A Master of Sound: Ted Jensen Interview
Ted Jensen isn’t a household name, but much of the work his magic hands have graced has doubtlessly reached your lug ‘oles at some point or other over the last 40 years. The New Haven, Connecticut born Mastering Engineer has a portfolio of work that, once you delve into its depths, has you acting like a child in a sweet shop. From The Eagle’s Hotel California, to Behemoth’s ground breaking The Satanist via Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Coldplay, Pantera, Mastodon and so much more – he’s worked on the mastering of roughly two and a half thousand albums since 1977 - he’s essentially credited on more albums than you’ve had hot dinners. Moreover, it isn't a mere matter of quantity overshadowing any matter of quality. Just a short, even lackadaisical scan through his portfolio of work throws up a plethora of hugely influential and iconic artists and albums before your eyes.
Not to mention that he was hired as a consultant for the mastering of the original iTunes. He was therefore prominent in the development of a piece of technology that would in many ways spearhead a revolution that changed the way we as a general populous purchase and consume music. Sure, Napster had made the initial movement, but this was different. It also, much to Jensen’s discontent, made the first steps towards today’s online music streaming model – typified by the likes of Spotify and Pandora – that he believes negatively impacts upon the way a musician earns for their art. But we’re skipping ahead there.
As such, we here at Manchester Rocks felt it was about time we shed some much deserved limelight on this admittedly reserved figure, a man who has humility in spades, an ego the size of a gnat and the work rate of a marathon runner on a wheel barrow’s worth of top class steroids. So here we chart the birth of his love for music through to the nurturing of a cynosure that culminated in 13 Grammy nominations at the 2015 ceremony alone.
Born into and raised by a particularly musical family, both his mother and father music lovers and players themselves, his upbringing, he says, was “very important” in shaping the man he has become today.
“Being exposed to music through my parents playing and listening helped develop my ear and gave me a very broad musical taste. As a mastering engineer you have to accept anything that comes in musically, and be able to find the best parts of the mix sonically. Mastering engineers these days tend to be pigeon-holed into limited genres. But back in the days of cutting vinyl, I could be doing a classical album for Deutsche Grammophon in the morning and doing some hair metal band in the afternoon. It’s about figuring out how to make the record sound the very best that it can. It’s always about the sound whether it be the Rolling Stones, Pat Metheny, the Deftones or Alice in Chains, it’s always about the sound,” he reiterates.
Looking at more recent releases caressed with his mastering expertise, Mastodon’s stonking Once More ‘Round The Sun is one that stands out while swimming in a vastly populated pool of critically acclaimed releases. But how does mastering a more gritty, heavy album like that, which is smattered with psychedelia, compare, say a Coldplay or Bastille album?
“Everybody wants the same thing,” he states. “They want their record to be loud, clear and punchy. They want it to sound good on all different types of stereos. It’s about getting great sound, pure and simple. Always. And for me personally if it’s a well-produced, great sounding record, I want to master it. Like with Behemoth’s The Satanist for instance: They’re a great band and I wanted to make them sound as good as they can sound. It’s the same as it’s been all the way along.”
The Satanist – and it pains me to regurgitate such a cliché phrase as I’m about to, but in this case, considering Nergal’s ultimately triumphant but drama pocked battle with Leukaemia – is an astounding comeback album. The disease could so easily have been the death penalty for both the Polish artist and the band he has worked so tirelessly to establish as a pillar of the death metal scene. So not only did he win his fight for clean health, but he returned with a record of pure, unassailable fury and emotive power. Justifiably so, Jensen was keen to lend his ears to the final polishing of what he felt was going to be an important record, not only in the band’s history, but in the metal scene in general. Its import can be measured on the fact it even garnished airplay on national rock stations, a privilege usually reserved for much more ‘mainstream’ and ‘accessible’ bands; but this album was special.
It wasn’t however, the first comeback album he sprinkled his pixie dust across. In ’76 a young, 22 year old Ted Jensen was tasked with mastering The Eagles’ Hotel California. Looking back, was he aware of the ripples its release would cause across his homeland of America and beyond?
“Yes. It was years since the last record and this one had Joe Walsh playing on it, who was a hero, so of course it was going to be big. It sounded great! It was recorded well and mixed well and I just put the frosting on the cake and tried not to fuck it up.”
Moving the clock forward, at the turn of the Millennium, with a highly impressive CV and admirable reputation forged, Jensen worked alongside Apple as a consultant – one of a select group of individuals – to help iron out the creases for the mastering of their then-new product, iTunes.
“The idea was to get everybody at each stage of the production optimizing the sound for iTunes,” he explains. “Before those meetings I had no idea how iTunes ever got done. Was it a kid with a laptop in a backroom somewhere? I had no idea. A couple years before they hired me they had begun making attempts to optimize it, it was spotty at best: Random. Tracks rarely sounded like the master. Since those meetings when everyone got high-res files and then understood what it could sound like, you can be pretty confident iTunes sounds like the master is supposed to sound. It’s a complete process that made the upgrade, from beginning to end, and showing them what it could sound like made all the difference.”
“I’m guessing you could see the potential for iTunes and digital albums in general to be huge?” I was keen to ask, the benefit of hindsight dictating the question. “Today physical sales are decreasing while digital sales are on the up, how do you feel about that? Is it something you feel is a natural progression in the evolution of music and how we consume it or is there a part of you that still craves for physical releases, for products that you can see, touch and smell?”
“For those of us that used to buy albums; of course we miss it. The streaming thing isn’t ownership. I do still buy CDs but more often I buy an iTunes download. I just don’t do streaming. The closest thing is occasionally I will do some Pandora, but that’s rare. If there is something I really want to hear with sound quality, I do HD tracks. The whole streaming model has to be rethought and the people making the music, especially the writers, have to be given their due share. It’s just wrong the way it is.”
That is, of course, the curse of a mastering engineer. When your life is dominated by the polishing of sounds, by the crystallising of the clarity of an already well-produced album, there can be no coping with music that isn’t in a pristine condition sonically. Even if to the rest of us it sounds perfectly fine, great even.
“Today, streaming is very popular and great to get music out to the public, however the sound quality is not acceptable, really,” he continues, foreshadowing his underlining of where exactly, amid the industry’s obsession with technological growth and expansion, has gone wrong: a blind spot in the rear view mirror of a business that always looks forwards, never back. “iTunes is good, but in addition to this option that most don’t seem to realise, is the ability to get sound like we’ve never had before. HD tracks, if properly mastered can give you something the public hasn’t had access to before. The quality can be better than ever if people will seek it out but the mainstream quality is certainly nothing to write about and again, the model used that people get paid for their work is unacceptable on a moral basis. There is nothing lacking in the sound technology these days. It’s there to be used or abused.
I close with one final, uppercut of a question. His answer is clear, but the answer to the problem on the whole is murky at best: “So what do you imagine the future holds in terms of the recorded music industry?”
“That’s what we’re all trying to figure out. After many years there still isn’t a model that everyone can agree on where people get paid properly. It’s really about the writers. Without them, where would we be?”
Words: Phil Weller