Cookie Consent by
Behind The Scenes – Interview with Bruno Varea (Upload Studio)

Behind The Scenes – Interview with Bruno Varea (Upload Studio)

Examining the liner notes of several distinguished DMP albums - including BLUT AUS NORD's "Hallucinogen", ERSHETU's "Xibalba", and EITRIN's self-titled debut - a common thread emerges: all were mastered by Bruno Varea at Upload Studio in Montpellier, France. With decades of experience as both artist and sound engineer, Bruno has shaped numerous releases in the world of Metal and beyond. In a comprehensive interview, he shares insights into his craft, collaborations with DMP artists, and the essentials of quality mastering.

Q: Hello Bruno! You are a professional sound engineer who works across a lot of different musical genres, not just Black Metal or even Metal in general. Would you be so kind as to walk us through the beginnings of your career? Why did you become an engineer?

My journey into sound started in the 90s as a kid with an early passion for Metal music. This led me to start playing guitar and growl into a mic. Later on, fiddling around with a tape deck and cheap gear, trying to record demos for our teenage blackened Death Metal band, the technical side of things grabbed my attention. The home studio craze took in, I was hooked.

I was 20 when I decided to ditch biology studies to fully commit to sound engineering. Back from audio school I started working as a stagehand for local venues/shows and worked my way from roadie to sound-tech. I got lucky enough to end up touring with bands, travelling the world, meeting great individuals along the way – including Metal heroes from my childhood. When not on the road, I was often busy doing studio work for the bands I toured with: recording, mixing, mastering and so forth. Through the years, I started doing it more and more. For the past ten years, I have been focusing on the studio side, with mastering as my main activity.

What do I like about that job? Every day/night I get to work with something I am passionate about: music! I truly enjoy collaborating with musicians and help them achieve their artistic vision. It's an incredibly rewarding profession that allows me to be a part of the creative process and see a project through to its completion.

Q: Your website mentions you are located in Montpellier but deliver online mixing and mastering services. Does that mean you usually don't have bands there in the studio and your work is often remote?

Exactly. While I am based in Montpellier, France, I primarily offer online mix and mastering services. This means that my typical workflow involves collaborating with artists and bands remotely, without them being physically present in the studio. The modern music industry has evolved significantly in recent years, with the internet making it easier than ever to work together from different locations. Using advanced communication and file-sharing technologies, artists can send their audio tracks to me from anywhere in the world. I then work on these tracks in my studio, and provide feedback and revisions as needed. This remote collaboration allows me to serve a global clientele and provide high-quality mix and mastering services to artists without geographical constraints. I sometimes get visits from artists, for a final listening session for example, if they are locals or touring in the area at the time. I am always down to talk music and share few drinks.

Q: Could you give us an overview of the technical equipment you are currently using for mixing and mastering work?

I think the most important part is the listening environment: proper room acoustics, precise monitoring and transparent digital to analog converters are essential for accurate audio playback. For this I use Dynaudio speakers with Lynx Hilo converters. The room is treated with GIK acoustics products to manipulate the sounds and aesthetic of a record I work in a hybrid way, with hardware gear and plugins. These days, for example, in the racks I have a custom Sontec equalizer made by Klontz audio, an old versatile compressor by Ted Fletcher, a Pultec tube EQ, an insert switcher, and so forth – all routed through the D to A/ A to D loop of the lynx Hilo converter. Inside the digital audio workstation, I use some plugins from Fabfilter, TDR, Sonnox, Voxengo, etc. The tools vary depending on what I feel is needed for each particular project. I will try not to bore anyone with tech talks, haha, I really think mastering is all about the ears and not the gear!

Q: Is there a special reason your place of work is named "Upload Studio"?

When I first started offering my services online back in the days, remote audio work wasn't as common as today. I already had a strong client base in the Metal community with bands sending me hard drives through postal services, and when the sharing of large files via the internet became a reality, I thought it could be a great opportunity to make things happen faster and also get the chance to work with different bands, mixers or producers in different genres. is the core of my workflow which relies heavily upon the uploading and sharing of audio files over the internet - it reflects the convenience and accessibility of my services, allowing artists to collaborate with me regardless of their geographical location.

Q: When talking with sound engineers, they usually mention that it is generally better to master releases they have also mixed. What is your take on that?

The preference for mastering your own mix is a common sentiment among sound engineers, and I can be guilty of that sometimes, but I truly believe there are distinct advantages to having a different person master a mix, getting a fresh pair of ears and a new perspective into the process. A different mastering engineer can bring a unique set of experiences and sensibilities to the project. They may hear nuances and details that the original mix engineer or artist might have missed due to their familiarity with the material. This fresh perspective can often lead to creative enhancements, as the mastering engineer can identify opportunities to accentuate the mix's strengths or address any potential weaknesses.

I receive mixes from engineers or artists every day, most of the time they sound good, or at least "as intended" by the artist or producer, and there is absolutely no need to remix them. But there can be challenges involved. The success of mastering depends on the quality of the mix, and sometimes mixes may have issues that require attention. Some common issues I might encounter include imbalances in frequency, excessive compression, or clipping, unpleasant or distracting frequency build ups, and so forth. In these situations, I always try to keep a "don't judge it, make it work" approach to achieve the best possible mastering result. Sometimes, when something is really off, or if the mixer asks for guidance or has some doubts on the mix, I will gladly propose some modifications to be done on their side to improve their mix or solve some issues before I dive into mastering.

Communication is the key in mastering. I collaborate with the artists and mixing engineers to ensure the final master reflects the artist's vision while meeting the technical and sonic standards required for a professional release. While it can be more challenging to work with mixes that have issues, it's a satisfying process to address these problems and deliver a great sounding final product.

Q: The job of mastering a record still seems somewhat underappreciated in the Metal scene. Also, the usual saying is that 'great mastering can enhance good mixing, but great mastering can't save a bad mix'. What is your opinion on that?

Yep "you can't polish a turd", haha! I completely agree with the sentiment that a great mastering job can further enhance a good mix, but it can't save a really bad mix. The Art of mastering is about fine-tuning and enhancing the already existing qualities of a mix. It also involves improving the overall sound quality, ensuring consistency across tracks, and preparing the material for distribution, whether it's on physical media, streaming platforms, or any other format.

A well-mixed track that has been carefully balanced and processed will certainly benefit from mastering, it can elevate a good mix to greatness, bringing out the nuances, enhancing the sonic aesthetics, and ensuring that the music translates well across various playback systems. However, mastering is not a miracle cure for a poorly mixed track. In such cases, the mastering engineer may have to make unusual compromises that can impact the overall sonic quality, and the results may not meet the desired standards. The best results are achieved when the mix engineer and mastering engineer have open communication and a shared understanding of the artistic vision.

Q: To expand on that question: what would you say characterizes a great piece of mastering? When you listen to something, what needs to be present in the sound/how does it need to sound, for you to think: 'that really was produced in a great way!'?

I think a great work of mastering is characterized by its ability to elevate the music to its full potential. A well-mastered track should possess a balanced sound, according to the genre and the artistic vision. It should capture the essence of the music, enhance the details of the mix without being intrusive on the project. Dynamic range also plays a significant role in a great master. It's important to strike a balance between appropriate loudness and the natural dynamics of the music to maintain its emotional depth and impact.

It also should exhibit coherence and consistency. It should convey a sense of unity and fluidity, especially in the context of an entire album or project. This ensures that all the tracks feel like they belong together, creating a seamless listening experience. Transparency is a key quality to me. Mastering should maintain the authenticity of the original mix while refining it. The mastered track should also be suitable for its intended medium. Whether it's optimized for streaming, CD, vinyl, or any other format, the master should be tailored to sound its best on that specific medium. Regardless of the genre or style, I think a good mastering job should respect the artistic intent while ensuring that the music sounds captivating and resonates with the audience. It's a delicate balance between technical application and artistic sensitivity.

Q: Putting the focus now on your work with Debemur Morti Productions. Can you remember your first collaboration with Void and the label? And how did the collaboration develop over time?

My first collaboration with Void and Debemur Morti Productions was "Spectral Subsonic Waves", the BLUT AUS NORD side of the "Codex Obscura Nomina" split with AEVENGELIST in 2016. I was introduced to the label through Vindsval who was looking for a mastering engineer to work on this new BAN release. We have known each other for more than 20 years now, the glorious days of tape trading, haha! I have always been really interested in his unique approach to Black Metal, and so I was happy to get on board and help finalize this new project for DMP. "Spectral Subsonic Waves" marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration. I really enjoy the label's dedication to pushing the boundaries of extreme and avant-garde music. Over time, we've worked on various releases from bands like AU CHAMP DES MORTS, FORHIST, ERSHETU, EITRIN and, of course, more BLUT AUS NORD albums. The collaboration with Debemur Morti Productions has allowed me to be part of a diverse range of projects, from black metal to experimental music and It's been a privilege to contribute to the label's unique roster of artists,

Q: You have mastered every BLUT AUS NORD album since the split-release "Codex Obscura Nomina" in 2016, and therefore know the Art of V. in depth. Is there a specific challenge when mastering BAN releases? Which elements do you usually pay special attention to?

Working on BLUT AUS NORD releases is inspiring and enjoyable to me. The work of Vindsval, the creative force behind BAN, is characterized by its avant-garde and experimental nature, which presents unique challenges and opportunities in the mastering process.

One of the specific requirements with BAN releases is the need to preserve the subtleties and nuances in the music. Vindsval's sonic landscape often features complex layers, unconventional textures, and instruments playing together in perfect chaos. As a mastering engineer, I need to be attuned to these elements and make sure that they are presented in the most impactful way while preserving the artistic direction. As BAN's music also evolves between ethereal, atmospheric parts and intense, aggressive sections, mastering must capture the dynamics of this journey, maintaining the emotional impact and the immersive quality of the music. It requires some understanding of Vindsval's artistic intent and a meticulous approach to audio quality. I am glad to contribute to the sonic explorations of one of the most innovative bands in the genre.

Q: When you master a BAN record, do you work very closely with V.? Or is the artistic relationship already so tight that few words and little contact are needed?

Every BLUT AUS NORD release is a unique project with its distinct challenges and artistic considerations. The artistic relationship with Vindsval has indeed grown over time to a point where there is a nice level of trust and mutual understanding. While communication remains essential to ensure the artistic vision is respected and realized, the process has become more streamlined and efficient as we've collaborated on multiple projects, and also probably because of our backgrounds and shared interest for unconventional music. We still engage in communication to discuss specific project requirements, goals, any particularities, overall tone and mood of the album, or just to evoke "Lovecraftian sub-bass frequencies tentacles swallowing the listener" or "emaciated guitar tones deliciously rubbing ears, like sandpaper", true story, haha!

Q: One of the last DMP releases you mastered was ERSHETU's "Xibalba" which is a rather unique sounding project in the label's roster. Can you tell us more about the mastering process for this release? Is it particularly challenging to master such orchestral and dynamic sounds?

Certainly, mastering "Xibalba" by ERSHETU was a remarkable project due to its unique soundscapes. The carefully crafted music and concept combines elements of orchestration, Black Metal elements, majestic vocals and otherworldly atmospheres, creating a rich and immersive sonic experience. The mastering process for "Xibalba" presented a set of specific points, but it all went quite smoothly as the mixes received from V.'s Earthsound Studio were really good sounding to start with. The main focus was balancing the overall tone so the orchestral elements would blend seamlessly with the Metal components to create a coherent and powerful sound, while retaining some sense of dynamics and emotional range to enable Lars Nedland's epic vocal lines to shine through these massive compositions. I worked to maintain the music's sense of scale and depth while ensuring that it sounded engaging, detailed, and impactful, oh and… I also had to prevent the crazy flute from stealing the show sometimes, haha! Mastering "Xibalba" was an exciting experience, this record attests to the label's commitment to unique and diverse music, and I'm grateful to have been a part of bringing this exceptional project to life.

Q: I saw on your website that you did a remix of a LENNY KRAVITZ song, if I am not mistaken. Is it very different to work on more commercial music than to work on a Black Metal/Extreme Metal track?

Indeed, years ago I had the opportunity to work on a remix of a LENNY KRAVITZ single ‘Sex', the original track has been in the hands of two inspiring audio legends: Bob Clearmountain and Bob Ludwig, the remix was a direct request from Kravitz to a good friend and talented producer JL Palumbo (PANZERFLOWER/RINOCEROSE). It was really fun for me to master this alternate electro/club version.

While the fundamental principles of mastering remain consistent across genres ("make it sound great!"), there are differences in the sonic characteristics, production styles, and artistic objectives that require adjusting the approach when working on mainstream tracks compared to Extreme metal. Popular music tends to aim for a polished, radio-friendly sound, while Black Metal often embraces raw and aggressive production styles. Adapting the mastering approach to suit these stylistic variations is essential. Each genre presents its signature sound and creative opportunities, making the mastering process an always evolving and versatile path.

Q: You are not only a sound engineer, but you were also a (live) musician in the Extreme Metal scene, in DARKSHINE among others. How do you remember your involvement in the French Black Metal scene as a musician in the late '90s? And are you, at the moment, also involved as a musician in different projects?

My involvement in the Metal scene in the late '90s was a significant and formative experience. It was a time of great creativity and innovation in the Extreme Metal genre, and I have fond memories of the underground music scene during that era. Being a part of DARKSHINE and participating in the scene allowed me, through the years, to witness a vibrant and passionate community of musicians and fans.

While my primary focus has shifted to sound engineering, my passion for music remains strong. I continue to create and collaborate with different projects when time allows. You can check out the work we did with HARDBANGER years ago or more recently, a collaboration with my longtime partners in crime from DARKSHINE (here).

Last month, I did some haunting and tortured vocals for the first QOL TOHÜ release (listen here), a new ritual/hypnotic/massive sounding project from an anonymous artist, and I am currently working on the mastering of these tracks. I really enjoy putting final touches on a project at the mastering stage, helping other artists make their music shine, the musician in me never stops headbanging.

Posted on 05-30-2024 | Category: Blut Aus Nord, Ershetu, Eitrin