Sonic Meditations #2: Professional ears

Broadcaster and journalist Emma Warren’s monthly column on listening investigates the subtle art of mastering with Jason Goz at south London’s Transition Studios

Jason Goz is sat in front of a 1970s Phillips desk on a industrial estate off a residential road in Forest Hill, south London. He’s listening to a tune he’s mastering, a hypnotic garage-influenced loop with a bassline that is not behaving.

Head slightly to one side, deep in concentration, he gets up and presses a couple of buttons and moves a few dials. He pulls the tune back with a fat dial on the desk, toggles between the clean version the producer gave him and his processed version, and the track pops out of the speaker with a distinctly beefed up bottom end.

“Hear that,” he says, playing out the before version. “That’s a lovely Reese bassline but it’s not terrifying me enough. It should be engulfing me. On the after… that’s the same sound. But on my version, loud, that will engulf you like a sleeping bag. A very dangerous, 50htz, shake your chest sleeping bag.”

Mastering, he says, is like putting on a pair of glasses when you didn’t realise you needed them. “All of a sudden you’re like rah, I can see number plates when I’m driving.”

Another way of seeing it refers back to the old name for his job – balance engineer. “When the artist is listening to the tune they’re all up in the emotions of making it. My job is to settle the argument because I’m not emotionally attached: the bass is too loud so let’s bring the bass down. Snare needs to come up because I can’t hear it. We need to do something with the hi hats. Now we have order and things sound how they should sound. There is balance.” Obviously, he adds with a grin, that’s a massive simplification.

All of this conversation is happening whilst I’m sitting on a chair directly behind Jason’s, like we’re on a bus. I ask if I can move the chair so I can see him while we’re talking, and to get a better view of what he’s doing with the eight strong stack of analogue processors layered up above the desk.

“No, I’m afraid not,” he says, not looking around. “There’s a reason why it’s there. Are you having difficulty hearing me?” The relationship between mastering engineer and artist is not, he explains kindly, one of face-looking. In fact it’s not one of looking at all. “We deal in sound,” he says, in the resigned manner of one who has had to say the same thing once or twice before. “We don’t deal in vision. The only question that matters is what it sounds like.

“I used to have a button that would blacken the screen, but I’ve learned to look away. What you see affects what you hear. It’s so subtle that a lot of people aren’t aware of it. You’ve got to be able to switch that part of your brain off.”

Just don’t question him on how waveform looks, because in the nicest possible way he’s going to put you right. “My general personality is quite blunt so I had to learn how to relax that so I don’t upset people. I say something I think is funny and people get upset, it can affect their day. People’ll say, ‘Jay, it’s going into the red’. I’ll be like, ‘OK, don’t take this the wrong way but what does going into the red mean?’

‘Errr, it’s gonna distort?’

‘How do you know it’s gonna distort?’

‘I don’t.’

He sighs. “Do you honestly and truthfully think that I’ve been doing this for 18 years and I’d not have my signal path set up so it doesn’t distort? Don’t watch the meter. This desk has 24db of headroom. When we go 5db over, we’ve still got 19db of capacity before it distorts.” Use your ears, he says, everything else is a distraction.

Goz started out as a DJ in the early days of London hip hop and moved into mastering when he bought a Neumann lathe in 1997 to cut his own dub plates. It was, he says with a grin, a slightly naive investment and after a steep learning curve, realised that cutting records was a full time job, so chose to concentrate on cutting dubs rather than playing them. He’s been mastering music across styles and genres, from folk to modern classical ever since, most notably as the main man for the early days of dubstep. All the early Croydon DJs from Skream and Benga to Mala and Coki cut their dubs at Transition, and had the stickers to prove it.

“When I started spectrum analysers cost two and a half grand and that was out of budget. Now you’ve got them on your laptop. I’m really happy I didn’t get one, because I had to learn how to spot frequencies pretty quickly. Any engineer who can’t spot 1k from 2k from 5k is an amateur – they haven’t mastered the fundamentals.” His frequency-spotting includes the local south London nature: that birdsong outside, he says, is resonating at
about 2k.

Back at work, he begins to frown. Is this tune confusing you, he asks? It sounds like something is bleeding through and he begins investigations. He thinks there’s an imbalance between the two channels, so checks in the computer with a pan-normaliser which confirms a .3db difference between the right and left channel.

None of this is to do with exceptional hearing, at least as Goz tells it – although having a cold or the hump might not help things he says with a wry smile. It’s pure concentration, and the ability to be in touch with your first instinct. He describes an incident a few weeks previously where he was cutting a lacquer for a folk album. “I thought I heard a click but dismissed it after a quick check. Then when I was cutting the lacquer there it was again. My subconscious picked it up but I didn’t react because the artist hadn’t heard it, the studio hadn’t heard it, the CD engineer hadn’t heard it and the guy singing on the track hadn’t heard it. I took the click out, everyone was happy but I scolded myself that I didn’t pick it up before I started cutting.”

A big part of the job is chasing ghosts, he says, and with excellent timing a ghost appears in the form of a click at the start of the final track he’s mastering today. It’s a tricky ghost because it’s not appearing consistently when he’s rewinding and replaying but it’s there, just hard to find. The culprit is eventually tracked down, a suppressor plug-in that removes harshness but needs a bit of time to warm up, despite this fact not being included in anyone’s literature. More digging uncovers a co-defendant.

“It’s probably some DC offset as well. Another friend of the family. Is there any DC offset? Argggghhh. You’re giving me 17% DC offset you bastard! DC offset is the poisoning of the waveform with DC current. DC current is the enemy of digital recordings because it makes the absolute zero reference point not absolute zero, and it needs to be so the waveform is nice and synchronised to where the waveform crosses zero. So it means nothing in real life but it means I get a lovely little click. It’s fine, now I know the click is there I can take appropriate action.”

He scrolls through the waveform, hunting down the offender. Ten minutes later and the click, officially now a ‘determined bastard’ has been bundled off the track and into oblivion, and the distortion caused by Goz’s solution has been similarly fixed.

“This is the part of mastering I really hate,” he sighs. “It’s not really technical. Well, it is technical, but it’s not rock n roll. It’s not what I signed up for. Let’s see how it sounds now.”

The tune plays out, all the sounds where they should be, illuminated by the light of one man’s superior sonic concentration. Goz is satisfied and packs up for the day. “That is in my book, a win.”

Read more sonic meditations from Emma Warren

Photographs by Georgina Cook

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