Mastering Engineer

photo by Shervin Lainez

photo by Shervin Lainez


May 7, 2016
interview by Madeleine Campbell

I would never equate a mastering engineer’s value and unique skills with their discography of credits but it’s hard to look through Sarah Register’s without saying, “Damn.” Her list of clientele juxtaposes legends like Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Lee “Scratch” Perry, R. Stevie Moore, David Bowie and Pete Seeger with emerging and independent artists of almost every genre.

It's important to me that the language in this zine is accessible to anyone who is new to audio but wants to learn more. For those who aren't familiar, can you explain what mastering is?
Mastering is the last step where anything changes before going to press, whether for digital, vinyl, CD or cassette. In the mastering realm you can make creative sonic changes while looking at the overall picture, as opposed to working with individual mix elements. For example, I can affect the vocals by manipulating the frequency ranges they reside in and carefully balancing that with other elements sharing those frequencies. But I don’t generally have the vocals separate - that’s mixing. It’s easy to think about it in terms of something like [Adobe] Photoshop or Instagram. ­You’re at the final stage where you’re looking at the picture, and applying layers or alterations on the whole, rather than inserting or removing an element.

These changes can have a broad or minute impact. Mastering easily vacillates between just a hint and dramatic strokes. You never know exactly what you’re in for until you dig into the specifics of the project and the specifics of what the clients want.

Why might you master differently for a digital release versus a vinyl release?
Vinyl has some physical limitations that don’t pop up in the same way for digital audio. Phasing issues or a particularly powerful low or high frequency could all be problematic. I don’t cut lacquers myself though. I prep files for vinyl regularly. More often than not, the same files can exist viably and healthily as the sources for both digital and vinyl. But it’s not unheard of for people to do separate passes for vinyl. Often that would mean a quieter, more dynamic option.

Vinyl has some physical limitations that don’t pop up in the same way for digital audio. Phasing issues or a particularly powerful low or high frequency could all be problematic. I don’t cut lacquers myself though. I prep files for vinyl regularly. More often than not, the same files can exist viably and healthily as the sources for both digital and vinyl. But it’s not unheard of for people to do separate passes for vinyl. Often that would mean a quieter, more dynamic option.

photo provided by Sarah

photo provided by Sarah

This second issue of Women in Sound is focused on audioworkers working and living in New York City so I have to ask ­what initially led you there and what keeps you there?
I was obsessed with music and I thought New York City was the center of the music world, so thus, the world. When I was a kid it was still a kind of geographically separatist scenario - it was “important” to be in New York City or Nashville or LA or Seattle or Miami. My guess is that this it’s less important now - these things can be done from anywhere - as long as you can finance the basics of what you need to do the job in the way you want and you’ve got an internet connection. There’s still something about people being in a place that can be special. There’s still some magic to New York itself and an NYC zip code. But the song could now go “If you can make it anywhere, you can make it anywhere...”

That’s a bit of a caustic opinion because I’ve been burned on New York for a while now ­ I’m in my 19th year here ­but obviously I haven’t left. Many friends and colleagues are leaving and then saying that being away helps them more appreciate what they had in New York, which is interesting. Plenty of others are just as happy to be gone though. New York makes it hard on artists. You’ve got an incredible overload of peers and events but paying rent here is brutal and compensation in the arts can be ugly.

I've attended shows from two artists you've worked with this week alone - ­Lower Dens and Mal Blum. This got me looking at your discography more in depth. I'm struck by the balance of some of the biggest, most innovative musicians of the last 40 years mixed with a wide-­ranging cast of emerging and independent artists. How important is it to you to maintain variety in your work?
It makes me happy to work in broad genres from day to day and I think it helps keep me open musically and technically. Not that any two things in one shared genre will by necessity end up sounding anything like each other! It’s always situational, even though some norms could be proposed due to the sounds ­but I find it needs an individual conversation no matter the artist. I’ve long thought that a continued versatility broadens my understanding of whatever music and genre I’m working on at the time.

What do you consider some of your mastering highlights?
Highlights are difficult because I’m legitimately moved by music every day and I’ve been mastering for 16 years. But for fun, I’ll pick a handful of deeper cuts on albums some folks would know. I dare you ­no matter what kind of music you like ­to really listen to any of these songs and not come out the other side changed by the song, not the tech: David Bowie’s “Heathen”, Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s “Petit Boîtes”, EMA’s “Solace”, Lee Scratch Perry’s “Heart Doctor”, Sightings’ “Perforated”, Lower Dens’ “I Get Nervous”, Turn To Crime’s “Pine Box”, Garbage’s “Metal Heart.” it’s hard not to go on and on. Those are all older. Three are tracks I worked on semi-­collaboratively. Something recent that endlessly makes me smile and dance is a string of releases for Carnival that I’ve been doing for Machel Montano. Literally beats full of joy. Oh and this sweet little gift of a song, “Winter Things”, from a holiday record I did a few months ago for Arianna Grande, which I think could warm the coldest heart.

After many years of mastering at The Lodge, you moved to The Mastering Palace. When did this happen?
Summer 2015. It’s important to me to define that I stopped working for The Lodge at the end of 2006. I did freelance out of that studio on and off the whole time between 2007 and 2015. Now I’ve moved that operation to The Mastering Palace, where I have a room of my own and less baggage.

Did you bring any gear with you? What gear do you find yourself using most often?
I did not! I’ve never sought out owning engineering gear. I’ve moved studios so seldomly in my career that all my normal things are always on hand. Gear trials come in and out over the years, sometimes resulting in the addition of a piece of gear, sometimes not. In these modern times I definitely see why one should prioritize owning everything they need. I was raised to a large extent to be a ‘company man’ but the smarter choice nowadays seems to be autonomy.

Gear new to me at The Mastering Palace. I switched to Sequoia from Pyramix, and before that of course, Sonic. So that had the joys and annoyances of transitioning to a new DAW, though as we all know they’re generally the same enough that you just need to fumble for a while and you’ll be back on track. I’m using more digital tools in Sequoia than ever before, and generally feeling great about it. Also new to me at TMP is an array of Dangerous boxes, Focal monitors, an API 2500, a Neumann PEa EQ, a Prism Maselec MEA­2 among some others. I’d been accustomed to an XLR patchbay for gear for years and now the Dangerous Liaison is an efficient way to handle that. I miss the Avalon 747 & Tubetech SMC­2A but am not pushing for gear purchases right now. Maybe in the future. I’ll always have a nostalgic love for classic Genelecs paired with a sub though I know some would disagree, but it’s what I came up on. The one thing I definitely bring from studio to studio, and everywhere else in life, are my old Sony V600 headphones. Not the remakes. What is happening with the low end in those? I’m obsessed with headphones and loosely starting a trial right now to find the modern day love-­of­-my-headphones-­life but it’s gonna take time. People make such insane sounding headphones. Anybody want to go in on building something new?

I want to know more about your process. What is the first thing you do when you receive a new album for mastering? Do you work on one project at a time or balance several simultaneously?
The first thing I do is listen. I pull up the files and dig up any references that they’ve mentioned. I realize that saying “files” makes it sound like final mixes are mostly digital these days, but at least in my experience that’s true. I’m still wide open to analog but it just isn’t coming that much anymore. Regardless, I like to set up a couple of sessions for easy access to everything I need. The sources will live in both ProTools an Seqouia and as I listen I’ll likely start making some assumptions about what will go through what analog path, what will stay digital, what will be both, etc. I’m pretty conversational with my clients, so the dialog will be wide open. Not trying to force anyone to over­talk, but if they wanna get nitty gritty, I’m down. In any moment it’s just one project at a time, but within a day it can be common to work on multiple things, depending on the calendar needs whether it’s a single for someone, a revision for someone else, making final production parts for a third. That would be a good day. An alternate version is an attended session where clients are present and we’re working on one album straight through from morning till night. That’s not to say an unattended session is a wild smorgasbord of a day where I’m working on 50 different things ­ an unattended album would still be likely to have it’s own day or days, if needed. This stuff unfolds in a lot of different ways.

As someone who has already experienced great success in her field, what goals do you have for yourself as an engineer?
To work on better and better sounding projects and always keep in mind the artistry that can be a part of mastering. Sometimes when you’re just fighting the volume stuff over and over and that’s the sole mission the client wants. That can be a fun trip too - how to do this as best possible, how to avoid or hide the distortion inherent when things are too loud, as everything is,  but if it was just that, it can start to feel a little more like playing a videogame than working on a song, and that can get a little like... “what is all this for, really?” to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll say again ­that can be a fun trip, but the bigger picture is always balanced by intricacies and depths and details right when I need it to be. There are so many people out there working on so many different kinds of things and each teaches me something. My job, this job, boils down to client service. Cook the burger how the client wants. Within reason, advise if a mistake is being made. Translate what they say into what they want. Sincerely give opinions and feedback when asked. But they have to eat the burger. Don’t fuck up the burger.

Talk Normal is one of my favorite NYC bands. Do you feel playing in a group influenced your work in the studio? Are you currently in any active projects?
This will sound self­-congratulatory, but fuck it.­ In my opinion, I was already fairly empathetic in the studio with artists ­long before I was actively performing and recording. Going through the good & bad of Talk Normal made me all the more sensitive to different pushes and pulls that can be in play during the making of a record. From the hopes­ and ­dream heavy type shit, to the exuberance of something finished quickly, to the slow burning mental breakdown of something that takes way too long...and shades in­-between. So I think it just lit up my compassion meter yet more, plus a re­energizing of what it’s like to be taken care of in the studio and treated professionally and how much that can matter. Active projects... I’m slowly creeping on a few things that I’m hesitant to name. Others are in the frying pan if I can get over some inner stumbling blocks. Also my girlfriend Christina Files is the most remarkable musical mind I know, so I’d be a fool to not try & rope her into creating something. With a little luck 2016’ll be an accelerant to my slow­burn.

What is some advice you would give your younger self in the studio?
Don’t sign your life over to every person who’s nice to you for a minute. Take much better care of yourself, both professionally and personally. Guard your own work carefully & establish a history moving forward that includes every single thing you do - not just shit you’re near, but things you legitimately do. Be weary of people who promise you things ‘soon’, but continue to move that future point further and further, year after year. Moping in sweatpants has a time limit, no matter how betrayed you feel. Sounds dark but there’s light to be found and important things to be done. Get moving.
- - - - -

Since this interview was published, Sarah began Sarah Register Mastering and now works fully independently.

- Women in Sound 2019 -