Hearing is believing

(this interview was originally published on 15questions.net in 2012)

Jos Smolders’ ears know what they know. A combination of instinct, talent, skill and patience is what makes the Dutch mastering engineer the first choice for many when it comes birthing their music into the ears of the world. Getting into the head space and understanding the perspective of the artist is essential for Smolders to weave his magic and time is never an obstacle for this sonic sorcerer. Playing with sound and music for 30 years, co-editing Vital Magazine and founding THU20, a supergroup of the Dutch experimental underground, Smolders has been a significant contributor to the electronic community. In addition to his work as a sound artist, he founded EARLabs.org in 1998, eventually turning it into a website dedicated to the fledgling netaudio scene, which combined aspects of online magazine, online label, mastering services and social media functionalities in a revolutionary way. A writer, editor, sound designer, composer, producer and pioneer, Jos Smolders uses his broad experience to perfect and polish the sound of artists including Jim Jarmusch, Jozef van Wissem, Pierre Henry, Zeno van den Broek, Merzbow and Scanner.

What was your first mastering-related job – and what or who were your early passions and influences?

My first mastering job was in 1986 when I post-produced and mastered recordings by the pre-THU20 band Club Rialto. I had some wild ideas about what cyber punk electro wave should sound like and mangled/remixed and mastered the music into a special edition, called “Call Here My Varlet – Tapeloop Demix”. After that I decided to start my own musical career. More than 20 years later I got my focus back to mastering other people’s music.

However cheap my equipment was I have always been searching for the best available sound. At the start I had virtually no money and later I had to raise kids. Only in the past few years I have been able to invest more in good studio material. Some five years ago, in a lull of creative wind, I started to really study the way professional studios produce and master sound. I learned by listening, analysing, researching, and trial and error.

Because these days everyone is as much a musician as a recording engineer, producer and sometimes even label owner, the mastering part somehow has gotten squeezed out of the music production process. After recognizing that and being really interested in the combination of science and creation I decided to give my mastering experience to other artists. This took a lot of time. I spent two years practicing and experimenting, before asking others to give me their music so I could practice with it. That was a great learning school. Hours and hours, even days on end behind the desk has given me a lot of experience in a short time span.

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career in the field of mastering?

I’ve told many times about my first encounter with a tape machine as a young boy and how that sort of sparked the interest in sound. My inclination for observation and analysis both sonic and visual, led to a sound/music research career that now spans more than 30 years. I’ve produced music, recorded music, designed sound, written about music. While reviewing the works of others for Vital Weekly and for my own EARLabs.org, I noticed that a lot of really interesting releases could have been even much better had they been produced and mastered more professionally. So, now one of the things on the menu of EARLabs Studio is that I review music before it is released.

How would you personally define your role in the creative process? What is the scope and what are the limitations of what you are capable of doing? In how far do you feel increasing technical education even among amateur musicians has changed this role? 

IMG_0717A mastering engineer has more than one role. He comes in at the end of a long and tiring process and listens with fresh ears. His skills balance on the edges between technology, psycho acoustic science and creative experience. So he is able to offer critical feedback to the material and repair and/or enhance certain parts.

These past years as mastering engineer have taught me that it is good to have someone listen objectively to the music after the production stage and before release. I know it can be difficult to offer your new-born to a stranger asking to perfect it. And yet, in 98 out of 100 cases I am able to bring things to light that have become obscured in the process, bring better balance in the stereo field or frequency distribution, or I can advise about how to get the mix better before the actual mastering can start.

Technically there are hardly any things I can’t do. But I can’t make a bad recording or mix into a great song. If things are difficult because I think my knowledge or skills are insufficient I ask a colleague to step in. I have worked on a wide variety of genres and all kinds of formats, vinyl, cd, DVD, mp3, flac, etcetera. Vinyl is something that not many engineers do anymore. It requires extra care.

Regarding genre, I’ve done pure acoustic instrumental (Jozef van Wissem), harsh noise (Merzbow, Scanner), cloudy synth drone stuff (Big Robot, a Norwegian band playing including Conrad Schnitzler) and experimental punchy funk jazz (Nils Rostad). What binds these artists is that they all have a specific focus which is definitely off the beaten track.

The thing is that it’s not only the instruments that yield a good master, but a good set of ears, a good understanding of what the artist wants and lots and lots of hours of experience. Music production software has become affordable, although that’s less the case for professional software, but it still won’t give good results at the push of a button.

In which way does the music sounds change the way it is perceived? How do you see the relative importance of sound and composition?

20150616_173859561_iOS-1024x768_2It makes a huge difference. That’s exactly what I try to contribute creatively and in accordance with the artist’s intentions. I try to get as clear as possible an insight into what the artist wants to express and then I approach the music with that knowledge in mind.

Vincent Bergeron almost maniacally focuses on every micro detail in his music. At first we did some tests where I tried to deepen the ‘image’ of the sound as a whole. Vincent responded that he missed this and that I destroyed that transient. I then went back to the drawing board and concentrated at simultaneously preserving the transients and making the total picture more colourful.

Sound and composition are very important albeit not considered as such by the general audience. At least not consciously.