Some careers are more portable than others. These days, if you have an office job and a computer, the chances are you can work pretty much anywhere with a broadband connection and a laptop. But as a mastering engineer, moving your entire studio, including delicate vintage technology such as vinyl cutting lathes, is a bit more of a challenge and precisely recreating the acoustics of your old rooms can be next to impossible.
However, for Naweed, Chief Mastering and Electronics Engineer at respected mastering house and vinyl cutting service Whitfield Mastering, this is nothing new. In the early 2000s, Naweed was employed at Sony Studios in Whitfield Street, Soho, where he was already one of Londons most sought-after vinyl cutting and digital mastering engineers, renowned for his professional ear and his track record of mastering a wide range of hit and award-winning records, from classical jazz to dance and hip-hop for all of the major record labels, including everything released on vinyl by Loud Records and DefJam UK. Artists he worked for included Jay Z, The Beatnuts ,Wu-Tang Clan, Ja Rule and Kanye West. But when the studios went into receivership, he was literally locked out of the room where he plied his craft. Suddenly, he had clients but nowhere to work, and no equipment.
Naweed struck out on his own, working in temporary facilities until he was able to raise the funds to buy back the equipment from his former room at Whitfield Street when it was sold at auction. He bought back one of Whitfield Streets Neumann VMS80 cutting lathes, various prized analogue EQs and compressors and, most importantly to him, his PMC BB5 XBD-A reference monitors.
"I've used PMC BB5s from the very beginnings of my time as a mastering engineer," he explains. "Together with my ears and my room, they're my most important tools. No other monitor can deliver the resolution and low-end energy I need, especially for my work with hip-hop and dance music."
Working as Whitfield Mastering, Naweed set up his own studio in Soho in 2008, and broadened his reputation, becoming the go-to mastering engineer for a number of award-winning mainstream hit-makers, among them Ellie Goulding (including the double-platinum Lights and triple-platinum album Halcyon), Bastille, Hudson Mohawke, Take That, Mark Ronson, James Morrison, Jamiroquai and Cheryl. At the same time, he cultivated relationships with the Bollywood musical community, working on releases by some of its biggest stars, including Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, and Sunny Leone.
After a few years, he had a call from Sonys headphone design team. They wanted someone with incredibly accurate hearing to help them fine-tune the design of a new range of high-end studio headphones, and some A&R people had recommended Naweed. My studio in Soho was really well designed, and I had worked with [renowned acoustic design consultant] Nick Whitaker to make it even better, explains Naweed. With the BB5s, I could monitor accurately down to 20Hz in there. When Sony brought their headphone prototypes in, I could tell that there were major issues in the bass region and I told them so.
Following discussion with the chief of Sonys engineers, who had made the journey to Whitfield Mastering with his team, Naweed was taken on as a sound design consultant to improve the range. What was originally envisaged as work on just one set of headphones, the MDR-1, turned into a much more extensive project, with the PMC BB5s used as the benchmark. The Sony team loved the sound of my PMCs in that room, and kept trying to replicate that reference in the headphones. They spent months coming back, making measurements and testing improved versions, until they got the range right. In the end, we worked on the whole Sony MDR headphone and XBA in-ear range together; more than 11 models in total to date.
Looking to expand further, Naweed moved with Whitfield Mastering to Chelsea last year. He brought in Nick Whitaker again to collaborate on the acoustics of the new facility, worked on the electronic design himself, brought all of his trusted equipment with him, and installed the largest 5.1 mastering console in the world, a Crookwood M1 custom-designed with the companys Managing Director Crispin Herrod-Taylor but still, he initially felt something was missing at the new premises. "You need a lot of elements to be a successful mastering engineer. Good ears, of course, but also transparent monitors and a room that you know and trust; one that doesn't colour what you do. If you lose any of those elements, it can be pretty serious for your business.
"I had to have my BB5s in the new room but due to the shape and acoustics of the room, for the first time ever, I couldn't use them free-standing. You could hear very little below 40Hz at first. So we decided to soffit-mount them and then we had an excess of sub-bass. We tried acoustic solutions, packing the soffits with rockwool, and the engineers at PMC came down a few times to assist. The room was suffering from a stubborn 2-3dB dip at 40Hz, and PMC's engineers concluded that the only solution was an electronic one. We modified the crossover to cancel out the dip, and now my reference recordings sound the same as they used to in my Soho studio, which is essential for me. I'm really pleased with how everything worked out."
Naweed is now busy working in Whitfield on new projects, including mastering new releases for Warp Records, Warner Music and Atlantic Records, and stem mixing and mastering film soundtracks and trailers for a variety of international clients from the USA to Bollywood. For the latest on Whitfield, see www.whitfieldmastering.com.