It seems these days, Devin Townsend can do no wrong. If he is not crushing our eardrums with existential meanderings about the meaning of the universe, he is helping us find peace within it. Either way, HevyDevy is one of the most versatile and talented artists in metal today.

Recently, Blood Music released The Complete Works, an incredible retrospective box set that contains all of Devin’s early work when he was the creative driving force behind Strapping Young Lad. Not only does it contain their complete discography, but also comes with a gorgeous 40 page book, alternative artwork, collectible paraphernalia, and tons of never before released demo material, all remastered on high quality vinyl. Check out the full specs of this amazing set here.

For the record (literally), I am one of the 150 lucky owners of the Die Hard Edition. As a long time Townsend fan, it was worth every penny. After I received my set, I got inspired and contacted Troy Glessner of Spectre Mastering, who has been Devin’s go to engineer since SYL was disbanded. We talked about the The Complete Works, how it was mastered, and of course, you guessed it, the Loudness War.

MFi: Troy, can you tell us a little bit about your background and how Spectre Mastering come about?

I began recording in my parents garage. We used to bounce from cassette deck to cassette deck and add a track at a time. It was sound on sound type recording. We had a lot of fun, but of course, it sounded horrible! But after we had our final “mix,” I took the whole thing, ran inside the house and played it through my parents crappy techniques EQ in their home component stereo system and printed the final once I had the low end under control.

Years later I continued recording and attended MTSU outside of Nashville where I earned a degree in music production and a minor in electrical engineering. I was off to the races. I moved back to Seattle and started Spectre with a high school friend. Initially, I was was just mastering my own records I mixed. But then people started asking me to do their records as well, so I built a dedicated mastering studio shortly thereafter. When you’re a young mastering engineer like I was in my mid-20s it was REALLY REALLY hard for people to take you seriously. In fact, I’m still pretty young in the mastering world even today at 41.

Spectre has gone through quite a few incarnations and business partners. Mostly due to the fact that your fooling yourself if you think your going to start a studio in a building you don’t own and still be around in 10 years from now. So here’s some advice kids: If you really want to make a go at the recording game, buy a house with some land and a barn or just build, because leasing a space will always end badly.

Spectre is now all on my property. I walk to work (about 300 feet). I spend 90% of my time mastering, but I still record at other studios. Those are projects I record solely for fun.

Recording, mixing, building motorcycles, and restoring pinball machines are my hobbies now, but mastering is my job.

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MFi: How did you get involved with the Blood Music SYL project?

Troy: I have been mastering for the Devin Townsend Project for the last 4 or 5 records, including all the DVD releases and live releases. I have done all the vinyl masters for those projects as well. Devin and I have developed a great working relationship and talk freely regarding our opinions on mixes and masters with no one taking anything personally. It is a LONG process we go through, but well worth it in the end. I’m very proud of all those records. I was told that, in the case of the SYL box set, Devin and the management and Blood Music wanted to keep the continuity with Devin and myself.

MFi: Were you already familiar with SYL’s work before you were approached?

Troy: Yes, but only as a casual listener. I am obviously much more familiar with Devin’s more recent work.

MFi: What were your primary goals going into the studio?

Troy: The primary goal was to ensure aural consistency across all the records while at the same time letting them remain the individuals they are. And of course doing a master suitable for vinyl release. In a nutshell, to create masters worthy of what was trying to be accomplished with a retrospective this large. I wanted to do the band and its history justice, while at the same time casting a new light sonically on these records.

MFi: Did Devin Townsend or any of the original SYL band members give any input during the mastering process?

Troy: Devin let me roll with this one amazingly, I believe he was on tour. It was mastered over a year ago right after Epicloud came out. I mainly dealt with Blood Music.

MFi: What was the state of the original recordings that were used to source the new masters? Were they all the same format or were there issues?

Troy: As with any project that spans this long of a time frame, the tracks came to me in many different shapes and sizes, the specifics of each I can’t recall. It was a TON of material to immerse myself in. Some of these were demos never intended to ever see the light of day, yet here we are talking about it. I do recall that the label, the band/management, in fact all stakeholders involved went out of their way to give me everything I needed to pull off a project of this size. I had all the headroom and dynamics I needed to create vinyl masters for each release included in the box set.

They were not all the same format, however there were no major format issues. Initially, I had fears of a box of 4-track MiniDisk demos showing up on my doorstep – what a NIGHTMARE FORMAT that was, thank God those went away quickly! But thankfully, that wasn’t at all how it went down. All efforts were spent on the differences in mix and production from record to record, not fighting against insufficient source recordings.

MFi: Were all the records mastered in the same way or did some require more attention than others?

Troy: Each record was treated differently in an effort to get them all together in one cohesive release. Some of course required more attention than others. For example, even the demos needed to be “record quality,” not just a group of recordings in a row. There is a big difference between “records” and “recordings.” So in the end yes, about 70% of the time was spent on 30% of the material.

MFi: Sounds like the demo material needed a lot of work.

Troy: It just takes more time digging. Most all the EQ used in this process was subtractive. Meaning that I’m doing way more cutting than boosting. Subtractive EQ is just a different way of thinking about a mix. Instead of looking for what you like about a mix and boosting that, you’re looking for what is not good and cutting there or removing that as much as possible. It is a much more gentle way to EQ a track when you have to do more extreme EQ’ing. The end result doesn’t sound nearly as “tweaked.” It’s all a ratio and a lesson young engineers need to learn quick. turning something up is the exact same thing as turning everything else down but that track you would have turned up. So instead of looking for what should be turned up in a mix, bands and engineers should be looking for what could be turned down, or “subtracted” – and this same rule applies for EQ. We will all end up with less unwanted distortion throughout our records.

DISCLAIMER: I want to be clear that I am NOT saying that I can turn any old crappy demo into record quality. I am saying that great bands tend to make great demos, and I was dealing with a great band in this case.

MFi: You mentioned about making sure that the set had a sense of sonic continuity between all the different releases, can you elaborate more about how you achieved this?

Troy: There was a whole lot of listening that went on before I turned a knob – a few days at least. I needed to get a feel for what was going on frequency wise on each record, and find a common sonic thread that I could queue off of for all the records that would create the consistency needed. I had listened to all those records before, but as a listener, mastering is a different deal. While mastering, all I’m listening to is frequencies, tone, dynamics, the song, the band, the rifs, the drum parts, the breakdowns – they all just become frequencies, i.e. sonic energy.

This may sound odd, but when I’m mastering I might as well be listing to pink noise or the sound of static. It’s all just sonic energy I’m feeling for. I’m not at all listening to the individual players or what the vocalist is singing. So once I get a feel for the sonics of each record and “think” I have a plan to get it to go together with the vinyl format in mind, then I start turning knobs. Then the war begins! I’ll master a few of the records, constantly checking the previous ones I’ve mastered to be sure the consistency and feel is there. It wouldn’t be there, after the first pass, so I would start all over, and start the process again, and again, and again – I started over quite a few times. I have a love hate relationship with my gear. On one hand I need it, on the other hand it gets in my way.

I’ll explain: I always wait to hear in my head what I want a record to sound like before a single knob is turned. Sometimes it takes me 20 seconds to hear it in my head, sometimes it takes longer. But then I spend hours, days, and in this case, weeks, with F$#%^ng gear getting in my way when all I want is what in my head to come out of the speakers. In all it took about 2 weeks of work, spread out over a longer period of time. A lot of knowing when to step away, a lot of knowing when not to turn a knob. As an engineer that always the hardest thing to learn – when not to turn a knob.

MFi: SYL’s discography is a poster child for the Loudness War. Do the new masters restore a lot of the dynamics lost on their CD counterparts?

Ahh, the Loudness War. Actually, I have to disagree with you on SYL being the poster child. This war has been raging long long before SYL. It’s before my time, but I heard stories of Apple Records in the 60s and 70s being mad at Motown for cutting loud distorted vinyl in an effort to get DJ’s and radio station programers attention. Sound familiar? It’s all just distortion, some pleasing, some not. Rock needs distortion, metal wouldn’t be metal without it. Clipping a wave is no new thing it happens in guitar amps, microphone preamps, phono preamps – it’s all over. The question people have to ask is, is it pleasing distortion or not? Where I draw the line in any decade of rock is: Does this record make you want to turn it up or does this record make you want to turn it down? Cuz if it’s a rock record, whether its metal or pop, it should make you want to turn it up! If it doesn’t, and it hurts to listen to, and you wanna turn it down, someone stepped over the line somewhere. Whether it was at the tracking stage, the mix stage, or the mastering stage.

MFi: So in your eyes, clipping to some extent has always been used in the mastering process.

Troy: Clipping, tape saturation, harmonic tube distortion. Call it what you want: Basically running any format in the red creates distortion. Distortion is a tool like any other. There are a million ways to do it at any stage of the game in record making. I’ve seen incredible mixers that always run their SSL console in the red with clip lights blinking all over it, but it’s part of their thing. They swear by it, and their mixes are bad ass. It’s part of their sound, and they use it in a musical way. They use it to their advantage, and there in lies the key to using distortion (or clipping) responsibly. Basically, “Is what I’m doing musically pleasing to the ear for the type of project I’m working on?”

MFi: Has Devin’s attitude toward production changed since disbanding SYL and starting DTP then?

Troy: All the records we do with DTP are some of the more quiet, conservative, dynamic open masters. He’s completely unconcerned with “loud” and only concerned with “good.” So I’m not really sure what went on with the SYL mastering years ago, That is definitely a question for Devin and the band. I know now he insists on using me now because, as he puts it ,”Troy is the only one who wont fuck up my mixes” which if you like to read between the lines may mean he wasn’t particularly thrilled with some of the mastering on some of his earlier records or maybe that means I’m not particularly good, but the lesser of all evils? HA. That said we still walk the line of the format it’s released on. We always try to err on the more conservative side of the industry standard.

So you may ask do I get pressure from bands to go louder than I like? Yes.

Do I get pressure from labels/managers to go louder and compete with the loudest obnoxious records out there? Yes. In fact, I’ve got an email that just came in while responding to your questions from a major label band that says they want it louder.

Has this pressure to compete with some of the loudest most destroyed records out there ever happened on Devin’s records? Yes.

Has Devin or I giving in to it? No.

But we still are conscious that at least for the digital release it will be in the commercial volume ballpark.

MFi: It sounds like both you and Devin really care about fidelity and aren’t interested in just being loud.

Troy: Certainly not, I have a kinda joke saying I have been using over the past few years: “Quiet is the new loud.” With everything turned up so much loud isn’t really loud anymore. It just IS, so maybe the easiest way to get noticed in the iPod shuffle is be the quiet one? Right? No one takes me up on it though.

MFi: Indeed. But don’t you think that compression, especially in metal, has been overly abused to the point that the music has suffered because of it?

Troy: Sure. But there are failures in every type of industry in the world. 100% success rate is unattainable. They all can’t be incredible sounding audiophile quality records. There’s just too many possible points of failure. There’s no way I could ever stand here and say “I’ve never pushed a record too far.” Nor could any other real mastering, tracking, mixing engineer in the world. In the specific case of metal, well it’s an easy type of music to push too far at any point of the recording process. Why? Because metal draws the root of its power from distortion, specifically super high gain guitar distortion. It’s already so gained out that it’s easy to get drawn in as an engineer and just push everything else too far.

MFi: So then, why aren’t CDs as dynamic as they were in the early 90s?

Troy: Oh man, that’s the easiest question you have asked so far! Because of three little letters: DAW (digital audio workstation): Pro Tools, or Logic Pro, or Nuendo – pick your poison. DAWs changed EVERYTHING about how records are made. They gave engineers an infinite amount of tools including compressors and limiters. Before the mid 90s, legit high end studios had maybe 10 to 15 compressors/limiters in the rack behind you. And you had tens maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars wrapped up in that gear. At that time, if you asked most engineers “how many compressors do you need during mix down?” and they answered honestly, “just a few more.” Then enter the DAW and for a finite investment you have all the processing you ever wanted. One or more on every track during mix down there is stereo bus compression, even more than you ever wanted. The sky is the limit. The DAW changed how records are made. It changed how records are produced. It changed the dynamic range of records.

So the answer to your question is simple: It’s how records are recorded, produced, and mixed now. The typical rock record I get has 5db of dynamic range tops before it’s mastered. The unmastered mix may be no where near the digital zero brick wall, and thus have tons of headroom for me to work, but the dynamics have still been minimized. I have a few mixers that give me 10 to 15db of headroom, but the dynamic range of the mix is still maybe 5db. Now it’s just how records are made now unless you specifically set out to not make a record that way which some artists and engineers and producers do. But if you don’t set out that goal from the project’s onset, you are most likely going down that same path as everyone else. Just some food for thought, if the DAW had existed at the at the dawn of recording, if engineers had infinite tools for cheap from the beginning, would we even be having this discussion? I think it’s possible we would not.

MFi: Seems like you are arguing that the current application of compression is just the industry standard now, not what’s best for the music though?

Troy: What’s best for music now is what has always been best for music: That is putting out amazing records with amazing songs and performances. Sound is a distant second. Bet you never thought you would hear a sound engineer say that one, eh? The first few Rolling Stones records sound like ass in my opinion, but the songs and performances are amazing and didn’t stop them from selling millions of copies. Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska was recorded in an apartment on 4 track cassette, but the songs, performances, and feel are off the charts amazing. It technically sounds again like ass, yet is my favorite record of all time. I’ll take it over a half speed master of Steely Dan any day of the week.

Brian Eno once said, “If the mix is the problem, the mix is not the problem.” To me, that means if a song is properly crafted with a suitable performance and assuming there are real sound engineers in the building, the mix and sonics should take care of themselves. The song is king, fidelity is the queen, and that’s how it should be. Not that fidelity is not important mind you. I make my living ensuring fidelity! But the song is more important. Actually BEING good is more important than SOUNDING good.

MFi: I hear you are currently mastering Devin’s next release. Can you give us a clue on what to expect?

Troy: I’ve heard the first two rounds of mixes and done a few rounds of test masters. If there is one thing for sure, Devin never makes the same record two times in a row!