Top mastering engineer (Red Hot Chili Peppers) gives his practical mastering tips + shares his personal customized mastering presets for the PuigTec EQ plugins.
One of the most in-demand mastering engineers working today, Drew Lavyne has worked with everybody from Moby and the Chili Peppers to the White Stripes and Snoop Dogg. We caught up with him at his studio, A.L.L. Digital, where he shared his tips and thoughts on mastering, loudness, dynamics, and more.
JUNE 2017 UPDATE: Several years after the original interview, the PuigTec EQ plugins are still among Drew’s go-to mastering tools – and he’s sent us all-new mastering presets which you can download absolutely free – scroll down to the bottom!
Drew, Tell us a bit about your software setup.
I use a program called Peak, which I had a hand in helping (Peak developer) Bias design over the years. And I use Logic. When I end up in a multitrack environment my go-to has always been Logic. I’ve been a Logic nut since day one, primarily because of the flexibility and its ability to sort of route the program the way you like. You know, the original Logic prior to Version 8 was like a big Swiss Army Knife, and you could set it up anyway you like. That really appealed to me, especially in a mastering environment. So that’s how I became a Logic-head, so to speak.
How do Logic and Waves interface?
The key is the automation. The automation in Logic is, in my experience, unmatched. All DAWs pretty much do the same thing and have their own specific flavor. I found that the Logic user interface was so intuitive for my use and the automation was so good that I could be working on a mix and automate Waves plugs coming and going with Logic with no hassles and no crashes. Back in the days when things used to crash, they never did with Logic and Waves.
Besides automation and transparency, what draws you to Logic and Waves?
Integration. I’ve never had any latency issues, I’ve never had any automation issues, I’ve been able to instantiate the plugs multiple times with no bog-down whatsoever. It’s almost feels like they were built by the same people. They really are seamless in their integration.
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE
Which plugs do you tend to use in a mastering chain?
I’ve been an L3 (and now an L3-LL) fanatic since my work on Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” back in 2003. The Waves limiters are definitely the most transparent, and the most flexible, especially now with multiband limiting and the ability to grab a frequency and a priority control and take what I need as opposed to taking the whole thing. I’ve also recently become just addicted to the PuigTec (from the Jack Joseph Puig Collection). What a sound! Just the act of passing audio through it flat warms it up. That is an incredible plugin. It’s found its way into my work just in the last couple of weeks.
I used it on a new record coming out from a band on Universal called the Love Willows. I hate to comment on things that aren’t out yet, but it sounds like a hit to me so…(laughs)…I’m in love with this band and I used the LL, the L3 multi, and the PuigTec pretty extensively on this record.
Do you have a standard chain when you begin a mastering project? Or do you pick and choose depending on the situation.
There are a couple of go-to’s. My Waves limiters are definitely a go-to. They’re always sitting at the end of the chain. I pretty much use a different EQ or compressor for what the song calls for. I view them as instruments, just like you wouldn’t play an acoustic guitar on a heavy rock song or a heavy guitar on an acoustic record, I treat plugs in the same way. I’ve had a lot of great years of using the Linear Phase stuff that Waves makes, which I think is fantastic. And now, with the PuigTec, the two Pultec emulators are becoming my favorites pretty quickly. I heard them and within five minutes I was sold, it was unbelievable.
Were you familiar with the Pultec hardware beforehand?
I was. And I was actually familiar with the competitors’ plugins as well. And I felt that Waves collection was warmer and had a little more character to it. And actually I found its color to be more pleasing than the other ones that I’ve heard.
What are the most difficult challenges in mastering?
Well first and foremost it’s to bring the music to life…to do justice to the work of the artist, producer and engineer. But on occasion the best thing to do is to sort of stay out of the way (laughs). Many current albums I hear have such an emphasis on pure volume and I think that’s a shame because so much detail is just lost in the blast of it all. I just think giving the music space and air, words that that sound a little hokey, but I really mean it, that’s really what it’s all about. I don’t think there’s a lot of mystery to mastering, although I think the general perception is that there is. It’s the greatest job in the world: you listen to music all day and when something sounds like it’s in the zone, you send it off with as little touching up as possible. If something needs help to get to that place, you employ your tools to bring it to life.
IS LOUDER BETTER?
How about dynamics? Are they coming back into fashion? Or do a lot of your clients still want “the louder the better”?
It really depends. I think the loudness thing is pretty prevalent these days. People want things to sound radio-ready and that seems to have evolved into a position where that means SLAMMED. I’m a much bigger proponent of music that sounds great than music that sounds loud. Of course the goal is always to find the happy marriage of both.
So what does that leave for you to do? Is it a question of damage control? Or bringing dynamics back into the mix?
If a track is unworkable, meaning if it’s just printed too hot or if it’s just had the life sucked out of it by a compressor or squashed into nothing, unless that’s the intent of the artist, I’ll say something. I’ll say, you know, “This might really benefit from a mix printed a little more tamely, let’s try to approach it and keep some of the love in here as opposed to just mashing it down.” But that doesn’t happen too, too often. So damage control isn’t a huge part of my day. A lot of mastering is being sensitive to the artist’s desire. It’s not my record, it’s their record. Getting to know that artist and what they’re looking for is as big a component of what I do as the actual sonic shaping of a song.
What advice would you give to engineers who are going to hand a track off to you?
I’m looking for something with some headroom and some space so that I can throw my spin onto it. Mixes that are printed too hot, mixes that are over-compressed or over-limited, are detrimental to all that hard work you’ve done. My advice to engineers is give your music space. I mean that in every sense of the word.
Is there a number? 3db? 6db?
6 is nice (laughs) 5, 6 is nice. I hate to make such a blanket statement, because you may have a very quiet track that has some passage that just gets crazy at the very end or right in the middle somewhere and then goes back to being quiet and suddenly you’re printing too low. Those kinds of transients can be dealt with, so I hate to just sort of throw out a number. But I would say that if you’re making a record and you’ve come this far, and you know what you’re doing, then common sense should dictate what’s too hot and what’s not.
DREW LAVYNE MASTERING PRESETS
Here are Drew’s customized presets for the PuigTec EQ plugins – click below to download them for free:
Drew Lavyne Mastering EQ Start - Download Free
“This is a quick jumping-off point for mastering your track. You’ll find that two of the most commonly used frequencies on the PuigTec have been boosted .5 dB to give you a dead simple high and low point for attenuating your mix. You should feel an immediate presence to your mix once you load up this preset, and boosting or cutting around these frequencies should help bring your track to life. Always experiment, there are no rules. This is merely a starting point to discovering your own path to making your song huge!”
Drew Lavyne Mastering Low-End Rumble Fix - Download Free
“This one will help you eliminate the low rumble you will often find when mastering a track. Start here if you feel things are too thumpy, and then continue to cut to taste.”
Drew Lavyne Mastering Brightness Fix - Download Free
“This preset is similar to the Low-End Rumble Fix, only in reverse. This setting will help you smooth out any brittle or painful high-end issues you may encounter as you begin to master a mix. Cut to taste, and be careful to be subtle and not suck all the life out a mix by pulling out too much energy!””
Finally, here are Drew’s tips on how to use his presets that are already included in several Waves plugins:
On the Vintage Track Warmer (PuigTec) preset
“This setting should be a great starting point for anyone looking for a warmer, vintage sound. Just passing audio through the PuigTec when its flat has this effect, but this preset gives a little boost where the love is and takes away some of the pain at the top. Adjust for vibe accordingly.”
On the Vintage Mastering Glue (PuigChild) preset
“For that instantly recognizable vintage mushiness nothing beats the PuigTec. Cymbals will decay into the heavens while the bass will occupy its own big round universe. Crank on the threshold for even more of a time warp.”
On the Modern Mastering Glue (API 2500) preset
“One of my favorite go-to compressors for a more modern, yet still classic, sound. Again, the threshold is where you can really put the spurs to the signal if you like. This setting adds a nice full warmth to any mix.”
On the Mastering Limiter (L3-LL Multimaximizer) preset
“The most transparent limiter/EQ of them all. I've used it on everything. This setting is dialed in with a little more brightness on top and a bit more thud on the bottom. Guitars will also come through loud and clear. Back down on the threshold if you want a more subtle effect.”