INTERVIEW: Streaky Gee – ‘From Dark Art to Leading Light’

With a client list that boasts such artists as Taio Cruz, Sheryl Crow and Kasabian, Streaky Gee has garnered a reputation as one of Europe’s leading mastering engineers. This week he caught up with Audio Pro International editor Daniel Gumble to take a look at how the mastering landscape has changed during his 20 years in the industry…

What are the main differences you have seen in tracks presented for mastering over the past few years when compared to the ’90s?

In the early ’90s there were few bands who recorded a lot at home. Most would hire a large studio and engineer, whilst home recording was limited to samplers and midi software. The quality of the master tapes coming from these studios was of a much better quality as engineers were trained and used their ears and meters more without looking at waveforms too much. 

The master tapes were on either quarter-inch tape or DAT, which meant that when you were putting the mix down you would watch the levels on the meters and it wouldn’t hit the reds. This then meant that, by today’s levels, mixes would be averaging around -5 db on PPM meters, which is the perfect way to present mixes to the mastering engineer. It leaves the peaks and dynamics in place for the engineer to sculpt and not fight the mix.

Now that the barrier to entry is super low, there are a lot more people making music, which is creatively a good thing. Anybody can be a writer/producer/engineer etc…This has put more emphasis on the final stage of mastering; having a fresh pair of ears to listen to the final mix on large full range speakers. 

With new recording techniques and ITB plugins it’s easier for engineers to get away with recording errors. This was harder when you needed to record using a large mixing console connected to outboard via various lead types and sync boxes etc. These errors have a knock on effect on the mastering stage, as mixes are presented overly compressed with limiters strapped onto the mix bus to get them loud. I find this particularly with dance/urban producers who are making tracks in basic programmes like Fruity Loops, Reason and Garage Band and find themselves mixing as they produce, leaving no headroom to finish the process. On the flip side, some of the mixes I get now are also very clean and tidy with no excess noise, which makes life easier when you are having to push for level whilst keeping the dynamics in place.

Can you get a good quality master from plugins?

Yes, I think in moderation, and in the right hands, some plugins can sound good. I’m yet to see a major league mastering engineer go totally ITB like the mix guys have, but some limiters and eqs sound ok. Newer analogue mastering outboard and convertors are so quiet that noise isn’t an issue, so going out of the box and adding some real world juice via tubes and wires etc really does give something special to the mix that I’m yet to hear from a mastering plugin.

With modern mastering plugins, such as Ozone and T Racks, can you master your own material?

Personally I’ve never been able to master tracks I’ve made – not due to ability or equipment – but it’s the way you listen to music when you master compared to recording or mixing.

I’m listening to the whole veneer of the mix and not the way the parts sound individually or to the balance of levels as you do when mixing. If you can switch your head to listen in both ways then the plugins will get you in the ball park. I find people that are used to mixing go really over the top with the settings. For example, if you are adding some top in a mastering situation you probably wouldn’t add more than 2db in gain, but in mixing you could go +6db in the same area, which would then make you need to compensate in the low end and then suddenly you are in a circle of adding more and more and more. I’ve heard some great results from dance guys using these plugins, as electronic music is more forgiving to extreme eq/compression settings, but it’s easy to use the presets and over cook it; yes it’s loud, but does it still move?

A number of online mastering studios have appeared over the last ten years. What advice would you give to those searching around for the right place?

Yes, mastering used to be mainly ordered by the record company, creating the ‘black art’ tag. Many artists didn’t really get that involved, but with more people creating their own sound in home studios, mastering has become more in demand and important then ever. There is now a plethora of mastering options, from guys in their bedrooms with a bunch of plugins, to all the main mastering studios offering the online option.

My advice would be pick your best track, then don’t think about the cost, as the most expensive mastering engineers will master unattended for around £100 per track and will usually do deals on multiples. This isn’t a great deal of money to spend on the final stage of your track to make it sound finished and get some mix feedback at the same time. You’ve come this far, why ruin your track now. 

So without the cost factor how do you narrow it down? I would first look at your favourite albums, see if there is a pattern to who the mastering engineer was. Speak to other artists for recommendations; look at the client list and the equipment (look for high quality outboard eqs compression and full range big speakers) and then experience. Ask for a sample master. Some of the big guys might not give you a sample due to being too busy, but most will. Then you can compare the results and opt for the best for your mixes.

Do you eq differently now due to loudness requirements than you needed to 20 years ago?

Definitely. When you are pushing the mix into limiters you need to eq differently to be able to get the openness, whilst keeping the required level. I use loads of small touches on a few bits of equipment to create suitable gain changes, so I’m not just using a limiter or compressor to do all the heavy lifting, as that never sounds good and you can end up with a flat sound, which becomes very tiring and boring. I also use more tube/creamer-sounding equipment than I used to, as this adds back some feel, which can be missing if the mix mix has been totally ITB.

Has the finished sound changed over the years?

Yes, mixes are down around 10db to when I first started mastering. The loudness war wasn’t in full swing, so everything was very dynamic, which was pleasant. I’ve noticed in the past few years that people are getting over that now and are looking for more dynamic warmer sounding finishes.

Some of the best new music genres have grown out of that loud sound, like drum ‘n’ bass, dub step and dance music, so that sound will no doubt always be touching on the super loud, heavy low-end with sharp mids and tops. I’ve tried mastering these kinds of tracks leaving loads of dynamics without getting them loud and they tend to sound flat and boring.

With everything going online, are you seeing a reduction in attended sessions is this a good thing?

Around 70 per cent of my sessions are now un-attended. I think this is mainly due to budgets, as attended work is always charged by the hour and there aren’t many open ended budgets in the European music industry these days. There are some major pluses of not attending the session, as you can listen to the mix on your own speakers so you’ll make better judgements, enabling you to make changes quicker than to keep re-booking the studio. Personally I think it’s good to meet, discuss and work together to create the final stage, but if this isn’t possible due to being in different locations etc, then this can be easily be done via Skype or iPhone.

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