Piper Payne: A Mastering Engineer for Next-Generation Music, Part One

Piper Payne: A Mastering Engineer for Next-Generation Music, Part One

Written by John Seetoo

Despite her relative youth, Piper Payne has forged a formidable reputation as a mastering engineer, a rarefied set of skills that can make or break a recording commercially. Her work with artists like Third Eye Blind, The Go-Go’s, LeAnn Rimes and others put her on the radar while she began her career in Oakland, California. Now relocated to Nashville and engineering at Infrasonic Mastering, she still involves herself with teaching, and in promoting equality in the studio workplace through her advocacy with the Audio Engineering Society (AES) and other organizations. She is also a co-owner of Physical Music Products, a Nashville record-pressing plant.

John Seetoo: You mentioned in Sound on Sound magazine that you like to coordinate with a mixing engineer before they’re finished with mixing an album, in order to prep your mastering work for the project in question. How often are you able to do that? And is it normally the case that you’re contracted to master a project during the recording or mixing stage or even earlier? And what about when you’re asked to master a project after the mixes have been done for a while? Can you outline your protocols?

Piper Payne: Sure. So…the first part of the question was in regards to how often I’m able to interface with a mixing engineer. I’m able to interface with the mixing engineer ahead of time probably about 50 percent of the time. Sometimes that’s out of necessity, meaning that there might be a really tight turnaround. And it might require us to get on the phone together and come up with a plan to execute the master as quickly (and without any potential revisions) as possible. [Other] times, we have so much time that we have the ability and the runway to be able to work on this thing together.

And sometimes the artist just is, in a way, over it, and wants to have the engineers take over and just get it finished. That’s not always my favorite part; what I really like is for the artists to be engaged in the process. But sometimes, I’m put [in] with the mixing engineer out of necessity, because there’s just been so much back and forth that the artist just says, “Okay, you’ve got to handle it and get it done for me.” And then I’ll be ready when the [final mix] is done.

JS: Is this something that will happen even if you’ve never worked with that mixing engineer or that artist before? Or, is it usually the result of past familiarity with each other?

PP: That’s probably half and half. How’s that for a non-answer? I’d say sometimes out of necessity, because the artists and I are working together for the first time. Maybe I’ve worked with the engineer before. Or maybe because the artists and I have worked together a bunch of times, [but] I’ve never worked with that engineer before. I don’t have any problem with it [either way]. But I do prefer the artists to be more engaged than less.


Piper Payne.

Piper Payne.


JS: Unlike a number of your older peers in the mastering room who cut their teeth on analog tape, you grew up in the digital music production era. So how did your affinity for analog tape come about?

PP: Oh, boy. Well, I think it’s just what you highlighted, which is that I came up in a digital era. Funnily enough, my mom called me about an hour ago. And she said, “I’m watching a documentary and I’ve never seen it before. It’s about music and the history of music. Do you know what the Napster is?” (laughs)

And so that led to another 30-minute long conversation with my mom explaining to her what MP3s are, [what] peer to peer networks are, and how Napster came about and why Napster doesn’t really exist so much anymore. And then I talked to her about streaming. And it was just a very funny…it’s very funny that you asked me this question because I just literally had this conversation with my mom, who was very…she’s a very intelligent woman, but she was not super clued into all of the latest and greatest technologies when I was coming up through audio engineering school.

But it’s funny that you asked that because I [first thought that] everything [that was being recorded was] on computers. That’s why, when someone [first] put a tape machine in front of me, I was like, “wait a minute, this music is the same as the music that’s on the hard drive, [which is] the same music as what’s on this tape.” And somebody said, “no, no, no, this tape is better than the music that’s on the hard drive, because it’s not an interpolation of the sound waves, the digital interpolation; this is the actual analog, [with] the same compression and rarefaction [as] you would hear it live in the room, without any gaps in information. That’s what this analog tape is.”

And that’s where I really fell in love with it. Because I feel like in a lot of ways I’m an engineer because I really like pressing buttons and moving faders and turning knobs and all the tactile functions of being an engineer, and the tape machine really lets me do that. But also the fact that [when listening to an analog master tape] you are only one generation away from being there in the room. Was that magic [there] in the recording? When it’s on tape? That’s pretty cool.

JS: Did you hear a difference? If so, did it happen the first time you heard 2-inch analog tape versus what you’d previously heard in digital, or did it take a while?

PP: I could hear the difference right away. I mean, you hear the hiss. [But] you hear the life in the recording – when you compare it to the digital realm, [digital] sounds sterile, sounds almost too clean, almost creepy, you know. And on [analog] tape, even the compression of tape mimics the way that your ears hear music, the compression in your ears.

I liken it to when you ride motorcycles, and the difference between a carbureted motorcycle and a fuel injected motorcycle. When it’s fuel injected, you hit the throttle and it just goes on right away. Almost like an electric car. But [with] a carbureted motorcycle, you kind of have to work with the bike when you ride it, because there’s the tiniest little delay when you turn the throttle and you feel the engine roar to life. And then it goes…

That’s what it’s like when you are working with the tape machine and you hear the music come out of the speakers. You’re working with it rather than just hitting go and go, like digital.

JS: That’s a wonderful analogy.

PP: You know, there’s merit to each format and I’m not sh*tting on digital either. I mean, there are amazing things that you can do in the digital realm that you just can’t do on analog tape, or vinyl. Some of my very favorite recordings have never seen an analog format. But some of my very favorite recordings have never seen a digital format.

JS: What are some examples?

PP: Morten Lindbergh Lux. He makes these amazing spatial and surround recordings of chamber music groups and they’re done in high-resolution SACD and Blu-ray. But as far as I know I’ve never seen [them] in a [2-channel] analog format and might not even exist in vinyl as far as I know. But then, you look at something like the album by Daniele Luppi and Danger Mouse called Rome. That’s one of my very favorite records in the whole world. And I don’t think it was ever really destined to be listened to in the digital realm, because the vinyl is so much better than the digital releases. I think it was made, I mean, I know it was made on tape. And I think it was made specifically for vinyl because it just sounds so damn good on vinyl. Both of those are modern examples of recordings, not Steely Dan or old orchestral stuff or whatever.

JS: Does your love for analog gear extend to tube amps? Teletronix LA-2A compressors? Pultec equalizers?

PP: Absolutely.

JS: Do you ever use them in conjunction with, say, a UREI/Universal Audio 1176 solid-state analog compressor?

PP: Yeah…some of the things you mentioned are going to be [used for] mixing [rather than mastering]. The mastering [gear] that I would use would be like the old 660-style, Fairchild-style [compressors and] stuff. As far as tube stuff goes, the Pultec, things like that.

But some of my very favorite pieces of gear are not tube. One is a parametric equalizer by GML, the 8200, which is a stalwart, amazing mastering equalizer. And I love the Rupert Neve Designs Portico II Master Buss Processor, I absolutely love that one.

But some of my other favorite gear: I’m looking at my Manley Slam! sitting right in front of me, which is a tube compressor limiter [and mic preamp]. There are other things too, besides just the solid-state and tube [gear] – optical compressors and things like that. They’ve always been part of the chain.

JS: Are there any digital units that you use?

PP: I use some plugins. I use plugins [add-on software used in digital audio workstations – Ed.] on the output of the mix coming out of the computer. I have a Waves L2, an old school L2 Ultramaximizer [peak limiter] that I totally love and I use way too much. [Actually}, I use it really sparingly; it’s more of a seasoning than an actual sound in my chain. I don’t have them anymore, but I used to have the Weiss Instruments DS1 compressor and EQ-1 EQ. Those are really amazing outboard units.

JS: You’re now the owner of Physical Music Products, a vinyl record pressing factory. How did that come about? And what were the steps that led to your other entrepreneurial ventures as well?

PP: You know, I think I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I mean, I remember being six years old knocking on my neighbor’s door and offering to rake their leaves for 20 bucks. I’ve always had my own business. I have my own mastering business. Even when I worked for other mastering firms, I did it as an independent contractor, and ran my own business that way.

But after I was mastering records for quite a while, over and over and over, I had clients coming to me saying, “I know you mastered the vinyl for this. I know that it sounded good when you had it, and I have these test pressings that don’t sound good.” Or, “I have these test pressings that have a problem.” Or, “I have this test pressing where one side of it is my band and another side of it is somebody else’s band, and I don’t even know how that happened!”

Over the years I came to realize that it was almost a necessity for artists to be able to make a physical product that they can control the distribution of, how many they make, how much they charge to sell it, and where they sell it. And there were not a lot of record pressing plants that were catering to independent artists in the right way. There were some plants that were really, really small and not able to do turnaround times relatively quickly. There were some plants that were really, really big that didn’t care about the quality. And I felt like something in the middle of that was needed, where you could have quick turnaround time, but still have good-quality records coming out, that didn’t have to be the 500,000 Adele records, you know, to just be able to get something quick.

So about five years ago, I started a venture with some partners in the Bay Area. I learned so much, and I made amazing connections in doing this, but it failed miserably. We had enough money to open doors, but then didn’t have enough in reserve to continue operations. When I closed that chapter and left, they ended up going bankrupt shortly after. I left to go to Nashville, because my mastering company, Neato Mastering, that I had started and ran for a few years up in Oakland…I got an opportunity to join the family of Infrasonic Mastering. Pete Lyman, who owns the company, offered to get me out to Nashville to be able to cut records more often out of Nashville, rather than just existing in my Oakland studio. And so, I ended up coming out here.

And luckily enough, I’ve made a couple of really wonderful connections here in Nashville, and one of the main investors in that previous Oakland venture kind of followed me along and said, “if you want to do it in in Nashville, we’ll be happy to help you with some seed money to open a plant in Nashville.” To be honest, I was pretty…I had a little bit of PTSD from opening that first one. So it took me a little while to kind of get my feet on the ground here in Nashville and build it again.

But for the last two and a half years, I’ve been working on opening this plant [Physical Music Products]. We built out [the facility to accommodate] 12 presses, instead of just the one that we had in Oakland. I brought my technology for quality control and quality tracking [of] records at scale. I think, this week we should press our 100,000th record after being open for only six months.

JS: Congratulations.

PP: Thank you very much. Yes, very exciting. We worked really, really hard, around the clock for going on three years now. It’s been an absolute nightmare and a dream all at the same time. But we have three running automatic presses, which puts me solidly into the sort of mid-sized plant pack. And we’ve built out for 12, so we will just continue to grow. I’m happy to report that our quality is very, very good. And our turnaround times are unheard of.

We’ve been turning around thousands of records in less than a month, from lacquer to finished goods delivered. Those are the kinds of turnaround times that really should be happening. This whole 9 to 12 to 18 months wait…in some cases, 18-month turnaround times, is absolute bulls*it. There’s no reason that these records should be taking as long as they are and we’re proving it every day. So Physical Music Products is definitely a labor of love, but it’s really starting to pay off now and I’m starting to see happy clients. We’re turning around a lot of records really quickly, and they are of the quality that I would expect to come out of a record plant of any size. Nowhere to go but up with that.

Part Two of this interview will appear in Issue 173.


All images courtesy of Piper Payne.

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