Michael Romanowski is excited about the future of the music industry. Taking into account what he has experienced and observed as a mastering engineer for more than two decades, he is convinced that the quality of production, manufacturing and distribution can only get better. He recalls the emergence and decline of trends such as gated reverb in the ’80s, and over-compression, as well as the shortfalls in quality inherent in lossy compression, listening devices such as earbuds, and streaming technologies in recent years.
“Convenience has momentarily taken a foothold,” he notes. “But I think that we’re a little bit past that now, which is encouraging. It makes me feel good about the future.”
In the summer of 2015, Romanowski and mastering engineer Piper Payne were faced with moving their operations to a new location when the building housing Romanowski’s tracking and mixing facility in San Francisco, Coast Recorders (with a live room that was originally designed by Bill Putnam in the 1960s), and Michael Romanowski Mastering, was put up for sale. Perfectly illustrating the adage, “When one door closes, another one opens,” in his search for a new workspace, Romanowski cast an eye across the San Francisco Bay and discovered an opportunity to move into the Fantasy Studios complex within the Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley.
Romanowski invested in his optimism in the future by developing two new studios designed and tuned by acoustician Bob Hodas, expanding his staff and opening Coast Mastering in Fantasy Studios’ Suite 101C on October 1.
Romanowski’s stereo and surround room features Focal Stella Utopia EM front speakers; analog gear from EAR, George Massenburg Labs, Knif Audio, Maselec, and more; Bricasti conversion; and soundBlade mastering software. Payne works in a stereo room with Focal Scala Utopia speakers, and including analog equipment from EAR, GML, Rupert Neve, Manley and Maselec. Coast Mastering also recently added mastering engineer Jessica Thompson, who specializes in archival and restoration. Thompson also works in Payne’s room, which has a Basis turntable with custom VTL phono stage and an ATR tape machine. Drew Zercoe is currently a mastering apprentice at Coast, Jonathan Rego is the studio manager, Gabe Horn is the studio tech, and Nigel Brown is an assistant engineer.
“I really feel like there’s a need for the services that we provide, to help artists be the best that they can,” Romanowski says. “A lot of people think that you can just put a plug-in on something, or the mix engineer can do the mastering, but I wholly disagree with that. Once you put your music out there in the world, there’s no taking it back. You have one chance to put your best foot forward, and I feel like you should always put your best foot forward. I’m in because I think that there is a future. I think expanding is the right thing to do. This was a perfect opportunity to say that it’s not about me, it's about something bigger.”
“Michael has been so supportive and so amazing, and such a fantastic mentor,” Payne says. “He’s gotten me up to speed and to be able to call me his studio partner is pretty awesome.” Payne began her career as a recording engineer specializing in recording classical music, as well as tape transfer and archival, and discovered a passion for mastering. While working for mastering engineer Bob Katz in Florida, Payne attended the AES Convention in New York and met Romanowski. They remained in contact, and eventually she moved to San Francisco to work with him at Michael Romanowski Mastering.
Michael Romanowski’s stereo and surround room features a surround mastering chain through Focal Stella Utopia EM front speakers.
“I love the detail and the precision of classical recording, but I also really love all kinds of music,” Payne says. “I love Top 40, jazz, rock, metal, electronic, everything. In mastering I can work on every type of music you could think of. I still do a lot of classical recording around the Bay Area, probably every weekend—but Monday through Friday, from 10 to 6, I’m here, mastering records.”
Thompson joined the team at Coast following six years as mastering engineer and audio archivist at The Magic Shop in New York City. “I’d had my eyes on the Bay Area scene for a while,” she says. “When I met with Michael to talk about joining Coast Mastering, I could tell right away I’d found my new studio home. Michael and Piper are passionately dedicated to quality in mastering, as well as education and advocacy for musicians and engineers, and I wanted to join a studio that was invested in the music community, not just a room with some gear. All the better that we landed in the vibrant Fantasy Studios complex!”
At the Zaentz Media Center, Coast Mastering is joining a creative community that, in addition to Fantasy, includes Avid on the second floor, as well as several sound, media and film production and distribution companies. “I like a facility,” Romanowski says. “That was a big draw for me. I’ve always wanted to be around creative people. It feels like home right away.”
“We’ve been working on supporting the Bay Area music community,” says Jeffrey Wood, Fantasy Studios’ studio director, “but also the idea of building community in the building, and making this the creative hub of Northern California. Michael really got it about forming a musical complex here again, and so it made sense for them to be in the building. And it’s a beautiful space, with the high ceilings, especially. We love having them here, we love their energy level.”
Coast Mastering occupies the corner space that was formerly Fantasy’s long-dormant Studio C, originally constructed in 1971 as a recording studio for Creedence Clearwater Revival, with a separate entrance. Following the band’s departure in 1974, it became a Foley room for film and commercial productions, and eventually a private band rehearsal room and warehouse that was sealed off by Wareham Development, the property owner since 2007. The space became available for repurposing while Romanowski was searching for a new location. He and Wood held discussions; Romanowski says he opted for a 10-year lease with a 10-year extension, and Wood facilitated the transaction with Wareham.
Renowned mastering engineer George Horn continues to work in his own room at Fantasy. Wood and Romanowski affirm that the two mastering businesses within the complex coexist in harmony. “I kept George in the loop about the possibility of Michael moving in,” Wood says. “He’s been totally supportive and positive about it.”
“Our clients don’t overlap,” Romanowski says. “There’s no competition. To me, he’s the godfather of mastering in this area. He taught Paul Stubblebine, who is my mentor. Again, all the benefits of community.”
Visit Coast Mastering online at www.coastmastering.com.