Tom Walker & VC Pines: Best of British
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.”
To Grint, mastering is a different way of listening. He finds quite a lot of the work is actually creating that cinematic sound, and getting the music to spread across from the centre to the sides, so it sounds bigger.
“Which is very different to all the other listeners, who are going to listen to their music, and they hear it their way; you’ve got to set the ears back to neutral for every project, regardless of the genre,” says Mercer.
“I think generally, because I only work in this room, I have an expectation of how things should sound here,” Grint reflects. “I’ve always been impressed how engineers and producers can work in different studios, and have an understanding of what they’re doing, because that seems totally alien to me.”
“So the room itself is your formula, then?” asks Mercer.
“Yeah, I know how things should sound in here.”
“Do you find that a lot of people are trying to make stuff super loud for the sake of making it loud?” asks Walker. “When I’m on some streaming services, stuff just sounds like a war to see who can get the loudest, but then the whole song lacks a dynamic, and then it’s all just like one thing, which I find crazy.”
There has always been a loudness war, Grint reminds the room. Back in the day, when he was doing a lot of vinyl, it was also a case of who could cut the vinyl the loudest, he says:
“Also, Radio 1 used to be on Medium Wave, and they had this really horrid limiter as a protection for the transmitter; and if that got triggered, it would close the volume down really quickly, but it would take 10 seconds to release it back up again!” [room erupts with laughter]
“Back then, we used to cut records for radio that were more heavily compressed, just to make sure that these things didn’t get triggered, but I think now, with the streaming services, there’s a thing called LUFS, which is a measurement of volume over time and instantaneous volume. And I don’t think that people understand that squashing something as much as you can can actually make it sound quieter on a streaming service, and something with more dynamics will sound louder.”
Mercer points out that there is a similar situation bubbling with sub frequencies.
“People are now trying to get as much low end in their tracks as possible,” he says. “I think someone did something big in the States, and now it’s a case of Drake trying to put as much low end in every track as possible, and it just swamps it.”
“It’s crazy,” adds Walker. “When I listen to the new Eminem album in my car, the whole car is just shaking, man. I love the album, but I literally had to go in and equalise it, and turn the bass down!”
Walker says those three years have absolutely flown by, but it’s also been the hardest graft he’s ever worked in his life.
“And considering I was a chef, that’s says quite a lot,” he laughs. “I was on 127 flights last year; that’s a lot of flying, and I can’t even remember how many gigs I did.”
Mercer started touring as frontman for indie-rock oufit, The Carnabys, around 2012. The band did a lot of work with Hard Rock Café, whose label, Hard Rock Records, put them on tour around the globe, where they shared stages with Bruce Springsteen, Kings of Leon, and Blondie, to name a few.
“We had some amazing opportunities, and it was a great experience, but the band disbanded in early 2017, which really gave me a chance to stop for a minute, and focus on the music that I really wanted to do, rather than focusing on what’s going to sell the most records,” Mercer explains. “Just focusing on my sound, what’s in there [thumps his chest].
“It’s really given me a chance to think, and then I started getting in the studio with my producer, Hound, who’s been amazing. We focus on the production, and the sounds we want to get, and put in, and stuff like that; and having a seven-piece band as well has really broadened my horizons as an artist. We’ve really started to work on the live shows, and making things blend in that kind of way.
“There’s a big underground London jazz scene that’s bubbling up, and there are a few people that are kind of floating on the top like Oscar Jerome and Puma Blue - and we had a session with Lucy Lu, who plays bass in Puma Blue, and he’s his own artist as well - and it’s great to work with these people. I feel like the London community is really collaborative: everyone wants to work with each other, especially within that jazz soul scene. It’s the music I love, and it happens to be the music that everyone’s kind of into at the moment.”
Grint pulls up the Tom Walker album which he’s recently mastered. The mixes were really good, he says, so it’s not like he had to ‘throw a lot at it’. Before Grint plays Not Giving In, he explains that the track was turned down, so the loudest part was correct, but it was making the start of the track seem a bit too dull. He demonstrates to us how he was able to get ‘that big lift’ when the track kicked in.
“Wow! You can hear everything on these speakers,” says Walker, shuffling his chair closer to the centre of the stereo image. “That’s blown my mind, that has.”
Grint points out that there’s now a 4dB drop at the beginning of the song, so you get that punch when the track comes in.
“This one took us a while, I remember,” Walker recalls. “It was the harshness of that top end, which you can hear you’ve smoothed out now.”
“That’s what I mean about a more cinematic sound,” Grint explains, and brings the Waves L3 plugin into shot. “I’m adding a bit of width in certain areas. This is a Waves L3 multi-band limiter, which I use on every single master. It’s excellent. And it also allows me to shape how the limiter is working, so the harder it’s working, the more emphasis you’ll get on certain areas.
“So for example, as it get’s louder, it’s not pushing that mid-range, and it’s not pushing the top, because it’s already as on the edge as you want it to be. But it just brings up the lower end of your vocal down to just above the kick, and the kick’s just pulled back as well, so you don’t get the car rattling sub you were talking about.”
Walker admits he’s very surprised that Grint uses plugins:
“For some reason, I thought you’d use all analogue gear in a room far, far away... I’m very impressed that you can do this on a computer now, because it sounds so warm and so lovely, and somehow more analogue to me! [laughs]”
“Talking to other engineers, it seems a lot of us analogue guys have gravitated towards using digital, because we’ve done analogue, and with the changes you’re trying to make, you don’t really want to keep going into analogue, then back into digital, and then having other problems caused by the fact you’ve gone into analogue at all,” Grint explains.
Walker says it’s great hearing something that’s been mastered on the speakers that were actually used to master it:
“You’re not going to get much better than that, are you?”
“It should sound the best, but then equally, it’s got to sound good on everything,” explains Grint. “It’s one of the things people ask: do you master it for streaming, or do you master it for vinyl? And I think at this stage, you master it to sound the best it can possibly be; that’s the aim.”
“As soon as we get a master, I quite like checking it on your bang average headphones to see what the general public are going to hear,” says Mercer. “If it sounds good on them, you know it must sound good anywhere.”
Grint agrees, and pulls up Vixen, the second VC Pines single which came out in January on Fierce Panda. VC Pines’ Indigo EP dropped on March 22, and was also mastered by Grint.
“Tell us your secrets, Barry!” laughs Walker, as the track begins to play. “What, both of them?” Grint smiles. Grint plays what was a first mix, later to be tweaked and resent. Then he plays the second mix he received, which he mastered.
“Wow, that’s nuts,” says Mercer.
“That’s a huge difference,” concurs Walker.
“And then we went to stems, so that’s predominantly instrumental bits and backing vocals, and then your lead vocal is here [points to screen] because I wanted to treat your vocal a little differently.”
“That is so wide,” Walker says.
“I’ve pushed the lower end of your range, so your vocal sounds a bit warmer; so on this track, most of the work is done on the vocal - there’s just a bit of EQ on the overall mix.”
“I love that harmony, it’s sick,” adds Walker.
“Cheers, man. I think it makes it feel raw and real, and that’s what music should be,” says Mercer.
“I must say, it did make me go ‘wooooo!’” [laughter fills room again]
Grint pulls the master fader back down, and asks what the guys thought of the before and after treatment.
“It has surprised me a lot,” Walker admits. “Mastering does a lot more than you’d think it does, but I think that is also because you can hear a lot more detail through these speakers. I don’t know how I’m ever going to listen to music again! This is like another level of detail; each EQ band is separated, but it all sounds like it’s one thing. As I say, it’s blown my mind. Now I know why you get your nickname, Barry!”
“He’s called The Wizard, as he sprinkles the magic dust,” Mercer announces, patting Grint on the back. “It’s been amazing to get deep into the process – and to understand a few more of the intricacies that goes into mastering a record. It’s incredible, isn’t it?”
“Yep. He’s Gandalf, himself!” concludes Walker.