Recording Arts Grad Brad Blackwood is a ‘Master of Mastering’

Recording Arts Grad Brad Blackwood is a 'Master of Mastering'

Even though he’s not in one of the major music hubs like New York or Los Angeles or even Nashville, Memphis-based grad Brad Blackwood (Recording Arts, 1996) still has an impressive client list. He’s mastered albums for Jane’s Addiction, Maroon 5, Keith Urban, and many more.

This resume, along with his reputation for being excellent at what he does, won him this year’s ‘Master of Mastering’ award at the first ever Pensado Awards. The trophy joins the others in his collection, a pair of GRAMMY Awards (Best Bluegrass Album and Best Engineered Album) from 2012 for his work on Alison Krauss & Union Station’s Paper Airplanes.

Mastering is the “last creative step in the making of the record and the first technical step in the production of the music that people are going to hear,” says Brad. His work involves prepping and transferring the final mixes over to compact disc (CD) or vinyl masters, along with creating the files that will be uploaded to iTunes. It’s a practice that involves a lot of critical listening and high precision.

“The general concept of what I’m doing to a stereo mix is not unlike what someone might do to a stereo overhead set of drums,” says Brad. “It’s the way you EQ things and the way you do things to make the tracks sound as good as they can.”

Brad was first exposed to mastering while studying Recording Arts at Full Sail, and was while he was still interested in mixing, it was a process that intrigued him. After graduation, Brad took a few small audio jobs for a couple of months around Central Florida before Full Sail’s Career Development department set him up with an interview at Ardent, a studio in Memphis. It was there that he realized mastering was what he wanted to do.

“Once I got into the actual studio [at Ardent] and saw the recording process – hearing someone try to record guitars or drums and spend hours getting one part down – it kind of drove me crazy,” remembers Brad. “I didn’t have the patience for that. So [the studio] bought a SADiE system (an early digital mastering system) and I kind of took the machine over and became the in-house editing guy. I just kind of naturally blossomed into it.”

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Brad worked at Ardent for seven years – even reviving and running the studio’s mastering division – before eventually deciding to venture off on his own to open Euphonic Masters in 2003. Now, a typical week for Brad involves mastering around 20-30 singles and albums. In the past month, he’s mastered records for Nonpoint, Korn, and Julie Black.

“What a good mastering engineer brings is translation,” says Brad. “I think that any time the master calls attention to itself – a track so clipped and distorted that it doesn’t sound good and distracts from the music – it’s a bad thing. A really good, well-mastered record is … you’re not even going to think about the mastering. It’s just going to sound good.”

Another important key to Brad’s mastering process: rarely letting the artist in the room with him while he’s working. “When I started Euphonic I did a ridiculous amount of research, looking back over my sessions from over the years, and I found that when clients attended the session, I was more frequently having to go back and tweak the masters later to make them happy. They’re not familiar with the room, so they’ll hear something and say, ‘Hey, let’s make this a little brighter,’ and you’ll adjust it, even against your best judgment because they’re there and it’s their art. But later they’ll listen to it and it won’t quite sound like they thought it did.”

Brad knows he took a risk, opening his studio up in a place like Memphis, but he feels like he did it at just the right time. The changing landscape of the recording industry allows Brad to master files and then send them back to his clients via Dropbox or FTP.

“I get paid to listen to music and I kind of make my own hours, which in the recording world is almost unheard of,” says Brad. “I’ve got the best job in the industry.”