Shake-ups are supposed to happen in the big bad world of corporations, not in the highly specialized universe of mastering. But in a town like New York City, there's a sizable enough infrastructure to ensure that, every once in a while, a large-scale reshuffling will take place.
As the latest example, get a load of the game of musical chairs that went down in February 2005 right after the Hit Factory announced the end of its New York City operations to their staff, including mastering engineers Tony Gillis, Scott Hull, Herbie Powers and Joe Yannece. “They got everyone from mastering in a conference room and they said, ‘We're closing the facility,’” Yannece (Chemical Brothers, Missy Elliot, Lou Reed) recalls from his and Gillis' new professional New York City digs, Classic Sound (www.classicsound.com). “You could see everybody checking their watch and thinking, ‘We gotta get on the phone and find a place to work.’ I started making calls that afternoon. All of us did — and you don't want to tell any of your loyal clients of the last five years that, no, you don't have a room.
“To be frank,” he continues, “initially it was every man for himself. We're a brotherhood, we all know each other and check each other's work. But you've gotta pay the rent, and it's a tight community with a finite amount of positioning. Fortunately, the New York City scene is large enough that it was able to absorb us. Classic Sound is beautifully equipped with great rooms. When I got here at Tom Lazarus' invitation and saw the place, I was sold. I got familiar with the room in a week.”
Gillis' (Destiny's Child, Moby, Prince) initial strategy was slightly different. “I was going to try and do something on my own, so I bought every single piece of gear in the room at the Hit Factory. At the same time, there was a room here at Classic Sound that they were thinking of building. I came by, saw the space, talked with Tom and very quickly we decided that I would come here, bring my equipment and set up. Having my own gear really paved the way — it's a very attractive package to offer somebody.”
Now ensconced in Studio A, Yannece does his listening through Egglestonworks Savoys and B&W DM604 S3 monitors, with an M&K MX5000-MKII subwoofer and a Krell 300cx power amplifier. Meanwhile, Gillis is in Studio B with his B&W Nautilus monitors, B&W AS400 sub and Aragon Monoblock Amps. “It's nice to go to a place where there are familiar faces; the manager here, Tara Wood, is also an ex-Hit Factory employee,” Gillis notes. “It's a little disturbing the first day when you get the announcement that you're out of a job, but when the dust does settle, it's good to have that familiarity and still work with people you worked with in the past.”
But wait, the plot thickens! Shortly before the Hit Factory dropped its big news, another New York City mastering veteran, Joe Lambert (Ted Nugent, Electric Six, Martha Reeves), was contemplating a move from his five-year residence at — you guessed it — Classic Sound. “I had a good time at Classic Sound, but it got stagnant, as far as where I wanted to go,” Lambert recalls. “Tom Lazarus and I were always in open discussions about where I wanted the studio and my career to go. So I started thinking about what I could do that would be better for me; that's what you do in life.”
Instead of the flurry of phone calls that Yannece and Gillis were about to have to make, Lambert only had to make one: reaching out to a friend (name withheld) with feelers in every corner of the New York City mastering scene. The result was a connection to Carl Rowatti, who had just moved Trutone Mastering (www.trutonemastering.com) into the legendary location of the former Record Plant and wanted to man one of his spacious new suites with an established pro.
Lambert and Rowatti met, saw that they were a great match for each other and agreed to terms. Now, all Lambert had to do was inform his employer that he was moving on — never an easy task, but one made simpler for him by a strange twist of fate. “It was weird how it all happened,” Lambert admits. “I went home, said, ‘I'm going to do this’ and went into work the next day at Classic with the intention of telling them that I was going to leave. They told me that day that the Hit Factory had closed! I knew Classic would be talking to their engineers and it would help them fill the rooms.”
Listening through Master Reference KEF 207 monitors with McIntosh amps, Lambert has settled right in at his new suite. “I'm working faster here and my clients have been very happy,” he reports. “This room and my old room were both built by John Storyk and they're both excellent. We also have a lathe in my room, and I've been working on getting my vinyl-cutting skills up since Trutone has a big client base for that.”
The fact that his replacement in Classic Sound's Studio A, Yannece, once held a suite at Trutone's former New Jersey location re-illustrates the incestuous web that New York City's mastering scene can sometimes be. “We all know each other,” Lambert says. “We're all in the same club and there's always been a little bit of competition, but I feel it's always been healthy.
“The closing of the Hit Factory definitely made things interesting: You had a handful of mastering engineers who in 24 hours needed either a different career or a different place to work. I think what's important is that we have a quality room to work in and our clients will follow us. That's how we can keep doing what we're doing.”
Herbie Powers (LL Cool J, James Brown, Mary J. Blige) has set up his practice in his Staten Island residence (www.pmmastering.com) and expects to announce a relationship with a major New York City mastering facility shortly. At the same time, another of the Hit Factory alums, Scott Hull (The Corrs, Garbage, John Mayer), was angling for his own position. Previously, Hull had also been in residence at Classic Sound, preceded by a long stint at Masterdisk, and the way he saw it, he had three job-search options. “Picking a new place, I could contact a major established facility or go solo and build my one- or two-room facility, but then I found out through word of mouth about the opportunity here at Jigsaw Sound.”
A one-room SoHo facility founded by engineer/designers Phil Klum, Michael Iurato and David Ares in 2001, Jigsaw (www.jigsawsound.com) is a relatively new player on the scene that moved boldly to make well-known Hull their chief mastering engineer when he became available. “It was a single room owned by artists and engineers who knew what this business was about,” Hull explains of his surprising decision. “They had set up a room not unlike what I had at Classic Sound and even set up the same speakers, so it all sounded familiar. With my personal gear and setting up the room to my taste, it has turned out to be a good fit. I'm working with my assistant, Nathan James, who's been with me since Classic Sound and is now building his own clientele as he transitions to a full-fledged mastering engineer.”
Relying on Duntech Sovereigns 2001 monitors and McIntosh 352 power amps motivating his listening experience at Jigsaw, Hull admits that the final effect of many of the same mastering engineers basically trading rooms around New York City has some humor. “We thought it was comical,” he says. “It's simply about the people. The clients follow the people — the engineers, in this case — and as long as the facility is able to keep up both economically and logistically with the activity, then it works. In the last year or so, with the Hit Factory falling apart, many times we all looked at each other and said, ‘If we could just find a facility with a little bit of support, we would all be doing great.’
“At Masterdisk, I learned from Bob Ludwig and how he interacted with the other mastering engineers in New York City and out West that there was a friendly rivalry. We all knew that we were in competition, but when one of us had a problem or question, we usually took it seriously. Especially today, it's not about proprietary technology or techniques, it's really about personal service. If people like the way you handle all aspects of the project, you'll get the call back.”
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