John Davis about current trends in mastering

Recently John Davis visited Japan to host a series mastering masterclasses, meet with Japanese labels, artists and engineers, and be interviewed for some of the biggest Japanese music publications. His interview with Sound and Recording Magazine went viral, being re-shared over 10 000 times. You can read the full interview translation below.

You visited the cutting studio and mixing room today and talked with engineers. What is your impression of the Japanese music industry?

I felt culture was very different. In London, if you ask for mastering, you can expect to change the sound significantly. You can play around with them to change the sound or make them push harder. In Japan, if the engineer makes a big change in sound, it may be badly picked up. But if I get an offer from Japan, I’ll do it in a challenging British style, rather than flat mastering of safety routes. The results can be expected!

In the UK, the way of thinking and requests for mastering and cutting is quite different from that of Japan?

In London, the artists often mix themselves. As the result of not hiring a mix engineer,  the pressure on the mastering engineer increases. By the way, I visited Sony Music and Universal today, but the working environment is different from London. Everyone is working on a big floor, but the strange thing is that there is no music played in the office. Very quiet. No one is playing music. I felt that the culture was different in such a thing.

There are various steps such as mixing, mastering, lacquer cutting and producing re-mix. What do you think of them?

There are many steps required on production process in the studio, but the most interesting thing right now is mastering for Instagram. In other words, mastering for smartphones. There used to be only CDs and vinyls (analogue records), but now there are Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, and.. Instagram.

Is mastering for Instagram popular?

JD: Mastering for Instagram is just a trend. Most people use a smartphone to listen to music through earphones or headphones nowadays. The trend is to remove the low frequencies with a big sound. Ed Sheeran must have been hurt. The music became just vocals, claps and bassline. Ignoring the rhythm section, synth and guitars, the song sounds like vocals-only a cappella!In addition to the usual CD/analogue and HD (high resolution) masters, you will need an Instagram master, so you will have to make the master twice. I have five boys, but if the vocal is low, they find it sounds strange.

Some of the mastering is for kids?

John Davis-The mastering EQ (Equalizing) changes depending on whether the target is under 18 years old or over. For those under the age of 18, forget the dynamics (sound strength) and increase the volume, raising the brightness (high range). Over 18 years old, dynamics and brightness are normal. Well, you may not need both if you are over 50 (laughs).

It’s not just about mastering for sounding cool?

I have to adapt to the means and methods like when choosing a golf club. Even if you make the sound excellent for the producer, you may be skipping kids and young people. Fortunately, I have 5 children, so I may be blessed to be aware of such dangers.

Is it easy to master songs for Instagram?

John Davis-When an artist asked me if I could re-do mastering for Instagram, I said I would do it, but I got stuck. After returning home, I asked my child how to master it. The answer is, “Dad, I just want to hear when I listen with my earphones.” Good examples are US hip hop stars, Drake and Kendrick Lamar. NO instrument with super loud. As if only vocals and kick drums. The sound is great for smartphones… In order to get the same volume as the Drake, Ed Sheeran may be trying to remove the various elements on the song and get the same volume. By the way, the label A & R these days says that they use a smartphone to check the sound.

Are there any other trends that stand out recently?

Another trend is that each song is now two minutes long. Starting with a chorus ends with a verse, a chorus, and a chorus. A two-minute song becomes an album with 25 songs. If 2 minutes are repeated many times, the count will increase and the song income will increase, and if all 25 songs are registered, the registration and screen display will be advantageous. The effects of streaming Spotify, Apple Music, etc. are great.

Let’s change the topic. You did remastering of all 9 unreleased takes, outtakes, remixes and instruments of Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin’s nine albums (including CODA). How long did it take for you?

Digital mastering of all Led Zeppelin catalogues, including archiving, took a total of five years.

How did you proceed?

Usually listens to the original tape for about two days, and imports the 1/4 inch analogue master into Pro Tools at 192kHz. On another day, I worked on listening to the original 1st press analogue record. Checking outtakes, etc. took a huge amount of time.

How were you appointed as a re-mastering engineer of Zeppelin?

One day, Jimmy Page’s manager called me. Paige loved the sound of the Scottish rock band, Snow Patrol “Chasing Cars” which I mastered, and contacted me to find out who did the mastering of the album containing the song. He was just thinking about remastering the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue for a new generation. “Original fans buy and listen to George Marino / STERLING SOUND (1947-2012) remasters of the 1990s. Those fans buy both old and new ones.” “I was thinking how to get the fans under 18 years old and let them buy remastered albums , “said Jimmy.

What did you think of George Marino’s mastering in the 1990s?

It was the dawn of digital technology, and I had an impression that data handling was rough. In particular, it adopted NO-Noise, a new technology at the time. I’ve looked at various posts about Zeppelin mastering, but on the famous Steve Hoffman’s website, it was severely criticized for the use of NO-Noise. “NO-Noise makes the sound dull and it killed all the lively parts on high end ” This was posted by a fan who listened to Marino’s mastered 1st press.

̄̄What kind of technique did you use to restore the original sound in the new remastering?

Only one great trick. One day I was listening to a tape and Jimmy came and said, “This sound is amazing. I’ve never heard of this sound.” I was playing without the Dolby A decoder used to reduce tape hiss. Dolby A has the disadvantage that the sound is easily muffled during playback. So I decided to play the tape without Dolby A and record it on the master.

If you play the tape without decoding Dolby A, you’ll get great hiss in the high-frequency range. How did you handle it?

I used CEDAR, a plug-in built into the DAW software SADiE installed on the Metropolis mastering system, to replace noise reduction. At least it reduced the dullness of the sound and kept the brightness of the high end.

Where do you find your mastering features?

I used to cut 12-inch singles every day and loved the bottom end of house music and reggae dubs. John Bonham was a drummer with tremendous power. Focused on the bottom end of the drum, including kick. On the analogue record, Bonham’s bottom end was cut off due to technical constraints, but I think that has been restored to its original form. But the fan’s forum (above) wrote, “Why does John Davis boost just the bass in drums and bass?”

Where did you put key points in mastering at Zeppelin?

Jimmy Page liked to record in a room with a lot of space. So half of the recorded multitrack has Bonham drums wrapping around it. I left the John Paul Jones bass at the same volume and added a little Bonzo kick. Jimmy was pleased with the sound was better because he thought I improved the sound of his guitar, but it’s not.

Metropolis uses Prism Sounds for DA / AD converter. Why did you create a master at 96kHz, unlike The Archives recorded at 192kHz?

The Archive was carefully recorded at 192kHz just to make sure Jimmy wouldn’t bother anything. This is exactly the same in the case of the Beatles’ Giles Martin. However, the master tape for Zeppelin’s remastering project is 96kHz. Because the real value of the Prism sound used for DA / AD is at 96kHz. 96kHz sounds much better than it sounds.

For the Led Zeppelin remastering project, 96kHz is the best solution.

Sometimes the audience seems to misunderstand that the higher the number, the better the sound, but 192kHz is clearly overspec on the recording equipment of the late 60’s and early 70’s where Zeppelin’s albums were intensively recorded. The files are more than twice as large, and the load on the DAW is not odd. 192kHz is unnecessary.

By the way, you’re a David Bowie fan. Did you ever feel awkward in doing a Zeppelin project?

I once told Jimmy Page, “I didn’t like Zeppelin.” Page was not surprised. He knew that I was working hard, and I thought he wouldn’t want to work with an engineer who is the big fan of Zeppelin. We are the punk generation represented by pistols and crashes. I often heard “stairs to heaven”, but it was a generation that turned around, saying “that is a little bit….” I was being a big David Bowie fan, but I never wanted to remaster Bowie’s work. I think it’s best not to be a fan as long as you do this job.

Did anything change in your relationship with Jimmy Page during the remastering project?

Throughout the course of the work, Page seemed to have enjoyed educating me. Education isn’t anything special, it’s about sharing his memories about the instruments, their settings, and amplifier settings for every session, so sharing that data. He also revealed that he has preserved the costumes of all stages so far.

What do you think of the results of remastering?

I think it was a success because the younger generation responded to the sound of Zeppelin, which was a little louder than before. Actually, CD version is made to be a little louder than the analog version. CDs bandwidth can have more low frequencies than analogue records.

Could you tell me about the standard daily procedures @ Metropolis Mastering?

Clients come in. Someone you don’t know. Usually a band. Sometimes a mixing engineer. Tea first. Then chat. And ask the customer a lot. Ask, “What do you do?” “What do you want me to do today?” “For Instagram or an analogue record cutting?” For a new band, their requests are “make the sound louder.” and “make the sound crazy!” I ofter hear “To be well streamed on Spotify.” Anyway, chat is the main. I don’t judge when I hear the sound. First, listen to the songs and albums with a flat setting without EQing. Ask where you want to emphasize. I recommend that you don’t compress too much, don’t limit too much, and widen the dynamic range. I sometimes use comps and limiters too hard, but without distortion. For Metropolis Mastering, I use equipment that combines AVALON DESIGN parametric EQ and compressor.

Finally, could you give us some recommendations of the artists and albums you worked on?

There are a few, so it’s not just one. First, Badly Drawn Boy, who I mastered a long time ago. The original master was home recording and the master was a cassette Maybe it was DAT tape. Somewhere around 1996 or 1997. I think it is hard to get now. Next is “Bone To Die” by Lana Del Rey. It’s a personal favourite. When I had Antelope’s Atomic Clock and AVALON DESIGN’s AD2077 EQ in the mastering room, I used them for mastering. It’s a sexy and erotic album. The other is “LP1” by FKA Twigs. FKA Twigs, who has a strong presence among contemporary artists. This album was the starting point of her stardom internationally.


Full article in Japanese: