Interview: ROB SMALL

This week, we wanted to shed light on mastering and tell you about the hard work going on behind scenes. So, we’ve had a chat with Rob Small, one of the most popular mastering engineers at the moment. Enjoy..

Let’s start with a little introduction. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your business? 

Let me start by saying thank you for having me on for this interview.

Originally, I was a Dj & producer for many years leading up starting Rob Small Mastering. I produced & recorded a lot for artists long before I released my own stuff, maybe because I was quite shy and didn’t feel comfortable releasing my own material. I then started releasing my own bits that took off quite quickly which paved the way for the opportunity to Dj all over the world alongside some amazing artists, as well as releasing music on labels which really helped get my name out there back in early to mid 2000’s. After releasing quite a lot of music and mastering most of it myself, I would often be contacted later down the line by the same labels that had released my music asking for my mastering on their next release. After a short space of time I found myself working for many labels & artists so it made sense to launch the company – now well over a decade ago.

Of course, we continue with Covid-19. The electronic music industry has been significantly affected by the pandemic. What do you think of the long-term changes in the industry?

This is a tough one to answer because there are many opinions on this and what the long-term affect will be; whether that be for venues, the fans/punters and of course the artists. Honestly, I don’t think any of us really know? We’re still a long way off what could be considered a ‘normal’ show/gig (especially in the UK) and I think that until some kind of mid-scale event’s have been put on (where we don’t have to sit at tables and we can actually dance!), then we won’t know the proper affects and changes on the industry. For me, there are so, so many questions that can’t possibly be answered yet; will artist fees be affected? Will promoters pay more to get a big headline act on to get the crowds back in, or, will the local up & coming talent be given more opportunities to play at venues until we open up to full scale and until funds can be gathered to get the big artists back on? Will big artists reduce their fees to help venues and the industry as a whole get back on its feet? Will many punters even be bothered about attending a huge artist show for a while and will they just be happy to finally get out there, dance and appreciate the venue, the music and the performer for the first year or so? Will entrance fees be increased? Will rapid Covid testing be enforced before entry and how will promoters and door staff apply this without having a 10-mile queue for the venue? How will social distancing be properly implemented into a club environment, and with that in mind, how long will this go on for? Can venues even consistently run at a certain capacity every week yet afford to cover all costs without increasing their prices on drinks, door tax etc.? We just don’t know, yet. From an engineering & artist liaising perspective; over the pandemic, I’ve enjoyed seeing a lot of artists take more control over their productions in terms of their final platform for releasing it and it’s also been great to see labels keep up to releasing music as well as up their game in terms of A&R and quality control. I’ve worked on some amazing music over the last 12 months and I think that artists are feeling more creative rather than feeling forced into making material that is aimed solely for the dance floor or a specific label. I’m hoping this will be a long lasting thing…

Many businesses have been hit badly by the pandemic. How is your business affected? Many artists seem to be busy in their studio, making the most of this situation. Have you seen an increase in the volume of music coming through? 

Back in March 2020, the studio had a very small drop in work for about a week. I think this was due to the shock of what was happening to everyone. Then the amount of requests that were being submitted was off the scale, due to as you said – artists being at home and producing so much. Literally far too much for me to even consider taking on. There is only me taking care of the mastering duties in the studio so I can only do so much. I am now in my 17th year of mastering & engineering and RS Mastering is into it’s 11th year of business so I’ve got quite a few clients and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to stay consistently busy throughout the pandemic with no effect on the business; I feel blessed for that. I know of many studios that have been forced to close through a drop of business as well as having steep & unaffordable overheads with no support, and my heart genuinely goes out to them. I’m very fortunate to be able to own my studio complex with no overheads as I had a studio & office custom designed and built back in 2017 at my home, so I was able to stay on site, stay open and continue to work in a Covid compliant way without having to worry too much about overheads. Again, I do feel incredibly fortunate to be in this position (although it’s still hard work!).

You are one of the most popular mastering engineers and very strict when it comes to sound, how did you get to this level? 

I work ridiculously hard, often starting at 5am every day and finishing late most evenings, and take what I do extremely seriously. I have a strict no-nonsense approach towards sonics with artists and clients. This isn’t my hobby, this is my life, and I treat all creativity the same as I treat my work. So I’m honest, sometimes brutally honest. I’m not here to tell you what you want to hear. I’m here to help get your creations sounding the best they can be, and with that comes proper, strict feedback. I won’t just master anything; it has to be right from the start and if it’s not right then I feel that I have an obligation as your engineer to let you know. In mastering; what goes in is hugely relevant to what comes out, so if it’s not sounding right going in then the end mastering result will often highlight this. I would like to think that I have a lot of experience in what I do and having a background as a producer and Dj also helps, so I’ve heard pretty much everything there is to hear and I know how a record should sound. Mastering is the final 10% to 15% of the overall sound of the track. It’s not a magic wand that will turn a piece of music into something it’s not, and I make no false promises as to what the end result will be. If you let me know as to what the intention of the record is and if the source material doesn’t have those attributes or characteristics, then I’ll let you know. Dialogue is key to getting the best result possible, and I feel this has been key to my success of the years.

Please tell us how producers should get ready when preparing a mix for mastering. What is the preferred format, bit depth, sample rate? Why? Is there a maximum (peak or RMS) overall mix level you prefer?

The usual method is quite basic and simple; first, switch off any kind of plugin processing which you may have on the master output. It might sound ok-ish with it on, but the mastering just enhances everything that has been applied and most of time just sounds nasty once it’s been enhanced, so a nice blank canvas approach is usually the best way to start. Then I like to request around -6dB’s peak headroom, which means you may have to keep all channels in the mix out of the red and also keep your master volume channel really low until the actual peak of the master volume signal is hitting around -6dbs. This ensures that there are no peaks clipping past unity (0dB). Once a peak clips past 0dB; then it’s gone, and we can’t get that back, so keeping those transients and peaks well below 0dB is always important so that we don’t lose any crucial audio content (that is unless the artist wants to clip the audio for that distorted sound, which is a different topic altogether). I like to have the premasters at 24bit and usually at a sample rate of 44.1khz. I like 24bit as I have a little more dynamic range & headroom to work with, and 44.1Khz because to put it really simply; sample rate measures to around half frequency. Humans only hear up to 20khz (max!) and sample rate essentially captures around half of its amount in Hz/Khz. So with 20khz being pretty much all we can hear; it makes sense to have a sample rate at 44.1k (20khz being around half of 44.1khz). Theoretically a higher SR will sound better but we have to ask if it’s really worth it if we can’t actually hear above the final Khz range? Audiophiles will argue that higher sample rates are always better; again, this is a discussion for another day. RMS levels differ depending on the energy in the mix and sometimes can tell the odd fib in relation to the final LUFs level, so just keep the headroom nice and open, keep the RMS and LUFs really low and we’ll be fine. 

What is your studio like? Do you have any favourite studio equipment?

My studio isn’t this big huge room with racks and racks of pointless gear. It used to be, but over the years I downsized and then had my new studio custom designed, built and properly acoustically treated with the help of iKoustic in Leeds (whom actually made a case study on the build for educational purposes) and the lovely guys at GIK Acoustics. I have a main mastering room, and then I have a referencing room adjacent to it. My main mastering room is pretty well kitted out with the tools I need. I have a pair of Kii Three mini-main monitors that are some of the best speakers I’ve ever heard under £20k. These are being fed from a Dangerous Music Recording system comprising of two Dangerous Convert-2 Converters, a Dangerous Convert AD+ for printing the analogue signal back into the CPU, and a Dangerous Monitor ST that I use as my main controller for the audio and switching. In my rack, I have 2x Pultec Style Tube Eq’s that have upgraded tubes from General Electric and Mullard. A Manley Massive Tube Eq for shaping and enhancing, a proper SSL G Series Compressor and also a G Series Clone (both sound very different!), a Shadow Hills Dual Vandergraph Compressor which is this small but really mighty beast, an SSL Fusion which I use for adding width and subtle tones through it’s analogue Eq and transformers, a Bax Eq, and a Tube Summing Mixer. This all get’s fed back into the CPU for final treatment with an array of software from the likes of UAD, Sony Oxford, Brainworx, Fabfilter etc. I had lots more gear at one point but it was more an obsession than anything so it didn’t serve much purpose. I sold a lot of it to help fund the new studio build back in 2017 and I then donated the rest of the gear to a local producer and I kept what I use daily. I find that learning the capabilities of a handful of amazing tools and using them daily is worth so much more than having racks upon racks of gear that barely get’s touched.

My referencing room is where I will sit and listen to more musical projects that aren’t fully for club use - usually albums. In there, I have a pair of Focal SM9’s which I’ll flick from normal to focus mode (helps replicate smaller home speakers), and I also have some small Genelecs, some Dali Speakers, and some more smaller Focal hi-fi speakers. I have the different speakers in there to simulate various home listening devices so I know what the material will sound like on different mediums. If something isn’t sounding quite right, I’ll make a note and go back to the mastering room and make a tweak, then play it back. I have everything linked on a server so I can walk from room to room and audition the material. The referencing room also has some comfy recliners so we can sit and playback the finished work and relax.

What would you recommend to artists when they are producing and mixing their tracks?

Music and production is very subjective so as an engineer you have to try and take the sound design into account. An artist may have mixed a track in a very specific way, and with that in mind it’s hard to advise on what to do and what not to do. I would probably revert back to the premasters not having masses of processing on the master channel as this is a time consuming issue that can also give a false sense of quality & refinement in the production stage, so keeping that channel free of any really harsh tonal shaping would be something I’d suggest. But, my biggest advice in terms of producing the best mix possible would start with sorting the room out. By this, I mean treat it properly, not with foam, but with proper acoustic treatment to the best of your budget. Get the right speaker size for the room; nothing too big & booming in the low end for the room size and nothing too thin and unresponsive in the overall stereo spread and frequencies, and get the best converters (audio interface) that you can afford. If you get this right then trust me, your mixes will literally fall into place. You simply cannot mix or adjust something you can’t hear and unless you get the above fundamental things correct, then you’ll be forever trying to fix something you can’t hear and fighting a losing battle – it’s that simple (but sadly, not cheap!). Even very basic room correction tools from the likes of Sonarworks can make a huge difference along with some basic treatment to the room etc.

Online mastering has become very popular at the moment. We’ve tried this service and compared with your mastering, and the difference is massive. Do you think online mastering could ever work or old-school is always the best way?

Personally, I feel that unless human emotion is somehow inserted into the algorithm of online mastering, then it can never replace the work of a talented human engineer. Music, whether it be listening to it, producing it, mixing or mastering it is based on emotion. We’re connected to music and our creations on a very emotive level, and there’s no algorithm that can replicate that just yet. Will online mastering ever work? Maybe in many years when A.I is at a level where it can make decisions based on emotion. It’s just not there yet…

How do you feel about the Loudness War, is this finally coming to an end? We hear more and more dynamic records these days.

It’s still here, albeit only in certain genres, but even then the artists wanting that super loud sound are starting to understand that super-loud comes with a compromise to the sonics. I personally feel that making things super loud is just pointless. There is a gain knob on a Dj-mixer for a reason, and adding a couple of dB’s to the gain knob is worth SO much more than trying to squeeze an extra 2dB’s out of a master and pushing the material way past it’s loudness potential in the process. A dynamic master will always sound better compared to a pushed master when they’re played side-by-side and a/b referenced at the same volume.