Mastering engineer Steve Hall at Future Disc Systems in McMinnville, Ore.
In 2006, top-flight mastering engineer Steve Hall (pictured)—whose long list of credits includes Madonna, Pat Benatar, Blondie, the Grateful Dead and Jackson Browne—closed his award-winning Future Disc Systems facilities in Hollywood after 25 years in business. “During those years we evolved from a single vinyl suite into a multi-room complex,” Hall recalls, “and we were into CD mastering, DVD authoring and surround sound very early on.” Hall and his wife Laura decided that it was time for a change of scenery and searched for a home in the Pacific Northwest, which Hall describes as “a gamble.”
They eventually found a 40-acre ranch in the town of McMinnville, Ore., where Hall has re-established Future Disc Systems. The property also includes an alpaca farm. “Laura and I have always loved this part of the country, and we’ve also grown partial to alpacas,” Hall says. “We were confident that we’d be able to attract clients here, and now as we wrap our second year, we’re enjoying a steady flow of business.” Hall’s clients in 2008 have included Jeff Lynne and engineer Ryan Ulyate, who asked Hall to re-master Traveling Wilburys’ Volume 1 and Volume 3 CDs for DVD, as well as Ziggy Marley, Hilary Duff, Blind Melon, and rising indie artists Nikkole and Anna Maria Flechero.
Mix caught up with Hall in a recent phone conversation, in which he discussed relocating Future Disc, what it’s like to work in his new setting, and his personal take on the loudness wars.
I understand that you decided early on in your career to focus on mastering.
Yeah. It was just a saner environment, and the hours were stable. In the early ’70s I was doing tracking sessions with groups [that] would book the studio at 6 o’clock and they’d show up about 9 or 10, and start hanging out and jamming around midnight or 1. At 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning they were starting to make the take, and I was supposed to be in bed by that time so I could start working at 10 o’clock the next morning.
I wanted to ask you about closing your Hollywood facility and making this transition to rural Oregon.
Actually, a lot of things came into play that all worked out at the right time. The real estate market was at its peak and I owned the building. When I found out what the building was worth, basically I said it was time to move out. I moved the studio temporarily into my house up in Santa Clarita [Calif.] for a few months until we moved up here to Oregon. I took a three- or four-month hiatus while I was putting this room together—and I was up and running by January of 2007.
So there wasn’t a lot of down time between studios.
No. It was not too bad. I was doing quite a bit of stuff out of the house in Santa Clarita after I sold the building. It worked out well and everybody [Hall’s former staff at Future Disc in Hollywood] transferred into other positions at other places.
And now you work alone.
Laura and I are up here by ourselves. We’ve got the studio, 40 acres of forest and pasture, and we’re raising alpacas on the side, I guess [laughs]. So now I have two jobs. There’s always tons of work.
So, how did you arrive at an alpaca farm in rural Oregon?
I had come up here a couple of times with Laura. She was interested in investing in alpacas. We attended a couple of seminars, and we really liked it—it was real pretty, and Portland was a neat little town. We liked the fact that it wasn’t hot all the time, and there was weather and seasons. So we started looking around within roughly an hour’s drive of Portland because I need to fly out to L.A., or Nashville, or New York, or San Francisco for business reasons, so I didn’t want to be too far from an airport. Plus, I want the ability to have some clients sit through the session with me.
So we started looking around all over, all the way up into Washington and as far out as Mount Hood, which was beautiful, but a little too far out of the city. We ended up in this little town of McMinnville, and it’s only got a population of about 30,000. I guess its largest claim to fame is [that] it’s the home of the Howard Hughes Spruce Goose now. Evergreen Aviation has a huge museum here. Actually, they just built a space museum and they’re supposed to get one of the Space Shuttles in the next couple of years. It’s quite a place to see. We also enjoy hanging out, going around all the wineries. There’s probably better than 300 vineyards and wineries up here.
It sounds like a good situation to be able to live and work in a rural environment, and still be able to travel.
Yeah, [but] there are challenges. It’s only roughly 35 miles to Portland, but by the time you deal with traffic and whatnot, it takes about an hour to get there. But it’s worth it, and we enjoy it. The scenery here is great—the fall colors and everything that we just went through is just really spectacular, real enjoyable.
You’re able to work in an isolated setting, but are still accessible to your clients.
Up here, I’ve found that I can work pretty much when I want, especially [because] probably fewer than 10 percent of my clients actually come up here. They’ll post their masters on my server, and I’ll download them and get them back a master, or a reference disk or whatever to listen to in the next couple of days. It leaves [my schedule] pretty flexible. If somebody has an emergency, it’s pretty easy for me to move things around and accommodate everybody that I need to.
The ability to exchange files digitally in various ways is largely what makes this arrangement possible; you don’t need to be in a big city.
Absolutely. It was a challenge when we got up here, but I knew that with FedEx or whatever, I could try to make a go of it, or make something work with the Internet. The Internet, unfortunately, has been a challenge when you’re out in the woods, but we keep getting better service, and it’s helped out a lot.
I was wondering if you could talk about the layout of your home facility—how you have it situated, and how it compares with your former Hollywood facility.
The room is just a little bit smaller than the room I had in Hollywood. When we saw this property there was a garage that was off to the side of the house that was already pretty much finished out. It had a 12-foot high ceiling and all kinds of stuff. So I took one look at that and said, “Man, this would make a great studio.” It’s about 26×24 feet, a pretty good-sized room. I had some serious electrical put in, and did some wall treatments. And I brought in several thousand dollars worth of acoustic material. I experimented around with it for a while, moving things around and getting everything into the right position, where I thought it sounded best. I did a lot of measurements and swept the monitors. It’s actually turned out really well. I’ve been really happy with the results.
You didn’t have to modify the physical structure in any way.
No. It was basically just acoustic treatment—putting bass traps in the corners and treating the walls a little bit.
How much equipment did you bring up from Hollywood, and how much did you change?
Well, actually, most of it is stuff that I had brought up from Hollywood, and I’ve been offloading, over a period of time, a lot of stuff that I found I don’t need—old tape machines and things. I still have three ATR machines, which I almost never use anymore. Once in a while somebody will send me an analog master, but I’m dealing with mostly Pro Tools files now.
I [brought] all of the equalizers and compressors that were of value, I would say, from [Hollywood]. I’ve got Manley Massive Passives, a Sontec MES-430, a GML 9600. I’ve got a Crane Song HEDD 192 converter. I’ve got Manley Variable Mu and ELOP limiters. I’ve got an expensive Weiss collection—three equalizers, and I just made upgrades to their DS1 to MK 3, which has new software in it. I’ve got a Waves L2 and a few things like that, so that’s basically the complement of outboard gear.
As far as computer workstations, I’m still using the Sonic [Studio] HD systems. I’ve got two of those in the room so that when I’m dealing with higher sample rates or different sample rates, I basically use one for all my editing and playback, and come out and go to my analog equipment when I need it, or digital, or a combination of both, and into another Sonic HD system that works at 44.1 [kHz] for CD masters. That’s basically the signal path, for the most part.
I’m considering doing a full Pro Tools setup for playback because so many clients want to send up an edited Pro Tools session. And it would be more beneficial, I think, especially with all of the surround stuff that I do. That probably will happen early next year. I’ll see what transpires.
Did you retain a good percentage of your Hollywood clients?
I did for the most part. And I haven’t really even cracked the local market up here. I’ve been getting a lot of stuff coming across the border from Canada. Engineers like Brad Gilderman, Paul Klingberg and Mark Needham have been sending me a constant flow of stuff, so it’s been great. I’ve been doing more rock and pop stuff, and country, and less jazz than I was doing when I was in L.A., but I’ve still been doing projects for guys like Rick Braun. Fewer R&B projects, but still a few here and there.
When I was in Hollywood I was doing a lot of major label stuff, and that actually was dwindling down when we were moving out of there. But now I’m seeing tons of independents. I’d say probably 90 percent of my business now is [from] independent artists.
Mix’s December 2008 issue features a Q&A interview on the back page with Bob Ludwig, in which he addresses the ongoing loudness wars. Would you have any comment about that?
I’d love to not have to peg the meters every time you’ve got to master something. When I master, I turn it up until it starts to get annoying, and then I back it off a little bit, and that’s pretty much where I let it sit. Probably half the time somebody will call me up and want it louder even still, and I’m going, “Hey man, it’s annoying to listen to. It doesn’t do anything good for your product. It doesn’t make your music sound any better.” It’s an unfortunate thing that everybody wants everything loud.
And it was a whole different scene when we were making vinyl, because you didn’t have a block wall that you were limited to, as far as level on vinyl. You were basically limited by the amount of bottom and the amount of time that you were putting on the disc. And now we’re stuck with this block wall that digital has, and everybody’s trying to put 10 gallons of sound in a 5-gallon bucket. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. It would be great to see that change.
The whole routine of slamming music to make it as loud as you can in this digital format is sad because it takes the life, the excitement and the emotion out of music, and you’re left with something that’s hard and unpleasant to listen to for long periods of time.
How has mastering changed for you over the span of your 30-year career?
The mastering process is definitely more complex than it used to be. Back then I was using maybe one equalizer and a limiter to master vinyl, and even the early CDs that came out of that era. Now, instead of using one equalizer and one compressor to master, I might be using as many as five pieces of outboard equipment, and I may go through three different limiters or compressors that I go through. The whole purpose of that process is just to use a little bit of each one so that you’re not killing what’s left of this music. I try to leave my stuff sounding as big and dynamic as I can, even though we’re forced to make it as loud as possible. I use a little bit of salt and pepper from one and some other seasonings from another, and it helps out.
A lot of people now are using plug-ins and software programs. I haven’t broken down to that, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for me to look into something like that in the near future. I’ve heard good things about the Universal Audio plug-ins and the Sonnox Oxfords, so we’ll see what happens.
Matt Gallagher is an assistant editor at Mix. Visit Future Disc Systems at www.futurediscsystems.com.