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‘Less Is More’: Mastering Engineer Katie Tavini Talks Studio Techniques and Stereotypes

Mastering engineer Katie Tavini is currently cultivating a reputation as one of the finest exponents of her craft in the industry. Pro Sound News Europe editor Daniel Gumble caught up with her in London for a chat about mastering techniques and her incredible career to date.

The year may still be young, but 2018 has already proved significant in the life of Katie Tavini. On January 1 she boarded a train from Manchester to London, where she was to relocate and begin work on a substantial project—which, at the time of going to print, must remain under wraps—in addition to a series of other projects set to see the light of day in the not too distant future.

But while the past three months have arguably provided the most significant personal and professional shifts in her burgeoning career thus far, Tavini has been diligently honing and refining her studio skills for the best part of the last 10 years in and around the Manchester punk scene, her work with Sonic Boom Six quickly catching the collective ear of local contemporaries. On the rare occasions she would chance upon any spare time, she would fill it by engineering and producing her own electronic compositions, adding further still to her ever-growing studio skillset.

It is this ferocious ambition and thirst for knowledge that has carried Tavini to where she is today. As we settle into our seats over a cup of tea in a cramped London coffee shop sequestered in one of London’s King’s Cross railway station’s many nooks and crannies, her enthusiasm for all things audio is immediately evident. Indeed, her enthusiasm for all manner of topics reveals itself before our interview begins in earnest: I am informed early on that she is currently cat-sitting for her flatmate by way of various pictures of said feline, while the accidental origins of the teabags are explained upon arrival of our beverages. But these are subjects for another time.

As we fix our attention to the subject of Tavini’s career so far, specifically her formative years, she is quick to highlight a couple of key moments that she believes set her on the path for a career in audio.

“The first was when I was about 5,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in Italy as a child, and though there wasn’t a lot to do, my dad had a record player, so I would listen to a lot of records. There was one by James called Seven and there was a track that had this brass panning on it, which I remember finding really amazing. Also, at a similar age, I was in school and I saw these girls playing violin, and I just thought, ‘That’s the worst sound in the world, I want to make that! I want to make people feel as uncomfortable as they are making me feel right now!’ I then begged my mum for a violin and had lessons, so my background is in classical music.”

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Displaying a precocious level of musicianship, her studies led to a performance-based university course, although it quickly became clear that Tavini’s calling was emanating not from the stage but the studio, with a small yet path-altering recording module providing a much-needed outlet for her sonic pursuits.

“I spent pretty much all my time in the studio on this recording module thinking, This is what I want to do,” Tavini explains. “And I had a little home setup where I was producing my own tracks. With all my course mates wanting to be performers, I got the benefit of recording them and they had they benefit of being recorded, so it worked out really well. One day my teacher said, ‘Katie, you’re always here. I’ve been offered a job in a studio but I can’t take it. Do you want it?’ I was like, Hell yeah! Even if it was just making tea, I was up for it. Then I worked my arse off to make myself invaluable.”

Master Plan

Having served in an assistant role across numerous sessions, the obvious next step may have been to continue on down the engineering and production route; however, while seeking advice on how to take her mixing skills to the next level, her attention was diverted to the art of mastering.

“I was in a forum and I asked if anyone had any tips for improving mixing techniques,” Tavini elaborates. “Then this guy says, ‘If you want to learn how to mix, learn how to master.’ I used to sneak finished tracks home from the studio and then try to master them. Then, once we got the finished masters back, I’d compare them and see what I could do to make mine more like theirs, so I was teaching myself how to master thinking it would help me become a better engineer.

“Around that time, this producer messaged me on Facebook asking for some mastering, so I said I’d master his EP, but asked, ‘If it’s s***, please don’t release it because I’m just starting out!’ But when he got it back from me, he thought it was great.

“He was not only a producer but also had his own band, Sonic Boom Six, and they had a really big album and PR campaign in around 2011, so I got to master that album, the singles from it and a load of remixes. That was quite a lot of work, and they have a large fanbase, so I kind of spread throughout the punk scene just through that one project. I was still doing sessions on the side, and mastering was just this thing I was doing occasionally. But it started spreading in Manchester and people were saying, ‘There aren’t many people that do mastering round here, can you do it for us?’ It just snowballed due to demand, plus people didn’t want to pay London rates. And I enjoyed it! I get a big buzz out of finishing things.”

For those who aren’t fully conversant with the art of mastering, the process can appear daunting. This, Tavini offers, should not be the case, arguing that the perception could be off-putting to potential mastering practitioners of the future.

“The word ‘master’ sound quite intimidating. I think that’s why some people are so terrified of it,” she says. “And there’s also the whole stereotype of, You’re not really a mastering engineer unless you’re a 60-year-old guy with ruined hearing! And if the 60-year-old guy with ruined hearing is mastering, anyone can do it.

“The mistake I made at first was thinking it’s this incredibly scary thing, like a lot of people do, and as a result ended up doing too much to the track. It’s often a case of less is more. The most important element of mastering is letting people know what could be better about the mix—not creatively, but the functionality and balance of it before it gets mastered. That’s one thing you don’t get with online mastering. There’s no feedback. If the track is too bass-heavy, it’s not going to tell you that. Once the mix is solid, the mastering should happen naturally. A lot of mastering is like admin—labeling, filing stuff, frequency analysis, checking a mix for corruption, that kind of stuff.”

Normal Not Novelty

Back in January of this year, Tavini featured on a Women in the Studio panel at AIM’s (Association of Independent Musicians) Women In Music conference at London’s City Hall to discuss the sector’s gender imbalance. Joined by a host of preeminent studio engineers and producers (Steph Marziano, Dr. Mariana Lopez, Isabel Gracefield Grundy, Marta Salogni, Katia Isakoff and K-Minor), the panel shone a spotlight on not only some of the risible attitudes toward women that still permeate certain cobwebbed recesses of the industry, but also the vast strides that have been taken to begin bridging the gap.

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In addition to her appearance at City Hall, Tavini has been closely involved with Red Bull Studios’ Normal Not Novelty initiative, a monthly workshop open to female DJs, sound engineers and producers at Red Bull Studios London.

“We made so much progress last year, with Red Bull putting money and publicity behind the fact there are female engineers out there,” she states. “Because there are fewer female engineers and producers, we are more easily remembered and have occasionally found it easier to get work once we’ve made that initial step. However, I think people assume there aren’t as many women working in the studio as there really are. The females who are working in this industry are just happy to get on with it, and we don’t necessarily sit behind a computer shouting about the fact that we’re women.

“But Red Bull sticking at it has really been key. Until last year, very few of my mastering credits were with female bands or female producers, but since around June 2017, about half of the people I’ve been working with are female bands, producers or engineers. Red Bull has helped to connect the dots between women in studios, which is great, and it’s also given us a wider network and a bit of media attention.

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“That’s not my priority, but it has put women in the spotlight so that men can see we are doing this and doing it well. It’s getting there.”

She concludes: “The AES are also doing this He for She thing at the moment. Mariana Lopez is one of the chairs on the committee, and she’s really behind getting more women involved. She’s personally making sure that there are lots of women speakers at all the AES events. Everyone needs to make a point of doing this. It’s really important; otherwise the subject will just get forgotten about again.”

With a busy schedule of exciting projects currently in-hand, for now it’s back to the studio for Tavini. And if this year continues as it has started, you can certainly expect to be seeing a lot more of her throughout 2018.

This article originally appeared in NewBay magazine Pro Sound News Europe