Hear No Evil: Nick Moon

When it comes to making albums, there’s just no substitute for analog mastering, despite all the nifty things a computer with Pro Tools can do. That’s great news for mastering engineer Nick Moon, who earns his keep by applying his many talents—and an arsenal of gear—to please even the most exacting ears.

 

After the tracks are cut and the mixes complete, it’s up to mastering whiz Nick Moon to bring a record along that crucial, final stretch home. Every day from his Tone Proper mastering studio in Portland, Ore., Moon and his team apply the final polish and sheen to a dizzying array of recordings, making sure everything from digital CD text to the analog “warmth” of the music are spot-on. In this age of digital tracking and mixing, Moon’s analog approach to “sweetening” recordings is more critical than ever.

Originally a drummer, Moon later shifted into the studio world, completing the Recording Arts program at Full Sail University, then cutting his teeth at Studio Chicago, his first job. Later he ventured to Texas, spending several years working at Reeltime Audio and recording jazz at UNT, before making his way to Oregon in 2006. In 2010 Moon opened his current purpose-built studio, Tone Proper, outside Portland.

Now with more than a decade of credits under his belt, a prime facility equipped with some serious gear and one of the best sets of ears in the business, Moon is putting his sonic stamp on the music business, one record at a time. Considering the state of some mixes when they first arrive in his inbox, his work is nothing short of auditory magic.

Get In Media: You started as a drummer. How did you make the leap to engineer?

Nick Moon: My high school offered some recording classes, I really liked it, and when my band was in the studio recording, I was more interested in doing the recording than playing drums. From there I went to Full Sail University and got started.

GIM: What was your first job at Studio Chicago like?

NM: It was a great education. The guys were really great, the studio’s still there …it’s a nice place. They really know how to deal with interns. They know how to weed out the guys who don’t cut it.

“In my opinion, analog mastering is way more important than it’s ever been, because there’s a lot more people who don’t know what they’re doing on the mixing side.”
GIM: How do they weed them out?

NM: My first week I had a session and basically within the first hour my boss left and didn’t come back until 5 p.m., and I ended up doing the entire session. That was his way to see if you knew anything. If you came out running, saying, “Hey, I don’t know how to get this to work,” then you were fired. I found that out later. If you stayed in there and worked, you were good.

Basically I ended up doing the whole session and they were like, “Hey, how did it go?” and the artist was like, “Hey, it went great. We got everything done,” and that was it. That was the trial by fire, and from then, that’s how it went. A lot of people get hand-held their whole life and it’s kind of hard to get in that hot seat and get handed the pressure of doing it. That’s a good way to learn.

GIM: How’s your career progressed since then?

NM: I moved from there to Texas, did some work with a bunch of rock bands, and staff engineered for a while. When I moved [to Portland] I started my studio. I got hooked in with Gino Vannelli, who’s a really big multiplatinum-selling artist. I’ve done all of his records for the last five years, and I’ve toured with him all over the world as his production manager. I don’t do that anymore, because I have a family, but I got a lot of connections through touring, so the studio does records for people from South Africa, Indonesia, and all over the world.

I only get maybe 20 percent of my work from Oregon…hardly anyone from Portland. I guess I’m not hip enough, but I’m also the most expensive compared to other studios in town. We’re pretty high end: We do vinyl; we cater to that artist who wants everything analog, and wants someone who gets it.Tone Proper mastering studioTone Proper mastering studio

GIM: What do you do on the job every day?

NM: Basically when a session is booked, I get here in the morning and check in on emails and phone calls. We house all of our servers in-house in the back, so each client gets their own username and login, and that takes them to the server. That’s where they put their mixes. We connect into that, I load all the mixes from the server and get to work. Pretty much mastering, proofs and previews are sent over the server to the client. We don’t have a huge crew of people. It’s a couple engineers and me, mostly. I pretty much handle just about everything.

GIM: Can you explain the mastering process and its importance?

NM: Basically mastering is trying to get everything on the mix sounding as best as it can, because basically when they hand it over to me, they’ve pretty much put their hands in the air and said, “This is the best we can get it considering time and budget, so we’re now relying on you to extract everything possible out of it.” In my opinion, analog mastering is way more important than it’s ever been, because there’s a lot more people who don’t know what they’re doing on the mixing side. For a grand, you can have a nice computer with Logic or Pro Tools and plug in and be mixing. It’s a lot more accessible, and any time it’s more accessible, you get a lot more people who have issues with their mixes.

That’s why you see a lot more mastering studios. There used to be only like a dozen mastering studios in the country. Now, in Portland there’s probably a dozen.  A lot of people are mixing in the box—meaning inside Pro Tools, not using a console—so they’re relying on analog mastering like at my studio to get their mixes out of the digital world a little bit, and at least touch some analog gear for sweetening.

I don’t really see that plug-ins will ever replace that. We hear records where people have gone to somebody with a lot of great digital gear, and they’re like, “Man, I’m not happy.” Within five minutes of running it through the console here to our mastering desk—without doing anything; just running it through the desk—they’re like, “Oh, that’s what we want. That sounds better.”

GIM: Why do you think that is?

NM: There’s a lot of thought that goes into it. It’s really thoughtfully designed. There’s a lot of energy that goes into the circuits, and the quality of all the components in there. My studio has certain colors that a lot of studios don’t have, and combinations of colors. In my studio we have our own transformers, all the electricity is voltage-regulated, pure silver cables and all analog processing.

“You’ve got to be really careful. You could do 100 really good records and one really bad one, and that one really bad one will cause more damage than the 100 good ones.”

Another factor is the mastering engineer. How I hear is different than how other people hear. One of the engineers can come in using the same exact equipment, and his will sound a little different than mine. My tricks are different than his. That’s why mix engineers—and I have a lot from all over the globe—want me to master their mixes: because they like how I hear their mixes and how I deliver it to them.

That relationship is super critical, and all the young cats have completely forgotten it. There’s too many guys going, “I’ll just master it myself,” which is absurd. Or, the mix engineer looks at the mastering engineer as competition, or doesn’t want to hear anything he says, which is like going to a golf instructor at the driving range, and not listening to someone giving you pointers. A mastering engineer is listening to the two-track, not the whole multi-track. He’s listening from a much wider picture. He’s looking at the forest, not the trees.

GIM: How much of it is subjective to individual hearing? Is it a talent you’re born with?

NM: No, totally not. I am a firm believer that it’s not that my ears are any better, it’s in my brain: If you spend 10 hours a day doing anything, it’s not that your ears are any better; it’s that you learn how to hear. A lot of people are visual. I’m not visual at all. But I can walk into a room and say, “That air conditioner is really annoying,” and everyone’s like, “What?” Only I can hear the rattling air conditioner.

If you do anything long enough, you develop that skill. When I came out of Full Sail, I was really nervous that I couldn’t hear compression all that much. I thought maybe I’m just not very good. But after a few years, I can hear compression. I hate compression. It’s everywhere. It’s not that it doesn’t exist; you have to train yourself. It’s like a doctor pushing on your side and being able to tell if you’ve got pancreatitis.

GIM: What other past projects have been important for your resume?

NM: Josh Garrels has had a lot of success. His last record Love & War & The Sea In Between…I got a ton of traffic from that record. It’s a beautiful record, really well produced, well recorded, great songs, and we did a great job mastering it, to try not to ruin it.

RELATED: When Bradford Cox, leadsinger of Deerhunter, crashed on the studio couch during a session, mastering engineer Joe Lambert took it as a good sign.

GIM: What are you working on currently?

NM: We do a lot of records a month. The big thing for us is the addition of doing vinyl cutting. There’s only maybe a dozen working lathes in the country and we’ve got one of them, a fully restored Scully lathe. It’s like a 2,000 -pound piece of metal made in the ’60s or ’70s. It’s full analog, like here. Cutting vinyl sounds a lot better than the alternatives, so we’re really excited about that. There’s been a real resurgence and demand for vinyl, so we’re really excited about keeping the analog world alive.

GIM: What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned along the way?

NM: I’ve been doing it for 10 years and I’m just now making a buck, so it takes a long time to get really good. You’ve got to do a lot of records, put a lot of time in.  I learn something new every day, or I try to.

You’ve got to be really careful. You could do 100 really good records and one really bad one, and that one really bad one will cause more damage than the 100 good ones. Too many people are trying to get their feet wet and are doing everything they can to put out anything, just to get experience. There’s no reason why you can’t create an alternate name for when you’re first starting out, so you don’t get yourself in trouble.

Reputation is everything, so I always tell people, “Don’t put anything out you don’t feel good about.” I try to do my very best on every single record, and if the mix is too far gone, and there’s nothing I can do and it’s going to sound like garbage, I’ll turn it down. I don’t want to have a record out with my name on it that sounds really bad.

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