Babajim Mastering

"A Global Perspective on Mastering"

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An Interview With Pieter Snapper

Pieter Snapper is  the co-founder and head mastering engineer at Babajim Studios. A vastly experienced and dynamic masterer, he has worked with artists from all over the world and from many different genres. In Summer 2012, we had the chance to ask him some questions about his career, his studio and his plans for the future...

 

How are you and what are you currently working on?

Hi Rich. I'm great thanks - happily working away in the cool studio this hot summer. These days I'm mastering an interesting array of projects: I just finished albums from Ceylan Ertem, an amazing experimental jazz-pop project, and Niyazi Koyuncu, a folk-rock album with heavy Black Sea overtones (lots of ethnic instruments). Up today is Amy Kohn, a New York singer/songwriter based now in Italy, and later this week is an experimental prepared piano album from Erdem Helvacıoğlu coming out on Innova Records (US). I love the variety in this job!

You were born and raised in the USA. How did you get involved in the creation of MIAM studios, which led to you moving to Turkey in 1999?

I was asked by Istanbul Technical University to design the sound engineering component of a new graduate Center for Advanced Music Research (MIAM) they were founding around that time. As I believe sound engineering can only be learned by working in the studio with actual serious artists, the core of the program was a large world-class studio that would work commercially as well as educationally. Masters and doctoral students could work with established engineers, artists, and producers from around the globe, learning at the feet of the masters, in conjunction with more theoretical coursework. The list of artist who recorded albums in that studio reads like a who's-who of Turkish and regional stars. Looking back, we had a lot of fun making music in that studio over the years.

You have been predominantly concerned with mastering since around 2002, having also done recording and mixing prior to that. What has been behind your decision to focus on mastering more than anything else over the last decade?

The simple answer is that I love it, and over the years have become pretty good at it (if I do say so myself!). The way my ears work, I find it an extremely creative outlet. I enjoy finding the subtle ways to enhance the artist's intent, and the combination of musical and precise technical work. I also enjoy the way it allows me to interact with clients - the kinds of contributions I can bring to the table. When you practice any one craft for thousands of hours there's a real joy in refining your own perception of sound, not to mention the myriad techniques of the trade.

You co-founded the stunning Babajim Istanbul Studios & Mastering, which opened in 2010. You had been planning and researching the facility for around 5 years. What was your original concept for the studio in terms of what you wanted to be able to offer clients?

First and foremost it had to be an acoustically stellar place with a lot of character where musicians would feel relaxed and inspired to make music. Inspired musicians mean great performances which equal great recordings. Another big concern was making a Studio A where bands could comfortably record all at the same time, with the choice of either performing in iso booths or all playing together in the big central space. Simply cool architecture with a great sound. Of course we got all the requisite kit - Neve 5088 board, nice outboard, awesome mics, and a Fazioli piano (!). Now good gear is easy to find around the world, but the vibe, amenities, acoustics and location in the most vibrant part of Istanbul are rather unique. As you might imagine, I also felt it very important that the mastering studio be unusually good, both aesthetically and acoustically, and that we had a great team of engineers and staff.

Roger D'Arcy from Recording Architecture designed the space. Having used RA before when building your previous Istanbul studio, you must have a strong affiliation with the company. What do you feel Recording Architecture achieve acoustically when building mastering studios that made you choose them to design the room?

For me the only criteria to use when choosing a studio designer are the sound and feel of their rooms, and their experience to find creative solutions to every site's challenges. Are the control rooms accurate? Do the live rooms add something special to the recorded sound? Roger D'Arcy's rooms simply sound and look great. They are superb working and creative environments, and the innovative creative solutions Roger came up with for Babajim still make me smile. He could see possibilities in spaces that no one else could imagine. There simply is no substitute for experience to know in advance what will and won't work in a specific space - especially when it goes against conventional wisdom. We've all been in studios that are supposed to sound great according to the textbooks but that somehow fall short in reality...

Explain the theory behind the "stealth bomber" shape to the control room?

The mastering control room's unusual shape was Roger's imaginative solution to our building's strange layout. It allows us to maximize the room's volume, while keeping perfect L-R symmetry and eliminating side reflections almost completely. The imaging in that room is beyond belief! The matter of L-R symmetry is surprisingly overlooked in a number of mastering rooms I know. Without it, imaging is intrinsically compromised, the room's other qualities notwithstanding. Of course our room's acoustics are carefully treated in multiple ways to make it an ideal monitoring environment across the board.

You have an excellent combination of digital and analogue mastering gear in the studio. How important do you feel it is today to have a balance of both mediums at your disposal, or do you tend to lean towards one more than the other?

The nature of all processing in mastering is that every possible step hurts the sound at least a tiny bit. The hope is that the positive qualities clearly outweigh the negative. Most of the time the penalty of the extra D-A and A-D conversions in an analog loop, for example, are far outweighed by the texture and character of the analog EQs and dynamics processors. However when that is not the case it's crucial to have a range of purely digital options on hand as well. And by digital options I mean outboard digital devices. Plugins have improved, but they are still not at the level of outboard digital gear like the Weiss EQ1-DYN-LP or the tc electronic System 6000. Frankly, 90% of the time I use a combination of digital and analog outboard processing. My heart is with the analog kit, but I couldn't live without my Weiss!

Talk us through the strengths of the Maselec MTC-2 mastering console...

Oh I love this console. For me it's greatest strengths are the ergonomic workflow it enables, the flexibility with gain structuring, monitoring and inserts, and it's sound (or lack thereof!). Actually I have a dirty little secret - everything is completely transparent on the board except the output gain, which has a subtle, magical character. I have at least four devices in my chain where I can add analog gain and each sounds a tiny bit different. It's a matter of matching the color of the gain to the track you're working on. Oh, and I love the easy M-S processing too.

A lot of your clients are from Turkey and the Middle East, but you have work from Europe and the US too. Since the mastering market is global, why do so many people send their mastering to Istanbul?

Since mastering is such a personal service, most people come here because they know me, my work, and/or my reputation in the industry. Same for Mahmood Sadeghi, our other mastering engineer. Some do come because of the reputation of Babajim Istanbul Studios & Mastering as one of the very best and most innovative studios in the region, and a healthy percentage come because we know the musical styles from the Balkans through the Middle East inside and out. I observed one example of why this last point is so relevant while mastering Niyazi Koyuncu's Black Sea music album this past weekend. In it the tulum (a bagpipe-like instrument) is heavily featured. Now the tulum has a very rich spectrum that tends to run roughshod over other instruments. The problem is that in order for it to sound real or authentic to Black Sea natives, only some frequencies can be cut without ruining its essential character - and those parts are only obvious from hearing many live and recorded examples of the real thing over time. There's no logic to it, only experience, and that's one added benefit we can bring to our clients.

What other Global territories are you looking to expand into?

Well, as we try to keep a constant global perspective we don't have specific regional targets. We already have many clients in the UK, US, Western Europe (especially France) and the Middle East, but it would be fair to say that we are interesting in expanding our exposure in Eastern Europe, the Indian sub-continent, and in a few holdout pockets in the Middle East.

Do you personally have a preference over running attended or unattended sessions, and what different benefits do both have?

I prefer whichever will allow for the best communication between me and the client. Though I can understand an awful lot of an artist's intent through a careful evaluation of the mixes, the more an artist can tell me directly what they want, the better I can serve their needs. For many clients this can be by email or over the phone, and others want to communicate in person during attended sessions. One happy medium that works particularly well is that clients will attend for the first couple tracks and then leave me to finish on my own. However I am always happy to have artists in attendance throughout. Another consideration is that frequently the dialogue starts long before the mastering date. Many artists come to me with finished or almost-finished mixes and I give them my perspective and feedback. This can really improve the quality of the completed masters.

You have worked with many different genres from various parts of the world. How might your approach to mastering a record differ between say rock music and world music?

Actually, my approach is nearly identical for all genres. I listen to the mix and I can hear in my head how it could sound - how it could reach its maximum potential. It's a very intuitive process. I *feel* the need for .5dB more at 2.35kHz from the Ibis, or a 2 dB 40kHz shelf from the Nightpro, or a tiny 185Hz cut from the Buzz. Same for dynamics - the very subtle glue and texture provided by the STC-8 and the Phoenix both feel different. It *is* very analytical too of course - I know technically just what is required - but the motivation comes from a fundamentally musical place. The mixes cry out for love in their own language. Of course some mixes sound almost perfect as they are, and those you leave well enough alone, or just adjust level. The goal is to do the minimum required to make the tracks their best.

Tell us about some of the other mastering engineers who work at Babajim and the work they have been doing.

Well, there are two of us at Babajim (sort of a Sith thing) - me and Mahmood Sadeghi. I recruited Mahmood a couple years ago after encountering him in a graduate mastering seminar I was teaching. This young engineer from Iran had the most natural mastering talent I had ever encountered. Most of us come to mastering after many years of recording and mixing, but I suggested Mahmood immediately come work as my assistant, and now he's graduated to full-fledged ME status. This week he's mastering the debut album by Babajim Records artist Genç Osman Yavaş, and I'm eagerly anticipating the results.

The entire recording industry has changed dramatically over the last decade due to diminished budgets. Given the explosion of low-cost, in-the-box online mastering services, what do you see as the future for full-service mastering houses?

I love what the democratization of technology has done for creative musicians, and I have heard some strikingly good in-the-box mixes. The problem with these budget mastering services is not so much that they rely on plugins (though I don't think plugins can really compete yet with outboard gear), it's that no part of the mastering chain, from the engineer's ears to any EQ, can really function properly without full-range, high-end monitoring in an accurate, acoustically designed room. Good monitors, and acoustic design and treatment are not cheap, and these budget services do not offer them as a rule. No matter what tools you use, you cannot properly master tracks you cannot accurately hear. More importantly though, mastering is a part of the musical production chain, and is the final realization of the artist's musical goals. Helping artists in this way requires communication and dialogue. Whether in person or electronically, it takes time to really listen to and understand what an artist is telling you about their mastering needs. It's what mastering is truly about, and it's what full-service facilities such as ours offer. This need and our services will not go away.

What do you feel should be done to improve the modern-day music industry?

Oy, this is a huge topic, but let me just say that I am cautious or skeptical about any attempts to impose solutions from above. The industry is evolving in it's own odd, lumpy way. I do think that we are not necessarily going to be locked into a world where recorded music is only used as calling cards to promote live concerts. I am fundamentally optimistic that if consumers are given the opportunity to easily purchase affordable high-quality recordings, that they will chose to do so over piracy. The iTunes model (especially with the new Mastered for iTunes program) is a good start, though it is not readily available in many developing countries. Even Turkey has no iTunes access!

We should of course draw some attention to the amazing Babajim Studio A recording and mixing studio in the same building. Again designed by Roger D'Arcy, talk us through how this stunning split-level design came to fruition?

As is so often the case, with Studio A, necessity was the mother of invention. Babajim is located in a very oddly-shaped building in one of the oldest districts of Istanbul. As such Roger, (Babajim partner) Reuben de Lautour, and I brainstormed over how to use the space well, and more importantly, how to make it inspiring and musician-friendly. On the back of cocktail napkins, Roger proposed this variable-acoustics system with a bridge leading to a gallery. From there, the movable walls, iso booths and relation to the control room emerged in a flurry of pencil sketches. Of course it was refined over time, but the genesis was in a lounge over drinks.

Do you ever get the chance to go in to do some tracking or mixing these days?

I do very occasionally, if an artist especially requests me. I don't really seek out recording or mixing projects, though I do enjoy the change of pace every so often, whenever the mastering schedule allows. Most of the time I'm happily ensconced in the mastering suite.

Lastly, tell us about the 1 free demo incentive you offer to new potential new clients...

We want to encourage potential clients to give us a try - risk free. The only way to know what a mastering engineer can do for your music is to hear the results, so we invite potential clients to send us one track, which we will master in our usual full-service way, revisions included. If you like the results then we treat it like any usual track. If not, then there is no charge, and no hard feelings. Up until now, though, 100% of artists who have tried us out in this way have been thrilled with the results and have brought their full projects to us. It's a win-win scenario :)