Aran Lavi is a multi platinum mastering engineer from Tel-Aviv and the founder of TanTan studios, Aran masters for major labels and independent musicians from around the globe and many of his masters are being played on the Israeli charts on a weekly basis.
In addition to mastering for the mainstream music industry, Aran had worked until 2020 as the head of audio at Artlist, the filmmaking industry's go-to catalogue of high quality royalty free music. Shortly after leaving Artlist, Aran moved to collaborate with Beatopia and started working as the head of sound on its big catalogue of world class exclusive beats for vocalists.
"...using a laptop, a high quality mobile DAC and a pair of LCD-5s, I could work on the road outside the studio like a digital nomad..." - Aran Lavi
Here's our talk with Aran:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?
The special thing about being a mastering engineer is that each master is the outcome of a team effort at a given time.
As being the final stop before a song hits the market, my work is always under the magnifying glasses of many artists, producers and A&R's every month and their feedback is constantly helping me to develop as a professional. It's an ongoing process, even after over 20 years of experience I try to push myself to become better everyday, so I hope the masters I will be mostly proud of will be the ones I'm going to work on tomorrow!
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
As a child I used to dream of playing the guitar but unfortunately at the age of 5 my fingers were too short to make it a reality... so as a comforting alternative, my parents have taken me to piano lessons which I’ve immediately fallen in love with. I used to play classical music a few hours a day and enjoyed every minute of it.
In the late 80's I was exposed to the DJ culture and found a new, exciting form of expression and creativity in mixing with old school turntables. I couldn't take my hands off the desks so I had a DJ setup right next to the piano and started splitting my time between playing classical music and mixing early 90's techno music, strange combination, right?
It didn't take much longer before my DJing career took off and I was playing regularly at some clubs and raves. The DJ scene was very different to what it is today... DJ's used to almost fight for getting the "better" records before anyone else did in order to include them in club gigs. I always wanted to have some exclusive tunes I could play so I've started making them myself using a modest home setup, this is when I had my first experience with real audio engineering and found it to be the most interesting and exciting art form.
Fortunately, some of the music I've created has been signed by labels so some DJ friends of mine who liked the way the records sounded used to call and ask me to mix and master their tunes so it would sound nice on club sound systems. At this point it was very clear to me where this story goes, I've opened up a small studio where I did my mixing and took the opportunity to go back to my former roots and started recording and mixing some acoustic music as well.
How did you get started in mastering?
Mastering was always the thing that fascinated me the most but I didn't have the knowledge or gear to master commercial releases yet, so I used to send my mixes to many different mastering engineers I appreciate. I've spent a lot of time studying their work on my mixes, their aesthetics, choices and when and how their process was making my mixes translate better. During that time I was always making my own never to be released mastered version of the mix, trying to compete with the final master, at first it was just a learning process trying to make my mixes sound as good or even subjectively better than their masters, I've done this for many years.
When a mixing engineer sends over a mix to a mastering engineer, he is involved in the process because in many cases it's a part of his job to approve the final version of the master. Commitment and good communication between the mixing and mastering engineers are a very important part of the process, so I was always asking my favorite mastering engineers to go into details about their work, what EQ's and compressors have been used, what frequencies they have been boosting or cutting and mainly what were their goals and how they achieved them. I learned a lot about both the technical side and good communication.
This way I was collecting a lot of data and connecting between dots, I've already started to experiment with mastering gear and when I felt I'm ready to go, I started to do some mastering work for clients. Around the time my son was born I decided to close my recording studio and quit recording so I can have a better balance between work and family time and focus on mastering. With the help of studio designer Roger D'arcy, I built TanTan, my beloved mastering room.
Can you name any factors that influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
Being a club and rave DJ during the nineties has taught me a lot about how people respond to audio, it's a physical thing and it can get very emotional. In most of my gigs the crowd used to hear the records I was playing for the very first time so they were unfamiliar with the music and didn't know what to expect, so thankfully I've got to experience the immediate impact audio can have on people.
For example, the way some bass frequencies can make you move, the enveloping effect some panoramic sounds can create, the fine contrast between the gravity effect of some heavy bass frequencies and the amount of movement needed from the higher frequencies in order to balance it out. A good song needs to have more than great melodies, chords and lyrics, it should create some sort of reaction and emotion in order to be more engaging and this is what I aim for when mastering. Thankfully I've had one of the best schools I could ever wish for to learn how frequencies interact and influence (the dance floor).
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?
I used to feel frustrated when some of my clients went to work with other mastering engineers, I have a very competitive nature. Today I totally understand that every artist has to change their production team from time to time in order to sound fresh, because obviously they would never be able to replace themself. I learnt that usually these things work in cycles, if I didn't master this record, the artists would often come back for the next one.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
The most important thing by far would be the monitoring system since the masters you produce could only be as good as you can hear them, even the best analog gear would be useless if you can't hear what it's doing. Your sound will only be as good as your monitoring system.
Build a dedicated room from the ground up if you can, get the best full range speakers you can afford, the best electronics to drive it (console, converters etc.) and of course, a great pair of headphones. If you want to produce great sounding masters and be consistent about it, get a great monitoring system first.
I also keep a selected collection of analog gear which allows me to quickly dial in the sound I'm after, like Sontec, GML and Pultec mastering EQ's, Vacuvox U23m, Elysia Alpha and Maselec MLA-3 compressors as well as a set of Lavry Gold mastering converters.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
Manage your energy, not just your time, one of the best decisions I've ever made was to stop worrying about things I can't control and put my time and energy only into the things I can.
Define your professional values very carefully and keep them under any circumstances. You can replace any piece of gear in your studio with another but your values would always define who you are as a professional.
Work hard and try to improve yourself everyday on all fronts, identify your triggers and break your bad habits, keep only the ones which are really valuable or beneficial to you.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
Many music fans are using headphones to enjoy their favourite tunes nowadays, and it's a good thing since high quality audio became very accessible and affordable thanks to current technology. Having a pair of high quality headphones in a Mastering room is as important as having high quality main speakers. I've always been a big fan of headphones and found them to be a necessary tool for Mixing and Mastering.
My passion towards the ultimate reference headphones has significantly grown when I used to work for Artlist, where we had hundreds of thousands of subscribers with the promise of new music everyday.
I always loved traveling with my family but at that point in time this was impossible because even though we had a team of some very skilled mastering engineers, very much like today I was under contract to do the Mastering for all the original music myself, supervise for the audio quality of the catalogue and sometimes handle user requests. With such large scale of operation, I have a lot of responsibility but at the same time, I'm a family man and spending time with my kids is important to me.
So I was looking for a non compromise mobile solution in order to enjoy both worlds. I've practically called most high end audio distributors in Israel, locked studio time and put together demo sessions where over the course of three days, together with my staff of engineers, I could extensively experiment with the flagship models from several headphones companies side by side, that's when I got to know Audeze and it became one of the most important tools in my arsenal.
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?
After receiving my pair of LCD-5s I felt comfortable to take my family on an enjoyable three weeks trip in Spain. That was a career changing time because using a laptop, a high quality mobile DAC and a pair of LCD-5s, I could work on the road outside the studio like a digital nomad, this was inspirational. I've mastered a song for Balkan Beat Box on the fence of Salvador Dali's old house in Port Ligat and got to master many songs in some beautiful locations. Sonically, it was like carrying around my ATC mains on the roads, an incredible experience I highly recommend. Sometimes we have to think outside the box and get rid of old concepts which might be irrelevant in order to make our lives better.