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A Mastering Engineer’s Systems

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[Publisher’s note: Dagogo is excited to present Dave McNair’s following new article to its readership.

Thank you, Dave!

This article is presented by Dagogo Senior Reviewer David Blumenstein.]

About the author:

Dave has been a professional recording engineer, mixer, producer, audiophile and for the last 20 years, a mastering engineer.

Since his earliest days, music has been a constant. Starting with classical guitar at age 11, then later a series of rock bands, his love of music and tech, lead to a career in music recording. Concurrent to beginning his engineering career, he sold high-end home audio in several locations including Innovative Audio and Sound By Singer in NYC.

After years of residence on NYC, Los Angeles, and Austin, he now resides in Winston Salem, NC where he operates Dave McNair Mastering and spends his time listening to records, reading, meditating, cooking vegan food, hiking, riding road bikes and swapping out Hi-Fi gear in search of a better sound.



It’s a common memory for many audiophiles – the first listening experience that ignited something previously unknown that was lurking inside your head.

My experience was at a local HiFi store hearing Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way”. Looking back, I’m grateful to the salesman for taking the time to put on a record for a curious 15-year-old kid. I listened to those crunchy guitar chords, wailing Heil talkbox solo and languid slide riffs issuing forth out a pair of Altec Lansing Valencias, G.A.S. electronics, and probably a Denon turntable. I can recall exactly what the sense of slam felt like, from the damped, 70’s era, low tuned snare and bass drum. I was hooked right then and there. Soon after, there was the other HiFi shop that let me listen to ELP “Lucky Man” on an Infinity Servo Static system (with sub), and then that time with an ECM record on full-size Maggies with dual ML-2’s (I never knew records could have so little surface noise…) but that first kiss from the Altecs was a love thang.

Fast forward to a career in audio production. First as a recording engineer – thanks to my Dad for suggesting a job in a recording studio as opposed to my college dropout plan to be a rock star – then later a producer/mixer, and finally my job for the last 20 years as a mastering engineer.

Looking back, I think I pursued studio life as a way to be the person responsible for helping create the kind of recordings that I enjoyed sonically.

In the early days, to help pay the bills, I worked in several high-end audio stores and become initiated into the Ways of Audiophilia. I’ve always owned a decent, mid-level, playback system but until recently never completely considered myself an actual audiophile. My reasons might consist of a lack of extra bucks after the necessary pro audio and musical instrument purchases, the expenses of raising a family, being too burned out from long hours listening in studios, and if I’m honest – a general feeling of knowing too much about how the sausages are made. This conveniently lets my ego whisper something about being better than all those home audio fools. I can certainly empathize with a segment of audiophiles that think they know what really good sound is – not those “hack” audio production pros!

Today, things have changed quite a bit around here. Changed like an ex drinker who decides to drink again and this time it’s all single malts, all the time. I’ve plunged deeply back into HiFi with a singular focus on vinyl.

So what do I want in my home system as opposed to my work system?

First, to be clear, I’m of the opinion that audiophiles should not aim to have a system that perfectly re-creates what was heard in the recording studio or concert hall. The notion that a playback system can be completely transparent and colorless as some sort of pure conduit for the recording is a noble pursuit, but that doesn’t cut it for me. The flaw of this approach, in my opinion, is almost no one can know what is ‘correct’ and even if they did, it would only be ‘correct’ for a tiny subset of recordings that were specifically produced to sound good on that kind of ultra-flat and almost distortionless kind of system. And don’t get me started on one thing any recording engineer knows in their bones: what comes out of any playback system regardless of how well recorded any musical performance is, never sounds like what it sounded like in the room with the performers. So given that the recording is an illusion (admittedly sometimes very convincing), I just want my home system to sound good! And on a broad range of recordings. But just like many audiophiles, my good is a pretty sophisticated good. Born from many years of listening and experiences with lots of different gear, including a massive amount of tools that influence the sound of the recording itself. I’m picky about my good.

My home system, (like many audiophiles) is in a constant state of flux during which I seem to alternate between periods of enjoying listening to music without focusing on the system and then periods of swapping out of components in search of a better version of my ‘good’. This is usually because my local HiFi store owner (and good friend) will call and tell me about something that just came in that I should hear. They are called dealers for a reason 🙂



My home system objectives start with subjectively flat frequency response, especially in the midrange and low mids. Highs and lows can be a matter of taste, but I can’t listen for long if the mids are too lumpy or too scooped. I don’t need it razor flat and actually like the mids to be slightly relaxed if anything, but the area between 500Hz and about 4K needs to be let’s say, cohesive. I’m very lucky to have a good sounding listening room that doesn’t impose any major sonic additions or subtractions to what comes out of the speakers except for a slight amount of thickness around 250 Hz.

Next and possibly of equal importance is that sense of unconstructed dynamic reproduction that I hear almost exclusively in a well-executed ported box or horn type speaker. Yes, I love the seductive mids of a well-conceived planar design but for me, those speakers have always missed that sense of slam that became my drug of choice since the Joe Walsh/Altec incident. As many audiophiles know, the upstream components can greatly influence the perception of this, but I consider the speakers a crucial element, so I have enjoyed vented, dynamic driver systems for most of my listening years. I owned an MTM configuration, Dynaudio driver-based, transmission line speaker at one point, but even while those sounded good, ultimately they did not have my preferred sense of transient response. I’ll blame that on the transmission line.

I need the lows to go low. Too many years of listening to a full-range system in a well-designed mastering studio have me hooked on the sensation of feeling some 30 or 40Hz if it’s in the recording. No excessive boominess please and not gobs of it, but I need a little splash of that in my coffee.

I want to hear the system present as much spatial information as possible but I don’t need it to have an almost holographic, 3D presentation of the kind that I’ve heard on some systems with certain recordings. It’s fun, but my listening biases don’t demand this beyond a solid center image and a clear perception of all the panned elements in a typical multi mono style recording.

Further down the scale but again of no small importance is a sense of harmonic richness, including a buttery smooth and extended top end, plus a sense of texture to the midrange. Musicians call it simply ‘tone’. Some of this is just plain frequency response, but I believe components can also change the sound in ways I perceive as a harmonic coloration that melds to the recording in a pleasing way – ‘Hey hon, can you put on a little of that makeup that makes you look so hot?’

Speakers aside, I’ve found the cartridge and phono pre the easiest way to dial this in to taste. Phono cartridges sound vastly different to me and I think of them to be exactly like microphones. There really are no bad microphones in a serious professional recording studio, just whatever the engineer likes to hear on whatever sound source. I’ve heard some well regarded MC carts that sounded to me like the classic AKG C-12 microphone which has a rise of about 8-10dB at 20K! The modern R&B mic of choice for vocals is a Sony C-800G which is even brighter!

I’m convinced that we all hear differently and have unique preferences, so I have zero issues with somebody who loves the sound of their system even if I might think it to be very bright or very dark.



My studio system is very different, including no vinyl playback except for the custom Scully lathe which doesn’t really count. I usually monitor digital and analog tape sources while I’m mastering them.

How and why is it different you say? Especially given that I have the same ‘What I Think Sounds Good’, listening biases.

Well, it’s all the things I’ve outlined above with two notable differences. It gets very loud with very little added distortion or dynamic compression (which I don’t require to the same degree for the home system) and the other difference is it doesn’t wear any makeup. None. In my studio system, there is no fun to be had with that extra harmonic spice that sounds so inviting while playing back records in my living room, cause there isn’t any. No midrange textural additions, or silkiness in the treble and added wispy air, way up top.

However, the studio system is not subjectively dark nor has any problem revealing every little click and pop and edgy transient distortion that I need to be able to easily hear. Part of the reasons for this kind of system is so I can more easily judge not only how I want to alter the frequency response of the pre-mastered mix, but if I want to add any of my own subtle additional harmonic colors. This is not something that was traditionally done by mastering engineers prior to the advent of digital recording, yet it is now commonplace to have some musically pleasing distortion available to impart to very dry, harmonically anemic, mixes. To judge that kind of thing, you’d better be listening to a system with practically no additional ‘vibe’.

This is not to say I haven’t carefully and after long periods of time, put together a monitor system and studio gear that sounds a certain way, just that there’s a slightly different criterion in play. I’m also not saying that this objective can only be arrived at using ‘pro audio’ components. I’ve heard high-end home audio stuff and pro audio offerings that I believe perform this job. Another crucial element to my work system is it’s set up in a purpose-built, acoustically treated room that introduces the least ambient character as possible while keeping the low-frequency anomalies tightly controlled. Think big, clean, and massive headroom, headphones with added shaking of the booty.

That is what I need to do good work, but it’s not what I wanna listen to for fun. To quote another mastering engineer Dave Collins, ‘(when playing my own work) I want my home system to make me sound like a genius.’


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4 Responses to A Mastering Engineer’s Systems

  1. Bill Benoit says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us Dave! My experience has been that mastering engineers more commonly cross over into audiophile gear than mix engineers or smaller studio owners. It’s a shame, really. Back in the 50’s-70’s pro and audiophile were almost the same thing. Somewhere along the line there was a split and it’s been a huge detriment to both pros AND audiophiles. I started out on the pro side and discovering audiophile gear completely changed my approach to mixing, listening, everything. It was a real ear-opener. It’s comical to see the “internet warriors” on pro websites who are constantly dishing on “audiophools,” perpetuating unfounded myths without any experience. Meanwhile, the folks who chime in to school them tend to be the ones with Grammys and major label credits, actually doing great work.

  2. Sam says:

    Could you please share what studio monitors, dacs and mixers your using at work and what system you have at home?

  3. Dave says:

    I’m currently in the process of building a new studio designed by Northward Acoustics. That room will have soffit mounted ATC scm-150’s. My current studio system is B&W N801’s with a pair of Classe CT-M 600’s. Dacs and A/D are Prism Sound Dream. Monitor controller is by Dangerous Music.

    Home system is in flux but currently Rega P3 Dynavector cart with a P10 on order. Simaudio 310Lp, Rega Fono, PS Audio pre, Berkeley Alpha 2 dac, Cal Audio Lab transport, Bel Canto 500S and Dynaudio Special 40’s with Velodyne sub. Audeze LCD-X with Deckard amp.

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