Natalie Bibby is a mastering engineer at Metropolis Studios, in London. Established in 1989 by Gary Langan, Carey Taylor and Karin Clayton, it is located in the Power House, a Grade II listed building, at 70 Chiswick High Road in Chiswick, London, England and is a music production company offering mixing, mastering, cutting and events. As a mastering engineer in a state of the art studio, cutting records is just one arm of Natalie’s job. Natalie was trained by Metropolis’s engineers and has a varied breadth of mastering knowledge, ability and experience, bringing a fresh mindset to the field and with a skill level beyond her years.
Recently, she has taken a special interest in remastering projects becoming highly skilled in restoring, repairing and improving audio no matter the source and original quality. Above all, Natalie’s focus and passion is helping musical artists bring their songs to the world at the highest level of sonic excellence, whilst maintaining the fullness, clarity of detail and creative integrity of the artist’s expression and intent
When Natalie isn’t in the studio she enjoys writing and recording her own music. She plays electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and a bit of keys; and used to play in bands and make grungy/punk music, nowadays focusing more on synth-based songs. She just finished her own 12 track dungeon synth/dark ambient album and is due to release it this winter. Other than music, she enjoys PC gaming, specifically MMORPGs. “My main game is Guild Wars 2 and I’ve been playing that for over 11 years now.”
How did you get into your industry / What motivated you?
I had been playing instruments, writing and recording my own music since I was 11. Once I finished school, I went on to study Creative Sound Engineering at University. I loved this course because it was split 50/50 between the technical aspects of the industry, such as recording and mixing but also the creative side – so I was also writing and producing a lot of songs using DAWs, which was awesome. I knew towards the end of this course that I was in love with post-production, so once I finished my degree I knew I wanted to pursue a career in a professional studio.
I started as a runner in the studios department at Metropolis shortly after graduating; making tea, running errands and helping set up for recording sessions. I had always had an interest in mastering but didn’t know how to get into it. It was during my time as a runner that I had the chance to see a professional mastering room for the first time, which further fueled my interest. I also met and built a rapport with one of the senior mastering engineers Tony Cousins and we would often chat about engineering. He invited me to sit in on a mastering session with him and I was honestly blown away. I knew that was what I wanted to do – it was magic!
Shortly after this, I stopped working within the studios department at Metropolis and began interning in the mastering department. I slowly worked my way up to become an assistant, where I underwent years and years of training from all of the mastering engineers within the department. During this time, I also learnt to cut records, so I got into cutting through becoming a mastering engineer. I did a lot of assisting on live cutting, whereby an artist would be playing down in the studio, and we would cut that straight to lacquer. Some of my best credits from this include: Portico Quartet, The Vaccines, Squid and The Big Moon.
It was also during this period of my career as an assistant engineer that I also aided countless normal cuts (not just live ones). This period was critical in my cutting journey – it’s how I learned my trade and the best way to learn is to do it over and over again, cutting as many different genres as you can under the guidance of a senior cutting engineer. By doing this, you build up confidence and experience so that no matter what type of music and no matter what type of challenges may come with a particular project, you know how to respond based on your previous learning.
Eventually I worked my way up to become a mastering engineer, it has taken many years because mastering in general is a slow pathway. As I’ve become a mastering engineer in my own right, so my cutting exposure and experience has increased further.
What is a day in the life like?
I do mastering for a range of different artists, all over the world. I don’t pigeonhole myself – I very much like to work with all genres. With regards to cutting, I enjoy the different challenges that come with certain genres as opposed to others, but for me a variety of work is exciting.
I would say I have a special interest in helping upcoming and independent artists with regards to mastering, because I like to get very hands-on in terms of advising mix tweaks in order to get the very best final master. Sometimes I even end up tweaking people’s mixes myself if they are unable to. I’m very much committed to bringing musicians’ art to the next level. Not every artist you master for will want, or be able to afford, getting their music cut to lacquer afterwards, so the split of my working time will depend upon the project and client. I do also still assist other engineers on cuts from time to time as it’s a good way to gain new insight from someone with 20 years more cutting experience than me. One thing I’ve learned is never stop learning! Never get into a mode of belief about yourself that you have attained all the knowledge and engineering skill you can, otherwise you may actually miss out on something new or different that adds to your existing skill set and ultimately benefits your clients.
In your opinion what has been your favorite / the coolest thing you’ve worked on?
The biggest credit that I am proud of is my assistant cutting credit for a live recording direct-to-vinyl for Jimmy Eat World. The band came to Metropolis and set up in the studio and played some tracks live to an audience. Whilst they did this, we were cutting this straight to lacquer, keeping it all analogue right from the studio to the cut! It was such a special day to work with a band this big. They came up from the studio after the recording to chat with us and see the mastering room, which was really cool. Many hours of preparation for a live cut occurs on the day and that’s all fun too. I like the small technical details about the whole process, they all add up to make the cut a success. I do actually enjoy the pressure of this type of event too, it’s quite different to ordinary cutting, especially half-speed cutting which is frankly very slow and relaxed.
What has been / is the most difficult part of your job?
I would say the most difficult thing about the job is the risk of something going wrong with the cutting lathe. It thankfully doesn’t happen often but there’s quite a lot to them and if something goes wrong and you don’t spot it quickly – it can escalate and get out of control fast! I do as many checks as possible before beginning any cut to try to prevent this, for example checking the swarf jar isn’t full, checking the helium tank is definitely open, checking the ACL isn’t in bypass etc. Of course, when we do live recordings cut direct to lacquer – more can go wrong! You have to start cutting as soon as the artist wants to do a take because it means they are in the zone and you need to be ready fast so they don’t lose that feeling. So you have to reset and put a lacquer on quickly and if you aren’t switched on when you are rushing, you risk making a mistake. Any problems with the cut can be costly too, each lacquer is around 60 pounds and any damage to the lathe can be extremely expensive and problematic to repair. Thankfully, I’ve never had any disasters so far, touch wood!
What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into pursuing what you’re doing?
If you want to get into cutting records specifically, it can be very hard to gain access to the technology you need in order to do this; and by association the training you require to be able to cut. Cutting lathes are rare and not in production any longer, meaning there are only so many of these in the world and they tend to be in big studios. My suggestion is to try to gain an internship at one of these big studios and work your way up from there. It can be a long path and the outcome isn’t guaranteed but it is the only way to gain access to a cutting lathe and to an experienced engineer who can train you how to use it.
Are you a vinyl collector yourself? What drew you to it?
I am, yes! I collect rare 90’s grunge records, for example I have a big collection of Sub Pop records, specifically their early compilations. I have also just got into collecting dungeon synth records, this is extremely niche! I find this genre probably the most exciting to collect because the releases are always in small limited numbers, which makes them feel more important like a treasure to obtain. There is so much variety within the genre too: medieval, winter synth, battle synth etc. that there is always something to explore to give you a different essence of the genre. Whenever I order a record from one of these small dungeon synth labels, I am like a kid at Christmas! The anticipation of it arriving in the post just crescendos!
What types of things are happening in your industry / with vinyl that you’re excited or worried about? i.e. innovation, or trends you’re seeing.
From my perspective, I am super excited and happy that vinyl has made such a massive comeback, which of course means the demand for cuts is as high as it’s ever been. I believe people value this physical format as something special and artistic and see it as a pairing with digital releases. So I think this popularity is here to stay too.
Who has been influential to you and your growth as a professional in this industry?
That’s an interesting question to ponder and I would say there have been many individuals who helped me at key points in my journey; the timing of that help being the most beneficial and critical thing. Marnie Mills, who was assistant studio manager at Metropolis at the time, gave me the opportunity to become a runner and that was on the recommendation of Steve Wilkinson, one of my University lecturers. That’s probably the most important thing that has happened, just because it is so hard to get into any studio, especially a big one. There aren’t even many big studios around anymore like there were in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
After that, as I mentioned earlier Tony Cousins was instrumental in giving me access to mastering and developing my interest in it. He also put in a recommendation for me to become an intern within the mastering department. Ultimately it was Richard Connell who gave me my opportunity in mastering. There was a change in management at Metropolis and Richard was taking over the position as CEO. He came in one weekend to get acquainted with the building whilst I was covering reception and he asked me what I really wanted to do and I told him I wanted to be a mastering engineer. He gave me a chance and without this opportunity – I wouldn’t have the career I have today.
With regards to cutting specifically, Stuart Hawkes is the engineer I’ve learned the most from, especially in the early days, so I am super grateful to him too for his patience and time.
Anything else you’d like to add; if not tell us what you’re listening to:
I’m a big ‘90s fan: Nirvana and Kyuss are my top bands from that era. My favourite modern bands are a doom metal band from Liverpool, UK called Conan and a post-hardcore band from New York called Drug Church. Conan, I’ve liked for a long time now; they are just the perfect band in my opinion. The song ‘Gravity Chasm’ for example, has the most monolithic (stereolithic?), beastly drum and guitar tones I’ve heard.
Drug Church I discovered just last year when their album ‘Hygiene’ came out and it blew me away! It’s got a punk rock ethos but it’s something so much more. I like that the singer shouts from his belly rather than his throat, unlike most punky music. This gives the vocals a full-bodied aggression rather than a raspy harshness, which is unique. Also I think it is so cool that one of the guitarists is using a Fender Jazzmaster for this heavy music and surprisingly it certainly does slay! I saw them live at a 150 capacity venue last summer and it’s honestly the best live gig I have ever been to, a proper heavy show. It’s in these small venues that you really get to experience the energy of this type of music and you also get to actively partake in it.
Metropolis Studios: @metropolisstudios