We descend on Alchemy Mastering, one of London’s premiere mastering facilities, with two talented and soulful young artists: 2019 BRIT Award-winner, Tom Walker, whose debut album drops on March 1st; and VC Pines (aka Jack Mercer), whose first two singles have been playlisted on BBC 6 Music, the latter of which received its Radio 1 debut last week. What these two have in common – aside from great tone – is that both their most recent projects have been mastered by Chief Alchemist, Barry Grint. We sit the guys down to compare musical stories, production techniques, and touring tales, as we dig a little deeper into the dark art of mastering.
“It’s like photoshop for audio,” opens Grint, with a smile, as this musical trio huddle around his mastering work surface. Grint’s work is revered globally, and he’s been fine tuning his craft for some 35 years with an eclectic array of artists: Madonna, Bowie, and Prince; Tom Odell and Thom Yorke; Gorillaz; and Rag N’ Bone Man, to name a few. “When we’re done, I’ll show you a thing called half-speed cutting, because your album was done half-speed, Tom.”
“I thought it was just like putting a song through a lot of expensive analogue gear in order to make it sound good,” says Tom Walker, whose mega-single, Leave a Light On, was mastered at Alchemy, and has been streamed more than 200 million times on Spotify alone. He also picked up the BRIT for British Breakthrough last week.
“Sprinkling the magic dust on top,” smiles Jack Mercer, whose first two [VC Pines] singles, Garden of The Year and Vixen were mastered at Alchemy. Both received critical acclaim from both BBC 6 Music and Radio 1.
Grint has been working with Mercer on his VC Pines evolution for 18 months, and did the whole Tom Walker debut record, What a Time To Be Alive. He asks Mercer what kind of feeling he gets when he receives the mastered tracks back from Alchemy.
“Well, how we work is a rarity in that we have quite a close relationship; I feel like there are a lot of artists where the mix gets sent, and it’s kind of like this strange forbidden world, to the mastering engineer,” Mercer explains. “You spend however many months it takes to do a project, then you send it off to this person you have never met, and you know something’s going to happen to your songs. The only way I can describe your mastering is that it brings the songs to life; it makes them wider, it makes them bigger. Then being able to talk to you about it, and to try to understand why this happens, and how this happens, is really interesting.”
Grint turns to Walker and points out that his album has had four different mastering engineers work on it at various stages.
“[laughs] I’m very picky,” smiles Walker.
But did Grint get it all to gel?
“Yeah, absolutely. It took us a few goes, didn’t it - over email. At the time we started, I was in America, then I was in Australia, and then by the end of it I was in Mexico, so I was trying to do it on various pairs of headphones - some of them amazing, some of them terrible – and various different rental car stereos, and a few studios I was in at the time. For me, mastering is the last 10% that is impossible to get. I could sit there and try to make an audio file that’s already done, sound better, but I just wouldn’t get anywhere; it would just get steadily and steadily worse!
“But mastering really smooths it all out, especially for an album. For me, the gap between songs was super important; I didn’t want anything lingering around too long, I wanted it to be a comfortable journey where there’s room to breathe. I feel we got it really good in the end; I had a little tear in my eye when it was finished, actually. I was pretty emotional, because it had been a long journey getting the album done, but I’m super proud of it.”