L.A. Grapevine

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Maureen Droney


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Things are jumping at Hollywood's Mastersuite. Only officially open a year-and-a-half, the company is celebrating 2004 Grammy nominations for three of its mastering projects: Intocable's Nuestro Destino Estaba Escrito (Best Latin Pop); Jim Brickman's Peace (Best Pop Instrumental); and The Yellowjackets' Time Squared (Best Contemporary Jazz).

Mastersuite was founded by engineer Jay Frigoletto, former owner of Georgia's Atlanta Digital. It's also become home base for veteran mastering engineer Dave Collins and Collins Audio. Recently, a third engineer was added to the staff: up-and-comer Gabriel Wallach. Between the three, business has been pretty much nonstop with projects of all genres, from the X-Men 2 and Under the Tuscan Sun soundtracks to Fu Manchu, INXS, Andy Summers, Blondie, the Rhino Records 2-CD set The Very Best of War, and compilations featuring Dave Matthews, Neil Young, The Who and Kumbia Kings.

It's located in a bustling music business — populated complex just off the 101 freeway, but once inside, Mastersuite seems worlds away from its Western Avenue address. The quiet and cozy studio, which sports a restful, subtly Asian-themed décor, was designed by Frigoletto, a musician and gearhead who obviously has a passion for his work.

A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Frigoletto honed his chops in both mastering and post houses before opening Atlanta Digital, where he worked with such artists as India.Arie, Dallas Austin and Arrested Development. After moving to L.A., he initially worked independently out of Sony Studios in Santa Monica. When Sony closed in 2000, he became a roving mastering engineer, traveling with clients from studio to studio in between editing and mixing for the television series Touched By an Angel. “It was difficult,” he admits. “I kept clients the whole time, but they had to follow me around. I'd work at Capitol, Paramount — wherever I could get a room!”

Mastering rooms tend to be very personal affairs and Mastersuite is no exception. The carefully chosen equipment encompasses standard mastering tools like Millennia EQ, Manley compression, a TC Electronics System 6000, some rare items and a main Sonic Solutions-based hub. “The console and rack were built by Dieter Fust of Atlanta at his company, Dieterbilt,” says Frigoletto. “We've got a Weiss EQ, which is the best digital equalizer out there. Our Mark 2 version is especially cool because it has the M/S EQ function. It allows you to EQ the center separately from the stereo information, which gives amazing flexibility with things like vocals and cymbals.”

Other gear includes a custom A&M Mastering EQ (designed by Collins), a Pendulum transformerless variable-MU compressor, a Waves L2, Lavry converters, an Ampex ATR-102, Z-Systems routing and a Benchmark half-rackspace D/A converter, which Frigoletto calls “very cool, with a little sample rate converter chip that reclocks everything, so it's very jitter-immune. Currently, we're just using it for a headphone amp, but for its price, it's really fabulous.”

Also high on cool factor is the Sintefex FX 2000, designed by Mike Kemp, one of the original founders of SADiE. “It samples analog signal paths,” Frigoletto explains. “Mike calls it a dynamic convolution processor. Instead of taking a single snapshot, it tracks how things happen with different frequencies and levels that come into it. There are two versions: The 2000 just plays back the samples, and the 8000 actually takes the samples and analyzes the piece of gear you're using.”

Monitors are Questeds set up for surround. “There's just something about the English speakers that I really like,” comments Frigoletto. “The Questeds are very flat. You get plenty of detail, and top and low extension, but you don't have that hyped, ‘smiley face’ sound you get with some other speakers. Because you get it flat and plain, it helps you make proper decisions.”

Mastersuite's collaboration with Collins came about because, Frigoletto says, “We're kind of kindred spirits. Dave has always been one of my favorite mastering engineers, and he's also a great designer. I asked him over to listen, and he had me do a couple of edit projects for him to try the studio out. It worked out, and he's been here a year.”

Wallach, who previously worked in production engineering and quality control at Future Disc, came onboard to develop the business' demo side. As an added plus, he's a native Spanish speaker and has become actively involved in many of Mastersuite's Latin projects, including the Grammy-nominated Intocable.

Frigoletto is particularly proud of Rhino's The Very Best of War compilation, remastered from the original tapes, which includes such classic hits as “Low Rider,” “Spill the Wine” and “Why Can't We Be Friends.” Collins had done earlier work with War. When it came time to do the comprehensive 2-CD set, his presence sealed the gig for Mastersuite.

“Stylistically, we do a lot of different things,” Frigoletto says. “That's how I want it to be. I love all kinds of current music, and for me, doing the same thing all the time gets boring. If I have to describe what we do, I'd say we take a rational approach to audiophile. Actually, I think that's a nutshell description of mastering. There are so many details, so much that you can do, and you have to be able to balance art, science and — these days, especially — budgets. I think we're filling a niche here in a very creative, proactive way.”

The e-mail posts were flying as New Found Glory fans checked out the band's 24/7 Webcam setup at Sunset Sound. The most frequently asked question: “What's the release date?” Stopping in for an answer, I followed some very cool guitar sounds back to Studio 3. That's where the band and producer/engineer Neal Avron (Everclear, Yellowcard, The Wallflowers) were recording finishing touches on their upcoming Geffen Records CD.

Purveyors of a uniquely hook-y blend of hardcore, pop and punk, NFG hails from southern Florida but now calls Southern Cali home. A tight five-piece with a rabid fan-base, they're known for straight-ahead lyrics and high-octane live shows. The quintet hooked up with Avron two releases ago and it's been a fortuitous collaboration. The full-length CDs, New Found Glory and Sticks and Stones, along with a show-stealing slot on the 2002 Warped tour, have built buzz to a critical mass. They'll headline on Warped '04 and the new as-yet-untitled album is scheduled for a May debut.

Movies, malls, games and the energetic mix of transplanted Northerners and Latin Americans that defines South Florida all contributed to NFG's genesis, as did the very different mindsets of its members — singer Jordan Pundik, guitarists Chad Gilbert and Steve Klein, bassist Ian Grushka and drummer Cyrus Bolooki — who each, according to Avron, “contribute an equal percentage.”

Six weeks of pre-production in a (very) small warehouse space kicked off the sessions. “We work with Hurley, the clothing manufacturer, and they offered us their warehouse to rehearse in,” says Bolooki with a laugh. “We were expecting a huge space we could really stretch out in. Instead, it turned out to be smaller than this [Sunset Sound's Studio 3] lounge with a very low ceiling.”

“It ended up great, though,” comments Avron. “We put everybody in a semicircle and it was, ‘Just do the work and don't fool around, because you don't want to sit there forever.’ We also talked a lot about direction. Some of the details may sound minute — like tuning snare drums lower for a sound that was more dead than on previous records — but we decided to go for the particular sound that suited each song. In the end, we used a completely different drum kit on almost every song, from a mono setup with just four mics to another song where we used a 28-inch marching drum, with both heads completely ringing, for the kick. On another track, we recorded the kit in a tiny, completely dead iso booth.”

“The comfort factor was a big thing overall for this record,” observes Bolooki. “I think we were able to experiment because of the relationship we all have with each other now. Writing and recording, you can get really frustrated. You don't have to worry so much when you've got a good team.”

The band kept in close touch with fans through the Website (www.newfoundglory.com), with the (soundless) Webcam, studio logs and photo postings. “Our fans are on the Internet all the time,” explains Bolooki. “We added some new features to make it easy to talk and interact while we were in the studio, and a month ago, we did a live broadcast where we leaked 30 seconds of one of our new songs. We had 80 comments in 90 minutes and they all loved it. Of course, somebody figured out how to download the stream and it's already up on a bunch of Websites — complete with the talking on it and the fade.”

Well aware of the double-edged sword the Internet wields, the band maintained tight security with their recorded material. “No armed guard,” says Avron, “but the main computer is password-protected and I take the hard drives home with me. All the band's rough mix CDs are numbered, and they have to bring the old ones back to get a new one.”

“We're very conscious,” says Pundik, “because on one of our earlier records, songs got out early. We never figured it out. Everybody thinks it was somebody else's friend or family member. These days, nobody gets a copy. That was kind of hard when we went home over Christmas. I mean, not even my mother gets a CD!”

Got L.A. news? E-mail MaureenDroney@aol.com.

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