Audeze discovers a life altering element with mastering engineer Natalie Bibby

February 20, 2024

Natalie Bibby is one of the most unique and exciting mastering engineers in Europe, currently based at Metropolis Studios, West London. She began her career much earlier than most in her field, giving her a breadth of skill and experience that is beyond her years. Combining this traditional knowledge with her creativity and talent for mixing, she sets herself apart as a modern mastering engineer with a fresh approach.

Natalie wearing Audeze LCD-X headphones mixing

"Audeze for me are THE ultimate headphones. As a mastering engineer, these headphones have become as important as speakers to me." - Natalie Bibby 
Here's our chat with Natalie:
Can you pick out any highlights from your work that you're particularly proud of?

My career highlight for mastering so far would be working with Ciinderella Balthazar on the track 'White Rainbows'. When I first heard that song in my mastering room, the chorus made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I knew instantly this song was something very special. When I have moments like that in mastering, where the song connects and moves me in such a powerful way, it brings me back to why I got into this profession. Music is energy and connection...and connection is key. I feel so grateful to be a part of the creative journey of artists and Ciinderella Balthazar herself inspires me with her evocative voice, talent and just frankly who she is as a person.

For my lacquer cutting career, my highlight so far would be the live direct to vinyl cut of Jimmy Eat World. This was a huge, once in a lifetime event at the studio, which required a big 'stepping up to the mark' as a young engineer. The experience itself felt somewhat magical and is something I still think about now.

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

My role on all projects I receive is as the mastering engineer. I listen to people's mixes and process them so that they are ready for release. Mastering is the final process in audio post-production and the aim is to make EQ, volume and dynamic adjustments so that the song sounds as good as it possibly can. I also ensure it sounds great no matter what it is played on (car stereo, ear phones, phone, high quality speakers.) These days, my mastering often involves me doing some final mix tweaks before I begin to master. I will often do volume automation, de-noising, de-clicking and so on if necessary. Lately, I have also been taking on some remastering projects, which aren't as straightforward as simply remastering in the traditional sense. I do a lot of repairing, fixing, restoring, and mix enhancement depending on what the source material is on and like. It's something I am really passionate about and in some ways the worse off the source material quality is, the more I enjoy it as there is more to rescue and improve.

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

When I was very young, I listened to whatever my parents played on the radio. Some CDs from long car trips early on in my childhood remain memorable, for example Beautiful South and Lighthouse Family. I was bewitched by music even as a small child; it felt like something mysterious that could take you to another world. One of the most important things that happened in my early childhood was receiving a CD player of my own. This coincided with a family friend giving my mum their CD collection to look after while they moved house. As a 6 year old, I would regularly sit and listen to those CDs for a couple of hours before bed each night. So listening to music became an early hobby for me and it was entirely active too - I wouldn't do anything else whilst listening; I would just sit and focus on what I was hearing. I would mostly listen to chart music, oldies, disco - in general as a child I enjoyed music that seemed catchy with lots of hooks. It was when I was 11 that I developed a real taste for rock and alternative music.

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

The most important factor that changed the course of my life (not just musical direction) was when an older friend lent me a copy of Nirvana's 'Nevermind' and told me to listen to it. This was many years after Cobain had died. I was only 11 when my friend lent me the CD and I was a bit nervous about rock music at that point. I remember the inside of the album artwork with the monkey toy against a fiery background scaring me. I didn't think it would be any good, so I just fast-forwarded it about a minute into the first track, which of course was 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. It completely blew me away, instantly! I will never forget how it made me feel and I am always hoping to recapture an essence of that feeling when searching for new music. That experience made me ask for an electric guitar for my 12th birthday, which was really the beginning of my musical journey. I can't emphasise enough how much of an influence Kurt Cobain has been on the beginning and duration of my music career. He made me want to pick up a guitar, write songs and also his feminism normalized women in alternative music from an early age for me.

I started playing electric guitar in bands within a few months of having lessons but some of my friends also needed a bass guitarist for their band. So I was about 12 and a half when I started playing bass as well, it's funny because I am left-handed and didn't own a bass guitar; so I borrowed my school's right-handed bass but would play it upside down! I did finally get a lefty bass guitar though for my 13th birthday. I didn't start playing drums until I was 17 and I only took a year's worth of lessons. This was never to be able to play well but only to be able to better understand how to write and program drum parts for my own songs.

However I was always more drawn to writing songs than playing for other people; I suppose because I am a very creative person as well as more introverted. This interest in writing songs was what led me into audio production. When I was 14 my music teacher, Mr Elvie, at school noticed I had a flair for writing songs and at that time, the school had just purchased a couple of computers with Cubase as well as MIDI keyboards. I had a few brief lessons on how to get going and after that he let me use one of the computers to make music in break and lunch times. This became a hobby and inevitably led me to get into mixing. It's strange when I look back and think I have really been learning and moving towards this career since I was 11 years old.

Obviously the main key moment in my professional music career was the first step I took from audio engineering being my hobby to being my occupation. This was when I began as a studio intern at Metropolis. I interned in the studios department for around a year; but developed an interest in mastering after seeing the rooms and developing a rapport with an engineer called Tony Cousins. He began teaching me things very early on, whilst I was still running in the studios department. I did a little work experience at Fluid Mastering around the same time and those guys Nick and Tim took me under their wing and really inspired me. Pretty soon after that, I then became a mastering intern at Metropolis. It of course has been many years - this career path. I went from runner, to intern, to QC engineer, to assistant and finally to a mastering engineer in my own right. Overall, it's been an incredible journey, thrilling in so many ways and mysterious too.

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?

At the start of my career I was using Sadie6 for all my mastering. I found that this DAW was limited in its editing and automation capacity. This restricted my ability to adjust people's mixes prior to mastering, which I did not like as I consider myself a more modern, hands-on mastering engineer. So I overcame this by switching to mastering in Sequoia. This DAW is much more suited to my workflow preferences and gives me much more control over premasters, enabling me to make clinical changes prior to mastering.

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project?

I would say some of my favourite pieces of equipment are my Avalon AD2077, my Summit Audio EQF-100 and also my Maselec MEA-2. I find the Summit is an excellent tool for warming up the low end and low mids when there is a need for it in a mix. My Avalon pairs nicely with it too and together they work a special kind of rare magic. My MEA-2 is a truly brilliant piece of equipment for when you need to make clinical changes to the sound of a mix and it doesn't tend to have a pronounced colour of its own, which is also useful for this function.

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

For budding mastering engineers, my overall advice is to not want for things too soon. It is a very long path that requires total commitment and patience. The best thing you can do from the beginning is get good at mixing, as a lot of the skills and ear training from this are necessary, helpful and transferable. Ultimately a mastering engineer should in theory have the ears and skill of a top level mixing engineer too.

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

I've been working with headphones for around 12 years. In the early days of my career when I began doing a lot of mixing, I always had three sets of headphones to reference on. It is essential, not least because most consumers listen to the final product through ear or headphones after all.

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

I would say to everyone: do not underestimate the importance of headphone referencing in mastering. When I was at the beginning of my career, I switched between mastering rooms frequently. The sound of the rooms was different but the model of headphones in each room was the same. This enabled me to work through the problem of different room sound and to check and trust what I was hearing and doing was accurate. Luckily I've been settled in my mastering room for some years now, so I don't have the problem of moving around any longer. However, from this way of working earlier in my career; I still check every single song I master on headphones as well as on my nearfields and full range speakers. Not only are the headphones very clinical but we engineers must always remember that the majority of consumer listeners will be hearing our masters on some form of headphones or earbuds. Therefore because of this, I feel it is important to fully connect and preempt the prospective listener's experience of our masters by checking on headphones.

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

Audeze for me are THE ultimate headphones. As a mastering engineer, these headphones have become as important as speakers to me. I always use them now in addition to speakers to QC my masters after printing them and I think this is essential. I also exclusively use Audeze headphones to de-noise and de-click and feel they are better to do this with than with speakers. I recently remastered an EP for a 90's grunge band called Dandelion - the only source was a worn cassette. After the transfer, I methodically had to go through the whole thing doing all manner of repairs; especially de-clicking. The Audeze headphones were critically important in the end to the successful outcome of that project and I was truly grateful to have been able to use them.

Audeze LCD-X headphones on mixing table