Timeless Mastering, New York CitySTERLING ALUM GOES SOLO 12/01/2006 7:00 AM Eastern
The mastering business has weathered as many surges and reversals as any segment of the music industry in recent years. So it may seem fairly surprising that just a couple of years ago, when everyone was in a digital panic over the arrival of new tools that could make mastering engineers redundant, Adrian Morgan had the courage and resources to leave a secure gig as head of DVD audio production at Sterling Sound and open his own one-man shop.
Morgan is a Berklee College of Music grad and a horn player who found once he was in college that he enjoyed working in the production and engineering department. After graduation, he got a job at Sterling and moved up the chain there. “I found myself in the position of cutting vinyl for a while, working on this great equipment that had just been restored by Chris Muth,” Morgan says. “He became one of the co-founders of Dangerous Music, and he was one of the few guys in town who really knew how to take an older Neumann '70s-era lathe, completely disassemble it, reassemble it and make it work great. That's what got me into mastering and gave me a feel for it.”
Morgan then worked as an editor under senior engineer Tom Coyne, whose projects included Britney Spears, Busta Rhymes, Backstreet Boys, Dido, Black Eyed Peas, D'Angelo — a tremendous list. At the same time, Morgan was seeking freelance projects. He was big into electronica and offered cheap rates to artists he liked, working on Sterling's equipment during the studio's off-hours. “I had 80-hour weeks sometimes,” he says. “I was doing editing and production at the same time.”
He was also using a sizable portion of his income to amass his own collection of equipment. Having used all of the gear and all the rooms at Sterling, Morgan knew what he wanted. “Ted Jensen had moved over to the PC platform and was using SEK'D, and then Magix Sequoia. They sent a version to me to check out when I was in the DVD department over there, and I've been using it ever since. I feel it's great for mastering. There's some room for improvement in the interface, but in terms of under-the-hood processing, it's key to my sound.”
In 2001, Morgan was ready to open his own small studio, then called Blumlien Sound, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. When Mix first spoke with Morgan last spring, he was dividing his work time pretty evenly between music mastering and DVD audio work for projects such as Nike's Battlegrounds series, which combined footage of street basketball with hip hop tracks. Since then (again swimming against the tide), he has returned his focus almost exclusively to music, and he's moved into a new studio space (also in Williamsburg) centered around Sequoia, Nuendo, Mytek, Dangerous Music, Dynaudio monitors and an ever-expanding collection of processing gear. “I've made quite an investment in high-end analog equipment in the last few months — vintage and modern,” Morgan reports. Recent acquisitions include a completely rebuilt Ampex ATR-102 and a rare set of Sphere 920 graphic EQs from a '70s-era Sphere Eclipse C Series console.
“My goal is to offer the service, expertise, experience and gear in a well-tuned room to independent and major artists for down-to-earth fixed rates,” Morgan says. “These days, I feel the focus in pop music mastering is seeing the beginnings of a shift from volume wars and zero dynamic range to more warmth and punch — quality gain with some breathing room versus totally slammed levels. The quality of a mastering studio's analog and digital conversion chain is becoming more the name of the game, in addition to the skills and ideals of the engineer. Having had the privilege of cutting vinyl exclusively from well-mastered tracks for a period of time, I got a chance to hear and get used to great-sounding analog at its finest.
“It's a shame, but I've noticed lately that there seem to be a lot of ‘mastering’ engineers out there looking to make a quick buck out of quick work: 20 and 30 dollars a song,” Morgan continues. “It's as if there is some simple formula to finishing a mix in cookie-cutter fashion in your everyday digital workstation. Transferring the energy of inspiration onto a mix is what I'm going for in mastering. That almost always requires real time and effort, not to mention some dedicated and expensive tools. I want my customers to walk away feeling like they got that effort from me.”
Barbara Schultz is a Mix assistant editor.