The Mastering Lab

Dec 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Heather Johnson


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The Mastering Lab offers unobstructed listening from this spot.

Grammy-winning mastering engineer and audio pioneer Doug Sax looks out onto very different vistas these days. From his new 5.1-equipped Mastering Lab studio in Ojai, Calif., windows to the outside reveal the Topa Topa Mountains, pink skies at sunset and two horses grazing across the street. Much different than the Toyota dealership across the street from his successful Hollywood facility, which he's owned for 38 years. Inside, his original two-room facility, which is still running full-throttle, looks like most mastering houses: An engineer sits at a mastering desk with equipment in front of, below and maybe behind him, with speakers to each side and out front. But at the Mastering Lab-Ojai, Sax and guests listen to surround and stereo mixes unencumbered, with no console or computer screen blocking the way of their eyes and ears.

“In surround, you have much more listening to do than in 2-channel, and for me, I have to hear [a track] through,” says Sax. “I found that I was doing a couple of changes and then a lot of listening. That's when I got the idea of, ‘Why have anything in front of you?’ When you work in this room, there's nothing between you and the speakers — any of the speakers. It makes the sound extremely clear, and what you want to do with that sound becomes more obvious.”

Sax listens on a customized ATC SCM150A 5.1-channel monitor system, comprising five ATC SCM150A loudspeakers and an ATC 15-inch subwoofer installed in the front wall. “The front three speakers are not free-standing, they're soffit-mounted. But the soffit is not the full height of the room. We came up with this half-wall. It really works because the room feels large and the speakers are really allowed to do what they do.”

Doug Sax

Sax had multiple reasons for opening a second facility. He wanted a dedicated surround room, but not in L.A. because he and his family had plans to relocate. After a few visits, they settled on (and in) the small artistic community of Ojai, which is situated 75 miles north from the original Mastering Lab — close enough for his L.A. clients to attend a session or for Sax to commute to work with clients such as Ed Cherney, whose schedules don't always allow for the 90-minute drive. Plus, he knew that to create the best possible surround environment, he had to build from the ground up. “A 2-channel room modified for surround is not good. But a room built from scratch to optimize surround monitoring can also serve as a perfectly wonderful 2-channel room.”

Sax — with experience building rooms at MGM Studios and at a site on Big Bear Lake, as well as serving as part of the original Mastering Lab design team in 1968 — teamed up with Los Angeles — based designer Rick Ruggieri to build his new single-ended facility. Like the original, most of the Mastering Lab-Ojai's equipment is custom-built, including the transformerless tube console, complete with big knobs resembling the custom boards of the early '60s. EQs and other outboard equipment are also handcrafted, save for a GML Digital EQ that, admittedly, has not been modified!

The desk and console reside behind the head engineer's chair, while the controls for the SADiE DSD 8 workstation sit on the opposite side of the desk. The IBM-based SADiE computer resides in the machine room together with power supplies for all of the tube equipment. The two-person setup puts Sax in the driver's seat, where he can flip around after listening to a track and make adjustments on the console, while another engineer mans the SADiE, which would be used to record Sax's modifications. The SADiE Series 5 offers full editing and mastering of 64fs DSD signals and incorporates authoring facilities for SACD. So while the Mastering Lab can accommodate pretty much any format on the market, Sax keeps his eye on surround. “Right now, surround is very quiet,” he says. “But we all expect it to slowly pick up, even though the industry has done everything they can to kill it by having competing formats.”

Getting a project done correctly is what gave the Mastering Lab its edge in the days of the LP and keeps the studio on top in an era of CD, DVD, SACD and myriad other mediums. “When I started, everyone said, ‘Why do I need you? I just turn my tape into Capitol or Columbia and I leave.’ And I said, ‘Because we can do it better and we can fix things.’ And when we opened our doors in '68, nobody gave a damn because they really didn't know what we did. But by 1971, you couldn't get into the Mastering Lab. It was booked 24 hours a day.”

Now, in the days of basement home studios equipped with mastering plug-ins and effects systems, studios such as the Mastering Lab still have to answer the ‘why do I need you’ question. But for those willing to turn their good-sounding project into a great one, Ojai's only a short drive (or FedEx slip or file download) away.

Heather Johnson is a Mix assistant editor.

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