Studio Profile: Rare Tone Mastering Studio, Leeds

Rare Tone Mastering Ben PikeWhat do valves, rare outboard gear, a 1950’s vinyl cutting lathe and Leeds have in common? The answer is Rare Tone Mastering, a bespoke mastering studio run by engineer and musician Ben Pike. Ben combines his love of analogue gear with his passion for helping people and as a result his independent West Yorkshire studio is attracting clients from all the world. We caught up with Ben to find out more about the studio, his approach to mastering, his favourite gear and much more.

What makes Rare Tone Mastering studio unique?

I like to think it’s the combo of amazing and rare analogue gear coupled with the level of personal service. I work very closely with all my clients to ensure the absolute best experience and end product possible. I encourage phone calls and conversation before I start the mastering process as I want to understand the artist and their vision as much as possible. If I’m responsible for the finishing touches on a piece of art, I want to know what’s going on inside the artist’s head. I also provide mix feedback and am available after the mastering process for any revisions, edits or help with uploading, vinyl pressing, online distributors etc. I like to think I make friends here at Rare Tone Mastering, not just clients.

Almost weekly I get people reaching out who have been to the large, famous studios and haven’t been able to actually email or speak to the person that has mastered their music, so I want to be the exact opposite. Music isn’t just a business for me, it’s my passion so I love talking to people about it. I think conversation and understanding help us to get the very best results possible.

What are your thoughts around software which automate the mastering process?

Despite my love of analogue gear, I’m still a big fan of digital plug-ins and software. There are some incredible processing tools available now but the only ones I’m wary of are the automatic ones. I don’t think AI is capable of sensing a mood and being able to translate that into a mastering process. For me, the most important thing is – how does the song make you feel? If it’s over-compressed, crushed into a limiter or EQ’d badly, an amazing song can fall flat and be less engaging to the listener. I regularly get contacted by clients who have tried these services and come to me for the human touch.

Rare Tone Mastering Studio

Podcasting is booming and the professional podcasts always perform better. How can you enhance spoken word audio that’s already been recorded?

It’s definitely important to get your podcasts sounding good. I’ve switched off many in my time due to bad sound. Being too quiet to hear in the car, too much hiss, distortion etc, can all detract from the message and focus of what you have to say.

The analogue and digital tools I have at my disposal can really enhance voice recordings. I have world class compressors and EQs that help level out volume, add warmth, cut out muddiness and add some sheen. I also have the latest digital processing which can remove pops and clicks, remove unwanted room noise or even get rid of wind noise from outdoor recordings.

For those who may not know, can you explain how you go about stem mastering.

Stem mastering is a great way to have a little more control over the final master. Instead of sending a finished mix as a stereo file the mix can be sent as several stems. For instance, a drum stem, vocal stem, guitar/synths stem and a bass stem. I can then treat each one individually to do a more detailed fine tune of the finished product.
A good example is being able to EQ the Kick drum and bass separately so the low end works well together. Or being able to compress certain parts of the mix differently to others.

You’ve got a live music background which is rare in mastering – how does that benefit the process?

My background is a bit of a mix. I actually started in the music tech side over 20 years ago with 7 years worth of academic courses in Recording & Studio Production from college up to Masters level. A keen guitarist since I was very young, I started playing gigs at Uni and a few years later started making my living playing live and in session for other people. I’m very lucky to have played gigs and festivals all over the world, on TV and lots of BBC radio sessions.

I think having the perspective of a working musician really helps in the translation of the material from initial mix to the final product. I like talking to my clients on the phone to get a really good gauge of their vision which helps me when I’m making my technical and creative decisions at the mastering stage. It also helps that I have a depth of knowledge in the release process, PR lead times, radio submission guidelines etc. So I’m always happy to help clients with that side of things.


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You’ve got a nice range of gear at Rare Tone Mastering studio – if you could pick one piece, what’s your favourite and why?

Haha, that’s not a fair question, at least give me a top 3! Seriously though, it’s all totally dependent on the material. Sometimes the hardest thing at my studio is to NOT use all my gear and only use what the song needs.

I use my UTA UnFairchild valve compressor on a lot of projects so that would probably be my desert island piece of gear but my Curve Bender EQ by EMI/Abbey Road is a very close second. I won’t bore you to death right now but If anybody wants to talk compressors give me a shout.

I’m also restoring a 1950’s Presto vinyl cutting lathe so I can offer my clients their very own vinyl, cut directly from their masters right here. It’s a difficult task right now but this may well become my favourite piece of gear… once I get it working!

Many artists starting out are unsure of getting their track mastered because they feel it isn’t ready – what would you say to that?

This is a great question and something I work really hard to try and communicate to new and first time clients. I would encourage all artists to reach out to a mastering engineer, we’re very friendly and always willing to help, problem solving is our whole game! I’m always happy to just listen to a mix and provide feedback to someone who gets in touch and this also allows someone new to the process to ask lots of questions and get better results.

You use Sennheiser and Audeze headphones in the studio – which do you use the most and for what specialism?

My Audeze LCD-X headphones are the main pair that I use daily. I like to think of them as a different perspective and something to check my work on after a bit of time listening on my main monitors. The bass response is amazing on the LCD-X’s so they’re extremely useful when checking the low end out. I think of headphones as my ‘audio microscope’. I work mainly from my monitors but I like to ‘zoom in’ on a specific frequency area sometimes if there’s anything I want a bit more clarity on.

What are the favourite projects you’ve worked on?

I don’t think I have any specific favourites, the thing I love most is the variety of music I get to work on. I recently worked on a concept album from The Intergalactic Brasstronauts who developed a project with help from the Arts council to raise money for a school in Rio De Janeiro. They have a massive brass section with a global ska-reggae sound. The album is done as one continuous piece so that was something really unique and challenging to work on. I had lots of planning so I could master the whole album in one take! I made changes live and in time with the music so it took quite a few takes but we got a great result. It’s had some really positive reviews and lots of radio play (I keep hearing it on BBC 6 music when I’m cooking my dinner) so I’d recommend that everyone checks it out!

Other than that I’ve had folk singer songwriters, Bassline DJs, heavy rock bands, Spoken word and 60s power pop from all over Europe, America and even Senegal & Cameroon in Africa. It’s really inspiring to work on such a wide variety of material.

Some of your work has recently ended up on cassette! Tell us more about that project

This was a great project. I’ve done quite a lot of cassette masters in the past year or so. I was approached by Just Step Sideways Records, a London based blog and DIY record label to master some releases. The cassette release came about partly due to the DIY nature of the release. The wait on vinyl is huge at the minute but cassettes are cheap and quick to turnaround so they’re the perfect format for small run releases. They definitely seem to be making a comeback recently!

Rare Tone Mastering Studio

Tell us more about Free Mastering Mondays and the work around that.

Free Mastering Mondays is a promotion I have been running during the pandemic to help out working musicians. I offer to master 1 free track for any artists who have any recordings made over lockdown. I want to help artists release music so they can recoup at least some of their income which has been decimated due to venue closures and cancelled tours. I know lots of people who have slipped through the cracks in government funding so I wanted to do my bit to help.

It’s been amazingly successful and I’ve lost count of the amount of songs I’ve done now. I’m really happy to be able to help out the arts community, especially independent musicians and artists. This will come to an end at some point but I’ve got ideas for more promos where I’ll offer different audio services for free so keep your eyes peeled for those!

Apple have joined the other streaming services in offering high-res streams instead of low bitrate tracks – this makes a good mix and master even more important now?

Yes definitely, artists put everything into their work so it’s great that streaming services are acknowledging the demand for high quality audio. We mastering engineers live and breathe this sort of stuff so we have a really good idea of how a track will sound when it’s being streamed and we can account for that during the process. We have tools that allow us to preview conversion codecs for the different streaming platforms so it’s more important than ever to leave your work with someone you can trust.