It’s a rare treat for PSNEurope to be able to sit down for a chat with John Greenham, one of the world’s most talented and revered mastering engineers. Though born in the south of England, he’s spent much of his career working and residing on the west coast of America, sprinkling his sonic fairy dust over an eclectic assortment of hugely successful records for the likes of Billie Eilish, Sam Smith, Katy Perry, LP, Ice Cube, Mr Hudson and a great many others. Operating predominantly out of San Francisco and Los Angeles, his considerable talents have established him as one of the most sought after mastering engineers in the business. Having worked out of several premium studios in the US, including Infrasonic Sound, Rocket Lab, Hyde St Studios and Area 51 Mastering, his efforts have earned him a multitude of accolades, including three Grammy Awards for his work with Los Tigres del Norte. He now works from his home studio in Silver Lake. Today, he’s on a one-off visit to the UK and has kindly agreed to meet us in London for a coffee and a chat about working with some of the most influential artists on the planet, the art of mastering and some of his career highlights so far…
What first attracted you to mastering?
I was in San Francisco and I had a friend who was a mastering engineer. I was watching him work and was fascinated by the way he could radically change the sound of a song by just doing a tiny EQ move, and the whole thing opened up and sounded much better. That’s something I’ve been trying to do ever since! I started out mastering and after a while thought maybe I should mix, so I started doing that, and then I thought I should learn how to record. But I soon realised that [rather than trying to do everything] maybe I should just work with really talented people. And the whole thing really depends on the artist, the instrument. If you have good stuff to begin with then everybody else’s job is easy.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in mastering over the years?
Obviously the internet. It has changed everything. People always used to come to the sessions, now nobody does. Very occasionally someone will come along because they want to see how it works. I like it better this way. I can send stuff to people and they can listen to it in an environment that they understand. If they come to the studio they don’t really know what they’re listening to anyway. You can get stuff done quicker now. What I like to do is have a coffee with the clients or go and see them play live. I like to meet them, but not necessarily while I’m working.
Are there any key differences between working in US and UK?
I’ve never worked [in the UK], but I may be about to start; I’m planning to work for part of the year over here. I imagine it’s much the same. In the US, specifically LA, there is a higher level of professionalism than anywhere else. You are amongst people who are the best in the world, it forces you to up your game.
How have artists’ attitudes towards mastering change over the years?
Most people work with me because they like my aesthetic – there is a certain vibe to it. It’s interesting to me that mastering has held up as well as it has, it doesn’t seem to be any less popular. It’s vital because you have an objective set of ears at the end of the project. Everybody has heard it a million times and may have missed something, which is just one aspect of it. And hopefully, I send them something back that sounds better.
What’s your approach to mastering?
A lot of the work I do is with people I’ve worked with before, so we know each other, we know our routine. If it’s a new person, I like to talk to them on the phone, find out where they are in their career, what their expectations are, how the project is going to be released. As far as the process goes, you listen to it and it’s pretty much instantaneous that you hear what it is you want to accomplish. You hear it in your head right away and then it’s a question of trying different things until you get to where you want to get to. There’s always this question of ‘what is mastering?’ My feeling is that if you have the low frequency, the mid-range and the high frequency and they are in a straight line, then the thing can stand up straight. Those three things have to be in proportion, that’s the essence of it.
Tell us about your home studio.
While mastering you don’t want to be moving around – you want one set up that you are able to understand, so I work in a studio in my living room. I have a pretty simple set up but everything is very high quality. I have very high-quality wire connecting things. Most people don’t worry about that but I think it makes a difference. There are a lot of arguments on the internet about whether or not it does – some people will say if it’s connected properly that’s all that matters. I don’t think that’s true, so I spend a lot of money on that kind of stuff. Around 75 per cent of the time I’ll run it through the analogue chain, but some things I’ll do in the box. Some people’s studios have got five EQs and three compressors and there’s about three miles of wire that goes to a router and you switch to different things. For me, it’s about the shortest possible signal path and the highest quality wire – not overcomplicating the process with too much stuff. It’s about making sure that the essential stuff you have is very good.
What have been some of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on?
For most of my career I’ve worked in San Fransisco, which is a fairly small market. There is a good music scene there, but it’s only since moving to LA in the past seven years that I’ve started working on stuff that people listen to! The first thing I did there that was pretty successful was Bad Suns’ record Language And Perspective. When that record came out the sound of it caught people’s attention. That was mostly due to the producer, Eric Palmquist, and the drums sounded great because the drummer in the band was really good.The LP stuff was interesting, she’s a songwriter (Cher, Rihanna, Backstreet Boys, Leona Lewis, Christina Aguilera) and an artist who had a song called ‘Lost On You’ which went viral in Europe. That song was and still is a massive hit. That was my first experience of working on a track that’s been streamed over a billion times and viewed 500 million times on YouTube, which is fun.
Is there a particular type of project you’re drawn to?
What you’re doing is trying to find the beauty in something, whatever it is. It might be something ugly, and that might be the beauty of it. You have to love everything that you work on, otherwise you’ve got no business working on it. Whatever it is, you have to get behind it and try to make it the best it can be, regardless of what kind of music it is. Music that can’t be readily categorised is more difficult to work on because there’s little – or sometimes nothing – to compare it to. Billie’s [Eilish] stuff is a bit like that. There’s nothing really like it. That was pretty open-ended. You can’t really compare it to Drake or Ariana Grade.
What was it like to work with Billie Eilish? And how did you approach the mastering of her record?
I’d worked with Finneas (Eilish’s brother and producer) on a project previously, and he sent me Billie’s album to mix, but I passed it on to Rob Kinelski. The same team has been working on all of Billie’s stuff since the beginning, so I knew what was going on when I listened to the album. Their EP (Don’t Smile At Me) is eight songs, so it’s not like they hadn’t made music before. But for some artists the first album is full of songs that have been lying around for a number of years and are really good, then they go on tour, their lives get very busy and they have to follow it up, and the music can suffer as a result. With Billie, they had to come up with a lot of new stuff in a short period of time, so when I listened to it I was interested to see if they could pull it off, as it was effectively a second album. I listened to it and thought, Wow, this is really good. I knew that her fans would like it but I didn’t realise her fans’ parents were going to like it! They are very clever people. The album is very dark but right at the top, you have this little jokey intro. I don’t know whether they think about these things or if that’s just how they are, but everything they’ve done so far has been phenomenally successful.
What were your ambitions with the sound of that record?
More bass, if you can believe that would be possible, and putting a little bit of saturation on the vocals. I wanted her personality to be able to speak really clearly. It was a very straightforward process.
What’s your view of the standard of pop music production in 2019? Has the DIY/bedroom producer approach had a negative or positive impact?
Everything I’m hearing sounds really good. The Ariana Grande record sounds amazing, Drake sounds really good. I think [the DIY approach] might be more of an English thing. Some of the things I’m hearing have much more of a homemade feel to them. The stuff we’re doing in LA sounds more slick. I’m in favour of whatever works. If it works and connects, then fine. I’m not a snob about those things. Ultimately, it’s all about talent. A good song will overcome bad production. A bad song cannot be saved by good production.
What tips do you have for any budding mastering engineers?
I’m an example of someone who worked in relative obscurity for a long period of time, and you just have to keep doing it. Anyone can master if you give them three months to do so, but to be able to do it well quickly takes a long time. You just have to keep going. And get yourself some good equipment – beg, steal or borrow. That said, the skill is your hearing, and sometimes you might find yourself in a scenario where the gear being used is very expensive but for some reason, it’s still not sounding good. It’s important you can trust your ears.