INTERVIEW: Mark Wingfield (Specialist Mixing and Mastering Service for Jazz at Heron Island Studio)

Mark Wingfield
MARK WINGFIELD is a musician and a specialist in mixing and mastering jazz recordings. In this in-depth interview he talks about the art and craft of mixing and mastering, and gives an insight into the issues involved when an album has been recorded in a cramped space. He explains the activity of Heron Island Studios, and brings to the fore some current industry trends. Sebastian asked the questions: 

LondonJazz News: What and where is Heron Island Studio?

Mark Wingfield:We are just outside of St Neots on an island on the Great Ouse river in an area rich in bird-life, hence the name Heron Island Studio. The road crosses over the island so no boats necessary! We overlook a nature reserve and are surrounded by natural beauty as well as the river, so it's a relaxing place to mix. Access from London is easy, we are 40 minutes by train from Kings Cross and just off the A1 for anyone coming by car.

LJN: You specialise in mixing and mastering jazz. Is your approach different from people mixing and mastering other types of music?

MW: Yes mixing jazz is very different from mixing for example, pop or rock. With rock and pop it's often the opposite approach to how you would mix a jazz record. Mixing rock and pop you are often trying to fill in the gaps, gel everything together, flatten out the dynamics. It often even involves moving every note onto the grid, removing all natural timing from the playing. This is all an anathema to jazz playing. In jazz the detail of what's played is very important. With a jazz musician, every inflection, nuance, dynamic and tonal change is part of their expression. So it is vital that the mixing approach allows all this to be heard clearly and that it makes everything sound as natural as possible.

Because of the budgetary limitations most jazz musicians face, most albums are being recorded in small studios. The problem with small studios is that the walls are too close to the instruments. This means that these studios are forced to deaden the walls and ceiling with sound baffling to prevent the kind of horrible sounding small room reverberation, which would otherwise ruin the recording. Try walking into a small empty room and clapping your hands. You get a sort of "boing" noise as the sound bounces off all the walls. If you imagine that sound on every instrument, it would be a very far cry from the big beautiful reverberation sound you get in a performance hall or even a small club. That's why small studios have to put absorbent baffling in the rooms.

LJN: What is the effect on the sound of recording in small deadened rooms and how do you work with this when mixing?

MW When you play back what you've recorded in one of these small rooms, the instruments sound like they are on top of each other. This is because the baffling has taken away the spacial information from the sound, so it's more difficult for the ear to separate the instruments and place them in space relative to each other. So you end up with a very dense, flat, crowded sound where it's hard to hear what's going on in detail. Part of our job when mixing is to take this raw recording and transform it into a mix where the instruments are in a beautiful sounding space. A beautiful sounding space where they are not on top of each other, but set out as if on stage or in a large room. What kind of space you create depends on the music. Some music needs an intimate atmosphere, some asks for a larger more epic space. You then place the instruments in this space in relation to each other, close enough together to sound like they are playing with each other, but with enough room between them so that you can hear all the details. For me, creating this space is part of the art of mixing jazz.

This involves many things, like making sure frequencies don't clash between instruments. For example if the kick drum is occupying part of the same frequency range as the acoustic bass, you won't hear either of them clearly. Sorting out these kinds of problems while keeping the instruments sounding very natural, is for me another part of the art of mixing jazz. These kinds of techniques have taken me many years of mixing and mastering to acquire and refine, but I think that comes from that fact that I absolutely love doing it.

LJN: Do you have a particular goal when you mix or master a jazz album?

MW:There are goals I have when mixing or mastering an album. I want to hear the wood in an acoustic bass, the texture of brush strokes on the snare or detailed work on the ride cymbal. I'm looking for a feeling of depth and warmth but without any muddiness. I want to hear the detail of what players are doing and the interaction that's going on clearly, because that's so important in jazz. I want it to be a truly pleasurable experience for the listener because I think that helps people connect with the music.

LJN: And you are a musician yourself – when did you start being involved on the other side of the microphone?

MW: I've always been involved in mixing and recording right from the beginning. Perhaps because I'm a guitarist and have always been very interested in the effects side of things, mixing was a natural extension of what I did as a musician from early on. I got hold of a mixing desk at the age of 18 and have been heavily involved in mixing now for over 20 years. Mastering is something I started doing later on, after I had been mixing for quite a while.

LJN: Are mixing and mastering a question of equipment or is it the person and their experience / judgment ?

MW:It's both for sure... I think the personal aesthetic of the mixing or mastering engineer is key to getting a sound that suits a particular style of music. If you are not really steeped in the music of the genre, though you might do a decent job, it's going to hard to really make the music shine. I've been involved with jazz and related music my whole life, so I know the history, all the classic recordings starting from the 40's right up to today. The sound of recording and mixing has changed over the decades along with the evolution of the music. I think this knowledge and listening experience makes a huge difference in how I mix and master. I mean if you gave me a thrash metal album or an electronic dance album to mix I could do a decent job, but it wouldn't be the same as getting someone who specialised in those genres. I think it's the same with jazz or any genre, if you have a deep knowledge of the music you're mixing and mastering it makes a huge difference in the results.

I think experience and judgement are far more important than the equipment. Someone who really knows what their doing can produce a good result from any decent equipment. Someone who isn't as skilled will produce a mediocre result with the best equipment in the world. But of course equipment does make a big difference. It means that a skilled engineer can make things sound even better.

LJN: Is there any particular piece of gear or software that you feel makes a difference in making a great sounding mix?

MW:A particularly important factor for jazz is having world class reverbs. I think people often don't realise what a difference it makes between using say, Lexicon's current flagship reverb, versus a lesser reverb like an older unit made in the 1980s or a cheap reverb plugin. The difference is like night and day. I see some studios using old or cheap reverbs and I can always hear it. To my ears they almost always muddy the sound without creating a realistic sense of space in the music. Certain kinds of studio gear haven't really improved since the 1970's. That's not true for reverb, it has improved dramatically in recent years in terms of realism and sonic quality. A great modern reverb allows you to create a beautiful 3D space for the music to be in, without you even noticing it's there. Put simply, world-class reverb makes the music a real pleasure to listen to, especially with acoustic instruments. Used correctly, it creates space between the instruments, which actually makes it easier to hear the details of what people are playing.

LJN: How did you get to know MoonJune?

MW:For anyone who doesn't know MoonJune Records, it's an innovative jazz label based in Manhattan, which has been nominated for label of the year in Downbeat two years running. I signed to MoonJune as a musician in 2014 and in 2015 recorded an album for them as band leader, called "Proof of Light". As well as playing on the album I also mixed and masted it. I have since recorded another four albums for them as band leader or co-leader. One coming out this year and another two in 2017.

"Proof of Light" got over 60 rave reviews around the world including Downbeat, Relix and many other major publications. One interesting upshot of all that publicity was that a lot of audiophiles commented about how good the album sounded in terms of the mixing and mastering audio quality. As a result Leonardo Pavkovic, the owner of MoonJune, asked me to mix and master some of the other albums on the label. Before long Heron Island became their go-to mixing and mastering studio. I'm incredibly pleased about the fact that all the records I have mixed and mastered for MoonJune have received world-wide critical acclaim.

It's a very similar story for Greydisc Records the Boston based label I do a lot of work for, which is also known for it's audiophile sound. One of the records I mixed and mastered for Greydisc was the subject of a feature article in Guitar Player magazine, and six others have been selected for the year's "best-of" list by numerous US jazz radio stations as well as by major music publications. That's something I'm very proud of.

LJN: What albums have you been working on recently?

MW: We've been working on some interesting music recently at Heron Island. I've just been mastering a Softworks album featuring Allan Holdsworth, John Marshall, Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper and a double album by the great Indonesian jazz pianist Dwiki Dharmawan called Pasar Klewer which features Gilad Atzmon, Nicolas Meier, Yaron Stavi and Asaf Sirkis. Before that I was mastering an album by the amazing NYC based guitarist Beledo featuring Gary Husband. Other albums recently have featured great musicians such as Iain Ballamy, Chad Wackerman, Lincoln Goines, Jimmy Haslip, Robert Mitchell and more.

LJN: Do you choose the work you get or does it choose you?

MW: It's a bit of both. I choose to work only on jazz related music, which includes some world music too. I prefer to work in that genre because I feel I have a deep understanding of jazz, I think that really helps in the mixing and mastering, and I feel like I can use the best of my mixing abilities. Having said that, I did mix and master a rock/pop album album for Warner Bros. recently. Mixing that style is unusual for me these days, but I was asked to do it and I liked the music. So I will make an exception if I like the music enough, but my speciality is jazz. There was a full string orchestra on the recording and as I have experience mixing classical music that may have played a part in them asking me.

LJN: Do you mix "in the box" or is there analogue outboard gear or what combination of the two?

MW:We have analog gear here and we use it if requested. However in the past three or four years, software has advanced to the point where it sounds as good as or better than the very best hardware. Most of the best analog gear has now been emulated so well with software, that the owners of the actual units that copied cannot tell which is which when you switch between the two. The analog magic created by prized hardware has now been completely understood and completely reproduced in software. If anyone reading this has doubts, I urge them to listen to the plugins made by SlateDigital, Millennia, Softube and Eiosis. These companies and a few others, have completely changed the game. As a result, a whole slew of famous Grammy Award winning engineers in the US, who all used to swear by analog, have come out and said that software now actually sounds as good or better than their hardware and are now mixing entirely in the box.

LJN: What does this mean for musicians recording today and what does it mean for you as a mix and mastering engineer?

MW:What this means to a musician or group recording an album is that they can now afford a world-class sound which would normally be way beyond the finances of most jazz groups. The cost of setting up a studio with at large mixing desk and the necessary racks of the best analog gear was 120 to 150 thousand pounds. Now you can get the same quality or better for under 10 thousand because it's based in software. In fact it's now arguably better because you don't have to compromise with the fact that your studio only has one or two examples of a particular piece of beautiful sounding analog gear. With software you can use that sound on every instrument. That's something that just wasn't possible in the analog world.

For me what's just as important is that in the past three or so years, the best software designers have taken things way past what analog can do. So for example, you might have a great sounding piece of analog gear which adds a sweetness to the mid range, a different unit might add richness to the low end and a third piece is nice because it tends to add a silky smoothness to the high frequencies. But each of these pieces of hardware comes with a hefty dose of noise and other changes to frequencies you really don't want to affect. So you gain something, but you also loose something, it's always a compromise in the analog world. The result was often a warm sounding mix, but also a loss of detail and space. Everything would be coated in a sort of gauze or mist. This can actually be a good thing for some kinds of rock music, but for jazz, you just end up missing out on the details and the depth in the sound.

This is one of a number of areas where software has now gone beyond the hardware. The best new software allows you to choose just the attribute you want to enhance without affecting anything else. So for example you can add a silky smoothness to the sax or vocal that a prized piece of analog hardware would add, but without adding mushiness to the mid range or low end that the actual hardware would. There's a lot less compromise in the sound quality now and it's easier to get just the sound you want on every instrument.

LJN: And the acoustic environment of the room is special / optimized ?

MW:Yes absolutely. A room which has been properly acoustically treated is one of the most important things in a mixing and mastering studio, it's even more important than the gear or software. The reason is that any room will have reflections across the frequency range. These bounce back at your ears just after the sound from the speakers and that causes frequencies to cancel out and multiply. The result is that what you hear is not what the music actually sounds like. You may be hearing more bass than there actually is, or less high frequencies than there actually are etc... You're hearing a skewed version of the music. This will very likely cause problems in the mix, because the mixer will be fixing problems which don't exist and missing problems which do.

A lot of our work in mastering is fixing problems in mixes which happened because the room was not properly treated or the mixing speakers were not good enough. In fact that's the most common problem any mastering engineer encounters. You can do a lot to fix this in mastering, but it's never going to be as good as if the mix didn't have those problems to begin with.

So proper acoustic treatment is essential. This is something you simply can't skimp on if you want great results and yet so many small studios don't take it seriously enough. It's simply not enough to put some foam and a few cheap sound baffles on the walls. That might help a little, but it's just not going to fix the major problems almost all rooms naturally have. For this reason we spent a good deal on acoustic treatment at Heron Island. Our acoustic treatment was bespoke designed for our studio by RealTraps who do many of the top NYC studios.

LJN: Is there anything else apart from the acoustic treatment that you feel is vital for a mixing or mastering studio?

MW:Great speakers are the other important thing. We use Adam A77Xs which swept the awards for studio speakers. Adam are are world-class mixing speakers which is why they are used by Abbey Road, Bomb Factory, Universal Studios, Deepwave, Rupert Neve, etc… Having speakers of this quality makes a huge difference in getting a great mix.

Mastering also requires great speakers and you can't use mixing speakers to master with. Mastering speakers are very different from near field mixing speakers. It's vitally important for a mastering studio to have truly great mastering speakers and amplifier. We are very lucky to have a pair of Duntech Viscount mastering speakers. Duntechs are legendary in the mastering world because they are extremely well balanced and accurate across the frequency spectrum and they have incredible detail and sound stage. We have a world-class Chord amplifier to drive them.

LJN: Is there an advantage in musicians coming to St Neots and working with you?

MW:That depends on the client. I mix music from all over the world. A lot of stuff from NYC, Boston, Berlin, Zurich, even as far afield as Jakarta (which has a huge and vibrant jazz scene). So I am used to receiving files over the internet or receiving a hard disk in the mail and working remotely. I often skype with the band or musicians to talk over what they would like from the mix. I'll then send high quality mp3s of rough mixes, get their comments and make changes based on that. This system works extremely well for many people. However some people would really like to be there during the mix and of course they are more than welcome to come to the studio. It's a very relaxing environment to work in here as I mentioned, we often have a break (important to do when mixing) and have a walk by the river around the island. There are restaurants, shops and pubs just a mile up the road in St Neots. So it's totally up to the client. We are more than happy to have people attend the mixing sessions or equally happy to do it remotely. The same goes with mastering, though as a rule not so many people want to attend mastering.

LJN: How long does mixing / mastering take?

MW: The time it takes to mix an album is variable. Some albums are quick to mix, others take longer. As a rough guide it takes about a week for most things. If there is a full string section or many instruments playing it's going to take longer than mixing a quartet or trio. It also depends on the budget of the musician, band or label. Because I know what it's like to be a struggling jazz musician I try to stay as flexible as possible. I discuss the project with the client to establish what's involved, and find out how complicated the mix is going to be. There will be a difference between how long it takes to mix a trio record and a record with fifteen instruments playing at the same time for example. From there I can work out a price and the time it will take. Mastering an album is usually done in a day, sometimes two.

LJN: People who hear you speak might not be able to place your accent. What's your story?

MW:I have an American father and English mother. I was born in Oklahoma USA then moved to the UK and spent some of my childhood here before returning to the US and spending my later childhood and teens in Boston. I then returned to the UK and have been here now for over 20 years.

LJN: Did you have mentors as musician and or as mixing /mastering specialist. What is it that makes one better than another?

MW:If I had to choose an engineer who I looked up to and someone who really changed the face of jazz sonically it would be Jan Erik Kongshaug. Jan Erik mixed many of the classic ECM recordings, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny etc... and he along with Manfred Eicher, changed the sound of how jazz was recorded and mixed. There's barely and album made today which hasn't taken some influence from the way Jan Erik mixed those ECM recordings (and still does). If you listen to the clarity and detail in those recordings compared to pretty much anything that came before, you can hear how much he changed the face of jazz mixing. (pp)

LINK: Contacting Heron Island Studio

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