Five Questions: Joe Palmaccio

The main man at The Place… For Mastering gives us his expert advice
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Joe Palmaccio honed his craft in Sony Music Studios, Sterling Sound and PolyGram in New York before opening The Place… For Mastering in Nashville, where he offers custom drum tracks as well as professional mastering services. His long resume includes the gamut of artists — Hank Williams, Nas, Steely Dan, the Wu-Tang Clan, Little Atlas, and Heart, among them. Palmaccio also serves as an adjunct instructor of mastering at Belmont University (Nashville).

How do you start off right with a new client who works in a project studio?

Most of today’s projects don’t have a record label or A&R person. Many don’t have a producer. A casualty of losing that team infrastructure is not having the established language to discuss music production and, more specifically, mastering.

I use several strategies to facilitate good communication. The first is having concise and clear information on my website. Second, I spend a lot of time on the phone, email, and text with an artist before we start mastering. It’s very important that I know the artist’s needs and expectations. Something that helps facilitate this is for me is to hear and see previous work the artist has done. Reading a bio, watching performance videos, and listening to past releases gives me a much better sense of the artist and their work.

What are some of the issues that often arise with the mixes you receive from project studios?

The quality and content of mixes coming from project studios run the gamut from excellent to not great. At the not great end of the spectrum, poor sonic quality can often be attributed to mixing in an acoustically untreated environment. In these cases, common sonic issues include muddy low end, piercing midrange, and/or high frequencies that are either excessive or missing completely. These types of issues are difficult, and in some cases, impossible to correct in mastering.

Another common problem is poor documentation. Mix files should be delivered to mastering with as much detail as possible. This can include a text document with artist name, project title, contact info, song sequence, ISRC and UPC numbers. The mixes themselves should be named using a file-naming convention such as: artist name_song title_song version_sample rate/bit depth_mix version_date.

So, an example of a file name could be: ThePinheads_LoudAndProud_MainMix_9624_October212015.wav.

All mix files should be placed in a folder that is also clearly labeled with artist name, project title, and date. This saves a lot of confusion, especially if mixes have to be adjusted and newly created versions are then sent to mastering for revisions.

If you could give some advice to the mixer who’s about to start a project that will then come to you, what would you suggest?

Here are a couple things to consider: Printing mixes at a useable level for mastering is very important. If we are talking about digital files, I prefer a master level around -14dB RMS. Mixes printed at a super-hot level can tie the hands of the mastering engineer. It’s best to leave headroom on your mixes so the mastering engineer is able to process the files the way they see fit. I’m not suggesting you turn off your master bus processing; if you’ve been building a mix with EQ, compression, etc. on the master bus, that processing is integral to the sound of the mix. Just be mindful of the mix bus output level.

If the mix format is digital, I always recommend mixing to high-res, 96kHz/24-bit stereo WAV. I find it amusing how many people still ask if working at high-res is worth it. Because there are no longer any cost or processing barriers to using hi-res, my answer is always yes.

How does your skill as a drummer inform your abilities as a mastering engineer?

I listen to all music as a musician first. Growing up, I trained and played in many types of ensembles. Most western music that uses the modern drum kit is unique in that it is constructed from the drums up. Good drummers are like conductors in that they lead the group of musicians they are playing with while simultaneously listening to and being sensitive to what every other musician is playing. This allows you to be “in” the music while also being able to react to it in real time.

This listening point of view is very useful when mastering music. My goal is to have my ears on the entire musical and technical production while also being able to react to the micro-elements of the mix.

What is the most important reason for project studio users to finish their projects with a professional mastering engineer?

The best reason to use a professional mastering engineer is to get the perspective and subjective opinion of someone who has worked on many more productions than you. Even though it is very much a DIY world, we can still benefit from the help of an expert. Collaboration is a powerful tool and because of the ease of digital communication, it is at the fingertips of anyone who seeks it.