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‘It’s about flexibility, being able to make more decisions’: Abbey Road’s new mastering engineer Oli Morgan talks stem mastering and his career to date

Mastering engineer and stem specialist Oli Morgan lets us in on his experience in his new role at Abbey Road and how stem mastering allows him to get the most out of a song

“The image Abbey Road has externally is absolutely right”: Oli Morgan

Mastering engineer Oli Morgan has just joined the Abbey Road Studios team, his main task being to take charge of stem mastering, as well as the more traditional post-production stereo mastering duties. Morgan uses stem mastering to shape the overall tonal balance of a track and delve even deeper into each component to help achieve an even better result. After studying Creative Music Technology and following that up with a Music Production degree, Morgan worked at Fluid Mastering straight out of university, where he stayed for five years. At Fluid, which was born out of the expertise of ex-Townhouse engineers, Morgan honed his craft and benefitted from working on exciting projects with the likes of Blossoms, Gregory Porter, Princess Nokia, Seal
and Englebert Humperdink. It was also there that he discovered his affinity for stem mastering, carving out extra time and space at work to truly grasp different mastering techniques and get the most out of each song.

Here, we chat to Morgan about his new position at the legendary Abbey Road, his experience within its walls so far and his career to date…

Congrats on the new position! When did you start?

It’s my fourth week now. Still pretty new, still finding my way around. There are people here who have been here for 45 years, so when you compare that with a month’s worth of service, it’s always quite interesting hearing them talk about it.

How’s it been so far?

It’s been incredible. Walking into the building, somewhere with so much history, is quite amazing. And that still hasn’t really worn off; as you walk around the corridors, seeing the pictures and imagining who has stepped there before you. All of the staff are amazing, there’s a proper team mentality. What I’m trying to do is a little bit different to what has been done here already, and the team has been incredible helping me with my room and getting it all up and running.

How is what you’re doing different? What will your new role involve?

To begin with, all of these rooms are equipped with SADiE, which I do use, but I also use ProTools, which is the more standard recording and mixing software. They’ve brought me in to be a stem specialist for the post-production department, so I’ll be doing the same old stereo mastering and cutting, but as well as that, I’ll be taking on lots of the stem enquiries they get.

What is stem mastering?

If you imagine a spectrum with recording on one side (the left) and stereo mastering all the way on the right, then stem mastering is a little bit more towards your mixing, pre-mastering stage of the process. It’s still very much separate to that, but you’re just going a little bit deeper into that part of the process. Instead of working from a left and right stereo file, for example, I might have a kick drum, a snare drum, the rest of the drums, any bass, any guitars, any synths, BVs, lead vocals, other leads, so I can go a bit more into getting the most out of a track. If you get the stems in and they all sound great, you don’t have to touch anything and you treat it like a stereo master anyway. It’s more about flexibility, being able to make more decisions. If there’s anything you feel you want to do – which you might not have been able to do with a stereo – there’s more of a chance of you being able to do it with the stems.

Tell me about your career to date. How did you get to this point?

I worked at Fluid Mastering previously. They took me on out of uni and trained me up in the art of stereo mastering. It’s a really great place with amazing engineers, but still quite small. In order to get the studio access that I wanted, I started to pursue stem mastering and we set up a room for me to do it in. And I found that I really liked it. I had a few chats with Lucy here, and Abbey Road has been getting these stem enquiries that they’re not 100 per cent sure what to do with. I’m excited about stem sessions, it’s a different mentality. They were looking for someone who was keen to take those sessions on and make the most of them.

What drew you in to work at Abbey Road?

The image that Abbey Road has externally is absolutely right. It’s a fundamental part of the British and global music industry. But when you get inside, and when you start to meet and talk to people, they’re a lot more approachable than you thought they would be. Working somewhere like this, you might have thought it would come with an ego or arrogance, but there’s none of that in here. It was quickly quite obvious that it’s just a great place to work. I can’t imagine not doing it now, it makes a lot of sense.

What do you think is important about using in-house engineers – going to a studio and using those services, as opposed to going freelance?

A lot of it is about the technical team that’s here. Some of the bits of gear I get to use here have been developed in-house. It’s the whole history of innovation that comes with being a member of the tech team at Abbey Road. The centrepiece of my room is something that has been built in-house, and one of the pieces of kit I use a lot was also built in-house, which allows me to do things I wouldn’t be able to do in another studio, let alone at home.

I think from the client’s point of view, the democratisation of music production has been incredible. It’s amazing what people can do on their laptops and in their bedroom that you had no hope of doing 20 years ago. But at some point, you need the experience and skill of finishing the record off, and in the same way, you need an accurate listening environment, so that the work you do can translate well everywhere you listen to it, not just on your pair of headphones in your bedroom. It’s more about that finishing touch, knowing there’s that oversight.

In this room, and the same with all of the other engineers, you have the tools available to people at home, plus so much more. You’re always going to be in the strongest position to make the most out of what you’re given. There’s no disadvantage; there are only advantages to have your work done somewhere like this.

How did getting a music production degree help you to get where
you are now? Do you think it’s important to get an audio education to pursue a career?

It’s a really tough one. It worked for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work for the next person. It allowed me to meet people and to get involved in projects, to get a portfolio of work and a CV of stuff that, if I was trying to do it all myself, I wouldn’t have had access to those people. That’s the best thing about going to university, that every single day you’re in a room with loads of people doing the same thing as you are, which you don’t really get anywhere else. In terms of teaching, it gave me the initial tools I needed to progress from there to Fluid and, now here.

The bottom line is learning. I was learning something everyday I was going to university, but if you’re not learning, go somewhere that means you are. I guess university is a bit of a short cut so that you are somewhere where you’re learning.

Do you have a go-to technique or process?

Good question, a client of mine asked me that quite recently, someone I work with a lot, and my reply was – if I have anything go-to, then I’m doing it wrong, because the whole point of mastering is that it’s quite reactive, you hear something and you fix it. If you already have a preconceived idea of what you need to do, then you’re already not doing best by the track you’re listening to right now, you’re doing best by the track you listened to last week that you think this sounds similar to.

You have to have all the knowledge and tools available to do both – skillwise and practically – to then allow you to make the best decisions on a track by track, moment to moment basis.

The short answer is no, because I don’t think you should. As a producer or writer or mixer, they’re useful because time is important and it’s more about ideas and getting something out. But with mastering, there is no tidy up later. When it’s out of this room, it’s out.