Heba Kadry of Timeless Mastering
Behind that incredible album is a gifted mastering engineer - the “finisher” in the long cycle of record production. In our visits to the homes of all our featured passersby, we love hearing about the records they cherish and listening to the playlists they curate. We caught up with mastering engineer Heba Kadry, who not only knows a few things about making an album, but who, after the construction of Timeless Mastering’s Bushwick studio, knows something about building a space by hand.
Born in Egypt, Heba grew up in Kuwait before returning to Cairo for university. She spent her teen years convincing friends traveling abroad to bring her back the shoegaze records she couldn't find in the Middle East. After earning her degree in Business Administration and Theatre, she started working as an account executive at an advertising agency, but her musical chops would eventually lead her to The Recording Workshop in Ohio.
Where Does Your Musical Background Stem From?
I’m a classically trained pianist. I took piano lessons for several years, kind of on and off for at least eight years of my life. I was also in my school choir, so I was deeply musically-inclined for most of my formative years. My dad played a bunch of instruments and there was always music in floating in our household.
How Did You Get Into Audio Engineering?
When I first graduated from The American University in Cairo, I landed a job as an account executive at J. Walter Thompson in Cairo; a well known international advertising agency. I wasn’t particularly good at my job and I kind of hated it. Anyways, there was a wonderful German creative director that worked there that knew I played piano and synths and asked if I was interested in pitching a jingle for the Cadbury commercial she was working on. Of course I said yes even though I had no idea what I was doing! I didn’t have Pro Tools or Garageband or any way to record my composition besides my cassette deck, this was 2001. So I had the bright idea to drag my synth to the J Walter Thompson conference room and played what I composed right there in front of the whole Cadbury team. So dorky. Thinking back now that was pretty weird but I did it anyway. Then she was like, "okay cool, now go to the recording studio and record that." The agency booked some studio time in a small studio in downtown Cairo: my first time in a professional recording studio. I recorded the jingle and got the gig and the agency was happy. Then one thing led to another and I did a few more jingles including another Cadbury commercial with a bigger budget that included recording time at the fancy recording studio in the city called Studio Leila.
I was quite enamoured by the entire recording process and the gear and decided then and there to pursue a career as an audio engineer. I became friends with the engineer that worked there and he encouraged me to enroll at the audio school he attended in Ohio, so that’s what I did. Quit my job, moved to the US and I guess that’s how it all started.
That’s awesome though, it sounds like you really just like didn’t even stop to think about it, you just said to yourself, “This is what I need to do, so I’m going to go do it and figure it out.”
Ha yes looking back now it was quite ballsy. I remember getting picked up from the airport by a rep from the recording school in the middle of freezing Ohio winter. My plane landed pretty late and it was so damn cold and depressing. The school is in a pretty remote part of Chillicothe, Ohio. Definitely made me rethink my decision like what the heck am I doing here. I’m North African and having never experienced sub zero temperatures I found it miserable to say the least haha. But the school and the immersion in learning all things audio related managed to eclipse that and I ended up having such a great time.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what specifically a mastering engineer does?
The mastering process is the last stop in the whole recording making cycle. It starts with the pre-production phase, then there’s the recording phase followed by mixing which is really bringing the song to life and shaping basic tracks to a completely fleshed out song. And finally mastering.
Mastering is process of tying this whole thing together. You have a collection of songs that need to sound like they are part of the same family via an objective person like the mastering engineer who shapes and finalizes these songs to ultimately yield a flowing and seamless album listening experience. I guess people don’t realize that the recording and mixing process could take years sometimes. Maybe some of the mixes were done a year ago and others were mixed by a totally different mixer a couple of weeks ago. That long stretch of time and the fact that many hands and ears were involved will eventually require a process that bonds these songs together cohesively in a manner that doesn’t strip the individuality of each track. That’s what a mastering engineer does. It’s a fine line to straddle...make it sound whole while preserving the unique qualities of each track.
I like to give the analogy of a telecine colorist or a retoucher, makes it easier for people to understand. The song is pretty much there. It’s not like you’re changing the intrinsic elements or adding effects to the vocals, or radically changing the way the bass sounds. You’re taking the pre-existing song and similar to a diamond in the rough, you’re just polishing it up and making it sound even better, and more presentable, in its true, best form.
So when you were starting out, how did you find musicians and producers to work with? Where does a mastering engineer network?
Well I’m really lucky to live in a city like New York where I’m surrounded by musicians and artists of all different stripes. You can literally walk to a bar, chat with the bartender who turns out to be a musician and get a mastering gig at the end of the night. That’s how it all started for me especially during the Williamsburg heyday before all the artists got kicked out. Soon one thing led to another and I was introduced to Bettina at Thrill Jockey Records, a highly revered Chicago-based indie label. She hired me to work on a few records for her including Future Islands’ album “In Evening Air” and Liturgy’s “Aesthethica” which both did pretty well and kind of put me on the map.
now you work out of Timeless Mastering. How long has that studio been around, and how did your part in it come to fruition?
My studio partner, Adrian Morgan, started Timeless about 10 years ago and was running a solo mastering operation for a while. I was looking for a new space to work out of in 2013 and that’s when I met Adrian. It was very serendipitous because he was at a point where he was focused on his workshop and looking for someone to take over the mastering end--he builds bass guitars. Just really good timing for the both of us. I brought my own gear, became a partner and just started jamming away in the studio. In late 2014 we got kicked out of the space just like every other artist in Williamsburg and we moved to Bushwick and built a really awesome space from the ground up which is where my studio is now.
what has that been like building up your own new space and being able to influence what it’s like there?
It was both gruelling and amazing. Building a studio is an incredibly difficult process. I learned so much about the minute importance of various types of acoustic material, how to outsource it, how to build it and how it will ultimately impact the acoustics and the sound proofing. My studio partner Adrian has extensive experience in studio building so he designed the space and built it from the ground up pretty much entirely himself. I would work with him whenever I wasn’t mastering over the weekends. It took us about 6 months. The physicality of the building process was a bit brutal but it’s so rewarding to have a hand and say in how your own studio will turn out, all the way down to tiny details. I built my own diffusion panels by following an old BBC schematic I downloaded online, which was great but so very time-consuming. Home Depot was like a second home during that time haha.
That sounds really intense. Is there anything specifically that you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out on that project?
I'd probably want to hire a contractor on the next build. I love my room and learned a great deal from all the work we put into it but it was physically and mentally taxing project to undertake between just two people. I now have infinite respect for studio designers and builders. It’s hard work and almost always something goes wrong or doesn’t turn out the way you intended.
Shifting gears a little bit, what kinds of artists typically work with Timeless Mastering? Are there any specific genres that they come from?
Pretty much all genres. For the most part though, I do a lot of indie, electronic, experimental and metal records; I love the variety and I wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed in one genre. Keeps things interesting.
How many projects are you working on at any given time?
I master almost one album a day, so I would say about four or five projects a week.
What's Your Favorite Part About What You Do? Is There Something That Is Particularly Rewarding?
The most rewarding thing is when you fulfill the artist’s creative vision and give them something that they're really psyched about. I pinch myself everyday that I get to have the job that I have and work with such incredible artists.
I recently worked with Mica Levi on her score for the Natalie Portman biopic, Jackie. I’m a big Levi fan, I am obsessed with the score she did for Under The Skin. I remember halfway through the movie I was like, “Who the hell composed this?”. It really just blew my mind away. The soundtrack was such an intrinsic part of the film experience almost like another character in the movie. You cannot separate the two or replace it with another score. I don’t think that happens very often with scores. She’s an insanely gifted artist. I just found out today the score was nominated for a BAFTA award which is completely wonderful.
Do You Have Any Advice For Aspiring Mastering Engineers About How To Break Into The World Of Mastering?
My advice is to be prepared for the long haul, especially now the climate in the music industry is a bit odd and unpredictable. The recording industry is downsizing so rapidly, there's barely any multi room recording studios left in the city, budgets are shrinking, streaming services barely pay artists and major studios are not really hiring.
It’s depressing, but all is not lost because the vinyl resurgence continues to grow and there is a demand for mastering engineers. It just takes time and a lot of hard work. I would suggest interning at a studio first and deciding if the lifestyle appeals to you. The hours are very long and pay is not great at first but if you stick it out long enough and remain focused with a great work ethic it will eventually pay off.