Greg Calbi: Mastering Engineer to Bowie, Lennon, and More on His Craft

Shawn Everett will never forget the first time he worked on a recording mastered by Greg Calbi. Everett, an engineer-producer who’s since worked with Calbi on albums by Kacey Musgraves and Hozier, had already spent years tinkering with the War on Drugs’ 2017 song “Thinking of a Place” by the time he finally handed over the track over to Calbi.

To describe what he envisioned for the single, a dreamy, meandering 11-minute rocker, Everett called Calbi, a veteran mastering engineer who’s worked on records by everyone from Muddy Waters to Taylor Swift. Everett felt the song was still missing something, even if he could barely articulate what that something was. “I was talking about color and shapes and all these things that some people would just completely ignore,” says Everett.

When Everett first heard Calbi’s completed master of “Thinking of a Place,” he was with the band’s leader, Adam Granduciel, at Electric Lady Studios. “We had a record player in the studio, so we put the vinyl on after it had been mastered, and Adam and I, we were just so stoked,” says Everett. “I felt like I was stoned listening to it. I had heard the song thousands of times, but the recording felt like it had a new lease on life, like [Greg] had just sprinkled magic all over it.”

In his nearly 50 years as a mastering engineer, Greg Calbi has been sprinkling his magic over thousands of records. His work began at the Record Plant in Manhattan in the early-to-mid–Seventies where a twentysomething Calbi stumbled into working on classics like Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and David Bowie’s Young Americans. Landing in the credits of those landmark LP’s earned him a job in 1976 at the mastering studio Sterling Sound, where Calbi is still busy at work to this day. In 2021 alone, Calbi has worked on records by Musgraves, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Adia Victoria, Valerie June, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Govt. Mule, Julien Baker, Dinosaur Jr., the Staves, Switchfoot, Chris Thile, Steve Gunn, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Damien Jurado, the Lumineers, Wanda Jackson, Drive-By Truckers, Laura Stevenson, and the War on Drugs. (Calbi, who, earlier this year began sharing credit with fellow Sterling engineer Steve Fallone on all his projects, just earned four Grammy nominations for his work on the Swift and Gaga/Bennett albums.)

“Greg has always had the ears I trust,” says Norah Jones, who’s worked with Calbi on seven albums. “He does the right thing, and if something doesn’t need a push he doesn’t do it just to do it.”

Speaking with Calbi can feel like taking a survey course in rock and pop history. Though he’s reticent to rehash stories of the most famous classic Seventies and Eighties albums he’s worked on, he does mention offhand the method in which John Lennon preferred to listen to his final mixes (on a copy of an acetate he’d play at home), how Julian Casablancas fell asleep in the studio during the mastering of Is This It, how friendly Emmylou Harris is when she’s smoking cigarettes throughout the mastering process, how he’s never even spoken with Bob Dylan despite having mastered 20 or so of his records, or how working with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker works. “Kevin always comes in for mastering, and if I make a comment, he’ll go, ‘Hold on a minute, let me give you another one,’ ” Calbi explains. “And he’ll put his headphones on and start tweaking in the box, then put it in a thumb drive, and then I put it in and start working with that version. He’ll [tweak mixes] right on the spot.”

During a recent interview at Sterling Sound’s New Jersey studio, Calbi interspersed conversation about gear and tech specs with with references to working on landmark albums, from Graceland to Golden Hour. The latter LP in particular has been Calbi’s most high-profile achievement of late, and is partially responsible for the influx of work he’s seen in the last few years. It’s also the cause for the most high-profile exposure in the career of one of music’s most firmly behind-the-scenes wizards: Calbi had never met or even spoken with Musgraves when, in February 2019, he suddenly found himself standing several feet to her left onstage as Musgraves accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year. 

Calbi, a Queens native and longtime New Jersey resident, was honored to receive the award, but broadly speaking has little patience for the pageantry of awards shows like the Grammys. “It’s such a pain in the ass,” he says of the show. “It’s fucking hot, and getting anywhere near the Staples Center is a nightmare.”

It’s impossible to come up with exact figures, but Calbi, 72, estimates that he’s mastered roughly 8,000 records during his career. By some calculations, that would mean that Calbi may have mastered more professional recordings since the advent of the field than anyone not named Bob Ludwig, a fellow engineering legend who calls Calbi “one of the giants in the mastering trade.” (The respect is mutual: Calbi prefers Ludwig’s 2014 remaster of Born to Run to his own 1975 original master).

Calbi is proud of his longevity, but by and large shrugs off any meaningful role he’s played in shaping the past half-century of popular music. Take the mastering of the War on Drugs’ “Thinking of a Place,” which Everett said completely changed the song. Calbi doesn’t quite buy it.

“It’s such an abstraction at that point,” Calbi says of the process. “Maybe [Shawn] and his artist hear the difference between the two things, but the average listener is not going to hear it.”

But if that’s the case, then why has everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Arcade Fire enlisted Calbi for their albums? And why does everyone from legendary drummer Steve Jordan (a longtime Calbi collaborator) to Kevin Parker insist that Calbi has one of the most trusted pair of ears in the industry? 

“The thing is, almost nothing sounds as good as it could sound,” Calbi says, offering the closest thing to his guiding philosophy. “When I put [a recording] under the microscope in the studio, there’s always just something that drives me to not be happy with something that I hear. … You really have to be hyper-critical to be good at the job. You have to look something which somebody thought was finished and go, ‘No, this is not close.’ ”

What even is mastering? It speaks to the opacity of his trade that Calbi resorts to an analogy when he’s asked that question, which happens often. “It’s like Photoshop for music,” goes his elevator pitch. “I like to use the word ‘vivid.’ You see an image, and it looks really good, but then somebody goes into Photoshop and does something to it, and now, it could look unnatural and tricked up. Or, it kind of just looks the same but it has more impact, there’s more three-dimensional quality to it, it’s more vivid. Somehow, it has more life.

Everett, who says some of the artists he works with don’t even understand what mastering is, uses a different explanation: “When you’re in your car and you turn something on and it sounds a little funny, so you adjust the treble and the bass — it’s like a much more complicated version of that.”

When an artist, producer, and engineer feel satisfied with the final mixes of their recordings, they turn to a mastering engineer to apply the finishing sonic touches to a record. “You get to a point where you can’t even really tell what a recording sounds like anymore, because you’ve heard the song thousands of times, so it’s really important to have someone with these golden ears come in at the end of the process to give it a look, and to hear the overall tonal shape of it,” says Everett.

What the mastering process actually entails has changed alongside technology, but these days it can mean making a vinyl record sound as good as possible even if an album has been recorded digitally (most artists nowadays don’t have the budget for specific vinyl masters). It can mean tailoring a mix to a specific country (Calbi: “Some countries, like France and Italy, the vocals are really loud. Germany, not so much.”). Or, most often, it means mastering with the various streaming services in mind to ensure that a record or single will “hold up in a playlist.”

“I try to make the client realize that I’m preparing something for market,” says Calbi, who’s working on a half-dozen or so projects at any given time. “You have to have an ear that basically relates to what most people hear. I don’t know what you hear. You don’t know what I hear. It’s so abstract.”

It’s that abstraction that Calbi is constantly fighting against when he’s working, and it’s why he’s almost never fully satisfied with his work.

But is there a recording from his career that he’s most proud of? 

Calbi has worked on some of the most celebrated rock recordings of the past 50 years (Ramones, Marquee Moon, and Remain in Light, to name a few more). But there’s no equivocation in his answer: Continuum by John Mayer. 

To prove his point, Calbi plays the album’s fourth track, “Gravity,” on his studio monitors. He closes his eyes and nods along to the rhythm section of Steve Jordan and bassist Pino Palladino. 

“I mean, that is an unbelievable recording,” he says after Mayer sings the first line. And sure enough, Calbi is right: I’m not sure if it’s the unusually fancy speakers, or being in a soundproof studio, or merely the residual effect of standing next to someone who’s mastered 8,000 records, but in the moment, I become unsettlingly unsure if I’ve ever heard a better-sounding recording than “Gravity.” Mayer’s vocal, so immediate and clear that it felt as though he were whispering into my ear, called to mind a line from Perfecting Sound Forever, author Greg Milner’s 2009 history of the technology of recorded music, when he describes listening on a $90,000 sound system for the first time: “What came out of the speakers was an ideal world,” Milner wrote. “This was the way life could sound.”

One of Calbi’s greatest gifts, according to those who’ve worked with him, is his knack for knowing when to stay out of the way of a recording as perfect as Continuum. When Warren Haynes was working with Calbi on the mastering of the final Allman Brothers album, Hittin’ the Note, he was struck by Calbi’s egoless ability to know when a recording doesn’t need any help.

“[Greg’s] changes can be so subtle, which can even mean changing nothing, if that’s what’s called for,” says Haynes. “Greg told me he usually finds the song, or two songs on a record that sound the best, and he’ll use that as a template and will make the rest of the record adhere to that.”

Calbi has found this approach helpful, for diplomatic reasons as well as sonic ones. Calbi often ends up being the very last person to give professional input on a record an artist has been spending years working on, and the way he frames his feedback is of the utmost importance, “Sharing what I think is good with what they think is good,” is how he puts it. “[Artists or producers] are in a different zone when they come into [Sterling Sound] because there are an infinite number of things that go into a record, from mic placement to instrument selection to arrangements, to balance, so it’s hard for people to focus on this one area, which is what I do, which is the tonality and the imaging.”

Calbi played jazz guitar as a teenager, and some of his affinity with musicians may come from his ability to listen as a fellow artist. “I’m not a musician, but I really think I approach things as a musician as opposed to a sound guy,” he says, with a trace of contempt in his voice as he finishes his sentence.

His enthusiasm also helps. “When we were working on [upcoming Govt. Mule album Heavy Load Blues] recently, Greg was grinning,” says Haynes. “I was like, ‘What are you grinning about?’ He was like, ‘Man, the organ player’s killing it.’ ”

“Subconsciously,” says Calbi, “I will pull things out of a mix that I find pretty riveting.” For Calbi, that usually means bass guitar. Each mastering engineer has their unique sonic preferences and signature, and Calbi, everyone agrees, is known for several qualities: first, for his ability to give digital recordings the warmth of analog (Everett describes Calbi’s sound as, “This is the way a classic record should sound”). But Calbi is also known for his ability to bring out the tonality of the bass. “He’s a sucker for the bottom end,” says Haynes. “Pretty much every project we’ve ever done together, he’s focusing on something about the bottom end, and how it can be improved.” 

“If someone is playing bass in a melodic way,” says Calbi, “I really want that to be really clear.”

Greg Calbi and John Lennon, circa 1974

Greg Calbi and John Lennon, circa 1974

Rich Rosen/Courtesy of Greg Calbi

Greg Calbi is in a good mood, because he’s about to spend his entire afternoon listening to the Ramones. He mastered a number of the Ramones’ most classic records, but today, he’s working on the band’s later material from the Eighties and Nineties as part of an upcoming Record Store Day vinyl reissue. There are seven full albums to remaster, and Calbi has been going at a rate of roughly two per day.

Ed Stasium, the original producer of several of those records, is stopping by later to listen alongside Calbi. The project is vinyl-only, which excites Calbi, who lapses into a rare moment of jargon-speak in describing to me what the vinyl remastering will entail: “So, this is how this is going to sound coming off the computer into a converter and then into an analog level stage, which will then go into a cutter-head, which will then be cut into a lacquer, and that lacquer will be pressed,” as Calbi puts it. “It’s been fun.”

Perhaps noticing my blank stare, Calbi puts on some actual music.

“Today’s going to be pretty grueling, because we’re doing a rarities album, and all the songs are coming from different places,” he says. “There’s going to be 12 songs, and each one of them might need a different treatment.” 

Calbi then plays what he considers one of the best-sounding tracks from the batch (“Mama’s Boy”), followed by one of the worst-sounding recordings (“We Want the Airwaves”).

“See how this doesn’t have the body the one has in the drums?” Calbi asks after playing the latter. “It’s smaller sounding.”

Facing another blank stare, Calbi smiles. “I can’t tell you how many times people come in, even the artists, and they look at me and say, ‘I don’t really hear the difference,’ but if you like it better …’ “

Calbi then plays the original “We Want the Airwaves” followed by the one he’s all but done mastering. The difference between the two recordings — in clarity, immediacy, and, to use Calbi’s preferred term, vividness — is unmistakable. 

“The one thing that, over the years, I’ve gotten better at is listening, Calbi says later. “Mastering is basically what it was 50 years ago: somebody else getting an ear on a recording.”

At 72, Calbi has no plans to stop working anytime soon, so long as one constant remains true: “You need to make sure that your ears are hearing what they need to hear.”

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