Essays

A collection writings and thoughts by artist Gary Llama.

On my Old Mastering Studio

In 2002, I was a recording engineer. I had completed an internship at Montana Studio here in Richmond, and had been working freelance recording bands. Occasionally, I would master things as well.

Mastering, is a process that many folks don’t understand. Today, simply put, it’s the stage where you transfer the music to the format it will be replicated from. It originated with vinyl records. If you were going to release your recording on vinyl, you would hire a mastering engineer to cut the master disc onto an acetate. That acetate would then be plated and the pressing plant would use it to mechanically stamp the vinyl. So mastering used to require having a vinyl lathe, which was very expensive.

When Compact Disc came into existance, people needed to have their music put onto a format that the pressing plant could receive. Early it was a wierd tape-based format called Umatic, which required a very expensive machine, a Sony PCM-1630, to write it. But as time went on, the pressing plants started accepting CD-R discs as a delivery format, and suddenly, all that was required to deliver was a (still expensive) CD-r writer, but that was nowhere close to the thousands required for a 1630 or a lathe. And with that, mastering became something that smaller studios could do.

My interest in it was that I liked fixing things. I also love making things perfect. So the mastering had started appealing to me, in theory. But I had no plans to get into it.

That was, until the day the mastering engineer at the studio I freelanced at, announced he was moving. The studio owner offered me to rent the room, and set up a digital editing suite, which would be great, because it would allow us to edit records without taking up the main control room and, by proxy, live room.

So I moved in. But within a week, I realized this would be a great chance to jump into mastering. Over the next few weeks I did the math, and realized that If I were to get a loan, I could open up a good mastering room.

At that point, I had been buying equipment for a few years, and had a decent home studio that I would edit in, and track random things in, in between recording at the studio. But to make mastering work, I would have to sell EVERYTHING that was recording gear, and put the money into mastering gear. My Dad agreed to match me with a loan. So I sold about $12k worth of recording gear, and he loaned me about $12k worth of money.

It took me a lot of research to figure out what I needed to buy. And I did it completely backwards. The first thing I knew I needed was a desk and chair. So I bought those. Nice ones. The second thing I knew I needed was a Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW, the software that would allow me to compile the CD and manipulate the music). In my research, I had found a program called Samplitude, and they offered a rental program, so I got that. Unfortantely, it ran on a PC. Unfortanetely, because I was a mac guy. So I built a PC.

Cutting the CD-r as good as possible was very important, so I ordered a great CD burner.

And then came the big gear.

I would need something to use to manipulate the sound. In those days, and much the same now, many folks depended on mastering to get their music as loud as possible with as little distortion as possible. Compression can help with this. But I really only had the money to get either a great analog eq, or a great analog compressor, So I bought the most transparent analog compressor made, as there were decent digital eqs available. And to get out to it, as it was analog, I had to get a great converter to convert the signal.

For monitors, I had just thrown my B&W 602s2s in my room, which were OK speakers, but nowhere near mastering quality. And I powered them with an old McIntosh integrated amp I had, which was great for HIFI, but nowhere near what I needed for the studio.

So I decided to sell my car, and I bought the best speakers and amp I could afford. I remember the day my speakers came to the studio. I arrived on a skateboard, to an 18-wheeler parked out front, bringing a palletized pair of my speakers into the lobby. The speakers weighed 170 pounds each. Insane. My buddy Kieran had to help me just turn them in the room.

In all of this I had decided on a name, and would call the studio MortarWorks. Why that? No idea. Just liked the name.

And for the next few months, I steadily built my business while adding new gear. A new DAC for monitoring. A very good digital equalizer. A great cassette machine to help with a lot of the archival work I was doing for some of my record label running punk friends. I had Shallco in North Carolina wire me up a custom stepped attenuator to control the volume in the room. And I redid the wiring to give the monitor amp it’s own circuit, and to give the analog gear a different circuit than the digital gear, which somehow dropped my analog noise floor, which was already good, by about 8 db.

To get clients, I relied a lot on word of mouth, and folks walking by from the recording studio. But I also tried advertising, both online and in print. Print was the big one. And it worked, I had some great clients, I worked on some great records, I made some money, and things went well.

About a year later, something odd happened. I started having some really weird health issues. At 19, I had developed what docs would call IBS, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and up to that point, i’d had some IBS issues that were pretty bad, EVERY morning. Actually cost me a job at one point. But with recording, I could schedule freelance clients later in the day, and with mastering, could do the same.

But these new issues were something else entirely. They were not as disruptive as IBS, but they gradually left me sicker.

I had always been skinny, ever since high school. But I started really losing some weight. Real bad. Friends got concerned. My doctors were concerned. And so I started having to go to the doctor, a lot. At one point, my weight dropped so low I was hospitalized. It was scary. I didn’t know what to expect. Is this cancer? Is this just something I’m going through? When will it end? I had so many questions, and doctors could give so little answers.

Eventually, I met a doc who decided I probably had Celiac disease, and put me on a gluten-free diet. This was in 2004, and that diet, back then, was HARD. There wasn’t the plethora of gluten-free foods that there are today, and what little there was, wasn’t stocked at my local shops. So we’d have the grocers order stuff for us, or we’d order it via the mail, or in a pinch, I’d drive the hour to Charlottesville to get whatever the Whole Foods there had in stock. It was a motherfucker of a time.

Thinking back, I realize the health problems had started a little earlier. I remember, I was at the bank cashing the check from selling my car and getting a money order to order my studio speakers, a big sum of money at the time, and I was worried if i was doing the right thing. Well, I started feeling ill, and passed out right there at the counter. I woke up to smelling salts, an paramedic crew arriving, and a bank employee sticking the completed money order in my chest pocket, and patting it my chest to let me know it was there.

The doc had mentioned that stress could exacerbate the problems I was having, and asked if I had been under any stress. Well, outside of running my business, learning a new craft, and constantly hunting for clients, no. I laugh now because my eagerness for running that business hid all of the stress I was under. It was good stress in my mind, which wasn’t stress to me. ‘Stress’ was a bad thing. This was good stuff, so it was just the cost of business.

During all of this, some changes had happened with the recording studio I shared a building with. The studio owner had decided to step back for a bit, and a new guy, a seasoned, very talented engineer, Kieran, recently moved to Richmond, had worked a deal to take over the studio. We became good friends and planned together where we could take the studio. We realized that the market was changing for recording, and mastering, and that to do well, we would need to adapt with it. And that change was either to downgrade the studio to something easier to maintain, or upgrade it and charge more. We chose the latter path, because fuck the other way. Kieran had worked at some of the best studios in the country, and the studio we were at now, it was decent. It had a decent console, a 48-channel Amek. But, that came with a cost. It meant that every month we had to pay a maintenance guy to keep it running, because things fail on those boards constantly. So we both started planning how to upgrade both of our businesses. We’d both add some more outboard gear, but also, we’d really clean the place up. The studio, at that point, was nice, but ageing. It was built in the 1970s, so it had old carpet that was worse for the wear, and the building had leaks. After a rain, we’d come in to soaked carpet. Structural work needed to be done. Kieran did his work to get a loan. There was just one catch: The building had always been rented. So to make this work, and feel comfortable investing a sizable amount of money, we would need a long-term lease.

This was all going on while I was dealing with my health issues, and though it didn’t exacerbate me or cause me any obvious worry, looking back, I know it was probably not making life any easier. If we couldn’t get that lease, what would we do? Just stay in the space and not adapt to the market? We’d go bankrupt. To succeed, we had to get in front of the changes and meet the problem head on.

Eventually we got word that no long-term lease would happen. I think we even talked about buying the building, but this fucking landlord…

Anyhow.

After rescheduling one too many appointments, and no end in sight to my health issues, despite my new diet, I had come to the conclusion that I couldn’t keep at it. Kieran came to about the same conclusion, but held out a bit longer.

So in April of that year, I sold my gear off, and took the rest home. I would have loved to keep my speakers, but they weighed so much, and living in rental properties, fuck moving with those. Plus, would they sound so good in an untreated room?

I eventually became excited, perhaps I convinced myself to be. I was excited at not knowing what was around the corner. I was excited, because for the past seven years I had poured EVERYTHING into being a recording engineer, and now, I was leaving the field. And for some reason, that felt good. I mean, I physically felt bad, I was pretty fucking sick. But something about being done with the clients, the business, the stress, felt good. The truth is, I was very good to the business, and very horrible to myself. So the idea of taking care of myself seemed like a great one. Plus, I could get back to doing art, music, and some new things, which I had not done much of in the previous seven years. I made two records of my own music, in seven years. Sad.

For the next 12 or so years, I had no interest in getting back into recording or mastering, ever again. I made tons of my own music. And i’d take pride in making it great with the least amount of equipment possible. The idea of spending the time I’d spend back then researching or trying gear, just disgusted me nowadays. And after a few years, I could even enjoy shitty car stereos again, my ears having adjusted back to ‘normal’.

Unfortunately for my health, that was just the beginning. I’d end up finding out I did not have Celiac disease, but instead, multiple food allergies, so many that I would not be able to eat like a normal human being, and figure out new ways to eat. I’d also accumulate many more health issues. And spend much more time passing out in public. But i’ve learned to manage with it.

Some days I would miss the studio. Miss talking tech with other engineers. Miss watching bands record. And miss recording them. Miss moving the mics around. Miss helping a band get a great sound. And miss having those sounds come into my mastering room. I’d miss sitting down, and evaluating a recording, looking for the ways to make it sound better. Getting the fade in’s and fade out’s right. Giving just the right amount of gap between songs to give the song the space it needed in the context of the album. And i’d really miss just listening to music on that monitor system. Music would sound like God. Hell, I’d even miss soldering and building stuff, which at the time was a chore I hated but just did out of habit, cuz that’s what engineers fucking do. And I’d miss that cigarrette after a session, standing out on the front porch, watching the sunset, and being so stoked on the good job I did on that record that afternoon.

I think the most appealing thing, for me, was having a purppose outside of myself. For most of my life, I have been the artist. I’m the one getting recorded. It’s my song, my ideas. And with that came introspection, and ethical crises, and politics, and all these very self-judging, doubting, struggling things. And with engineering, I fucked with none of that. I’d come in, make the drums sound good, and that was that. Mix it great. Master it great. The job ends. Go home. Come back tomorrow.

It was simple.
Very little to question.

It’s now many years later, and I realize that it was an escape for me. A way to escape being the artist I am. A way to just do something. And it kept me busy. No over thinking. And so it kind of made me happy.

But I’m not sure it was fullfilling.

Because, when I take the rose colored glasses of the past off, I remember working with some clients that made me so angry, i just wanted to quit and go home and record my own shit. Why? Because they’d be singing bullshit. In my mind, They’d be wasting their voice.
Their spot in people’s ears. I’m very opiniotated about art. And it would come through in my mind.

So I can’t help but wonder, this struggle of duality, becoming the technician and cutting the brain and heart off, or me plugging fully into that brain and heart, and being the suffering artist, if that duality didn’t play a bigger role in the background of all of those choices. I never really thought about it until now.

Because there is that temptation that I feel from time to time, the self-sabotaging kind, that comes in with the thoughts of ‘perhaps you are not meant to be an artist’. Or, ‘if it was meant to be, would it be this hard?’. Or, ‘would you rather be an artist, or be happy?’. The latter one being very intriguing, yet somewhat questionable as my experience of happiness tends to be less when NOT making art. But such questions, such rationalizations as ‘the most money you’ve ever made was in engineering’ being self-apllied, in effort to convice myself to give up on art. Or perhaps it’s to dabble in the illusion that I ever could give up on art. Perhaps I couldn’t give up, but realizing that may prove too damning of a future for me to even consider, so the illusion of choice makes it bearable?

I have no idea.

The money aspect is a killer one though, to a person who is poor. It makes one tempted to consider the idea of redesigning their life over what is most profitable. But it fails an ethics test. Surely, I wouldn’t violate my own ethics if it was more profitable, so why would my own life purpose, if such as an artist, be ok to violate if it’s more profitable?

A lot to consider. Totally off point here.

Example of being an artist, complete.

Somehow led to by a writing about a recording studio.

Fuck.

Perhaps it’s about this: Work is about seeking truth. And the truth in audio, when using a great room, great speakers, great DAC is more easily recognizable than the truth in art. The former depends on comparison to paths already set forth, existing standards of record production, wheras the latter, if your anything like me, bears no standard to compare to at all. The closest thing you grasp for is your gut, or your brain, or your instinct, but even there your not satisfied to sit with what has worked in the past, because, simply put, this is about moving forward, and sticking with the points of the past is akin to death, or circular movement. And so it’s alluring to say, yes this record is eq’d fucking properly rather than to dive into a water of self, and self-realization that’s at best existensial, and at worst, fully fucking unknowable and maddening.

The end.

About The Site

Llamatism is a collection of things, a cabinet of curiosities, and reports from explorations on things, by Gary Llama.

Read More

Other Stuff