Interview: Dan Randall, The Mastering Engineer of Iron Reagan as well as ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Adventure Time’
For most music fans, mastering will forever be a strange and ephemeral process. It’s the final stage of album production, where creative decisions are set aside in favor of service to the record. In a nutshell, recordings and their mixes are given the final sonic touches needed to sound their best. Many albums have been saved by great mastering, and many have been ruined by poor attempts.
Luckily for fans of underground punk and metal, Dan Randall of Mammoth Sound Mastering is one of the good ones. He’s had a colorful career in his field, having laid his hands on bands ranging from California punk legends Annihilation Time! to Teutonic thrash grandmasters Sodom. His work has even expanded into film and television projects like Star Trek: Into Darkness and Adventure Time.
Sometime back, I had the opportunity with chatting with Randall inside his home base at Mammoth Sound — I picked Randall’s brain about his career, education in audio and of course, his gear.
What is the process of mastering?
Mastering is enhancing a mix to its greatest potential and then making sure that mix is acceptable for reproduction. You sort of know how to get where you need to. You listen to a mix from a mastering standpoint, you hear it and you know where you need to go. The process is how you get there. I think at the end, you know if you’ve gotten there or if you’re close.
The creative decisions that mix engineers can make are pretty easy to guess: panning, instrument levels, delay and reverb, etc. What are some of the tools that mastering engineers can use?
A lot of it depends on the mix. Your EQ and compression and all of the different steps that you’re taking to master a mix are completely dependent on how it came in. For example if your mix came in with a lot of compression, you’d back off on compressing it and vice versa. Compression is a delicate thing. It has to be applied correctly. It’s something that is often misused.
I worked on a project with Bob Weston once and we had a really interesting discussion about the overuse of compression and limiting these days. He had just remastered the entire Jesus Lizard catalog and he told me that they didn’t use any compression on it so no wonder it sounds so good! [Laughs]
There are all sorts of tricks at your fingertips, but with every master you are trying to work towards the same goal. You take the mix and EQ, compress and limit accordingly depending on how the mix sounds. The interesting thing is you get used to different mix engineer’s techniques and styles and you start to get to the point where it’s like, “Oh, this is coming from this studio. I’ll probably be approaching it in this sort of way,” that kind of thing. But regardless, every mix is unique.
There’s a vice-versa relationship too. I’m sure there are mix engineers that go to you because they know how you’ll treat their mix.
Yeah! I’m sure there are. A lot of the people I’ve worked with are recidivists. [Laughs] You shouldn’t have a “style of mastering” though. Your “style of mastering” should be that everything you do sounds great. You’re trying to enhance everyone’s mix to its highest potential, and every mix is going to sound different. If every one of your masters sounded exactly the same, that might be a little weird.
Do mastering engineers have to take a more objective role in the process then?
Well, one of the interesting parts of the job is interpreting what you’re given and knowing what you’re going for. You might assess a mix and say, “This doesn’t have enough low end, this has too much low end, the highs are too shrill, etc, etc” but then you also have to look at it in the context of the style of music. You have to think about the fact that this was the mix that was delivered to you. If this sound was the intention of the band — the mix is in theory as close as possible to what they are going for in the first place — then you don’t want to change it too much. There are a lot of different factors to consider.
I heard about Mammoth Sound from it being known as one of the go-to mastering houses for punk and metal bands. Are those bands the core of your clientele?
Actually no. It started with punk and metal, that’s kind of what got me going at first. At this point, I do everything. Film scores, rap and hip hop, folk, classical, all kinds of stuff. That’s what keeps this job so interesting to me. I think it’s really important for engineers to listen to every genre of music and be familiar with them, as well as be able to work in every genre of music. You often have to switch gears drastically, I’ll have to switch from mastering death metal to a classical score in the same day sometimes, which involve completely different approaches.
I love mastering punk and metal to death, it’s what I’ve listened to for most of my life. That being said, if I had to master only punk and metal every day, then it would get pretty tiring. It’s important to be able to switch gears, it keeps you on your toes and keeps things interesting.
How did you get into audio in the first place?
When I was in high school I played in a band and I had a radio show in Santa Cruz called The Farce, which was more or less an excuse to play Rudimentary Peni records all day. That was the first time I was in front of a board, and I think that probably had a lot to do with it. When I left home, I went to SFSU and got a degree in sound engineering. I was playing in bands the whole time and sound engineering was something that had always been interesting to me. I recorded a bunch of albums with those bands and would always get involved in the tracking and mixing, it was something that piqued my interest early on.
You went to school for sound then. So many kids go to places like Full Sail or Ex’pression College, pay lots of money for a degree and don’t do much with it. How did the academic side of things help you, if at all?
The interesting thing about going to school for sound was that the program was great and offers a great base understanding of sound engineering, but I think much of what I know about mastering I learned by building my own studio from the ground up. It’s completely different when you walk into a studio and you set up and go. When it’s your livelihood it’s much different. If something isn’t working, you figure out how to fix it immediately, and you never forget that.
Of all fields in the audio world, why did you choose mastering?
It was always just really interesting to me. I was mixing and recording bands throughout the program and mastering stuck out most to me, because we had records coming out at that time that needed mastering. They didn’t spend a lot of time teaching it, so I took the professor aside and asked him, “Will you teach me this?” So for a long time, he would teach me how to master in the studio, one on one. That’s where I started mastering, at the SFSU studio just doing our own records. I was heavily involved in the music scene at the time, playing in three bands, going to shows constantly, putting records out, so I just knew a lot of people in bands. They’d hear my stuff, want me to master their stuff, so I kind of started out as doing stuff for friends of mine like Scotty at Tankcrimes, Brandon from No Way Records, Alex at Grave Mistake. Then just friends’ bands like Impaled, Annihilation Time, stuff like that.
You did all this stuff while you were in school?
I was playing in Strung Up, Ghoul and Desolation, working at a coffee shop, and double-majoring in Sound Engineering and Political Science at SFSU. Honestly, I have no idea how I did it. When I look back on it, I was practicing with bands five days a week. I don’t know if I could do that now. [Laughs] I’m glad I did, it was super fun and everything sort of worked out the way I hoped it would. I got to play all the music I wanted to play, and start a business doing what I love. I don’t regret it.
So how did you go from being a kid fresh out of sound engineering school to doing foley for House of Cards?
Well, my goal was to work sound for film and when I graduated that seemed nearly impossible. I sort of put that dream aside and decided to pursue something I already knew I was good at, took a huge loan out and started Mammoth. So maybe five years later I had some friends who had made their way into the film industry. One of them ended up getting me a job doing foley for Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. While I was working on that, I got the call from a much larger studio and everything escalated from there.
That loan you took out, what did it go towards?
I bought a bunch of outboard gear and some really nice speakers, a Pro Tools HD rig, etc. When I started out, the first EQ I had was a Drawmer Tube EQ and I didn’t like it. [Laughs] It was kind of funny because when I started out I really wanted the Manley gear. I figured that I couldn’t afford it, so I bought something that cost half as much and I didn’t really like it. I quickly realized that instead of buying things that are half as good as what I want, I’d rather just buy what I want, be in debt and have the best gear to do the best job.
As opposed to plugins?
I use plugins as well within reason. These days, now that everything has become so affordable it’s strange to me to see mastering studios open up with no gear. That debate will rage on for eternity. There’s just something about working with outboard gear though that just seems right to me… Plugins have gotten better and better of course, I don’t think that people should only use one or the other. I’ve got a hybrid system myself. It’s sad to me to think though, that there could be a moment in the future when there is no gear in the studio. People aren’t going to be learning on the gear that made so many amazing records. There are clearly pieces of gear that are way better than plugins. I stand more on the gear side than the plugin side but that being said, plugins are very useful. There are things my plugins can do that my gear can’t and vice versa.
With gear, there’s a physical attachment too. It’s like buying a record.
Yeah, it’s more fun! [Laughs] I feel like you are more into what you’re doing not in the sense of enthusiasm, but you’re attached to your studio more. I don’t know if plugins are ever going to shed the idea of being cheap. You can stand on whatever side you want, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason why gear isn’t plummeting in price. If these plugins were really that close, no one would be buying the gear anymore and I don’t see that happening honestly. To me, it comes down to being resistant to the idea of reducing the amount of effects I have on a mix to an equation. There’s something about using analog gear that’s a lot more real to me. It’s funny to me because people have done all these shootouts, but I always feel like there’s this kind of fakeness that comes from having something produced entirely digitally.
You started a business right when piracy in the audio industry had already exploded. Did that have an impact on your business?
I actually don’t think that really affected Mammoth very much. I don’t even really know all that much about piracy, because I don’t download anything. I never really saw it affect business in any way. I don’t think you can really run a mastering studio exclusively with pirated gear. Not effectively at least. I think what’s affected the industry more is social media. These days, anybody can start a Twitter page and there isn’t much quality control. It’s kind of sad, to see great engineers go out of business because they chose not to keep up with that. Why would they? It’s really not that important, you don’t see the best mastering engineers in the world tweeting all day. It’s a little sad to me that it’s somehow become important. I try to keep up with that stuff, but honestly I can’t stand it.
Was there a moment when it clicked for you that mastering was a viable career?
That happened pretty early on honestly. Like I said before, I was really involved in the music scene, being bands and knowing a lot of bands and labels. Mastering was something that wasn’t easy to come by, I guess you could say. It wasn’t easy to find a mastering engineer that was super familiar with punk or death metal or whatever. The main thing was that I saw a lot of bands who didn’t know where to go. So I started reaching out to all these bands that I liked and listened to. Now there’s like fuckin’ 1000 people doing it, but at the time it seemed like there was like a void that needed to be filled.
Over the years as business as grown, have you had to adjust rates and the way you take on projects?
A little bit. I adjust my rates for major labels, definitely. The rates really haven’t increased all that much. I have a hard time raising my rates, and I think it comes from growing up in the punk scene where there’s such a DIY ethic. It’s like when 924 Gilman raised the rates by two dollars and everyone freaked out. I feel like if you’re going to raise your rates by a significant amount, there should be a significant reason why. I’ve only really raised my rates incrementally when I’ve gotten a better piece of gear, or something like that.
How did you get involved with the movie and TV soundtracks like The Walking Dead?
It was because I did a lot of stuff for a heavy metal label called Heavy Artillery. Heavy Artillery was sold, and then Dave Amcher decided to start a soundtrack label. It’s funny because I didn’t hear from him for years and I didn’t know about what happened to Heavy Artillery, and he calls me out of the blue and says, “I want you to master the District 9 soundtrack,” and I was like, “Yes!” [Laughs] He started this label Spacelab9 and they do stuff with Sony Madison Gate. So then I started doing stuff with Madison Gate as well, so that’s how Better Call Saul, The Blacklist, Justified and so on came along.
With soundtracks like Better Call Saul that are more or less compilations of commercial tracks, how would you compare mastering that kind of album vs. a more conventional record?
With a regular album, you have more or less the same mix front-to-back whereas for soundtracks, you sometimes have drastically different mixes for every song. The point is to basically get everything to flow together, so sometimes you are trying to match a Nina Simone track to some blaringly loud contemporary pop song. You’re trying to find that balance. You might have one song with its dynamic range intact and it’s followed by another song that’s already crushed to death. If you were going to play it for someone schooled in classical music, if you master it based on the contemporary stuff then they would think that the classical tracks were crushed. If you mastered it like you would a classical record, then the pop fans would think that the pop songs are way too quiet. Getting a good balance between the two is the hard part, but it’s also the fun part about it.
Spacelab9 has expanded into some pretty oddball soundtracks. One that I wanted to talk about was The Addams Family. What are the challenges that you face in mastering music that old?
Well, it depends on the type of music and how old we’re talking. That mix specifically was slightly high-endy which I wanted to tend to subtly. I had to find a unique balance between making it a bit more pleasurable and full-sounding, without veering too far away from the original spirit of the soundtrack. That’s the case with any remaster really. Within reason, you want to take the original intention that the mix had and enhance as best you can. The Addams Family was really fun to work on because it’s so classic. It’s fun to have a mix like that at your fingertips and mess around with it as much as you want, coming up with different masters and settling on one that you think is a good balance between how it originally sounded and a good modern remaster.
Recently, you remastered a couple of the old Sodom records: Persecution Mania and Obsessed by Cruelty. For the latter album in particular, one of the mixes had never been digitally mastered. What problems from the original releases did you try to fix with these new versions? Did the tapes come to you in good condition?
The mixes actually came in great condition. They were mastered with a combination of analog and digital outboard gear to try and enhance the mix yet retain the original feel. I wouldn’t say there were many problems with the original releases, it’s all about trying to get everything relatively balanced without pissing off rabid Sodom fans who’ve been used to listening to the original releases for the past 30 years. [Laughs]
You also tackled the reissues of the Spazz compilations. What was your first reaction when you got the job to remaster those records? How do you go about striking the balance between fidelity and authenticity to the original demo sound?
I was really excited to work on the Spazz collections. I’ve known Dan (Bolleri, vocals/guitars) and Max (Ward, drums) for a long time, I love those dudes and it was great to get to work with such killer stuff I grew up listening to. Again, it’s all about trying to enhance the original feel of the track without straying too far from the original sound. In this case, like 167 times.
Let’s shift the topic to more modern mastering trends… Let’s talk about the loudness wars.
The loudness wars. Yeah, I don’t know. Jesus. Didn’t Bob Katz declare the loudness wars being won a couple years ago? [Laughs] I mean I still hear records come out that are just crushed to death, which I think is kind of strange. A lot of that seems like over-compression to me. With the advent of programs like Soundcheck and ReplayGain that iTunes and Spotify use, it doesn’t make any sense to crush your records because those programs are just going to gain match anyway. Then you end up having this interesting middle ground where you want the record to be competitively loud on the outset but if people are going to listen to this on iTunes or Spotify, you have to find a middle ground between competing at the CD level and also at that iTunes level so to speak. I don’t like crushing mixes at all though. As long as you’re paying attention to the RMS level it shouldn’t be a problem for you, but I’m not so sure everyone is doing that these days. [Laughs]
When you make something loud, what gets compromised?
Dynamics. I think that metal especially has sort of suffered from this loudness war. To me, when a master’s done, it’s because it sounds open and alive. I feel like this contemporary mastering technique—if you can call it that—of hyper-compressing, whether it’s pop or metal or rock, it doesn’t have that open and live feeling because there are no dynamics left. It leaves recordings sounding very flat and dull.
I get material from time to time where the mix is crushed, and I have to reject them. To me, that’s not an acceptable mix. It’s past the point of being able to work with it. I’ve had projects where it’s all they have you know, “We lost our mix and this is all we have left,” and it’s difficult for me to turn stuff like that down because I don’t want to be mean. [Laughs] I don’t pick and choose what I do, because some of the best projects that I’ve ever done are bands that no one’s ever heard of. There’s something exciting about listening to a band you or no one else has heard of before and you think, “This is awesome.”