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.