Mark Bryan, the lead guitarist for Hootie and the Blowfish, adjunct professor at the College and moderator of the In the Mix events kicked off this semester’s final In the Mix with the following question: “So, why don’t you tell us a little about your story, how you came to be an audio mastering engineer?”
“Well, I was a third year electrical engineering student in Prague when the U.S.S.R. invaded Czechoslovakia, and I decided to escape.”
With this opening remark, it was obvious Vlado Meller was about make his installment of In the Mix a captivating one.
In the Mix is a free, music-focused series presented by the Arts Management program at the College. Its purpose is to engage students with professionals to discuss a wide variety of music industry topics. In the Mix has previously presented Darius Rucker, Chris Carney, the business manager and tour accountant for Hootie and the Blowfish and Abigail Darlington, entertainment reporter for Charleston Scene. Esteemed audio mastering engineer Vlado Meller was added to that list of names March 21.
The poster advertising his talk read, “What do Kanye West, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Josh Groban and Harry Connick, Jr. all have in common? They’ve had at least one album mastered by Vlado Meller!” In fact, Vlado Meller has mastered all of Kanye’s albums, a reality that eminently illustrates his importance to music. He even mastered the “The Life of Pablo,” of which he joked, “You probably haven’t heard it yet, unless you’ve subscribed to Jay Z’s website.”
Needless to say, the man who escaped from the U.S.S.R. mastered albums such as “Icky Thump,” “Tha Carter III” and “Channel Orange.”
He began with the story of his escape.
“It was 1968,” Meller said. “I knew I had to get out. So, I left my university in Prague and went home to my parents to tell them I was leaving. They just looked at me like I was crazy. I had heard that Russia was busy taking over radio, television and other means of broadcast so they were not paying much attention to the Austrian boarder. Therefore, I was able to flee to Vienna.”
But he couldn’t stay in Vienna.
“There were many people without documents in Vienna at that time, so they were deporting a lot of us, and in March 1969 they sent me to New York City.”
There Meller began his job search. “I was looking for anything in my field of electrical engineering. I was willing to take any low level job and work my way up,” Meller said. “One day, I ran into a friend I made in Vienna. I didn’t even know he had come to New York. He was a Polish guy, so I was able communicate with him pretty well. We began meeting for lunch or going to the movies.”
This same friend kickstarted Meller’s career.
“My friend got a job with CBS, and he told me they were looking to hire someone with experience in electrical work. He was very excited when he told me, but I didn’t know what CBS was,” Meller said. “He explained they were a huge broadcasting company with TV and radio stations across the country. At that point I became very excited. By December 1, 1969 I was a full time technician at CBS.”
Meller explained how he moved up the ladder from his post as a technician to an audio master.
“Honestly, I wanted to get into mixing,” he said. “Mastering did not interest me much, because it did not have much influence on the creation of the music. I had met a guy high up whom I asked to call me if there was ever an opportunity for me to advance. About four or five months into my time as technician, I got a call from him telling me there was a mastering spot open. It wasn’t my first choice, but he told me, ‘An opening like this doesn’t happen very often. You could have to wait up to 15 years to get what you want in mixing. I suggest you take the job.’ So I took it.”
Every year Meller opens his studios to a select few applicants who receive three days of intense, hands on training sessions from the master himself. “It was all about being in the right job, right place and right time,” Meller said. “Things like that don’t happen any longer. That’s why I’ve created my mastering workshops.”
Meller finally answered what everyone in the audience had been wondering: “What exactly is audio mastering?”
“Until about 1986, audio mastering was cutting vinyl. With vinyl, the sound always worsens as you move from the outside grooves to the inside grooves. They told me, ‘We want you to make the inside of the record sound just as good as the outside.’ I thought to myself, ‘That’s impossible.’ But I began developing tricks and techniques. After a while I became so good at it that A&R began requesting me to master their artists’ albums. Less than three years in the country I was asked to master Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ album.”
He continued, “I became the mastering wonder kid. They even built me a room in the CBS studios just for mastering. It was probably the first one in the country like it. After a while, A&R began asking me if I could do things like add a little to the low end or the high end of the vinyl. Nothing like that had ever been done before. It was at that moment that I realized the influence the mastering of an album could have on its sound.”
Mastering, being completely digital now, is a different ball game. Meller explained its current process.
“The process of making music goes in the order of tracking, which is making the songs, mixing, which is finishing the tracks and then mastering, which is finalizing sound,” Meller said. “We work on making an album sound continuous and right. We can take sounds from the left or right and put them in the center, we can emphasize different layers, we can do many things. When an album is finished mixing, its going to sound amazing coming out of the expensive speakers in the studio. My job is to make it sound just as good coming out of the speakers in my car.”
To further illustrate the importance of mastering, Mark Bryan interjected with his own anecdote: “For instance, sometimes I’m listening to my iPod on shuffle, and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ will be playing. All of a sudden, ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’ will come on and its like a boom of sound! What the audio mastering engineer does is make sure something like this does not happen within an album.”
Meller responded, “You’re exactly right,” adding, “I mastered ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”
Meller worked for CBS studios for 37 years. CBS was eventually sold to Sony, and then Sony was picked up by Universal in 2007 before it was shut down. Album mastering had evolved to the point where it was more profitable to contract out to individual studios than do it in-house, so Meller followed trend and created his own mastering studio here in Charleston.
“It opened in 2013, and is called Truphonic Recording Studios,” Meller said. “It now has facilities for tracking, mixing and mastering. It’s behind a liquor store in West Ashley, and the first time I visited it, I drove past it five times before I found it. But its great, and I even get to work with local artists, like Stop Light Observations, which I enjoy.”
Meller works with both domestic and international musicians.
“I actually mastered Bocelli’s latest album, ‘Cinema.’ I work with artists from all over the world, from countries like Israel, China, and even Russia, which is my worst enemy, but they are requesting me.”
When asked what about his work makes artists request him, he responded, “I just make albums sound a certain way. It’s all about the way you hear and experience the sound. Every sound engineer has their own sound signature, and these artists like mine.”
When the floor opened for questions, one student asked, “Do you ever hear something you’ve mastered and respond a certain way? Like hear it and love it, or hear it and wish you would had done something different?”
“I actually don’t own a stereo at home,” Meller said. “But I will play music every time I’m in the car, and when I hear something I’ve mastered, 99% of the time I love it.”
The final question of the night: “What’s it like working with Kanye? Is he arrogant?”
With a knowing smile and nod, Meller let us in on the secret.
“Two years ago, Kanye called me on New Year’s Eve to master a song he had done with Paul McCartney,” Meller said. “I’m pretty sure I was the ‘only one’ in Charleston working on that night, but I’ve built a relationship with (Kanye) and all of my artists, and I always deliver for them. But I love working with Kanye. He’s a very nice guy. Totally nice guy, totally intelligent, and he speaks totally perfect English. He even corrects my English when I get something wrong. No, he’s not arrogant at all.”
It turns out, if it were not for him, the world would not have been able to listen to “Only One” on New Year’s Eve, 2014. Thank you, Mr. Meller.