Vlado Meller on a career in mastering

Mastering has become almost unrecognisable from how it was in the 1960s, but according to pro-audio veteran Vlado Meller, it’s "more important than ever." Here, he shares his views on this sector of the industry and the moves he made that took him to the top. 

When I began my career in the music business in 1969, things could not have been more different than they are today. I landed a job with a major label – CBS Records – which was an incredible opportunity for me to get introduced to the music business, especially for an immigrant looking for any job they can get. And, aside from great pay, my first role as a studio technician allowed me to witness firsthand the biggest artists of the period, such as Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand and countless others coming in and out of the studio.

After a year as a CBS Records studio technician, I wanted to get in to a more challenging job at the studio, so I jumped at the first opening the mastering department had, despite mixing being regarded as more glamorous. The job came with full salary and benefits, with complete training by seasoned CBS Records mastering engineers. That kind of opportunity just does not exist in today’s world.

Today it’s all on the Internet, and a lot of the instructions are shallow, flimsy and not created by mastering engineers. Even in today’s best music schools, mastering is only an afterthought in their curriculum. Since the labels and studios are now all separate entities, there are different producers and mixing engineers for each project, making it much harder for mastering engineers to compete in an industry that is so enormous and diverse. Today, experience and your discography are more important than ever. Additionally, home production has become much more prevalent, and the quality of those recordings can fall anywhere on the spectrum from tremendous to mediocre.

It’s crucial for mastering engineers to be completely objective and have a wealth of experience to rely on so the clients can go back and mix or record their songs differently, so they are ultimately happy.

Technically speaking, the changes between the 1960s and today have been enormous. The early days were all about razor blade editing and analogue. Two-track masters were delivered to mastering engineers and their job was to cut the best sounding vinyl for a client. The physical limitations of vinyl, tape, analogue EQs, processing and razor editing were very challenging.

Recording, mixing, editing and mastering are now mostly done digitally, and it’s opened a new world of creative possibilities for everyone involved. Given the way people consume their music these days, we now prepare the files for every different format: CD, iTunes, HD tracks, DVD surround, TV broadcast, etc. Depending on to whom the final files will be delivered, we master in high-res 96kHz/24-bit and even higher when required.

Consumers are now able to purchase and download full high-res albums – the way it was recorded, without the need for additional data compression like AAC or MP3, which wasn’t possible several years ago. With all of this, today’s mastering engineers face a constant and steep learning curve because of the always-evolving technologies being used and built upon.

How times have changed

Regardless of how up-to-date an engineer is on the latest technologies, there are some ways in which the industry today is unequivocally much easier to be involved in. For example, in the 1960s I never could’ve dreamed of working on records by the biggest artists of the day from somewhere like Charleston, South Carolina, where I now live and work.

The old studio system, in which the labels and studios were all intertwined in a central location, has completely gone out the window, and my partners and I realised several years ago that there was nothing keeping us attached to New York City or any other major metropolitan area for that matter. Everything is sent electronically, from demos to mixes to masters, so we could be set up literally anywhere (and frankly a whole lot of money has been saved by getting out of New York).

What I’m especially proud of in Charleston are the three-day workshops geared towards audio engineering professionals that I’ve been hosting for the last several years. There is absolutely nothing more valuable than first-person experience passed on from others, and after decades of successful experience in this industry, I’m more concerned about the next generation of mastering engineers, because this is something you can’t learn from a book – you need to have a kind of apprenticeship to develop your ear and learn about the techniques, hardware, software, plug-ins and approach to master whatever genre of music comes your way. No book, manual or YouTube video will teach you that. The workshops are small and personal with students from all over the world, and working with them has been one of the true highlights of my career.

Outside of all of the technical aspects we cover in my workshop, the best advice I could give to young mastering engineers is to take on any type of project, whether it’s classical or rock or pop or hip-hop, and take on as many as possible. After more than 40 years of this, I know that you will not get anywhere if you are afraid of tackling certain genres and sounds, and it’s why I’m proud to have ongoing experience working with everyone from Pink Floyd, Lil Wayne and Barbra Streisand to Metallica, Michael Jackson and Kanye West.

Mastering is more important than ever, because of the way the albums are recorded and mixed these days. Every artist wants the best possible sound for their album and they are the ultimate judge of mastering engineers’ work. I’m proud to say I’ve delivered exactly what they want, year after year – there is nothing better than to see a happy client coming back for more. Looking back on that early crossroads I faced decided between mixing and mastering, I couldn’t be happier with the path I took.