Interview: Brad Boatright of Audiosiege

Over the last few weeks, Beastmilk’s debut, Climax, has been all the rage for its self-described “apocalyptic post-punk” sound and crossover appeal. Think Echo & the Bunnymen meets death rock. Part of the band’s draw though, at least from the metal side, is that lead singer Kvohst has an extensive black metal pedigree, including the likes of Dødheimsgard, Hexvessel, and Code.

In fact, the Beastmilk story actually began in 2010 when their sold out demo, White Stains on Black Tape, made Fenriz’s (Darkthrone) year end list. After a bit of touring and another successful 7″ follow up , Use Your Deluge, they then caught the attention of Kurt Ballou (Converge), who personally invited them to his GodCity Studio to produce their full length debut.

But what you don’t read about is the fact that though Ballou mixed Climax, it was Brad Boatright of Audiosiege who mastered it. In fact, Brad has mastered a lot of Ballou’s work of late including Oathbreaker, Nails, All Pigs Must Die, and Toxic Holocaust to name but a few. And even though a lot of these records are competitively loud, the ones that have hit these ears still sound terrific.

I had an opportunity to speak with Brad about Climax, the current state of mastering metal today, as well as a few odds and ends.

MFi: For MFi’ers who aren’t familiar with Audiosiege, can you give us an overview on how you got involved in mastering music?

Brad: When I first started recording and releasing records as a musician, mastering was an arcane process, but I’d always hear the difference. This was in the mid 90’s, and I was already enrolled in recording school at Middle Tennessee State. We’d send a recording away to be mastered, then it would come back sounding polished. I was fortunate to attend a mastering session with George Horn at Fantasy Studios in ’99 and that ignited some interest. Then in 2005, aided by the accessibility that the digital age afforded working musicians, I mastered the first Criminal Damage LP – the first record on which I’m credited as an engineer.

Over the last two decades we’ve seen a revolution in music that has been, by nature, very disruptive. I saw a need for an independent, musician focused mastering engineer, developed a philosophy of relating to the music through experience, and integrated that with the technical portions of mastering.

MFi: As I stated above, Kurt Ballou clearly had some idea on how to translate Beastmilk’s self-described “apocalyptic post-punk” sound in the studio. With that in mind, how did you approach this project from the mastering side?

Brad: I usually give a record a listen through before starting, and if the sequence is ready, I will sometimes try and get that done to help get a feel for it. Then I try to forget everything and dive into the technical stuff – let the music turn into pink noise. My approach isn’t really different from project to project. It’s getting intimate with the record then approaching it neutrally. I’m really able to connect once the biggest moves are done.

Beastmilk - ClimaxMFi: Many critics are quick to point out that though Climax’s overall production sounds modern, it also has a bit of an edge or rawness to it, I assume this was a calculated decision on your part?

Brad: I think most of that can be attributed to Kurt’s production skills and the band’s vision, but I try not to over polish either. There is a lot that can be overdone at the mastering stage: sacrifices made to improve volume or guarantee translation, processes that can shine to the point of destruction. I try to preserve the feel of the music, and when a mix is done, my job is to connect with the vision of the band and producer.

MFi: What I also find interesting about this master is that though it has been compressed to industry loudness levels (DR6), Arino’s bass sounds killer. How did you handle the low end spectrum to get it to shine?

Brad: Low end is a tough thing to get right. Too much and you can mask higher frequencies and eat up bandwidth, at a cost to perceived loudness. Too little, and something can sound thin and brittle. I try to find a crossover on some mixes, the point in the frequency spectrum at which the kick disappears, and then treat each half of the spectrum a bit differently in regards to compression, saturation, and stereo image.

MFi: Speaking of compression, on Audiosiege’s About page, you write, “We don’t simply run your music through a set of plugins to make it louder, nor do we spare any expense before arriving at sonic perfection-the sweet spot that your hard work deserves.” This statement insinuates that you feel a lot of studios these days are really in the business of making records sound louder, than making them sound good. Can you elaborate a bit about this?

Brad: I think that, as I mentioned before, the accessibility and options afforded to us by the digital age has enabled us quite a bit in regards to music production. However, it has had many pitfalls. Mastering, to me, is about using your ears in a room with which you are familiar, on monitoring equipment you trust, to get inside the recording and make the adjustments needed to transform it into a record – it is a craft, not a process. When loudness is the ultimate goal it inevitably comes with an expense, and many tonal sacrifices will be made to achieve it. Some of these sacrifices are negligible, and some aren’t, but regardless, a mastering engineer’s craft is to transform a recording into a record. I’ve received mixes that with 6 dB of limiting that were called “mastered” that were obviously run through mastering presets of a plugin bundle, and with this destructive process would have seen poor translation to vinyl and some playback systems.

Mastering isn’t just compressing. It’s doing whatever is needed, even if what is needed is minimal. The “what’s needed” part though is the part that I’ve always tried to redefine with every session. I don’t often reference other recordings because I like to approach each project from a unique perspective. “What’s needed” is what the band visualizes. It’s not ultimate translation or competitive loudness, although I firmly believe these things will naturally occur when a mastering job is done properly.

MFi: What do you think of the Loudness War and why do you think artists continually push for louder and louder masters?

Brad: Obviously, the Loudness Wars have ruined a lot of recordings and created an Icarus-like career path for many mastering and recording engineers, but the causes are numerous and not as dubious as one would think. And the results are less so. Music for a while there was just so slammed that it could be painful to listen to. Again, revolutions are disruptive. With the digital recording revolution in it’s third decade and leveling out, i really believe that the Loudness Wars aren’t as ominous as they were a few years ago. New technology brings with it the necessity of education, and education takes time. Educating ourselves and each other will lead to better sounding music in the long run, and I’m seeing fewer slammed mixes these days. It all starts with the recording and mixing.

It’s too easy to over compress with several instances of a plugin compressor, whereas in the past you were limited by your physical options. Knowing this is a big step. As artists, knowing to volume match your reference mixes and not push the mix engineer to add a limiter is a big step. Listen to overly compressed recordings and recognize the artifacts. Learn to hear pumping compression. Learn to use the volume knob, and realize that louder is not better. I have no problem with competitiveness, but I think that digital playback and shuffle has led to loudness being the decisive factor in music competition. One of my goals is to naturally achieve competitive loudness levels with minimal artifacts, and it is possible. It just takes work.

AudiosiegeMFi: Have you ever had your master rejected by the label because it was not loud enough? If so, how do you deal with it?

Brad: Never had a master rejected by a label for not being loud enough, although it’s perfectly normal in this industry to have revisions requested for more volume and I consider that acceptable since I run a service oriented business. However, I did have one unfortunate case of a musician who hired a music lawyer to shop his demo to major labels. His lawyer rejected the first pass based on the fact that he didn’t believe the volume was loud enough to compete with other major label acts, sending this guy back to the drawing board.

MFi: Lately, we have seen a small resurgence in vinyl, has that translated into more clients asking for separate vinyl masters? And if so, have you ever thought about releasing higher dynamic digital only releases?

Brad: People will ask, but I usually offer it initially. 90% of what I master will eventually get a vinyl release so I always have vinyl translation in mind from the start. There are several critical moves to make when something is going to vinyl, and ignoring these-especially using an overly slammed digital master for vinyl can, ironically, result in a quieter record.

I have thought about higher dynamic digital releases, but I think that’s the kind of thing that would need to start with artists and labels. Again, it’s a competition thing so if one bigger label began doing it I’m sure others would follow. I also tend to go with a more dynamic master on the first pass, just at the cusp, and push it more if the band, label, or producer requests it. It’s a better use of the Fletcher-Munson curves this way – it’s sometimes harder to come back after going to far!

MFi: Speaking of which, for Climax, did you do a separate master for its vinyl release? If so, how does it differ from the CD?

Brad: Absolutely. For one, it’s 24-bit/88.2kHz, which does make a difference (run as fast as you can from any vinyl plant that asks for an audio CD), and it does have a touch more dynamic range for vinyl. In almost every mix I receive the low end is treated properly, with bass and kick centered so those kind of treatments for vinyl don’t have to happen. At least, not in a heavy handed way.

MFi: Now, not many people know this, but Audiosiege’s mix engineer is none other than Toxic Holocaust mastermind Joel Grind. How did that relationship come about and what’s it like to work with someone who speaks thrash fluently?

Brad: It’s great. We see eye to eye on a lot of things and he’s talented beyond belief. Lately Joel has started recording more bands locally so it’s a lot of fun being part of it and watching it happen. Joel was living in LA, and before moving back contacted me to see if I knew of any studio spaces. It just happened that I was a couple of months away from moving into our current room. I was doing mixing as well as mastering at the time, but decided I wanted to devote my energy to the craft of mastering full time, and his mixing skills allowed this all to happen. It was, and has been, a perfect storm really.

MFi: What do you feel is the biggest challenge with mastering metal today?

Brad: It’s definitely dealing with music that is severely limited prior to mastering. Fortunately, though, with the ease of recall on most in-the-box mixes, a simple polite request to remove the limiting on the stereo buss and bring down the master fader will be met with cooperation. Half the time it’s a mix engineer who either retained the reference settings or was unaware the music was to be mastered professionally. I always try to explain: mastering is not making things louder, but doing what the music needs.

MFi: What advice would you give a perspective artist shopping for a studio to have their album produced?

Brad: Reach out in advance and give yourself more time than you think you need. Check a studio’s credits and speak to prospective engineers. Don’t put too much value in the tools provided, shiny photos, and extensive gear lists since they will do very little in the hands of untrained ears or someone who doesn’t understand your music. Get a feel for someone’s philosophy. And lastly, don’t worry too much about whether a studio is “analog or digital.”

I liked to thank Brad for his time and patience in doing this interview. If you are still not yet familiar with Brad’s work, I highly encourage you to check out Audiosiege’s official website and peruse over his impressive client list. And if you happen to be shopping for an engineer and/or studio, definitely put Audiosiege on your short list, since Brad and Joel are continually delivering one punchy record after the next despite the production dark times we currently live in.