Audeze interviews producer, engineer and musician Justin Gray

Justin Gray is a producer, mixing engineer and mastering engineer based in Toronto, Canada. As an educator, Justin is on faculty at Humber College, where he teaches audio production, composition and music performance. "I have always been completely obsessed with sound and technology, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to communicate with music and members of the global music community every day of my life."

 

"... since I have had the LCD-4 and LCD-XC in my arsenal, I have sold all my other high-end headphones, and have had no urge to search for anything else... exceptional!"  - Justin Gray
Here's our chat with Justin:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

Over the past decade, I have been dedicated to producing, mixing, and mastering music in stereo and immersive audio formats. Currently, I am focused on mixing and mastering music in Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio for artists across the globe. Some artists I have worked with recently include Snoop Dogg, Jann Arden, Brandy, Carlos Santana, Arkells, Valley, Mother Mother, The Sheepdogs, Portion, Tayna Tagaq, Orville Peck, Corb Lund, 24KGldn, Crownlands, The Command Sisters, Peach Pit, Forest Blakk, Ryland James, Amaal, Charmaine, Donovan Woods and Locals Only Sound.

I am also honored to have been nominated for a 2022 Juno award for my work as a bassist, producer, recording engineer, and mastering engineer.

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I commonly wear multiple hats in the musical projects I am involved with. This includes everything from playing bass/engineering to mixing/mastering the final productions. Throughout my career, I have always enjoyed being completely immersed in the projects I work on, as it provides me the opportunity to connect to the music on a deep level, and develop meaningful relationships with the artists I am working with.

How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?

Around my house growing up I was constantly exposed to a diverse collection of music, including classic rock (Beatles, Floyd, Zeppelin), folk (Joni, Dylan, The Band) and world (Bela Fleck, Ravi Shankar).
I first started really playing music (bass) when I was 12, so that I could join my friends in a Rage Against the Machine cover band. During my high school years, I also regularly listened to hip hop, funk, soul and jazz fusion music.
Since that time, my musical palette has expanded considerably, to include musical traditions from across the globe. Over the past two decades, I have listened to, studied and performed jazz, North/South Indian classical, flamenco, middle eastern classical, baroque and Afro-Cuban/Brazilian music.

Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

I have to credit my parents for their unconditional support in my early musical journey, and my brother (Derek) who is a phenomenal drummer and music educator.
I also have a few key mentors who have helped to shape my love for music. The first is Victor Wooten. When I was 16 years old, I was at one of his Bass Camps, and he took the time to specifically sit with me on the last day of the program. I will never forget when he told me to not try to play like him, but rather find my own musical voice. The wisdom becomes clearer to me every day of my career.
I am also very grateful to friend, colleague and studio owner Jeremy Darby (Canterbury Music Company) for his guidance in my early years of engineering and production. His pursuit of the capture of sound and mastery of technology is something that has always inspired me.

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

For me, a lack of proper time management was commonly my largest barrier to success. I have since spent time learning about myself, and finding organizational systems that work for me.
In regard to approaching it differently now, time management is a skill I focus on
regularly in my life, so that I can continue to become more efficient, and give as much creative energy to the music as possible.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?

Instruments wise, I am always inspired when playing my Bass Veena. This is an
instrument I invented and co-created with Les Godfrey. It is a unique
fretless bass instrument, which draws inspiration from Indian stringed instruments like sitar and sarode.
I love my Boomerang looper and my 1979 Fender Rhodes. I have always reached for a looper whenever I want to work on a musical idea, and the Rhodes is an instrument I can play/listen to all day and night.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

Develop a deep connection to music as both a player and a listener. Whether it is performance or production, music making requires being emotionally connected and deep listening skills.
Performing music, (even if not as a professional) helps to develop a musical connection in a profound way. Words cannot describe what performing music has taught me as an engineer, producer and mix/mastering engineer.
Listening is undoubtedly the most important musical skill anyone can possess. Take the time to listen to a lot of music, and do it with intent. There is endless inspiration to be drawn from listening to the music of the world, and so I recommend dedicating significant time to listening to recordings and/or live concerts.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I have had good headphones in my workflow for as long as I can remember. I have multiple sets of headphones, which all serve different purposes. I have pairs I love for tracking (comfort/isolation), mixing and mastering work (transparency), engineering in the field (clarity), and communication (Bluetooth).

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

My Audeze headphone collection has had a profound effect on the quality of my work.
Currently, I use my LCD-4’s every day as a critical tool for my Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio mixing and mastering work. As an immersive audio engineer, sonic averaging with binaural headphone renders is an absolutely paramount part of my mixing and mastering practice. It is no small task for a pair of headphones to live up to my 7.1.4 mastering playback system, but the LCD-4 does not disappoint! In fact, there are times while I am working on the
Binaural tuning of a Dolby Atmos master where I completely forget the speakers are muted, as the headphones re-create the space and tonality so authentically.
I also use my LCD-XC regularly. In my studio, I don’t have an isolation booth, as I like working in the same room as an artist during overdub production. As a result, I have always had to track in headphones when working in my own studio. The LCD-XC are the most honest and comfortable closed back headphone I have ever had. When I am wearing them, I don’t second guess mic placement or production decisions. When I take them off and move to my speakers, the flow is seamless, which is what I look for in a set of tracking/production headphones.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

I have had more headphones in my studio than I would like to admit. I am always searching for the “perfect tools,” which is of course a journey with no end. I am however being honest when I say that since I have had the LCD-4 and LCD-XC in my arsenal, I have sold all my other high-end headphones, and have had no urge to search for anything else. The LCD-4z are just exceptional! They are so comfortable, and sonically, they absolutely have the familiar tonality of the 4's.

Addendum:

I have now had the chance to work with the LCD-5 extensively for several months, mixing and mastering in stereo, Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio. I can say with confidence that they now have a permanent place in my daily workflow.

The majority of my work during this time has been mixing and mastering productions in immersive audio. I work on a mastering grade 9.1.4 Lipinski array in Atmos, and a 13.1 Genelec array in Sony 360RA. These playback systems are world-class, fully calibrated, and I trust them explicitly. One major challenge with working in these immersive audio formats is that the headphone listening experience is equally important to speaker playback, as the majority of consumers currently experience these formats through a binaural headphone render on a streaming service. Although my big decisions are always made on speakers, sonic averaging with headphones is crucial to the success of a mix and/or master, and so I spend a significant amount of time with headphones on.
 
When I received the LCD-5, they had big shoes to fill in my studio, as not only are the LCD-4 incredible headphones, but I have also spent years becoming accustomed to their sound. The only element of the LCD-4 that I was ever really concerned with was the weight. For my work in stereo, my headphone listening is usually never very long, and so the weight of the LCD-4 is never an issue. Over the past number of years, my work in immersive audio has required me to have headphones on for longer periods of time, which is what inspired me to explore the LCD-5.
 
As soon as I received the LCD-5, and put them on, I was impressed by the weight. They are the most comfortable headphones I have worn in a long time. At the same time, I was apprehensive to believe that a headphone this light could compete with my beloved LCD-4. Not that weight relates to quality, but I just wondered what had to be sacrificed to achieve this seemingly feather-light pair of headphones. New is not always better, and so I have spent time every day for the past several months using the LCD-5 alongside my LCD-4, learning what they are capable of.
 
Where the LCD-4 presents slightly dark in the upper mids/high frequencies, the LCD-5 presents slightly bright (not harsh at al). The LCD-5 present sibilant and transient information with inspiring authority. Where the LCD-4 presents low frequencies completely open, the LCD-5 is tighter and faster in this register, and a touch lighter when presenting sub-harmonic content. To my ear, the LCD-5 and LCD-4 are a perfect pair for sonic averaging with headphones.
 
I am now not only using the LCD-5 on every production, but I realize that they fill a gap that I did not know my listening system had. The LCD-4 allows one to dial in the lows and placement in the soundstage like no other. I sometimes forget that my speakers are not still on when I am working with them. They do however remain a bit relaxed in an area that is the most troublesome in immersive audio binaural playback, which is the upper mids and high frequencies.
 
Without going into too much detail, to create a binaural listening experience from an object-based production, filtering is applied to "trick" the brain into experiencing a 3D space. In both Dolby Atmos and Sony 360RA, extra sibilance and upper-frequency harshness can be a negative bi-product of this binaural filtering. The LCD-5 presents these frequencies in a way that allows me to dial them in like never before. I feel like a veil has been lifted, and that I now know exactly where to adjust those frequencies for smooth and inspiring headphone translation. The LCD-5 make me work harder, but when I can get it to sound good on the LCD-5, my work is done. It is incredible! It is like having a microscope I did not know I needed.
 
For the reasons I have mentioned, I still use the LCD-4 as a part of my workflow, but I must admit that they are not able to compete with the LCD-5 when it comes to sonic averaging for sibilance and transient reproduction. I also now find myself writing and listening to music wearing the LCD-5, as they truly are very comfortable.
 
Thank you to everyone at Audeze constantly striving for perfection. I am grateful to have the LCD-5s at my side in the studio every day.

Justin Gray working on an immersive mix with Audeze LCD-5 headphones