Photo: Charlene Gray
When I need recording information, I go to Discogs. At Discogs Kevin Gray has over 2500 entries. That’s as good an indicator as how far he’s come in his career thus far as a creative participant in the art of recorded music known as mastering. Since his beginnings in the early 1970s, in Los Angeles, he has worked for all major music labels and many independents, in all musical genres.
At one time, behind-the-scenes jobs like Gray’s were anonymous and technical, not really considered real creative work. When the Beatles started recording for EMI, the audio staff wore white coats. No one knew their names. But as recorded music culture became more varied and sophisticated, listeners became more aware of the contributions made by the people behind the scenes—studio musicians and especially engineers—to the sound of the music they heard. In the late 1960s, most people knew that the Beatles worked with a guy named George Martin – and he called himself the producer – in a recording studio in London called Abbey Road, to create the music that they they heard and loved. Today, most music fans know the name of Geoff Emerick, who was the Beatles’ sound engineer.
Today, Kevin Gray’s name is well known, especially among vinyl record fans, as is his reputation for great sound. I, a member of this clan, can’t wait to listen to the albums he has remastered: the “Tone Poet” reissues of classic Blue Note records, the previous similar series from Music Matters, and the LP reissues from Craft Recordings. , Intervention Records, Resonance Records, Rhino Records, Speaker’s Corner and others. Chances are, any LP he’s involved with will sound fabulous, or at least as good as the source material (often recorded on aging analog tape) allows.
Not all recordings he works on are reissues. Indeed, in 2016 I had the pleasure of sitting down with Gray in his mastering room as he worked his magic, cutting a lacquer LP for my own record, Tight lines. Recently, I took the time to meet Kevin, learn about his approach to mastering and slicing LPs, and hear about the new all-tube recording studio he built from the ground up and installed in next to his mastering studio.
Sasha Matson: “Mastered by” is a term that some listeners may see but don’t fully understand. Please tell us what this means.
Kevin Grey: When I entered the profession, mastering consisted of burning a phonographic disc. Now there is a kind of “mastered for digital” and “mastered for vinyl”. I always do cut reissues from the original analog tapes, and I do all the mastering on that. On many new projects, people send me, in quotes, “pre-mastered” digital files, which usually means they’ve had all the compression done and everything they do for download on CD or in hi-res . I was able to work with two or three clients who really understand, in other mastering houses. I ask them to make two passes for me. Do your first pass with EQ and whatever, but don’t do the heavy compression, and send me those files from which to cut the phonograph record. Then do your other pass to do whatever they want with that for the digital output. And they got on board with that.
Matson: As sort of a last stop on the sound road, Kevin, describe what you’re up to before the finished vinyl or digital music release.
Gray: Basically, for me, it’s all about tonal balance. The idea is to try to make the album, if it’s an album, flow well. And that means you’re sometimes going to have a song that’s lacking or has too much of something in a frequency range. You make adjustments to keep everything balanced, using EQ.
Matson: Is it the same skill set for recording and mastering engineers?
Gray: I think sound engineers think of albums as a collection of songs. They look at each song on its own merits, not so much looking at the big picture of how they all fit together. They could sequence it, but do they really want the bass to come out like that on the third track? I know a few sound engineers who are very good at it, but I think they are in the minority.
Matson: Volume issues are basic, but so is tone. As in “These strings are a little abrasive.”
Gray: To the right. That’s all mastering. Sound engineers usually don’t care too much about it.
Matson: Have we already passed the wars of intensity?
Gray: No. People aren’t compressing any more than they were five years ago, but I don’t see them doing any less either. It’s kind of gotten to a point where everything is at least within 6dB to 8dB of the meters. Sometimes I have to turn it down 10dB, which is just silly. I understand how it all started, with rap and dance music. But then it seeped into everything. Jazz and classical. It’s ridiculous. I haven’t bought a CD since 1995 when all the heavy compression started. I’m not interested in listening to compressed music. I can’t get past track 3!
Matson: Do the record company people understand what you do?
Gray: It depends on who they are. The folks at Blue Note are amazing. They understand and they love what we do. Other people ask, “What’s the deal with doing it from a highly compressed digital file?” A lot of recordings are like that.
Matson: With the increasing adoption of high-resolution digital formats, is there more room for dynamic range than before?
Gray: I still see a lot of stuff, for digital download and so on, released after my part of the process, that is heavily compressed.
Matson: Back down the alley now: Your first mastering job was for Artisan Sound Recorders, in 1972?
Gray: Yes. Artisan only mastered one piece at the time. My first job was cutting replacement lacquers on Santana, Chicago and Bob Dylan. I thought I was dead and gone to heaven! In 1977 I made my first direct-to-disc recording on my own Cohearent Sound label. I started building my own speakers and electronics in the early 80’s.
Gray’s Neumann VMS-66 lathe, overseen by Mad Mastering’s Alfred E. Neumann. (Photo: Charlene Gray)
Matson: “Without transformer.” I see this term used as a positive adjective, including on your website about your recording and mastering chain. What is it about transformers that you consider problematic?
Gray: There are some very good transformers out there, from Jensen and CineMag. These companies manufacture a large percentage of transformers for audio use. But typical transformers used in the 50s and 60s and even later introduced phase shift and distortion and reduced bandwidth. So we decided to eliminate them. Which is a trick. As the devices talk to each other, it’s very easy to get a 60-cycle hum. I’m not talking about power transformers. I’m referring to the interstage transformers that are typically found at the input and output points of most professional audio equipment.
Matson: What is the most technically difficult part of cutting lacquer?
Gray: Usually it’s the length of the disc: making the disc fit. If it’s more than 18 minutes per side, you have to compromise. Usually the level needs to be reduced. There are little tricks that can help get more level or disc time. For the LP, I tell people to try to keep things to 24 minutes per side maximum for pop type music, 22 minutes for jazz. When you have exceeded 22, 24 minutes, you will have to lower the volume. It is the dynamics in relation to the spacing of the grooves. It’s nice to be able to cut a 2.5 mil wide groove when you can. On very long sides I’ll go down to 2mil, but I try never to go below (footnote 1).
Matson: Another important aspect is the control of the cutting head on the lathe. Some people object to anything being digital in the process. How does this work in your setup?
Gray: The concept of using a computer to control groove spacing has been around since the 1950s. It just got more sophisticated with digital control. But that has nothing to do with the audio system. It’s not in the signal path. It’s just the machine control that moves the cutting head across the disc. Many people take a two-track analog machine and use a digital delay to create a split signal that feeds the computer and the cutting head (footnote 2). But in my bedroom, I do it the way it’s always been done. I have a Studer tape recorder that has two playback heads (footnote 3). The first head, the preview head, feeds the computer. The second head powers the audio chain. One of the reasons it’s gone is that it takes two full stereo signal paths to do it, because everything you do to program must be done to preview. So when people started building consoles for digital mastering, they thought, “Oh, we don’t need previews anymore. We do it the old way, and not many of us do it that way anymore.
Footnote 1: The longest music album I know is 90 minutes with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. With 45 m of music per side, this record had half the groove spacing recommended by Gray.
Footnote 2: The computer then controls the groove spacing and sometimes other technical parameters. Cohearant uses a DJR Disc computer.
Footnote 3: When creating the master for stereophilicit is Sonata LP in 1996, I prepared a 4-track Nagra-D digital tape with two tracks containing the time-advanced 20-bit recording to feed the preview mechanism. That way, the decoded analog signal that was sent to the cutting head from the other two tracks wouldn’t have to be re-digitized, sent to a digital delay, and then converted back to analog.John Atkinson