Ryan Schwabe | photo courtesy of the artist
Behind The Scene: Demystifying mastering with Ryan Schwabe, Heather Jones, and Elaine Rasnake
Behind The Scene is a new series which attempts to bring focus to the overlooked aspects of the Philadelphia music community. This is a collection of features on subjects whose stories are seldom told but whose contributions allow the Philadelphia music scene to thrive.
“How much do you know about music production?” It’s a good question and a bit of an embarrassing one to answer. Very little, I must admit, but the man sitting across from me is not trying to condescend, not even close. I am sitting in a studio in West Philly surrounded by hundreds of switches and dials, a workstation as familiar to me as the inside of a space shuttle, a place where mastering and mixing engineer Ryan Schwabe spends almost a dozen hours a day, listening, teaching, and perfecting.
Schwabe is laid-back, relaxed, with straight, shoulder-length hair, his easy, conversational tone revealing his professorial side. This marks the second lesson in my crash course in mastering, an essential piece of the music production process very few know much about and even fewer can do quite as well as Schwabe. Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard Schwabe’s work. How much credit he deserves or wants for his work as one of Philly’s most prolific mastering engineers is one of the many fascinating topics we touch on in our conversation, but first, he wants to show me a song he’s been working on because, as is evident throughout, the songs are really all that matter. “Some songs I just get right away,” Schwabe says with the excitement and pride of someone who’s dissected more music than most people listen to in a lifetime. “When I love the songs and I love the artists, I know exactly what to do and it’s really seamless.”
The more you learn about mastering, the more you come to realize this seamlessness is the goal. Which is perhaps why it is a process often shrouded in such mystery, even to those far more well-versed than myself. “Mastering is one of those things where we ask what its job is more than any other part of the recording process,” says Heather Jones, mastering engineer and owner/operator of So Big Auditory. Jones, who’s been performing music for almost two decades and now writes songs in Philly band ther, first studied production while attending SUNY Purchase but didn’t solidify their career till moving to Philadelphia several years ago. Since that time they’ve worked with dozens of artists, from indie-rockers Frankie Valet to Philly’s Twin Princess, creating a career aided by near constant self-guided research and study. Only after careful consideration does Jones eventually settle on the idea that mastering is the process of taking something that sounds good and making it sound done.
At its is most basic, mastering is the processing of source material using equalization and compression, finding a balance within the dynamic range, and optimizing frequency distribution. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either, but I tried. More practically, a band or artist writes a song, works for hours, months, even years, they record the perfect mix, and only then do they send it to a mastering engineer. As even Heather admits, the song, for most purposes, is done, so why get it mastered? Rather than get way over my head again, let’s look at an example.
This first version is, obviously, very much a song. All the pieces are there; the vocals at the fore, the almost industrial beat beneath, the tense, synth blasts firing in from the margins. This is the version Jones hears when they open up the file to get started, the stereo mix that becomes the palette for their work, the raw elements from which they build the final master.
Hear the difference? It’s very clearly the same song, but there are some drastic sonic differences. The vocals are still powerful, the jangling rhythm still bubbling from below, but now everything seems to have its own room, a space all their own to occupy. Perhaps most notable are those previously peripheral synth blasts now shaking through the mix, giving them a heft they simply didn’t have before. Everything is just cleaner, like switching from laptop speakers to a professional sound system. The first version sounds good, this one sounds done.
Of all the metaphors I got, Schwabe put it most succinctly. “The artist paints the picture, I am just the framer,” he says, referencing why mastering is, again and again, described as much a means of presentation as anything else. Another term he uses consistently is “appropriate”. Just as a framer would not surround a 20th-century cubist painting with an ornate, gold-plated border, so too does a mastering engineer work within the borders of genre and styles. Punk records need to be in your face, loud and abrasive, folk records, wide-open, lush, with every eventuality in between.
Such framing is not learned overnight and has taken Schwabe years and hundreds of records to master. After a childhood of tinkering and an acute obsession with those listed on the back of the record as much as the names in bold on the front, Schwabe began his journey in earnest when he enrolled in Drexel University’s music program. It was in his junior year, after taking wide-ranging classes like music theory, jazz band, and orchestra, that the instinct to tinker returned. Unfortunately, Drexel didn’t have the proper facilities required to get the hands-on experience necessary to continue his education. Rather than muddle through without, he sent a letter to the President expressing a need for updated facilities and, remarkably, received $10,000 to use toward building just the studio he needed. “It kind of all blossomed from building that studio,” Schwabe says, pretty laid back about fundamentally changing the direction of the music program at a major university.
From there Schwabe landed a gig as the house engineer for Crash Studios in Fishtown, who’s clients ranged from a young John Legend to death metal and everything in between. It’s still, to this day, Schwabe’s only experience working outside of Drexel and his home studio. If nothing else, says Schwabe, this experience taught him the value of working with all kinds of music, something he’s continued as a mastering engineer.
It would be too simple to say mastering falls into the “customer is always right” category of service, but it wouldn’t be wrong either. For Elaine Rasnake, a Philly mastering engineer and owner/operator of Daughterboard Audio, navigating these situations properly is one of the essential aspects of the job. “Think about it: an artist has worked on a project for months, or even years. So there is a sensitivity when you send it to a mastering engineer who will give the final edits and critiques,” Rasnake says. It’s a skill she takes pride in and one she’s cultivated since her time at Bloomsburg University, where, incredibly, she was the first woman to graduate with an audio production degree. Initially a Mass Communications major, Rasnake blended her technological skills with a desire to work behind the scenes into a quickly budding production career. Her time spent as the lone woman in such a male-dominated field has aided her in many ways, she says, but none more than in respect to the thorny issues that arise when dealing with an artist’s most personal work. “A lot of the guys are hard-headed and know what they are doing, but there is something about kindness, especially with mastering,” Rasnake says. “Being open and honest is super important, and females have been really good at that compared to some of the guys.”
“You really have to not think so much about what you think sounds best but what the client is going for and how to make what they are going for work better,” Jones says. In their experience, there are a couple key ways to go about this; one, never tell a client they are wrong, two, leave the technical intricacies at the door. “I try to ask questions from an artistic perspective,” Jones says. It seems like a good strategy, but just imagine, for a second, the labor in turning words like “pummeling” “atmospheric” “autumnal” – the kind adjectives us music writers use in lieu of any expertise whatsoever – into useful, tangible results. Not an easy task to be sure.
Rasnake finds it helpful to request reference tracks from the artist, trying her best to tap into the musician’s mindset without getting stuck in the weeds. This helps boil down some of an artist’s more grand ideas into something tangible like a specific drum sound or the way the bass rises above the mix. “When they provide me reference tracks it kind of opens that door to what their brain has been hearing since day one of making their music,” Rasnake says.
Schwabe, on the other hand, wants to know almost nothing about the artist or their direct intentions, preferring to let the music speak for itself. The way he sees it, any information outside of the music will only worm its way into the decisions he wishes to keep within the context of the song’s genre, structure, and sound. “It is better to go with my instincts than augment my decisions based on arbitrary information,” Schwabe says.
You don’t work on as many records as Schwabe without learning to know what an artist wants, sometimes before they can even express it themselves. “I felt like he understood what I was going for, sonically speaking,” says Eric Slick, who’s worked with Schwabe on his last two LPs, 2017’s Palisades and last year’s Wiseacre. “I remember sitting in his control room during the Palisades mastering session and being blown away by just how much he was adding to the richness of the sound.”
In many ways this is the art in Mastering. An engineer isn’t making drastic musical changes, they aren’t adding new notes, rhythms or basslines, but they are making decisions, important ones. Getting the chance to hear a musician’s initial mix is a precious thing full of vulnerabilities, sensitivities, and possible landmines. Finding a way to shape this raw material into their ideal vision requires definite artistic insight. “This is why I like it so much,” Jones says. “You are making very small technical decisions that can create a positive musical impact.”
I have to have him repeat it. But no, I did hear it right, he said five hundred. Five hundred records a year. “I’m at the point where it’s ridiculous that I am doing it in a bedroom,” Schwabe says. Here he is using the word “bedroom” in the same way we call the computer, GPS, television, camera, and tracking device in our pocket a telephone. In fact, there’s not even a bed, but instead hundreds of snaking wires, dozens of speakers, a couple computers, a Christmas tree’s worth of blinking lights, and a fancy little gadget whose job it is to do an in-depth acoustic analysis of the room. “It’s pretty fucking complex,” Schwabe admits, owing much of this complexity to the slapdash way the studio’s been constructed, constantly updating since the day he moved in back in 2010. “If I had to take it down and move it, I don’t think I’d be able to put it back together.” He’s quick to point out the space’s possible flaws, spatially and acoustically, but it’s obvious this is where he feels most at home. After all, this is where he works on all of the, one more time, five hundred records a year, so he must be doing something right.
“I first saw him in the recording studio at Drexel soldering cables and I thought, he’s the guy I need to know,” says owner and operator of Headroom Studios Joe Reinhart, whose professional relationship and friendship dates back to the mid-aughts. To this day, Reinhart says, he will almost always recommend artists go to Ryan for their mastering needs. Whether they’re a big-time artist with a near-endless budget or an indie band recording their first EP, Reinhart knows when you get it back from Schwabe it will simply sound better, a fact not worth messing with. “Ryan’s really the audio guy I look up to and ask questions to all the time.”
It’s in these moments I’m reminded these are indeed engineers we are talking about. Despite obvious artistic skill, mastering engineers are technicians whose expertise lies in pinpoint accuracy. “It’s something I have developed over a 15-year career and every week I am changing it and advancing it to some degree,” Schwabe says. One of the key ways he keeps these skills sharp is through his job as a full-time Associate Professor at Drexel University where he teaches classes in mixing and mastering, business management, listening techniques, and oversees a capstone class. In these classes Schwabe brings in the records he is currently working on, giving students an example they can grasp onto, helping them work through the types of practical issues Schwabe deals with every day. Another class will have students listen to every Grammy award winning record throughout the years, tracking the kinds of sonic changes mastering engineers must keep up with to remain relevant. Ultimately, it’s a give and take that helps Schwabe nearly as much as the students on the other side of the Zoom call.
So where does Schwabe, someone who’s studied and teaches mastering, think the job falls on the continuum between art and science? “We’re making songs, we’re not making rocket ships,” Schwabe says, acknowledging while much of the role is technical and exacting, you can’t engineer art. “Mastering Engineers pride ourselves on having bullet-proof judgement, making objective decisions, but those things don’t exist,” Jones adds. “This is art. There is no objective improvement.”
As it turns out, this dichotomy between art and science is a false one. Mastering engineers don’t distinguish because they can’t. Their most essential role does not sit in either camp but as the bridge between the two, the technical expert with aesthetic insight, the musician who knows how the sausage gets made. If Schwabe wants to leave me with any single lesson, it’s that even with all the expertise in the world, perfection does not exist, at least not the way you might think. Of course, as any good professor, he has a way of showing just what he means.
“One of the things I ask my students is what record do you love the sonics of but don’t actually love the songs?,” Schwabe says. “It’s a very difficult thing to answer because you don’t listen to music that way.”
Exhibit A; Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 number one hit single “Family Affair”. This right here, says Schwabe, is a perfect example of a “wonky, trashy, just really retched” sounding song. I have to say, I mostly agree. There is just something…well…off. It’s like the band is playing in the next room with each instrument jumping levels wildly as the band sets in, sections popping seemingly out of nowhere. But, “I love it that way,” Schwabe says. ”It’s one of my favorite songs.” He doesn’t explain this contradiction, he doesn’t have to, and that’s precisely the point.
Music you love rarely has anything to do with logic and surely nothing to do with science. If anything, mastering engineers are here to help you forget there’s science at all, using what they know and, just importantly, feel to make the song sound exactly as it should, however that may be.