Wanna be a part of it? Are you sure? Like most illegal drugs, New York City can be exciting, fun and downright addictive. It can also destroy your mind and body if you're not careful. Just ask Bryan Martin, a dedicated producer/engineer/musician who gave to New York until it hurt, and long after. Now happily Montreal-based with his own mastering facility (www.sonosphere.ca), Martin has the perspective to look back at his 15-plus years in the Big Apple and know that leaving may have saved his life.
NYC refugee: engineer Bryan Martin
“I actually think New York City is like this no matter what your profession is: At one point you're putting energy in, but at another point it starts extracting it,” he says frankly. “When the flow starts going the other way, that's when it's time to get the hell out.”
Martin arrived in New York in 1986 as your typical wide-eyed young engineer/songwriter from Pennsylvania ready to prove himself as a toilet-cleaning intern on the way to Platinum producer status. In the ensuing years, Martin moved up, earning producer and/or engineering credits for artists such as Rufus Wainwright, Tom Ze, Propellerheads, The Swans and jazz phenom Dr. Billy Taylor.
While many of the discs Martin worked on earned critical praise, none of them launched his reputation or earnings into the stratosphere. He was making a living in music, but somewhere along the way, his audio life in New York City started to suck. “When you're young, you can do it,” recalls Martin. “You're single and unencumbered — no one even had a girlfriend. We're all passionate people, we were hungry and there's so much competition that if you said [to the studio], ‘I want to do something with my family this weekend,’ they'd say, ‘You go do that — and don't come back!’”
Moving up from runt engineer to producer, Martin officially became a slave to New York and its reputation as a world music capital. “You reach a level where you're giving more than you're getting professionally, and maybe you don't want to live in the studio 14 hours a day anymore,” he says. “And then physically you can't do it anymore. I couldn't do it because making a record that's good takes a huge amount of personal commitment by the producer. Generally, young bands doing their first, second or third record are freaking out and need to be reassured, and the guy who has to hold it together is the producer/engineer. But that's completely draining. If someone's having a nervous breakdown, you have to put out enough energy to support those other people.”
In 2001, Martin became a partner in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s technically and aesthetically excellent studio Excello Recording. “I started managing a studio when the studio business went into decline,” says Martin. “The digital revolution started, and then there was 9/11. It was the beginning of the end, except nobody knew that at the time.
“The stresses that affect you are insidious. You don't know that your stress level is going up and up. It's not like you went from the farm to the fast lane — you always were in the fast lane. You live in a crazy environment; you don't question it. You don't realize that it's taking so much out of you until you have a heart attack or stroke, at which point you can change your life or you die. But it's New York City: Everyone's moving, grooving, and everything is faster, more demanding and you're fighting just to keep your business afloat and career going.”
A highly trained engineer and perfectionist when it comes to both recording and songwriting, Martin still had his hands on plenty of faders during this period, but other factors were making it harder and harder to focus. “The things that eventually prompted me to leave New York City were my son was born and the good records weren't coming along. The record company would call me up and say, ‘They can't play. They can't write. Can you make a record?’
“Not long after that,” he continues “I remember it was my 40th birthday, and a client I was working with said to me, ‘So, Bryan, why did you come to New York City?’ and I said, ‘To learn how to make records.’ That's when I thought, ‘Yeah, so what am I doing now?!’ Two years later, I moved.”
Married to a Canadian-born wife, Martin and his family selected Montreal as their safe-haven and moved north of the border in 2002. “I took a year off,” Martin confirms. “I was wrecked. I slept for three months. It took me a year to get physically back to normal, and I didn't even know I was screwed up until I stopped living on adrenaline 24 hours a day.”
Once he came out of hibernation, Martin looked around the Montreal area and realized that there was still a way he could use his golden ears without driving himself insane. Via mastering at Sonosphere, Martin found he could pour his passion for audio excellence into his projects, but with only the 2-track in front of him, he could give up agonizing over the song structure, vocal signal path and spring reverb pre-delay settings.
“I knew I didn't want to be a producer anymore,” he explains, “but I acquired way too much knowledge not to use it. Everyone said, ‘Why don't you open a mastering studio? There isn't really one around here.’ I also design audio equipment here, whereas in New York City I never had the time or space.
“It's when you get into that chair and you don't want to be in that chair anymore that it's time to think about making a change. In New York City, the carrot, the pull, is, ‘You could be a millionaire tomorrow.’ But are you happy to be in that chair?”
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