Brian Gardner is one of a handful of the most respected and successful mastering engineers in the world. For decades, he has mastered some of the most notable recordings with hundreds of gold and platinum records to his credit. His staying power is still evident today by being able to command up to 6 out of the top ten albums on the charts. His artist roster is whoever the biggest stars are at any point in time, such as: Michael Jackson, 2 Pac, Outkast, Eminem, En Vogue, Foo Fighters, Duran Duran, Linkin Park, Dr.Dre, Beck, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Rush, Mary J. Blige, Ice Cube, Christina Aguilera, Blink 182, Pink, Nelly Furtado, No Doubt, Enrique Iglesias, Cheap Trick, Glen Campbell, Van Halen, and Janet Jackson, to name only a few. He is truly an engineer with a wide range of expertise.
So Brian, before we get into discussing the mastering of the new Rush album, tell us a little bit about you, how you got into mastering and how you ended up at working at Bernie Grundman Mastering?
I’ve always had a love for music since I was 7 or 8 and learned to play the piano. I regret to this day not pursuing it and I had quit so I could goof off with my friends. I started mastering for schools and college bands etc. and eventually progressed to the pro level at RCA Records in Hollywood in 1965 where I was thrust into the fast lane right off the bat by mastering people like The Jackson Five, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Guess Who, Harry Nilsson, The Monkees, Jose Feliciano, Jefferson Airplane, etc. and started doing some engineering as well. Fantasy Records plucked me out of RCA to work with them up in Berkeley because of Creedence and I spent many years up in Berkeley and worked a lot with Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia. Later I moved back to LA and had a very successful run at Allen Zentz Mastering through the Casablanca Era with Donna Summer, Kiss, George Clinton including Funkadelics, Parliament, Player, Gloria Gaynor, Ozzy Osborne, Laura Brannigan.. the list goes on. In 1984 I started with Bernie Grundman Mastering and I’ve been with Bernie ever since with a huge run of mega hits. (MAN, if I had only gotten points.woe…).
Coming to ‘Clockwork Angels’, you also mastered the band’s last album in 2007 (“Snakes & Arrows”). What differences were there between the two albums in how you approached the mastering?
The last album in 2007 was mostly one inch two track and was more dense and had a thicker texture than the new album. Technically Nick Raskulenicz [producer on Clockwork Angels] had it together as always and made my work so much easier. Artistically with Clockwork Angels, there seemed to be a turn towards more presence and I noticed an artistic shift in the overall vibe, that being it was more an atmospheric feel being blended in, so any altering of EQ had to be done carefully but regardless the Brilliance of Rush would prevail.
What were Rush’s specific wants and needs for the mastering on this album?
Each member had their particular concerns, relative of course to their parts. It is awesome hanging with these legends, being casual, at the same time paying attention to the mastering. Nick’s nature is to loosen the vibe up with his very presence and he made everyone feel at ease. We’d often be engaged in idle chit-chat while this huge sound of music permeated the room. Very cool guys.
The overall sound on Clockwork Angels is very clean compared to the dense sound of Snakes & Arrows. Was that a deliberate move? And how did it affect how you mastered Clockwork Angels?
The one inch 2 track approach is interesting and can lend that ‘thickness’ to mix in a different manor than 1/2 inch. I basically work with what I have at hand and make the best of it. The digital domain is getting better and better. Still a ways to go yet to match that analog sound the die hards love. Currently I’m fooled often in the world of digital in that I swear it’s an analog production, which goes to show you that we are ascending and analog as we know it is fading away…….. The new album mixes were digital and Nick had it pretty well laid out requiring less to do in mastering.
As to my approach in mastering Snakes and Arrows, whenever I need to enhance a vocal or a guitar solo for instance, I have to be very careful on what range to boost or attenuate, which bandwidth to use, and how much etc. These approaches are very program dependent and knowing when you can get away with it or not is very tricky. When you start messing with the whole program material, everything in that range you are tweaking is of course affected. One db of boost in the guitar range which can be anywhere from 800hz to 4khz will also bring any percussive elements or keyboards or even the vocals with it. So knowing when to or when not to do anything is where my decades experience helps. This same approach can be applied to too much of any frequency range and the ‘backing off’ of any particular frequency can be equally tricky if not more so.
With Clockwork Angels, there was a definite turn towards more presence but again everything was pretty much set sonically and any altering of EQ had to be done carefully. Geddy definitely had say in some instances where a clarification of a vocal line or a bass line as did Alex in certain guitar sections. Neil slipped me a $20 to make sure the drums predominated….kidding!
How did you first get involved in mastering Rush’s music and what led them to approach you in the first place?
Well I’m sure it was time they integrated my sophisticated crunch to their sound and I believe Nick was partially instrumental in bringing them to me. We have had great results in the past and felt adding my approach to the Rush sound would be a good thing.
Did you listen to their past work to get a handle on their sound, or did you go in with a blank canvas?
You have to approach each project individually as there is no one setting or solution to manipulating the sound. Each song is different. With Rush there is a lot of ‘feel’ that you go for and that can be enhancing just the ambiance or maybe adding clarity to transients or adding a slight edge all of which is dependent on the program material. Today’s levels and crunch have become a part of the general sound out there and can be difficult controlling.
There is a real controversy surrounding the band’s 2002 album “Vapor Trails” inasmuch as it’s one of those albums that seems to have been mastered “loud.” What are your thoughts on that album now, and would you approach it differently were you to re-master it?
That album for what it was … is what it was. You can’t really judge it. It was what they all came up with at that time. Had it been different, who knows, it may not have been as good.
Our thanks to Brian. You can learn more about Brian’s work at www.berniegrundmanmastering.com
You can read Rob Palladino’s excellent review of Clockwork Angels here