that people might miss or not be looking out for when they get the test pressing back?
Well, most people are bringing me the test pressings because they’re not sure if they have a problem. They get a record back and it’s kind of noisy or there’s some pops in some sections, and they’re like, “Is this bad? I don’t really know. It kind of sounds like a record, but the noise is a little bit excessive.” So they’ll bring it to me and they’ll say, “I don’t know if I have a problem. Can you tell me? Can you evaluate it?” Sometimes I’ll be like, “No, this is fine.” Once in a while people will call me up and say, “I heard a click on my test pressing.” I’m like, “You heard one click?” They’re like, “Yeah.” Like, “Wow. You just pressed the best record ever. Best record known to man with one click on it.” They have noise, they do, but it shouldn’t be excessive, and there’s also things like if you hear this kind of cyclical noise, like these big cyclical pops, sometimes that can be an indication that there’s a blemish or a scratch on the record.
On the lathe, there’s a microscope that I use to check master cuts that I do, but I can also throw on any old record and look at it under the microscope. If I hear something, I can spot check it and see if there’s actually damage to the record. It might just be that one copy, or it might be something that’s on all the test pressings, and then you know you might have to go back to the pressing plant and be like, “We need a new set of test pressings.” It’s a huge gray area. Sometimes problems are easy to solve, and sometimes you just have to re-cut and start from scratch. It sucks.
The amount of stuff that’s wrong about vinyl on the internet is crazy to me.
What should people know about working with somebody that masters vinyl? How should they bring their track in? What are the dos and don’ts, and how do you choose who you want to work with in the field?
I do it two different ways. There are records where I do everything. People come to the studio and I do the mastering for the tracks in general, and then later on, when that stuff is all approved, I cut the master record as well. That’s kind of my favorite thing, where I get to be a control freak and do all the formats. And then, of course, being a cutting guy, I get projects that were already mastered by somebody else and I’m just doing the cutting. It depends which side people are on. But people do need to have the audio mastered, in general, by someone, whether it’s me or someone else, and then get it cut.
It’s good to get it mastered by someone who also cuts. I get files from other mastering engineers who don’t cut, and they tell me, “Oh, it’s ready to go, it’s ready to cut.” And I load it into my computer and start listening to it and I’m like, “This is not ready to cut. There’s a couple things that sound a little hairy.” You kind of have to micromanage the extreme treble and bass when you’re cutting records. It’s something you wouldn’t really know to do unless you actually cut records and dealt with those problems.
As far as how people choose which cutting person to use, it’s not that much different that choosing a mastering studio [or] recording studio. Hopefully you can find out what records they’ve done, and just try to get in touch and see if they’re available to do it. Luckily, the studio’s always busy, but I can usually cut stuff when people approach me within a week or two and get it out.
As far as bringing tracks in, the biggest no-no is when people send you MP3s to cut from. It’s a pretty inferior format to using something like a WAV or AIFF file, which is a uncompressed, better quality digital format. They at least need to have the tracks in that kind of format.
I thought that was important to ask because, especially in the club music and dance music realm, there’s been a real resurgence in people not just putting their tracks out digitally, but actually pressing records. But another thing that happens, at least in that sphere, which I think happens a lot less when you’re dealing with rock and metal, is that people are mastering their tracks on purely digital mastering software and mastering plug-ins in the computer. Sometimes their mastering engineer is just somebody using a bunch of presets and plug-ins, which I imagine probably does not sound great when you’re pressing it to vinyl.
It can be a big problem, especially with some modern, really aggressive techno stuff that’s really bright or really glitchy. There is a limitation with vinyl that you can really only put so much treble on a record, in a way, before it distorts. I can cut a really bright record, but when you play it back, it might distort. So that’s a big problem sometimes when people are mastering new dance stuff. They make it super bright, and you can get away with that digitally, but I have to shave off a lot of the excessive treble when I go to cut it.
Now, some people would be like, “Well, I don’t want it to sound darker,” but something that’s really nice that I think is a timeless thing about cutting is that the kind of processing you have to do to cut stuff to vinyl and make it sound good, EQ or compression or whatever, to get it to cut clean, it usually just happens to be things that would make the track sound better anyway. That’s why a lot of older mastering engineers who are revered now started out doing cutting when they came up. They were forced to learn how to control everything really well in order to cut the records and have them sound good on the other side. It’s been a really great experience for me to cut, because it informs everything that I do in the studio too.
I get stuff from people telling me it’s mastered all the time, and the treble is insane, the vocal sibilance is insane. It feels like you’re being stabbed in the ear with a icepick. The bass is out of control. It’s out of phase, meaning that it pans super hard left, or hard right. That stuff really doesn’t cut well. And it not only doesn’t cut well, it doesn’t sound that good in a club, either, just to be assaulted with treble. The music’s so loud, that stuff really has to be mastered well. It’s really critical. Because most people are listening at home, but dance records are the only thing where it’s a dual purpose thing. People will listen to the record at home, but they’re also functional, you’re using them in a club, and they have to be loud, and they have to be really well controlled.
I think it’s probably in people’s best interest to consult a vinyl mastering engineer in the beginning, before reading everything online.
Oh, yeah. The amount of stuff that’s wrong about vinyl on the internet is crazy to me. I should put something on my website that just says some basic things like I mentioned before, the public service announcement about the level and the last track on the side and then all these things like preparing files to be cut. Like I said, I get stuff from people and they say, “It’s ready to go,” and they wouldn’t know if it’s ready to go. How would you know if it’s ready if you don’t cut?
It’s like a mantra of mine: If you don’t cut, you don’t know how to prep files. Just let me do it, please. I beg of you.
You are remastering some Coil records with Drew McDowall, who was formerly in Coil. What kind of conversations are you having with Drew and with Dais Records about what you want to do for the remaster? Because, obviously, these albums already existed out in the world.
Yeah, they already existed, and they already sounded good. I do a lot of reissue and remastering work – it’s really, really fun and gratifying stuff. And you kind of have to pick your philosophy and stick with it. Sometimes, like in this case, Coil fans are crazy and super protective. So this is a case where we wanted to basically not touch a hair on its head. You have to make it sound at least the same as, hopefully better than the original record. But to really start to muck around with the sound of the previous records I felt would be a little arrogant. It was just trying to preserve what was great about those records and do a really good, new cut.
The original cuts were a little quiet, but they were done at a really good place in the UK, Porky’s Prime Cuts. [It’s] George Peckham. (There’s a great video on YouTube of him mastering drum & bass records, hilarious to watch.) Those guys were fairly well known for cutting loud stuff and lots of dance music, but the Coil records are long, so the volume is fairly low. It’s drone-y stuff, so the cut has to be really good. The pressing has to be perfect in order for it to just not have any noise. So the majority of the effort was put into doing a really good cut. And then the previous one that came out, Time Machines, we went through a couple rounds of test pressings before we were happy. And I was a little freaked out, I was like, “Man, if I don’t do a good job on this, there’s going to be Coil fans showing up at my door with pitchforks.”