Drake, of course, is the star of Views, his album that came out last Friday. But there are dozens of players that contributed to the finished product we're playing in our headphones, from obvious collaborators like Rihanna and Boi-1da to lesser known entities. One of those individuals is Chris Athens, who mastered the album.
Athens has been mastering songs and albums from some of your favorite artists for almost two decades. He started working at Sony in the mid-1990s, and then moved to the New York studio Sterling Sound in 1998, where he stayed for 13 years before relocating to Austin and opening his own outfit out of his home. During that span, he's leant his ear and touch to everyone from Rick Ross to Wiz Khalifa to Jeezy to Usher to N.E.R.D. to Erykah Badu.
Athens chatted with MTV News about what exactly it means to master a record, what it was like to work on Views, the test Drake's team put him through when they first met, and how working for Diddy can cause bodily harm.
MTV News: In layman’s terms, what does it mean to master an album?
Chris Athens: I think in lay terms, mastering is really a combination of quality control and, sort of, the last round of creative application of making either a single or an album. It’s compression and EQ.
The best way to describe EQ is the balance of spectrum or the balance of frequencies. High end is the top end information, or the high parts, like cymbals and the Ss on vocals. Bottom end would be things that you expect: kickdrum, bass. Everything else falls in the middle, and that’s mostly referred to as midrange. Compression is mostly about making the loud parts softer and the soft parts louder.
MTV News: What was it like working on Views?
Athens: Noah ["40" Shebib] and [Noel] "Gadget" [Campbell], the guys who mixed it and produced it, are very technically adept. They know what they want. They know their sound. And they know how to get it. So when it comes to guys like that, there’s a few songs here and there [that I'm changing]. It’s really spectral balancing --- some songs have a tendency to be a little darker than others, some a little brighter and not enough bass. Those are the kind of things that we tweak, but it’s all very modest changes. They’re important to those guys. I’ve always thought that I work more for the people involved than for the general public, even though I’m the last guy to touch a record. If they say, “Wow, that’s awesome,” and nobody else hears it, I don’t care. I’m here to be the last arbiter of quality and taste, on their behalf. It’s their vision, I’m just adding a somewhat artistic, really technical service to what they do.
MTV News: When did you get the music?
Athens: We got the music maybe 48 hours before it was supposed to be released, and we ended up changing everything about 12 hours before it was supposed to be released. Things changed right up until literally the last minute. I was sending the masters to the label and the label was like, “Come on, we’re waiting.” It was as late as you could possibly get.
MTV News: It hit iTunes late the night of April 28. So you’re getting the music on the 26th?
Athens: I’m getting placeholders that aren’t gonna be the final thing. I had an idea of what we were going to do going into the last day, before it was released at midnight, but I didn’t have the final files. They were still sleeplessly working on the stuff.
MTV News: When you say you’re getting placeholders, those are earlier versions of the songs that give you a sense of what you’re going to have to do?
Athens: They give me a sense of the timing, of the flow of the record, and I can kind of approximate my final EQs and compression on the entire record. It’s almost like a warm up for what’s really coming. And they tend to be really close, because a lot of the changes are kind of arrangement changes, or a few vocal things here and there; Drake is extremely creative, so he’ll get an idea at the last minute, and they’ll throw it on there. But, generally, they’ve lived with the musical arrangement for a while and they don’t change that enough that it totally knocks off what I’m doing.
MTV News: When did you find out that you would be working on this?
Athens: I didn’t find out until about the week before. It’s very last minute and, again, I think that’s partially intentional. They’ll tell me a week in advance, “Hey, man, sorry to do this to you, but we need you this weekend.” So I’m like, “OK, here we go, Drake record! It’s gonna be a barnburner.” Because it has a hard release date.
MTV News: You also mastered Nothing Was The Same and If You're Reading This It's Too Late for Drake. Do you have a sense of how Drake’s team first caught wind of you?
Athens: I know exactly how. DJ Khaled got signed to Cash Money Records, and I’ve always done Khaled’s records. The guys at Cash Money really liked them, and they started sending me Nicki Minaj and all these other people. And they said to Khaled, who’s doing your mastering? And they told him. And I got into a shootout with their old mastering engineer, where they sent us both "Hold On, We're Going Home."
I was on vacation, at a beach house in Galveston, Texas, and I was watching my kids and my wife on the beach when the song came in. All I had was my headphones and my laptop. And I remember they said, “Do you want to be in a shootout for the next Drake record?” So my choices were, turn it down, or say, fuck it, I’m not gonna be home for a week, but let’s make it happen with me and my headphones at the kitchen table. I won the shootout. It was not because my shit was louder than the original guy. They just liked it better. And they’ve been working with me ever since.
MTV News: How was it that you became a bit of a go-to guy for so many rappers?
Athens: At Sony, the guy I was working under wasn’t interested in doing these little rap records, but I would do anything. I started working with the main guys at Rawkus Records, and I did a couple of other backpack-type hip-hop --- I did Black Star, with Mos Def and Talib Kweli, I did Kweli’s solo record, I did Pharoahe Monch, and Lyricist Lounge. I had been working with [Rawkus] since they were putting out mostly singles. I started getting calls from around the world, and it organically grew into, this is what I do. That lead to my tenure at Sterling, where I started working with Bad Boy, and put out everything they did for about eight years.
MTV News: Do you have any Diddy stories?
Athens: [Laughs] He’s the only person that physically hurt me. He didn’t personally do it --- actually, the session did it. On the second record, they were sending it to another mastering engineer in California. Two weeks later, I get this panicked call. Turned out they didn’t like what the guy did, and I ended up driving from upstate New York to the studio and I did the record overnight, at about 4 o’clock in the morning. I was done, and I said goodnight to the guys, and they got Puffy on the phone, who was doing a press tour in Philadelphia. He told me that someone was going to drive the reference CD to Philly and he was going to listen to it and give me notes. In other words, "You stay right where you are." I knew that to be bullshit from the beginning, that he would never get back to me by a reasonable hour and have the record on the executive’s desk by the morning. And I called him on it.
That was when I discovered the power of Puffy. He went from being really forceful and demanding to very charming. I knew he was charming me, but it was nice, and I could see why people like him. If he turns on the charm, you’re gonna like him. So he charmed me into staying, even though I knew better. I stayed and I did the record again that day. And I did the record again the next day. And I did the record again the next day. I had spent an entire week working the trackball, with no support for my elbow, and I had been sleeping on my couch in the studio for a week, and [one] night I fell asleep on my shoulder. And I woke up and couldn’t use my arm, and it got worse as the day went on. In the end, it turned out I had dislocated my shoulder.
MTV News: Just working hard for Diddy.
Athens: Just working hard for Diddy is something that could injure you [laughs].
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.