THE stories are all on the walls, Richard Dowling says as we walk into his mastering studio, based in Limerick city centre.
And they are. Discs marking physical sales of records Dowling worked his magic on line the walls; there’s the Waterboys, Take That, Suede, Westlife, Boyzone, Kylie Minogue. The list goes on and on and on.
There’s one from Will Young. 1.8 million units that one shifted. Gobsmacked, I listen raptly as Dowling tells me that he mastered five of the top ten best selling UK singles of the noughties.
He worked hand in hand with pop maestro Pete Waterman for 15 years in London, encountering a who’s who of the music business, from Paul McCartney to Gareth Gates and back again, with an extended patch working with Simons Cowell and Fuller on Pop Idol tracks and pop idols.
“I spent 17 years as a mastering engineer, 15 of them with major labels. It (the record) comes in and goes out. I don’t tell Simon Cowell I don’t like his mix. ‘How do you want to hear it Simon?’ But then again he was always right,” laughs Dowling.
This week Dowling, born in London but raised in Limerick since the age of three, celebrates 25 years of top line work in the music business. One of just three dedicated mastering engineers in the country, he moved back to his native Limerick six years ago.
“Mastering is the last vital link in the recording chain and is an often under estimated art,” his website declares.
“Mastering is two things really; listening to the mix and looking at the spectrum balance,” he explains. “I get a mix, listen to it and say it needs more of this or less of that. I listen to the spectrum and see is it balanced in the mix and then I can improve on it. The next part is gain, finding that final level that most people can’t get, and then the final thing of manufacturing and processing.
“Everything has to have balance, consistency, running order, gaps, edits, fades. When it leaves here it goes to duplication and can’t be changed from there. The buck stops here.”
An Ard Scoil student and electronics graduate from Moylish, Dowling, although not a musician, was an avid music and vinyl fan, declining to buy records pressed in Ireland because they were not accompanied by the correct sleeves. In late 1986 he saw an ad for a sound engineering course in Brixton and by the following year was working in PRT studios in Marble Arch.
“I was lucky because it was a complex; two studios, two cutting rooms, a digital editing suite, a copying suite - I learnt so much there,” he says. “The guy who employed me would have called me the last of the analogue kings because it was literally on the cusp of digital technology taking over. I just came in at the right time to learn the analogue techniques of the past and to appreciate them. I couldn’t have arrived at a better time.”
For three years he worked his way up from runner to engineering in the studio. When Waterman bought the studio, he moved with it.
“It was pressured and you had to deliver. The mix would arrive on a bike and be wanted back an hour later,” he explains.
His highlight was working with Suede on their first two albums, the first making him a Mercury Prize winner. Fittingly, in his 25th year and after setting-up on his own after Waterman closed the studio, he is now a Choice Music Prize winner, having mastered Jape’s Ocean of Frequency album last year.
“I decided to move back - the major thing was I had been in that room for 16 years, it was my baby, my kit, I wasn’t prepared to let it go, and the offer was there to buy it and I did,” he says, nodding at the machinery around him, some of which has such history it was used to cut the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks.
“It has taken a hell of a long time and a lot of work to keep this together. It is perfect now, it is working out now, I have never been busier. I am able to re-invest in myself, I know the importance of keeping on top of trends.
“In Richie’s case I worked on a single and he loved it. He was going to go to New York and I ended up doing the album. That is my preference - while I am here for everyone, I still want to stop work leaving the country, too much does just for kudos and I have proved with the Choice that it can stay here. I do think myself and the other two engineers in Dublin are more than capable of matching anyone around the world.
“I think the work stands for itself, I feel that I have been established and now I want to be the go-to guy.”
For more details on Richard Dowling’s mastering work, see www.wavmastering.com.