Audeze talks with mastering engineer Jeff Lowes

Jeff Lowes is the Owner/Engineer of OTR Mastering which is based in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of North Texas. OTR Mastering provides professional music mastering services utilizing some of the best analog and digital gear available.

 Jeff Lowes and his Audeze LCD-X headphones at OTR Mastering

"After using the LCD-Xs for a little bit, I realized that they are very honest headphones." - Jeff Lowes
Here's our chat with Jeff:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

I consider it an honor whenever I’m asked to work on a project. That means that the artist, producer, engineer – whomever – trusts me with their hard work. A recent project that I’m particularly humbled to have a small part in the creation of is the concept album “Alamo Bootleg – Vol.1” by Eric Steele. It’s based on the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio, TX in 1836. The album features 9 original songs written and produced by Steele including voice-over performances by the late great Charlie Pride and Country Music veteran Janie Fricke. Other featured artists include Summer Dean, Trey Privott and Jaime Wyatt. It was expertly recorded and mixed by Paul Osborn at Audio Dallas (which was formerly known as Autumn Sound).

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

Mastering engineer

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

My parents enrolled me in piano lessons when I was 5. I did that into my Sophomore year in high school. Following in my Dad’s footsteps, I basically taught myself how to play guitar – mostly consisting of the typical self-tutoring using those popular Mel Bay books and sitting in front of the stereo as a teenager playing along with music on the radio. The only formal teaching I had on guitar was in my 30s from a guy who played slide guitar for Bugs Henderson.

I grew up listening to the main stream bands of the time such as The Beatles, The Monkeys, Elton John, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Journey, Boston, Foreigner, Heart, The Allman Brothers, the Doobie Brothers, etc. I particularly liked guitar-driven songs. After I got into audio engineering, I developed a love for just about all music that is “musical” and has a good sound. I was drawn to pretty much anything that had a musical quality to it, was melodic and sounded really good.

I remember the first time I recall listening to music on headphones. Although I can’t remember what brand of headphones they were, I very vividly remember the song that I heard – Steely Dan Ricky Don’t Lose That Number. I was blown away by how it all sounded in the cans – the stereo spread and separation, the details and clarity, the presence – all the different elements of a song that I hadn’t noticed before just listening on the stereo speakers. I was still a kid at that time so I had no knowledge of audio production whatsoever. I only knew how good it sounded listening to music on headphones.

There was a radio program that played on Sunday evenings called The King Biscuit Flour Hour. I loved listening to that program on headphones and was often intrigued by the production technique of stacking rhythm electric guitar parts and panning them full Left and Right. That was the coolest thing I’d ever heard – especially when the parts were slightly different. It created so much musical interest in the song.

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

Well, it seems that I’ve always been involved with music in some form or fashion all of my life – from listening to and watching my Dad play his guitar and the piano (that was the highlight of any day when I was a kid) – to learning to play the piano, then guitar, then bass and then guitar again. I played bass guitar in concert band and lab band in high school and made the North Texas All Region Jazz Band my senior year. I played bass in a band during college and then played bass and then lead guitar for a number of years at Church.

What’s ironic about this is that during all of that time of playing – particularly the time when playing at Church and in bands – I never once gave any thought whatsoever to “sound”, PAs, or anything that had anything to do with audio production. I didn’t even really know it existed. It wasn’t until years later when I found myself in a job that I didn’t like that a random thought just popped into my head. It was something like, ‘Hmmmm, audio engineer......I bet that would be pretty cool.’ So I opened the Yellow Pages (remember those?), found the Recording Studio section and started making phone calls; just asking how to get started in that field.

Several people with whom I spoke pointed me to the same guy – Phil York of Big Y Productions. They said they thought that he was doing some kind of an internship for Recording Studio engineering. I called Phil and asked about his class. He asked me some basic questions to see if I had any aptitude at all for the profession and to see if he thought I would be a good fit for his class. After “passing” an initial test, he accepted me into his internship and that’s where I started my professional audio career. At some point during the class I discovered that Phil was the engineer for Willie Nelson’s multi-platinum album, Red Headed Stranger. I figured I’d stumbled into some pretty good hands...

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?

Sometimes I get frustrated with a track that doesn’t seem to want to turn out like I’ve envisioned it in my head. Whenever I find myself in the middle of one of those occasions, I’ll take a short break and then go back and listen to the raw mix again and try to get a fresh perspective of the direction the track wants to go. Many times, it turns out that I’ve been fighting the mix, trying to get it to conform to the image I have in my head; trying to beat it into submission. What I usually end up doing is to go ahead and zero out all the gear and start over from scratch. Grasping the vision of a song or project comes quicker with experience.

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

I really like all of the gear in my processing chain, but one of my favorite pieces right now is The Oven by Hendyamps and Maor Appelbaum. It gives such a nice, warm, clean density to the sound and yet still preserves much of the transients in a mix. And, it works well on almost any type of material.

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

It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to become established as a professional audio engineer and maybe even more so as a mastering engineer. When I made the switch from recording and mixing over to mastering, I pretty much had to totally re-train my ears. I had to learn to listen to the music from a completely different angle – focusing more on the song as a whole rather than listening to individual instruments within the mix. Processing in a mastering context is a bit different as well and it takes some time and a lot of practice to develop a good sense of what kinds of processing any given mix might need.

Also, you need to spend a good amount of time with your gear to learn what kind of sound it imparts to a mix and how each one interacts with the music and with the other pieces of gear in your chain. Each processor - be it an EQ, a compressor, a limiter, a saturation device or whatever - sounds a bit different from other similar processors. For example, my Crane Song IBIS EQ sounds a little bit different than my Dangerous BAX EQ – both in overall box-tone and in the filters. In addition, each device will typically sound a bit different depending on where it is in the processing chain (IOW, what’s in front of it and/or behind it) and how hard or soft you hit it with the input signal. It just takes time spent going through the motions of mastering getting to know your gear and what their sweet spots are – both in chain order and input signal strength.

One must also spend a good amount of time getting to know your monitoring and room acoustics. Listen to lots of great sounding recordings and listen really closely to the entire frequency spectrum. You need to know what stuff is supposed to sound like on your system and in your room. Make sure to acoustically treat your room so that you can trust what your monitors are telling you. I once read a quote from a big-time mastering engineer who explained that your monitoring is the most important aspect of your system. You have to have accurate monitoring because what you hear is what tells you how to turn the knobs on your gear. A great set of reference headphones will definitely help in this area.

I would also say that networking is a very important aspect of professional audio production of any kind. It is not a typical business that’s driven by advertising. You need to get connected to other production professionals and build relationships based on trust and hard work. There’s some truth to the saying that nobody notices audio until there’s something wrong with it. People want to know that they can count on you to deliver a quality product. If you consistently do good work, your clients will recommend you to others. You’re way more likely to get hired because of your reputation than because of any gear you have.

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

I’ve used headphones and/or earbuds extensively throughout all of my professional audio career which, along with music production, has included Corporate audio – both live and webcasts – and sports audio (NFL, NCAA and UIL High School football playoffs and championships). During NFL and NCAA post-game press conferences I’d always use my earbuds to monitor the press feed so I know what the TV camera guys (and wherever else the signal is being routed to) are hearing. I almost always used earbuds for monitoring when I was playing guitar as well.

I rely on a good set of headphones or earbuds to check certain details of a song I’m working on. I’ve read many positive reviews about the Audeze LCD-X by fellow engineers. And, now that I’ve had the chance to hear them firsthand – thanks to my new friend Ron St. Germain - I’m really happy to incorporate them into my workflow.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work?

After using the LCD-Xs for a little bit, I realized that they are very honest headphones. I'm getting great use out of them for listening down captured files and editing the front and back of masters. I also find them very useful for helping to dial in the De-Esser on songs that need a little touch of that. I'm sure I'll find lots of other uses for them as I integrate them more and more into my workflow.

Can you tell us what you've been working on with them recently?

These headphones arrived just at the right time to put them to work right away using them to QC the master files for the Alamo Bootleg - Vol.1 project that I was finalizing for delivery to the client. After that I used them to help on an audio book project.

Jeff Lowes' Audeze LCD-X headphones at OTR Mastering