Take Your Mixes To The Next Level

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

An Interview With The Godfather Of Mastering Doug Sax

Doug Sax image
If ever there was a title of “Godfather of Mastering,” Doug Sax has truly earned it as evidenced by the extremely high regard that the industry holds him in. One of the first independent mastering engineers, Doug literally defined the art when he opened his world famous The Mastering Lab in Hollywood in 1967. The Lab has since moved to the quiet peace and beauty of Ojai, California, but the magic that has drawn such major diverse talents as The Who, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Diana Krall, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Earth, Wind and Fire, Rod Stewart, Jackson Browne, and many, many more, continues to draw.

Here's a piece of the interview I did with Doug from The Mastering Engineer's Handbook 3rd edition that goes into detail not only about the evolution of mastering, but of recording as well.

"Is it true that you were the first independent mastering engineer?
Absolutely. Independent has to be clarified because if you go back to the late ‘60s and before, everything was done in-house. You were signed to a label, you were given an A&R man, and you stayed within the label. If you recorded at Capitol, then you went down to Capitol’s mastering to get your product cut to lacquer. You went to Capitol’s art department and they gave you the artist that designed your cover, and that’s the way it was. 

It was really at the end of the ‘60s that certain top producers would say, “I love the security, but I would like to work with an artist that’s not on this label. I would like to work with Streisand, but she’s on Columbia.” So they started to break off from the label and really started the process where nobody is tied to one any more. The cry became, “If you sign me, I’ll use the engineer I want and I’ll record and master where I want.” That’s 40 years of hard fought independence, so from the standpoint of an independent that is not aligned with a label, just a specialty room that handles mastering, the answer is yes. 

I was one of the pioneers when there was no independent business. We opened up our doors in December 27 of 1967 and by ’71 or ’72, you couldn’t get into the place because we were so busy. By ’72 we were doing 20 percent of the top 100 chart and there weren’t a lot of competitors. There was Artisan in LA, and Sterling and maybe Master Disk just starting in New York, and that was it. Now there seems to be a thousand because the reality is that it’s very easy for someone to go into this business now, or for the artist or engineer do it yourself. You can get a workstation with all the bells and whistles for a song and a dance. A Neumann lathe setup in 1972 was $75,000, and that was just the cutting system; you still needed a room and a console, so you had to have a big budget, and there was only a few people doing it as a result. Now you fire it right up.

And don’t forget that in the industry for almost ten years there were no tones on an analog tape, so you didn’t know how to line up to the machine. 

There were no tones?
No tones. I’m one of the instigators in railing on these guys to go back and print the tones so I could at least set my machine to where your machine was. There was no such thing as nearfield monitoring either. It didn’t exist. People used to go to these strange studios with big speakers in the wall, most of which were useless as far as relating to the real world, and the engineers never knew that they were out in left field because they had nothing to take home. The cassette was just starting and only a handful of engineers that I can think of actually had a 15 ips (inches per second) tape machine at home that they could take home a mix and find out where they were. 

I started the process in the early ‘70s just in self-defense. I would say, “Look, before you do anything, come in with your first mix on-the-house and find out if you’re in trouble. We’ll listen to it and get you straight.” I just got tired of watching these guy’s eyes open the first time they ever heard their mixes outside of the studio. “Oh, my God. I couldn’t hear any highs in the studio so I kept adding highs.” That absolute horrendous reality is really the reason why nearfields came in.

How has mastering changed over the years from the time you started until the way it is now?
My answer is maybe different than everyone else’s. It hasn’t changed at all! In other words, what you’re doing is finessing what an engineer and artist has created into its best possible form. If an engineer says, “I don’t know what it is, but the vocal always seems to be a little cloudy,” I can go in there and keep his mix the same yet still make the vocal clearer. That’s what I did in 1968 and that’s what I still do. The process is the same and the goal is the same. I don’t master differently for different formats because you essentially make it sound as proper as you can, and then you transfer it to the final medium using the best equipment.

One of the things that has changed recently is that every client that comes in wants vinyl again. Almost nothing comes into the Lab that doesn’t do vinyl anymore. For one thing, it doesn’t cost that much. For another $1500 you can be doing vinyl, and you’re in a young market as the people buying these turntables are 18 to 25, and that’s proven. If you want to get your album to people that are really listening to the music, that’s the way. It’s also where the people that are going to buy hi-res downloads are coming from as well. 

Right now we’re mastering a Jackson Browne album and making a CD master, MFIT master, 96k master, 192k master, DSD master and vinyl. That’s 6 different formats. Three years ago we made a CD master and that was it. That’s becoming more and more routine. 

I think this is all an offshoot from the phonograph record in the home. The fact that someone has to make a commitment to listening to a record and won’t be listening on earbuds but real loudspeakers is a revolution right there.

Do you have a philosophy about mastering?
Yes. If it needs nothing, don’t do anything. I think that you’re not doing a service by adding something it doesn’t need. I don’t make the stew, I season it. If the stew needs no seasoning, then that’s what you have to do, because if you add salt when it doesn’t need any, you’ve ruined it. I try to maintain what the engineer did. A lot of times they’re not really in the ballpark due to their monitoring, so I EQ for clarity more than anything."


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