Legendary Engineer Bernie Grundman Mastered Some Of The Greatest Albums Ever

Bernie Grundman is sitting in his 20,000 square foot Hollywood studio, conducting a fireside chat as part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival Los Angeles. Along with the conversation portion, he also mastered a song live, and even demonstrated for the group how a master is made on vinyl. “I was fortunate enough to do the biggest selling of all time,” he told the audience. “Which is Thriller — but what I would also say is the most expensive mastering job ever done on an album.”

Today is the 35th anniversary of that iconic album, a benchmark that helps indicate just how long Grundman has been a force in his industry.

As an audio engineer for nearly 50 years, along with Thriller he mastered all of Michael’s Jackson’s albums after Off The Wall , and his span includes plenty of other projects from the likes of Janet Jackson, Joni Mitchell, The Doors, Mos Def, Mary J. Blige, James Taylor, Rod Stewart, Fleetwood Mac, and even Childish Gambino’s latest multiple Grammy-Award-nominated record, Awaken, My Love.

For those who are unfamiliar, mastering is the final step of post-production, when the audio engineer balances the elements of the final mix on the album for optimal playback across all mediums and formats. It results in the singular copy (or master copy) from which every subsequent will be produced.

“[It’s] the sobering part of the business,” Grundman explained. “Mastering is the last creative step in making a recording for mass production or release and the first step of manufacturing.”

Although it sounds (and is) extremely technical, the legendary engineer — and many other mastering engineers — note they find plenty emotional significance in their work.

“My job is to enhance the emotional communication of the music,” Grundman said. “It’s kind of like optimizing the effect it’s going to have or how well it’s going to communicate with the listener that an artist is looking for. We want to connect with them without them having to really sit down and try to concentrate too much because everyone is so busy now, it’s hard to get their attention.”

Referring to “now,” Grundman differentiates this era of playlists and a newfound consumer ability to customize their own musical experience, and how it has made music more of a background or coupled activity rather than an individual one. After all, when was the last time you sat still and listened to music? Most of us have it on while we commute, clean, work, exercise, and, rarely, without that ever-present second screen. Back when Grundman first became an engineer, however, listeners options were far more limited.

“Albums were thought of as more of an experience that had some sort of emotional continuity,” he remembered. “It told a long story through a number of tunes and the way they were arranged and assembled actually was very important.”

When he began, music was almost exclusively released on vinyl, then cassette tapes followed, and both of these mediums share a similar listening experience, offering a project from top to bottom rather than skipping around from track to track with ease, like listeners can now. “The whole album would be examples of different points of view that artists had,” Grundman said. “And they would take you on this journey. It used to be a bigger cross-section of an artist at that particular time in their career and creativity.”

Grundman points to Thriller as a definitive example of this.

“The first tune on the album is fairly easy to connect to,” he explained. “It starts out with more of a dance-oriented piece of music which is good for getting your attention and a certain type of feel. It definitely starts going into a ballad and by the time you get to “Thriller,” it’s taking you on a wide landscape because there are all these other things going on that are very interesting. “Thriller” is a very involved piece of music — that one tune. As you go to the second side, musically, if you aren’t paying attention, you aren’t going to get it. Even that guitar solo or “Billie Jean,” these are very interesting songs that you’re not going to get a lot out of if you aren’t paying attention.”

Looking back on that seminal record 35 years later, Grundman describes it as a record that immediately stood out as special.

“Some of these recordings or albums that come into me, there is something extra special about certain ones,” he said. “The way the production and the way the performances — they’re so much better than most things. And you think every tune on this album is incredible.”

Another easy standout came courtesy of Carol King, Grundman mastered her landmark album Tapestry, which he remembers as an early, groundbreaking work, along with Steely Dan’s Aja.

“With Carol King’s Tapestry, it was obvious,” he remembered. “Even though it was simple, there was something infectious about it. I wasn’t looking for anything special. She wasn’t a big star at the time, but when I put on that master tape there was something it did to me. It just went right in. Same way with Aja from Steely Dan. That was groundbreaking in a way, too. It’s a very famous album. There’s just something that is so well connected in the way it’s put together and the way it’s performed built into it. It’s got this extra heightened experience.”

Another instance early mix that was extremely impressive upon arrival came from a local rapper, Dr. Dre’s debut album, The Chronic from 1992.

“There was something unique about it and something different because he was doing a groundbreaking type of approach to get across these ideas in that style,” Grundman said. “It was new at the time, but it’s still a very human thing that’s going on. The way it was portrayed was more of a narrative.”

Dre was in the studio with Bernie throughout the mastering process of his the project. “The Chronic came in and I felt it was well done, and he did too,” he remembered. “That didn’t have a lot of adjustment and work to do. He was with me and we just discussed and adjusted things the way we thought it would make it an even better recording than when it came in the door.”

Interestingly, in addition to Dre’s delivery, the production on The Chronic was notably different than everything out at the time. Grundman says he had more of a reputation for working with R&B records back then, but Brian Gardner, the engineer from Bernie’s studio who was more well-known for hip-hop, wasn’t working when Dre was in. “I think he was on vacation or something so I ended up doing The Chronic which is the most well known,” he laughed, of these accidental studio accolades.

Grundman also points to Prince’s Purple Rain as a favorite he worked on.

“Not as noticeable on the first album but as we got into second or third or fourth, when we got into 1999 and Purple Rain, that was pretty exciting stuff,” he remembers of Prince’s career. “Another one of those exceptionally creative people.” Surprisingly, though, the Purple one, had a very subdued studio demeanor.

“Prince is a very interesting character, too, because Prince is very, very, shy,” Grundman said. “He would come in the studio. He would sit tight in that corner as he could on the couch. He’s very little with high heels and all. He would come for one day! We would go over it and he would be at the console and just say something like ‘maybe a little more bass on that’ in a monotone voice, and that’s all. But then he would take off and go back to Minnesota and we would send refs back and forth.”

Where Prince would come in for one day, some artists wouldn’t come in at all. In fact, Grundman did three projects with Outkast — Big Boi And Dre Present…OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Idlewild — and they completed the entire process sending tapes, CDs or files back and forth.

“I got a request to do a single and no one even came into the studio,” he said. “I just did what I thought would work. They liked it better than where they were going to do their recording. So all of a sudden I started doing all their singles, then when the album came about they wanted me to do the album.”

At the peak of his career, Grundman has legendary albums across rap, R&B, jazz, pop and rock genres, working in many different areas and styles of music well before the post-genre phase of internet fandom even existed.

“There was a time when Brian [Gardner] and I had over 50 percent of the charts, just the two of us. It was back around the mid-90s or something like that. At one time we were really blazing. Brian and I were working day and night. We looked at the charts and started marking off the ones we had done, and it was 50 or 55 percent!”

Even before those long nights and days in the ‘90s, Grundman remembers the cocaine-fueled “good old, bad old days” in the ‘70s and the pure excess of the record industry through the ‘80s, when he worked on what he is confident is the most costly record to master ever, Michael Jackson’s History. He expresses concern over the fact that newer engineers — or those that have only seen the industry in the digital era — can’t comprehend what the industry was like then. Where an average album can cost $3,000 to $4,000 to master, Grundman calculates the total cost of History to be around $200,000.

It was 1994, and Michael Jackson’s mixer and Grundman’s friend and colleague, Bruce Swedien, called Bernie to see if he could master Michael’s upcoming project in New York from Sony’s brand new mastering studio.

“I said, ‘But Bruce, you realize what this is going to cost?” he recalled. “I’m going to have close my room, a two shift room in Hollywood. I’m going to have to bring some of my equipment, my equalizers and things I know really well.’ He says, ‘Send me the bill.’ He didn’t care.”

Upon arrival it was even clearer how little money mattered on this project. New York’s Hit Factory kept three rooms in their studio blocked around the clock so Michael could freely work on a different song in each studio whenever he felt like it in addition to the full two week blocking out of the brand new mastering studio Grundman would be work from.

History was like the best of, greatest hits and it became like two albums — a best of and History,” Grundman explained. “In a sense I was there to make Sony think it was almost done. So, I’m there with the chief engineer sitting around everyday listening to the old stuff and seeing if I can make it better than I did the first time. Then we’d go walk around town. We could go anywhere we wanted. We could do whatever we wanted. Sky’s the limit. Nobody questioned anything. So I was there for two weeks and we did one tune!” He still laughs about it in disbelief.

Grundman says the project was ultimately finished (and parts were redone) back at his studio in LA, but it seemed like he was brought in to offer the illusion that History was closer to being done than it actually was.

“I figured it all out,” he said. “Those plane trips, the Pierre Hotel, my charges, and Sony’s charges. That room, for two weeks nobody else used it. The mastering of that album was like $200,000. And the album cost $20 million and another $15 million for videos. That’s what I hear, in the neighborhood of $35 million dollars. So, what I charged was nothing.”

There have been major changes in the music industry in just the last decade or so, from online music pirating, to streaming subscriptions, the influence of the internet and more. Grundman’s success spans 50 years of changes, but after spending time listening to him talk about his craft, it’s very clear why. When you visit Grundman’s studio web page, the header reads “We take special care of you and your music,” and just below the fold it reads, “Your music is our vision. Mastering is a partnership.”

There’s a high level of care that comes with masters from Grundman — personally, sonically, and emotionally.

“When you’re in the business, you can get anything in the door,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter because all music is portraying, emotionally, the human experience. We all have the same emotions. It’s just different points of view. All you need to do is be able to connect with that. That’s what music is. It’s a very direct emotional connection.”