Music demands both great creators and handlers. The first group give birth to a song, a lyric or a tune; the second ensure it is captured with clarity and fidelity for posterity. Whether it’s a DIY approach with cobbled-together gear or a splurge on an Abbey Road or Stax booking, the subsequent demand on studio producers and engineers is how to best mine the talent present within a hit track or tracks in order to produce a possible (underground or commercial) hit. It’s a trusted symbiosis of humans plus technology which can result in hallowed studio locations and revered knob-twiddlers.
The story doesn’t end there though. There’s still the job of ensuring that your piece of music is a match for every other one being played by Pete Tong/Funkmaster Flex/Nina Kraviz be it on a smartphone, radio or booming club speaker. Volume, definition, and frequency range are now key factors in tandem with the already agreed ingredients of a winning chorus/gnarly bassline/thudding drums/insert your choice. This then is the task of the mastering engineer to honour the preceding work and ensure none of the magic captured is lost in the journey from recording session to shop and/or digital stream.
If respected Detroit engineer Ron Murphy had failed to turn up to work on the day Underground Resistance leader Mike Banks wanted the ‘Galaxy 2 Galaxy’ double 12” ready to send to the pressing plant, there would have not been the same pointed, wintry organ snippets over a dense forest of bass, keys, and drums. The orgasmic delicacy and suitably spacious arrival of that five-note bassline might not have stood out when first heard; Murphy would not have added to his hallowed list of jobs.
Therefore the idea of an internecine body – potentially a life-saving presence when it comes to the constant wealth of new music – is key in the transportation of a tune from creator to audience.
Simon Davey has been one of the go-to mastering engineers in the UK, especially for vinyl releases, for nearly thirty years now. His three-word calling card, Simon – The Exchange, denotes his work for the North London cutting house, The Exchange, and can be found etched in the grooves of nearly four thousand 12-inches or album.
Sigur Ros, Rita Ora and Thundercat releases have all been mastered by him however the bulk of his work nowadays is house and obscure techno for small indie labels which parallels the pioneering and landmark jungle tunes cut by Simon: 1992’s ‘Suicidal’ by DJ Crystl and Deep Blue‘s ‘Helicopter Tune’; landmark releases by Kaotic Chemistry and Omni Trio on the Moving Shadow label alongside definitive tracks by Jeff Mills and The Prodigy and many, many more…
A phone interview with Simon took a long time to arrange, given his busy schedule, but it was a laid-back and leisurely look back at an interesting career involving more great music than perhaps anyone outside of a mastering studio will ever hear. His longevity in the game means he’s not afraid to laugh at himself nor to identify shortcomings elsewhere.
What would be your definition of the actual skill of mastering?
Firstly, it’s the last chance to get it sounding as good as it possibly can. I know that’s obvious but from here on, it’s either straight out the world as in CD manufacturing or digital download. With the vinyl side of things, obviously, you’ve got quite a complex manufacturing process. After the mastering with the CDs and digital download, the CD still needs to be pressed, but it’s not a worrying process. It’s just a press of a few buttons and it’s out there to buy. It’s all done digitally with the glass master and all the rest of it. In theory if you supply a CD pressing plant with digital files, you will pretty much get that sound back on your CD master. Yes, it’s a manufacturing process but not much changes.
But with the vinyl side of things, there’s quite a lot that can change from being mastered in the studio to the finished record. This is the last chance to get things sounding as good as it possibly can. You can have, say, an album with various artists that’s got ten tracks. That means you’ve got 10 different studios and you’ve got 10 different sounds. It’s the job of the mastering engineer to make each track sound ideally as similar as they possibly can without losing the whole vibe and the meaning of each track. You wouldn’t want to take a track that’s supposed to be mellow, smooth and laid-back and make that super-bright and sparkly just to match the next track after it which maybe has that kind of sound.
So the idea is to get everything flowing nicely, and obviously to sound as good or if not better than any other record out there. Especially if you’re thinking of radio. It becomes extremely important that your track doesn’t sound worse than the 10 tracks played before or the 10 tracks after. It’s got to slot in and ideally sound even or better.
Your first few jobs were the Manic Street Preachers, Laibach, The Scientist and then an indie-dance crew, Parchman. They’re all quite different musically. Was that or is it extra-challenging to meet those different demands?
I get people coming in here and they are so passionate about what they been struggling to create for the last, you know, four months or whatever. It’s the same thing as painting a picture… it’s exactly the same thing. They’ve gone through months of hell, thinking it’s rubbish and changing stuff and having a break from it before going back to it. And they can then see what they did wrong and are trying to match it next to other music. It’s like you go into an art gallery and there’ll be a sort of four-by-four panel of splashes and somebody will go ‘That’s rubbish! Even I could do it!’ The reality is is you probably can’t as you won’t have anything to say.
Yeah, as long as you can understand what it’s trying to say and how it’s trying to make you feel, you can pretty much break it down into frequencies.
It goes back to when you listen to a track that’s really dull and you instantly go ‘God, that’s really dull’. That’s a classic one. You then bring you up the mid-range and top and you go ‘that’s better’. Sit there for a few minutes and go ‘yeah, that’s really good’. And then you flick out what you put in and then you go ‘bloody hell, it’s supposed to be like that! That’s the whole mood of it.’
You can chop from a rock band to a techno track, but obviously within those genres there will be expected sounds that people will expect to hear. For instance: you wouldn’t go ‘right, let’s make a techno track with hardly any bass.’ Yeah, because it needs to have bass to be almost accepted in that genre.
What year was it when you started at The Exchange?
I started in January ’87 after doing a music course at Paddington College. I was let loose on looping mastering, which is preparing the master tape for cassette production. I did that probably for about maybe a year or so.
Ninety percent of the work that I was doing for years and years was just cutting vinyl. Most of that was mainly the indie rock crossing over into dance music, you know. There was that sort of funny period, ’87 to ’88, bands but sort of electronic. And then very early sort of hardcore, just before hardcore, so there was still guitars and proper instruments, if you like. And then the hardcore stuff kicked in and the techno. And then there was loads and loads and loads of jungle and drum and bass.
For absolutely years, pretty much all I ever did was cutting 12-inches. There’d be, say, eight 12-inches in the day and maybe one CD or something to work on. Slowly, as the years went by, I did more mastering for CD and then maybe 10 years ago it swapped completely around to about 10% vinyl, 90% mastering for digital download and CD.
Why do you think you were drawn to mastering instead of music production or engineering?
I didn’t want to be sitting, pressing buttons, staring through a glass window at somebody singing. I was excited by the fact there was going to be a lathe and discs being cut, stuff like that. Yeah, I mean, people take the mickey out of me… ‘all you do is sit there listening to music, pushing buttons and switches’ which, you know, yes, it is true. But that’s one of the reasons why I like the vinyl side of things, there’s a mechanical, physical aspect of it. I spend half a day looking down a microscope and checking the stylus isn’t knackered, making sure the grooves are quiet, checking the distortion and things like that. You’re still dealing with music, but you’re in the mechanical, physical world rather than computers and virtual music.
What was your first mastering job that you were really proud of?
I remember my first ever attended vinyl cutting session and being absolutely petrified. This is probably 1989. I was all hip-hopped up with my trainers on and hooded top. And I’m, like, who am I going to get to come into my first cut? It turned out to be a full-on country and western guy from Texas or somewhere, the cowboy hat and boots and all the rest of it. I was like, ‘oh my God, what am I going to do, understanding this music?’
Anyway, I did this cut and they actually wrote a letter, which is still knocking about somewhere, and it said the engineer was incompetent. He didn’t know what he was doing and they were right. Yeah, it had to be redone. So I guess there’s the proof I didn’t really know how to understand what music was trying to say at that time.
Did you eventually have artists record companies approaching you again as they were happy with your previous work? You regularly worked on releases by Mute, Acid Jazz, XL, Some Bizarre.
For the labels that only wanted to work with me, I would do the CD and then I would cut the vinyl. It’s an odd one really: the bigger the record label, the happier they are to specifically get the mastering done for CD with one engineer but then it’s almost a kind of after-thought off ‘just get the vinyl done wherever.’
So when I started my own business, I wanted to move away from any mastering for CD or digital releases. Everybody said to me that was really stupid and they’re probably right to be honest. I mean if you’re in in the mastering game, if you like, that is where the money is. If you’re in it to earn money that is what you should be doing.
In 1994 you cut some stand-out tracks on Ganja records and worked on Shy FX‘s ‘Original Nuttah’. Did those releases stand out as being pivotal at the time?
Yeah. To be honest, I feel really close to to the jungle and drum and bass scene. I feel that was a massive turning point. To me, jungle was the modern equivalent of punk because before that there wasn’t really a specific genre of dance music that had so much energy and drive and attitude. When it had gone through its initial kind of ‘finding itself’ stage, and became a specific style of music, jungle was like nothing else. There was obviously something in there that I tuned in to.
Jungle is pretty much what has taught me to do a good job on vinyl because of the extremes of the frequencies in those days and the volume which we were cutting the records at in those days.
It’s almost a bit of a no-no now to actually push the machinery to that degree to the point where it literally melts, which is what we did, because there’s that hardly anybody repairing the machines now and the cutter head. At the moment there’s only one guy I would go to in Italy to repair them. Thank God he’s still around.
The early days of Metalheadz and Reinforced was the first time I remember reading about somebody going to cut a plate at The Exchange or Music House. The importance of the mastering engineer really came to the fore and it seemed there was a sense of magic being placed on top of the tune.
Yeah, that was the period when everything started to be pushed to its absolute extreme. That’s still there to a degree but it doesn’t have the same immediacy. It doesn’t feel as ‘new’ as before. In the 90s there was a kind of an excitement and a newness and the drive to that music. That was a sort of faster pace in terms of getting it made, get it cut, get it pressed, get it released. That’s now a very long drawn-out process in terms of a vinyl record. It takes so long now to get a record pressed and into the shops and I think that kind of excitement and drive has been lost to a degree, and we’ve also pretty much lost all the dub-plate culture.
I used to get people coming into me for a cut because The Exchange was always quite expensive for dub-plates. We used to treat them as though we were doing a cut. The guys just to come in, get a 12-inch lacquer, spend not much money, get a quick kind of okay-sound and then be out playing it that night. We kind of stayed away from from that side of the work. So we mainly concentrate on mastering the lacquers for the actual pressing.
Somebody would come in to cut a lacquer and and they stayed at the back of the room chatting and going ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going down Music House tonight’. I think it was a Thursday night. There was like a full-on vibe about going there and you knew all the usual DJs would be there, all the big names. The higher up you were, you could skip the queue and there was just an excitement about it and an immediacy.
And you knew that you could go there get your dub-plate, give it to a DJ and also you knew that your record would be out in two weeks. Come in on a Monday and cut the lacquers, deliver them to the pressing plant the following day. A week later you have your test pressings. You okay them, a week later you’ve got your two thousand records.
Did you find the average amount of time on each job decreased as you became more experienced and skilled? Or did you try new things?
Hmm, I’d say that I certainly started to push the equipment to its limits and experimented with that. Not only does that create a sound of its own, by driving a piece of equipment to as loud as it will possibly go, it also gives you a finished product that’s as loud if not louder than the other records that are out there. The whole ‘loud volume’ war is still going on, but people are aware there’s a downside to it with CDs and digital, which is basically compression and distortion. You lose dynamics and things like that.
The louder you go digitally and with CDs, you get to a point where you start to lose dynamics because you’re having to use a limiter or compressor to hold back the volume, which is detrimental to the sound.
With the vinyl, the louder and louder you go, you will eventually start getting problems. Something on the lathe cutter head will become damaged if you go too loud or you’ll get skipping or jumping when you play the record or you’ll get distortion, especially when you’re playing it back on a cheap stylus that can’t handle the volume. But you don’t get this sort of compressed sound, you get a natural reaction. You don’t get a sort of ‘unnatural reaction’, if you like, which is is compression. And squashed – that’s a good word! You get a mechanical, physical reaction, which may or may not sound good.
I think, as time goes by, you start off and you’re finding your way. But then you start to learn various tricks and how to get around the downsides of mastering. You learn, the crafty edits and treating sections differently. How to treat those specific 10 seconds whatever maybe differently to the rest of the track. Yes, I have definitely changed over the years.
Any memories of any particularly difficult jobs?
There’s so many! The mastered track will be absolutely fantastic, sounding amazing, but there’ll be one element in it that actually stops you from doing a good job… …you get things like sibilance on vocals, sharp Ss and Ts. You then go to cut that on the vinyl and it just distorts.
Yeah, there’s been hundreds of releases like that where they sounded great but because of one element, it actually is difficult to translate that. You do occasionally get a job where you’ve mastered it and it keeps coming back either because the artist has a different idea to how it should sound to you. Maybe you just didn’t get it right on the day.
You’ve done quite a bit of work for [drum’n’bass producer] Dillinja over the years.
Yeah, his stuff was always challenging. He was known for his volume level. He brought his tracks in on DAT and the meters were just pinned into the red from the very beginning to the end. He had a certain sound, and that was all through that period where volume on the vinyl cutter was extremely important.
Moving away from D’nB, you recently mastered a lovely house track, Payfone‘s ‘I Was In New York’.
Yeah, it’s organic, ergonomic, touches on the emotions, has a kind of nice bounce to it. Yeah, and it’s not trying to shove itself down your throat. Every release is very different and yet it’s got that same feeling on everything. [Phil Passera] is very good at what he does actually and a really nice guy. He sent me a copy of that with a note in it that said ‘Simon, you may be getting old but your ears are still young‘, which is a back-handed compliment, I guess. The quality of the production is really, really important to him.
We actually cut that record twice because he wasn’t happy with the mix even after we’d mastered it and we cut it. We then changed the mix again and we remastered it and re-cut it and he was absolutely right.
I feel honoured to be known slash pigeon-holed for certain genres of music. From a business aspect, that’s probably not good or maybe is, I don’t know… Nowadays I cut loads and loads of techno now.
There was another engineer called Nilesh Patel who worked at The Exchange. He was the techno guy there. Unfortunately he died a few years back. He did the Daft Punk stuff, not that that’s techno, and that put his name firmly out there. He was on a par with Ron Murphy [legendary cutter whose career spanned from Motown to the Motor City sound of UR and the Belleville Three] in Detroit, and with Dubplates and Mastering [set up by Basic Channel in Berlin]. When Nils passed away [in 2011], people carried on using The Exchange. Now, probably a huge percentage of my work is techno twelve-inches.
This is probably complete and utter rubbish, but I feel that techno actually helped keep vinyl alive during the dark periods of ten years ago when said it was going to go, non-one’s buying it any more. The one style of music that just didn’t give up on vinyl was techno and it just carried on. I think we need to thank the techno bods, basically, for keeping it alive!
Going back to the mid-Nineties and I was buying Aphex Twin and Luke Slater twelves alongside jungle releases. You’ve mastered many Soma releases and have kept a working relationship with Omar-S and Robert Hood.
I did ‘Windowlicker’. I may have dabbled with a bit of Luke Slater but that was mainly Graham Durham [founder of The Exchange].
How was ‘Windowlicker’ as a session?
Yeah, it was OK. I would remember if it was a nightmare and it wasn’t! I knew it had to be right because he’s a stickler for his sound if you like. I may have done remixes for him, but that was the only time he came in and was there. It’s so long ago now.
You mentioned eight vinyl jobs in one day. That’s both A and B side tracks, perhaps three or four separate tracks in each job…
When it was mainly vinyl jobs, we had days when we had a lot of attended sessions and it got out of hand. Nowadays it’s all sent over the internet. You’d have one hour to cut a two-track twelve-inch. One set of clients would turn up at 10 o’clock. You’re then over-running to half-eleven, the next set are already out there. That over-runs by half-an-hour. It started to get a bit crazy so we had to extend the hours a bit. But that’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to mastering.
You’re doing all different types of music in a relatively short period as opposed to working in a recording studio where you’re working for somebody for a week or months.
I’ll be cutting a techno twelve-inch and then the next minute an avant-garde underground French album that’s been lost for thirty years, and then I’ll cutting something that’s going to be in the charts, and then I’ll be cutting a jungle re-release – that’s happened a few times over the last couple of months. I’m now re-cutting stuff that I cut 26 years ago.
Oh, I can’t say. I don’t know if they’re out yet. There’s another few in the pipeline. They’re not on the original label – they’re being re-released by new labels.
Would you say your current schedule of jobs and clients is as varied and as different as it was back in 1990?
It’s about the same as it’s always been, the same eclectic stuff I’ve always done, but there’s probably less chart music. The last really big thing I did was Christine and The Queens, which was six months or a year ago. There’s a good vibe in general in the music. I know that sound weird but you can, almost, sense when the nation-slash-the world is a bit down. You start sensing it in the music – I know that sounds a stupid. Things start getting a bit more… morose I suppose… and then you can sense when everyone is happy. I don’t even know if people realise they’re doing it. I’ve noticed this over the years, there’s waves of up and down. At the moment we’re on a peak of a wave… it’s an interesting time.
Do you think that might be a reaction to the negativity of Trump, Brexit, climate change and so on?
That’s a really good point. The funny thing is that I never watch the news, being ignorant as I am. I have literally no idea what’s going on, so that certainly hasn’t influenced what I’m feeling.
Music can be a reaction to the times as in 1994 when jungle emerged.
Yeah, I think a lot of music today is just going through the motions. It can be too formulaic and it lacks energy. I’m looking up this album you might like – it’s on Pussyfoot Records. They disappeared for, like, ten or twelve years but they’re now back. I don’t know if it’s out yet but this is the artist, Kongo Dia Ntotila. It’s African-y dance music, loads of brass. It’s mainly English guys making it with guys from Africa in there as well. Talking about energy, listen to that. It’s amazing!
You worked on this?
Yeah, in January. I’ve just done a remix too.
If you listen to music at home, is it vinyl or CD?
I put a record on. That’s partly my age and the music I’m into [Simon is a huge electro fan]. Erm, I’m actually quite upset my daughter has not got a record player. I like to think we’ve brought her up as very open-minded. All of her friends think we’re total freaks. I thought she’d love being able to play this big plastic black thing out of its sleeve and clean it and… line all your records up so they’re all in different colours or year or using the alphabet all the rest.
She’s not interested in it at all. She’s more about one minute of something and then the next song. There’s a lot of people for whom all this [vinyl] is completely irrelevant. They don’t care what they’re downloading, some crappy Mp3 or something. That’s what we’re up against.
To show you how bad it was in terms of vinyl dying out, years ago, my wife was a teacher and some pupils came into the Exchange with their music teacher to learn how records are mastered. I showed them everything in the control room and then asked if they wanted to see a cutting session. There were about eight of them, probably 13, 14 years old.
There was one girl, nodding away at everything I said. I was talking about the lathe and she was frowning in total and utter bewilderment. So she put her hand up and said ‘Scuse me, what’s that?’ I said that was what we cut the records on. And then she actually said ‘what is a record?’ When I showed one to her, it literally looked like I was showing her the Edison wax disc from 1913 or something. She’d never seen one before, couldn’t get the concept of grooves or anything. But things have changed, kids know at least what a record is, so we’ve at least come out of that dark side at least!
Kongo Dia Ntotila are currently touring the UK and their album ‘360’ is out now.