Mika Jussila is a Finnish Mastering engineer who has worked with bands such as: Children Of Bodom, Nightwish, Amorphis, Stratovarius, Moonsorrow, Hanoi Rocks, Stam1na and many more (see full discography here). He’s also a co-owner of the legendary Finnvox Studio in Helsinki, Finland and does Photography on the side too. We had a long chat about how it pays to persistently knock on doors of studios (hint: they may give up and give you a job), what it’s like to have over 1500 Metal masters under his belt, brief history of Finnish heavy metal, a music service he’d like to see come out, and why Mastering should be one of the top priorities when planning an album.
1. What was the thing that got you into Music Production?
Naturally things started off with playing music and playing in bands. I was a guitarist/vocalist in a cover band but I was just too damn lazy to practice so I couldn’t keep my progress up. If there’s any regrets today, that’d be the thing. Instead the keen interest in recording and studio business made me knock doors on local studios to see if they had any work for me.
At Finnvox they eventually got enough of my harassment and gave me a job at the Mastering department. Just like that. It was 1984 and I mastered about 2000 records on vinyl before the CD’s took over. Since then I’ve done roughly 3800 albums and countless singles & tracks.
Then there’s hardrock & metal field that most people associate me with but I would like to remind people that I do all styles, though I’ve mastered about 1500 metal/hardrock albums throughout my career which is probably some sort of World record. These days I master about 70-80 albums a year and about ¾’s of that are non-Finnish bands.
If I was lazy about practicing my instrument back in the day then I guess I’ve also been lazy about learning the technical side of things. As a studio pro I’m leaning heavily towards feel rather than technicalities. To me the biggest measurements of music are the amount of goosebumps and smiley faces. There are many simple things and then there’s many things that require vast comprehension. It’s a constant learning process and you’ll never truly graduate. I do this job 100% based on the fact that I’m a music fan. I feel privileged because my hobby is also my job.. Or that I get paid from my hobby. Still after all these years I’m still passionate about new bands and new albums.
2. What’s your stance on the digital vs analog battle? And do you think one day software, emulation-hardware etc will surpass the real thing?
The first generation CD’s were very low quality mainly because they were new and therefore there was no know-how. AD-converters were also pretty poor in those days and very few had the balls to mix digital processing with analog signal chain. In those days digital was the magic word and it was the uncompromised chain from recording into mastering. When you had CD’s with the “DDD” stamp on the label it usually meant the best possible sound quality. Many times the whole mastering process was bypassed as the final mixes were pressed on the CD’s. Little did they know then.
As the digital processors got better and when the 24 bit processing was introduced the whole “DDD” lost its higher ground. Nowadays the great sound is a result of digital and analog gear working together. There’s Tube EQ’s and vintage this vintage that paired with top of the line plugins and digital hardware. To fully comprehend that took me years.
The foundation of my signal chain is naturally an HDD-based mastering software. The better part of my sound comes from analog outboard. 4 EQ’s: Focusrite, Fairman, Prismsound & API and a 1 compressor/limiter: Fairman. Then on the digital side I have TC6000 that’s equipped with good multiband comp, precise EQ’s, S-Limiters and good meters. I do the final tweaks and dynamics with plugins: L316 and Nugen True Peak Limiter. So it’s a healthy mix of old and new, hardware and software, digital & analog.
But I really love to work with hardware because it allows me to dial real buttons and flip real switches that have a sound of their own. This is based on feel completely.
Having analog classic gear and new high end gear I think the customer senses that I’m serious about my craft and that I care deeply about my work and I’m not afraid to let it show. Technically speaking, there’s absolutely no reason for me not to use the latest plugins and I know many of them can achieve the same sound as their hardware counterparts but to me it’s a question of feel.
In most projects my favourite piece of gear is the Fairman Tube-EQ or my Custom made Stereo widener. But as an example on COB’S Blooddrunk or Nightwish’s Dark Passion Play the only piece of gear that made the final cut after numerous test masters was the TC6000. One piece of gear. This is a good reminder why it’s important to keep your head cool and not to fall for the never-ending gear hype, and it also sends a reminder just how great of a mixing engineer Mikko Karmila is. There’s really no real need to use all that gear to mask the original performance.
It’s also important to remember that if my client thinks that an analog tape master is far superior to a 24bit WAV.. who am I to judge? There’s choices based on feel and at the end of the day customer is always right. The only time I’ll step in is when things get sidetracked for no good reason and my job is to get the job back on the right track.
3. How do you see the current Music Production scene? The pros the cons, what we might be missing/what we could improve?
I think the music production scene is doing great in all fields worldwide. I feel the Music production is doing better than Music distribution, physical formats & streaming. That area could use a lot of improvement. Well.. you could always complain about substandard mixes haha. I’ve been able to save some pretty bad mixes in the mastering process and even though they’re not the nicest projects to work with, but the end result is usually extremely rewarding. I also enjoy working with newer unknown bands when you get to guide them about do’s and don’t do’s. And when they break into big time they always remember who was the nice guy in the beginning. I don’t label my customers, they’re all equal to me. I also don’t filter my works too specifically, I do all the projects I’m being offered and the only time I have to say no is if my schedule is already full.
Studio time in Finland is pretty damn cheap compared to other countries, we have world-class engineers available whose services are only a fraction of the cost of the same service provided anywhere else in the world. In Finland you get more bang for your buck. And you can always influence the A&R and the Marketing people about the pros of a high quality recording. Awareness, information and the right attitude can be passed on to the next in line.
4. What’s the latest piece of gear (hardware/software) that made you go bananas?
In the mastering field it’s hard to name a specific piece as most of our work is done with EQ’s and dynamic control. But I do remember the time when Digital mastering transitioned from U-Matic video tapes and Sony 1630 processing into HDD-based mastering, the really big pro was the Undo-button haha.
Here at Finnvox we have mastered our craft in digital mastering for 27 years and we feel that our ways of working, thinking and our signal chains are top of the line and were constantly looking forward to up our game.
Oh.. and if there’s one thing I wish that never came around, it’d be the TC Finalizer haha.
5. Let’s say we could get the brightest of the brightest and smartest of the smartest to come up with a piece of gear (software/hardware) and it could eliminate one annoying thing, what would it be (could be audio or anything, physically impossible or possible)?
I’ve actually been brainstorming a service for music listeners where the listener could choose the sounds for the purchased songs. Imagine a hardware shop but with music..You would look at a huge sound chart and choose the desired sounds and levels to go with the song. “I like this song but it needs bigger drums and I want the guitars to sound like JCM800’s instead.. Louder solos.. Oh and the vocalist could sound like Tom Araya” haha.
6. If you could give one piece of advice to a young starting home-studio producer, what would it be?
Your ears and your monitoring is where the money is. When your mixing, trust your ears, not the levels. Learn the ABC’s thoroughly and keep on expanding your knowledge as you go. Be humble and listen to the more seasoned engineers if they give you tips. Don’t think too highly of yourself. It’s a constant learning process. Don’t try to do all the steps yourself all the time. You’ll no longer hear the fine detail and you’ll gain more from bringing in an extra pair of ears than you’ll lose. That’s why it’s always a good idea to have someone else master your songs. Loud isn’t better. Trust the power of dynamics. When you mix DON’T COMPRESS too much, because extra compression can always be added but it cannot be taken away if there’s too much.
Many times I’ve started a mastering session by telling the artist about the dangers of loudness war and how we should focus on the dynamics instead and leave some room to breathe. I usually get rather the response “we have no idea what that is but make it louder than anything else will ya”.
To musicians and artists: Be brave, be yourself and believe in your vision. Be unique, don’t just copycat others. Follow your heart and be true to yourself. If you’re fake and scheming it usually shines through. Make music essentially for yourself, everyone else who likes your music is only a nice bonus!
7. When you do mastering & audio work for over 30 years, has there ever been a trend or a phase where you wish that it’d be shortlived and/or would you wish a certain trend could come back?
I can live with trends just fine, and I can adapt with the changing times and changing standards. The biggest joy to me was when Finnish metal started to get international recognition and I had a notable role in it too. The whole Finnish metal mania is a sum of many parts. It all started in the late 80’s when Finnvox was blooming, producer T.T Oksala had his golden age and he had worked with Peer Gunt, Smack, Zero Nine, Sielun Veljet and they were making their way into the big league. Around the same time engineer Mikko Karmila was starting off his career with a finnish thrash-metal band Stone. With that merit under his belt he was brought into the Finnvox as a freelancer, just like T.T.
Around the corner another music fan by the name of Riku Paakkonen had a small time record distro and he had just started his own label: Spinefarm Records. In the early days Spinefarm was a representative for the Epitaph Records in Finland. Epitaph had landed hits with bands like The Offspring and they were selling enormous amount of copies in Finland. As a result Spinefarm was able to invest into their own roster and most importantly into Finnish bands. Then out came Nightwish, COB, Sonata Arctica.. You name it, there really was no shortage of bands and all those bands needed production work done so Spinefarm set their eyes on myself, Mikko Karmila & Finnvox.
Timo Tolkki’s persistence with Stratovarius resulted in many fruitful co-projects in the 1990’s, Ville Valo’s (HIM) loyalty for Finnvox has also been uncompromised from the start. That’s the short history of Finnish Metal.
Myself and Finnvox became known worldwide as a result of the success of those bands and because of our inexpensive rates lot of bands from Europe came to us. That also created a kind of a snowball effect for me, the more metal I mastered, the more it was offered to me. Though I try to remind people that that’s not all I do. But it is certainly something I enjoy doing and 1500 mastered albums later I have a pretty good idea how to get the job done without any extra fuzz. Metal mastering is challenge to itself because the quality in Finland is just so damn high. Local bands often do better on their first demo than most European bands do on their 6th full length album. Musicianship and songwriting skills are are marvellous and when you combine that with good production and mastering, no wonder there’s a worldwide demand for this thing.
8. What is the most overlooked or misunderstood thing about Mastering?
Hands down the most overlooked thing in mastering is the mastering itself. If you’d ask a handful of bands how to spend the album budget, they’d probably say they’d leave out the mastering entirely. This is often a result of not having a full understanding of what mastering is and what can be done in mastering.
Mastering can be done by anyone with the technical skill-set but it often results in a very cold and passionless release. I firmly believe that bands and producers should look out for potential mastering engineers before they even start recording. It’s crucial to find out whether the previous clients of a certain mastering engineer have been satisfied with the job. That also means that you shouldn’t necessarily hire the first guy you come across with and that you should feel out all the candidates before making a decision. Most mastering engineers usually offer a free test master, myself included.
Another commonly ungrasped thing about mastering is that the “loudness war” is always mastering engineers fault. I do fully acknowledge that I’ve been an accomplice to a certain degree but final say was always with the producer or with the artist. If mastering engineers could solely determine the loudness of the music today, we’d have great sounding CD’s, there would not’ve been any loudness war. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the artist who wants a loud master and as long as the artist pays for the service, they’ll have the final say. E.g Death Magnetic didn’t end up the way it did without someone giving the call.