If you work with Doug Sax on a project this year, be sure to wish him a happy anniversary. The Mastering Lab (www.masteringlab.com) is celebrating 40 years and counting, and Sax — who continues to be involved with both of his two studio locations — has a lot to be proud of.
Mastering lab president and co-founder Doug Sax
“We were possibly the first independent mastering service in the country,” Sax says. “When we opened in December 1967, all the record companies had their own mastering departments and very large studio complexes might have had a mastering group where they could cut lacquers, but we were arguably the first to go into this as specialists. When we started out, we couldn't get anybody to use us, but by the early '70s, you couldn't get into the place.”
Back then, Sax and Co. kept the Hollywood studio open 24 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, to meet the needs of clients such as Pink Floyd, Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night, The Eagles, The Who, etc., etc. Today, Sax, Robert Hadley (who heads the Hollywood studio) and Sangwook “Sunny” Nam (who works with Sax in the newer surround facility in Ojai, near Santa Barbara) work somewhat more civilized hours, but the Lab's reputation for stellar work continues. When we spoke, Sax had just put the finishing touches on new albums by Jackson Browne and Sheryl Crow.
“Thirteen years ago, Bill Bottrell produced Sheryl Crow,” Sax says, “and they are together again. I've always been a fan of Bottrell. My wife and I went to Mendocino on vacation, and I got in contact with him because he lives up there, and I wound up doing this album.”
Hadley's impressive credit list includes Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks, Diana Krall, Ryan Adams and Los Lobos. Nam, who worked as a mastering engineer in his native South Korea for five years before joining the Mastering Lab in 2005, has worked on projects for David Gilmour, Linda Ronstadt, Keith Urban, Patti Austin and others. The Mastering Lab also still holds the distinction of being the mastering studio whose projects have been awarded and nominated for the most engineering Grammys.
Sax mostly works in the Ojai studio (profiled in December 2005 Mix), but he still travels to Hollywood for film clients and others who prefer to work there. He says that some aspects of his business have remained constant — the custom gear, the basic principles of making the best possible transfers, and using critical listening and good judgment — but he's willingly adjusted budgets to accommodate clients who record and mix in personal studios.
“I love working on home projects,” Sax says. “We have two fixed rates for self-released albums. There's a package price if you're working with Sunny or Robert Hadley of $1,500, and for me it's $2,250. I love the fixed price, because if something needs more work I don't want someone who can't afford it to be sweating while I'm working, and I'm always going to put in as much time as it needs.”