Never underestimate the value of an experienced mastering engineer. That person ultimately determines how your song or album sounds…forever. Chris Hanzsek has that critical experience, with a jaw-dropping list of credits to back it up, including recording the first EPs from Accüsed, Green River, and Melvins, plus the release of the seminal 1986 Deep Six compilation — featuring Soundgarden, Melvins, Green River, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and The U-Men — on the label he co-owned at the time, C/Z Records. He also co-owned Reciprocal Recording, where he recorded all of those bands and a slew of punk throughout the mid-to-late ‘80s. I caught up with Chris upon his return to the Pacific Northwest, after a late summer bike ride around the Rockies.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
Ah, good question. I don’t get asked about myself much, so I don’t have a ready made answer. I guess I’d call myself the inquisitive type. I like to explore, gather information. I’m intuitive rather than overly disciplined. I value compassion. I enjoy a good challenge. I hike, I climb (well used to, anyway), I ride bicycles. I just finished up a 1,000 mile segment of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. 70,000 feet of gain? I even impressed myself on this one. I even built my own wheels. Next year, I’ll finish up middle of Wyoming to Mexico.
What do I do? I’m still working as a mastering engineer. Except for the occasional mixing project, that’s pretty much been my bread and butter since 2005 when I closed my studio in Seattle. Two years ago I went to school to learn bicycle mechanics and picked up a part-time job in Seattle. Low pay, but I needed a diversion from the music biz…
You’ve been credited as a recording engineer, producer, and mastering engineer. Which one came first?
I’ll have to say recording engineer. The twinkle in my eye happened in 1980 when I was handed the keys to WDFM’s (Penn State) production studio, where I got hands on with the studio for the first time. By 1981, I was cutting demos for the room-mates bands in Somerville, MA [Chris moved cross-country to Seattle in ‘83 -Ed.]. In January 1984, I (along with Tina Casale) opened up Reciprocal Recording. Ten bucks an hour. Train noises from the adjacent switching yard only added to the charm.
What past work/credits are you most proud of?
That’s a tough one. When I became a “soundman” in ‘81 or ‘82, back in Cambridge, MA, there was a band that took me under wing…The D# Quintet, or something along that line. It was modern jazz. David Sharpe was the drummer, composer. A dude named Bill Frisell was the guitarist [Frisell is kind of a big deal in jazz -Ed.]. I did a few recordings, and did the live sound support/recordings as well. Good times. Leaving those guys was hard when I decided to move to Seattle.
I guess I’m proud also of the work I’ve done for people that needed me to do a good job even if there wasn’t much money involved. “I’ve made a career out of making almost enough money,” is pretty much my business philosophy. Seattle punk bands of the ‘80’s – The Accüsed, Bam Bam, Cannibal, Green River, Jesters of Chaos, Subvert, Catalyst, Big Top, DSML, Morphius, The Rejectors, Suffocated, Glitterpuss, The Refuzors. Flop was a hoot to work with in ‘96 because we had a whole month to track an album. Rusty (Flop’s frontman) is a creative fellow and good to work with in the studio. I should also mention I’ve done a ton of work for bands in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and Europe.
Which ones have garnered the most attention?
The Deep Six comp was a 10,000 lb gorilla. Did not see that coming, but had to learn to live with it. I would have preferred to have that “big opportunity” after I’d practiced my craft for another year or two, but that’s not how it happened. I was a rookie and a naïve one at that.
That gorilla featured Green River, Melvins, and Soundgarden, among others. Can you share any interesting stories or anecdotes?
The sessions were really quick. It’s a blur now. In hindsight, I really had no idea what I was stepping into. I was unprepared for the power struggles and politics that followed. Tina Casale and I were partners going into the project and we didn’t quite stay partners all the way through. The new record label, C/Z Records, was on the skids before the first release hit the shelves. We (I) became unpopular in certain circles. It had a lasting impact.
A few months after Deep Six, I was in Ironwood again to record CZ02; The Melvins, “6 songs” or whatever. I decided to go live to 2-track. No big tape, no mixing, just wham — hit record, splice the tape, and done. I think we tracked about 10 songs total. I got home and listened. I heard an odd “boink” coming from the bass rig. I asked the band if we could meet for another session and re-do everything. They agreed. Helping me out at the session were my wife-to-be Gina, Gerry from The Rejectors, and Krist Novaselic. After a few months the local record reviewer reviewed it and called it “weak, thin, and lame.”
Are you also a musician?
Yes, but I’m in remission. I’ve spent a decade or two making recordings (typically electronic and somewhat improvised) but haven’t done much in the past 10 or 15. In 2017, I was contacted by Orbeatize Records asking me if they could release an album that I recorded in 1985. Apparently a cassette copy had made its way to Europe and met up with a label specializing in ‘80’s electronic music. Too good to be true, but true anyway!
What was your first mastering credit?
Hmm. Not sure… I think some of my first mastering jobs were for C/Z Records. Coffin Break CD? Teriyaki Asthma comp? I think I was attempting to master stuff the week after Pro Tools was released in late ‘91. It was very much bleeding edge back then. Tourniquets for everyone!
When did you realize you wanted to focus primarily on mastering?
Yes, the DAW flipped that switch for me. I saw that the mastering process could get to my hands, and I saw a local market, and I enjoyed that “finishing” part of the process.
Is mastering more fun than producing?
Never really been totally comfortable with that word. It’s like a big flashy hat to me. I’m not a natural peacock. Plain t-shirt and jeans kind of guy. Also I don’t like traffic, crowds, airplanes.
Do you have a dedicated mastering studio?
About half of the lower level of my home is my mastering studio. Enough space for a few people to relax and get work done. It’s an awfully quiet little dead end subdivision road that is quite peaceful. Got squirrels, birds, maybe even a fish or two, if we get around to buying one. The herons come around and eat them so there’s always room for more. Actually, the “special” part of my room (for me) is my familiarity with my two monitor systems. I have a set of 3-way Focal SM-9’s and also a pair of 2-way Genelecs. I’ve done hundreds of projects using these two pairs, and I’ve developed a good relationship.
What kind of bands do you like to work with?
Oh, I’m very happy to work with anyone who can communicate, is respectful…you know, holds up their end of the bargain. Talent is secondary to being a decent person. Everyone is “in development” at some level or another, so I focus on being as patient as I can be.
That said, I don’t find it easy to work with everyone. There are different types of people and some think and do things differently. Sometimes it’s all eye-to-eye, but other times it’s a ton of work to find the book, let alone get on the same page.
Some refer to mastering as a “dark art” — a process that can’t be taught or explained. What’s your take on that?
Yeah, I totally poo-poo the “dark art” stuff. It’s all known and mostly very common sense things that happen in the process. It looks all mysterious, but it’s really math, physics, biology, psychology. Mastering is essentially optimization. Typically that might involve the use of equalizers, compressors, limiters, tape emulators, stereo enhancers… Whatever is deemed necessary to achieve the desired result.
I’m not asking you to share your trade secrets, but is there something about your process that you feel is most critical? Most crucial to success?
This sounds too simple, but at this point it’s all about consistency in my workflow (I know the tools and have a patterned set of procedures), staying attentive (willing to hear things “fresh” and actually listen to input), and remaining disciplined (resisting the urge to cut corners).
As a mastering engineer, do you have any advice for musicians preparing to record an album and ultimately bringing their work to you for mastering?
A couple of things that might help:
- Send me (or another mastering engineer) a track ahead of time and ask if the mix works well, or if it could use a tweak in some regard. I think most would be happy to listen and give a quick review.
- Consider bracketing mixes if there’s a critical level that might go one way or the other. “Vocal UP mix”, “Bass Down 1 dB”. That sort of thing. Then you can pick later and hope you caught the right choices. Stems (multiple summable pairs) are also an option but that gets a bit more complex.
- The main thing is to focus on getting the best mix possible. Try to keep a lively dynamic. Use compression where it’s needed, but don’t hammer on the entire mix with 2-channel compression or limiting. The track will ultimately sound much better if it isn’t repeatedly touched by processing.
What have been the biggest process differentiators for you between the analog and digital eras?
The biggest challenge in this era is knowing when to say when. So many options, so many choices. Where to begin, where to end? It used to be, you recorded until the tracks were all full up on the tape, then you put down the tambourine and called it done. Then you mixed it and called it done again. These days you might wait a week and tell me replacement mix #8 is uploading and could I please output master version 11 with the same upper end on all the tunes as I had in version 2 and please do the same for the vinyl version. I try my best but it’s hard to manage a complex master that requires more than a week or two of detailed work without getting a little worn out.
Are there any assumed or unwritten rules that a mastering engineer typically has for the recording/studio/mixing engineer?
I think we all mostly do a pretty good job of everyone letting the next guy do his thing. There are some producer types who will closely monitor the work and expect you’ll follow their blueprint, but that comes with the territory. Mastering is ultimately not creative work. It defines an artistic intention with well-placed aesthetics and technical precision. You don’t get to innovate; you strive to go unnoticed.
It doesn’t hurt to sit on the mixes for a few days before mastering. It also doesn’t hurt to use a different engineer than the mix engineer. Tired ears don’t work as well as fresh ones. Don’t “master real quick” at the end of a long session. Give the mastering process a day or so to complete. If you can listen in the morning with fresh ears, that’s a great help. Simplicity is a good thing. Less is more.
What should bands be wary of when selecting a mastering engineer?
Better mastering engineers tend to do that type of work routinely rather than occasionally. That helps keep them consistent and focused and confident in decision making.
Last question: What made the Seattle scene so special in ‘80s-’90s? We can speculate all day but you saw it grow.
I think there is validity to the “nothing else to do for 6-to-8 months” theory. I think also we might have been the last present under the Christmas Tree of Rock, so to speak. This area was isolated enough to allow for a distinct set of flavors to emerge and it didn’t hurt that we had a very livable city, low cost of living, and a ton of bands coming out of the woodwork. Early on it was all about having fun. Once the labels showed up there was suddenly more interest in being “marketable.” I think the ultimate trophy for the Seattle rock guy (and gal) was to have fun and make a little money.
Not as easy as it looks.