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The Community 1st June 2022 12:01 PM

Interview with Howie Weinberg
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"Mastered by Howie Weinberg" - a phrase so ubiquitous that it feels like you can look at almost any major alternative and/or hard rock & metal (plus at least a few legendary hip-hop albums) released over the past several decades and see those words stamped somewhere on the liner notes. Howie is one of the go-to top tier mastering engineers for the entire record industry, doing tonnes of albums that would go on to hit gold & platinum sales, including for the likes of Prince, Smashing Pumpkins, Public Enemy, Metallica, Muse, Gorillaz, Sonic Youth, Garbage, Rush, Def Leppard, Ramones, The Killers, The Clash and many, many, many more. Howie has a legendary rep as being an extremely chill dude and his Q&A back in 2013 was extra cool in that he was the first full-time M.E. to do one with the GS community. If you're interested in the black magic behind mastering top records, Howie reveals all!

I usually mix into a compressor with just a few dB s of compression. The mastering engineer I work with prefers to have the mix sent without the compression. I was curious how you prefer your mixes and why. - Mrc

I would say make your mix sound perfect to you. I don't tell clients how to mix. Most mixers who know how to use mix compression do it really well and can make their mixes sound good. The only thing I caution is to not use brickwall limiters that you can't take off. If you need to have a client ref that is loud, do two with and one without.

You've mentioned instances where you didn't have to do much because the mix was great. Are we talking just some slight brightening in the EQ, or slight limiting, slight removal of mud, image shifting, etc? All of the above? - Lefthanddoes

Doing little means exactly what you'd think. Maybe it's opening up some highs by a dB, or removing some unwanted deep bottom. Sometimes less is more. Addition by subtraction. Sometimes taking away frequencies accentuates other frequencies. You definitely get that when cutting lows sometimes.

I would like to ask your opinion on people who offer to produce, record, mix and master the same project or just mix and master what they mixed. - alvinphoto&sound

From my 30 odd years in the business, it seems that there are very few people that can do everything well. There are some producers that are great mixers, and some engineers who can make decent masters, but there is no substitute for hiring a dedicated mastering engineer who works on one thing every day and is an expert in the field.

What digital brickwall limiter do you use the most? - RedTuxedo

I usually just clip the input of my converters because I've been doing that for a long time and know how to do it properly. I find brickwall limiters really just squash up the sound and I try not to use them at all. If you are looking for a plugin for loudness, find something that does saturation or nice clipping.

Do you have any tips on finding the right Attack and Release settings using a Limiter when Mastering? - ScumBum

I don't use much limiting during mastering, but my favorite analog limiter is the NTP-179/120 which had a 200ms attack and anywhere from a 0.1 to .25 recovery.

I use slow attacks to let the transients pass through. Doesn't squash but feels huge.

Wondering what your thoughts are on the 100Hz area of the kick and wack you know, making it punch in the chest. - Kris Bang Boom

Anywhere from 80Hz to 120Hz is where the juicy bottom is. A lot of bass guitar and kick drum sit there. Tweaking it is all about hearing it. In my room, it's very easy to hear those big lows. Be aware that too much of that will make everything sound smaller and mushy.

I've read so many articles recently on how engineers use gentle compression at every stage of recording/mixing to help (amongst other things) get to a commercial level at the final mix stage. Do you think this is a good idea? - jaffa

It all depends on the program material. Some things sound great with compression, others sound so so. Use your ears. A good idea is to do a bunch of different compression levels, listen on a cheap consumer system, and see which sounds best.

You mentioned that in some projects you were requested to be fairly heavy handed in mastering (like RHCP's BSSM). Can you quantify what would be considered a lot of EQ change on something like that? Are we talking drastic 6-9dB changes, 3-6dB changes? Related, how much are you comfortable EQ'ing and so forth before suggesting/requesting possible mix changes? - CoreRec

There is no rule. I've used as much as 5 to 6dB of EQ and at all different frequencies, some on major label records. I listen and if it needs it, I give it. I don't go by what the knobs say, I go by what my ears say.

Do you use some of your work, or others work, as references? - E Artsy Moods

I don't use references only because each project is so unique that I find using other projects can actually throw me off. Plus I know my room so well that I can easily hear if something is off. I do know a few people who use some of my masters as their references!

What are the majority of big name mixers sending you format wise? 96k wavs? Tape? Any DSD or 1bit stuff? - Aramism

I get everything. 96kz, 44.1khz, 48khz.

DSD is nonexistent. Tape comes in about one out of ten projects.

What I've noticed is that the sample rate doesn't matter. A good mix sounds great at 16bit 44.1kHz and 96kHz won't save a bad mix.

So my point is that sample rates are overrated.

I wonder If you get any soft clipping from the A/D converter at the end of your analog signal path? If so, do you change how much to clip depending on what is hitting most? - bbensoy

My Eclipse converter clips really nicely without artifacts. I have a really great monitoring environment so I can take very careful notice of the clipping.

Clipping can be great when done right, but really bad when done wrong on a bad mix.

Also, some converters clip really badly. I test converter clipping by driving them really hard until distortion, and then back off till it's clean. It's a great way to get loudness with no distortion.

I would love to know at what stage of your mastering process you downsize to 44.1Khz 16 Bit and What do you do first? Do you do this inside the computer or with the converter when you go back into the DAW? - Mgarzak

I master everything at 24bit 96khz. I can downsize in my Pyramix which has amazing Sample Rate Conversion.

I've always loved Streetcore by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. There are 6 people credited as having a hand in mixing Streetcore by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. - NAJ89

I do remember that record very well. Joe had passed away while they were mixing it. I loved this record because it was Joe's comeback record where he kind of took on the same vibe as the Clash's best records.

If I'm not mistaken, the next project was a Clash reunion record which obviously never happened.

I was very sad that Joe wasn't around to come to the mastering session. He was one of the greatest rock singers of all time.

I just realized that you did the Mastering for "Ahi Vamos" de Gustavo Cerati. He is one of my favorite singers of all time! and, unfortunately, after more than 2 years, he is still in a coma...grande Cerati! - Elcubo

Gustavo Cerati is one of the greatest singers in the world. He's from Argentina.

I was proud to work on Ahi Vamos, because it is one of the greatest Spanish language records of all time in my opinion. I believe it was up for Latin Grammy of the year.

It's too bad about his condition, that is very sad.

What is your typical eq setup and philosophy for when things need a lot of fixing AND a lot of sweetening? - Indecline

I have two Sontec EQs and an SPL PQ EQ. They all sound different, and they blend nicely together and can really make things sound spectacular. SPL is very warm, and the Sontecs are very neutral. The small Sontec 250 has an amazing edge. I use the SPL first, big Sontec second, and small Sontec third.

I want to conclude by saying that I don't EQ just for the sake of it. It is all with intention and my goal is to make the master sound as good as possible, keeping the client involved the whole time.

After finishing an album, have you ever wished you could go back and make (even the subtlest) changes? If so, can you give me an example? - LouieGooey

I think it's pretty common for an engineer to think that they could have done better or made changes, even when the client is thrilled with the work. I don't have specific examples.
But the goal is to be confident with what you've done and make sure the client is given what they want.

What kind of communication might go on between you and the mixer of a project, and what do you want to know from them? - Grubgoat

I need to know their direction, if they have one. If they don't have one, that's ok, and I do my thing. It tends to be correct.

What's your own favorite master that you did? - Nott

There are so many. Here's one that just popped in my mind: Lovage "Music To Make Love To Your Old Lady By". The artist was Dan The Automater who is now a great producer/mixer.

How often do you go to real tape nowadays with the plugin available? - Sotsirc

The sound of the tape is like one of the greatest compressors ever made, and there is only one button, play.

Tape speed and width make a difference, as do noise reduction, but ultimately tape just has 'that' sound. It makes things bigger, larger, wider, but doesn't mess with the balances. It can also smooth out the top end. If a mix is printed to digital and analog, the digital always sounds faster to me.

Slate modeled my STUDER A80 RC and that machine has a big transformer sound and great headroom. A lot of records in the 80's were mixed to these machines. I use the plugin because it's a lot less maintenance and it sounds great.

Do you play any instruments? I know many mastering engineers that do (Bob Ludwig can play a mean trumpet from what I understand). - RedTuxedo

Years ago I was going out with this girl in a band so I decided since I have no musical training, I could pick up the bass. I mean, hey it only has four strings, how hard can it be? But we broke up, and my rockstar dreams were over.

Me not being a musician helps me be a better listener. I have no crap inside my head with theory or notation.. I just go for vibe and sound.

I am wondering if you ever use visual cues, such as from a spectrum analyzer or phase meter, to hone in on what your ears are telling you? - jasman

Absolutely, all the time. It's like a pilot being instrument trained. I have a really great DK Spectrum analyzer which tells me what I'm hearing, and it's very important to how I work. However, it's a hybrid approach, because sometimes the curves look terrible but it sounds great. The opposite is also true sometimes. Your ears are always the final test.

When you receive mixes from the BIGS... on average what kind of headroom are they leaving you? - Jglover

I'm not sure what the exact numbers are, but it varies from mixer to mixer. Some mixers give their clients a compressed file and then they give me the uncompressed file and I like that. But I have received some crushed mixes and it takes away a lot of opportunities for me to do my job.

I wondered what your exposure to/experience with an all digital mastering chain is. And do you believe it is just as possible to engineer successful products this way. Bare in mind i am referring to products like PYRAMIX which is coupled with its own hardware, all the way to using the Izotope Ozone within a normal DAW such as ProTools. Thankyou for your time, Cheers! - DigitalBrownNote

I think the key to mastering is less about analog vs digital, and more about the room, monitors, and experience of the mastering engineer. The PYRAMIX system I have has some great compressors and eqs and I'm sure I could use them to do good work. Like I said before, the plugins that emulate analog are getting so good and I'm constantly amazed at their quality.

Put on some records you think sound good and try to copy the vibe. I think it can be done with digital or analog.

I just pulled out a test master for a record our band did in 1986, mastered by you at Masterdisk. The vinyl (or is it even vinyl?) is really heavy and you remember what material was used for those test masters? And can I get fewer plays out of it than the normal vinyl record? (I've always been reluctant to play it - I think it went into storage after 1 test listen way back when!) - Thingsbreak

Do you mean an acetate? They are very soft lacquer and don't have more than 5 good plays. They were never meant to be played in extended periods. The grooves are very soft.

When applying any changes (EQ, compression, spatial), do you make a conscious effort NOT to affect a song's balance and focus? Or do you do whatever you consider necessary and hope the client is happy? - Andychamp

I do a little of both. You have to know your client, and know what makes them happy. If you're gonna be heavy handed, keep the client involved. A lot of clients expect me to be heavy handed, but some don't want me to mess with stuff too much. It changes with every record. The most important thing is to keep the original vision and not damage it.

You mastered the 'Singles' soundtrack which had included a song I wrote for the band Truly called "Heart and Lungs". It was in the film, but unfortunately dumped from the album at the last second but Sony sent me your version which is in the film and it sounded amazing. (We also spoke briefly on the phone, don't know if you remember. It was a pleasure working with you for a few minutes!) Anyway, you were saying in one of these posts... "I just remastered the re-release of the Pantera stuff and I kept the original sound but added a bit of a modern touch with 2013 technology."

Although aesthetics have changed, actual recording "quality" doesn't seem to have improved much over time. Twenty years ago it seemed "largeness" came first... then "loudness". Obviously software has come a long way, but what are some of the significant differences in what can be achieved sonically now v.s in the early 90's? - Mellotronic

First off all, most of the early 90's recordings were either really poorly made digital, or really nice analog. What I mean by poorly made digital is that converters and sample rates were in the dark ages. Nowadays, analog is pretty much past tense but digital can sound really good. Ultimately, great engineering has always and will always make great sounding records.

Do you output masters peaking at 0dBFS, or do you leave, say 0.5dB of headroom to reduce clipping when consumers convert to lossy formats down the line? - Trakworx

I leave about .2 or .4 but it depends on the program and who the client is.

When you get mixes that are too transparent/digital sounding that needs color and glue mojo and balls:-) What would be your way to treat them and which boxes would you use? - Rickard Bengtsso

For analog sound, I have some great mojo EQs like the SPL PQ 120v. This tends to make things more analog sounding. The Focusrite RED3 line amps also give stuff a nice analog sound. And I really like Slate's emulation of my Studer A80 tape deck.

I'm interested in what you think makes his mixes different from other top mixers. Anything you noticed over the years? - Kosmokrator

Andy is just one of the most dedicated mixers I've ever worked with. He takes his work very seriously and expects everyone around him to have the highest level of professionalism.

He's also one of the nicest people in the world. That's unusual for people of his stature.

His mixes speak for themselves, and it's always fun when I get to master them.

How often and for what reasons do you use any type of M/S processing? Do you use any other type of widening process? - Ericmixer

I don't recommend M/S processing because it changes the whole spectrum of the mix. Mixers tend to not like it when you mess with their balances. There are times when it does work, but usually if I hear a problem with the stereo image, I'd rather talk to the mixer about it than use M/S processing.

I would like to know what is/was your approach/set up for cutting a record. - Jetam

It's almost impossible nowadays to master an album from analog tape in the analog domain. You need a special tape machine with preview heads. The way records are made these days, it's very rare that one set of EQs will work for a whole record. It can be done though, and when it is, it's magical.

I am curious if you check master mixes on "real world" speakers or Headphones to see how they translate from serious mastering monitors to more of an end user domain. - Andrewskee

I have a pair of Advent Powered 570's. They are fantastic sounding small speakers and give me a great real world reference. They sound a lot like a car stereo. As for Headphones, sometimes I'll check on earbuds.

For years, I've used The Chili Peppers' "Blood Sugar..." when I set up my monitors--something about mixes like "Suck My Kiss" just really makes it easy for me to tell what's going on with highs and lows in a room (I think I'm not the only one who feels that way about this album). - DanGo

For RHCP BSSM, it was recorded in less than perfect conditions in a studio built into a house. This was the 90's.. and people were not doing that. It's quite common now.

I remember tweaking that record a LOT. It needed a ton of top end and mids. But once that was added, the record became magic.

I played in a couple of bands that had our albums mastered by you in New York. On both occasions I noticed that the first copy you would send us would sound slightly light. We asked if it was ok for another go on it and then we would get back this "magical sound" that I think is one of your signatures across many of your albums...Is there a specific bit of or combination of hardware or software equipment that you use to get that finished album sound? - 23onibaba

The first pass was probably slightly light because perhaps we didn't define the direction. The best masters are usually the second or third pass when you get to really know what the client wants.

I don't think that this is a matter of certain gear being used, but more about knowing your client's needs.

How do you decide how far to go with "loudness"? - Narcoman

Generally speaking, all the best mixers compress their mixes and it's a big part of their sound. That means getting them louder is easier. Keep in mind, their mixes aren't squashed, but compressed professionally. Tape saturation can also help.

As far as how loud? You go as far as you can without screwing up the mix. At some point you get it perfect. I can get stuff pretty loud without messing with the original mix balances. Try to see how far you can go without distortion.. maybe go over the top first and slowly back it down.

There have been many occasions where I make it sound really great but then the producer, band, label, or manager says they want it louder. My response: "I don't recommend it".

Can you take a minute to talk about certain frequency areas that are either important for certain reasons (say for broadcast, mp3 conversion, vinyl, things like that) and also ones that are across the board important for clarity or richness. - GreenNeedle

There are frequencies that I feel make records really come alive. It's more midrange stuff, but you have to be careful. 800Hz to 3kHz is really important. But you can't go too far or it gets strident.

Lows you just go by feel. 50Hz to 120Hz is great but you gotta have monitors that reveal what's going on down there or your mixes actually become smaller sounding.

Highs are very subjective. Some people like bright records, some people hate em. So for that, I go by what the client says.

I don't master records for a certain format like mp3 or broadcast. That's dangerous. I just make them sound great.

A while ago you mastered a dance project I worked on as a mix engineer. You did a great job (as expected). But what I want to know: the 2-4k range sounds excellent on practically all your work. It's strong, powerful but never harsh. Any advice for mixers? - Joram

I like to concentrate on midrange because that's where so much energy and excitement is. I'd also add that it goes all the way up to 8kHz. Focusing in this area keeps the records exciting.

Can you share what equipment and techniques you used to master Muse's Black Holes and Revelations? - Soft-shoe

Same equipment I used in my answer here on Slayer mastering. That Muse record was unusual and had a lot of mixes because Rich Costey would do some re-tweaking after I mastered some tracks. That's a really good example of a mixer and a mastering guy working together during the mixing process to get some really amazing results. It also helps that the band is amazing.

For volume, I liked the sound of pushing into the DCS converters which clip really well. BTW, the record was also mixed to 1/2" tape which already gave it some loudness due to the tape saturation. I didn't have to clip it much. Now I use the Antelope Eclipse converters because they sound great, have a great clock, have a neutral sound, and clip really well.

It's important to know that I monitor through the converter so I can EQ into the clipping so I can compensate for what the clipping does.

I think you've done some OUTSTANDING masters over the years. I've also seen a few be remastered to be the modern hot and blah sound. As someone so dedicated to things sounding good, how does that kind of thing make you feel? - CoreRec

Obviously I need to be diplomatic here, but there are some very large projects that have been remastered by people other than me and the consensus is that it didn't get better, but worse. I try to make sure that the clients have me remaster any original work that I did. I just remastered the re-release of the Pantera stuff and I kept the original sound but added a bit of a modern touch with 2013 technology.

How do you work with your human perception? How does your brain tell you what and when you have to focus on and/or decide? - JohnnyReverb

Practice makes perfect. After you've done 2000 + records with every genre from hip hop to metal, your brain just knows exactly what buttons to push and what not to push.

When you were starting out in mastering what was the best advice you got and who did it come from? - Mmarra

I started out delivering packages at Masterdisk. I then began to assist Bob Ludwig. In those days, Bob would do a session during the day and would write down all his notes on a card and then I'd come in in the evening and reproduce them 100%. It taught me exactly what goes through Bob's mind when he was mastering.

The best advice I got was to be nice to everybody. Some clients when I first started out where nobody's and nobody gave them respect other than me. But then these clients became some of the biggest artists and producers in the business and it really helped my career.

I've seen lately that you've switched to PMC speakers which must be a blast to work on. I recall that you were using Altec or Urei speakers in the past and was curious what models those were as well as the model of the KRK's that you use. - Audio X

To be honest, speakers are all about knowing them. The reason I liked the big Altecs is because I started on them and every record mixed in the 60's and 70's tended to use a horn speaker. Altecs were actually quite accurate but not a lot of fun. The PMC's are also accurate but are much more fun to listen to.

I've used all different kinds of amps like Brystons. The KRK's I use are the original 7000's and 6000's.. two of the best bookshelf speakers ever made. They used all Focal drivers and tweeters back then.

I wondered if you have a preferred sample rate to work in? - Zinomikorey

I usually work at 24/96kHz. I don't have to upsample because it goes into the converter and into my system at 96kHz.

I don't think the sample rate will have an effect on clipping.. Clipping sound is due to the converter and is related to how your mix balance is going into the converter. As a footnote, when I master a 24/96 record, the client gets an exact mirror image of what went through the analog chain. It gets captured perfectly.

How do you get mixes to have great, clear high end without it being ear splitting? Do you use multiband compression? Desesser? - Chris Hesse

It's not really gear that makes the high end a certain way, it's experience that tells me how to push it or pull it out.

Just curious if your RED 3 had any mods done to it or if it was the version with the input transformers. Any preferred settings that you generally use? - Soft-shoe

I have one with the input transformer and one without. They sound the same and it's because the output transformer really gives it the character. I do have a preferred setting that I found by accident. What you do is you put it on key input and just use it not for compression, but just as a line amp pushing the output transformer. What I found is that the line amp stage seems to saturate a bit but it also comes out really punchy and loud without sounding squashy. It's not for everything but for a lot of stuff it sounds great and doesn't change the overall character.

I told Slate about this since he is doing a plugin version of the RED3 (VBC) and he said that he has that exact line amp sound modeled on a knob so I'm excited to hear it.

Getting the right gap between songs seems to be a lost art. Do you have any rules or philosophies when it comes to song spacing that you would like to share with us? - BillSimpkins

Keep it flowing. Sometimes loud songs against loud songs sound best with a tight gap.. after soft songs some space is nice. Eight seconds is ridiculous!
There is no rule. It's all about feel.

Just interested to know if you think there is a big difference between mastering plugins and mastering outboard gear? specifically buss compressors and bus eq's. - Focalpress

I'm just getting into plugins now. I started believing in them a year ago when Slate modeled my Studer tape machine and it sounded exactly the same so now I have faith. I don't currently use compressor or eq plugins but I'm not ruling it out for the future. I know my Sontec Eqs so well and I have a workflow that I've been doing for decades so it might be hard to adjust. We'll see!

I'd love for you to comment on your work on Jeff Buckley's Grace. - Sam Watson

Jeff was a very demanding artist and showed up to all the sessions. He was very involved in the process as well as Andy Wallace, who not only mixed the record but produced it too.

Again, this album was a great artist, great producer, great mixer, great mastering engineer = great results!

Is there an album that you didn't do anything to, sonically speaking? - Haryy

First rule: Know your client. Some clients really want a heavy handed approach to eq and compression. Others want it very light and just want their mixes to translate.

Usually when I'm working with the big mixers such as Costey, Maserati, Brauer, Wallace, Baumgardner, CLA, TLA etc etc.. the mixes are pretty much dead on. Might need a minor tweak here or there and then they are perfect.

How often do you (re)calibrate your room? How much were you involved with acoustical treatment of your studio in CA and at what point, if at all, do you delegate that responsibility to the acoustician? - RedTuxedo

Steven Slate and George Augsperger built this room and it is the best sounding room I've ever heard, and I've been doing this for 35 years. I've never had a room sound so good so fast. I put my speakers where I thought they should go, and they sounded incredible. That's the sign of a well designed room. End of story.

Jack White is notorious for being extremely 'old-school' in his approach to making records. I was wondering if this mentality ever reached into the mastering process... would he insist on certain methods or "deny" the use of certain types of gear, for example, to attain what he wanted? How much of an influence did he have over the final product once it was in your hands? - Whitecat

Jack White is the master of the analog domain. All of his stuff comes in on 1 inch or 1/2" tape. He loves Ampex ATR machines. Jack is very hands on when it comes to mastering and he attends all the sessions. He loves records with a big ass bottom, so that's what I gave him. I think he was happy.

Can you please tell us about the mastering of the Slayer album Reign In Blood? - Rune Rask

For Slayer I was at Masterdisk in NYC. I had a Neumann Console, DCS 902 Converters, Neumann and Sontec EQs, Tape machine was Studer 820 with Cello Electronics...but none of this is what makes that record sound the way it does. Andy Wallace mixed that record and that means that I didn't have to do much!! Just push play and the earth moves!