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More Musings: Mastering Drones at La Maestà

Mike Clark hikes up the Apennines to Tredozio in search of in-demand mastering engineer Giovanni Versari. He’s no drone…

Following on from last month’s article on engineer/producer Tommaso Colliva’s collaboration with Muse, and in particular on their latest album, Drones (see Colliva’s travels: In conversation with Tommaso Colliva), PSNEurope tracked down Giovanni Versari, another Italian who played a key role in the album’s production, mastering the project in his La Maestà studio.

As opposed to Colliva, who took the decision to move from Milan to London, Versari (pictured) did almost the exact opposite: In 2011, following 14 years as a mastering engineer with Milan’s groundbreaking Nautilus Mastering, where he worked on recordings by Franco Battiato, PFM, Ennio Morricone and Mario Biondi – and after considering the global flexibility offered by the web for his work – he decided to open his own facility in Tredozio, a small town of 1,200 people tucked away in the Romagna Apennines.

“I’d already done some work for Muse in the past, such as mastering B-sides or extra tracks, but the decision to choose me for the new album was taken as work on it proceeded,” he explains. “Tommaso is a good friend, as well as a client, and he suggested me to the band. After some blind tests, where they had the same song mastered by various studios, they decided to entrust the work to me.”

Versari added that the band didn’t in fact come to his rural retreat, as their work schedule ruled out the possibility: “They were travelling between London and Los Angeles for the recording, so we couldn’t meet up to do the mastering work together. Everything was done ’remotely’, communicating via Skype, email and phone and exchanging audio files via FTP.”

With a Manley Laboratories Mastering Backbone as its centrepiece and Pro Tools 10/11 and a SADiE 6 Sound Suite as DAW, La Maestà (meaning “The Majesty”) has an impressive array of other equipment, among which the most interesting without doubt are vintage units such as the Klein & Hummel UE100 and UE1000 equalisers, Neumann’s PEV passive EQ and NTP 179-120 comps. “The newer gear, such as the Shadow Hills [Vintage King] Class A Limited Edition mastering compressor, contributes to creating the results I want – and the chain they form and how they’re used together are definitely fundamental for the sound I’m looking for,” Versari comments.

In the digital domain, Versari reveals his “secret weapon”: “I’m lucky enough to have another very good friend, Davide Barbi, who’s the owner and chief engineer of one of Italy’s most important [musical] software companies, IK Multimedia. As well as being an exceptional gear maintainer, he developed a limiter – exclusively for me – that’s a real killer!”

Versari explains that Colliva was also extremely helpful when working on the Drones project because, as well as their reciprocal esteem, he was also the person who best understood exactly what the band had in mind for the record, since he’d worked with them for almost 10 years and followed every stage of the new project, “so he was able communicate this to me, which greatly facilitated my work.”

As well as Muse and Collivo’s poliziottesco-inspired group, Calibro 35, other bands and artists already mastered by Versari in his Tredozio facility include Vinicio Capossela, Fabi Silvestri Gazze, Samuele Bersani, Verdena, Bluebeaters, Of Monsters and Men and Frankie Chavez.

To listen to the results of his work, Giovanni uses a monitor set-up that is definitely on a par with the rest of the studio’s top-grade equipment: A pair of ATC SCM200ASL main monitors, a couple of Duntech’s flagship seven-driver Sovereign enclosures and some other smaller models.

Prior to his specialisation as a mastering engineer, Versari accumulated experience in various other fields, including as a live sound engineer at rock, jazz and classical festivals and concerts and opening Bologna’s first digital restoration facility, where he restored numerous soundtracks for film archives in Italy and abroad.

This in-depth knowledge obviously also contributed to him becoming such a sought-after mastering engineer. In fact, since opening his new studio Versari has been kept extremely busy, concluding (with great satisfaction): “I’ve mastered an annual average of approximately 100 projects by top Italian artists and bands, including Subsonica, Negramaro, Irene Grandi, Mario Venuti, Almamegretta… oh, and Muse!”