Earlier this month, Insight Music alongside some of the scenes most influential producers dropped ‘X’, our 10th anniversary compilation album.
Featuring inspirational acts such as Andy Leech, Phelian, Sibewest, Vacant and more, the album celebrates 10 years of Insight Music, established in Sheffield, UK, 2011. Delivering incredible sounds within chillwave and future garage, ‘X’ was polished off over at Chris Pavey Mastering.
In our latest masterclass session, the Cambridgeshire-based mastering engineer Chris Pavey walks us through some of the techniques he used during the mastering process, whilst sharing his ‘must have’ studio gear and thoughts on the album.
You can purchase your copy of ‘X’ on limited edition 12″ vinyl via Bandcamp.
Chris, thank you yet again for providing us with more mastering knowledge! Please give us short introduction to who you are, where you’re from and what you do.
I’m Chris Pavey, I run a mastering company (Chris Pavey Mastering), and I’m based in Cambridgeshire UK. Quite fitting for this Anniversary album as I’ve been mastering records now for very nearly a decade, and Insight Music was one of my very first clients!
Is the preparation for mastering established by the genre of music you’re working with, or do all genres follow the same path?
Every track is so unique in itself already; the genre alone very often won’t define anything specific for mastering a record. A track’s arrangement could have a greater impact than a genre or style in choosing which tools I reach for, or the processes I use. However there are certain elements that crop up more frequently in some genres that I know to direct my attention to. Until I’ve heard the track, I never know quite what I will need to reach for.
When the first few submissions for the album ‘X’ started coming your way, what were your first initial thoughts?
Pure joy! The make up of each of these tracks really spoke to me straight away, and there was so much going on musically throughout the record that really grabbed my attention from the first listen. Being able to hear the differences and similarities between the tracks was an incredible privilege, and you start to see the complete and endless diversity that can be achieved inside just one genre or style of music.
“It’s been so incredible to work on this project, not just because of the talented people included on the album, but also being part of a milestone in Insight’s history”
Do you typically reference other artists of similar genres to key point what elements of the recording to focus on?
I will take references if they are given to me, but I try not to focus on another record too much as that can have a ‘box’ effect on your brain if you compare with something else too often.
For the general overall feeling or vibe I will listen to music in that genre while working and more importantly I will listen to artist’s (if I’ve not worked with them before) previous work as well.
I want to keep my mind in the ‘headspace’ of the style I’m working on, but not become influenced by chasing after another sound of a reference track, that might in fact be unobtainable with the content I’m mastering.
With the future garage genre in particular, what elements of the recording were you looking to enhance?
This really isn’t an enhancement but a preservation – keeping the depth of these records was paramount. Each of these tracks by design are very complex in their make up and arrangement. Even when they drop to a sparse section or phrase, there is always a lot going on with layers and effects. Each artist had done such a superb job in creating these almost vast sound stages, and I didn’t want to lose any of that at all.
A major goal (and a common one in mastering!), is preserving dynamic content and with a very focused midrange that is smooth and not muddied by all the elements converging.
“As a mastering engineer you always want to be given the best starting place possible, a mix that’s not been heavily compressed or limited already and a clear direction of sound and intent to follow when mastering.”
‘Solace’ from Vacant features on ‘X’
Did you experience any concerns when mastering began?
From the high quality production of these records, not a huge amount at all!
As a mastering engineer you always want to be given the best starting place possible, a mix that’s not been heavily compressed or limited already and a clear direction of sound and intent to follow when mastering.
Can we have an insight into some of the studio gear / software you used during the mastering process of the album?
I try to stay away from the ‘gear talk’ whenever possible as it can easily become a focus away from the music.
But as you’ve asked! I will point out a few stand out pieces that I will use on 99% of records I work on, and were all used on the X album.
First and foremost is the DMG Limitless plugin. It’s my limiter of choice for almost every record, and for me is the most transparent limiter available. (Unless you don’t want it to be!). It has every setting you could want to tweak, and allows me complete freedom to dial in bespoke settings for precisely want I want for each record. No such thing as ‘set and forget’ in mastering. It’s a very well designed piece of software and there is no compromise in the plugin at all.
DMG Limitless Plugin
The SPL PASSEQ, is another solid tool that I can’t be with out. It sounds amazing, and you have to really use it wrong to make it sound wrong. I find nothing beats it in adding air or a little more sparkle to a record, and it just works for me in the way I need it to. It has both stereo and mid/side mode and I use it regularly in both. Its not a surgical EQ at all, you can’t pull out specific frequencies, but it’s used as a broad strokes tool. I find for 90% of the records I work on I’ve never struggled with or found the set frequency points troublesome either.
SPL PASSEQ Plugin
The Joe Meek SC2. An Opto-compressor, not on every record on this album, but it really does that ‘gentle hug’ compression very well. That can be vital in tightening up a track that’s just feeling a little loose. I never use it heavily, as it shines when applied in moderation. (Set to a very slow attack, and the transients still keep their snap 100%). I only like the tools I use to be ‘heard’ when I want them to, being as transparent as possible is the name of the mastering game!
“Every artist should be extremely proud of their work and listening back to the album as a whole as I write this, it just makes me excited to hear what each and everyone of them creates next.”
Joe Meek SC2
Was there a mastering technique you used that was unique to this album in particular?
A fairly common mastering tip when you want to be as subtle as possible is Mid/Side EQ’ing.
I used a lot of this on the record, allowing me to directly affect even more precisely what I wanted to.
For example, on the side channel in the 4k region, I may need to control that band a little more, but not take away any brightness from an element in the mid signal.
Another technique and which is something of a secret weapon if you will, (as I don’t see it talked about very often), is automating gain across a record. I really don’t see it used a lot, but myself and few mastering engineers I know use it.
Very simply, I might lift a section of a track in gain to have a more fine tuned approach to loudness. Maybe there isn’t enough impact after a chorus that’s been super loud, so I might notch up a verse a little.
In this whole process I am only talking about 0.5db or a dB – very rarely any higher. Sounds small but can be incredibly effective when you’re pushing into a mastering chain, and want an even greater control over the macro dynamics of a song.
What was your personal takeaway from mastering ‘X’? Is there a single from the album you feel came out on top in terms of production style and outcome?
It’s been so incredible to work on this project, not just because of the talented people included on the album, but also being part of a milestone in Insight’s history. I’ve been very blessed to work with Insight artists for 10 years which does make me feel a little old, but also overjoyed at the consistently outstanding music that’s been released over that decade!
A single off the album… now that would be too difficult to choose! I know that sounds a very fence-sitting/polite thing to say, but it’s the honest truth. This whole album is a show case of extremely amazing talent. They are all different, and they express some of the best music out there at the moment in the scene.
Every artist should be extremely proud of their work and listening back to the album as a whole as I write this, it just makes me excited to hear what each and everyone of them creates next.
Thank you for having me play my small role in this incredible record, and here’s to another 10 music packed years of Insight!
Last of all, where can our fans and followers get in touch with you regarding mastering?
Interested in hearing more from Chris? You can also enjoy their fascinating blog post on ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and the endless struggle to accept achievement and continued self-doubt within a creative space.