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‘It all happened by accident’: Leading mastering engineer Heba Kadry discusses her journey to success

Kadry worked in advertising before the chance to record a jingle led to an inspiring first encounter with the studio world

Heba Kadry

Heba Kadry is the first to admit that her present career as one of New York’s most in-demand mastering engineers did not come about entirely by design. Growing up in Egypt, Kadry studied classical piano and played in bands at college before working as an account executive at an ad agency – a distinctly unhappy experience until one day, out of the blue, she was offered the “golden opportunity” to compose and record a jingle.

“It needed to be sourced in-house because there was no budget,” she recalls. “The creative director of the agency knew I was a musician so she tossed me straight into the fire! I recorded the jingle in downtown Cairo and was bitten by ‘the bug’ as soon as I walked into the control room, which had a really sweet Neve VXS console with flying fader automation and a great selection of outboard gear.”

Along with the lure of the tech, the acoustically- controlled nature of the studio environment was a big part of its initial appeal. “Cairo is one of the noisiest cities in the world, so being in a properly isolated and acoustically treated room was such a disarming experience,” says Kadry. “It clicked for me that this was something that I wanted to pursue, although I had no idea how. [But even at that point] I could see that audio was a chance for me to leave Egypt, pursue music – which was unfathomable where I’m from – and radically change my future and what was expected of me in my part of the world.”

Heading to Ohio

Following advice from an engineer at the studio where she recorded the jingle, Kadry travelled to the US and joined a training programme at The Recording Workshop in Ohio. “It was short and nowhere near as costly as some of the other programmes, so I signed up. It’s amazing when you’re young – you can make a split decision and completely change the course of your life.”

Meanwhile, Kadry was continuing to develop her ideas about music and production. An initial passion for ‘90s shoegaze bands expanded to artists such as Aphex Twin, Brian Eno and Boards of Canada. But it was Radiohead’s paradigm-shifting Kid A from 2000 that provided one of the crucial epiphanies: “It was that record that really made me pay attention to production. I wanted to understand that album, what had influenced the band, and how they achieved those sounds because it was so off the beaten path.”

This eclecticism would serve Kadry well once she came to work at SugarHill studios in Texas as recording engineer and studio manager. Perhaps not as well known as it should be given its history of attracting iconic artists including Roky Erickson and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the studio benefitted from the attitude of the then-owners, “who were always happy to teach an intern or young hopeful engineer that walked through the doors and give them a chance”.

From the many sessions she worked on at SugarHill, it is the time she spent recording singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston – who died in September 2019 – that will linger longest in the memory. “It was around the time that the documentary [2005’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston] came out,” she recalls. “I used to produce a radio show on KPFT/Pacifica Radio called SugarHill sessions, where I would invite touring musicians to come to SugarHill, record a small set and do an interview. [The programme with Daniel] was so special and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”In the mid 2000s, disenchantment with the recording process (“a lot of guys with FruityLoops recordings wanting to do their vocals at 1am!”) and a conversation with the in-house mastering engineer at SugarHill led her to re-evaluate.

Relocating to Manhattan, she secured an internship at a studio which led to a full-time role as studio manager. “I managed the studio by day and taught myself how to master at night and weekends working on friends’ bands,” she recalls.Establishing a partnership with Timeless Mastering, as well as working on her own, Kadry spent the next 10 years building a profile as one of New York’s leading mastering engineers, working on albums by acts  including Deerhunter, Beach House, Cate Le Bon, The Mars Volta and her ‘90s favourites, the reunited Slowdive. But she was also active in other capacities, not least as mixer of Björk’s Grammy-nominated 2017 album, Utopia.

Having left Timeless a few months ago, she is currently putting the finishing touches to her new studio in Brooklyn, designed by Jim Keller of Sondhus.

Right time, right place

The less-than-linear nature of Kadry’s route to her current position underpins her belief that “with audio, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Working in audio is a test of endurance – who can hang in there the longest? There isn’t a clear-cut path on how to succeed in audio. Ultimately, it boils down to your drive, how hard you work, and good timing.”

Despite the challenges, Kadry is enthused by her current place in the industry, working with adventurous artists and often being viewed as a creative collaborator by her clients. A recent project with US avant-garde musician Diamanda Galás for the upcoming reissue of her 1982 debut The Litanies of Satan is a case in point.“We poured over every detail of that reissue,” says Kadry. “Should we make it radically different, how far should we push the vocals, how modern did we want it to sound, how heavy should it be? Diamanda wanted to explore the idea of reinterpreting the music in a way that honours that particular moment in time, but also pushes the limitation of the recording.”

The original album was made during the infancy of digital recording, so restoring the low-end to this uniquely powerful work was a key priority. The title track’s incantation of a Charles Baudelaire poem “has so much emotion and nuance that it needed to be brought out with more focus. That amazing vocal range and vocal control… it drags you to the depths of despair and brings you back up again. We worked very hard on this record for eight months and I’m very honoured that Diamanda put her trust in me during this process.”

With a number of projects set for release in early 2020, Kadry has every reason to be optimistic about her new venture. But she will also continue to deepen her ties with the broader music and studio communities – something she feels is more vital than ever given the ongoing machinations shaping the industry: “We need to be supportive of each other; working in isolation doesn’t keep this scene alive. If you cannot work on a project, suggest a friend or a fellow engineer. It’s so important to support your community in this way.”

After a negative recent experience, she will also be urging engineers to be prepared to stand up for their rights. “Protect your credits with everything you own,” she says. “Studios do not own you, your work or your discography. The reason you are the engineer that you are is because of your hard work and your talent.”

For more information about Heba Kadry’s past and current projects, please visit www.hebakadry.com.

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