Mandy Parnell is one of the world’s elite mastering engineers, a musical magician who can reveal the beauty hidden in the most complicated tracks. Her client list reads like a mixtape of today’s most admired artists: Björk, Feist, Brian Eno, Tom Jones, Aphex Twin, Jamie xx and Max Richter.
Parnell never expected her career to turn out this way, though.
How Mandy Parnell Got Her Start
It began entirely by chance after a friend invited her to stay at Richard Branson’s Manor Studio for the weekend.
“I’d dropped out of school when I was 16 and was really a bit of a nightmare,”
recalls Parnell. “I’d made friends with a girl who worked at The Manor, and she invited me down there for the weekend. One of the engineers asked if I’d like to look around the studio. He took me in, and something suddenly clicked. I knew this was where I was meant to be.” Parnell never looked back.
After studying at SAE, she landed a job as a trainee mastering engineer at The Exchange in London. “I didn’t have a CV typed up, so I hand-wrote one on blank paper. I think they only gave me an interview because they wanted to see who would have the audacity to hand in a CV that bad,” she laughs.
Finding the Emotion in Mastering
Getting in the door was a big step; however, once she did, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. During her first stint at The Exchange, Parnell became disillusioned with the industry. “I’d been working for three or four years as a mastering engineer, and I’d become cynical about sound,” she recalls. “I’d go to the Royal Festival Hall and hear Herbie Hancock or Miles Davis and think, ‘This sounds awful.’ Everything was disappointing.”
That’s when Parnell reached what might sound to some like a surprising conclusion: mastering is all about emotions, not technical ability. “I went to New Orleans to live with my ex-husband Phil Parnell, who was a great jazz pianist. He’d be playing in bars with a terrible sound system, but I’d sit there and be blown away by the experience. That’s when I learned that when you are working with a piece of music, the most important thing is to follow the emotion.
“In a way, it took me back to my punk days as a teenager, when I’d listen to records by people like Iggy Pop. Technically those punk records are questionable, but the raw emotion is amazing. So now I put emotions at the center of my mastering work.”
Beginning the Creative Process
Parnell begins her mastering process by giving the songs a casual listen, much in the same way any music fan would. “The first time I listen in a background way. I don’t actively sit and focus. I listen to it like you would any album at home. That gives me an overview of the whole project, the artistic direction, and a rough idea of what the artist wants.
“If something feels uncomfortable during that first listen, or if any emotions come up, I’ll make a note. Sometimes when you’re listening, your body reacts. It’s important for me to note those reactions.”
Once Parnell assembles her notes, the time has come for the mastering itself. “I’ll pick out one of the tracks—usually the one where I feel the mix really ticks all the boxes—and just start messing around with it.
“That said, I don’t like to do too much. I believe in a less-is-more approach. My view is that the production team has signed off on it, they are happy with it, so I shouldn’t bring too much to the table.”
Audio Engineering as Listening
Parnell works from her Black Saloon mastering studio, another accidental career step that came about after wanting to spend more time around her family. Accident or not, Black Saloon has a setup many larger studios would be envious of.
“The first thing I do is set up the gain structure. Then I listen totally flat, straight through the monitors. After that, I decide what I want to put in: gain, EQs or compression. At the end, I send the whole thing into a couple of limiters, sometimes digital plug-ins rather than hardware.
“But mastering isn’t about the equipment. It isn’t about turning knobs. Anyone can turn a dial and make it sound different to their ears; that’s not what our job is. For example, when I take on a trainee, they don’t even touch a button in the studio for at least the first year. That time is spent training their ears.”
This is what Parnell refers to as the “psychological” side of mastering. “Some of these artists might have been working on an album for years, and they get so emotionally invested in the project that they find it hard to be objective. One of my jobs as an engineer is to listen objectively and to let them know if something isn’t working.
“We have to make sure the music fits in the sonic box for that genre; otherwise, the audience won’t understand it. Having those conversations isn’t easy, and you have to deal with all the egos and emotions involved.”
Along with the emotional depth she brings to her mastering work, Parnell’s tact in tricky conversations has made her much sought after in the industry—particularly for unusual or complex projects, like one with Björk a few years ago.
“Björk had already had Biophilia mastered and wasn’t happy with it. It wasn’t what she intended emotionally, so they ended up flying me out to Iceland to master it. All the studios in Iceland lent us mastering equipment to make it happen on a tight turnaround. That’s what is so nice about the scene in Iceland: it isn’t cutthroat and competitive like it can be in other places.
“Anyway, Björk’s assistant arrived and started opening up the Pro Tools mixes. It turned out I’d actually be finishing the mixes of the whole album with Björk as well as the mastering! It was an amazing process hearing her talk through the concepts behind each song. As a result of that, I ended up working on her album Vulnicura and then with her Björk Digital virtual reality project with my partner Martin Korth, which was another massive fun challenge.”
Veteran Perspectives for New Mastering Engineers
With big names like Björk calling and more work than she can possibly get through, Parnell’s career is at a peak. While she is happy with her position, she sees that it’s not easy for those just setting out on a similar career path.
“The problem is that people set up their own mastering suite at home but aren’t charging enough money. This ends up cheapening the whole industry. We have to charge what we are worth because some managers and labels will just pay as little as they can. They are a business, after all.
“I’m earning a third of the money I was 10–15 years ago, but working double the amount. That just seems like bullshit to me. We need the next generation to charge what we are worth. Don’t undersell yourselves.”
For all that, Parnell is still in love with what she does. “I’ve always been a geek girl about this—full of excitement, awe and wonder. And I still think it is such a privilege to be asked to master someone’s music. An artist has invested all that time and energy, and then they ask me to bring their baby into the world. It really is an amazing honor.”
Visit Mandy Parnell’s mastering studio online at www.blacksaloonstudios.com.