The beauty of modern production lies in the abundance of choice. Artists, producers and engineers currently enjoy a degree of freedom previously unavailable in the history of recorded sound. This freedom, to determine exactly how sonic ideas are committed, preserved and ultimately transmitted opens, not unlike a Pandora’s box, a gateway to some of the most aurally desirable and affecting qualities while at the same time giving birth to the most crass, hollow and aesthetically bereft works. What has not changed, in all these years is the ephemeral arena of taste. One either has it or they do not.
Electronic Beats had the pleasure of speaking with Bo Kondren – chief engineer and founder of Calyx Studios. His back catalogue reads like a who’s who of forward thinking electronic and culturally aware music (everyone from Peaches & Stereo Total’s work has passed through his fingers), including Modeselektor’s new long player Monkeytown. His mastering work dates back to the early 80’s working on records in Germany before he even knew that the fine tuned sculpting he was doing was called mastering.
We spoke about the plethora of choices, the ever-changing landscape of sound production, Modeselektor’s all important vision for their new long player, and his favorite records of the past year.
You have quite a large back catalogue, but for the record, please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do.
I’ve been mastering since 1984. But during this time I wasn’t aware that it was called mastering. This term came to me around 1993, when someone told me that what I’m doing… this final treatment of a mix or something, (they told me) that in the States it’s called mastering. And so the name Calyx and the firm has existed since 1994.
I really love the approach that you and your team take towards seeing mastering as a whole process. There’s an impulse, especially now with artists producing themselves in home studios, to throw a lot of processing and plug-ins into the mix to really crank the levels up without consideration for leaving headroom for mastering. There’s an incredible amount of warmth in the record and I’m assuming that was something you were all aiming for?
This is something that Modeselektor is always looking for, a sense of physicality and body to the work. At this point, everyone is tired of this hollow appearance of sound. You cannot grab it, there are no edges. No body. You try to grab it and you are already inside, only to find it is just air. But this is difficult, because this (“Monkeytown”) was not a 24 channel analog production. It is something that comes out of a computer. Modeselektor are working with modern tools, modern techniques and they are not interested in using old production methods. But on the other hand they refuse to accept that what comes out of the computer must sound harsh and synthetic. So we had to work step by step and it’s a long process, but it starts by already finding better solutions in the Logic sessions. We recommended certain plug-ins and worked closely with them to retain the integrity of the sound to avoid the appearance of a “peep show” as opposed to real sex.
Ha! Yeah, exactly. How do you begin the process of mastering, I’ve heard of some engineers approaching it by way of colors and shapes? Do you have a certain way that you visualize the end product before you actually sit down and begin chipping away at it?
Yes. First of all you must… well, not you must (laughs), I do it that way; I combine a certain color. I have a certain picture or visualize a surface or a certain gear, or unit, cable or fixture at a power plant for example. Everything is combined with a color and then a texture in my mind. It could be a rough texture, more shiny & cold or more wooly. We always begin the mastering process with a listening session… listening to records that are in some way similar or have the desired depth. Immediately the brain begins to find the right colors out of the available technical toolbox. Mastering is all about placing the object in the right place in the room. Like an exhibition, you may have to grind the surface, or smooth it, and from there it becomes a question of placing it in just the right place so that the light can best convey its physicality.
One of things I wonder about… is with the rise of blog culture and the fact that more and more music is distributed online in various degraded forms, nevermind the medium that it’s consumed on – from tiny i-Phone speakers and so on… I wonder if that effects the way, even subconsciously, you approach the process?
Yes of course. It is sometimes a little bit disappointing. It will never match the playback set up that we have here, or even the hi-fi set up that we have on the 2nd floor. We had the Ableton team come in the other day for a listening session, they were looking to improve the sound quality inside Ableton Live and obviously our set up makes things much, much clearer. Especially when you are talking about digital degradation; on such a system they are very very audible. It becomes a situation where it makes no sense to achieve the deepest bass you can achieve, you know? (laughs), if it is far away from the capabilities of the playback system. So now we have emulations of smart phones and i-Phones and laptop speakers, especially if someone tells us that it will be exclusively released online. It means we that the whole mastering process is designed so that we can immediately identify which formats the release will work on.
We speak further and I ask him to name two recent recordings that upon listening left him feeling as if something special had been achieved with the sound. He name checks Tyler The Creator’s Goblin. He also shares with me that the James Blake material is a favorite. “I hear it in my car and I think… ‘Everything is in the right place… every note, every touch of reverb is.. just…’ “Gorgeous.” I interject. And he agrees. “It’s beautiful”, he says. And as we end our conversation I realize that this is truly what the mastering process is about. Recognizing the inner beauty in a piece of music, be it the chaotic, violent marauding world of OFWKTA or the more considered, aesthetic textures of James Blake…everything has it’s place, and all of it deserves to be presented in the best light. Mastering. It is a fitting word, but then still the context of the word itself is always, a question of taste.