At Atomic Disc we are fortunate to have a mastering suite on the premises and a fantastic mastering engineer in charge of it all. Tom Nunes has been in the music business for close to 50 years and has tons of experience from every side of the equation. He's a coveted bass player who fully understands the artist's point of view. As an audio engineer with vast experience in both live and studio settings he has developed a keen ear for detail as well as the whole-picture overview. Working exclusively as a mastering engineer for many years now has allowed him to dive into the fine tunings of the soundscape.
Erin Westfall talked with Tom about his start in the music business, the difference between mixing and mastering, what music he's currently into and his favorite taco stand.
None of us got into music with the thought of it being a job. We got into it because it was fun. So keep having fun!
Erin: Hi Tom, welcome! Thank you for meeting with me.
Tom: Thanks a lot, it's great to be here!
E: I wanted to talk to you about mastering and everything that led you up to this point in your career. Give me a little snapshot of how you first got into music.
T: Well, I've been into music since I was a little kid. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Los Angeles. At the time, they had a great music program for kids where they would bring people in to demonstrate instruments like the autoharp or the guitar. Hearing what each instrument sounded like first sparked my interest.
I started playing bass at age 10 or 11 and started gigging shortly after that. I was in music all my school years. Later, I attended Fullerton College, which is a great jazz school, and had the opportunity to play with a lot of different artists including jazz legends Oscar Peterson and Clare Fischer, and Tommy Tedesco from the Wrecking Crew.
I had a keyboard player friend that I played with often who did a session in a really nice commercial studio. He heard that they were looking for a second engineer, so he recommended me and told me to go down there. I didn't know a thing about engineering, but they put me to work right away cutting tape and editing radio programs. It was super cool and very fortuitous. We did all kinds of crazy stuff for companies like McDonalds, Burger King, Disneyland, Ice Capades - just about anything! That's what started my engineering in the early 80’s and I've been engineering since. I came up to Oregon in the mid 90’s and I hooked up with Jason at Wavelength Studio (which was the start of Atomic Disc.) I didn't know a soul here. So we started working together and the rest is history.
E: Man, what a cool way to get to where you are here.
T: Yea! It's really super cool. When Jason and I first began working together I did more of the tracking and mixing and Jason focused on the over all picture. About five years ago the necessity came up to do some serious mastering so that’s when I switched over to that full time.
E: Nice. So your start in audio production was literally just getting thrown into it, without any experience, and you just absorbed everything around you. Since you started, was there anyone in particular you learned a lot from as far as audio production goes?
T: Yea, I was able to work with a great recording engineer named Steve Kempster. He is still a huge engineer down in LA, doing mostly film work these days. He was super fast. At that time, you were expected to not say anything as a second engineer. You had to anticipate what needed to be done. But it was a real fast pace commercial setting, where we would have all the best players in LA come in and record.
I think it was probably in the early 90s that I started on my own, producing singer-songwriters down in LA, moved up here and just kept that rolling. I basically started doing my own stuff, tracking and mixing my own bands and mastering. And that still continues to this day.
Mixing vs. Mastering
E: Let's talk about what you do here in the studio. I think a lot of people don't understand the difference between mixing and mastering. What is mastering?
T: I'll start by saying what mixing is. Basically when a band comes into the studio, they'll track a song on several different instruments with vocals and they will all be on separate tracks. Now, the mix engineer will take those tracks and mix them down to two tracks.
Mastering is taking a final two track, left-right mix, and getting it ready for release in either CD, streaming, film or record format. Say you have ten songs for a record. I'll look at them individually, but also part of my job is to make sure they all work together as a unit, as an album. If everything is recorded in the same studio, not much time is spent on getting songs to match so much. But sometimes I'll get a compilation album from some small indie label and it'll be songs from across the board. Home two-track tape demo to full professional studio production. I have to find a way to make that blend together.
The Mastering Process
E: Talk to me about your process.
T: I'm the last person to touch the music before it gets released. I use a very neutral approach to listening. I ask myself, 'Does this mix work? What is lacking? What do I need to do? Are there too many high frequencies? Too many low frequencies? Does it need to be compressed?’ I basically take those raw two track mixes that the mix engineer does, and polish them up. And sometimes it just sounds great and I hardly have to do anything. I work in a room that's very neutral, yet revealing, it's super tuned acoustically. I listen at a certain volume so I can hear the highs, low and mids equally.
My number one thing is just to do no harm. It's almost like I'm a counselor in some ways, like a disinterested third party. What I'm looking for is the best version a song or an album can possibly be. Sometimes it takes a few stabs at it until we reach an agreement, me and the mix engineer for example or me and the artist, depending on the situation. Basically, a lot of what I'm doing is using a critical ear to tune details of the mix, I'll trim the beginnings and the endings of the songs and create smooth fades, make sure the levels are appropriate overall and cohesive from track to track, and to make sure it's ready for broadcast, streaming, or physical release. Every project has unique requirements.
Sound is kind of like trying to describe colors. What is blue, you know?
CD vs. Streaming vs. Vinyl
E: Speaking of those unique requirements, what are some of the main differences in the work you do depending on the format the music is going to be released to?
T: CDs have been the standard for years as far as what loudness levels I'm going for. Streaming is set at a slightly lower volume. Vinyl records can be lower still depending on many factors. For vinyl I may carve out the bottom and the top and not limit as much so the track can breathe a bit. Vinyl is kind of its own universe. A lot of it is just turning stuff down, turning mixes down, taming the bottom end and taming any sibilance. That's one real nice thing about having a human master your album as opposed to online algorithms.
E: Speaking of algorithms, what are the differences in mastering work done by a human versus an artificial intelligence or online program?
T: What I do is I'm reacting to variables in a song as opposed to just like 'this song is going to be going through the hard rock filter in the mastering program.' It's just gonna spit it out based on an algorithm. I can hear things that are going to slip through AI software or a preset algorithm. When you've got an experienced human listening to it, you can get into it a lot deeper, and it's going to be better sounding. A trained human ear can interpret nuances and dynamics better than computers. Sorry, AI, but you still have a way to go.
E: I know a lot of music is being made in a way that is more electronic based, but is taking that human element out of the mastering going to affect the sound? And maybe for some bands, when they talk about the money factor, that's something that they're willing to sacrifice. But how much of that is going to affect their sound and how well it's going to turn out?
T: Yea, and that's a sacrifice that a lot of people are willing to make. But it's the wrong type of sacrifice, 'cause what happens is artists get to the mastering phase and they're just tired. They want to be done with the album and get it over with. A lot of times, they're also out of money. They just want to get it done so bad they'll just go to some program based system like Landr or whatever as opposed to going the extra mile and having a human be an advocate for their music.
E: You don't want to put a sundae out without the cherry on top, right? It's iconic.
How to Communicate with your Mastering Engineer
E: What advice would you give to bands who are about to go through the mastering phase of production. What should they talk to their mastering engineer about?
T: First off, make sure to leave headroom in your tracks so the mastering engineer has room to work. Definitely let the mastering engineer know what kind of sound you're looking for. It's perfectly acceptable to include a sample of a band that you like, if you like their sound. That's the kind of thing where it's like a picture is worth a thousand words. If I can hear a track that they're aiming for it makes it a lot easier for me. ‘Cause sound is kind of like trying to describe colors. What is blue, you know?
E: So much easier to show you a reference track than to try to describe the sound that they're going for. That's really good advice. What is the difference between audio mastering and the lacquer process?
T: A lacquer is created when a cutting engineer actually will cut a master for vinyl records using a lathe. Lacquers are a whole other ball game. There are very few people that do it.
E: When you're mastering, what kind of changes do you make to tracks based on the type of music that you're listening to or working with. Is there a significant difference in how you go about that?
T: Yea, a lot of it is volume based. For example, in hip hop there's going to be a lot of bass content, a lot of low end and those tracks are going to be generally quite hot, quite loud. Something like an acoustic project is going to have a more open feel using gentle compression and limiting.
Some people have a hard time understanding the difference between mastering and mixing. Sometimes I get questions like 'Can you turn the vocal down, or turn the vocal up? Can you mute the bass on this section?' Well they don't understand that that is all down to mixing.
E: Oh right, you can't control that! Because you're working with the two tracks. It's a little too far gone at that point. So when you're in that situation, do you work with the mixing engineer or with the band?
T: I'll do both, depending on the situation. Once in a while I'll suggest to the artist or the mixer, 'hey, can you send me a mix with the vocals up 2 dB?' or 'can you turn the bass down a couple dB?'
E: Hopefully you'll get what you want and what they need and go from there.
T: That's one of my favorite things too is when I give suggestions to an artist or a mixer and the light goes on in their head and they say 'oh now I see what he's talking about!' And sometimes it's a subtle little thing. Probably one of the biggest things I tell people is to turn the vocals down. Most people mix vocals too loud.
E: Why do you think that is?
T: I don't know. ‘Cause vocalists are divas. Haha.
How to Get Started in Music Production
E: What advice would you give to people interested in audio production, either mixing or mastering?
T: Well, years ago I would have said to start interning at a local studio. However, nowadays there aren't that many local studios. It's mostly guys in their bedroom, which is fine you know. Basically, what I would suggest nowadays is to get Logic or Protools and start learning how to do it yourself. I'm not really big on the schools myself.
E: Music schools?
T: Yea, I mean, when I came up, I came up under a mentorship, where I had an established engineer that I worked with. But, nowadays, it's mostly just trial and error, figuring it out. What happens if I turn this knob up? What happens if I record too loud? Do I like that sound? Do I not like it?
E: So a little bit more self-discovery and less reading through some books in class.
T: Yea, and a lot of patience. It takes a long time to learn how to mix and master. It's really hard. And any mixing or mastering engineer is going to tell you that they're not anywhere near done learning.
Future of the Music Industry
E: Right! Isn't everyone in their music career like that? There is no end point. How has the music industry changed over the years and how has that affected what you do?
T: The music industry has changed from big record labels putting out records to smaller studios with much smaller budgets and individuals and bands for example just making their own. Which I think is kinda cool, it's a DIY operation now. And people don't have the big money that labels have. But, at the same time, they've got pretty cool tools to work with and unlimited time. But it's really tough, especially if you're talking about making any money at all. Nowadays it's really tough.
E: Do you have any predictions for the future of the music industry?
T: Boy, that's a really good question. I think the music industry is going to keep getting more DIY. I think music itself is going to keep getting more hybridized. Nowadays, we can listen to music from Brazil or Africa at the touch of a button on our computer. So I think a lot more people are having these influences implemented into their songwriting. That is one good thing. I think it’s' going to continue to be do-it-yourself, mom-and-pop small operations.
E: Definitely different from 60 years ago or earlier. What music or musicians have you been inspired by lately?
T: I pretty much only listen to Brazilian music.
E: I love it!
T: I love this Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento. Great stuff. I'm inspired by him and people like David Byrne, who is one of those people who takes a lot of cues from other cultures and other musical genres and melds those into his own thing. I'm listening to Emmet Cohen, a jazz piano player. Kinda getting back into jazz again.
E: What is your favorite and least favorite part about what you do?
T: My favorite part of what I do is when my customers give me good feedback and just absolutely love what I'm doing. My least favorite is when people try to achieve something through mastering that can't be done. Or want me to deliver something that's impossible to deliver.
E: Unrealistic expectations. That's tricky. I'm sure you're not the only person in the process who gets that along the way.
E: Is there anything else people should know about mastering?
T: One thing about mastering is that your songs are going to sound a little different. When you get your mastered tracks back, take them out in the car. Listen there and on various systems. Make sure of what your thoughts are. Write them down. Let me know what you're hearing.
E: Great advice. Any final words?
T: Don't forget to have fun. None of us got into music with the thought of it being a job. We got into it because it was fun. So keep having fun!
E: And last but not least, what is your favorite taco stand?
T: Maria Bonita in Ventura. :)