Take Me to Your Master

Indie hero Harris Newman tames wild noise

By Jordan Himelfarb March 13, 2007

It is a law of nature that all things tend toward chaos and dissolution. This is the inhospitable climate in which culture is created. Making a fine sound recording, for instance, involves the wrangling of unwilling sound waves into harmonies, melodies, and rhythms, and the encoding of these transient phenomena with accuracy and high fidelity onto some medium or other. After writing, practicing, recording, and mixing, an artist's last chance to take control of the wilderness of sound, to attempt to create something just as it was imagined, is in the mastering. Enter Harris Newman. 

Newman’s services are in high demand. Since 1998, he has mastered over 400 recordings, working with Canadian indie rock big shots such as the Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, and Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Based in Montreal, Newman and his business, Grey Market Mastering, are so embedded in the Canadian independent recording scene, that rarely is the process of mastering discussed without his sonorant name being uttered. Yet, despite being Canada’s biggest indie mastering celebrity, the precise nature of Newman’s work remains a mystery to many, even to some of those who commission it. 

In the unwritten book on how to make a record, it is stated that one must have one’s recording mastered. Having hired several engineers to master recordings of my own making, I speak from experience when I say that musicians often pay for their work to be mastered out of trust, hope and fear, rather than an understanding of what improvements the process might effect. Though I have repeatedly sought explanations from engineers of what exactly mastering entails, responses have tended to take the form of either incomprehensible technical jargon or vacuous generalities. The Grey Market website gives the least enigmatic explanation I have encountered so far:

“Mastering helps to address any shortcomings in your mixes, augment their strengths [. . .] add as much (or as little) substance and body as your recording calls for, set your overall volume levels to play well alongside commercially-produced recordings, and make full use of the sonic resolution available on your final medium […] It helps your album to sound balanced from start to finish, and to translate evenly and predictably into any listening environment.”

Newman sees the role of a mastering engineer as one of conduit—a means of achieving a musician’s goal without imparting his own aesthetic (unless asked to do so). “There’s a lot of opportunity to make subjective and creative decisions, but [these decisions] come from the artists,” Newman says. 

Sometimes musicians will give him carte blanche, and other times they will make specific requests that diverge significantly from his own preferences. Newman aims to please, and will do just about anything—short of causing injury to the listener’s person or stereo—to produce a record that will make his clients happy. One thing he’s reluctant to do, however, is participate in the trend to make music louder.

“For a lot of pop music lately, the goal seems to be to make it as loud as possible,” he complains. “It’s exciting, in the sense that it grabs your ear for forty-five or sixty seconds. Which is perfect if you’re making music for an MTV video. The problem is when you try to extend that approach over a 40-minute record. It’s exhausting and horrible to listen to.” Newman tells bands: “Trust me. Right now maybe you want to look like the Maxell man in the chair, with your hair blowing in the wind, but you’ll be happier in the end if you’ve left just a little bit more range and life in your record. It will stand the test of time that way.”

After playing bass in the now defunct Constellation Records band Sackville, Harris Newman now plays in Hrsta (another Constellation project) and releases solo acoustic guitar albums under his own name.  He sees his ability to communicate clearly with musicians, and to understand their particular needs, as his greatest asset in the mastering business. “People keep coming back to me because they like that I’m coming at this from a musician’s perspective,” Newman says.  “And I’m fairly sympathetic to people in terms of being affordable and also in terms of understanding all too well what it’s like to be a starving, struggling, aspiring musician.” 

This sympathy is central to Newman’s approach to his work.  He fell into mastering out of necessity, teaching himself the trade after being repeatedly frustrated by the unsympathetic attitudes and prohibitive prices of mastering studios. “I made enough phone calls to $300/hour studios before I got into [mastering] to know exactly how I didn’t want to treat people,” Newman recalls. “I got a pretty good schooling in what turned me off and what made me uninspired.” Hence Newman’s professional credo (the Golden Rule) and low prices (bargain basement).

Think About Life (Montreal synth-pop, James Brown vocals) opted to do business with Grey Market last year when it came time to master their self-titled debut album. Graham Van Pelt, who sings and plays keyboards in the band, compares working with Newman to going for a check-up with the doctor: “You don’t necessarily know that something’s wrong, but he will find it and fix it.” Chris Burns of Crackpot (Montreal’s erstwhile post-punk purveyors) is comforted by Newman’s apparent psychological stability: “I can't say I [know] him all that well but he always struck me as a pretty together young man. It is ill-advised to master your record with someone who is falling apart.”  Burns says of hearing one of his Newman-mastered songs on the radio: “I can honestly say it was the first time I heard one of my recordings [without] cringing at how shitty it sounded (purely from a production perspective. Performance is a whole other hang-up).”  Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes (Vancouver; intense) and Swan Lake (trans-Canada supergroup; macabre) has hired Newman to work on projects by both of his bands, and sizes up his work incisively: “He’s great!”

Of course, all this raises the obvious Lewis Carroll-inspired question: Why is a mastering engineer like a kindergarten schoolmaster? Among the many aspects common to both is that they each deal with the fruits of labour, prepared with care and love—records in the first case, children in the second—and are entrusted with the most serious responsibility: that of a baby’s future. Both can have a considerable impact on the ongoing development of their objects, but both are constrained by the limitations inherent in the raw material. And just as there was no better endorsement of the pedagogical powers of the utilitarian philosopher James Mill than the fact that he educated his son John Stuart Mill, so too should one take as an advertisement of Harris Newman’s abilities the fact that he masters his own perspicuous sounding records. “I give myself a very good price,” he explains.