An Interview With Mastering Engineer Brian Lucey

Brian Lucey is one of the most in demand mastering engineers working today, bar none. His Magic Garden Mastering studio is based in Los Angeles. Just a quick glance at the featured discography tells you not only does he work on projects from established icons like Lucinda Williams, Marylin Manson, Depeche Mode, The Pretenders and Dr. John, but also with the most relevant artists of today including Royal Blood, The Kills, Arctic Monkeys, Ryan Bingham, Ray Lamontagne, Cage The Elephant, and of course The Black Keys last three records beginning with ‘Brothers’.   Metal band Ghost’s track Cirice and Cage The Elephant’s Tell Me I’m Pretty are his most recent Grammy winners, and his mastering is featured on recent Billboard #1 albums by Shania Twain in the US and Liam Gallagher in the UK. along with Royal Blood last year in the UK. The staff at Fair Hedon especially love his work on the Doyle Bramhall II album Rich Man, and the other worldly Nomad, by North African superstar Bombino.  Lucey graciously agreed to an interview to discuss his workflow, and current trends.

Fair Hedon: Brian, you are one of the most sought after mastering engineers currently working today, and you have mastered some of the most successful albums over the past few years,  including those from Ray Lamontagne, Cage The Elephant, Lucinda Williams, Depeche Mode, and too many other to mention.  What is your basic philosophy and preferred work flow? Is your mastering a collaborative effort with the artist, or do they trust you to work your magic and then sign off?
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Brian Lucey: Basic philosophy:  Mastering is the bridge between what we had hoped to make and what will be judged for all time as the definitive product.   With any release we are competing against the Recorded History of Music.   The aim for my work is to win people over, and open them up to new music by enhancing the connection between artist and audience.  Also to surpass expectations in the production team.  It’s an intimate connection to individuals that we want from any music, that leads to a sense of community, and ultimately to the elevation of all parties.  I’m looking for sonic immediacy and excitement balanced with timelessness, so it’s still exciting and fresh in 30 years.   I’m looking to expand the fan base, make artists happy and make everyone money.
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Preferred work flow:  I have a simple chain with 3 analog pieces in between DA and AD.  I work back to each single from the overview by skipping around with the cursor to sections of each track for a few seconds.  It’s a mostly analog chain for the EQ, MS, compression and limiting.  Also at times I use a linear phase EQ in Sequoia 12, or the internal DeEss.

Generally I do a first pass on my own, then do revisions based on comments.  I work unattended 100% of the time, at odd hours of the day or night, as inspired to do the best work for the particular aspect of the job that’s next in line.

Fair Hedon: We have seen numerous trends come and go in the marketplace, everything from DSD, 24 bit downloads, Blu-Ray, streaming, and the resurgence of vinyl. One controversial topic currently being hotly debated is MQA. What is your take?

Brian Lucey: When I first heard about MQA I wondered why would anyone bother with such a concept, as streaming the full file is only going to get easier over time, and the reduction of data with MQA is minimal .  Let’s just sell the 24 bit files at the mastering session sample rate, not higher and not lower, and call it a day?  Too easy perhaps for the creativity of modern commerce.

My initial info on MQA (the claims of less data with no loss, and that it was correcting PCM) led me quickly to be skeptical about the intentions behind the initiative, especially given that video streaming money has dried up.  It’s logical corporate think to move into controlling the global audio stream. However I’m always open minded and am not a crusty cynic like some, so I gave it an open minded listen.  Not bad, not great was my impression.  It’s definitely a lossy codec, that was clear. And like Mastered for iTunes or any reduction scheme the losses are in critically important areas.    Where as mastered for iTunes is harmonically cold and loses some low volume/low end information, actually altering the groove to make everything sound like a nerdy white wedding band, MQA brightens the high-mids in the Mid section while thinning the low-mids on the Sides. There’s also some harmonic distortion which some people could find pleasing,  If I want that distortion in the master I would’ve put it there in the first place. The results of MQA I would call fatal to the source material even as they are very subtle.
 
 A real negative is the millions of dollars in DA stock that is being made obsolete with their cynical end run on proper vetting.   MQA has been targeting the weakest players in our world, the audiophiles.  And they’re targeting those most dependent on pimping new tech, the audiophile press.  Meanwhile, one sided presentations at trade shows leave no time for deep Q and A and any real discussion panels are eschewed by MQA.   The most excitement about MQA seems to be from perfectionist consumers who want that blue LED and sense of authentication, pressuring DA makers to send that licensing money to MQA and catch up with a demand invented by MQA.  A cynical marketing scheme to be kind about it.  Or as Mike Jbara told me in a written exchange, “As a team of engineers and a company, we have a POV behind our tools and that is what we talk about.”
 
I’m most concerned about the bogus claims that MQA is fixing approved masters.  Not possible, and a rude assertion to trillions of hours of hard work by teams of people making records for decades.  Pure marketing hyperbole.  Nothing in audio is perfect, there is no Original Sin, and there is no going back to the place of ideal perfection. Ultimately there is no free lunch in digital, and music production is about a constant flow forward … shaping distortions and how they play with frequency balance and transients.  When a record is first tracked, then rough mixed, mixed, revised, mastered, revised in mastering and finally approved … there is no fixing it.  Anything that changes violates 5-20 people who have all signed off.  Distortion artifacts are musically incorporated in to all music production, there is no perfection in music.  That way of thinking is bogus and anti music.  Music is flawed and that’s a good thing, it’s the humanity.   Perfection has no place in music production, it’s a dangerous myth.  MQA has no future in the world of serious engineers in my view, it’s a corporate money scheme at this point.  Yet we will see how it turns out, most people are lazy and greed goes a long way on it’s own power.
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To hear Brian in his own words, we highly suggest these videos:

Comments

  1. neil young says:

    Finally someone talks about audio in a way that does it justice! Thanks Brian Lucey.

    1. Brian Lucey says:

      No need to thank me brother, thank YOU.

  2. Nick Lakoumentas says:

    Yes, but is the music industry listening? I fear they are ready to jump on the bandwagon as MQA offers them DRM that straight 24/96 might not. Or am I just not versed enough in this technology. I heard one MQA demo and did not think it was any better than 16/44, so for now, remain unconvinced.

    1. Brian Lucey says:

      It’s a challenge. MQA is very good at corporate speak and hiring corporate insiders, to then shill their like minded peers. And yes, MQA is selling DRM as if it was fidelity (not) and convenience (not). At present, some labels are releasing my work which was not approved or “authenticated” here, as MQA to a gullible public. It’s a factory approach to making money, be warned.

  3. Warren Mc says:

    Brian,

    your comment about authentication leads to the broader question of provenance. What level of documentation is going to be required, to support the blue light.

    It’s easy to set a bit of metadata on a file to say it’s authentic, but who authorises the engineer to mark the art as authentic, and what proof of the production chain integrity do they need.

    We had all this already with the Chesky HD Tracks up sampling debacle, except in that case the fudged output was observable with tools. How would we do that with a proprietary lossy process.

    Cheers,

    Warren

    1. Brian Lucey says:

      I have authenticated nothing here, and my work is on Tidal as MQA. Nuff said.

      1. mrvco says:

        Says it all. Much Appreciated!

  4. As I commented in a thread on Facebook some time ago, the tireless repackaging of digital is a matter of ‘perfecting Perfect Sound Forever, forever’ – it seems to be an endless abyss of shiny new betterness.

    1. Brian Lucey says:

      Selling the 24 bit files at the session’s native rate is seemingly so simple it’s too difficult.

  5. Thank you Brian Lucey and if I may borrow from Neil Young…… Finally someone talks about audio in a way that does it justice!
    As for me, I am an audiophile of many years and have been subjected to much of the hype in both press and presentations by the audio kit industry, so I resonate with what you speak of. A revelation for me was looking at the listening rooms that certain published reviewers use in their own homes and one has to wonder how indeed do they manage to discern.
    Once again the latest LED will be marketed as the greatest must have to the audio consumer.
    Thank you for the music.
    Bing Bergstedt
    Johannesburg S.A.

    1. Brian Lucey says:

      Appreciate the kind words, and common sense.

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