Mastering engineers make music sound better. It is that simple! – Interview with Artur Stawski from Sonic Science Lab
We are proud to introduce Artur Stawski from Sonic Science Lab with the following interview. This is a unique opportunity for artists to meet mastering engineer who represents as much professionalism and engineering expertise as you can only find at highest levels of any industry. We discuss Arturʼs story, his approach to mastering, technology impact and the industry’s future.
Artur grew up along with a love for music. He was introduced to audio electronics very early on (age 8). Since then he has been developing his engineering and critical listening skills. He has built lots of audio tools and devices and has provided his engineering experience for top international companies. Artur earned an engineering degree from the University of Warsaw in 1997 and Audio Engineering Society voting member status later on. He learned from the best in the mastering business (e.g. Vlado Meller) and that turned into a business relationship. Currently, fully dedicated to the mastering profession.
You have dedicated your life to music. Tell us what brought you to music early on, but most importantly what kept you going for all those years?
Definitely sound affair and cognitive curiosity. Music was also something emotionally special for me from the very beginning. I remember, like if it was yesterday, my motherʼs voice singing for me to help me fall asleep. I was 3 or maybe 4 then. At some point, she started to record her songs, but it didnʼt work for me as her real voice was superior to what was reproduced and I simply couldnʼt sleep. So likely this was my first, fully unconscious, quality assessment of audio reproduction system.
Later on, as soon as I could handle solder iron, I started to play with electronics and naturally, music became my test signal because it was fully audio related. At eight I got my first simple Russian synthesizer, and guess what, I quickly started to replay melodies I heard on the radio, just to find out this synth wasnʼt sounding like the ones on the radio. And from then on it all went like a thunderstorm. I improved the synthesizer, then built my own. I also found that something was not ok in what I was hearing through my radio, so I started to play with it, ending with building amplifiers and speakers. I also wanted a good recording system, so my next goal was naturally a noise reduction system for my cassette and reel tape machines. When PC computers started to be available I immediately noticed the great potential in them and learned to program quickly. This enabled me to even more deal with sounds by mixing many more channels at once that I could do with my tape machines. And it was something, as I found out decades later, my mixing software was steps ahead of Pro Tools at that time! That required a lot of analog to digital and digital to analog conversion, though, and it was quite poor at that time. Of course, it also became my improvement target, because it was not working to my satisfaction. And so on.
Yet surprisingly, for a long time, I have not been realizing music would ever become my whole life. It was always very close, though. Also, I was not 100% at audio engineering all these years (there were some even longer breaks), however music was always around me like nothing else. Certainly, my engineering mind and soul played a big role along with music involved in them to a very big extent.
How did you decide to focus entirely on audio engineering? Most people usually want to be the big rock star on stage, whereas you have chosen a more behind the scenes role?
It came quite natural, likely because of the kind of person I am. From my early days, engineering was always something that was attracting me, along with sound and music. I liked to understand how audio things worked. I liked when I found issues, then when I solved them, but also when I improved the way sounds were generated and then reproduced. That way I learned a lot about how to listen to the sound details, how to analyze them and, more importantly, how to avoid bias that is an inherent part of any audio work. It paid off several times later. I believe it must have had something in common with continuous willing to improve myself.
On the other side, I am not sure if I like to be in a spotlight. I guess I just prefer to derive satisfaction from somebodyʼs else success and itʼs enough for me when I know I am just a part of it. I had (and still have) a couple of instruments at my own disposal, including quite big analog modular system, although dealing with them has never been coming that natural to me as engineering does. Certainly, one of the breaking moments that had an impact on what I do today was when one of my best teachers ever (Richard Mendelson from Berklee) said that I have natural talent and I just should keep developing it (he didnʼt know that I spent years on audio before, so I suspect that it was more of a hard work than talent, though). Years later Alan Silverman confirmed that thereʼs something in it by listening to my work. Iʼm now 110% sure that this is the way I can get the most out of myself to give it to the world. And when I see people happy from what I am providing them, I have no more questions about it!
Vlado is my business partner, yet first and foremost he is a great friend! Apart from countless music history stories that just cannot be heard elsewhere, the combination of business and friend relationships, along with Vladoʼs experience in the music industry allowed me to draw in handfuls all of the very useful knowledge. Among many enlightening insights, Vlado has taught me how mastering business looks like and how it should look like from top position. Thanks to that I was able to adapt and apply some rules to my business. Itʼs impossible to overrate it.
Alan is a great teacher. Surprisingly, what I mostly learned from him was not actually mastering related at all. Alan is very detailed in answering questions, his argumentation is also unique as he always finds more than one unusual perspective to see things in a positive way. I thought I was a positive person, but the amount of positivity I got from Alan has changed me forever! And the patience came next. So, it was more of learning the way of approaching any topic, but also temporary roadblocks. This was an amazing experience. It shows clearly why it always pays off when you meet and deal with people smarter than you.
Why do you think mastering can be beneficial?
Because we, mastering engineers, make music sound better. It is that simple. And a big part of it is that we can hear mixes for the first time. This is what gives us a big advantage over anybody else, just off the blocks. Due to misunderstanding, mastering is commonly equated with processing today. Yet itʼs not like that at all. We first and foremost listen under very well controlled monitoring conditions that allow us to assess stuff very objectively. Then we might do small adjustments to bring the best out of the mix. I always encourage people to visit the mastering room and participate in the mastering session. This is usually an ear and eye-opening experience, really.
The truth is that mixes even from good mixing engineers can be improved. We get the mix, take a critical listen to certain sound characteristics and improve it to make it more attractive in most cases. Given that mastering prices are not high today, itʼs a no-brainer, as long as mastering engineer is good, knows what heʼs doing and why, of course.
How do you differentiate yourself from other mastering engineers?
There are a couple of differences. One is the approach to clients. I am not a person who just gets the job, does it and gets the money. First and foremost I try to help and support, trying to see a bigger picture, because knowing the context can give much more accurate solutions. It usually goes multiple ways and even if sometimes it results in more work on my side, I go after that, because the music is as important for me as for artists. And it makes a real difference. Currently, I am running a remastering project for a great classical music artist. So far we both have put an enormous amount of work into the project, paying attention to the tiniest details and the result is going to be outstanding! Thatʼs a real value artist gets. Thatʼs also a real satisfaction me as an engineer gets too.
As to skills and experience, I will put it this way: big names certainly have more mastering experience, however when it comes to critical listening skills, very likely Iʼve been developing them for much longer than they do their mastering careers (maybe except Vlado, who has been mastering for more than 40 years now) and this is my big advantages. Also, not all engineers have in-depth audio digital and analog knowledge. Thatʼs my advantage too. I did all that can be done to serve clients in a very professional way and due to very low operational costs, I can deliver top quality at very reasonable prices. Thatʼs also a difference.
What do you think about indie music?
I think that it is the future. It is simply amazing! If only more of it was a better quality… As a mastering engineer, I have an opportunity to listen to absolutely outstanding music quite often. Every single week I hear more interesting songs than on an FM radio, really.
Unfortunately, in many cases that music and artists behind it usually donʼt have enough exposure. And this is one of the biggest issues artists need to address in various ways. Itʼs disappointing that major radio stations are shy when it comes to indie (there are reasons behind it, yet itʼs a whole different topic) and actually they do not support such enough. However things change in this regard, yet it happens way too slow. It seems like the best what artists can do for now is to perform live as often as possible, and then support it with good recordings.
Many modern musicians choose the DIY way to music production and rely on automated software algorithms for the mixing and mastering phases. What do you think are the major risks of such an approach?
To be honest, I am not sure what brings a higher risk – DIY approach, automated software, or both. Automating is definitely OK when it helps us, humans, save time by executing simple repetitive tasks, I am all for it, I use it every day. For example, I can see great potential in it when it comes to editing and restoration. Virtually it could help a lot with greater accuracy or so, yet itʼs still rather a long-distance future. As to music, however, weʼre hugely at creativity land and quite unique one each and every time we enter it. As of today creativity and performance are far beyond what automated application is able to do and so far there are just very limited usage scenarios to not kill the music with too much technology. Thereʼs a problem when thereʼs more production techniques, algorithms, and processing in music than the music itself.
Also, there are other facets. Some companies claim that their software replaces a whole process just by implementing some processing. Artists should be aware that they may easily close themselves in the middle of a totally no challenging loop between their own biased perceptions and software engineersʼ interpretation of what audio engineers tried to tell them at the meetings. Such a loop just broadens my comfort zone and it all together works perfectly against the learning process and moving forward! Also, the software doesnʼt give feedback, which is a key part of the process. It doesnʼt tell the artist how to make small changes that can make a big impact. Artists also should take into account that automated software does very simple things and it does not understand the context of the song, production or the mix, likely never will. These are the things that are often missed by beginners.
The DIY approach is also very risky because it can quickly become inefficient and invisibly limiting. Donʼt get me wrong, DIY is great, in many cases, it just enables to start the greatest adventure in whole life! However, at some point, it ceases to be effective, because of several things a modern musician needs to do in order to monetize his music and survive as an artist.
What are the most common issues you often deal with during mastering?
First of all, I must admit that over the years issues are getting smaller and less impacting! It is a very good thing! Yet there is still some stuff to point out. The first one is definitely inappropriate compression usage and unnecessarily limiting. Both responsible for over compression. It is likely due to referencing already mastered songs (some overcompressed too). Yet itʼs worth to note, that there are many heavily compressed commercial records out there that can be considered sounding good due to the way the compression was used. It was fully under control though, and this is what good mixing engineers excel at. It comes down to listening skills as they help big time to maintain microdynamics and dynamics relationships between mix elements as this is what makes a difference.
The second one, of course, the low-end issues, usually originating from two things: room and too small speakers. Common rooms usually require lots of treatment and thereʼs no quick workaround. Popular room correction software addresses just a few issues out of many just to mitigate them. Also, small speakers produce distortion giving the wrong impression on whatʼs going on in the bottoms. A workaround could be referencing mix on different systems. The next one a harsh high. Usually a result of low-quality samples or issues in a recording process that got missed, for example, due to speakers with not enough resolution. The workaround is as above.
And another one is the overuse of saturation. There are three possible causes. The bias that makes the perception less sensitive every minute being spent on the mix, speakers not detailed enough and, of course, acoustics. With unwanted reflections moving around in the room itʼs really hard to determine what is going on in the recording at the level these effects should be applied. Finally, the lack of automation on level and dynamics. Itʼs more of an omission than an issue, yet causing mixes to sound lifeless, too artificial, too unified. I always encourage everybody to send the mix to the mastering engineer for quick evaluation, even before it is finished. We are able to spot issues within just a few seconds and save you hours on trying to guess how these damn things can work in the real world.
What would be some of the practical advice you would give to rising indie musicians when it comes to audio production? What are your golden rules?
Good advice can be easily found on the internet, so I believe itʼs not going to be particularly useful to bring them on here. One needs to be repeated over and over, though: donʼt think about audio production in equalization and compression terms, think of how to deliver interesting and non-distracting experience for your listeners! Let me put it all in a little different perspective as being an entrepreneur for almost twenty years allowed me to see many things from different angles.
First itʼs worth to realize that audio production is just a small part of a bigger thing and itʼs good to not get sunk in it. Then, what is really important today is effectiveness. It applies to everything we do and audio production is no exception. Be effective! First and foremost record things right. This is where most of the audio production time and effort should be spent. When you do it right, all the next steps will benefit from that, making all the stages much more productive (creative/enhancing vs fixing). Donʼt think that if what you do brings a lot of fun you must be doing something right. Not so. Although having fun is important, it more than often silently steals the time we usually donʼt have.
Also, if youʼre DIY artist, do not stay in it for too long as you will only develop hard to break, a self-limiting mindset that way. Itʼs impossible to just do everything on your own to not cut corners and impact everything around if you are going to continuously move ahead. If you work in a team, donʼt be afraid to try different team setups from time to time, unless you are 110% happy on how things work currently. It might look like a counter intuitive approach to effectiveness, yet it can be done in parallel and at the end of the day, it can lead to better results. Itʼs a way to say ‘checkʼ if there are better alternatives. It may be refreshing and even eye-opening experiences.
Finally, do not replace real-world experience with blogs and videos sitting in a comfy chair. Do not take for granted what you can read and watch. Usually, there are lots of assumptions not being mentioned in there, actually invalidating the presented approach in many cases. The best that can be advised is just to practice, practice, practice, allow yourself to be frequently challenged by others and go out to the world, and then practice, practice, practice again.
You have been working with many musicians over the years with Sonic Science Lab. What are some of the personality traits you have found in those who become a success?
It depends on how we define success because actually it has a different meaning to everyone. There are traits that are always wanted and always help to move forward, respect, kindness, openness, positivity, ambition, perseverance, willing to continuously learn, willing to give more than a hundred percent from self. However, if we put it in commercial terms and assume success as the capability to make a living purely from music as indie, then weʼre about to talk traits most artists usually donʼt have… Thatʼs unfortunate, because they are actually in contradiction to what makes an artist an artist. Artists need a kind of creative freedom. Yet commercial success requires rather compulsory nature and much more of abilities to handle multiple tasks at once, pull back ego, delegate work, willing to gain some managing skills, where talent to plan and execute on a tight schedule are keys.
A real music career is a business, whether we want it or not. Because of that, itʼs almost all about managing a budget, audience, team, concerts, promotions, investments, merchandize, releases, and so on. There are many art unrelated things such an artist needs to do on a daily basis. Successful indies are doing it all pretty well (and some just hide information thereʼs a big management behind them…), so if the artist is able to handle all of these business facets well, he/she can make it. This is what most artists hate in general and itʼs fully understandable as pure creativity requires clear uncluttered heads. The good news is that some skills in this regard can be gained and some traits acquired or even woken up. Theyʼre always helpful as even if the artist has a manager and the team, they allow keeping an eye on everything that can be crucial to a career. Some artists find themselves quite good at it!
As a music professional what changes do you see in the music industry and where do you believe it is heading in the upcoming years?
I think thereʼs a lot of hype around “changes” in the music industry, yet actually I can see nothing particularly exhilarating that is working to artists’ advantages. Why I put attention to artists’ advantage? Because they are the heart of the business and they should have as many reasons to create as possible. Why I can see nothing spectacular? In order to get an answer, we need to take a bigger picture here. On the one side, there are more artists who manage their careers in a very professional way, going with or without labels. Itʼs cool. On the other side there are more and more artists who fall into the DIY area, with just very few with a chance to survive without the amount of good guidance and help. And there are more and more artists in between.
What has not changed at all is that any artist career requires many investments, a team of people who are very good at their roles and a lot of effective promotion, touring and performing. A lot. It all costs. And this is the big picture. So far, we can mostly see promises from the software industry focusing on a very small part of a whole thing and not much support for what artists mostly wrestle with today in a very saturated market.
So, thereʼs a lot more computer technology being involved, yet in many cases it just imitates solutions. Itʼs more of a software revolution rather than something significant to the music industry. Thatʼs my humble opinion on this matter. Where it can be heading? When we take a look at history it seems like things go round in circles and now itʼs again time for live music as people are willing to pay more for attending live acts. This is where artists’ focus should be right now and in the near future.
What do you think would be the role of all the new technologies (both on the production and consumption side) that are rapidly reshaping the whole industry? What would be a winning position for musicians?
First of all, I think that the industry needs to understand that any technology should not be used to get music cheaper but to help to make it better in the first place. It would support bigger music sales and provide greater benefits for artists. For that, we need more managers who are able to go far beyond profit margins and put artists much closer to the center of the business. The only winning position for musicians, as far as I can see it, is when musicians will get paid much better for their work and effort than they are now. The production side is easy, consumer ones, even more, thatʼs why a lot of attention is put right there, right now.
What I would expect from technology is that it could help artists to earn more from their music. So far the shift, we are witnesses of, is more beneficial to those who have more in common with computer technology than with music, as we talked earlier. It is unfortunate because itʼs not the way it should be, as long as weʼre talking art and music. As of today, however, I can see a room for technology that could help in the artist research and development department. I hope that it wonʼt be misused just to improve cash flow, but to help promising artists with the talent to be found and exposed appropriately!
And finally, name three of your all-time favorite artists and how they inspired you!
Actually every single artist and his/her music inspires me in some way, really. Itʼs amazing that you can meet and talk to people from around the world and see how different cultures and artistry approaches are, influencing the way artists perform their music. Itʼs sometimes very refreshing, very different from what you can hear on the radio. With that said, I donʼt think I have such an all-time artists list, it varies. I am pretty sure that if you ask me again in some time, I would choose different names.
However, today the following names come to my mind: Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and… Peter Gabriel, random order. Mileʼs himself is an epitome of music for me. Mileʼs Tutu has opened a whole new world of jazz to me and then most of the related genres. Herbie Hancock is kind of a creativity icon for me, his career and amount of great projects he was involved in are amazing. Peter Gabriel performs amazing concerts and thereʼs something special in his music that touches me personally. All three are exceptional artists, all did exceptional, very musical and emotional records. Thatʼs what I wish every artist to complete.