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Darcy Proper on the changing perception of mastering in the industry

Darcy Proper's career has seen her receive awards for mastering iconic bodies of work from legendary artists. Starting in NY before bringing her talents to Europe, Tara Lepore spoke to her on the changing perception of mastering in the industry...

It certainly doesn’t get old,” says mastering engineer Darcy Proper when PSNEurope asks how it felt to win a Grammy Award, not once, but four times throughout her career. “Each award is very special and those wins will always count as some of the most exciting moments in my life.”

The quadruple victory certifies Proper as one of the best mastering engineers in the business, but, she says, the best thing about collecting the Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album earlier this year was seeing producer Jane Ira Bloom receive “much-deserved attention for her music”. This attitude is one that has been a constant throughout Proper’s career, which has seen her work on both sides of the Atlantic and, receive award nominations for her reissue and surround sound work.

PSNEurope is speaking to Proper just weeks after she appeared as a keynote speaker at the Audio Engineering Society’s UK Mastering Conference, which, in her words, covered “lots of interesting ground”, including developing formats, speaker and room design, metering, perception and state-of-the-art production techniques.

“What made the conference unique was that it was all mastering-related and allowed those of us in the field the all-too-rare opportunity to see each other in person to exchange ideas and share a laugh or two,” she says. “Mastering is quite a solitary pursuit these days and it was a pleasure to share with and learn from the international group of colleagues there.”

Like many in the pro audio industry, Proper’s interest in audio came during her late teens, as her love of music led her to joining the school band – which consequently led her to the mixing desk. She says: “I was about 16 years old, in high school, when I realised I was interested in audio. I had been interested in music long before that – playing clarinet and saxophone, singing in the choir, but I didn’t generally give audio much thought. Our school concert band put on a rock ’n’ roll show every year to earn money for band trips or new uniforms or something. One particular year, a friend of the band director showed up with a modest sound reinforcement outfit, maybe 16 channels at most, and when I got a close look at the desk close up during one of the rehearsals, I was fascinated. A bit of research into audio engineering led me to believe that this might be something for me. I was good at maths and science, and loved music but was a bit too shy to really enjoy the spotlight. The idea of working in music on the technical side of things felt like a good fit.”

Then came a four-year Music Technology degree at New York University which saw Proper leave small town life and enter the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.

After a brief stint in live sound and working as a sound operator at the New York Public Theater – “I enjoyed the experience and learned a lot, but it wasn’t for me in the long term” – Proper got a job as an assistant working at Soundworks Studios. “It was a one-room studio under the old Studio 54 and a lot of mixing and remixing was being done there at the time,” she explains. “It was a small, close-knit team of people and I learned a lot on both the technical and client-service side of things while I was there.”

Proper then accepted a part-time job as a quality control engineer at Sony Classical Productions, where she would make digital tape copies of the masters generated by the in-house engineers, a job involving “lots and lots of uninterrupted listening” – a great aural training for a future mastering engineer. “Through various jobs and internships, I began to figure out where my strengths lay – my focus, attention to detail, and love of helping highly creative people develop their musical ideas, while perhaps not having much in the way of original musical ideas of my own. This realisation eventually led me to mastering,” she says. Proper went on to work full-time at Sony Classical Productions in the ’90s, working as an assistant recording engineer, technician and editor, before settling into mastering.

In 2001, she won her first Grammy for her work on a reissue of Billie Holiday’s Columbia catalogue. So how does an engineer handle such a much-loved body of work?

“What’s most important is finding the best source material possible and to then handle that material with great respect and attention to the original release,” she explains. “After all, the team that originally worked on the album probably had at least some contact with the artists involved and would have had more insight into their intentions than we might have decades later.”

Proper left the East Coast in 2005 and headed further east to Belgium to take on a job as a mastering engineer at Galaxy Studios, an immersive audio-focused facility and the home of Auro 3D technology. “Galaxy is a top-notch facility and it was an interesting opportunity to see a part of the world I had never seen before and experience a new culture,” she says. “I only intended to stay in Europe for a couple of years or so, but life has a funny way of changing one’s plans, and I’m still here.”

Proper moved to the Netherlands in 2011 to pursue a business venture with her husband (recording and mixing engineer Ronald Prent), refurbishing the world-famous Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum*, where Elton John, U2 and Tina Turner have all recorded. It’s here where Proper continues to base her mastering work, following the facility’s equipment upgrade in two control rooms and development of two mastering rooms.

“On one hand, there are a number of people involved in the music industry who seem to believe that mastering is a simple, fairly unimportant technical process that can be accomplished quite satisfactorily via an automated online programme. They believe that mastering engineers can easily and effectively be replaced by software.”

She continues: “On the other hand, there are also people who believe that mastering should be able to solve all of the problems created by working with inexperienced mixing engineers and semi-professional tools, and that mastering should be able to make those recordings sound just like the highest calibre professional studio recordings. In other words, they believe mastering engineers to be some kind of miracle workers.

“In between, of course, lies the reality. Luckily, there are still some industry professionals whose expectations for mastering are in line with the reality of the laws of physics – and the quality of the material they deliver for mastering. They allow us to practice the real art of mastering and to play an integral part in bringing the artist’s message to the listening public.”