The DnB legend shows us how he masters a track and screens a premaster for potential problems
In a genre where technical proficiency, bass weight and musicality are top of the agenda, Break (real name Charlie Bierman) is widely regarded as one of the premier drum ’n’ bass producers. With over 15 years of releases spanning pretty much every decent label in the scene, his productions and mixdowns consistently raise the bar to heights unachievable by mere mortals.
readers will be no strangers to Break’s music-making and mixing talents, but this time he’s given us exclusive insight into another subject close to his heart: the art of mastering! So to kick off our triple DnB artist special, we step inside Charlie’s Bristol home studio for an in-depth chat and session to coincide with his new role as in-house mastering engineer for distributor Cygnus Music.
: How would you describe the mastering engineer’s role? CB: “It’s the final pass; the last chance to fix any problems or to add the final polish. For a long time, I hoped mastering would fix my mix mistakes – which it can – but the more you do it, the more you learn how to fix those at the mix stage. So it’s the final polish rather than a ‘get out of jail free card’.”
: As a producer, how do you separate the creative from the technical? CB: “Mastering’s about first impressions, which is why I don’t generally master my own stuff – it helps to have someone else’s ears to notice problems that you may have missed, because you’re attached to it and you’ve heard it so much. That’s the trick – hear it for the first couple of times and spot the problems. That’s the appeal to me: fixing things and making tracks better!”
: So you never master your own music? CB: “I have done, and I can do a decent master if I need to, but if it’s an album project that’s going to be around for years to come, I trust someone else to have a more objective viewpoint. You can master your own music, but given the choice, I’d say use someone else who can hear it more clearly.”
: What’s your experience with the game’s best mastering engineers? CB: “The first session I went to was with Stuart [Hawkes] at Metropolis, who’s been around for years and done all sorts of stuff. Then I met Beau Thomas at Ten Eight Seven, who was in London where I grew up, so I went to countless sessions with him. He offered me a mastering job about 12 years ago, but also dissuaded me from doing it so I could capitalise on my tunes and spend time doing that. But I’ve stayed friends with him for years, and he’s taught me loads of stuff, which has massively helped improve my productions.”
: How has this hands-on experience helped your production and mixing? CB: “It all ties in. Once you start mastering other people’s tracks, you see common problems and solutions to those problems. It’s still a great learning experience to take back to production and mixing.
“When you had to cut to vinyl, there were even more rules, and drawbacks of that format you had to be aware of, so that helped me get better mixes for digital in the future. I still cut vinyl, and mix for vinyl, but those principles still help for digital. Severe treble and crazy width makes the cutting head jump, and you get problems with the lathe, so a smoother mix will sound best on vinyl, and that’s been a big inspiration for my mixes and masters.”
“A smoother mix will sound best on vinyl, and that’s been a big inspiration for my mixes and masters”
: You’ve worked in high-end studios, but you now have a home setup… CB: “My last studio was so treated that it didn’t feel loud, and you’d realise you were listening at 100dB, and you’d keep cranking it to feel more! So I’m preferring working here at home now.”
: What about your monitoring? That’s obviously important when mastering. CB: “Neumann KH310s are my primary monitors, then my little Yamaha HS5s aren’t quite NS-10s, but similar; they’ve got that ‘no bass, harsh mids’ sound – a good cross-reference to A/B with. I’ve got a couple of pairs of Audeze cans, and they’re a good ‘safety check’ headphone reference. I like to flick between a few monitoring sources – you can’t hear things in enough different ways.”