Dave Downham lends his trained ear to every recording from Gradwell House, the Haddon Heights studio he co-owns with business partner Steve Poponi. This week he talks about mastering music, and why most stuff on the radio is just so loud.
Collingswood Patch: Was it your goal to be a performer, or were you always more interested in music recording and production?
Dave Downham: I didn't necessarily know that I wanted to do recording...but I think that if I didn't find this career path that I would have necessarily stayed with music, in some way.
I've been doing music full-time for 12 years. I ran the Paul Green School of Rock in Cherry Hill when it first opened, I taught, I played, and all that. But I honestly feel that when I found this and started to get into it, that within a couple of years I was like, “Oh right! Gotta make this happen!”
Patch: How did you find your niche as the guy who masters all the recordings at Gradwell House?
Downham: I just randomly had a band that had asked Steve [Poponi], “You think Dave wants to try mastering it?” I tried it at my old apartment with my headphones, just trying to figure it all out. And something clicked. It reminded me of when I used to do a lot of 4-track recording.
Patch: Why does an artist record at one studio and do the mastering at another place?
Downham: The concept is that you want it to be a third party. You want it to be somebody else listening to the recording that you did objectively and saying, “Okay everything sounds good, but there's a harshness on the vocal,” whatever it is...
Effectively, it's a matter of balancing out the recording. And it involves solving any overall, global issues with a recording. So, a global issue could be that the recording is too bass-y or maybe, too bright or too treble-y.
It's a lot more musical that I originally thought, because most people think of it as a technical thing, but often, if you brighten a recording, it can almost make the recording feel faster. It can make it come to life.
Patch: Can you give me an example about how your decisions as an engineer affect a recording?
Downham: Yesterday I was working on two recordings; two mastering jobs. The one recording, the balance sounded overall OK, but it was a rock record and it wasn't very energetic, so I was trying to do anything I could to make it feel more energetic.
It didn't have any huge issues. It was more from a musical perspective, it didn't feel like it had enough oomph. I tried to bring up the guitars so there was more of an emphasis on the upper-mid range, so a lot of the guitars would have more bite.
People talk about “presence.” Presence is a real part of the register the way we think of it. You have to make the adjustments so that it doesn't sound harsh, but that it has the requisite amount of energy.
Patch: How can poor mastering negatively affect a record?
Downham: Sometimes people make a record, and they want it to sound as loud as, say, a Foo Fighters record. People just compete for that kind of volume, so that on the radio when you're flipping through songs it will be like, “BOOM! Here it comes!” For some styles it makes no sense; jazz, classical. But for commercial records, pop, rock, hip-hop, it sounds impressive.
But it's had a very negative correlation with record sales. The louder the records have become, the worse the industry has done. Obviously, there are a lot of other reasons, but people blame mastering.
I think that it's starting to come back around a little bit, but I think the mentality is kind of a bit perverse. Because they're trying to really wow somebody, but they're trying to do it by slamming them over the head with something.
Patch: What's your favorite type of music to record? Is there a definitive Gradwell Sound?
Downham: I think we're kind of idie-ish dudes at heart. But I wouldn't say that's always necessarily the most fun to record, depending on the specifics.
I think the characteristic we're probably known for the most is our drum sound. Because we do a lot, a lot, a lot of drum recording and rock recording. And we have a room that's characteristic and we use the room to its characteristics. It gives the recordings a kind of ambiance, it gives them a place.
So, I think that's kind of what the studio's known for, and we kind of take pride in that kind of recording. Drums are very hard to record, and we take pride in knowing how to make drums sound good.
Patch: As an engineer, how much impact can you have on the end product without being in the band?
Downham: For me, and for our studio in general, we try to kind of meet people on their terms.
I think a lot of people have a lot of studio horror stories from the 80's and 90's. There was a certain sense that—and I've experienced this a little bit myself—if you were to say to somebody at a studio, “I'd like to do it this way,” that they'd tell you, “Oh you don't really want to do that. You don't really want to sit right next to each other and record because this is going to bleed into this and it's going to sound kind of junky.”
And, you know, the studio might make it sound worse...
Here's an analogy: it's like an airbrushed model in a lot of respects. You can airbrush recordings. People do it; people gloss things up, tune things up, edit things. And, you know, maybe for some people that's a turn-on, but for many people it's just not at all.
Patch: Give me your best sales pitch for Gradwell House.
Downham: We're super-flexible. If you look at our space, it kind of makes the case for itself. It's set up to kind of have a band play together with very little compromise.
We don't try to gear ourselves toward every possible thing, but, in most cases, we still versatile enough to deal with a lot of different types of production value. We're super-efficient and we're well-versed in what we do, so that makes it pretty easy, communication-wise, for musicians to get what they want.