Trevor interviews mastering genius Bernie Becker

Posted: 05/05/2010 in Uncategorized
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In addition to being a great person, Bernie Becker is known as one of the top recording and mastering engineers in the world. He is the sound engineer, in the studio, and live concerts, for Neil Diamond. He also does the mastering for Trevor McShane. Here’s our visit with him at his beautiful, modern studio, Bernie Becker Mastering, in Pasadena, California.

TREVOR:            What is mastering?

BERNIE:            We take the tracks that have been recorded and mixed, the final songs and we’ll put them the sequence if one may not exist to that point, then we’ll look at the level of each song, and the EQ (equalization) of each song, and fit all the final pieces together to make it one cohesive product from top to bottom.

TREVOR:            Why isn’t that done at the recording studio?

BERNIE:            For the same reason that you can’t basically mix when you’re recording.  You need to concentrate on recording.  It’s like trying to record a song while you’re writing it.  In your mind you think “I could do all this at once,” but in reality you got to do one thing at a time.  You write the song, then you play the song, then you gotta record it, and the guy recording the song is trying to get each individual instrument or vocal performance to its own optimum level.   Concentrating on one thing at a time is  what recording is about.  Then you consider how each track fits together in one mix, and then in mastering, you consider how all the songs fit together in one package.

TREVOR:            Most recording studios don’t have the ability to do mastering.

BERNIE:            It’s more commonplace nowadays, but previous to recent computer technology, it was always usually a separate place. We tried for years to have a place where, and we did several projects where people would record downstairs, do a live performance, we’d do a live mix of that in the studio, and then we’d send that into the mastering room.  It was a one-step process from a live performance to a finished CD.  People have done that in varying degrees for years, but, especially today people wanna go back and fix things.  They wanna punch a vocal or they wanna fix a mistake.  We’ve become so engrossed in making sure that every little thing is perfect, and that’s the nice thing about your project, that it doesn’t have that glossed over, over-produced, over vocal tune, over time-corrected thing.  Part of the problem with some music today is that it’s overdone.

TREVOR:            How important is mastering?

BERNIE:            Mastering came originally from getting things onto a disc, onto a record to where it could actually physically play back properly, so it was more of a QC (quality control) process at one time — so a record wouldn’t break your speakers or your needle when you played it back.  As CD’s came into the picture, it became a lot more about designing the sound past the mix.  In the old days, when you were mastering for a record you would use an equalizer to take out things that might literally cause the needle to skip or the needle to break.  Nowadays, you’re much more of a creative consultant to take all the things that maybe haven’t been put together under normal recording studio circumstances, or many different circumstances. A lot of people used to go to a certain studio to get a certain sound, and maybe there’s 10 different songs and 10 different mixes, so then mastering becomes much more of like trying to fit the pieces together.

TREVOR:            How often do you actually pick the order of the songs?

BERNIE:            I’d say 30% of the time.

TREVOR:            And do they, do the clients usually go with it?

BERNIE:            Out of the 30%, I’d say about 30% of the time.  Everybody has their favorites, but a lot of the time people who are micromanaging sometimes lose sight of what’s supposed to be happening.

TREVOR:            Why are you in the mastering business?

BERNIE:            Well, number one, I like people and I love music, and through the years of doing different things — live sound, recording, mixing and mastering —- I came to the conclusion that that most of the fighting is over with by the time that you get to the mastering, or if there were other personnel problems, most of the time that’s dealt with by the time…

TREVOR:            You usually don’t have the producer in the studio, or the artist with you when you’re mastering do you?

BERNIE:            It gets rarer and rarer but in the old days, usually the engineer would come and the producer, and sometimes the artist.  Now a lot of times people send stuff on FTP sites instead of showing up for a session.

TREVOR:            What’s FTP?

BERNIE:            Where we can just send finished files on the Internet.

TREVOR:            How long does it take to master or work on any given song?

BERNIE:            Usually anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour on a song.  Usually you can get through a whole CD in about 6 to 8 hours, but it just depends on how complex it is, how many songs there are, if they’ve all been done in one place.

TREVOR:            How many mastering labs are there in Southern California?

BERNIE:            Three or four on the level that we have; on the next level, a B level, there’s probably 10.

TREVOR:            Who are your clients?

BERNIE:            About 70% are independent artists that are signed to their own label or have their own production company, and 30% are record label people. The guy that I do a lot for is Neil Diamond.  He’s signed to Sony; last year (2009) we did six different projects for him.

TREVOR:            Let’s talk about your involvement with Neil Diamond.  What is it?  How long have you had it?  What do you do for him?

BERNIE:            Well, I’ve worked for him for 20 years and I haven’t gotten any older during that time, but a lotta the other guys I work with have — just kidding.  I started out just to go to his studio to fix the tape recorder and to finish some wiring that another engineer didn’t finish, and then he ended up wanted to record some demos and the demos ended up becoming the first album that I did with him which was called “Lovescape,” and that was in 1989-1990.  He had a really nice studio.  It used to be owned by United Artist Records, and it was Liberty Jazz before that, and it had never been updated to the 70’s or the 80’s.

So when we did that, he was always happy to write songs there.  He likes to write songs there; he thought of it as more of a songwriting tool than a recording studio, but maybe having somebody like me around helped because he’s got a band with 12 or 13 people, so you can fit them all in there and cut a complete record almost all at once. That’s what we started doing.  Then I went on the road with him and did some live work, live recording, and that turned into doing some live sound for him and then I worked for a few other people, like Donna Summers, where I did the same thing, going on the road and working in the studio, and just trying to be an all-around guy. That’s part of what mastering is to me, too: you’re looking at things from all the different perspectives.

When recording first started, mastering is where people started.  It was the bottom of the line, because you had to know the least, because you, you had to properly mix something to have it mastered.  So after you mastered for a little while, then you went to mixing.  After you learned how to properly mix something, then the high end of the job was the recording engineer, so you worked your way up to that. Today some people do it all but not well, some people do all well, and the computer in general, has given everybody the ability to try different things that they couldn’t do before.

TREVOR:            Let’s go back to Neil, is he easy to work with?

BERNIE:            Yeah.  He’s a good artist, he’s very focused, and over the years he’s developed a way that works for him.

One of the first sessions that I ever did was for Thelma Houston and it was funny because we spent about maybe an hour trying to get a sound that she was happy with in the headphones, and then when we got her happy in the headphones, she says “Don’t tell me that the sound that I have right now is exactly what you had for me when I walked in.”  And I said, “Okay, I won’t tell you, but it is.”  And she replied, “That always happens to me. I should just be quiet and sing for an hour until I get comfortable.”

Then it dawned on me that you have to listen to the artists and try to find out what they want and balance that with what you know is right as an engineer because sooner or later, you have to go to the fundamentals. Somebody like Neil Diamond who has made a lot of recordings is a “fundamentals” kind of guy.  He grew up making records that were not multi-track records but starting out in mono where everybody performed together and  branched out from there.  It’s fun to work with somebody like that as opposed to somebody who grew up in the multi-track age where they’re unfamiliar with the fundamentals of how you get things right to begin with.

TREVOR:            What do you think of Trevor McShane’s work? You’ve mastered all of his albums.  You did “First Love, Last Love.”  You did “Dizzy.”  You did the Michael Jarrett album where Trevor wrote the lyrics.  You’ve done now “Contemporary Retro.”  Today we’re picking up the mastering of “Organic Soul,” and, you haven’t heard it yet, but we’re dropping off “Adventures in Modern Recording.”

BERNIE:            I’ve been able to work on, on all those projects so far and I’ve definitely seen a developmental process, and that excites me the most probably about working on Trevor McShane is that there’s always, even in the infancy stages of your first record (First Love, Last Love), is that there’s very much a connection of the artist and the music that’s happening.  In my opinion, that’s what people pick up and why they like music in the beginning, because it’s an emotional connection.  If the artist can’t produce that emotional connection, regardless of the song, even thought the song’s super-important, and regardless of the recording technology being used, or misused — if the artist can make an emotional connection with the song — and hopefully the song is great — that’s a sign of a good artist.  Trevor McShane is an above-average artist certainly because he’s able to connect with songs, whether he’s written them or not.

A lot of artists today don’t emotionally connect with a song.  They can technically perform it — sing high notes for example.  You have a genuineness.  Trevor McShane has a genuine quality to his approach, which is authentic from the beginning.  We’ve seen a lot of development in the vocal recording techniques that you guys have used to get a sound, and your performance certainly has, has grown a lot, but there’s that unique, genuine quality even on your very first CD, where you’re connecting with the song, you’re performing it, and that comes across.  There’s nothing in the recording that, that hinders that or hinders the listener from enjoying that perspective, and I think that’s the thing that people get.

TREVOR:            Do you listen to the music when you’re outside of the studio?

BERNIE:            Yeah.  All the time.

TREVOR:            Do you ever listen to Trevor…

BERNIE:            Yeah.

TREVOR:            …outside of the studio?

BERNIE:            Yeah.  I do… as a consumer.  Most people don’t know about who produces something, or who records something.  They just listen to it, and are either going to like it or not, and when the artist has that, that genuine emotion, that people pick up on that.

TREVOR:            You work in all genres, right?

BERNIE:            Yeah.

TREVOR:            From classical to jazz to…

BERNIE:            To rap, to everything. My favorite is singers/songwriters.

TREVOR:            Let’s limit to the singer/songwriter category.  How much of the time do you think to yourself “This is good. This is great. It’s not cutting it.”  How often do they make the grade?

BERNIE:            When I first started trying to be an engineer, I concentrated on good engineering skills and left the music secondary. Then you realize that that alone doesn’t make it, because I made a lot of really great sounding recordings of terrible music, terrible orchestras, terrible performances.  It’s fun from an engineering standpoint, because you’re just concentrating on the sound, and then three months later you go back and listen and go “This is terrible.”

As to singer/songwriters, if the genuine, emotional connection is there, even if the material could be not great and the artist is maybe not a great performer, I still enjoy that, and that’s why I enjoy that genre.  About 70% or 80% of the time, that connection is there,  and that makes it happen for me.   If you go beyond that, where the song is good and the singing is good, then you’re looking at maybe 10% or 5% where you think, “Hey, this is amazing.  People should hear this.”

TREVOR:            Let’s talk about Barry Keenan (who works with Trevor on much of his music as a producer, musician, and co-songwriter) and how you got to know him, and your relationship with him.

BERNIE:            That would have been 20 years or so.  Barry had a friend who was an engineer that worked at my studio in Van Nuys, Colin, who was a bass player in a band called “The Invisible Poet Kings,” which sparked my interest with just the name of the band.  Then I saw an album cover which sparked my interest more because I’m thinking, “The Invisible Poet Kings,” that’s a great name what, what’s this all about?  Then I heard a song which sounded like maybe 1000 tracks mixed together.  There was a lot of instrumentation and a lot of singing, it was really well done, and I found out through Colin that Barry was a recording engineer and he had had his own studio, and he booked some time at the studio.  Now it is commonplace for people to walk in and have 60, 70, 80 tracks. Back 20 years ago we had two 24-track machines, so that’s 48 tracks, and we had, I think three P-88’s, and Barry was making use of all of ‘em.  So there were 10 MIDI’s.  He brought all his MIDI instruments and he hooked up and he had everything playing live and it just sounded like an orchestra.  It was very interesting; I’d never seen anybody take that much information and mix it down into something that people could enjoy.

I like working with him because he’s in a small group of people I personally know who have navigated technology and haven’t given up any of the fundamentals of making good, recorded music.  Some new engineers have that talent, that knack, but it’s harder to find because you didn’t grow up recording real people.  Barry has a musical way about him because he’s a musician, and he has the technical way about him because he’s an engineer.  He’s been able to come at it from both sides of the glass, per se, and then take that foundation and hop, skip and jump across technology.  We all struggled with the sound of digital, but now we’re at a point where it’s not so much that we’re struggling with. We’re just trying to get the most out of it that we can, and Barry can do that.

TREVOR:            You know him as songwriter and performer as well.

BERNIE:            Which is great because he brings all those qualities, all those high qualities to his, his engineering and production, because he’s got it together.

TREVOR:            Another aspect I always say is that a great producer can engineer, knows music, and arguably can be a diplomat to get along with people and get everybody else to get along with each other. Would you say that Barry can do that?

BERNIE:            Yeah.  He can get along with, with a lot of different people, in a lot of different circumstances because I’ve seen him do that.  (laughs) He’s a good politician, but he’s always trying to make good music … and get people together.  When I first started in this industry, my first introduction to producers was that they would go out and stand in the room with the band, stand right by the singer and get them to emote.  They were almost used car salesmen in a way.  They were right there selling the whole thing.  Even if the singer wasn’t good, or the band wasn’t good. Some of these guys came from Atlantic Records.  They had track records.  I was amazed at what a producer did, and sometimes they didn’t come in the control room very much.  As things changed, the producer was in the control room more, along with the engineer, and then because of technology, the producer and the engineer, and sometimes the musicians all became this one person. You have to have talent and you have to have experience, and he’s got all that.

Bernie Becker in his recording studio

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