20 Years at Abbey Road with Alex Gordon

20 Years at Abbey Road with Alex Gordon

Join us in congratulating mastering engineer Alex Gordon on his 20-year anniversary at Abbey Road!

To mark the occasion, we spoke with the man behind the masters of Matthew Herbert, I.Jordan, Eliza Rose and Crass about his most memorable moments.

Find out how you can have your music mastered by Alex using our ONLINE MASTERING service.

How does it feel hitting this milestone?

"Yeah it's totally surreal! I definitely didn't think that I would still be here in 20 years when I first started. I've been here like almost my whole adult life, you know, which is a bit weird but also nice. I started here when I was 21, I was just a baby. When I first started and there were people that had been here for like 20-30 years or whatever, I was just thinking like, my God, I'm never going to end up like them. But lo and behold, here I am!"

What first got you into music?

"I was quite a late starter I would say. My parents had (what I thought was) terrible taste in music. My mum really loved stuff like Julio Iglesias. Her favourite song is You’re the Voice by John Farnham. My dad wasn’t loads better, but he was quite musical and liked some good stuff. He didn’t play any instruments, but he did work in the music industry for a while. He’s got some weird connections with like Whitesnake and Nick Cave and people like that. I inherited all his records when he died but I only really kept hold of the Chas & Dave ones!

Arguably I was listening to much cooler music when I was 10 than I was when I was 18, you know. When I was 10, I loved Snoop Dogg, I loved Nirvana. I have an older sister and she used to have all these early ‘90s rave tape packs and stuff, so I'd listen to a lot of them. But by the time I was in my late teens, I'd become this quite tragic indie kid. I was only listening to these crappy, obscure indie bands and I completely frowned upon anything electronic.

When I went to university was when I really started opening up to different kinds of music. I got heavily into dance music but then ended up going too far the other way. I spent years saying I’d never listen to anything with guitars in ever again! Now my tastes have just sort of solidified into a stodgy mess of everything. As long as it’s good, I’ll listen to anything now."

When did you start DJing?

"I can attribute that to my friend Al Wootton. I lived in a shared house with him when we were in our early 20s. He was a really good DJ. Still is, that’s what he’s doing now. We were both massively into the early wave of dubstep and used to go to the club night FWD at Plastic People (R.I.P.) pretty much every week around 2005/6. He taught me how to mix. I bought a big stack of records and just got stuck in really.

I had like a year or two where I was getting quite a lot of bookings. I was alright, I wasn’t clearing out rooms or anything! When I first started making tunes, I didn’t have any expectations, I was just doing it for a laugh. Then when I released a couple of 12-inches suddenly people were like, 'What’s next?'. I thought, 'My God, the next thing that I do has got to be the best thing I’ve ever done' and the fun was kind of sucked out of it for me. Now I get paid to overanalyse other people’s music!"

Can you tell us about your first time at the studios?

"When I first started, I didn’t even really know what mastering was. I had just finished an English Literature degree at university and needed a job. I knew Christian Wright who already worked here, as we’re both from Chelmsford, and he heard of a job coming up that was very basic, you know, he said I would easily get it if I applied, and so I thought, 'Oh, I can go to Abbey Road, that’s got to be good!'

So my first job here was in a department that no longer exists called Video Services. It was basically like the copy rooms or the transfer rooms, but for videos. We’d get the new music video from someone like Kylie Minogue, and we'd have to make a hundred copies to send to MTV and Channel Four or wherever, you know, blah, blah, blah. I wasn’t even operating the machines; all I was doing was sticking labels on the tapes and dispatching them. It was the easiest job in the world. My salary at the time was £10,300 pounds a year, which you could just about survive on in London in 2004, and for which I was worth every penny.

I sort of remember my interview. I was very wet behind the ears, I probably turned up wearing a tie. Also, I didn’t have quite the same reverence as other people about The Beatles or Pink Floyd, not that I dislike them or anything, but I wasn’t overawed stepping into the building, which may have helped."

How did you end up in mastering? Was it pre-Abbey Road, or something you progressed into?

"The way I became a mastering engineer was not a very traditional way of doing it. After Video Services I bounced around a few other roles, all quite office/admin type stuff, which really was never me. Eventually a job came up in Post Production for a transfer engineer. By that time, I already knew I wanted to be a mastering engineer. I was making loads of music and DJing, all my wages were going on records every month and I was so fascinated by the vinyl cutting process. The main reason I wanted to get into mastering was because I just wanted to learn how to cut records! But before getting the job as a transfer engineer, it all still felt a bit pie-in-the-sky because I had no proper background in audio. I certainly didn’t know anything about studio recording. But I knew music and I knew records and I think I had a good ear.

There was quite a long period of time where I was in post-production, I was in the transfer engineer job in the copy rooms, and it just really didn't look like a mastering job would ever come up. For a long time, I really felt like I was just treading water, you know? But I always felt like I was capable of more.

The reason I didn’t leave was because Abbey Road is just a really nice place to work. It was just like, God, I've got it so much better than so many people, you know? And then yeah, by luck and happy circumstance (and taking my opportunity when it finally came) I ended up getting promoted to mastering."

Do you remember the first mastering project you worked on?

"I actually don’t… it’s all sort of blended together for me. When you do the transfer engineer job, you do some very basic mastering – I was working on a lot of CD compilations, stuff like 101 Housework Anthems or The Best Driving Songs of All Time and that sort of thing. The first thing of real substance I remember doing is the Novelist album, which ended up getting a Mercury nomination and was a great thing to do."

Who were your mentors when you started and who taught you to cut vinyl?

"When I first started, I was thrown in the deep end. I sort of knew what I was doing because I’d been up here quite a lot trying to educate myself. Alex Wharton (with whom I share the room now) had already shown me how the room works, how to make sound come out of the speakers and everything. At that time my mentors were Geoff Pesche, Miles Showell, Sean Magee, basically the guys I was on shift with. They were, and still are, extremely helpful. I still regularly go to them for advice or a second opinion. Those four guys, plus Lester Smith, were responsible for teaching me the lathe and how to cut vinyl. But in terms of EQing, compression, all of that stuff, I kind of taught myself really.

The other person who taught me a lot, going back to when I was a transfer engineer, was a guy called Allan Ramsay. He was a classical remastering engineer who was a total perfectionist. He would not accept second best in anything. I ended up getting on really well with him and when I applied for Post Production, he put me through this listening test to make sure my ears were up to scratch. He had a playlist of music where things were slightly wrong. For example, you’d have to recognize the audio was in mono, or spot little clicks and dropouts, things like that. I’m naturally very methodical and perfectionist myself anyway, but he really drilled in the importance of attention to detail and of not half-arsing things. Mastering’s the last thing in the production chain before things go to release, so if an album gets released and it turns out there’s a problem with it, it’s kind of on you. So quality control is very important."

What was it like working on Matthew Herbert’s new album The Horse?

"I really love his music. I mean, he's just a bit a legend isn’t he? He's done loads of amazing stuff, loads of really good remixes, I used to play some of his tunes when I was DJing. I’ve just always respected him as a producer and an artist.

He was such a nice guy and a really fun person to work with. Totally up to experiment and was really engaged with the whole thing. Also the music was absolutely brilliant, which always helps. It’s so dynamic and has so many different things going on as it progresses. As we were mastering, he was listening to it and going, 'Actually, I just want to add this little bell sound in' and was bouncing new mixes from his laptop on the sofa. Parts of it were really on the hoof like that, no pun intended!

The best part of the job is always when you get to work on something really good, and when it’s with someone you already like and respect it’s a great perk."

In 2022 you had a No.1 with Eliza Rose and Interplanetary Criminal’s B.O.T.A. What was that experience like?

"That one was really good cause I don't work on a lot of big pop music, you know, that's not really what I do, so I didn’t ever expect a number one. So it was really nice to get a number one with something cool like that – it was a club hit that somehow crossed over into the mainstream, in the same way that Heartbroken by T2 did or something like that. It was just one of those quite organic virally things which turned it into a big summer anthem. I remember it was the day the Queen died, and I was at Pikes in Ibiza when I found out it went number one! That was a surreal evening. Now I’ve got the platinum disc on my wall at home!"

Can you tell us about working with I.Jordan and how that working relationship came about?

"It’s all quite a small scene on that DJ circuit. I met I.Jordan through Al Wootton. We used to do this monthly ambient music thing called New Atlantis in Peckham on a Sunday. It was at Rye Wax (R.I.P.), which has never opened after the pandemic but was one of my favourite spots in London. So it was me, Al, Jordan, Leon Marks (who also works here) and a few of our other friends. Jordan was initially just one of the people that would come down and play tunes, but then eventually Al moved to Montreal for a couple years and Jordan carried it on.

This was before Jordan had properly started releasing music, and they were concerned about becoming known more as an ambient music artist than a club music artist, which is what they considered themselves to be. So eventually we wound it down and when they started releasing records I was the obvious person to master them as we were already mates!"

Could you list a few of your favourite projects?

"It’s not out yet, but I did an album last year for an artist on 4AD called Erika de Casier which is really nice. I loved working on that and listened to it loads after I did it.

The other one to mention is working with Penny Rimbaud on all the Crass stuff. The music is often, and he would readily agree, borderline unlistenable - but at the same time it’s so good and it’s always a really weird and fun and interesting thing to do. He’s also just such a lovely guy. What an amazing by-product of the job that I’ve ended up becoming really close with Penny and get to work on most of the stuff he’s involved in."

What are some of your all-time favourite pieces of gear?

"I'm not a big gear nerd, but we've got a few bits in the last few years that I love, one being the DW Fearn VT7 Compressor. I don’t think many people use it in a mastering context. We have a Shadow Hills compressor which is great, but I wanted something that was a lot cleaner sounding and more transparent and the DW just sounds absolutely wicked. It’s really punchy and really rich but it’s not too colourful."

What do you love about cutting vinyl?

"When it’s something that you’ve mastered and you’ve made a real effort with it and you do all the right things cutting, it’s really satisfying. Much more satisfying than hearing something you’ve mastered on Spotify. I wouldn’t say I’m one of those vinyl purists, I love an MP3 as much as the next guy, but I love that it feels like a trade, you know, like being a carpenter or a plumber or something. It feels like this weird arcane skill that I know how to do. And the fact you’re operating these industrial machines that are all 40+ years old, it’s just cool I think. You feel the history of it."

What was your most surreal moment at Abbey Road?

"I remember queuing up behind George Lucas for lunch in the canteen which seemed quite mad. There was also the time that I spent the day in here with Paul McCartney which was very surreal. It was just a playback but he was really lovely, super super nice.

The only time I’ve been properly starstruck here was when Miles Showell called me into his room while he was mastering an album with Sade. He didn’t tell me she was going to be in there and he knew I was a really big fan… That, and when I saw Saoirse Ronan in the canteen about a year ago. I just love her, she’s amazing."

Why do you think so may engineers/staff members stay at Abbey Road for their whole careers?

"That’s what stopped me getting a mastering job here for so long! People get a job in mastering here and then that’s it. They aren’t going anywhere because where is there to go from here? There are other studios of course but I just love the environment here. Everyone’s really supportive of each other. I mean, there are politics of course, but I don’t feel like I’m in competition against Oli or Geoff or anyone else, you know? I feel like we’re teammates rather than competitors.

The other truly invaluable thing here is the technical department. Any bit of gear that goes wrong will be fixed or replaced super quickly. Loads of the stuff in the rooms is unique or bespoke. They’ll build stuff for you! A while back I wanted an analogue parallel processor for my room, so Matt Kingdon just built one for me! The knowledge the techies have here is just incredible."

Sum up your time at Abbey Road in three words.

"Oh my God, let me think… Maybe just that! 'Oh my God'. Or 'That’s too loud'."

Find out how you can have your music mastered by Alex using our Online Mastering service.


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