It’s hard to think of a currently active mastering engineer whose initials appear on more LP lead-out grooves than Kevin Gray’s. He cuts the lacquers for Blue Note’s Tone Poet and Classic Vinyl series, as well as for rock recordings released on vinyl by Intervention Records. He also remasters vinyl reissues for some of Concord’s Craft Recordings reissues, including the newly resurrected Original Jazz Classics series. And that’s just a sampling of his current work.
Gray was barely out of high school when he mastered Plays Pearls by the John “Terry” Tirabasso Orchestra (1973; Fairmont Records LPM 106). He’s been plenty busy since then. A list of Gray’s credits on Discogs runs to 115 pages. He’s mastered music in many genres, for labels large and small.
Gray is among a handful of mastering engineers with reliable audiophile sensibilities. As you’ll see from this interview, he stands in opposition to many of the current trends in mastering, especially in recordings of pop music. Gray’s vinyl masters are notable for their pure, detailed, and realistic sound. He sometimes works in collaboration with a producer, such as Joe Harley on the Tone Poet releases or Shane Buettner on reissues for Intervention Records, but it’s Gray’s trained ear and commitment to good sound that results in such good-quality LPs.
I had intended to interview Kevin Gray and Joe Harley together, but both men have so much experience in the music industry and so many interesting insights that it made sense to do separate interviews. I sent them questions via email, and both took time to carefully answer my questions, as well as my follow-ups. My interview with Harley appeared last month; I edited both interviews for clarity.
Joe Taylor: Let’s start with a little background. Your first job was at Artisan Sound Recorders in Hollywood, California, while you were still in high school. How did that happen?
Kevin Gray: I was interested in music, records, and electronics from the age of five. I sort of always thought I’d wind up in the technical end of radio. In January 1969, my first year of high school, I met Bob MacLeod, who owned Artisan Sound Recorders in Hollywood. Artisan was the first functioning independent mastering studio in Hollywood. Up until 1968, most mastering was done in-house, by record labels, or at the pressing plant. The results weren’t pretty.
So Bob asked me if I would like to see his facility, and of course I said yes. The moment I saw him put a lacquer disc on the lathe, press Play on the tape deck, and the music started cutting, I knew that was what I wanted to do for a living. So . . . I basically considered the rest of high school a waste of time, which was keeping me from doing what I wanted to do.
JT: What did your training at Artisan consist of?
KG: I spent weekends and spring, Christmas, and summer vacations hanging out at Artisan as much as I could. By my junior year, I was making EQ’d tape copies of many popular albums. This required all the level and EQ setups, fade-ins and fade-outs, and everything else required to cut a record, short of actually cutting it. To help Bob, I would even set up the lathe, put on a lacquer, and set the [cutting] depth with the microscope.
I sat in on many sessions, with and without clients present. I heard the tape flat, and after Bob’s EQ. He would tell me what he thought a tape needed and gave me tips on getting the best sound. After a while, Bob would let me EQ something and usually was pleased with the result.
Bob taught me how to listen. It went like this: First off, does the tape sound just fine the way it came in? If so, leave it alone! Is there enough bass, enough mid, enough treble? Is there too much of something? Do all the songs on a side flow well? Is one too loud or too soft? This was my mentoring. It was a priceless education that I would call the equivalent of a master’s degree. Apparently, the state of California thought so too, because they accredited me to teach mastering for UCLA’s Extension program in 1996.
Finally, three months after I graduated from high school, in June 1972, Bob hired me.
JT: Your company, Cohearent Audio, is the base for your mastering and other projects. Tell us how you started Cohearent, and how it has evolved.
KG: I formed Cohearent Audio in 1977, with my friend Bob Van der Veen. Together, we produced the Victor Feldman direct-to-disc recording titled In My Pocket (1978, Cohearent Sound CSR-1001). I cold-called Victor after getting his phone number from the American Federation of Musicians Local 47. I asked him if he would be interested in doing a D2D and he at first said no. He had done several for the Sheffield label and was burned out on it. Then Feldman asked me who the leader was. I replied that I was thinking it would be him. Suddenly he said, “Hmmm, let me think about it for a couple days and I’ll call you back.” To my surprise, he did. We had a few details to work out, but he finally said yes.
After the success of that record, Bob V and I thought we would be on a roll. But our distributor wanted bigger acts. I actually approached Paul McCartney and the management of The Eagles but got a polite “No” from both.
In 1982, I began a side business called Cohearent Audio and Video. I had designed a speaker system very similar to the one I now use for mastering, and for over a decade, I built them and sold them for use in projection rooms and high-end home-entertainment systems. I also built studio electronics, like mike preamps, limiters, etc. In 2010, this morphed into my present mastering biz, Cohearent Audio, LLC. In 2021, I opened Cohearent Recording, aka Hackensack West, and Cohearent Records. In January 2023, we released our first title, a jazz album with saxophonist Kirsten Edkins: Shapes & Sound (2023; Cohearent Records CR-AV-2201).
Kevin Gray (right) and Joe Harley
JT: You and Joe Harley work together on the Tone Poet reissues, but I know you have worked on other projects with him. How did the two of you meet?
KG: Joe and I met in 1997. I was working part-time for AcousTech Mastering in Camarillo, California, at the RTI pressing plant. We worked together on the mastering of a few of the blues recordings Joe had produced for Chad [Kassem] at his Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas.
JT: I would imagine recordings from different labels present unique challenges. You’ve worked with Blue Note many times, but the Tone Poet series also includes Pacific Jazz releases. How do you approach mastering a reissue for vinyl?
KG: My philosophy is to make the record sound as balanced as possible on a really good home playback system. I don’t shoot for the lowest common denominator. Of course, I would like to hear an original pressing for reference, but sometimes that isn’t provided or readily available. Joe usually does bring his originals to our sessions, though.
Joe and I have mastered so many Blue Notes we know pretty much what to expect from Rudy [Blue Note recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, 1924–2016], year by year, Hackensack vs. Englewood Cliffs, etc. Pacific Jazz is not quite as consistent, but still very good. Sometimes, it just takes a little more work to get the sound we are looking for.
Kevin Gray and Joe Harley at work at Cohearent’s studio
JT: Does a rock recording require a different approach in mastering from something in jazz or folk?
KG: I shoot for the same goal of a well-balanced sound, no matter what the genre, but the mechanical aspects are different. Rock is louder, usually has more prominent bass, and is more difficult to fit on the record unless the sides are, say, less than 17 minutes—which is not often the case. Folk music, at the other extreme, normally has less bass than jazz or rock, so it’s usually easier to cut. The process is the same, sonically, trying to get the best sound possible.
JT: It might be interesting to know how developments in current turntables and cartridges make it possible to do things Van Gelder and others might not have been able to do. I know his decision about how much bass to have in a recording, for example, was often based on whether turntables available at the time could track it.
KG: Very true, but I think you explained it well. Skipping was a problem with many of the turntables “in the day” and to avoid that problem, to avoid returns, the low bass was often rolled off below 60Hz. Then a little bass was added, perhaps an octave higher, to give the perception of enough bass.
JT: I saw on your website that you recommend “side times” for LPs [i.e., length of an LP side]. Younger readers, especially, would probably benefit from an explanation of the reasons for those time limits.
KG: To keep it as simple as possible, the longer the side and/or the more bass it has, the more space it uses on the disc. Bass excursions are wide, and use more space than treble does. So the hardest thing to cut is a long side with a lot of bass. The times given are not really limits, but suggestions. They are based on what I would call a typical pop record. Hard rock will use more space, and jazz will use less.
On, say, a 22-minute side, I will sometimes run it through in real time on the lathe, without actually cutting. It’s called a “dry run” and is often the only way to know if a side will fit on the disc. If it doesn’t, the only acceptable solution is to reduce the level [volume]. If the side is really bass-heavy or over-length, it means you will have to turn it up more on playback, and the background noise comes up as a result. Back in the ’70s, when everyone was concerned about “hot levels,” many producers would sacrifice bass to get more level. I don’t do that anymore, because low bass is more important on today’s systems than on older systems, which didn’t produce much low bass anyway.
Kevin Gray with Shane Buettner, owner and producer at Intervention Records. Gray has remastered many of the label’s great rock’n’roll reissues.
JT: How does vinyl mastering differ from digital mastering for another format?
KG: I don’t really do digital mastering per se anymore. I run a high-resolution copy at the same time I cut the lacquer. This is used for downloads and streaming. Sadly, digital mastering today means compressing the life out of the music—which I flatly refuse to do—just to make it loud, and the same volume as everything else out there right now. I think it is pathetic.
I haven’t mastered more than three or four CDs in maybe the last five years. Virtually everything today that isn’t intended for the audiophile market is compressed, so I stay as far away from it as possible. I think part of the popularity of vinyl is hearing the music without all that compression.
JT: What are the steps for mastering a vinyl reissue, including obtaining the original tape?
KG: I have no control over what source is sent to me for mastering. That’s up to the label. The Tone Poets and the Blue Note Classics are all cut from original masters. Very occasionally, when mastering sessions from the digital era, we use the digital master when no analog exists. The next step is to listen and decide what improvements, if any, can be made to the source to make it sound the best on today’s systems. A judicious amount of bass, mid, or treble can be added or subtracted via equalizers, which are basically precision tone controls. After that, the process is purely mechanical, i.e., getting the side, whether it’s 15 minutes or 25 minutes, on the disc at the best volume level and dynamics, but without distortion.
JT: I know something about how lacquer cutting works, but since remastering for vinyl really comes down to that, do you ever do a “test run” to formulate some guidelines that will help you when you actually put the cutting head to the lacquer?
KG: Unless reference discs are ordered for approval, which rarely happens, I have to trust my instincts on this—50 years of experience helps. If something gets a little “out of bounds” I will make a test cut, on a scrap lacquer, and play it back to check.
JT: Are there any differences in method between the Tone Poet and Classic Vinyl series?
KG: Not from a mastering perspective, other than I don’t have Joe’s input on the Classics releases. From a pressing perspective, they are pressed in Germany at Optimal, while the Tone Poets are pressed here at RTI.
JT: In my mind’s eye, I see Joe Harley and Shane Buettner as your collaborators. How does that work in the mastering studio? Is that experience typical, or do you work solo on something like the Classic Vinyl series or a Speakers Corner release?
KG: Both Joe and Shane have their input on what they want their LPs to sound like. I usually agree with their ideas and choices and try to accommodate them. I work solo on probably 90% of the projects I master. I’m happy to receive input, but in reality I rarely do.
. . . Joseph Taylor