Published on March 18th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
Rocksucker recently had the dual privilege of getting to both sit in on Tim Turan mastering an album and ask him a few questions afterwards, so we present to you our interview with the man himself. Topics of conversation included his approach to cutting records – sometimes entire back catalogues – for the likes of Madness, Thin Lizzy, Status Quo and Slade, his sideline as drummer of Oxford institution The Relationships, and both the science behind and downside of his remarkably acute hearing…
Would you say you have a distinct mastering style, or does your approach differ depending on the artist and/or type of music you’re mastering?
Every album is a different beast – recorded in different studios by different musicians with different instruments, with different genres – and you have to get the optimum out of what you’re given. You can’t just have generic setups, like “this is my rock setup” or “this is my jazz setup”, because it’s different for everything.
When you’re given the task of taking on a body of work from one particular band, do you take into account what the fan base might be expecting?
The fan base expects everything. Status Quo are a good case in point: they’ve got a fan base of around two hundred thousand members who are all rabid about Status Quo, and because they’ve been around for a long time, their early albums sound like early ’60s records. Then you’ve got the rock period, where they sound different again, and then you’ve got the dreadful period when all drums had gated reverb, and keyboards and synthesisers crept in. Same with Slade as well.
Also with an old band, I’m a fan too: I went out and bought Status Quo records as a kid, because you’d join a band and want to learn some covers, and most things are too difficult. Status Quo were great for that because, as a drummer, all you’ve got to do is go ‘boom cha boom cha”, the guitarist learns three chords and you were doing a track. With a whole back catalogue, you’ve got the expectation of everybody who’s going to have to repurchase their record collection, so you’ve got to give them their money’s worth, the optimum out of what’s there.
I’m lucky enough to have direct involvement with the artist, or with the artist through a label, so for example I’ve got Suggs verifying the stuff I did for Madness, I’ve got Scott Gorham verifying the stuff I did with Thin Lizzy, Jim Lea and Noddy Holder with Slade, so if it’s alright by them then it’ll probably be alright by the fans. The fans have huge expectations, as do I with this Marianne Faithfull album [sitting on the table]: I’ve got the original up there [on the shelf] and when this came out I was excited to hear the new sounds, getting the optimum out of the master tape.
Do the artists ever have any problems with the notion of someone going back and ‘tampering’ with their work, or are they usually on board with it?
They’re very much on board because they’re grateful that a record company wants to release their back catalogue, meaning immediate income that wouldn’t occur otherwise, so you give something a new lease of life and everyone rushes out to buy it. I mean, how many times have I bought Dark Side of the Moon on CD? It gets reissued every eight years but I’m a fan so I’m going to buy it, to get the optimum out of it, or what they perceive to be the optimum.
What first attracted you to the world of mastering?
You graduate. I started off engineering bands in the mid-’70s, pointing microphones and pressing ‘record’ on the tape recorder: you have to go through that process so that, when you’re mastering a record, you know what’s going on. I play in a band as well, and I’ve produced lots and lots of records, and you have to go through that process to understand all the stuff that’s there to be listened to, again to get the optimum out of that.
It’s like starting off as a medical student then becoming a junior doctor, then a doctor, then a bit more of a doctor, and eventually you become a consultant surgeon. You can’t really ‘start’ mastering until you’ve produced records, really. The way I look at it is that you need to understand the whole process, because you’ll come up against anomalies, artifacts and strange sonic behaviours that you need to be able to identify, diagnose and find a fix for. If you’ve done a lot of recording then you’ll understand what ‘phase’ is all about, so that when you hear ‘phasey’ material you’ve got ways and means of dealing with it. That comes from years of experience of doing it.
After my job, it’s the shrink wrap and then it goes on the shelf, so it’s important to understand the whole process. Also, when you’re recording, engineering and producing, especially for as long as I have, you come across just about every instrument there’s ever been – so whether you’re recording a concert harp, a grand piano, cellos, a reggae bass through an Ampeg rig…a metal guitarist, a jazz guitarist, an acoustic guitarist, or a Spanish guitarist…oboes, bassoons, cor anglais…you’ve come up against them all so you understand how they work. You just sort of accumulate the knowledge.
You were hearing things during the mastering that I didn’t notice. How is your hearing so finely tuned?
I don’t have much of a kink in my ear canal. You ear canal has a sort of S-bend. I remember having my medical at school and the doctor saying, “Good lord, I can see your eardrum.” So the sounds kind of go straight in, which is a blessing for this job but a curse in regular life: I can hear car alarms two miles away, all sorts of stuff that I’d rather not, and it irritates me. I always used to hate cathode ray tubes on old televisions because they whistle away at 15 kilohertz, and I always felt this kind of relief whenever the television was turned off, “ah, that noise has stopped!” The cathode ray tube oscillating made this high frequency (emits a sustained monotone whistle).
It’s not just about having a good pair of ears, it’s also about understanding what you hear. Some of my students can’t tell the difference between mono and stereo – you switch A/B and they’ll say, “Oh yeah, I think I can hear it.” It’s like not being able to tell the difference between colour and black and white.
Some people bring in stuff that’s an absolute bastard – “I recorded at home on my laptop and used the same microphone on everything, please make it sound like Coldplay” (laughs) – so you’ve got to try and please them that way and make it ready for the shelf. I only cut records one way and that’s to make it as good as it can possibly be, because it’s got to sit on the shelf in the record shop and punch its weight up with the big boys. If you’re a local metal band, I’ll make your record sound as hot as Metallica if you want.
Tell us about the bands you play/have played in…
Easy Tiger isn’t really functional at the moment, but it was kind of a ‘classic rock’ band writing original material, all coming from the members loving classic rock. If you were to take The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Neil Young and a few other things, throw them in a blender, then Easy Tiger is what would come out.
My main band is The Relationships, known as “the godfathers of Oxford pop”, which revolves around the songwriting talents of Richard Ramage. I’ve been with them for sixteen or seventeen years now. West Coast, jangly, tweedy psychedelia is our angle – we’re kind of the ‘old guys’ on the block still doing it, but then people don’t pay as much attention to people’s ages in music as they used. I think the average age of the band is 51 (laughs). We’ve virtually finished mixing our fourth album at Evolution Studios with Nick Moorbath, which has been great fun and with great results. I think we’ve got one more session of nips and tucks then we’re done, then we’ll go out and gig it and sell it.
The band’s good fun, and they’re all in top jobs as well: top librarians at colleges, lexicographers at Oxford University Press, and our bass player is a space scientist who spends a lot of time manipulating satellites and stuff. It’s a fun band to be in when you ask, “What did you do at work today?” I asked our guitarist Angus that and he said, “We put the word ‘bling’ into the Oxford English Dictionary.” He’s one of the guys who chooses the words according to the laid-down criteria, and the definitions as well. (Tim shows me a signed copy of one of the single-volume tomes, which is still quite sizeable) The whole Oxford English Dictionary would be a book like that for each letter of the alphabet.
Finally, do you think there’s any particular reason as to why so much talent has come out of Oxford over the years? Relative to the size of the place, it’s been most fertile.
I think it has been for a thousand years: look at the scientific discoveries in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance period, and the fact that they built the university here in the first place.
Is there something in the water?
Something in the water, something in the air! Something about the location, too: if you look on a map, Oxford is pretty much the middle of England, a minimum of a hundred miles to the coast in any direction. There’s been a gravitational well of talent here – Oscar Wilde, people that have passed through like Lewis Carroll – a huge amount of creativity, learning and discovery. We all learned Boyle’s law at school, and that was discovered up the road. Robert Hooke, as well.
Oxford has always had a tradition of academic brilliance and discovery, and that goes for the arts as well. I was born and raised in London, and when you’re in London you feel like you’re at the center of it all. Turns out, if you poke your head out of London long enough, you’re not really at the center of it all: London is where the companies all have their offices, but the talent is in places like Oxford. The last proper scene in London was punk thirty years ago, and the blues scene that was going on before that when you had The Rolling Stones, The Who, the Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Alexis Korner and Eric Clapton.
These days, you come to places like Oxford and there are all of these amazingly talented people. The other thing is that you’ve got 52 colleges and 30 thousand students, and quite a few are musician. I think Stornoway were two students who met at Oxford. Oxford’s always had that thing about it: it’s a special place, with lots of talented musicians.
Tim Turan, thank you.