Behind the Music with Christian Wright

Be it songs or soundtracks, as the Mastering Engineer at Abbey Road Christian is the man behind the final piece of the puzzle.

Posted: 21 April 2020

Read time: 10 -15 mins

With 20 years at one of the most prestigious studios in the world under his belt, Christian knows what it takes to make your mark in music. We got some time with him to discuss how he got started, what his role involves, and how his relationship with music has changed as a result.

How would you describe the role of mastering engineer?

It’s the final stage in the production process before your music is shared with the world. Previously we were called cutting engineers because the only format we would go to was vinyl. Somewhere along the way that evolved into different formats, and now we’re often prepping things for DSPs (Digital Streaming Platforms) vinyl and all sorts of other formats.

Mastering is the last chance to change the music sonically by working on the EQ or sonic processing but what you’re really looking to do is bring an album together and bring balance to a collection of songs.

Christian with The Big Moon. Photo: @abbeyroad

Did you need to have any qualifications or prior experience to get into a role as a mastering engineer?

I was very fortunate starting at Abbey Road when I was 19 and then after a few years I became a mastering engineer. My opportunity only came about because an amazing engineer called Chris Blair sadly passed away, so the circumstances were tough. He’d worked on some amazing albums that I’d grown up listening to and loved, and was always lots of fun and a big, big character at Abbey Road also.

I was very lucky to learn from the experience of the other engineers at Abbey Road. This is pre-Youtube so you didn’t have tips, tricks, tutorials or all this other information that exists out there now. It’s a wonderful time now if you’re looking to explore the many different career paths in the music industry, providing you can find reliable sources the information is online through interviews, tutorials and podcasts.

"what you’re really looking to do is bring an album together and bring balance to a collection of songs"

I didn’t go to university, and all my friends did so it was quite a strange time being the only person from our group starting work at 19. I was a runner at a post-production place in Soho before Abbey Road and cut my teeth around the workplace, but there’s a real opportunity to learn individually now either by utilising resources online as mentioned or if workplace opportunity arises absorbing what’s going on around you. So if you get an internship, it’s really important to ask questions, but sometimes if you’re lucky enough to observe a professional session then actually it’s also good in those moments to blend into the background and pay attention to what’s happening around you.

Sometimes it’s not just about your skills (although that is an integral part), but with the music industry it’s also a lot about communication and building relationships, That could be between artists and producers, or mastering engineers, managers, publishers, PR, whatever. You’re trying to understand the music and the person behind the music, and listening and collaborating are integral parts of that.

How did you get into Abbey Road in the first place?

I was fortunate really. As I say I’d started work as a runner at a place in Soho, whilst there I sent off 50 CVs and then I got a call from Abbey Road saying they had an opportunity.

Some advice I would offer and that I’ve learnt as I’ve gone on is to start creating and doing things yourself. Don’t be thinking ‘I want to be an engineer and the only way I can do that is by being in a pro studio’, instead start by recording your friends. You’ll hopefully then find the right moment where you can start to charge people for your time and work. You need to respect yourself and the value of the work your doing but you need to understand at the start you need to evolve your skills perhaps without monetising. 

What’s the most challenging thing about the role?

I think the most challenging thing is managing the expectations of the people that you’re working with. Sometimes they’re expecting to hear something extremely different from the session. We work with such a broad cross section of artists and level of production/mixing, and the things that come out on the Marshall Records label sound sonically realised before mastering because of people like Chris Sheldon and Romesh Dodongoda. I’m at a different starting point when I’m working on a mix from these engineers or producers.

Sometimes people are learning themselves. They have perhaps not developed their skills to be at that top level yet. The key thing is to manage people’s expectations. I know that I can do a lot to improve their track, but also I need to help them understand what’s possible. It helps to explain what you’re doing and what mastering can do so that you’re communicating and discussing those expectations of the people you’re working with. A lot of people don’t fully understand what mastering is; it’s often referred to as ‘the dark arts of mastering’ but I like to myth bust that and work through what we do. It’s important to explain what we can and what we can’t do.

"It's often referred to as 'the dark arts of mastering' but I like to myth bust that and work through what we do."

You can only work with the tools you’re given too, right? For example, you wouldn’t be able to totally change a track around so it sounds entirely different to the first recordings or the mix?

Exactly that. You’re working within the parameters of what’s possible, but then in that moment if someone is really convinced that something must be done a certain way then you may have to go back a stage and look at that in the mix process.

The other key thing is helping people to finish. We’re the final part in the production chain and I think in the professional world there’s deadlines and a lot of things that all sync up for the campaign of an album. Radio campaigns, PR, marketing, big budgets, so we need to hit a deadline. The key thing is working with an artist within those parameters to make sure they deliver. That’s the big difference between the amateur world and the professional music industry. When people are studying music production they may be working on a project for up to a year to record and mix a band. That’s a massive indulgence because in the professional world you’re balancing the creativity of the artist whilst working with them to meet their deadlines and goals, meet your hopes in the session, the labels needs, the team as a whole. You need to hit a deadline so in this role you’re always learning how to finish things.

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Mastering for Kate Tempest. Photo: @CW_abbeyroad

 

Would you say you’re a balancing point between the artist’s goals and the business’s goals?

I think that’s probably producers more than myself. Sometimes artists and producers must go down roads to work out what they do and don’t want. That happens much earlier in the process. If someone gets to mastering and they’re trying to fix things like that then it’s at the wrong stage to do it. More often than not, by the point you’re at the mastering stage everyone has already gone through that process and has an understanding of what’s possible at each stage. Having said that if they do need help then I’m always happy to work through that and communicate everything.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into mastering?

Start mastering now at home. There’s no time like the present. When you’re mastering at home don’t master on the main output of your mix session. Bounce out your track so that you begin mastering in a fresh and new project. You’re now just dealing with a stereo track, if you are choosing to master like that, or balance the stems out if you’re choosing to do stem mastering.

Also look online and to the information that’s out there. There’s some advice from Abbey Road available online, and we've also been doing a partnership wth MusicTech so there’s lots of information out there. I think it’s a wonderful time for people to absorb knowledge and learn, and when you feel you’re ready then start to apply your knowledge and take your skills to different places.

You find a lot of the time people tend to do many different roles so if you have evolved different skillsets you may give yourself more opportunity to get work.Many well known artists that are A listed across several radio stations work as producers when they’re off tour. It’s key to understand that it may take tackling different roles to get to where you want to be.

Talk us through some albums that you’ve worked on recently that stick in your mind.

I would say the last two Kate Tempest albums. I think they’re such wonderful pieces. Kate’s voice in every sense is so unique and lyrically she’s such an amazing storyteller. It’s a different type of music to what I spent my teenage years listening to but you really get an understanding that she’s such a real artist. Dan Carey who collaborated with her on the music helps to form an amazing team who always deliver something that’s sonically exciting. It’s great storytelling, great music, and two beautiful albums.

In terms of guitar music the Fontaines D.C. record from last year sticks out to me. It’s been really cool seeing an exciting new band make their mark and seeing all the love they’re getting.

Is there one piece of equipment that you couldn’t do your job without?

Probably a computer. The outboard EQ I’m using the most at the moment is the ‘massive passive’, which is a beautiful analogue EQ.

Recording to tape/analogue can be brilliant. It’s wonderful to commit to an idea or a sound like Goat Girl have or even Fontaines D.C. who went to tape, but I think if you can blend that into your process along with the powerful software that technology offers it makes sense. You have the best of the old and the best of the new and that’s exactly the same with your equipment. Abbey Road certainly has the best of the old and the best of the new available to use. We have this amazing vintage equipment and then we also have plugins or whatever we need or choose to do the best job that we can.

Talking tech. Photo: @CW_abbeyroad

 

What’s the best thing about working as a mastering engineer?

I’ve learnt over my life that sometimes there is no ‘best’. The best album I’ve ever worked on or my favourite band can change. There are artists that you connect with more in your lifetime but I think life would get boring if you’re trying to find the best all the time.

I nearly missed my 20 year anniversary at Abbey Road and it is hard after that length of time, because you’re always trying to keep the momentum and enthusiasm going. Then sometimes years after some music is out there that you played a small part in you’ll listen back in your room, and you’ll have a moment of “this is a really f**king cool bit of music”. It’s important to remind yourself you’re being paid to work on music and do something you love.

That’s also probably the worst thing. I’m always listening to music. I’m jealous of my friend who helped to build my studio who listens to whatever he wants all day everyday.

It’s very dangerous to think that your relationship with music isn’t going to change if you work with music professionally. There’s something just as wonderful spending a Sunday afternoon playing a Marshall Bluesbreaker just because you want to. It’s hard because everyone has that dream of really wanting to work in music or a creative industry and I get that, but you can’t expect your relationship to not change with that career choice.