John Greenham pictured in his mastering room at 1340 Mission with his Magix Sequoia workstation and Barefoot Mastering Stack
Photo: Marsha Vdovin
San Francisco–based mastering engineer John Greenham has quietly amassed a wealth of album credits for artists in numerous musical genres. He earned Grammy recognition in 2006 and 2007 for his mastering work with Mexico’s Los Tigres Del Norte (Best Norteño Albums) and mixing work on Peruvian singer Pamela Rodriguez’s Peru Blue, for which she received a 2006 Grammy nomination as Best New Latin Artist. In 2009, Greenham moved his operations from The Annex in Menlo Park, Calif., to San Francisco’s 1340 Mission studio complex. Mix visited with Greenham in April as he was preparing to launch the next phase of his business.
How did you come to join 1340 Mission?
This room became available again, and this is my second tour of duty here. I’ve always loved working in this room. I was here in 2000. Paul Stubblebine, Michael Romanowski and I built these two mastering rooms. We were all associated with Rocket Lab in the late ’80s—that’s the common thread. The room was designed by [acoustical consultant] Bob Hodas, so it’s properly built. It’s fun to work in. A lot of big records have been made in this building. It has a good feeling about it.
How does your business fit into the complex?
I’m actually putting together a Website called Essential Mastering [along] with Robert Cross, a young engineer whose work I like. With all the [projects that are] being done in garages and living rooms nowadays, more than ever there is a need for an accurate monitoring environment to finish projects in. This is the best rig I’ve ever used for mastering. The stuff’s coming out great and I want more people to know we’re here.
What is your take on the loudness wars?
I try to discourage people to just go for loudness. But at the same time, people on the sales end want it to be aggressive. Also, I have two teenage daughters—who, to me, represent the record-buying public—and I see what happens with them: If the music doesn’t get their attention in some way within the first 10 seconds, it’s gone! It has to have impact right away; otherwise, not only are they not going to listen to it, they’re going to hit the Delete button! [Laughs] Part of the reason for that is loudness. So my job is to not let that happen to the artist if I can. Like anything else, [loudness is] an art form. The technology has gotten better, I think, over the last 10 years or so. As Chuck Prophet said when he was here recently, “We have to be competitive, but responsible.”
Is it now easier to keep tracks sounding good while applying compression?
I think digital devices have improved. Very often, my method involves using tape, which deals with the transients in a very musical way. Basically I get the analog flavor in everything and then I make fine adjustments with the plug-ins. Digital audio is in fact far more difficult to get right than analog because it’s so completely unforgiving.
What have you learned as a mastering engineer?
Making a record is a constant learning process. Every piece of music has some beauty in it—that’s what I learned from [composer/pianist/percussionist] Omar Sosa. And there’s beauty in ugliness, too, if that’s what the idea is. As a mastering engineer, you’ve got to give it some love, allow it to speak to people, and get all the technical stuff out of the way.