An Interview With Dennis Drake

A sincere "Thank You" to Mr. Dennis Drake who currently works at: The Music Lab and took time from his hectic schedule to talk with me for nearly 30 minutes about his philosophy of mastering music in mid January 2005.

Doug: First of all, how did you get into mastering? I'm not familiar with any college courses called "Mastering 101"?

Dennis: Well that's a very interesting question that goes back a long way. I started out many years ago at Cornell University and tried to combine electronics and music and they thought it was a preposterous idea... [chuckles] Dr. Robert Moog was teaching some courses there. So I took some of his electronic music courses and really got in to it. And then after a few years I decided to head out on my own. I ended up going on the road with the Beach Boys and we did 32 shows in Europe and I ended up doing PA on the road for many years and really got in to sound quality and the things that go with it. But after awhile I got to where I wanted to get into a studio where I could set up the sound and leave it because with PA you tear it down every night, load in the truck and head off to the next gig.

Doug: And large concert halls and gymnasiums are normally the best place to get a good sound anyway. And besides, in those places you aren't trying to get a nice stereo sound like you would in your home.

Dennis: Right, that's a good point. You're fighting a lot of battles on the road with power and acoustics and all kinds of things. And I was lucky enough to get into A&R Studios and work with some of the great engineers up there: Eliot Shiner, Phil Ramone. After a short time there I went out to California and got on the staff at the United Western studios where I became a full time recording engineer and worked with a lot of different people: Mike Post, Jimmy Webb-- did a lot of TV specials, Olivia Newton-John, Ringo Starr and really enjoyed the recording end of it-- mixing's a lot of fun.

Doug: Now when you were working with all of those people was it just a job and you thought, "Hmm, let's see, today its Jimmy Webb and next week it's Ringo" just like a routine job or did you lean back and think, "Oh my god, I'm working with Jimmy Webb!"

Dennis: You know I probably should have done that more often, but you know you get into this work zone and mode and you're concentrating on the demands of the session--what the client wants. Jimmy was a very demanding artist in the studio. I guess sometimes I would kick back and think about it, but later you kind of wish you had gotten more autographs and pictures, but I really did enjoy working with some of these artists. Paul Simon, great guy to work with years ago, Dolly Parton-- wonderful lady. But you know, you just kind of get busy with the work and do your job.

Doug: When did you finally decide to get into the mastering part? When you're the main recording engineer, after you're finished mixing you sent it out for mastering. At what point did you decide that what you were getting back after it was mastered didn't sound like you thought it should and felt you should work on that end of the process?

Dennis: It's interesting you asked that because as a recording engineer especially in the 70s and 80s when I was doing a lot of that stuff, we didn't have digital on board yet and we made a lot of sonic compromises in the mixing because we knew we were going to vinyl. We had to do diameter EQ and watch the lines per inch and watch the bottom end. We couldn't pump the bottom end on certain things and we knew we'd lose a little high end down the line so we'd tweak up the high end a little bit. Every format has its own signature-- cassettes, LP's, even digital. You had to learn the signature of that format and sort of mix to that format. With the progress we've made with digital converters and digital technology, we can really clone things and keep that quality all the way through to the consumers' product which is really exciting.
Back in the early 80s, PolyGram had their tape vaults up in White Plains, New York and I had an opportunity to get on board with them and I moved the vaults from White Plains down to Edison, New Jersey. We consolidated all of the tapes from the various storage facilities around the country and put them in a climate controlled building and I built three studios there for mastering.

Doug: Were all of the tapes all in good shape? I've read articles and talked to people who tell me that not all master tapes have a nice safe and peaceful existence in a climate controlled vault.

Dennis: Yes and No. The tapes [from White Plains] had actually been through a couple of floods so a lot of the boxes had tape damage. It's funny, a lot of tapes from the 50's-- Ella Fitzgerald masters, Louise Armstrong, Count Basie-- the acetate based tapes, they held up really well. Once in awhile you'd have to replace splices and things, but you'd throw them on the machine and they'd sound like the day they were recorded-- it was unbelievable. As the tape formulations progressed through the years, they changed to the polyester base and you're probably aware that a lot of times the emulsion on the polyester base gives you problems. The chemical lubricants dry out and you get scraping on the heads and oxide loss and you actually have to bake the tapes to get them to play properly. And we have a formula for that; a special convection oven and a whole chemical process we do to restore those older tapes. You know, when you put a tape on a machine, you've got to be very careful. You've got to say: Is this tape in good shape? Can I hit fast forward? Or do I really have to take it easy with this and almost rock it by hand to get through it the first time to check the splices, to see if it will play. Does it have to be baked? It's very easy to destroy a master that’s been in a box for 30 years and you really don't know its condition so you really have to be careful.

Doug: When a company comes to you and says, "OK, we're Time-Life (or whomever) and we want to put together a 25 song collection CD and we've obtained all of the rights and licensing. Here's the list of songs and you take it from here. You get the tapes, make them sound like you think they should and call us so we can hear the finished product." Realizing you don't always get that luxury, but pretend you do. How do you start? Do you call up and request only the first generation masters; do you take whatever they send? Take me through that process.

Dennis: Well of course I do prefer the first generation masters. A lot of times if you get an EQ'd copy it may have been EQ'd for disc, it's a second generation down and you have a loss of transients and an increased hiss level. So you really always do want to work from the original masters if you have that liberty. Many times you can get them from the label, but sometimes they don't have them. There's been times where we've had to go from a record because the master has been lost and we use our digital clean up programs and take the pops and clicks out and make something that's useful on the master. It really varies from project to project. Sometimes we'll get really high quality digital transfers coming in of the master, sometimes we'll get the masters. I had masters in here the other day of the Youngbloods. I was doing a compilation for them for BMG-- the stuff sounded great. You've got to just treat each song individually to maximize its sound power. Every tape has its own story-- its storage story, its recording story-- everything is in those magnetic particles. And you've got to extract that off the tape making sure you're using the right heads, the right playback equalization, the best chain you can to convert that to digital. You've got to be careful about your EQ. You want to make sure that you're getting the instruments to sound like they would sound naturally in the studio so that their harmonic structure is intact especially on drums, guitars, and the human voice.

Doug: Steve Hoffman calls his process giving the tape the "breath of life". Maybe you don't have a name for it, but is their a certain "sound" you're trying to achieve? I guess I'm trying to determine if you have sort of a signature sound so that people can tell you mastered a project because of the fullness of it-- not to bassy or too tinny?

Dennis: Yeah, I like the song to have a really nice weight to it plus the room sound-- the air that was in the room when the musicians were recording. Those little details really add to the accuracy and bring out the stereo imaging-- a nice full bottom end, an honest midrange and a nice extended top end so that it sounds natural and full. I certainly don't like anything tinny sounding. That happens with a lot of the early digital stuff and was giving the medium a bad name. You certainly want to use the full frequency response and dynamic range of the medium to really get a nice compelling, warm, and full sound. To sum it up, I guess you could describe it like an early reviewer of the Mercury recordings: being in the “living presence” of the musicians.

Doug: There is an article on your website it describes a project from the early 90s involving Mercury Living Presence albums and transferring the tapes to CD. It details how meticulous you were in finding just the right tapes, aligning the heads, EQ, the shortest possible processing change, etc. Is that how you approach each project? Do you always prefer tubes? On the other end of the spectrum there are those who put everything into a digital work station and No Noise it to make it sound like it was recorded yesterday. I know you have to do what the client requests, but if left up to you, what do you prefer?

Dennis: Well I guess you'd say I'm more of a purist. I like to use tube equipment. I have customized Ampex tape machines for mono, 1/2 inch, 1/4 inch playback and I'm using a lot of the old 351 tube electronics which have all of the old curves in them. They give you the reciprocal curves of the original recording curve that a lot of these tapes were recorded with. If my source is in the analog domain, I like to process it in the analog domain. If the dynamics need a little bit of tightening up, I might do a pass through the Manley variable M U Limiter. I also have a great sounding Neve-designed Summit analog parametric that I use for fine tuning. My feeling is to get it to sound as good as you can going into the digital work station. And once it’s in there, then you can do all of your editing. And hopefully you're not going to have to do too much digital EQ and signal manipulation in the digital domain. Just do your editing, your splicing and keep that analog signal as pure as you can. If I have to, I'll do a little digital touch up here and there. I have the Weiss double sampling digital EQ. The EQ does the work at twice the sampling frequency and then bounces it back down again to the output frequency. So it’s really a great sounding EQ-- very smooth and musical. That's basically what I try to accomplish.

Doug: Obviously you have to eat and make a living, so while you prefer tubes and the like, you still have to have No Noise and other tools at your disposal if requested. What's your feeling about digital noise reduction?

Dennis: My feeling is that if there is a slight amount of tape hiss-- leave it. A lot of the No Noise systems-- different manufacturers-- they're not perfect systems and they will tend to remove some ambience from the recording and dry it up and that's an important part of the life of the music. I feel that if you're listening to an older recording and there is a slight amount of hiss that your ear will just kind of tune that out and go right to the music and it won't even bother you. I'd rather have a slight hiss level than risk messing up the air and the higher frequencies of the recording. If the hiss level is substantial, we do have some programs that we can use carefully to improve the signal to noise.

Doug: As we start wrapping this up, can you give me the best and the worst. Steve Hoffman has talked about master tapes stored over a shower or in someone's garage or having to bake tapes and do radical EQ. What has your experience been?

Dennis: That's a pretty encompassing question, but I did have one tape once- it was a half inch master-- and I'm not going to mention the artist name, but I knew that it was in trouble because you could see some flaking in the box. And I said to myself, "Well, just not to take any chances with this, we'll bake it and as we're playing it for the first time, we're going to record it right to digital just to make sure that it doesn't deteriorate." And as it was going through the tape machine, it went over the heads and then it went through the pinch roller and the oxide was just coming off the tape right after the pinch roller. So one pass and we were able to capture the recording for posterity, and then after that the tape was pretty much useless.

Doug: How bout on the other end of the spectrum. Any tapes that played fine and needed very little work?

Dennis: Well, a lot of the Mercury Living Presence stuff was really great sounding recordings. Bob Fine and Wilma Cozart-- they really did some great stuff with that series in the old days. Bob Eberenz was responsible for a lot of the technical end concerning the tape machines and consoles. They recorded straight to the 1/2 inch /3 track and 35 mag using the Decca trees and different microphone techniques. That was pretty much flat. We just did level balancing. We did no Eq'ing, no compression. We designed a specialized A/D chain and coupled that to a lot of the original tube equipment. We were vigilant about constant A/B comparisons between the original master, vinyl reference disks and the final digital master.

Doug: Let's find out what your dream project is. Is there a particular artist whose catalog you would like to remaster?

Dennis: Well, it would have been fun to work on some of the Bob Dylan stuff, but that's all in house at CBS/Columbia. I had a chance to work as an assistant engineer years ago with him on one of his albums and I've always admired his work through the years. One project that I have coming up with Brunswick Records is a big box set on Jackie Wilson. I'm looking forward to doing that. We're going from the original 4 tracks on a lot of the songs and putting some unreleased things in there. So that's going to be really exciting.

Doug: Are you happy that the likes of Steve and other people are putting out the gold discs again?

Dennis: Well I think it's great that we have people like Steve who are really pushing for quality in the industry because unfortunately there's a growing trend now towards the compressed MP3's and, for a lot of the kids today, that's really the only way they've heard music. And there is a big difference between hearing a full range recording and a compressed recording and it really adds to enjoyment and the listening pleasure. Hopefully these kids, as they progress and get older, will gravitate back towards better stereos and be able to enjoy these better recordings that we've been striving to make all these years. My son is turning eleven, and we’ve tried to give him a basic understanding of the evolution of sound. Playing him things like Beatles songs gives him a perspective on what great recordings can sound like.

Music is a wonderful gift we all enjoy, and keeping it vibrant as the technology changes is the challenge we face on a daily basis.

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 ©2005 Douglas P. Hess Jr.

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