Cicely Balston is a London-based Mastering Engineer. Cicely spoke about her career to date with NUGEN Audio's Olivia Little, including her work on David Bowie's back catalogue.
Hi Cicely. What sparked your interest in audio and how did you first become involved in the audio industry?
"I was lucky enough to have a brilliant music department at my school. We had a little recording studio, and me and my fellow Music Tech A-level students basically lived in there throughout sixth form."
I have played instruments since I was quite small. I played the clarinet, saxophone and drums throughout school, and still do - though I don’t practice as much as I probably should! So I love music, and making music with other people. I identified pretty early on that I wasn’t up for being any sort of "star performer", but I was interested in all the aspects around music and the music industry. As I’ve always been good at maths and science, audio engineering seemed like a natural progression.
I was lucky enough to have a brilliant music department at my school. We had a little recording studio, and me and my fellow Music Tech A-level students basically lived in there throughout sixth form. That inspired me to apply for the Tonmeister course at the University of Surrey, I got accepted and it all continued from there.
Do you have any favourite projects, or any memorable moments you can tell us about?
"Hearing the output of such a diverse artist was absolutely brilliant, not just across the studio albums but the demos, live shows and even radio appearances."
One of the best long-term projects I’ve worked on was at AIR - I started in 2016 and assisted Ray Staff with remastering David Bowie's back catalogue, in chronological order. While I was there I think we covered from Who Can I Be Now up to Loving The Alien. Hearing the output of such a diverse artist was absolutely brilliant, not just across the studio albums but the demos, live shows and even radio appearances. Working from the original ½" masters for Let’s Dance was pretty amazing, also!
One of my favourite releases to have mastered is 5ive by Nubya Garcia. Nubya is a friend of mine, and it's such a dream to work with friends on their brilliant music.
How did you originally hear about NUGEN Audio, and how does NUGEN fit into your typical workflow?
"I think I first came across ISL when I was assisting Ray Staff on the surround master for a Muse live album."
A friend of mine used to work closely with the mastering legend Mandy Parnell, and I remember they mentioned that MasterCheck was a useful tool for auditioning how different streaming services might present the music you're working on. I have found MasterCheck helpful in illustrating to clients what all the different loudness targets might mean for their music - there’s a lot of information out there and not all of it is very helpful!
I also use ISL. Not only is it a really nice, transparent limiter, but the fact that it can function in both stereo and surround means I know I've got all the tools I need should a surround project come up. I think I first came across ISL when I was assisting Ray Staff on the surround master for a Muse live album.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
"Try to work out what you enjoy, in life as well as work."
Try to work out what you enjoy, in life as well as work. For me, I like the process of mastering, but what I really enjoy is being able to use my experience and skills to help people do something creative. Mastering works well for me because I get to bring my technical and creative knowledge, and help people put their music out into the world. All jobs have ups and downs, good days and bad days, so identifying what you're aiming for at least gives you a starting point for navigating the different paths you might come across, and it makes the harder days a bit better.
Perhaps one for the post-pandemic world is to always try to be friendly when you meet people, and definitely do the best job possible whenever you can. Even if you're not planning to pursue that particular path, and especially if you're just starting out on work experience, an internship, or a shadowing role. All the stories of people starting out making cups of tea in studios is an illustration of that. It's easy to discount those stories as not being "the way in" anymore, because there are far fewer studios, and of course taking low-paying or no-paying jobs shouldn't be the norm - and isn't really an option for so many people! But the principle still stands, the people who did that job well, even if it was "only making tea", were the people that got hired afterwards and then went on to forge their own careers.
Can you tell us about a situation where you have learned from a mistake, or had to think on your feet due to unexpected complications?
"It's really important to make sure the lines of communication are still strong."
At the moment something I'm really thinking about is that communication is key. Especially right now, when almost everything is online or written in emails, it's easy for things to get misconstrued, or even completely missed! It's really important to make sure the lines of communication are still strong.
Something I'm always trying to do is include my clients in the process, especially if everything is over email. But I try not to over-explain when I send masters, because if I draw attention to an aspect of the sound that I worked especially hard on, then when the notes come back it's often those aspects that get commented on!