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Modern Mastering Evolves in the Hollywood Hills

By Steve Harvey. Stephen Marsh has been a top mastering engineer for decades and is still handling everything from soundtracks to singles, but recently his sideline—servicing and restoring Studer A80 tape machines—has grown to become 40 percent of his work.

Hollywood Hills, CA—Mastering engineer Stephen Marsh has become a self-avowed Swiss tape machine nerd. True, he worked on tape when he first started in the business, in 1995, at Sony Music’s West Coast studios. But nearly a quarter-century later, he’s developed quite a sideline in repairing and restoring machines, which accounts for one-third of his business.

“My first few years were all analog tape. I came in at the very end, and at the tail end of people cutting on lathes,” says Marsh, who operates Marsh Mastering out of his house in the Hollywood Hills near Los Angeles.

In truth, he has never been far from an analog tape machine. At Sony, he says, there were Ampex ATR-102 and ATR-104 machines, refurbished by Mike Spitz, the late former Ampex technical services representative whose legacy continues at the company he founded, ATR Services in Pennsylvania. There were also several Studers, and between those and the Ampex machines, the Sony engineers could access any configuration of tape.

Marsh went independent in 2001. “I needed a tape machine to continue my mastering work, so I picked up an ATR from Tom Murphy over at Track Record” in North Hollywood, he recalls. “I ended up picking up a second ATR to do 4-track/3-track work, which we were getting quite a bit of.”

Studio Showcase: Marsh on the Move, by Strother Bullins, March 19, 2017

But then, he says, “I had a need to play back some old tapes and I couldn’t put them on those machines, so I got a Studer A80. It was in disrepair. Asking advice from people who knew better than me, I wound up getting it really dialed in. The A80 is simple enough that when I look at the schematics, I understand what I’m looking at. The logic is not necessarily straightforward,” he adds, “but it makes sense.”

He learned through trial and error, working on his machine over the course of a year. One thing led to another, he says, and a friend called looking for help with a machine. Word got out. “Next thing I know, people started bringing their tape machines by. And they keep doing it, so much so that it’s turned into 30 or 40 percent of my work. I never expected it to happen and it’s happened very quickly, within two or three years.”

Marsh’s technical interests date back to growing up in New York state. “We were a DIY family. My dad is an EE [electrical engineering graduate] and he put a soldering iron in my hand when I was 7 or 8. When I needed a guitar amp to join a band, he ordered a Heath kit.”

The A80 was manufactured between 1970 and 1988 in a multitude of variations, and different iterations of each of those, including the VU, the RC and the QC. “I have a specific set of knowledge for this one type of tape machine,” he says, “but it’s really seven or eight different machines.”

Marsh Mastering Masters with PMC, Sep. 8, 2017

Indeed, the ML-5 version developed by Mark Levinson—Marsh has one currently in his shop—is a very different machine. “It has its own set of schematics. It’s an A80 transport with Mark Levinson custom audio electronics, and a Dean Roumanis custom meter bridge with a buffer amp.”

The new sideline business dovetails with the evolution in the mastering process. “Everything is unattended for me now,” says Marsh, who typically communicates with clients by email, text or, less frequently, phone.

Marsh Remasters James Taylor, Feb. 23, 2012

And that’s a good thing: “In my studio right now, I have three different tape machines all in random pieces across the room, but I don’t need to clean it up because a client is coming in. I just turn around, it’s all behind me and I go about my work.”

That work has recently included a YouTube series executive produced by LeBron James for Warner Bros. These days he finds himself doing more singles work, he says, and a lot of soundtrack projects, increasingly for documentaries, which are typically longer than a traditional album. “I work with a lot of composers,” he says, singling out Dan Romer, who scores ABC’s The Good Doctor, for mention.

Marsh also gets calls to align machines for recording or playback. “There’s a segment of audiophile guys that have A80s. They like to set them up for quarter-inch 15 ips CCIR, as a lot of the pre-recorded tapes are that format.”

There’s now a sideline to the sideline. “I’ve put together a massive stash of spare parts and assemblies. People will pay good money if you have the right part at the right time and it works. I realized that if I put most of my spare parts stash online, I might be able to help other people keep their machines running.”

Working on tape machines offers Marsh a respite from mastering. “After sitting in a chair and listening to music professionally for 20 years or so, I was ready to do a little something different,” he says. “I love mastering records, but stepping away—I spend about one day a week working on machines and four days EQing—helps ground me and helps me accomplish better mastering work.”

He’s been working long enough that some of his gear now needs recapping, he says, which he does himself. “I’ve always valued understanding what’s behind the front panel, not just what the knobs make things sound like.”

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It’s no surprise, then, that Marsh reports, “I have the cleanest desk I’ve ever worked on, with tube stages, discrete stages, transformers. It’s very wide, deep and tall. Even if everything runs through flat and I use the amplifiers and gear as line stages, it has a ‘thing.’ It’s an extension of 24 years of R&D. I call it the plane that doesn’t crash.”

He and his family now have a second home in rural Virginia, complete with a mastering room. “It’s a smaller studio, but anything I start here I can finish there, and vice versa. I’ve done sessions across both studios already and it works really well. And the quality of life is great.”

Still, he’s bemused by the success of his ancillary services. “I’m working on repairing and restoring one model of one brand of tape machine and it’s an entire business. That kind of blows my mind.”

Marsh Mastering •