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Meet Mastering guru Earle Holder aka 'The Specialist'

His signature sound can be heard on countless records from Public Enemy, Chuck D, Beyoncé and many others. Meet mastering engineer Earle Holder from Hdqtrz mastering studios.

Grammy Judge Earle Holder is currently the Chief Mastering Engineer at Hdqtrz Mastering Studios and the world-famous Hall of Famers “Public Enemy” and Chuck D’s new record label Slam Worldwide along with many other industry heavy hitters. He has a musical background that spans his entire life. He studied music with the late Jimmy Cannady of Cannady Studios (former member of the Inkspots) for those of you who remember. Earle loves mastering Indie projects because an artist wanting to become famous always gives the music everything they have because they are hungry for success. He has more than 30 years’ experience in the audio field. An accomplished musician, born in England and raised between Jamaica, West Indies and Queens, New York, he has been referred to in the industry as “The Specialist” because he strives for and achieves perfection when mastering his client’s music. He has recorded and produced for Atlanta Records and collaborated on numerous projects with Platinum artists such as Beyonce, Ma$e, Public Enemy and Tameko Starr (MCA Records Europe), Interscope Records, Universal Records, One Million Strong, Vol. 2: Love, Peace and War, Kenny Banks, DeBarge, OCF Records, Tuere, Houseguest, Ayana, 4ize (Disturbing tha Peace, part of the Ludacris crew, JD Lawrence, Candice (Australia) and many more. The greatest day for him came when the production group “Dammies and Runnies” had a project from Beyonce’s management team they were working on and requested Earle to put his magic touch on it. Certainly helps the resume!

Earle, it is such a privilege to have you here. Grammy Judge, Mastering hero, audio innovator. You are one of the most open-minded, talented professionals in the industry. And you do not use any drugs!

Drugs not needed. It is a pleasure to be here. The high I get is the constant search to dig down deeper into the audio field and come up with new techniques. Becoming a pioneer in any specific field is a lifetime commitment. I do not attempt to hide my discoveries because those who share the same commitment and passion are truly appreciative. It sometimes becomes a collaborative event. They just get it.
You experience spans over 30 years and audio mastering has changed dramatically, along with the whole audio industry.

Tell us one thing you regret the most about the past and one thing you love about the modern times.

One major thing I regret about the past was the removal of the music programs from the schools. This action fashioned the opportunity for companies to come up with new methods of automating the actual creation of music that did not require any musical knowledge or theory. Everyone is a producer these days. I have always believed that music was supposed to reflect the culture. Currently, there is an entire industry that does nothing but create beats for those artists that are unable to create the music themselves. The ability for an artist to share their purest form with you and engage you on that spiritual level that keeps you transfixed on them has just about disappeared. It is like the comedian Katt Williams once said. “If you own a Chrysler 300 you believe it looks like a Bentley until a real one pulls up next to you”. The same goes for the music industry. You can call yourself a producer all day until a real producer comes along and you realise you must really step up your game. Modern times have provided us with a plethora of tools that increases our workflow. A laptop can hold all the tools to take just about any audio or video production from creation to completion. Let that sink in for a moment. With the latest round of the Acustica Plugins I am confident that the sound they provide won’t jeopardize the confidence my customers have in my ability.

What is your typical approach when mastering a track?

Open the track in Har-Bal and listen, listen, listen. I play pool while listening and really try to get into the groove. What is it I am hearing that does not sit well with me. Is it too bassy? Are there some resonances that stand out and make me feel irritable? Is the high end screaming at me? How are all the elements in the song gelling together? Are the vocals clear? Is the music too dynamic? Are there any rogue resonances? Is anything peaking? Are there any holes in the spectrum? After my listening ritual, I can pretty much decide which tools I need to choose and the specific corrections that need to be applied.

Some engineers will never turn a knob without a reference track. Are you from the same school of thought? 

If a client provides me with a reference it is usually the first time we are doing business. The reference file simply allows me to interpret what sound the client is after. It is quite helpful actually because often times the client is unable to articulate their exact sound requirements in a language we can understand. My regular customers never send me a reference because I am familiar with their sound signature.


"Everyone is a producer these days. I have always believed that music was supposed to reflect the culture. Currently, there is an entire industry that does nothing but create beats for those artists that are unable to create the music themselves"


 

And I suppose the track is ready when you start dancing to it, literally! [Laughs] 

Pretty much. It most definitely means that all the frequencies are hitting me correctly. When all the elements are sitting in their own space the excitement for me is waiting on the client to communicate their thoughts back to me after listening to the mastered sample I send them. It is definitely a high for me. I get to hear so much new music. Some of the artists are so talented I sometimes make calls to my friends in the industry on their behalf. It’s really a challenge for artists now because the real money comes from performing. You have to have showmanship, creativity and originality. You must have the ability to occupy the space in a customer’s brain quickly and hope they become excited about your music as you are and share it. It has become a real numbers game.

Tell us more about your experience with Public Enemy. What does it take to be able to master music from iconic artists like Chuck D?

 PublIc Enemy has so many elements in their music that it poses a real challenge to glue the track together and still maintain their industrial grunge sound. If the Mastering is too perfect the impact of their words will not be as powerful. Their music is just as powerful as their word usage. It is definitely Rock/Hip Hop. Public Enemy’s success came from their ability to think outside the box. They never followed anyone. They had something to say and their music followed with an equal amount of intensity.

A tricky question: how important is it for an audio engineer to know music theory or to be a musician in order to be a proficient mastering engineer?

Although it is not a requirement, it certainly helps. Especially, when you need to communicate with a producer and inform them a specific chord progression may be off. Or even crazier. The key of the 808 drum is not in tune with the rest of the song. It certainly helps to be able to communicate with a producer in their own language.

Compression. Pre or post EQ?

Great question. Specifically, for mastering I mostly use compression first followed by EQ. Here is why. I do not want to change the dynamic of the music. I am using the compressor to glue the elements together and preserve the producer’s intent. Any EQ’ing I perform after is simply to preserve what the compressor may have taken away. If the mix is not well balanced at all and the mixing engineer is unable to make corrections I will start of with a multi-band compressor followed by an EQ
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You are known to be a hip-hop mastering guru. Any 'secret techniques' you want to share?

No! [laughs]….I am just kidding. Start studying EQ filters. Specifically, A, B and C weighted. That ought to give folks a proper direction to start researching. If you start studying these curves you will experience an epiphany. Guaranteed!

You have a hybrid setup. but I reckon Acustica Audio's plugins have gathered a dominant role as of lately...
Here is my hybrid setup starting a few days ago. The hardware as you can see in my photos of course and Acustica Audio plugins. I have removed all others. They are no longer needed. They served their purpose, but new technology has caused my other plugins to become antiquated. When I heard the Acustica plugins I was floored. I was smacked in my ears with audio loveliness
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"When I heard the Acustica plugins I was floored. I was smacked in my ears with audio loveliness
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Any favorite from the bunch?

Oh man! They are all great, but the following has captured my heart. Viridian (juicy compressor and an EQ with points that were intelligently created) It just works. I absolutely love the Cream strip. It imparts a certain essence my hardware isn’t giving me. The Purple series EQs are perfect. Surgical corrections are not needed with this EQ. It is so simple to get “that sound”. It allows me to create extremely phatt in your face masters effortlessly. Another favorite is the Aquamarine3. The Opto compressor feature is amazing followed by the Discrete compressor. You must read the manuals because there are no presets and you really don’t need them once you gain an understanding of how the switches and knobs interact with each other. To tell you the truth all of the plugins I have experimented with are mind blowing. Sometimes I go back and forth between them because they all sound too good. I have tested the music on multiple systems after creating masters using these plugins and I just sit there in awe. Acustica has nailed it. I beg the folks to just download the trial versions and listen for yourselves. It will be the best decision you ever made. Acustica has captured the essence of the finest audio tools ever made accurately!

Loudness War. Still a thing?

I can’t remember the last time any of my clients stated they wanted the music louder. Thanks to the efforts of Bob Katz and others who were instrumental in trumpeting the call to introduce a new level of sonic common sense into the industry. Folks now understand that each service such as CD Baby, iTunes, Spotify and others all have their own air chains. If you upload a super loud track they will simply reduce it to mush to keep it in line with their standard volume. On the other hand, if you upload a relatively quiet track they will increase it to their standard level and you will revel in its sonic splendor. Your music will sound fantastic. Now there are those clients that specifically request club versions of their music. I will make an exception in those cases and add a little more power to their music. I do however impress upon them that they should never upload the club version to any of those online services if they want their music to sound great over the air.

What sets a great mastering engineer apart from a good one?

That’s an easy one. Passion sets a great Mastering Engineer from a good one. The quest to find audio nirvana requires quite a bit of sacrificing. As you spend more time perfecting your craft you will discover new techniques some of which may not yet have been discovered. This causes you to dig down deeper into uncharted territory where you will discover even more information that elevates your way of thinking. Some things in your journey you may not recognize because just like anything else “you don’t know what you don’t know. You will be able to look back each year and be able to measure your improvements.

Do you have one last tip for the apprentice?

Stay away from the forums and start focusing on gaining real knowledge from real resources and making your own discoveries. There is no point in trolling the forums looking for quick solutions without a real understanding. Start shadowing an engineer you trust and start learning the fundamentals. Start with the basic concepts and remain at this level until you reach a proficient level of mastery before moving forward. Remember, it is easier to trip over pebbles than boulders sometimes so absorb the fundamentals.

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