ALEXANDR VATAGIN is a producer, recording, mixing and mastering engineer and has already cooperated with many domestic and international acts. You might know him from the time when he was making music himself, but in the meantime he has turned to pure studio work. Ada Karlbauer met ALEXANDR VATAGIN for the second part of the interview series about Austrian producers and talked to him about his work at Vienna’s “Sunshine Mastering”. It was about mastering as a kind of “Dark Art”, the overpowering American industry as “Role Model”, about the “Trap stuff” and boring guitar music from the 70s, “Retrotopia” as a way of ignoring the present and why the times of the analogue mixing desk are long gone.
From federal scholarship in music to pure studio work: What did the path from musician to mixing, mastering and recording engineer look like?
Alexandr Vatagin: I hadn’t really connected with music until I bought my first CD at the age of eighteen, pretty undiscerningly. From then on things went relatively fast uphill. Two years later acts like Radiohead and Sigur Ros were my idols and I decided to start the band Tupolev with Peter Holy – a friend from boyhood. With Tupolev and the Italian formation Port-Royal I got around a lot playing live in over thirty countries. Recording was an early topic, as I’ve always recorded all my bands myself from the beginning. Only mixing and mastering were always done by others. The really big break happened in 2012 when I rented a small studio to mix my last solo album [“Serza”; note] and I sort of got stuck there.
“ACTUALLY THERE WAS ONLY THIS PLAN A”
Alexandr Vatagin: I didn’t really have any idea about mixing and mastering at that time. I had already produced some stuff for others, like an EP for Fettkakao, but in the years before I was doing quite well as a musician. I had just received a state scholarship and I was also on the cover of GAP magazine with the “best” young musicians from Austria at that time who actually became well known: Dorian Concept, Clara Luzia, Soap&Skin and so on. But since it’s also nice when things are changing in life, I soon realized that I enjoy studio work so much that I really want to and have to pull it through. I just turned thirty then and couldn’t imagine having an office job or anything like it. Actually there was only this plan A.
It almost seems as if the trial-and-error method was the common approach to music production.
Alexandr Vatagin: Yes, I think it’s pretty normal, unless you are working in the classical field. For, as a sound engineer, you definitely have to meet other criteria. With pop music in the broadest sense, whether it’s experimental electronics, indie rock or mainstream pop, in the end it’s always the final product that counts. The path leading to it can be different for each and every one of us. Everyone has his/her own style, shaped by musical preferences and his/her own personality, which actually makes it extremely exciting and diverse. I mainly do mastering which is known as a “Dark Art”. Theoretically, your own influence is much smaller compared to mixing or recording, but the better you get and the more unfinished a mix is, the more mastering then makes a big difference.
“I’M WORKING WITH SOME PEOPLE I’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE”
In Austria many jobs seem to come about through personal connections. Is this different on an international level?
Alexandr Vatagin: It’s quite similar, because most jobs actually come via recommendations, and recommendations usually come from artists with whom you’ve been working for a long time. In this respect it’s still very much personal. Whereas now, more and more often I’m getting requests due to the sound of a certain production. The real big difference in international cooperation is that you never see each other. I’m working with some people I’ve never seen before, although the collaboration has been going on for years.
“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN MORE INTERESTED IN GLOBAL STUFF”
Alexandr Vatagin: Even as a musician I found it boring then to play only in Austria. I was more and more interested in global stuff. This perspective was also good for my studio work, because I already knew people internationally. So, although I wasn’t that well known yet, I was able to participate in international projects regularly, which is not that common, especially at the beginning of a career. I’ve got my contacts abroad and I’m just happy to master at times a record from Italy or an album from America. Now I’ll soon have a homepage which will certainly make it all a bit easier. At the moment I am still a bit DIY and travelling incognito [laughs].
Is there anything like a mixing or mastering hero for you?
Alexandr Vatagin: I indeed do have a very big hero, the mixing engineer Tchad Blake. He’s originally from America and is working with artists like Tom Waits, The Black Keys and Stina Nordenstam, musicians who have influenced me a lot personally. He mixes like no one else and his sound is so big and fat, yet still “indie”. It just has so much character. This strong personality that he leaves behind in the music (he’s mixed) while at the same time still letting the music be itself, has impressed me massively. I finally met him in 2019 when I was able to watch him at work for a week at a seminar in France.
“WHY SHOULD SOMETHING SOUND SMALL AND THIN WHEN IT CAN BE BIG OR – TO PUT IT BLUNTLY – FAT?”
Over the past fifteen years significant qualitative changes and a comprehensive professionalization of the Austrian music scene have taken place.
Alexandr Vatagin: Yes, especially in the indie-pop sector. Due to Wanda, Bilderbuch and others, a great lot has happened. These developments made it possible for the production scene too to rise to another level. By our collaboration we are also helping the artists to reach an international level. Like here at “Sunshine Mastering”, where I have been working since last summer, the quality of the work and the demands are oriented towards an international standard. And that standard – you need to be that honest – is a higher one. Particularly in the entertainment industry in the USA.
“AS FOR PRODUCTION, AMERICA IS CERTAINLY THE REFERENCE”
Can one speak of America as a “role model” in this context?
Alexandr Vatagin: For whatever reason, but the US model actually works best. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that everything that comes from there is great. But as we’re mainly talking about production and the entertainment industry, the US is already by and large the reference and a benchmark. Of course it’s not the right claim for every kind of music to think that way, but for many it actually is. Why should something sound small and thin, when it can be big or – to put it bluntly – fat? The Black Keys are a good example of this. They weren’t really my music, but I was very much impressed by the production. It was just direct, big and punchy. That influenced me a lot. Even if it may sound a bit arrogant, but I personally have this ambition to make music sound more international.
This approach also sounds very much mainstream oriented. Are there also opposite tendencies in production that refuse the big, the overwhelming?
Alexandr Vatagin: I think there are, always and everywhere. But the developments of the past ten or fifteen years in Austria have simply made the collective approach become more international and less “niche”. I think for people from the 1980s this change is more difficult to understand. The development went from the big studio with tape machines and analogue mixing to digital. Nobody has a mixing desk anymore. It all just changed in a massive way and I simply grew up more or less right among these new trends.
“IT WOULD BE ABSURD TO CONDEMN A DEVELOPMENT JUST BECAUSE IT IS HAPPENING”
Is this slowly dwindling analogue way of working now completely foreign to you?
Alexandr Vatagin: I know it a little bit. I once had an analogue mixing desk. But after three or four years I sold it because I realized that it was simply no longer up to date for me. The technology too has become so much better in the last ten years, especially in the digital field. Things just sound so good now that you simply don’t need anything else. Apart from the purely economic factor: In the past you needed a huge room with a mixing desk that broke down three times a year [laughs].
You’ve had collaborations in recent years with a large number of Austrian artists such as Aiko Aiko, Spitting Ibex, Electric Indigo and many more. What was your personal highlight?
Alexandr Vatagin: There are of course many favorites. And in each of the tracks – no matter if you mixed, mastered or recorded them – there’s a part of you. So you always have a connection to it. But there are two productions that I would like to highlight in terms of music, but also in terms of intensity and passion.
What I really liked very much was the collaboration with the Austrian duo Aiko Aiko which hasn’t done anything for a few years but will release a new album this year. I mixed and mastered that. The second really special project from Austria was David Howald. This is really intense, exciting and special music. Some people love it, some hate it, it just polarizes a lot, which is a very good sign, I think. Wolfgang Möstl recorded the stuff and I mixed and mastered it. Those were the two most exciting projects for me last year.
Do you know any women who are active in this field?
Alexandr Vatagin: For sure, there are too few women, but that’s changing a lot. I think that’s good. I’m working with a female producer, Emily Minely Fakic also known as Soulcat E-Phife. She produces mostly hip-hop. But when it comes to sound engineering or mixing, there are very few in Austria that I know of. I think it will take some time before this area will open up more. I, for one, shall be happy when it’s going to happen.
“[…] BE AWARE OF THE PAST, BUT LOOK INTO THE FUTURE”
What are your thoughts on less exclusive approaches and the increasing de-professionalization of studio work and production?
Alexandr Vatagin: It’s not quite ideal, but there are always two sides to the coin. Apart from that, it’s the way it is. You have to adapt and take on new challenges, i.e. you need to be aware of the past, but look into the future. Tchad Blake, whom I talked about before, is now 65 and in his seminar he discusses artists like Cardi B and J. Cole, modern Trap, so to speak. I think this open approach is great. I think it’s great when a person who could actually already be retired plays modern music that is normally heard by 20-year-olds and can groove to it a lot. Of course I also know people who don’t know what to do with the “Trap stuff” because they only listen to guitar music from the 70s [laughs]. That’s okay, but it simply would be too boring for me.
Such mindsets are also strongly reminiscent of the term “Retrotopia” developed by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, by which he means that the view always clings to the “undead past” while completely rejecting the present – in the case of Trap – as a mainstay of pop culture or the like.
Alexandr Vatagin: Such limitations are personal decisions. For me it would just be too restrictive. Quite apart from the fact that in the long run it’s not ideal for the profession. Music is always changing and I find that exciting. You just have to be willing to go with the changes. Since I started using Tidal, the high quality alternative to Spotify, I’ve discovered so much new music which didn’t happen to me since I was nineteen or twenty. The demonetization of artists is of course the dark side of the coin. Just moving with the times is a good story in itself – and in doing so, knowing and bearing in mind the past, but still being in the present.
Many thanks for the interview!
Translated from the German original by Julian Schoenfeld