Ear Magic: A Conversation with Erik Blood and Adam Straney

In the music world, most people have only a vague idea of what mastering is or what it does. I know it’s important because it’s credited on pretty much every album that gets released, but ask anyone and they’ll usually resort to esoteric terminology to describe this secret alchemical process of making music suitable for mass consumption. It’s often described as a “dark art.”

To pierce the veil of this mystical vocation, I talked to a pair of local music notables, Erik Blood and Adam Straney. Blood is a producer and musician whose exceptional new album, Lost in Slow Motion, drops tomorrow. He’s produced albums for Shabazz Palaces, Vox Mod, TheeSatisfaction, the Moondoggies, TacocaT and many, many others. Straney is the proprietor of Breakpoint Mastering and Blood’s go-to guy for putting the final touches on his prodigious production output. They’ve been working together since 2013.

I met with Blood and Straney at Jules Maes in Georgetown to talk about the craft. The first thing I learned is that Straney’s job title is “mastering engineer” and not “masterer,” as I’d previously thought. “I think that’s a BDSM term,” Blood quipped.   

What is mastering? Erik says even he doesn’t know exactly what it is you do.
Adam Straney: It’s a giant scam. [Laughs] 

So this’ll be an exposé.
Straney: Mastering is a lot different nowadays. It used to just be the guy who’d make sure the mixes sound good as they go onto vinyl. Now it’s a whole broad topic.

You’re like a book editor. You get the rough draft and start reading it. You listen to it on really, really good monitors in an acoustically tuned room, a neutral room built so you can hear every single thing, whether it’s super-high treble or low bass or some random resonance that’s sticking out or something that’s out of phase—distortion, clicks, pops.

You’re going in there and intervening, fixing that.
Straney: Like a book editor, you find the mistakes, then send it back and say, “This is what should be fixed,” or “This is good,” or “I can fix this on my side with the tools I have in my studio.”

There’s also some artistry to it, right? It’s not just proofreading.
Straney: It’s a cross between science and art, having the ear and knowing the producer or mixer’s intent.

You’ve done a bunch of work with Erik. What kind of prompts does he give you?
Straney: With Shabazz [Palaces], they do their own thing. A lot of projects, I’ll hear things that need to be fixed. With Shabazz I went in knowing that they’re “out there” and psychedelic, but at first I thought, “I should fix this and this.” Then I was like, “No I’m just gonna sit down and listen to it.” You feel it and you know what they’re going for after you hear the record and digest it. From there I just did little tweaks to bring out the good—

Blood: —and minimize the shit.

Straney: It’s like making it bloom.

Erik, did you give him any prompts for your new album?
Blood: At this point I don’t really have to say anything. How long has it been now? Four years? The Vox Mod thing [SYN-ÆSTHETIC, from 2013] was the first one.

Straney: We didn’t even know each other then.

Blood: But I was so impressed with how those masters came back. I think after that I sent Stres to you and Little Penguins. And both of those, they came back perfect. He heard what I was trying to do; he heard my mixes the way they are.

The analogy I always had for mastering is, you send your kid to fat camp and when he comes back he’s slim and trim. If you’re lucky it’s the same kid and no traumatic events have taken place. He’s been working on all the stuff I’ve done since getting into this studio [Black Space]. I think getting masters back from him has improved my mixing.

You anticipate what he’s gonna do-
Blood: I learn things about the frequency response in the room I mix in and my monitors, what placements work. I kinda know how things will turn out at this point. It’s a lot less of a mystery than it used to be, when I was just mixing for whatever speakers I was on and if it sounds good in my car it’s fine.

Do you use that test as well?
Straney: I did for a long time until I got this new room that I built and these new speakers. I trust them. I do test on a laptop or a stereo system, but I’ve pretty much got it locked in now.

It seems like a lot of internal calibration and learning to trust your equipment.
Straney: It’s building your ear. It’s not really the equipment; it’s your ear and how you know your room.

Can you train your ears like a sommelier trains his palate?
Straney: That’s basically what it is.

Erik said that he conceives of his mix as existing in an imaginary physical space. Does that play into what you do?
Straney: It’s more of a vibe that you get from the masters. The mixes Erik sends me are usually really good. I don’t have to do much. It’s the decision of, “Do I do stuff or do I not do stuff?” That’s the main thing, to know when to stop and when to process. You learn as you master more and more material. When I first started I was like, “I’ve got all this awesome gear! I’m gonna throw it through this, process it with this, etc.” You learn over time.

In art it can be easy to become jaded or complacent—“This is what works, so this is what I’m gonna do”—and that fights against innovation. Is there a way to spur yourself to not become complacent?
Blood: I don’t know that I’m ever terribly complacent.

Are you addicted to novelty? Listening to [Erik's earlier album] Transom, there’s so many weird sounds on there I don’t know how you arrived at them.
Blood: I don’t even know. They happen. The sounds show up and I use ‘em how I use ‘em. And I work with so many different people and different types of music and sound sources I can’t really be complacent with anything. I always have to be on my game. There are situations where I just know what to do, but that comes from having done it for 20 years. Some things I don’t have to think too much about.

[To Straney] Do you do anything to freshen your ears up?
Straney: First of all, I love every second of it. I love doing it. It’s fun. At the same time, I’m like him—I’ll do a folk record then a hardcore record, some electric stuff, some weird lo-fi stuff, jazz. Every album is completely different.

Do you guys ever hear stuff blaring out of a speaker and think, “Ugh, they fucked that up”?
Straney: I try not to judge. I used to be a projectionist for a movie theatre and I stopped going to movies because I’d see all the scratches in the film and it’d drive me insane. But I don’t really listen to music anymore. I don’t have time—I’d rather be working on it.

Tell me a specific thing you’d do to a recording.
Straney: A lot of people think mastering is just compressing. I talked to a guy in a bar a couple weeks ago and he said, “Aw, you just compress stuff. That’s all you do.” But the thing is I have really, really good compressors and I barely even touch them. I’ll send it through that to get the tone and the vibe of that gear, but the needle’s barely moving on it.

Blood: It’s color. It’s tint.

Straney: If I have to fix stuff it’s mostly EQ. I’ll get mixes from kids on laptops making beats in their bedrooms, and I love that stuff but a lot of times it’s super bass-y, out-of-control bass-y. They’re just throwing the 808 on it—they want 808. If you lay that on certain speakers it’s just gonna sound like muffled bass. I have to tone it down a bit and EQ it out. Bring up the mids and the highs to make an even picture.

I have a bunch of different EQs for different tones. I have really tube-y, saturated, thick-sounding EQs and clean EQs, and depending on the song type and genre and the sound they’re going for I can go back and forth or combine. That’s where the magic happens, when I start combining the gear and using a little bit of each. You can hear the magic coming together, you rearrange and reorder it in the patch bay and suddenly it sounds different. So I’ll find the best range of gear to use and dial it in slowly.

Blood: It’s science. There’s a control and there are various combinations of test groups that can result in any sort of reaction. It’s super scientific and it’s also magic, which I can’t grasp. I cannot do mastering at all.

You’ve tried?
Blood: I have tried and I’m fucking terrible at it. I’d rather make the mistakes on the mixing end and have him fix it.

You were talking about how the mastering engineer looks at the album as a whole and tries to make the sound coherent throughout-
Blood: Yeah, you can’t have one song be insanely loud and then the next song be insanely quiet, or have the same instrument have distractingly different frequency responses. Aside from Shabazz...

Straney: That was a good lesson in mastering.

How so?
Straney: Every classic no-no in recording is on those [Shabazz] albums, like where it’s out of phase or there’s crazy bass. I had to learn to embrace it and go with it.

Blood: And be challenged by it.

I feel like that album [Lese Majesty] is novelistic; it’s got these worlds inside of it. So your book editor concept feels right.
Straney: Yeah, the chapters-

Interludes and forays into something else-
Straney: And then there’s the blending session. You blend the tracks together to get ‘em all in sync. That’s another thing about mastering you don’t think about; I’ll get songs with 20 seconds of silence at the beginning or the end and you have to chop it down and fade things out. Even a half second between songs can disturb your experience of listening to the album.

One of the things that blows my mind about what both of you do is that the release schedules are so glacial. Erik’s album was done, what, a year ago? And it’s just now getting released. You’re on a different timeframe than the listening audience.
Straney: That’s the fun part.

You’re like, “These motherfuckers have no idea what’s coming down on their heads.”
Straney: “I heard this a year ago!” It’s cool. He gets to hear it before me. He gets to see it happen.

Blood: I get to make it! I’m finding more and more that I’m meeting artists who have relationships with mastering engineers. It’s not just me. I trust Adam with my stuff no matter what. Every mastering engineer has their own style of how they do their craft, and some people get really attached to a specific style of mastering. No matter who they’re recording with or what they’re doing, that guy has their back. Which is Adam for me.

He’s part of the Erik Blood flavor.
Blood: The last two Shabazz albums were mastered twice. One was straight up rejected each time. Adam did Lese Majesty and another guy did it who I won’t mention—it was good, a perfectly serviceable master, you could release it and not be mad about it. But when we did the A-B comparison, we’re in the studio and Ish [Butler, of Shabazz Palaces] is listening to it on the headphones and on the monitors and he says, “To me there’s no question, it’s Adam’s.” I totally agreed, of course.

But it was interesting to me: Here’s two of the same book, and one has a different cover and a different typeface. It’s all the same info but your eyes are gonna enjoy one more.

Do you ever worry that the most awesome things you do are so abstruse that most people wouldn’t even know it or ever recognize the skill involved?
Straney: That’s the late-at-night thought, lying in bed. I spend so much time and money on gear and no sleep and then people are gonna download the mp3 and listen to it on their earbuds. At the same time, from recording to mixing to mastering, every little vibe in that—even the attitudes of the musicians in the studio—can change the way a song sounds. They’re playing the same exact thing but if they’re feeling good that’ll come across in the music. And every little process comes across when you’re hearing it in your earbuds at the gym or whatever.

You think people still perceive it even though they don’t know.
Straney: Yeah. It’s a subconscious vibe that comes across.

Do you feel like mastering engineers are underappreciated? Does it ever bother you that you’re never gonna get the marquee?
Straney: I don’t care about that. When I’m working with producers and mixers and musicians, their praise [is what matters]. And it’s just fun—that’s why I got into it. I was making my own music and I went to a mastering studio and I saw what they were doing. John McCaig at panicStudios in West Seattle, he was just so cool. I was like, “This guy gets to hang out mastering in his house, in his studio? I wanna do that.”

But to watch what he does, it’s just him with headphones on, tweaking knobs—
Blood: There’s no dancing involved.

There’s no dance montage?
Straney: It’s just hearing what was before and after, what was changed. It’s the key that goes off in my head. It’s a huge thing that happens.

It’s a solitary job, right? When your point of contact is Erik, who doesn’t even give you much direction anymore, he just kicks you some files and sends you a text and then you’re alone in your studio for hours.
Blood: We meet up for whiskey every month.

Straney: It’s what I like to do. I like doing it at night when everyone else is asleep. It’s silent everywhere. You go outside and it’s just quiet streets, then you go in and you’re working on a record no one’s ever heard. It’s that feeling: “This is gonna be awesome.”

Erik Blood photo by Mandy McGee.

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