Sitting in his studio in Wales, one man has been mastering some of the biggest international and Bollywood hits which includes chartbusters like ‘Swag Se Swagat’, ‘Laila O Laila’ (new), ‘Sairat Zaala Ji’, the ‘Ghungroo Song’ and ‘Senorita’.
Donal ‘The Ears’ Whelan is the man who while seated at Hafod Mastering works closely with clients from Wales, the U.K. and all over the world through his online mastering service Mastering World. A brainchild of Donal, it combines three separate mastering studios, and six audio mastering engineers. Built with an aim to provide artists access to incredible mastering suites and engineers online and have all their mastered online without having to attend sessions.
I caught up with the ace mastering engineer to know about his journey from Chop Em Out, London, The Townhouse Postproduction, London, Fairlight ESP, Australia to Hafod Mastering and Mastering World for our segment Behind the Recordings.
Donal started his first job in London in 1990. Owing to a musical lineage, the young man was naturally drawn towards it, but electronics and mathematics drew his attention too. Art and academia don’t often create a nice mix, but Donal has been able to achieve it by combining his natural love for music and technology.
“Whenever I did find myself in a studio, I loved it, so it always felt like the obvious direction to go in, rather than a conscious career decision. Now that I am older, I appreciate on a much deeper level how the creative brain and the technical brain work separately yet together. It has echoes of Yin and Yang, where humans are only truly fulfilled when both sides of our personality are fused, so to work in a field that demands both is a privilege and, one might argue, good for the soul,” recalled Donal.
Coping with the expectations
Being philosophical might be one his natural traits but how far can it help in the technical world that Donal surrounds himself with. The music and entertainment industry is propelled with the sole aim of creating larger than life and dream come true projects. It’s a magical world and the mastering engineers are expected to pull the rabbit out of the hat every time. With globalisation opening multiple avenues, even the previously neglected music markets are now turning into global players. The product is expected to be of top-notch quality and Donal is expected to fulfil his client’s expectation all the time. How does even an ace engineer deal with such tricky situations?
Explaining how he overcomes these predicaments, Donal said,
“The hardest part of being a mastering engineer is managing client expectations. Sometimes I can work what feels like a miracle, but if a mix is a long way from where a client wants their master to be then there is usually a big gap between expectation and reality. The solution to managing expectations is communication. I encourage my clients to send me session notes, requests and references (and their rough master!) and I will ask questions straight away if anything doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t eliminate the issue, but it provides a solid basis for resolving it.”
Working round the clock
Anyone who has been associated or worked with a sound recording studio who would know about the unthankful working hours that the job involves. The graveyard shifts often stretch to the next night and the body clock goes for a toss causing mental stress. With studios and the engineers now connected to the machines and their clients 24×7, the workload can often lead to loss of composure no matter how experienced one is. So, what does one do when they lose composure while mastering a song?
“I can usually keep my composure till around Version 4 or 5 of changes, after that I have to start taking deep breaths when I get further requests. Clients messaging repeatedly outside of studio hours also sometimes triggers me. Young musicians and engineers are used to being always connected but for us old analogue heads it is difficult to adjust to. But it is the reality today, so I have taken responsibility for managing that by turning off notifications outside work hours and only responding when I am free,” is Donal’s way out.
Bollywood’s go to Mastering Engineer
Bollywood is one of the rare music industries that is directly dependent on its filmmaking counterpart. This means that the majority of the content created revolves around what each movie is themed upon. While in the western music industries this structure is extremely limited. The contrast in functioning is vast.
“The biggest difference to me is the treatment of the vocals. In a film song the narrative is everything, so the lyrics are really important. Therefore the vocal has to sit in front of the song and be clearly audible at all times. In Western music (not all genres obviously) the voice is more often blended into the mix along with the other instruments,” stressed Donal.
Over the past decades, Bollywood has woken up to the need for international standards of production and postproduction. With the easy influx of funds, the film makers and studios have gone out of the way to ensure their content matches the global quality. In his 12-year journey, so far, Donal has been a witness to the changes in India and is extremely optimistic about the overall Indian music scene.
Giving his insights, the ace mastering engineer dwelled,
“India has a lot of well-equipped music studios from the single engineer rooms to the big studio complexes. The steady flow of money from the film industry also sets up a meritocracy where the most talented musicians and sound engineers often do rise to the top and get paid well. Granted, most of this creative activity is reserved for film music, which is commercial by definition and it pays the bills. But it also means when artists want to make their own projects, the facilities, the technicians and the musicians are all there so your non-film music also carries that professional sheen. I find the vibrancy of the music scene in India very refreshing.”
The Analogue Head
A self-confessed ‘analogue head’ Donal Whelan would love to go back to his old tools. But with technology making rapid strides this does not seem to be possible. With Artificial Intelligence making inroads into the studios, would an amalgamation of human intelligence and technology be possible? Or will technology rule the roost?
“Algorithmic mastering has very much arrived on the scene – Landr and its equivalents are churning out the automatic masters. But referring to my earlier comment on creativity and technical abilities, the only creativity in the algorithm is programmed human creativity – a massive list of conditions saying things like, if the analysis shows A is happening then make this corresponding change B. There are limitations to that analysis and only a finite number of conditions and responses can be programmed,” stressed Donal.
“However, these systems are going to get better so in time they will inevitably take a significant share of the market. I believe established mastering engineers will be fine, but I do worry about the young guys. I can foresee it becoming harder and harder to start out and forge a career as a mastering engineer when your competition is not only your peers but steadily improving algorithms. But, ultimately, sitting in a room with a human mastering engineer who is reacting emotionally to your music and talking to you about the changes is a superior creative process so I think we will survive.”