Each December, Mix takes a close look at the state of mastering technology and business issues. Living at the intersection of production, tech, formats and distribution, mastering can be seen as a bellwether for the audio business generally. That’s why it’s so encouraging to speak to the four mastering engineers highlighted in this article. Not only have these pros been doing beautiful work, but each has found singular ways to grow on the business side.
HEBA KADRY, TIMELESS MASTERING
Heba Kadry got the audio bug when she was working as a jingle-writer in her native Egypt. “I scored a big jingle for Cadbury,” she recalls, “and I ended up in the biggest recording studio in downtown Cairo. I thought, ‘I need to learn more about audio,’ but there was no way for me to do that in Egypt.”
Kadry moved to the U.S. and remade her career through study and internships, eventually realizing that mastering was her niche. She took a studio manager job in a New York City mastering house and borrowed the studio in off hours. She mastered friends’ records for free, and taught herself through trial and error She built a clientele gradually and, in 2013, took a leap, partnering with Adrian Morgan at Timeless Mastering in Brooklyn.
“Timeless was in a really tiny room in Williamsburg. When we got priced out, we moved to Bushwick and built a new room from the ground up,” Kadry says. Her setup in Bushwick includes her treasured Egglestonworks Andra 1 monitors, an Ampex ATR102 ½- and ¼-inch tape machine, Sterling Modular mastering console and her Magix Sequoia 14 DAW.
“My studio partner has had extensive experience designing and building studios. We spent eight months on the build-out, doing it completely ourselves. It was quite grueling work,” Kadry says. “The longest lease I could find was five years, so it didn’t make sense to sink all of our budget into hiring a contractor. It was the only way I could keep my rate affordable.”
Today, Kadry caters mainly to independent labels and artists. One of her latest projects is filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s evocative Paterson soundtrack. The film explores the quiet existence of a bus driver and his inventive wife; it takes a simultaneously deep and whimsical look at the importance of art in daily life.
“Jim Jarmusch has a band with Carter Logan called Sqürl, which has a heavy guitar sound with a traditional rock band setup, but for Paterson they switched gears and created a beautiful ambient score using interesting samples with Jonathan Kreinik helming the mixes,” Kadry explains. “The music has a lot of sinewy high-frequency content as a result of repitching samples, so they needed to be tamed without losing their presence. That was one of the technical issues.
“On one track, ‘Persian Dream,’ they sampled an old Iranian song by the artist Pooran. It was hissy and needed restoration, but also was intentionally lo-fi in a cool way.” To keep that sample distinct within the track, Kadry made the surrounding ambient music all the more wide and lush, using care not to “flatline the dynamics,” as she puts it.
“We used tape on some of the songs to give it a different sonic character, as well,” Kadry continues. “They wanted some parts to sound warmer, and using half-inch tape helped to achieve that—saturating a bit harder gave some pieces more harmonic content.”
DAVE COOLEY, ELYSIAN MASTERS
Dave Cooley started his audio career in L.A. as a producer and mixer, but he has always done some mastering work, as well. He says he realized pretty quickly that he had something to offer as a mastering engineer for independent labels.
“The independents had targeted needs based on rapidly evolving genres and rapidly devolving budgets,” Cooley says. “And they have specific needs related to genre. I come from a DJ and record-collecting background, so I know the difference between what a beach-goth record needs and what a CTI-style/’70s jazz-influenced record should have. So I can bring out respective strengths, and address the varying client expectations.”
Like Kadry, Cooley is a Magix Sequoia user. Other favorite gear includes his ATC 150ASL monitors, iZotope Advanced software, and Merging Technologies, JCF Electronics and Bricasti converters. But the latest source of pride in his studio is a 1966 Neumann VMS66 vinyl-cutting lathe.
“We spent about a year restoring it the same way you’d restore a Triumph motorcycle—taking it down to every single fastener, and every bearing,” Cooley says. “Tens of thousands of dollars, full electronic re-servicing, recapping, modifications, cosmetics restoration. We took it as far as we possibly could go, and it sounds amazing.”
Cooley’s indie label clients, such as Domino, Tuff Gong, Stones Throw, and Light in the Attic, are releasing increasing amounts of vinyl, as are many of his clients for audio remastering/restoration work.
“I’ve always been involved in archival work for cult classics, but now it’s starting to get larger, as both indie and major labels with legacy artists are becoming interested in what we do here. This year, we did Bob Marley’s Exodus 40th anniversary box set and the full Isaac Hayes catalog.”
The Hayes reissues for Concord Records are part of a series celebrating the 60th birthday of Stax, and Hayes, of course, was integral to the Stax story—as a producer, arranger, musician and solo artist. For the reissues of albums including Hot Buttered Soul, Black Moses and Shaft, the label provided Cooley with original master tapes. As someone who approaches his work as equal parts record collector and engineer, Cooley is in his element working on such groundbreaking music.
“I originally got turned on to these records because they were sampled by my favorite hip-hop acts in the ’80s and ’90s,” Cooley says. “When I put up these tapes, it was shocking how good they sounded—the quality, the depth, the holographic sound. My goal became to help fans hear what Isaac Hayes heard in the control room when they tracked it.
“I followed the original mastering notes when it seemed appropriate, but there were some problems in the original pressings of this music where you realize it’s possible to have too much dynamic range, especially on vinyl. You don’t want to hear compressors working on the whole mix for a historic reissue, and you also don’t want to hear passages that are so quiet that you’re running for the volume dial. So those are issues that we addressed through careful volume rides during mastering that still honor the original work.
“Otherwise, there were little things like paper rustling during an orchestral passage, and jump cuts that needed to be touched up. But overall we wanted to preserve the sound of those original tapes, and to feel like by the end of our process the music is wider, taller and deeper than it’s ever been heard before.”
PIPER PAYNE, NEATO MASTERING
Piper Payne moved to San Francisco seven years ago to join Coast Mastering, where she worked with fellow mastering engineer Michael Romanowski until just about a year ago, when she made the brave leap to open her own facility in Oakland.
“I’m in Jack London Square now,” she says. “It’s easy to get to, clients can park. A friend of mine, Seth Drake, who’s a mastering engineer mostly in EDM world, has a studio in the same building called Shark Bite, and he was able to help me get into this space. It was a purpose-built mastering studio that was being used as a mixing studio.”
Payne, who is also a partner in Second Line Vinyl, a pressing plant that’s set to open in Oakland next February, says PMC was also instrumental in her move; Maurice Patist, president, sales and marketing, did much more than set up her BB5XBD monitors. “Maurice helped tune the room,” Payne says. “He’s a genius. I could say to him, ‘I like most of what I hear that’s happening, but I’m missing a little bit of 86 Hz,’ and he would just make a tweak and fix it.”
Payne brought much of her equipment over from Coast, including her Maselec transfer console and RADAR converters, feeding the Reaper DAW. “I’m using other software to do sample-rate conversion and for file delivery, but I use Reaper for simple playback and capture,” she says. “I like the sound of it. It’s a great, flexible tool because you can put up different plug-in instances on sections of a song and have them play back seamlessly out of the workstation; I can treat a verse different from the chorus.”
Payne’s clientele includes a large percentage of bass-heavy music; one of her recent projects, Elettrodomestico’s If You’re a Boy or a Girl, carries an interesting balance of dark, beats-driven sounds and bright pop harmonies. The band and album are the collaborative effort of former Go-Go Jane Wiedlin and composer/vocalist Pietro Straccia. “Doing that project was such a funny, full-circle thing,” Payne says. “I’m a drummer, and in high school I actually was in a Go-Go’s and Blondie cover band.
“Some things were a little difficult to master because the songs were recorded in different places at different times,” Payne continues. “A couple songs had electronic drums, but others had real drums. Some were based on a certain bass and others had a guitar that took the place of a bass. Many of these differences in production style resulted from the project being largely completed via correspondence while Jane was living in Hawaii and Pietro was here in the Bay. Pietro would write some hooks, or a verse and chorus, and then Jane would get back to him with lyrics and melody, and maybe switch the song around a whole bunch. And overall, this was a departure from what I knew as Jane’s usual sound, translated into a new thing.
“The mixer, Travis Kasperbauer, did a great job; I needed to listen from his perspective and continue down that path. Manley SLAM!, the Langevin Mini Massive, GML 8200, Rupert Neve Master Buss—all of that would have been used to get the songs all to live in the same neighborhood.”
Payne also recalls manipulating the center image of these tracks to ensure that the two very different vocalists, both of whom sing continually throughout, would sit well together.
“At the very end of the project, Jane sat in through the assembly and she took a picture with me. Then she pulls an orange out of her backpack: ‘You want an orange?’ Which was so funny because this Go-Go’s and Blondie cover band I had in high school was called The Oranges. That was weird—Jane Wiedlin standing in my studio handing me an orange.”
PETE LYMAN, INFRASONIC SOUND
Infrasonic Sound owner/operator Pete Lyman was surprised when producer Dave Cobb revealed he was moving to Nashville.
Lyman laughs now, looking back, because he’s about to move out there as well, to start a new chapter for his family and his business. Lyman has been working in the L.A. area for more than 15 years. His current facility, the two-room Infrasonic Sound, in Echo Park, shares a building with Vintage King, and business is strong. However, through his work with Cobb (including albums for Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson), producer/engineer Vance Powell, and other artists and producers, Lyman has warmed up to Nashville.
“Obviously, people from Nashville are sending their work to someone in Los Angeles, so I don’t need to be there,” Lyman says. “But the Nashville music scene is close-knit. People want to have a real connection with the people they work with, and when I make those connections, it improves communication and makes a better record. It’s also a decision for my family. I have a young son and I’m excited for him to grow up in the country. Every time I go there, the only reason I want to come home is to see my family.”
Infrasonic in Echo Park will remain open; engineer Dave Gardner and studio manager Meghan Pochebit will stay on the West Coast, while Lyman builds a mirror studio on his property in Nashville.
“We have two rooms in Echo Park that are based around Maselec MPC1 consoles and PMC monitors, and PMC will help me set up a new room out there,” Lyman says. “I’ll be working out of PMC’s private mastering showroom in Berry Hill for a couple months while my studio is being built. And then we will put a pair of PMC BB5 XBDs in that room. There are a lot of great speakers I love, but these are the speakers I feel I do my best work on.
“The idea is to make the Nashville studio as close as possible to my room in L.A. so I can travel back and forth,” Lyman says. The new studio will also include his other must-have equipment, such as Burl converters, Spectrasonics V610 limiters, and the Rupert Neve Master Buss Processor.
Meanwhile, as moving day grows near, Lyman has been wrapping up significant new releases, including reissues of Tom Waits’ complete Anti Records catalog, Chris Stapleton’s latest, and a spring 2018 release from alt-bluegrass group Old Crow Medicine Show that was produced by Cobb and recorded and mixed by Eddie Spear.
“This album already sounded good when I got it,” Lyman says. “It’s got a ton of energy. We mainly wanted to make sure the bass was consistent, because that’s such a big part of that band; it pushes the songs forward. I used that Rupert Neve Master Buss Processor a lot on that, as well as the Spectrasonics V610. I use the Spectrasonics really early in my chain, pretty much the first thing there, only for peak limiting—just helping the signal out. I’ve had those for two years and they’ve changed the way I work.
“Dave is a very hands-on producer, and he’s always trying to get the best performance,” Lyman continues. “So, when you work like that, using minimal mics and you circle everyone in an amazing-sounding big room, and you have a bunch of players that understand how to play off of each other and you capture that moment, that’s the magic. The trick is really to know when not to touch something.”