An Interview With Dennis Drake
A sincere "Thank You" to Mr. Dennis Drake who
currently works at: The Music
Lab and took time from his hectic schedule to talk with me for
nearly 30 minutes about his philosophy of mastering music in mid January
Doug: First of all, how did you get into mastering? I'm not
familiar with any college courses called "Mastering 101"?
Dennis: Well that's a very interesting question that goes back a
long way. I started out many years ago at Cornell University and tried
to combine electronics and music and they thought it was a preposterous
idea... [chuckles] Dr. Robert Moog was teaching some courses there. So I
took some of his electronic music courses and really got in to it. And
then after a few years I decided to head out on my own. I ended up going
on the road with the Beach Boys and we did 32 shows in Europe and I
ended up doing PA on the road for many years and really got in to sound
quality and the things that go with it. But after awhile I got to where
I wanted to get into a studio where I could set up the sound and leave
it because with PA you tear it down every night, load in the truck and
head off to the next gig.
Doug: And large concert halls and gymnasiums are normally the
best place to get a good sound anyway. And besides, in those places you
aren't trying to get a nice stereo sound like you would in your home.
Dennis: Right, that's a good point. You're fighting a lot of
battles on the road with power and acoustics and all kinds of things.
And I was lucky enough to get into A&R Studios and work with some of the
great engineers up there: Eliot Shiner, Phil Ramone. After a short time
there I went out to California and got on the staff at the United
Western studios where I became a full time recording engineer and worked
with a lot of different people: Mike Post, Jimmy Webb-- did a lot of TV
specials, Olivia Newton-John, Ringo Starr and really enjoyed the
recording end of it-- mixing's a lot of fun.
Doug: Now when you were working with all of those people was it
just a job and you thought, "Hmm, let's see, today its Jimmy Webb and
next week it's Ringo" just like a routine job or did you lean back and
think, "Oh my god, I'm working with Jimmy Webb!"
Dennis: You know I probably should have done that more often, but
you know you get into this work zone and mode and you're concentrating
on the demands of the session--what the client wants. Jimmy was a very
demanding artist in the studio. I guess sometimes I would kick back and
think about it, but later you kind of wish you had gotten more
autographs and pictures, but I really did enjoy working with some of
these artists. Paul Simon, great guy to work with years ago, Dolly
Parton-- wonderful lady. But you know, you just kind of get busy with
the work and do your job.
Doug: When did you finally decide to get into the mastering part?
When you're the main recording engineer, after you're finished mixing
you sent it out for mastering. At what point did you decide that what
you were getting back after it was mastered didn't sound like you
thought it should and felt you should work on that end of the process?
Dennis: It's interesting you asked that because as a recording
engineer especially in the 70s and 80s when I was doing a lot of that
stuff, we didn't have digital on board yet and we made a lot of sonic
compromises in the mixing because we knew we were going to vinyl. We had
to do diameter EQ and watch the lines per inch and watch the bottom end.
We couldn't pump the bottom end on certain things and we knew we'd lose
a little high end down the line so we'd tweak up the high end a little
bit. Every format has its own signature-- cassettes, LP's, even digital.
You had to learn the signature of that format and sort of mix to that
format. With the progress we've made with digital converters and digital
technology, we can really clone things and keep that quality all the way
through to the consumers' product which is really exciting.
Back in the early 80s, PolyGram had their tape vaults up in White
Plains, New York and I had an opportunity to get on board with them and
I moved the vaults from White Plains down to Edison, New Jersey. We
consolidated all of the tapes from the various storage facilities around
the country and put them in a climate controlled building and I built
three studios there for mastering.
Doug: Were all of the tapes all in good shape? I've read articles
and talked to people who tell me that not all master tapes have a nice
safe and peaceful existence in a climate controlled vault.
Dennis: Yes and No. The tapes [from White Plains] had actually
been through a couple of floods so a lot of the boxes had tape damage.
It's funny, a lot of tapes from the 50's-- Ella Fitzgerald masters,
Louise Armstrong, Count Basie-- the acetate based tapes, they held up
really well. Once in awhile you'd have to replace splices and things,
but you'd throw them on the machine and they'd sound like the day they
were recorded-- it was unbelievable. As the tape formulations progressed
through the years, they changed to the polyester base and you're
probably aware that a lot of times the emulsion on the polyester base
gives you problems. The chemical lubricants dry out and you get scraping
on the heads and oxide loss and you actually have to bake the tapes to
get them to play properly. And we have a formula for that; a special
convection oven and a whole chemical process we do to restore those
older tapes. You know, when you put a tape on a machine, you've got to
be very careful. You've got to say: Is this tape in good shape? Can I
hit fast forward? Or do I really have to take it easy with this and
almost rock it by hand to get through it the first time to check the
splices, to see if it will play. Does it have to be baked? It's very
easy to destroy a master that’s been in a box for 30 years and you
really don't know its condition so you really have to be careful.
Doug: When a company comes to you and says, "OK, we're Time-Life
(or whomever) and we want to put together a 25 song collection CD and
we've obtained all of the rights and licensing. Here's the list of songs
and you take it from here. You get the tapes, make them sound like you
think they should and call us so we can hear the finished product."
Realizing you don't always get that luxury, but pretend you do. How do
you start? Do you call up and request only the first generation masters;
do you take whatever they send? Take me through that process.
Dennis: Well of course I do prefer the first generation masters.
A lot of times if you get an EQ'd copy it may have been EQ'd for disc,
it's a second generation down and you have a loss of transients and an
increased hiss level. So you really always do want to work from the
original masters if you have that liberty. Many times you can get them
from the label, but sometimes they don't have them. There's been times
where we've had to go from a record because the master has been lost and
we use our digital clean up programs and take the pops and clicks out
and make something that's useful on the master. It really varies from
project to project. Sometimes we'll get really high quality digital
transfers coming in of the master, sometimes we'll get the masters. I
had masters in here the other day of the Youngbloods. I was doing a
compilation for them for BMG-- the stuff sounded great. You've got to
just treat each song individually to maximize its sound power. Every
tape has its own story-- its storage story, its recording story--
everything is in those magnetic particles. And you've got to extract
that off the tape making sure you're using the right heads, the right
playback equalization, the best chain you can to convert that to
digital. You've got to be careful about your EQ. You want to make sure
that you're getting the instruments to sound like they would sound
naturally in the studio so that their harmonic structure is intact
especially on drums, guitars, and the human voice.
Doug: Steve Hoffman calls his process giving the tape the "breath
of life". Maybe you don't have a name for it, but is their a certain
"sound" you're trying to achieve? I guess I'm trying to determine if you
have sort of a signature sound so that people can tell you mastered a
project because of the fullness of it-- not to bassy or too tinny?
Dennis: Yeah, I like the song to have a really nice weight to it
plus the room sound-- the air that was in the room when the musicians
were recording. Those little details really add to the accuracy and
bring out the stereo imaging-- a nice full bottom end, an honest
midrange and a nice extended top end so that it sounds natural and full.
I certainly don't like anything tinny sounding. That happens with a lot
of the early digital stuff and was giving the medium a bad name. You
certainly want to use the full frequency response and dynamic range of
the medium to really get a nice compelling, warm, and full sound. To sum
it up, I guess you could describe it like an early reviewer of the
Mercury recordings: being in the “living presence” of the musicians.
Doug: There is an article on your website it describes a project
from the early 90s involving Mercury Living Presence albums and
transferring the tapes to CD. It details how meticulous you were in
finding just the right tapes, aligning the heads, EQ, the shortest
possible processing change, etc. Is that how you approach each project?
Do you always prefer tubes? On the other end of the spectrum there are
those who put everything into a digital work station and No Noise it to
make it sound like it was recorded yesterday. I know you have to do what
the client requests, but if left up to you, what do you prefer?
Dennis: Well I guess you'd say I'm more of a purist. I like to
use tube equipment. I have customized Ampex tape machines for mono, 1/2
inch, 1/4 inch playback and I'm using a lot of the old 351 tube
electronics which have all of the old curves in them. They give you the
reciprocal curves of the original recording curve that a lot of these
tapes were recorded with. If my source is in the analog domain, I like
to process it in the analog domain. If the dynamics need a little bit of
tightening up, I might do a pass through the Manley variable M U
Limiter. I also have a great sounding Neve-designed Summit analog
parametric that I use for fine tuning. My feeling is to get it to sound
as good as you can going into the digital work station. And once it’s in
there, then you can do all of your editing. And hopefully you're not
going to have to do too much digital EQ and signal manipulation in the
digital domain. Just do your editing, your splicing and keep that analog
signal as pure as you can. If I have to, I'll do a little digital touch
up here and there. I have the Weiss double sampling digital EQ. The EQ
does the work at twice the sampling frequency and then bounces it back
down again to the output frequency. So it’s really a great sounding EQ--
very smooth and musical. That's basically what I try to accomplish.
Doug: Obviously you have to eat and make a living, so while you
prefer tubes and the like, you still have to have No Noise and other
tools at your disposal if requested. What's your feeling about digital
Dennis: My feeling is that if there is a slight amount of tape
hiss-- leave it. A lot of the No Noise systems-- different
manufacturers-- they're not perfect systems and they will tend to remove
some ambience from the recording and dry it up and that's an important
part of the life of the music. I feel that if you're listening to an
older recording and there is a slight amount of hiss that your ear will
just kind of tune that out and go right to the music and it won't even
bother you. I'd rather have a slight hiss level than risk messing up the
air and the higher frequencies of the recording. If the hiss level is
substantial, we do have some programs that we can use carefully to
improve the signal to noise.
Doug: As we start wrapping this up, can you give me the best and
the worst. Steve Hoffman has talked about master tapes stored over a
shower or in someone's garage or having to bake tapes and do radical EQ.
What has your experience been?
Dennis: That's a pretty encompassing question, but I did have one
tape once- it was a half inch master-- and I'm not going to mention the
artist name, but I knew that it was in trouble because you could see
some flaking in the box. And I said to myself, "Well, just not to take
any chances with this, we'll bake it and as we're playing it for the
first time, we're going to record it right to digital just to make sure
that it doesn't deteriorate." And as it was going through the tape
machine, it went over the heads and then it went through the pinch
roller and the oxide was just coming off the tape right after the pinch
roller. So one pass and we were able to capture the recording for
posterity, and then after that the tape was pretty much useless.
Doug: How bout on the other end of the spectrum. Any tapes that
played fine and needed very little work?
Dennis: Well, a lot of the Mercury Living Presence stuff was
really great sounding recordings. Bob Fine and Wilma Cozart-- they
really did some great stuff with that series in the old days. Bob
Eberenz was responsible for a lot of the technical end concerning the
tape machines and consoles. They recorded straight to the 1/2 inch /3
track and 35 mag using the Decca trees and different microphone
techniques. That was pretty much flat. We just did level balancing. We
did no Eq'ing, no compression. We designed a specialized A/D chain and
coupled that to a lot of the original tube equipment. We were vigilant
about constant A/B comparisons between the original master, vinyl
reference disks and the final digital master.
Doug: Let's find out what your dream project is. Is there a
particular artist whose catalog you would like to remaster?
Dennis: Well, it would have been fun to work on some of the Bob
Dylan stuff, but that's all in house at CBS/Columbia. I had a chance to
work as an assistant engineer years ago with him on one of his albums
and I've always admired his work through the years. One project that I
have coming up with Brunswick Records is a big box set on Jackie Wilson.
I'm looking forward to doing that. We're going from the original 4
tracks on a lot of the songs and putting some unreleased things in
there. So that's going to be really exciting.
Doug: Are you happy that the likes of Steve and other people are
putting out the gold discs again?
Dennis: Well I think it's great that we have people like Steve
who are really pushing for quality in the industry because unfortunately
there's a growing trend now towards the compressed MP3's and, for a lot
of the kids today, that's really the only way they've heard music. And
there is a big difference between hearing a full range recording and a
compressed recording and it really adds to enjoyment and the listening
pleasure. Hopefully these kids, as they progress and get older, will
gravitate back towards better stereos and be able to enjoy these better
recordings that we've been striving to make all these years. My son is
turning eleven, and we’ve tried to give him a basic understanding of the
evolution of sound. Playing him things like Beatles songs gives him a
perspective on what great recordings can sound like.
Music is a wonderful gift we all enjoy, and keeping it vibrant as the
technology changes is the challenge we face on a daily basis.
While this is free to read and copy for personal use
by members of the Steve Hoffman forum, all rights are reserved for
commercial or other uses with written permission required.
©2005 Douglas P. Hess Jr.
to Interview page of www.stevehoffman.tv
for more Steve Hoffman interviews.