Next Generation Spotlight: Stephen Kerrison

Audio Media International, in association with Genelec, presents the latest in our Next Generation Spotlight interview series. Today, we hear from mastering engineer and studio owner, Stephen Kerrison…

What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Stephen Kerrison and I’m a mastering engineer. I run Tall Trees Audio Mastering in Liverpool, UK.

What inspired you to get into studio work?
I’ve been involved in music in one way or another for as long as I can remember, both as a prolific gig goer and as a recording and touring artist in my own right. I love the thrill and joy of playing live and I’m privileged to have played all around the UK, Europe and beyond. I always thought that my life would lead me to constantly being on the road, but as you grow, things change don’t they?

I met my wife, (who is a creative artist) in 2012 and since then we have slowly morphed our lives and grown together. We now have a dog and a one-year-old baby, so I don’t feel like I want to be apart from them for long stretches of time, as you have to when touring. It came as quite a shock to fall out of love with touring, as it’s all I thought I’d ever want to do.

When I made the decision to stop pursuing touring as a musician, I knew that I had to replace it with something else. I have always been passionate about music to an obsessive degree; I listen to music constantly, and have done my whole life so I couldn’t imagine it not being a major part of my life. I was agonising about this crisis over a coffee with a friend one afternoon and after talking through what I enjoyed about music, what I wanted my daily life involving it to look like etc, he suggested out of the blue that he thought I would make an excellent mastering engineer. 

My role in previous musical collaborations had often been that of someone honing and crafting the song, working collaboratively to optimise the song’s best features. I figured that my strengths as an arranger and my ability to see the bigger musical picture amidst the regular chaos of collaborative writing would serve well as transferrable skills, not to mention the amount of time in studios I’d spent over the years. Plus, this meant that I wouldn’t have to be away from home all the time, so I decided to start looking into what it would actually take to learn to master records professionally. 

For the next couple of years I completely immersed myself in learning, took every course I could find, read every book on the subject I could find, listened to endless podcast interviews with mixing and mastering engineers and, probably most importantly, practiced every single day on unmastered mixes I’d scoured the internet for. Around that time an opportunity came up to let a premises that would serve as a great studio space, so myself and a couple of friends took the plunge, built our own studio, and from there I started Tall Trees Audio Mastering.

Tell us about your route into the industry?
Having been a musician for so long I’d inevitably made some great friendships with a whole bunch of excellent musicians along the way, so when I felt confident enough to get started I asked a handful of them if they’d be happy to trust me with mastering their latest records, on the proviso that if they didn’t like what I did then there was no pressure to use it. This meant that I could not only practice on actual real-world releases, but also gain experience with communicating with artists about what they were looking to achieve from the mastering process and work to a brief, rather than just what sounded good to me, which was an invaluable learning curve. 

As my capabilities as a mastering engineer grew, before long I started to be contacted to work on a few more ‘higher profile’ releases, albums that would be released on multiple formats, songs that would more than likely be played on the radio, things like that. 

Because I come from a very DIY background, terms like ‘the industry’ have slightly elastic meanings to me. I never really think about being ‘in’ the industry, all I really care about is making sure the artist that has trusted me with their hard work is super happy and confident that their music sounds as great as it possibly can before it’s released into the world. Because I’m from that background myself I know exactly how much of yourself you have to give to create good music so I have nothing but the utmost respect for the art form and the people who create it.

Tell us about some of the key projects you’ve worked on over the past 12 months?
I’ve mastered two releases for Moshi Moshi Recordings this past year, the debut album by Doomshakalaka and an EP for Roxy Girls, both of which I enjoyed working on immensely. I mastered Luke Mawdsley’s debut solo album for Maple Death Records which is genuinely one of the most extraordinary albums I’ve ever heard, so to be trusted with the final master of that felt like a real honour. I got the chance to master a one-off, extremely limited 7” single by Stef Kett, who had been one of my favourite guitarists for many years, so again, an honour really. 

Quite recently I was asked to master a single by Michael Malarkey, who’s probably most famous as an actor in the US but is also a prolific musician it turns out, and I really enjoyed that. I tend to work a lot with relatively left-field stuff, a lot of experimental music (which I obviously love), so to work on something really organic and classic sounding was great fun, really satisfying.

I find I get really emotionally connected to nearly every project I do, even if it’s just a single but especially albums. Again, it comes down to the respect thing, the last thing I’d want to do is just feel like I’m churning out masters like a conveyor belt.

What is your approach to work in the studio?
I generally work alone (apart from my dog, Pipe, who attends a lot of sessions), so initially mastering a record is just an extension of listening to music. I play some reference tracks, have a cup of coffee, then get into it. I like to get things in relatively good shape pretty quickly, then spend the rest of the time concentrating on the details. There’s a quote in Bob Katz’s book which says something like ‘the last 10 per cent of the job takes 90 per cent of the time’ and I think that’s about right. I don’t think a lot of people realise just how much of mastering is just admin!

Who/what have been some of your biggest influences in your career to date?
I’m really inspired by people who go against the idea that things have to be a certain way, just because they always  have been. Everything to do with the music industry is changing so, so fast, the way people listen to it and the way people make it. So the idea that despite that, in order for something to be done ‘properly’ means done in the same way it was done 30 years ago is absurd. 

From a mastering perspective, listening to Glenn Schick talk about how he masters not only 100 per cent digitally, but also 100 per cent on headphones, is unbelievably empowering. And no-one can say a word against it because his track record speaks for itself. 

Listening to interviews with Katie Tavini and Sara Carter where they talk about imposter syndrome and overcoming it, I found hugely inspiring at a time when I really needed to hear those things. I think the more I read and listen to other people working in this field, the more I’ve realised that the fears and anxieties you have, everybody has at some point. 

I genuinely believe that apart from the obvious technical things, there just aren’t any rules to any of this stuff and trying to fit in to an idea of how things ‘should’ be done is folly. Don’t get me wrong, you have to know your way around your equipment and spend time on your craft, but to me, mastering in particular is as much about mindset and philosophical approach than anything else, and no bit of gear is going to bring that for you.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the industry?
Well the flipside of how accessible everything is for people to just do everything themselves, means in order to get noticed you have to convince people that you’re more than just your gear, which is asking a lot of trust of someone. To stand out you have to be able to offer more than just the ability to use a compressor or whatever. Anyone can buy a copy of Ozone, so why shouldn’t people just do it themselves? Helping people understand why hiring a mastering engineer is a really wise investment for their music is a challenge in itself. 

As far as I’m concerned, communication is key – the more I communicate with artists about what they’re looking for in mastering, the better the results are and the happier everyone is, every single time. 

What projects do you have coming up?
There are a few exciting releases that I’ve mastered coming up on the horizon, but it’s certainly not my place to announce what they are before the artists and labels do, that would be breaking the ancient, sacred, unwritten mastering engineers’ code of course. My plan is to just keep doing what I’m doing, creativity is so important to the world and the fact that I can facilitate some of that creativity by ensuring it’s as top quality as it deserves to be is a life choice I’m extremely happy with.