Mastering Engineer Delivers Sonic Excellence
by Hollin Jones
Katie Tavini is a mastering engineer working from her Brighton studio Weird Jungle, who has mastered projects for Emeli Sandé, Arlo Parks and Nadine Shah as well as Echobelly and Ash amongst many others. We called in to chat about her journey from violinist to in-demand mastering expert and how she navigates mastering for the different platforms we use to listen to music.
Can you tell us about how you first got involved in mastering? Did you start out as a musician?
We had music lessons at school and I did learn the violin and play it up to degree level, but I was always more interested in the technological side of how music gets made. When I was younger I used to produce little tunes, chiptune and MIDI music when I was in school, but I was always interested in things like seeing the microphone collection. And then when I went to gigs I was almost as interested in what the sound engineer was doing as what the band were playing. I loved all aspects of different kinds of music but I never thought that it would be a job because I didn’t know anyone else doing it.
But you pursued it anyway?
I went to Salford University and did a BA in music, which was really a classical music course, so I did have to play my violin! But they had a small Recording Studies module where they encouraged you to use the gear in the studio to experiment and really have fun with it rather than focusing on the theoretical side of things. So I used to be there until midnight every night, recording different bands and having fun. Then one of my tutors offered me a job in a studio that he wasn’t able to take on because of other commitments. I didn’t know if anything would come of it, but I ended up engineering for a producer called Bill Leader, who had started recording music in the 1950s — he was 80 when I started working with him, so he had so much experience that I was able to learn from.
How did that lead on to becoming a mastering engineer?
When you engineer, people often expect you to mix as well but I wasn’t great at mixing. This was before YouTube tutorials, and forums were really the only way of trying to find information. I was asking questions online about how to get better at mixing and someone said that a good way was to learn how to master. I didn’t really know what mastering was but I’d hired mastering engineers for bands I was working with. I’d take tracks from studios I was working in and practice mastering them at home, comparing it with the professional masters that had been done to see how they had approached it compared to what I’d done.
I was online one night and got a message from someone asking if I knew anyone who could do mastering. He’d heard some music I’d worked on and needed something doing right there and then! Which was unusual, especially given that I hadn’t officially mastered for anyone else at that point. I agreed to do it on the condition that if it sounded bad, he wouldn’t use it. We stayed up all night bouncing files back and forth and talked about different sounds and how to improve them. And by the morning we had a mastered E.P, and the band liked it. Then my second job was for his own band called Sonic Boom Six who I really liked. I still work with James today — we’ve been working together since 2012. So it was almost an accidental thing, and it came at a point where I was about to give up on music. Nobody I’ve ever met who is a mastering engineer started out wanting to be one or planning to be one. Everyone has come from really different backgrounds and kind of fallen into it.
Were you working entirely in software at this point?
It was around 2009 when I started working with Bill, and they had a lot of hardware in their studio, but I just had a laptop and some headphones, and that’s what I did my first few jobs with. I guess I was used to listening to music on headphones. Back then, it wasn’t easy to get a good USB audio interface for not much money like you can now, so I ended up buying this big FireWire Mackie mixing desk to use as an interface. But I didn’t really know how studios fit together. When I worked in studios, it was already all there.
Back then, gear wasn’t particularly affordable, I ended up using this big mixer just for audio in and out! I did buy the Sonnox plug-ins quite early on because I’d used them before and I knew them, and I worked with those for a couple of years and that was it — me and the laptop.
And what software were you running?
I bought Cubasis, and it came with a free copy of WaveLab. I’d wanted to program MIDI and things, but WaveLab sounded amazing, and it seemed really logical to me in how it operated. I’ve been using WaveLab since then. Actually, the key developer behind WaveLab, Philippe Goutier, used to come into the British Library when I was working in audio transfer there and ask us what kinds of features we needed! I always preferred WaveLab for things like editing samples because it was so stable. I know I can do my best work in WaveLab, so I don’t particularly want to use anything else.
Are there any specific features that you particularly like ?
All of it really, but particularly the built-in metering, which I like — the phase scope and loudness metering are really useful. My favorite bit is the tabbed interface like on a browser which I find a really intuitive way to work. I create a chain for each tabbed project and can flip between them to compare tracks. It makes it easy to compare your treatment to the original mix. It cuts out a lot of the clicking I’d have to do if I was trying to compare the treatments using a DAW.
How much input does a client have on a typical mastering job? Do they come to you with specific ideas or looking for you to fix a mix?
Most people have had their music mixed, and the mastering is almost like a quality check. I’ve been on both sides as I did a lot of mixing of bands, so I know that feeling of being way too close to the music. I know errors can creep in, bad crossfades and things like that. So I’ll sometimes go in and make corrections. Mastering is a relatively quick process compared to the rest of making a record, so you come in with fresh ears, and it’s easy to pick up on little things because you’ve never heard it before. A producer might give me some reference tracks and a guide to the record's feel. Sometimes people just want to see what you come up with as someone who is new to the music. But every single job is so different. You have to approach every project with a completely open mind. There’s no set process. I don’t have a go-to mastering chain. I look at each track individually.
What are the biggest mistakes that people make when mastering their own music?
When people master their own mixes often, they think that they have to change something too much, and they’re probably doing more than they need. I always think of mastering as being quite a minimal process. When I started, I would sometimes go overboard, but the restraint makes an excellent master. When you start, you can get excited by having too many tools, and it’s really about learning when to step back from something. Just make it as loud as it needs to be and listen to what that process has done to it — it’s probably made it a bit more bass-heavy, then you compensate for that with EQ. Just because you have all these tools doesn’t mean you have to use them. Newer artists want their music to be really loud, but you have to treat each genre of music in its own way.
There are so many ways that people listen to music now, earbuds, phones, cars, computers, hi-fis. Do you try to account for that or do you just make the best master you can and that’s that?
What’s interesting is that the streaming platforms change their algorithms quite often. If you mastered Spotify, for example, and if they’ve changed their algorithm in a year, that track will sound quite different. So I tend to get the best version I can. I always make more dynamic vinyl versions when required; you can get a punchier cut of the music with more dynamic material. I’ve done some remastering too, for Ash — The BBC Sessions and Echobelly, where I got the original mixes rather than the original masters so there was loads of space to work with, and it was really cool working on music I grew up listening to!