An Evening With Chris Athens

Chris Athens’ list of mastering credits is nothing if not impressive. In fact, it’s downright intimidating — especially given the fact that he’s only officially held the title of Mastering Engineer Extraordinaire for less than 15 years. But in those short 15 years he’s managed to become responsible for some of the greatest-sounding releases spawned from a plethora of musical genres. From hip-hop to J-pop to reggae to rock, Chris Athens has truly mastered them all.

Originally starting as a tape librarian at the famed Sony Music Studios in New York, Chris quickly clawed his way to the top of the mastering game, learning his trade from the likes of Mark Wilder and Vlado Mellor before moving into his own as the Senior Mastering Engineer at the esteemed Sterling Sound. It’s been a meteoric rise, but one that has benefited acts as diverse as Ben Folds, Mos Def, Chris Whitley, Coldplay, Method Man, Peter Tosh, Johnny Cash, Erykah Badu, Juliana Theory, Beastie Boys, and so many others — testaments to the notion that Chris Athens has really been doing something special in that scary little mastering lab of his. So we pulled up a few comfortable seats at Athen’s home base of Sterling Sound in downtown NYC to pick his brain about the goods, the bads, and the uglies of the mastering business; and this is what he had to say. So we invite you to follow suit, loosen the tie, turn on the answering machine and turn off the TV, and join us in . . .

EQ: Where is mastering, in general, heading?

Chris Athens: To Hell. In a hand basket. I’m kidding . . . sort of (laughs). There are those who are clued in on how to do, and do it right, but there are also a lot of folks coming into it who are just software jockeys that may, or very well may not, ever become great mastering engineers. Only time will tell. The history of software as a component in mastering is still pretty short, so it’s hard to tell exactly where it’s all heading.

EQ: So you feel people abuse the art by overusing these current generation tools — hardware and software limiters and “mastering programs?”

CA: Wow, do they ever — in ways that are hard to even imagine. There’s some actual creativity that goes into that level of abuse. It’s off the charts (laughs). But they can be perfectly viable tools, they just need the right hands . . . and ears.

EQ: How did you learn the “black art” of mastering? It seems to be a subject many mastering engineers can’t, or don’t want to, shed a lot of light on. . . .

CA: I don’t believe in keeping “secrets.” The guys who were my mentors were very open with their knowledge, and I benefited greatly from them. The way I came up was, in a sense, very “old school.” I came up through the ranks at Sony, editing tape with a razorblade and cutting vinyl — arts that were on their way out when I decided to become a mastering engineer. I actually probably could have avoided ever going about things the traditional way and just sat down behind the computer, but I felt it was important to learn those skills.

Not everybody gets a chance to apprentice under a great mastering engineer or, in my case, several great mastering engineers — though I recommend attempting to if you are serious about pursuing the craft.

EQ: You’re known to combine both digital and analog elements.

CA: Yes, I certainly do — whether they like it or not.

EQ: Is there a lot of high-resolution work coming in here?

CA: I do have some hi-res work coming in here. A lot of the people that go through the trouble of doing hi-res are also printing to analog as well — usually a combination of 1/2" analog and 88.2 or 96kHz digital. It’s pretty common these days.

EQ: How do you downconvert?

CA: Nine times out of ten I’ll run out through a D to A converter, and then record back into my system at the target sample rate and 24-bit.

EQ: What is the trustiest piece you own?

CA: My custom Muth analog transfer console and my Sontec MS430B EQ are the pieces that definitely get the most use, though I use the API 550Ms quite a bit as well — configured in 0.5dB steps, which is great for mastering. I also have the normal API 550Bs that have 2dB steps, but they aren’t quite as useful for mastering.

EQ: What are your preferred means of monitoring?

CA: I have Dynaudio C4 speakers. I have a set there and a set at my personal studio in upstate New York — which is very similar to the room at Sterling, though it’s rigged for surround. At Sterling I focus just on stereo mastering.

EQ: But you do a lot more than just stereo mastering there, correct?

CA: Yes, I also do a fair amount of mixing and general production. My main focus is mastering, but I don’t sleep much. Mixing was my first love. I’ve always done it. In the last few years I’ve gotten more serious about incorporating it into what I do. On the production end, I may help a client during a mix — replace, replay, or remix certain parts of a track. I’ve cut vocals for Erykah Badu while she was sitting on my couch and done guitar overdubs with the Neptunes. I even put a microphone in front of Geoff Emerick once. That was a hoot. I mix a couple of albums a year, and just finished one for an artist named David Ryan Harris, which is really amazing. Check it out . . . or I’ll kick your ass (laughs).

EQ: What’s the greatest pooch screw you encounter from people that bring you tracks to master?

CA: It sounds insane, but some people will actually burn their mixes and then not listen to what they printed, assuming it’s going to be okay. Then they get here and we find dropouts, distortion — some “magical” change. What a great way to bring a session to a screeching halt. . . .

Not properly organizing their sessions is another. It’s very important at this stage to be well organized, so you’re not second-guessing yourself, or rummaging through tape bins and hard drive folders looking for the right pass. A little bit of time spent organizing a session and properly marking tapes goes a long way in keeping the flow happening . . . and the budget in check.

Or when people leave zero headroom for their masters. I get mixes all the time that are so incredibly crushed. . . .

EQ: Then I would assume you prefer to be brought mixes that haven’t been limited much?

CA: It really depends on who engineered the mix. If they understand how to use limiters, understand how they really affect what’s going to be heard — if they are confident making that choice in their mixes — then whatever works. I don’t even need to know if you limited it or not as long as it sounds good. But, if there is any question as to “should I do this,” then you should not be limiting at all.

EQ: So what is a great mix, in your opinion?

CA: Well there are two different kinds of great mixes: The “technically” great mix where everything is in order, is tonally balanced, has great dynamics and just feels right for the song. Then there’s the great “vibe” mix — it may not be “technically” perfect, but it has a tremendously great vibe that really enhances the song. There are a few people out there who can do both . . . and when I get mixes from those people it’s a damn good day.

EQ: But how can people do better, particularly those at home?

CA: For me, the greatest way to ensure a great mix is to first model other great mixes. Take a mix that you really love, that has a sound that is appropriate for the genre you are working on, and really listen to it. But when you do this, as your goal is to first get a great mix and not worry so much about the master, lower the volume of the CD you are monitoring. This will help reduce the temptation to try to match the level, and will allow you to concentrate on matching the dynamics, the balance — the stuff that’s important for a great mix.

EQ: CDs? With your background, I would assume you are always listening to vinyl!

CA: I do, but not as often as I would like. The main reason I have a turntable here is so I can listen to some of my collection, not to reference. It’s a great depression lifter to listen to vinyl. I’m not the first person to say this, but an interesting thing has happened in the last couple of decades in this technological revolution. Releases in general have not gotten better sounding. It’s never been easier to make a record, but it seems like technology has almost had an inverse effect on sound quality. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Sometimes I listen to vinyl just to remind myself what releases could sound like.