Since the mid-'90s, Jim DeMain has been the go-to mastering guy in Nashville for many artists and bands. His extensive credits include Michael McDonald, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Buffett, John Hiatt, Patty Loveless, Lambchop, Delbert McClinton, Billy Joe Shaver — the list goes on. Along with loving the results of his mastering touch, the one thing I've always heard from his clients is how much he truly cares about each job.
Mastering engineer Jim DeMain in his Yes Master facility
I never really got to hang with DeMain until last year, when I popped over to visit and see his facility, Yes Master (www.yes masterstudios.com), which is located near the fairgrounds in South Central Nashville. Before I knew it, he and I were a couple of hours into some really deep conversations about audio, the state of music and of the industry, and the bands and artists who really inspired us over the years. I left that afternoon feeling like I had known him for a long time. Then, as fate would have it, I ended up using DeMain to master an XM radio project I was doing with Marty Stuart. It was seeing him in action that allowed me to understand why his thoughtful approach and great results inspire so much repeat business.
Yes Master's beginnings were in 1996 at DeMain's Sylvan Park home in an upstairs loft. His first paid projects were for Nashville-based producer Brad Jones for albums by Vince Bell and Tommy Womack. By the early 2000s, business was booming so much that it became clear that DeMain needed to build out a dedicated facility. So he found a nice commercial space and hired acoustic designer Carl Tatz to realize his vision for the facility, which opened in October 2004.
“We found this great under-the-radar place and gutted the biggest room we could find in it,” recalls DeMain. “It's built into the side of a hill, so it's really nice and quiet in here, with high ceilings, and I built a really nice ‘economy with dignity’ control room from the ground up that sounds fantastic. The room is designed to be flat down to 23 Hz.
“As far as the equipment goes, I probably use a lot of the same stuff everybody else does: high-quality A/D and D/A converters, Weiss EQ and compression, [gear by] Manley, Millennia, the Waves L2, et cetera,” he continues. “Just like any carpenter is going to have a circular saw, a drill and nail guns — mostly all of the same tools.”
DeMain also uses Steinberg's WaveLab 6. “It's really an excellent and intuitive platform,” he says. “I use two computers. Sometimes I do everything in real time through all the outboard gear, sometimes I work ‘in the box’ and sometimes I'll do a combination of both. It really is all about the project. I usually spend the first hour or so just trying out several different signal paths. I'll try analog only, digital only, combinations to see what flatters the mixes the best. I can usually tell pretty quickly what will work. Sometimes just the combination and sequence of the gear can make a big difference before you start turning any knobs.”
For his monitoring setup, DeMain relies on Lipinski 707s with Bryston amplification and M&K subs, all tuned by Carl Tatz. “One of my biggest assets is my monitor system,” explains DeMain. “Every single client that has come here, even guys that are used to enormous studio playback systems, all comment on how great the monitors sound and how they can hear stuff that they never heard in their mixes. When you think about it, for mastering it's the most important thing you can have. You can have all the latest bells and whistles in compressors and EQs, but if you can't hear what they're doing, then all that other stuff doesn't really matter. You're making final decisions on people's work that they have spent hours and hours working on up to this point. If you're not listening in a space where you don't know what you're hearing, that's in a way disrespectful.
“Everything is another tool you can use,” he adds more generally about gear. “You just have to learn the best way to use each tool. You know, I'm not a guy that's like, ‘It has to be all analog through a console!’ Now, there's no argument that a good mix done through a console sounds phenomenal. The front-to-back depth and the height and width of a mix through a console is still pretty hard to beat in the box. But I have heard really good recording and mixing that was done all in the box. I think it really comes down to the people who are doing the recording using their ears. Sometimes I think that with all the computer monitors in front of us, maybe we're looking at the music a little more than we're listening to it.”
Like all mastering engineers, DeMain is carefully watching the evolution of popular listening formats and wondering how it will affect his work both in the short term and over the long haul. “I try to never really get too comfortable with the state of things because they are always changing,” he explains. “The basics will always apply: great songs, great performances, great recordings. But how they reach and interact with the end-user is always in motion. Take digital downloads, for example: Younger listeners are completely content to listen to MP3s. And most only download their favorite songs. So where does that leave the full-length CD as a format? I wonder what the future of making CDs will be — is that kind of full-length presentation going away? I don't know. I hope not, because I still enjoy listening to CDs.
“I am interested in exploring more multimedia work. With how affordable video editing has become, I think more and more artists are going to want to work that into what they have to offer. So it'll be about more than just audio content. I think there will always be a place for what a mastering engineer can bring to the table, where you take the mixes and you improve their quality. But how the results will be used will probably be totally different. So I guess my future plans would be just to keep my eyes open and see where it's all going.”
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