Illustration: Joan LeMay.

Golden Ears: Realizing The Dream Of The Artist

Sarah Register & Mandy Parnell On The Importance Of Mastering And How They’ve Developed Their Ear

While even the most casual listener has probably heard the term ‘mastering’ thrown around, few people have a grasp on what the process really entails. Ultimately, mastering is the final step in the post-production process of completing a record, but even for a lot of musicians, things are still hazy about exactly what that constitutes. As experts in the field Sarah Register and Mandy Parnell tell it, that haziness is part of what makes the process so special. Register and Parnell have a combined experience of almost fifty years between them. Their insight into mastering reveals that, like any art form, it can take many shapes and sizes and will be distinctly different for each record — just as every album is a completely different piece of art.

Subjectivity is built directly into mastering, a huge part of which is essentially very careful listening. Think of mastering as the knife that smoothes frosting over a cake, filling in holes and evening out the space between songs until everything is equal and well-balanced. Without mastering, the volume levels on tracks can be wildly variant, and the sequencing of songs on an album might not have the right feel. One of the biggest things a mastering engineer brings to the table, though, is an outside perspective that the creators of the project might be too close to access. Unlike some of the more technical steps in the engineering process, there’s a decidedly therapeutic element to mastering.

“Our job is to try to realize the dream of the artist”
— Mandy Parnell

“Some artists need this process to let go in a sense,” Parnell said, a London-based mastering engineer with over three decades of experience, including founding and running her own independent studio, Black Saloon. “With some projects, the artistic teams might have been in the studio for as long as four years. The idea is that we bring a neutral set of ears to the table and a huge experience with lots of different styles of music, but psychology along with that experience. Really, our job is to try to realize the dream of the artist.”

Mandy Parnell, Mastering Engineer, in her London studio.

Sarah Register has been working as a mastering engineer in New York City since 2001, including a long stint at The Lodge and another at the Mastering Palace before founding her own company, Sarah Register Mastering. She acknowledges that many people find what she does to have a mysterious quality.

“To some artists, mastering is this mysterious thing that people have told them they have to do, otherwise ‘the record isn’t a record,’” Register said. “Essentially mastering can put you in a position to approach anything that’s not yet done. It’s your final opportunity to take the project from where it is to wherever it needs to go. Part of my job is to dig into the psychology of where things are at now, who has the creative say, and what needs to be done. So there’s a little initial therapy that happens to figure out what’s necessary.”

Sarah Register, at work in her NYC mastering studio. (Photo: Shervin Lainez.)

After getting the psychology behind a record down, both Parnell and Register note that their primary artistic desire as mastering engineers is to enhance the creative direction the artist is already going toward, remaining a neutral or ‘flat’ force in the process.

“I’m very much of the ethos that the less I do, the better,” Parnell said. “A lot of the clients I work with like that ethos; I will try to transfer the music and keep the integrity of what they’ve already got. If I feel there are issues, we might discuss it with them. So at that point we’re checking for phase, sibilance, or things like whether the sub-bass is too much. But if I’m going to change something, I really consider why I might do that, rather than just transferring flat.”

If there are problems with the mixes, or more intensive doctoring that needs to be done to the audio files, then mastering can drastically change how an album sounds in its final state. But both of these engineers indicate that their role is typically much more subtle.

“There’s a real conscience in knowing when to do very little” — Sarah Register

“You don’t want to just slap EQ or compression on to call it ‘mastered’ if it already sounds the way it needs to,” Register said, echoing Parnell’s ethos of less is more. “While sometimes mastering can call for a big change that takes the material from its initial vibe to something completely different, in other circumstances it can be nearly nothing, the lightest kiss, very minimal. And of course, often somewhere in between. But there’s a real conscience in knowing when to do very little.”

Sarah Register. (Photo: Shervin Lainez.)

The technical process for mastering files begins with transferring them from the artist’s hard drive into a mastering engineer’s Digital Audio Workstation — both Register and Parnell cite Sequoia as their current DAW of choice — and from there, engineers help determine sequencing, EQ levels, and optimization for playback across a variety of formats, including the new wild west that is streaming services.

Though she works in Sequoia now, Register has used three different DAWs during her sixteen year tenure as an engineer. “Currently my digital audio workstation is Sequoia, by a company called Magix,” she said. “I’ve moved through three main mastering DAWs during my career — starting with the classic Sonic Solutions, which I loved and stuck with for around twelve years, then on to Pyramix for the next few, and most recently Sequoia. Sequoia was a very conscious choice that I feel great about — it’s a wonderful tool for the way that I’m working right now. I’m proficient in a handful of other DAWs, but Sequoia is my choice for mastering at the moment.”

Parnell also sings the praises of Sequoia, adding that she often works on the SADiE multitrack audio platform as well, working with either of these applications in tandem with her playback system and analogue equipment.

“I have a playback system so that the artist can bring me anything from reel-to-reel tape through to WAV files off a computer system,” she explained. “And I end up using different software. I might use SADiE or Sequoia, which are specifically mastering platforms, or I might use Pro Tools or Logic. Some artists might send me their project on Logic or in Pro Tools which I’d then use as the playback. I use the Prism ADA-8XR converters, along with EAR (Esoteric Audio Research) 660 compressor limiters. I have an EMI transfer mastering console, an Inward Connections EQ and another Prism ADA-8XR converter. Then I capture it in either Sequoia or Sadie to process it all.”

For Parnell, who has worked at a number of different studios, having a single piece of gear that she’s used on pretty much every project is one way of tracing a constant in her own process. For her, that constant is the EAR compressor.

“I love the EAR equipment and the design of the EAR 660s,” she said. “I’ve used them my whole career. So if people look back over my whole career and name albums I’ve worked on in different studios, the most stable factor I suppose is the EAR 660s.”

Mandy Parnell, accepting her 2017 MPG Award for Mastering Engineer Of The Year. (Photo: Marc Sethi / Music Producers Guild.)

Although there has definitely been a shift toward enabling and engaging women on the technical side of the music industry, there remains a huge deficit of female engineers. As Parnell notes, the music industry isn’t the only place where women are struggling to be included.

“If you look at science in general, we lack a lot of women in the field,” she said. “So it’s about educating. We’ve been gearing things towards teenage and young women, which I think is actually too late. I think we need to educate earlier. I recently met some women working in different Nordic countries, who have been going into schools and teaching girls at the age of seven about music and technology. It’s not something that girls really see very much of, women in a technical capacity. We have a lot more women coming in to the field, female engineers in their twenties.”

Register also thinks that things have certainly improved over the course of the last two decades or so. When she began, she remembers being aware of as few as five female mastering engineers.

“When I started in 2000, over the first few years I was circumstantially thrust very quickly into this upper echelon of mastering engineers, and to my memory there were maybe five women in the world you could count doing that kind of work at the time, including myself,” Register remembers. “Seventeen years later, it’s sort of hard for me not to think in terms of abundance, as I personally know tons of women working in this field. And I think young women could use some abundance thinking.”

Register also gives some advice that’s a little more practical about taking care of yourself in a super competitive industry. After years of working at the very intensive level she does, her advice boils down to self-care.

“Make sure your health and happiness are protected in the things that you do,” she said. “Which isn’t to say that you should be a slacker, or not work hard, or expect things for nothing. You should be bringing incredible value to the table, even if just starting as an intern — find ways to make yourself useful! I’m all about hard work and going above and beyond. But for some, the more you lean into that kind of overworking/superlative behavior, that’s also a kind of person who can more easily be manipulated or taken advantage of. There’s not an attitude in the music industry of making sure you stay healthy and take care of yourself. I’m still working on that one for myself, but it’s definitely something I would say to younger people to keep in mind.”

But, for those genuinely and deeply interested in pursuing a career in mastering, there’s one simple step that both of these engineers cannot emphasize enough: Listen to a lot of music.

“Just listen to loads of music,” Parnell said. “Not just music that you’re working on in the studio. That’s something when I’m training my assistants that I expect, they need to listen to a lot of music. I joke and say that we have to do our homework. It’s very easy to get lost inside your own bubble, and stop referencing. Instead, compare what you’re doing to references, take a lot of breaks, and listen to a lot of different genres.”

This content is an initiative of Focusrite/Novation, whose ‘Women In Music Technology’ series spotlights women working in behind-the-scenes role. The aim is to inspire the next generation of women in music technology to reduce the gender imbalance in the music industry.