Anna Frick is one of my favorite mastering engineers. She knows the technical side of mastering and audio restoration as well as anyone but her intuition and respect for the artistry of music truly set her apart. I have garnered much insight into the sometimes-murky world of professional mastering from Anna. We hope you find this interview helpful as you consider mastering for your next project.
Stefan: What led you to become a mastering engineer?
Anna: It was kind of by accident, really. I had studied audio production in college and had worked in several studios, but when I got the job as the assistant engineer at Airshow I really got to know the mastering process and function. Once I started to dig in on it I realized how much I loved bringing a project through the final stage. It suits my personality well with how it is detailed work with a big-picture view and both highly technical but with quite a bit of creative influence as well. I think I just really like seeing the project in its final form: seeing everything come to fruition. I also love that it gives me the opportunity to play around with old media with our restoration services. I get to unearth these audio archives and see them come to life again. Analog tape is unfortunately a dying art, but I get to play with tape almost every day these days. How many other engineers get that sort of opportunity to say that?
Stefan: How long have you been at Airshow?
Anna: I’ve been at Airshow for just over ten years now. Like I mentioned before, I started as the assistant engineer and quickly started training my ears and learning the art of mastering. I took every opportunity I could to stay late to play around with the gear and understand its function and flavor. Working closely with the late Dominick Maita on the music for the television show Glee really helped me hone my skills. That project involved a lot of late hours and a lot of waiting for approvals so it gave us a lot of time to talk and listen. Dom would spend countless hours answering my questions and we’d put our heads together to try to discern where little noises were coming from or discuss how loud something should be.
Stefan: How do you explain mastering to artists?
Anna: I get this all the time. Artists are told they need to have their album “mastered” but they don’t know what that means. It’s the last creative step and the one that prepares the music for the marketplace. It’s making sure everything in the mix is playing nicely and that it’s going to translate well on any system you put it on whether that’s your home or car stereo, your earbuds or your buddy’s boombox. Along with translating well, it also needs to be loud enough to compete in the marketplace but also making sure the listener isn’t reaching for the volume knob with each song. That is all genre specific quite often. There’s also this opportunity to really play with dynamics and drive and liveliness in order to create an arc to the song and/or the album that is going to keep the listener engaged. That’s where mastering gets a little more nuanced.
Stefan: Would you talk a little about your tools and your personal approach to mastering?
Anna: The tools is an easy question. My usual chain is an analog/digital hybrid system using mostly outboard gear. I’ve got my plugin go-to’s but generally I’m working out of the box. I’ve got several different EQs: Pultecs, Sontec, API, Prism, Weiss, etc. They all have their different flavors and I like to use them against each other to really manipulate the curves. I’ve got several different compressors: Fairman, API 2500, SSL. It’s a really flexible system that gives me a lot of options but the best tool I have is the room that I work in. It was designed by the great Sam Berkow and is tuned so well. As for my personal approach, that really depends on the client and the project. Really listening to them and understanding what they are looking for points me in the right direction. But I’d say generally I try to do as little as possible to a mix. With all the gear options I have, it would be easy to just lay a heavy hand on a mix but really it’s about addressing issues first and then bringing it to life in service of the song. What is the song saying? How are we able to convey that sonically?
Stefan: What is your take on the ongoing “loudness” debate?
Anna: When we’re over-compressing songs to make them louder or loud enough to grab the listener’s attention, what we’re really doing is decreasing the dynamic window, meaning there’s little-to-no dynamics within the arc of the song. That being said, the issue of the “loudness” debate is really a two-fold conversation for me.
First and foremost is from a public health standpoint. Subjecting your ears to a constant, loud noise for a period of time leads to hearing loss. I worry what all this non-dynamic music is doing to our ears, especially considering people are spending long periods of time listening to that music on earbuds, headphones, in their cars, etc. It isn’t healthy and fatigues our ears. It’s basically like having someone continuously screaming in your ear. And I don’t know about you, but when someone screams at me, I tune them out. I think the same goes for over-compressed songs. If it all is squashed within a very small dynamic window, then the message of the music becomes a wash to the listener. Our ears tune it out in order to give the space to hear the more important things.
Secondly – and most important, really – is that music is meant to move us. It is emotive and aesthetic and it’s designed to evoke an akin reaction in the listener. If our ears are tuning it out, then it’s missing the point. I’ll reiterate what I said before: it’s about serving the song. You can slam a song to make it loud enough to stand out amongst others on the streaming services or wherever, but once you get someone’s attention like that I have two questions: number one, is that sort of affront to a listener’s ears really the attention you want? Number two, once you’ve grabbed their attention through such waylaying methods, how are you going to keep them interested?
I’ll also add that now that the streaming services have adopted loudness normalization, there is no need to squash a master. If you push it too loud, then it’s going to get turned down on the streaming services to hit their target LUFS. Then what are you left with? A brick of perceived loudness lacking any emotional or dynamic depth that’s sitting against other songs that are dynamic and seek to emotionally draw in the listener. There’s just no point in sacrificing dynamic depth anymore.
Stefan: What are the drawbacks of AI mastering?
Anna: There are certainly applications where it makes sense to use AI mastering. If a mix engineer is creating a mix reference for a client who wants to compare it apples-to-apples with their favorite (mastered) records, then AI mastering is a great alternative to just slapping a limiter on it. Or if you’re a band that’s just starting out, just trying to get a demo out for promotional purposes or just wants some recording on a low budget, then yeah, go for it. But if you’re serious about releasing your music and want it to have an impact, then make the investment into the recording, mixing AND the mastering. If you’re serious about your music, build it into your budget from the beginning. Otherwise you’re slapping a “discount” sticker on your album before it’s even released. No one buys diamonds at the dollar store, ya know?
Anna: I may sound like a broken record in saying it, but it goes back to serving the song. Mastering is the last creative step before the music is released into the world. A mastering engineer is a human being who loves music and understands that there is art behind the technical aspect of the mix. So what we’re doing in the mastering room is evoking the emotion of the song to breathe life into it. AI mastering has its place, but it can’t make decisions based on how it wants the listener to feel. That’s the art and nuance in mastering that only a human can understand. AI mastering isn’t going to say “You know, the hook of this song isn’t standing out quite enough; we really need it to hit hard right when that phrase comes in.” It just can’t comprehend that sort of thing; it’s only approximating on a technical level, not on a human level.
Stefan: What is your advice to artists who either don’t have a budget for professional mastering or just want to maintain full creative control?
Anna: If you’re building a budget for a release, you’re already budgeting for the recording and the mixing so just fold mastering into that equation. Skimping out on mastering devalues the entire investment you made toward recording and mixing. Look at Billie Eilish’s record that just won all the GRAMMYs: she recorded it in her house, but then she invested in the mixing and the mastering. You just don’t see high caliber artists skipping that stage, even if they save money in other areas. As for maintaining creative control, this is where it pays to develop a relationship with your mastering engineer. If I know that a client is really happy with the mixes I’m going to take a really light and technical touch in the mastering stage – and sometimes that means doing nothing to the mix or just bringing up the level just a tad. A mastering engineer can be a great sounding board for you, a check point if nothing else. I really like to sit down with my clients and listen to their mixes before we master and have a conversation. It’s even better if we can listen together in the mastering room. The room is much more transparent than most mix environments and can reveal things you’ve never heard before. So my first question is always, “Well, what are YOU hearing?” I want to know what they like and don’t like and then go from there. After all, it’s their music; I’m just here to help them get to the next level.
To see a discography of Anna’s work or to contact her about mastering, please visit: www.airshowmastering.com