After establishing her reputation as a mastering engineer over the past decade in Oakland, California for such artists as Third Eye Blind, The Go-Go’s, and LeAnn Rimes, Piper Payne merged her company with Infrasonic Mastering in Nashville, and has also expanded her audio industry involvement to become a co-owner of Physical Music Products, a Nashville vinyl record pressing plant. In Part One of this interview, (Copper Issue 172), she discussed her mastering work protocols, her love of analog tape and equipment, and how she started Physical Music Products. She continues here, talking about her first exposure to mastering and studio work, how she approaches mastering for different music genres, the challenges of working with mastering for different formats, and her opinions on the DIY recording movement.
John Seetoo: In the past, I’ve interviewed Steve Hoffman for Copper and he related the tale of having to remaster Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, and having to deal with restoring tapes that had stretched over the decades. Does Physical Music Products focus on newly-released music only, or does it also do restoration and reissues? And have you ever had to face similar challenges in your mastering, given your familiarity with analog tape and its physical limitations?
Piper Payne: Yeah, I have had to deal with some things here and there, nothing that’s worth noting. But funny enough, Infrasonic and Physical Music Products have a little, very friendly relationship because I’m kind of a conduit between the two companies. And Infrasonic has a division called Infrasonic Transfers and Archival, which services projects that Physical Music Products will press. So, we do have a division that handles restoration and archiving and remastering, and I’m happy to report that we’re working on some projects right now, even though we’re all really early in the relationship, but there are some projects that are in the works where the two companies can collaborate.
My wife is an archival engineer and one of the very best in the world. So, I would never call myself an archival engineer, although I did spend some time at an archival company, just transferring tapes. Catherine has already forgotten more than I will ever learn about restoration. I leave it to the professionals. (laughs)
But I love the process of it. And I love that every time someone comes to me with a new opportunity for either restoring or reissuing an old recording, there’s always something that’s never seen the light of day that gets included in that. And that’s my favorite part about all of it, to be able to hear and see new [material] tacked on to these old releases. And you never really know what you’re gonna get.
JS: Are you at liberty to talk about or promote any kind of remastered reissues in the pipeline?
PP: Not yet.
JS: Your bio states that you started in music as a drummer, but how did you migrate to the other side of the console? What led you to specialize in mastering, which you have called “my first love?”
PP: That’s a great question. I still kind of consider myself a recovering drummer. I still have a drum kit. And once in a while, I’ll pick up a pair of sticks and a practice pad. But for the most part, I just play the knobs and buttons. My first inquiries into what recordings were [was] when I was in high school jazz bands. We were lucky enough as a jazz band to be recorded; we had a budget to hire a recording engineer for our concerts. They would make CDs, and whenever we would get the CDs back, I would always be really confused as to why, when I’m sitting at the drum kit playing, I’m hearing myself with my snare drum and my hi-hat on my left-hand side, [and] my ride cymbal on the right-hand side. And then when I would get the recording back, I would hear the snare drum and the hi-hat on the right-hand side, and the ride cymbal on the left-hand side, I was just always really confused by that. I never got to the point where I would find the guy’s number and call him up and ask him or anything like that.
But then later on, when I learned what recording [was], I learned that recording engineering was a field [where it was] likely that a man was the recording engineer, and that what he was doing was making decisions about the sound that might be helpful for the overall recording of the music. [I thought] that could be a field that I could go into and learn more about. I started really diving into that and into classical recording and acoustic ensemble recording. I ended up pursuing that as a degree program at University of Michigan, and really, really focusing on classical recording.
When I went off to grad school in Norway, I found that there was an engineer based there who was a mastering engineer. He brought me in to do some quality control and basic studio assistant stuff. I didn’t know anything about mastering at the time, but I found out about what he did, which was [to] focus on [making] high-quality recordings, keep the fidelity, [and] do the quality and detail checking.
But he was also working on all different types of music. That was kind of a part of the one little pang I always had when I had chosen my degree program, which was, again, focused on classical recording specifically. I was like, “yeah, but I like all different kinds of music; I like rock and pop and hip-hop, and jazz and spoken word, orchestral music and all of it.”
So when he showed me that he worked on everything, all the time, that’s where I [thought], ”Oh, mastering is for me.” That’s why I have focused on mastering as a career ever since. It took me another three or four years working around the clock for different mastering engineers to ever take my first paid mastering gig. And ever since then, I’ve just been mastering full-time, and very lucky to have that as a career path.
JS: You have worked on a wide range of music genres. Do you have a systematized approach that transcends genre, whether it’s hip-hop, rock, EDM, jazz or whatever? Do you have a protocol that transcends genres, or do you have a specific approach for each genre of music?
PP: I would say 90 percent of my projects use the same gear 90 percent of the time. [See Part One for details on the equipment Piper uses.] I’ve got my chain dialed in pretty well where everything’s there for a reason and I don’t have a lot of slack, not a lot of extra stuff in it for no reason. I had to tell you what I would start on, it would be [the] bass.
I’ll usually carve out bass frequencies that are just occluding. Other stuff like high frequencies – a lot of times, people will go to boost the high-frequency stuff because they don’t hear it quite enough or it doesn’t feel bright enough. But it’s usually because the bass is occluding it, or vice versa. So sometimes when something feels way too bright, it’s because there’s not enough bass, or [if] something feels way too dull, it’s because there’s too much bass, not because there’s not enough high-frequency information. So I’ll usually reach for some form of a control on the low end.
lt’s not a hard and fast rule, but in a lot of cases, [I’ll use a set of three bands activated on the FabFilter Pro-MB digital multiband compressor [plugin]. That’ll just be to kind of even out the bass a little bit. Then, I will go for a little bit of trying to pull forward some presence, to balance out whatever happened in the bass, whether adding a little bit or subtracting a little bit; we’ll try and clean up and clear out the vocal. Because in most cases, if the song has vocals, that’s kind of the most important thing. Then I’ll start trying to hit it hard to see how much level I can pull into the master. Then I’ll start using some subtractive EQ. When you hit a limiter really hard, it will make something feel really bright sometimes. Sometimes it will actually make the vocal feel too aggressive. Then I’ll just do a little bit of subtractive EQ there.
If I had to sum up, in order, what I hit first, it’s going to be the bass, and then balancing out the vocal, and then hitting the level and doing some subtractive EQ.
JS: This is a multi-part question: the mastering formats that you offer to clients for different platforms, whether it be compact disc, YouTube, Spotify, vinyl, or whatever: do you take the highest-resolution version and then monitor and reduce to what’s the best step-down match? Or, would you run a separate master in each format from scratch? And if the latter, what compromises do you have to make, say, when you’re trying to conform to the RIAA equalization curves for vinyl, yet you want to maintain the music with the same impact and emotional content in each format?
PP: I’ll answer the first thing that comes to mind, which is the RIAA curve. That’s baked into the [cutting] lathe chain when we hit the lathe. But the prep files that we make – I call them vinyl prep files – are a side A/side B master that’s all sequenced. Those are created independent of the digital master, the high-res digital master. I’m kind of backing into answering your question here, which is that when we make a master, I’m always going to go for the mastering at the highest resolution that’s practical, which in most cases is 96 kilohertz, 24-bit. But then if it’s a record that’s destined for vinyl, I’ll make a separate master for vinyl that’s again at a high-resolution, but different. It has a complication, which is that we have to roll off the very top end and the very bottom end just a little bit. And we have to make sure that we don’t have an excess of stereo information in the bass – in the bass, we want less stereo information as we can’t cut it if it has too much. Also, we have to make sure that it’s not going to hit the cutting [head] too hard on the high frequencies. So that’s going to be a separate master with its own limitations.
Then from there, we take the high-res digital master and [convert] that file down to the different formats: 48 kilohertz for video, 44 kilohertz/24-bit for digital streaming platforms that won’t take a high-res [file]. 16-bit/44.1 kilohertz for CDs, and then [master for] mp3, which I also informed my mom about this evening – about how mp3 works.
So from there, we give the artists that stereo master. Now if we’re talking spatial audio like [Dolby] Atmos or Sony 360 Reality Audio, I also master for spatial formats. Those are a completely different type of mix that gets submitted than a stereo mix. A different animal. I wasn’t sure if you were gonna ask me a question about that later. But we basically get the stereo approved first, then we get the vinyl approved, and then we deal with the Atmos later.
JS: Actually, I was going to ask you that, but you’ve nicely addressed it in advance.
Okay. The DIY movement of artists recording records in their bedroom has led to a learning curve issue with some clients. For example, many engineers of late have expressed concerns about unrealistic client expectations, when Grammy Award-nomination-level mixes are demanded from poorly-recorded and poorly-performed material. Do these problems ever reach the mastering stage?
PP: Let me make sure I understand the question. So, you’re asking: does the DIY movement affect my work? Or does the DIY movement affect the music and music industry in general?
JS: Does it affect the client’s expectations? The work when it gets to you…
PP: Like somebody gave me a kindergarten drawing, and they expect Picasso?
JS: Well, sometimes they’re working with a mixing engineer who doesn’t really have a lot of experience. So that person did something that sounds great on their system, but it won’t sound great on any other system. So when it reaches you, they want miracles out of the mastering stage, and you’re not going to be able to polish this enough to get it to shine the way they want.
PP: In some of those cases, what we’ll do is suggest a remix, [and give them] notes. I have a project right now where the artist came to me and said, “Here are my mixes. This is the first time I’m working with this engineer. What do you think?” And I did not hold back. I told him, flat out, “If you want me to master this, and you want it to sound like…” I don’t remember what artist it was. And he goes, “Yeah, yeah, I want it to sound like that.” And I said, “There’s nothing I can do to make it sound that way.”
And it just comes with having a good relationship with your clients and being honest with them. And [sometimes] just saying, “No matter what I do to this, it will never sound as good as you want it to until you remix it or rerecord it.” Luckily, [this artist] had a mixing engineer that went back and remixed the entire album. I just got the mixes back the other day, it’s like night and day. I’m so glad that I said something. Because I would never want someone to – number one – I would never want someone to be unhappy with my work.
But really, in the long run. It’s more like, how can I help them be happy with their record years from now? If I’d kept my mouth shut, I could have easily just mastered that record, sent it back and said, “Sorry, that’s the best I can do. Good luck.” But now I have a client for life and a mixing engineer that trusts me to give them honest feedback and they have already come back to me and said, “Oh my God, I’m so glad that we did this. I learned so much through this process in reopening all this stuff.” So now, I’ve got two clients for life.
But yeah, the DIY movement has definitely affected the music industry, but I will go out on a limb and say that it’s made it better in the long run. Because the DIY at-home recordist is now the norm, especially since the pandemic. And so, those folks that were good at that to begin with have thrived. And those folks that were really dependent on always going into a big studio every day, they’re not really around so much anymore, or they were forced to really reevaluate and change up their workflow.
But seeing [remote recording] tools like Audiomovers, Zoom, Source Elements, things like that, have really helped us unlock that collaboration potential over the internet since the pandemic started. I’d say that’s all baked into the DIY side of things. And I think that it has, in one way, really improved the overall recording capabilities and the sound capabilities of DIY and at-home recording.
But it’s also really upped the game of those label artists and songwriters that had just been sort of relying on [the fact that] they’re label artists selling records, because now it’s shown that anybody can do this. Anybody with a story to tell, and a good tune, can write an amazing song. And that is really the most important thing at the end of the day. It’s about having a good song. And it doesn’t matter what the master sounds like. The song is undeniable.
Next issue’s final portion of the Copper interview with Piper Payne will include more on these topics and also cover her experiences in handling the “loudness wars,” her home hi-fi system preferences, and her involvement with education, and new artists and projects.
Header image courtesy of Piper Payne.