Edward is a multiple GRAMMY® award winning audio engineer, record producer, honorary professor and motivational speaker. Edward helped shape the GRAMMY® Award winning music group The J.U.S.T.I.C.E League’s luxurious sound in the R&B & Hip-Hop scene of the twenty-tens, contributing to classic hit records for Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group and many more.
The first thing I do when I get a song that has a sample, is loading up Audirvāna,
find the song, play the versions and see if I am just going to resample it myself.
Edward, how did you become sound engineer and producer?
I grew up in the Lake District in England, countryside and I was fascinated by rap music, well first dance music, more rave music which is a very popular genre and culture within Northern England and Scotland. It’s very much rave culture, whereas London and the South of England was very band orientated back then and of course lots of other things, but that kind of led me to rap music. But again, I lived in the countryside, so I had no access to any of that. I mean it was more the Northern England sound back then, and for me and for my friends it was predominantly rave music, acid house and house music. It wasn’t really vocal led. But as that was sort of dying out, I think I was realizing that a lot of the samples used were from rap music, especially for drum and bass, and all the heaviest stuff was all sort of sped up rap music in terms of the drums… That was one of the biggest things that shocked me. But again, being in the Lake district I was sort of cut off from any city or industrial sound at all or anything from that of rap music at the time – and it still is I guess – predominantly from the major cities. So, there was not a direct connection, I was just an admirer from afar. The story told within rap music was the biggest thing for me.
Audio has always been a visual thing. As a kid, I’d always listen to music with my eyes closed on the bus on my way to school and people would say ‘why do you have your eyes closed?’ They’d think I was sleeping but I had disappeared into the artist’ world, and I wanted to feel immersed. And looking back now the records that I’d like always had a particular sound which tended to be the worlds of 3D depth which you could climb into and explore and feel like you’re there with them.
I was 26 when I went to University in Birmingham in England and was 30 when I graduated. I had applied to so many studios in England to get an internship or just get my foot in the door, and I never heard anything back. And I decided, ‘I’m just going to go to Atlanta’. Predominantly all the records I was listening to were all made in Atlanta. So, I said to my then fiancé – now wife – ‘give me a year and if I don’t make something happen, I’ll come back, I’ll quit music – I don’t know if I’d really meant that – and get a job and a “career”’. So, I took a flight and stayed in a motel. And I went to every studio every day until one of them finally gave me a chance to come in to clean, do runs and answer the phone. Then one day, a production team came in – called the ‘J.U.S.T.I.C.E League’ – which I then became a part of – needed someone to record a full string section and brass section for a song. They assumed me being English for some reason that’s what I would have grown up recording or that’s what I would have done at university. I turned up to do it. I walked into the studio, and it was Rick Ross, Erykah Badu, Jadakiss & T.I. and it was obviously a massive record. Suddenly I was recording. That was a brilliant experience that led me to stay in America for seven years.
How much attention do you pay to sound quality?
The studio is a funny place. You inherit a studio. Unless you chose, you get to a new studio and by the time you learnt it, you’ve left. There’s not really much time in a place to really grasp it. Whereas having a room… that’s why I think as well that music is best made with everybody in the same room. Not necessarily one room. But they can stand next to each other, magic can happen in those circumstances. I think I’ve rediscovered that having my own room, and being able to really get to know it, and progress in that room I can make the room the best it could be.
In the room that a record is made in, it’s the best it will ever sound. Because a lot of rooms I’ve worked in weren’t accurate at all. Everything is important: room and acoustics, the DAC, A/D converters, then you’ve got the speakers. And then the last thing, which is time, familiarity, learning the space. And I think a lot of records are made under circumstances that are already not good. So, when you put them under a microscope or something that really shows the record. Some records that I actually really loved. I listen to them in my room, and I wonder why did they do that? Why does it sound so poor. And more often than not, it’s because the engineers are working in rooms that aren’t accurate. It’s like having a fight in the dark. You might get lucky, but you might fall as well.
The mid90s for me was a pinnacle of sound. Just sound quality, not musicianship. The best studios existed. A lot of albums were made in one room. The whole album. They had the same engineers, learning the room day out and day in for the last twenty years. If you fast forward on a song today where the piano is a poorly captured sample, sourced from the internet which is an Mp3. And I am now getting the piece replayed because the Mp3 is unusable. I think once applications like yours and headphones and everything gets better we will go back to what’s important. And things get better, all those little differences are going to be the reason why companies much like songs will be forgotten. When it becomes as easy to have the better version, people want the better version.
For the last twenty years, we’ve been trying to hit a moving target. The target has moved all the time. And not all always improving as we learnt by Mp3 it wasn’t so that we could have better quality, it was so that the business people could evolve whatever they were doing. So, I feel that we have gone backwards to now eventually coming forward. We don’t make music for the record labels. We do it for us. We do have a music market driven by art, and those tend to be time after time the records that are remembered forever. And then we have the music industry led by the people making it as a business venture, those tend to be the records that sell and then disappear. With those projects they take up a lot of the time of the best mixers. Because they’re popular, they sell a lot, and then they’re gone. The mixers are kept busy having to do things quickly with people who are intent on selling their product. But they have a cool idea. They can’t necessarily sing or give a great performance, but we can that with tools and with tuning etc. As a result, lot of engineering becomes manufacturing a performance as opposed to capturing one. My happiest moments when I’m engineering are capturing a sound and then engineering it to be the best it can be. I am not going to paint a picture of you that is not you. It should sound like you, looking in the mirror.
"I think that's how I would sum it up: your player is the first one I can trust."
Do you have a preference for Analog or Digital audio?
I am not a fan of digital. Not because of the quality of sound today – because I actually think some digital processing can be incredible. Do I think it can compete with analog? Not in the right hands. But I think in many hands, I’d say yes, and actually surpass it, depending on who’s operating. I remember the beginnings of digital and thinking it sounded absolutely awful. And it did! I used to say because you have a scalpel, it doesn’t make you a surgeon. Because you have a tools of a doctor, it doesn’t make you a doctor, and I think that was probably an arrogant way to say it, but I guess what I meant by that is that music can become very fast food-like and has become very fast food-like in many genres, because with technology you can change things a million times. Analog wasn’t like that. You had to get it right. And you couldn’t say ‘we’ll fix that later’ which ties the hands of somebody who can sculpt sound. Because what you’re being sent is needing 90% of your time on fixing what should have been done in the beginning, you’re only left with 10% of your time to do what you are actually good at. So, I am for digital and analog, and I use both but predominantly I’m analog now.
Do you still enjoy listening music for fun or pleasure?
When I was a kid, I enjoyed music so much. In fact, it was one of my only enjoyments in life really. Going to university, I still enjoyed music, but you’re affected by what is popular. And I still was exploring but it was predominantly just one genre, just rap music. The last seven years there has been this period where I thought ‘I actually love jazz and I actually love rock, and I actually still love dance music’. So, my horizons broadened, and really because of that I started really enjoying music again. When you are in a studio every day for sixteen hours, constantly working on music, you don’t really have time to listen to new music, to find old music, to enjoy music.
When I first started to explore streaming services, I was like why is anyone going to listen to streaming? What will be the purpose? Because it’s heavily degraded. So, when Tidal came along, it was at the time I was working with Roc Nation. And suddenly, I thought ‘OK. I get where we are going now’. We can maybe have a quality that surpasses a CD. So, I stream music for three purposes: one to enjoy music, which is the most important one, and secondly to take inspiration from in terms of just a sound or a chord that I can hear, and I want to dissect it and wonder what it is. And with my network, I often contact the studio and say ‘hey, you’ve recorded this, could you put me in contact with the sound engineer who recorded it? I want to have a chat with them.’ And I’ll ask them. ‘The rhythm guitar, how was it recorded? Do you remember?’ He’ll bring the session notes and we’ll have a conversation. And I love that. Thirdly, in rap music, I like to sample drums. So, I’ll sample a single kick drum, a single snare. So, while listening to a song I’ll hear a hi hat exposed on its own that sounds marvellous form an old song.
Now having to do all that, flipping through records like we used to. The joy of going to a record shop, and fingering through the albums like we used to, you can never replace that, however I am having a lot of fun again discovering samples, and discovering things that I can use. So those are my uses really, and during lockdown, I think I tried everyone from Spotify to Qobuz etc. I never realized that there was also your type of service which brought everything together. I could have it in one place, like I’ve got now with Tidal and Qobuz.
How did you discover Audirvāna?
I went looking for something. I searched for multiple streaming services. I think I googled something like that. And in the forum, I saw comments and realized Audirvāna could do everything. I did try two. And everyone that I found online said that Audirvāna was the best one to get. I tried two and I felt – for whatever reason – Tidal sounded better through your application than it did on its own. There has been to many occasions now that I felt it sounds better! I like the fact that I can dig into the settings and see exactly what’s happening. Application aside, I am probably someone who wouldn’t care how it looked, what features it had. If it sounds the best, I’m using it! And I think on the same with my Lynx Hilo which is my main ADAC. The Hilo is now very old. But to me, it does nothing, which is what a DAC converter should do.
As an engineer a lot of that comes down to trust. Trust that the audio cable has been soldered correctly and is functioning correctly. The first things I do when I come to work is checking the cables, every day, even though they should be fine. I have a mini spirit level that I place on top of my speakers, and I’ll make sure they haven’t been knocked or moved so they are perfectly as they should be. And this is very important because these are the things that can take us time. I think that’s how I would sum it up: your player is the first one I can trust.
Do you talk to people about it?
The first thing I do when I get a song that has a sample, is load up Audirvāna, find the song, play the versions, and see if I am just going to resample it myself. If we inherit a sample we got from Youtube that is a mp3, and to have to have that in the song is a tragedy, unless you want to make it sound like it was from Youtube, if that’s the goal. Things are changing now, I found that even people that I’ve introduced to Audirvāna and to Qobuz, and especially people who sample records a lot, would say ‘man, I can’t find a good version of this’ and I’ll send them a link and they’ll download your software, and they’ll say. ‘Brilliant! Done.’ And I think it is important while that might not be a huge market in terms of people using an application like yours for enjoyment, they are actually using it to make records that will be enjoyed by your listeners.
What are your passions outside of music?
I used to study Kung Fu. I love the technical aspect of that. It’s very engineering-like really in pushing the boundaries of what is possible. And I love that. I think any fitness that I have is because of audio. I find it very hard to go from the finite detail of an emotional response to sound and then walk out this door and not apply it to my whole life. So yes, with fitness, I like to push myself. So, fitness has become a thing I do daily like brushing my teeth. Many years ago, I decided that I wanted to take better care of myself but also find something that I enjoy doing. And going to the gym helps me clear my head as well.