20 years of experience mastering for major and indie artists. I have learned on tape, vinyl and analog; but I utilize the best digital tools available (including some custom secret weapons). Very few mastering engineers on the planet can do what I can do to make music louder than the competition but also maintain dynamics and depth; try me and see.
I started at the famed Hit Factory, NYC and since then I have worked at several big NYC studios and now at my own studio in the Catskills. My process is constantly evolving to take into account the constant changes in music genres. I have never been pigeon-holed into genres and I am as comfortable in Hip Hop as I am in Dance, Rock, and Country.
My focus has always been mastering, and no one is better at bringing together the best of the analog and digital worlds. No one is better at bringing an analog sound to your digital work. No one is better at making your music more than competitive; I make it sound superior.
I spend a significant amount of time with artists, getting to know what they are looking for on their project, before I start working on the project. Rather than having a sound that I force onto every project, I can morph the projects sound based on its needs and the artists' desires. I consider my work to be about bringing out the best from all the creative work you have already done.
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Interview with Ricardo Gutierrez
Q: Describe the most common type of work you do for your clients.
A: Stereo mastering and stem mastering. Stereo mastering is typical, but if an artist or producer is needs a little more then stem mastering helps to bridge the divide between mixing and mastering. These days I do a lot of both.
Q: What other musicians or music production professionals inspire you?
A: My mentor Herb Powers Jr. He's always had an incredible ear and taught me to push the envelope and break rules, while making music sound big and exciting. My partner Ariel Borujow has had a similar path with his mix career as I have had with mastering. We are both constantly reevaluating our work and our process, even after both doing this for over 20 years! Just Blaze always has a clear vision for what his music will sound like, especially his drums. CID keeps his ear out to new sounds and also has a clear vision for how he wants his music to sound in the club.
Q: Tell us about your studio setup.
A: A lot of analog and digital tools, sometimes used in ways they aren't supposed to. Nothing is off limits and the tools are a means to an end. My studio is like a lab for experimentation. It is through my studio that I understand the world of music.
Q: What's your typical work process?
A: I go over the notes sent from the artist, and listen to the ref tracks they have suggested. This helps me get into the head space of where they want to go. Then I listen to their mix several times (to get of feel for where we are) before I even touch the song. I typically keep an untouched original mix in my session that I check back on every once in a while. It is helpful to hear what the artist originally had because if I stray too far from the mix then there is either a problem with my process or the mix and I have to find the root of the problem before proceeding. When I'm done I take a break, before making any final decisions. I listen with fresh ears to my work. Mastering, to a large degree is being fresh (professional) ears on a project when an artist ( or mix engineer) has been hearing the same music for weeks, or months. Perspective is imperative. After sending my song to the artist, I suggest they listen in their favorite environments, where they listen to all their other music. If there are any changes, then we can take it form there. But usually the first or second version of the master is all we need.
Q: What do you bring to a song?
A: A desire to make the artist realize their vision, 20 years of experience, a lifetime of love for music, a well-trained ear, an encyclopedic knowledge of every single setting on all my tools — what they do, how they can be pushed to the limit, how they can be used in unexpected ways.
Q: What's your strongest skill?
A: My ability to communicate with an artist, and set ego aside for what is best for the project.
Q: What type of music do you usually work on?
A: That's a tough question to answer, I'd say that I mostly work in either Hip Hop or Electronic Music, but every day can bring in an entirely different project and genre. I feel really lucky to not be stuck in one lane. It keeps the work exciting to me.
Q: Can you share one music production tip?
A: It’s counter-intuitive, but sometimes bringing the faders down can help you get a bigger sound.
Q: Which artist would you like to work with and why?
A: I can’t think of one, maybe Stevie Wonder because, it’s Stevie Wonder, do I really need a better reason? I’ve been lucky to have worked with a lot of different artists throughout my career and I like to work with any artists who take their work seriously and constantly evolve. It is exciting to be a part of that evolution, whether it is a Grammy award-winning legend or someone who is just starting out.
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: My style is like water, it changes based on the shape of the vessel that holds it. Ha! I’m kidding, but I’m not. It is possible that I have a “sound”, but I’m not looking to have one sound. I want to be able to work on anything. My goal is to bring out the nuance in a song and make it sound its best. My style is to listen to everyone involved in the song and make them all happy while making the song competitive. I love it when a mix engineer is happy and excited with my master because most mastering engineers are just looking to put their own stamp on a song. They feel they always know best and sometimes they are heavy-handed in their approach to their work. But I was always taught to do no harm. If the song and the mix is great, then stay out of its way and let it be great. Sometimes subtle changes on my end can make a massive difference and really make a song shine.
Q: What was your career path? How long have you been doing this?
A: I started in 2001 at the Hit Factory, NYC. I went from getting people coffee and wrapping cables, to cutting vinyl and aligning tape machines. I got really good at learning everything I could, to make myself indispensable. There wasn't an official position open for me in the mastering studios when I first started there, but I kept learning editing, mastering techniques, and everything else I could just waiting for an opportunity. My shot came during a Mary J Blige album ("Love & Life") that my mentor Herb Powers Jr. was mastering. I got the call because he needed an assistant that day, and I was ready. I got to learn a lot while working at the Hit Factory, from projects for Justin Timberlake to Alicia Keys, but once I got my chance to get in the engineers chair I never stopped learning and growing. I started mastering fully on my own projects around the same time. Since then, it has been an ongoing process of evaluating my skills and making them better. With every new song I work on I am rethinking my mastering chain, experimenting, making it better. The competition can be fierce, but I am moving target.
Q: If you were on a desert island and could take just 5 pieces of gear, what would they be?
A: My ears, Legacy Audio monitors, Grace Design D/A, Prism Maselec Compressor, my custom plugins.
Q: What advice do you have for a customer looking to hire a provider like you?
A: I like it when an artist has a clear vision of what they want and can communicate that. It doesn't have to be in mastering speak, it can be from the heart; but the more info I have at the beginning, the better able I am to give you what you are looking for. I love notes over email or in text form because it helps that I can quickly review what the artist wants when I'm working on a project. Mastering happens pretty fast so it would be impossible to keep all the notes in my head at once. Also, if they have commercially released reference files that I can pull up form a streaming service that helps me get an idea of were they are headed; especially when I can combine that with their notes. When the artist has a clear vision for what they want, and their mix supports that vision, I can usually nail the master they want on the first try.
Q: What questions do you ask prospective clients?
A: Much like the above question, I ask what is your goal? What are you really looking for sonically? How do you envision your song sounding? Where will it be played most?
Q: What's the biggest misconception about what you do?
A: The biggest misconception about mastering is that it’s all just limiting. If it were just easy to do with a limiter, then there wouldn’t be a need for a mastering engineer. Every artist and producer owns a limiter. I’m a computer scientist and mastering engineer, and I know that no algorithm or preset can beat me, because I’m a moving target.
Q: What questions do customers most commonly ask you? What's your answer?
A: I can’t think of a single question. Every project is so different, with different needs and questions.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: I’ve been lucky to work with a wide variety of artists. Sometimes the most fun is working with indie artists because their reactions to the final outcome always warms my heart. To get their reaction after all the long, hard work, is always amazing. I once had a group I was working with come into the studio to listen to the masters. This was their first project and they didn’t know what to expect. When they sat there and listened, they were so happy and excited I remember getting happy and excited too. By the end of listening to their EP, they were happy and they were crying. I was genuinely moved that my work took their work to a place they couldn’t even imagine. Our work in music may not save lives, but it can bring happiness.
Q: What's your 'promise' to your clients?
A: I promise my clients that I will use all my experience and skills to help them achieve their vision. I promise that I will give them the attention and care that I would for any artist.
Q: Analog or digital and why?
A: Analog training, digital tools. I can achieve and analog sound and be even more precise and scientific with the digital tools in existence today. I'll reach back for analog when needed, but I've gotten really good and manipulating digital like I did with analog. I’m very precise with my approach and digital allows me to be perfect every time. Plus as someone who had to take a lot of notes for analog recalls in my career, I love that saving my settings now is as easy as hitting save.
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
A: So much music. With mastering I am working on new things daily, so it's hard to keep up. Sometimes I hear things on radio or playlists and they sound familiar, then I look back and remember that I mastered it.
Q: Tell us about a project you worked on you are especially proud of and why. What was your role?
A: There are too many to name, really they are all special projects to me. Can I settle for 4? Justin Timberlake "FutureSex/LoveSounds"; assistant mastering engineer. It was my first platinum plaque and it took us a long time to get the spaces between the songs perfect along with the CD IDs. That album was, and still is incredible. I learned so much working on it. Saigon & Just Blaze "The Greatest Story Never Told"; mastering engineer. I've since worked with Just on his tracks for Drake, Rick Ross, Kendrick Lamar, and even his collaboration with Baauer "Higher". But that Saigon album was the first time I worked with him when we worked at the same studio. If was two or three weeks of non-stop work, sleeping in my mastering studio for a few hours at a time (whenever I could find the time to sleep). These aren't usual hours for a mastering engineer, but I'm not a typical mastering engineer. I gained some family with everyone who worked on that album, and I was so happy to go home and sleep in my own bed when it was over. Masta Ace & Marco Polo "A Breukelen Story"; mixing and mastering. By this album I had been working with Marco for over a decade and I was very comfortable getting a sound he wanted (shout out to Shylow the Beat Yoda). Like many people I work with repeatedly, Marco has become a friend. Also, it was my first chance to work with the great Masta Ace. I grew up in Brooklyn, listening to a lot of Hip Hop. His verses, including on "The Symphony" have always been seared into my head. It was a great chance to be a part of an album that gave love to a borough that gave me so much. CID "Night Service Only" & "Rock The House"; stem mastering. I've been working with CID since we worked together on Cedric Gervais' "Molly" and "Summertime Sadness (Lana Del Rey vs Cedrick Gervais)". "Summertime Sadness" was the first song I worked on that won a Grammy, I still hear that song everywhere. My work has since been nominated for a Grammy with CID's remix to "Audio" by Sia, Diplo, and Labrinth. I've had a chance to see CID really grow exponentially as an artist and DJ, but those two songs "Rock The House" and "Night Service Only" were the first releases on his label Night Service Only. I'm so proud of what he has achieved and humbled to have been a part of his growth.
Q: Is there anyone on SoundBetter you know and would recommend to your clients?
A: Ariel Borujow