Grammy Winner William Bowden

Mastering the Record of the Year and dreaming of sushi

He may have just won a Grammy for Record of the year, but mastering engineer William Bowden still has a beginner’s mind…

Text: TJ Eckleberg Pics courtesy: Jacqueline Amidy

The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, follows 85 year old sushi master Jiro Ono – owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny Michelin three star restaurant in Tokyo. A national treasure in Japan, Jiro is renowned worldwide for astonishing high standards – from his selection of tuna at the Tokyo fish markets each morning, to his exacting methods for preparing rice.

William Bowden has just won a Grammy for Record of the Year for Gotye’s smash single  ‘Somebody that I used to know’ featuring Kimbra. In the speculation leading up to the Grammy awards I heard a journalist on Huffington Post describe Gotye (aka Wally de Backer) as a one hit wonder who had come from nowhere.

It made me smile. I know Gotye’s work and artistry – Heart’s a mess was a gorgeous radio friendly track that made it’s own waves on Australia’s National Radio Triple J in 2006. And I know William Bowden – in the same way Jiro dreams of sushi, he is likely to wake up in the middle of the night with a new sound recipe; press stop because the master could have a little more flavour; or trawl the gear markets for an elusive new ingredient.

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Commander, I believe the Aliens may have a superior frequency

 

When I think about it, I started in 1989, so I’ve got about 24 years of listening specifically to stereo mixes and working out how to improve them, make them better, more interesting, more moody or, you know all sorts of things, but usually something to get your attention. So I take it for granted my early training was purely preparing the rice before they let me anywhere near the fish, but eventually I got to the point where I was the fish guy.

One day – I was around twenty two – an ambient artist, asked me to come to his studio and mix a track because it wasn’t working [with the original engineer]. I mixed it and… At that moment I realised the individual is really unique. Until that point I really hadn’t thought that… I just thought I was mixing a song to make it sound good and that’s what everyone is trying to do… And I realised, ‘Ok – what I do will be different to the next guy. Now the next guy could be way better than me, that’s absolutely possible, but whatever I do, it can’t be repeated, actually’.

The ramification of that has certainly gone down through the years. Clients often bring me work and say ‘we really like this’ and I certainly hear examples – but I would always do what I thought was right and then at then end ask – was it loud enough, is it bright enough? The actual thing is feeling my way through the original music and honouring that…

Gotye, Making Mirrors and ‘Somebody that I used to know’…

WB: For me, the big challenge about the Gotye album was that Frank (Tetas, mix engineer) had mixed six, maybe seven tracks, and they’d been recorded at different places. A big puzzle was how to get it all to sit together and behave. When you talk about the attention placed on the single ‘Somebody that I used to know’ It wasn’t where I spent most of my time – because there were massive tonal and volume things to address that were completely out of kilter across the work.

The main issue with that track was getting the intro loud enough so it wasn’t ‘completely off the radar’, because it’s a very quiet intro and he sings it very quietly. I tried to make it so it wasn’t too much like a classical record. I did some work in the second verse with Kimbra and the way she went into the chorus – I spent about an hour, an hour and a half.

It’s an interesting mix – a hybrid mastering job. Some tracks were mastered entirely in analogue, and some by analogue transfer in which practically nothing occurred, and then I used some plugins. The mixes were so incredibly diverse, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach, I used things for their strengths. And if you need to make up massive amounts of volume, often plugins can be superior to analogue because analogue can distort at various things. It’s a weird thing. Sometimes analogue is better for compression by a long shot. But for multi-band compression and that sort of thing, often plugins are far superior. And sometimes you want a combination of the two.

With Wally – we’ve spent many hours in the mastering room together, but with the lp Making Mirrors it was completely unattended. I mastered it and sent him what I had done. Of that first round maybe five tracks were approved, then I did a second round and the next four or five tracks were approved. So it was in two main blocks.

Overall I would say although it’s won a Grammy award, maybe it’s more reflective of the twenty-four years of my work, rather than how long I spent on that track.

TJ: And of course the relationship you’ve had with Wally

WB: The relationship I’ve had with Wally was forged through (Wally’ first band) The Basics – they were recording and the assistant said – the guy who gets the loudest cds in Australia is William Bowden.

(Both laugh)

Isn’t that funny? I’ve often said to people I’m not the loudness guy.

TJ: You were lucky to have your apprenticeship in a place that focused on ‘How do we make it sound great?’

WB: Yeah I think I did get that from Festival Records… Loud was never even mentioned, and wasn’t even seen as a form of good. That was a bit out of step even then… [We wanted mixes that were] dynamic and spatial and with more surprises…  eventually I realised there were good things about loudness as well… These are things you figure out along the way. If anything, what I’ve been trying to do since is to get a loud sound that was still dynamic, particularly in the bottom end.

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Will sitting in the studio I helped him build, wondering where the Eckleberg could possibly be…

TJ: How do you first listen to a track?

WB: Over the years a lot of has become instinctual. I used to write notes and observations as I listened – and they would be things like ‘bottom end seems big’, ‘vocal at 1:30 a bit loud’ and so on… But probably ten years ago I stopped doing that. I’d find I would write notes and purely by writing them down I’d cemented something… I’d do what I felt was right, sit and listen. And if it was ok it would get recorded in. Sometimes out of interest I would look back at my notes and think – ‘oh good I did fix that problem’. I’d forgotten what I’d written. So now I don’t write things, I just kind of feel them.

One of the good things about digital is you can go over sections and repeat them and really sort it out, but one of the bad things is you are not always hearing the context. So sometimes I will jump in and play a section, then another section and little bits of the song but not the whole song. And I will make the majority of my EQ decisions on that – then sit down, hit play and listen to the whole song. During that listen I may have some additional realisations and make some changes as I go… It’s hard to describe – almost like I want to knock it into shape first before I hear it – which is so mad, isn’t it, really? I am hearing it, but I still want to be surprised by the music.

What I would say is this – very often I will get a track and it will be sounding great and everyone is happy and I hit record, sit down and start listening… and I press stop and say  ‘I’ve had a thought’ – and that thought might be – it’s almost perfect, but it could sound better with this one extra thing…  it’s weird how often that occurs… Like jumping out of the plane and thinking I should go back and try a different parachute…

TJ: And maintaining maintaining creative flow?

WB: Well you don’t want to get too bogged down with a logical, rational thinking. You want to feel the music and later analyse what you’ve done. It’s the same with creativity – you will be sitting there and an idea will pop into your head – maybe even a solution you’ve been working on for a while… and you will go ‘Wow ok, I’ve had an a-ha moment’ there’s the slight euphoria of having solved a problem. You can then look at it and go… ‘Oh – I see – it’s a + b + c… Oh of course, it’s so obvious’ – but you didn’t arrive at the solution that way – you arrived there in a wordless, creative, intuitive way, and then your logical mind says ‘Yes of course…’ like a logical mop up operation.

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The WB gearslutz shot exposing all of his secrets for the world to snatch away

I think in music and in mastering there’s a bit of that. You act organically and quickly. I can be playing one bit of the song and the client is thinking ‘What on earth is happening?’ then later you sit and listen and they think ‘Oh ok, what he did makes sense now’.

It’s very important to doubt yourself. There are a lot of people in this world who will tell you they’ve got all the answers – will think they have to project an air of invincibility. Anyone who is a creative person and is trying to do new things or different things knows ideas are very fragile, it‘s difficult for them to even survive in a world that is very critical very quickly, and I think doubting yourself makes you a better receptacle for new ideas because you are willing to say ‘You know what? I thought I knew something, but actually I don’t, so I will try something different.’

TJ: Jiro says every tuna is different – every piece of fish is unique.

WB: It’s an interesting analogy – the sushi thing. For sure every mix is different, every master is different. I’ve mastered the same track different times as well…  Every so often I do think to myself – ‘oh I’ve heard it all before’ – but really, maybe I thought that more when I was younger. Now I think things are pretty unique – and every recording is very, very different and there’s always something to notice on the way.

There was a song I did recently – a song called ‘Beautiful Parade’, but it didn’t sound very beautiful to me. It had quite bombastic drums and a huge bottom end that would never work on radio. I spent my time working on the vocal, and using a lot of compression, to make it beautiful. That’s something Don Bartley (legendary Australian mastering engineer) was very big on – for many years I didn’t understand it – I was just trying to make it sound good – but he would always talk about finding the intention of the song. For some songs – perhaps it’s a boppy, happy thing and you just want to make it move along. Or it might be really scary, or there might be something you want to make really beautiful – it’s a certain sensitivity to what the artist is trying to do.

One of the things I think about is sometimes not showing all your cards straight up – you can have a very loud cd where everything sounds the same volume – but to me there is something about dynamics – whether tonal dynamics, atmospherics, different colours – maybe you just don’t want it on your eyeballs the whole way. (laughs) You want a bit of wet and dry, a bit of mystery.

I’m convinced I’m still a beginner. Which is great because I’m listening with beginners’ ears. We agonise over little things – a little bit of reverb on the vocal or if a handclap has come up too much. Creative people are very hard on themselves so the population can just experience the music. The good thing about that is they don’t need to know the struggle everyone went through, the bad thing is people don’t know the work behind the scenes for even some of the smallest decisions.

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Willy explains the importance of being unique

WB: In Australia I still think there is amongst the musicians young and old, a tradition of passing on knowledge, and certainly an awareness of process… I feel like ten years ago we went through that craze of ‘you can do it all at home’ and people tried that and discovered the limitations and have gone beyond it – which is… maybe you do a lot at home, but you go down to the studio for the mix, or you do the drums and guitars, maybe even the vocals…

I think we’re through with that ‘I can do everything myself’ mentality, we’re very collaborative. Maybe it’s because I get a lot of work from studios that are still surviving, but I also get a lot of home-recorded things somebody has gone to another guy to mix…

I think if you look at Wally he did do it the old fashioned way – he had talent and skills but he honed them on the road. He worked very hard and very long. I suspect behind a lot of people who even appear to be overnight successes there’s a bit of that… It might feel like you’re moving in baby steps – other times you have leaps of understanding. Primarily, the thing is to keep going, to have some stamina.

WB: In some ways I have it easier than most artists – I don’t have a blank page, and I don’t generate the first idea. In other ways I have a responsibility not only to the artists, but also perhaps the population – to try and make sure Australian music is at an international standard – that’s something I don’t think about often because mostly I’m just simply in a room playing with toys and it all seems like fun and games. But as you get older you do become aware of how your country is judged – and seen by other people overseas – and it’s not nationalism, but you do feel a certain fondness and also a deeper understanding of what, overall, people are trying to say and project.

And I do think there’s lot of very interesting music being made here, and it’s quite unique. I guess I’ve always just kept looking for a way to honour that.

Bowden’s Law of New Acquisitions

First the gear arrives. You have initial excitement. You try it on everything… Well actually you don’t try it on everything. You use it on everything!

The second stage is you try it on something and it doesn’t work… and you know deep down your new shiny toy is next to useless. It’s a catastrophe! You’re heartbroken and you think oh my God, I’ve spent all that money and it just doesn’t work.

The third stage is knowledge – you know what to use it on, because every bit of gear is good for something and good for nothing. It’s the appropriateness of choosing something that’s a pretty handy skill to develop – knowing this piece of fish will work with this particular sauce.

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Will explains the importance of keeping calm and staying seated during a mastering sessions – even if the cowbell is not loud enough

One of my favourite digital compressors is the SPL loudness maximiser… A big red box I’ve had since it first came out… probably 97 or 98. I actually bought a spare one recently because I was worried it might blow up… the only thing that’s ever gone wrong with it was the LED display blew up, that was a bit of a disaster – but it was stuck on a setting I could still use… Also The Spl Vitaliser – I use that a lot. I have a long relationship with that piece of equipment – and it’s a very misunderstood tool in the mastering circles, but I find it very, very useful.

I really like the Lisa EQ, it’s amazing – I used the Sontec for years. But because Sterling was using it, a few years ago they became popular. I was a bit sick of it, and when people start repeating the same sentence it’s time to sell. I wanted a big analogue EQ, but didn’t know what – and I had gotten so much value out of the (digital) ZSYS EQ… Then along come these German guys with this EQ where you dial in the EQ and dynamically control how much you add with a compressor or expander. It’s a comprehensive and bewildering tool in the wrong hands.

The Alpha compressor is also great – the only solid-state compressor I’ve ever liked.  These four German tools stand very proudly in an environment dominated by Americans. Oh, and I do love Werner Fairman’s TMC compressor – I know, I know… he’s Danish… but at least you can drive there from Germany.

Massive Passive Musical meditation

Ultimately the most important thing anyone in music can do is treat music like a meditation. Music is a bit of a wordless world. A lot goes back to the difference between your left brain and right brain. If I’m working with an EQ like the Manley Massive Passive, the thing I love about that EQ is it’s continuously variable – I don’t own the stepped version – sometimes without looking I’ll go to the mid range, whack it in and start turning until it sounds good. Almost what you would like out of every bit if gear – though sometimes it’s more intellectual because you need to do something specific… With the Manley, it’s very organic because you can turn it until it sounds good.