Take Your Mixes To The Next Level

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Farewell Doug Sax

Doug Sax image
So much has been written already about the legendary mastering engineer Doug Sax, who passed away yesterday at age 79, that it's hard to add anything else significant.

Suffice it to say that Doug was not only a groundbreaker in the business for creating the first independent master facility and for even creating the test tape that was a must-have for every studio with a tape machine, but he was a great guy as well.

Doug always found time to speak with me and was never shy about sharing information that he knew. He was beyond kind when he didn't have to be, and for that I'll always remember him fondly.

The best way I know to honor Doug is by this excerpt from a recent interview that we did for the 3rd edition of the Mastering Engineer's Handbook.

"Do you have a philosophy about mastering?
Doug Sax: 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. 

When you first run something down, can you hear the final product in your head?
Oh yes, virtually instantly, because for the most part I’m working with music that I know what it’s supposed to sound like. Once in a while I’ll get an album that’s so strange to me because of either the music or what the engineer did, that I have no idea what it’s supposed to sound like and I often will pass on it. I’ll say, “I just don’t hear this. Maybe you should go somewhere where they’re glued into what you’re doing.”

For the most part, I’m fortunate to usually work on things that sound pretty good. I work on most of the recordings from great engineers like Bill Schnee, George Massenburg, Ed Cherney and Al Schmitt. These are clients that I’m the one they go to if they have a say in where it’s mastered. Every room has its claim to fame and mine is that I work on more albums nominated for engineering Grammy’s than any other room, and probably by a factor of three or four to the next closest room.  

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 think that working on vinyl would help a newer mastering engineer who’s never had that experience?  
I don’t know if working on vinyl helps. I think having worked on many different types of music over the years helps. In one sense, being from the vinyl days I was used to doing all the moves in real time. I always cut directly from the master tapes so if you blew a fade on the fourth cut, you started over again, so the concept of being able to do everything in real time instead of going into a computer probably affects the way I master now. I don’t look at things as, “Oh, I can put this in and fine tune this and move this up and down.” I look at it as to what I can do in real time. 


I find the idea that you have a track for every instrument and you put them all together to have great clarity doesn’t work. I think it works the opposite way. The more you separate it, the harder it is to put together and have clarity, so if you’re EQing for musical clarity to hear what is down there, that’s unchanged today from way back 40 years ago. It’s the same process, and the EQ that would make somebody call up and say, “Wow, I really like it. I can hear everything and yet it’s still full,” is still as valid today as it was then.  

Many artists won’t spend the money on recording and mixing, but it seems they’ll spend it on mastering to get the ears of a pro. Have you experienced that?
Yes, but I think the caveat is how much money they’re willing to spend. The amount of money it takes to open up a mastering facility today is minuscule compared to what it used to be. You can do almost everything without a big investment. The question then becomes, “Are you willing to spend the extra money for the expertise of the mastering engineer?” Just owning a Pro Tools system does not make you a mastering engineer. 

The fact that you have a finely tuned room and super high quality playback system is hard to compete with.
Yes, but if you figure in the jobs that no one attends, they can’t experience that, so we have to supply something that they can hear at home that’s better than what they could do themselves. There are some engineers that do come to our facility, but the majority is being sent to us now.

You’re just out of the way enough in Ojai [a little more than an hour from Los Angeles without traffic] that many might not want to make the trip from LA.
I was always concerned that the distance would affect people that wanted to attend, but that turned out not to be true. They still come and make a day of it. If someone wants to attend a session and they’re in LA and don’t want to drive, they won’t even book us. I don’t think it’s hurt us in the long run. I think that everyone who comes here really enjoys it.

What’s the hardest thing that you have to do?
I come from a time when an album had a concept to it. The producer worked with one engineer and one studio, the group recorded everything, and there was cohesiveness as to what was put before you. Once you got what they were doing, you sort of had the album done. The multiple producer album to me is the biggest challenge because you might have three mixes from Nashville, a couple from New York, and two that are really dark and muddy and three are bright and thin. The only good part that I see about this is that you absolutely have to use a mastering engineer in this case or the mixes don’t work together. The hard part for the mastering engineer is to find some middle ground so that the guy with the bright thin sound is still happy with what he’s done and doesn’t drive off the road when the dull thick one plays after the bright thin one. That’s the biggest challenge in mastering; making what is really a cafeteria sound feel like a planned meal.  

I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve trained a lot of good mastering engineers, and I’ll tell them, “You’re not going to learn how to master working on a Massenburg mix. It’s pretty well done, and if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t have sent it. When you get mixes from engineers that are not great, or you get these multiple engineer things, then you can sort of learn the art of mastering by making these things work using your ears.” 

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."

We'll remember Doug for a long time to come. He really was a pioneer in recording industry.


Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

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