Studio Unknown's Confessions of a Small Working Studio—Specialized Mastering Work Gains Popularity

Dec 8, 2009 3:02 PM, By Lisa Horan & Kevin Hill, Studio Unknown

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in our new online series written by and for mid-level studio owners. On a monthly basis, Studio Unknown owner Kevin Hill and creative director Lisa Horan will be calling around the country and bringing their own expertise to the issues that matter most to a successful studio life. Let’s face it, the middle has been hit hard in the economic downturn, but it’s also the middle that is most likely to come roaring back. This month, in keeping with the theme of our December print edition, Hill and Horan talk to mastering studio owners.

John Polito's Audio Mechanics

John Polito's Audio Mechanics

At one point or another in our careers, we’ve all been reminded to develop and perfect our specialty—that one specific area within our field that we do better than anything else. But just how “specialized” are we talking? In the world of mastering, there appears to be a growing trend that takes the already specific niche to an even more finite level. According to the studio owners we interviewed this month, developing a niche can provide a serious competitive edge, but it can also be risky business.

The Path to Niche-Ville—Follow the Connections

So what are we talking about when we refer to niche mastering? Look at it this way: Mastering music is radically different from mastering the audio for a TV show, and mastering audio for a movie is a different animal from remastering a classic film. So exactly what leads an engineer to develop a specific niche within mastering? While the stories of each of the engineers we interviewed varied, there was one common thread among them: Connections were key.

Jeff Dykhouse's space

Jeff Dykhouse's space

Take John Polito, owner of Southern California’s Audio Mechanics, for instance. Polito’s success in motion-picture remastering has been driven by “being at the right place at the right time, and being ready for the opportunities that presented themselves,” he says. The first of these opportunities came right after college when Polito joined a then little-known company called Sonic Solutions. The year was 1986, and Sonic Solutions was pretty much the only company around that offered tools for restoration mastering. During his time there, Polito learned the tools inside and out, even traveling the world to give product demos. When he decided to launch his own company, which centered on mastering music with an emphasis on restoration, the experience he had gained, along with the relationships he had built, gave him a noticeable advantage, and he quickly made a name for himself as the guy to go to for music re-mastering projects. In fact, even mega companies like Disney called on Polito to remaster their records. Eventually, this led to an opportunity to remaster the company’s classic films, and that work led to a connection to UCLA’s Bob Gitt, a pioneer in film restoration, which led to work on a slew of films held at the university. Since then, Polito’s has become the shop that Hollywood TV and film companies turn to when they need audio remastering services. “The pieces all fell into place for me, but a big part of the reason was the fact that I was prepared to take on each challenge,” says Polito, whose recent projects include Alien and How to Marry a Millionaire, as well as the I Love Lucy television series. “I’ve always believed that it’s important to keep my options open and be flexible because you just never know where the industry is going to take you.”

It was no surprise where the industry took engineer Jeff Dykhouse. As a mix engineer for such labels as Vineyard Music, Dykhouse was in constant contact with artists and producers in the Contemporary Christian (CCM) genre. By the time he launched his mastering studio, he had developed such a solid reputation in the genre that he was used almost exclusively to mastering both CCM CDs and instructional music videos. “CCM is different than other types of music in that it is message-oriented and the music has to be delivered in such a way that it doesn’t overshadow the message,” explains Dykhouse, who has worked with such well-known artists as Paul Baloche, Crystal Lewis and Jeremy Riddle. “Because of the success I had had in mixing this type of music and the relationships I had built, artists trusted that I would be able to understand how not to treat their project like typical pop/rock tracks.”

Typical is about as far from Michael Fossenkemper’s niche as you can get. The founder and chief engineer of New York City’s TurtleTone Studios began his career as a mastering engineer with a simple mission: to give offbeat types of projects (avant garde, world, jazz) that usually couldn’t afford mastering a chance to sound good. “When I started out, I did these projects with little expectation of anything really happening—including getting paid,” explains Fossenkemper, who was also a mix engineer at the time. But when word about Fossenkemper’s unique talent quickly spread through the New York City music community, Fossenkemper became so busy with mastering projects that he faced a difficult dilemma. “I knew that, for me, it was impossible to handle both mixing and mastering,” he says. “I just felt they both required a completely different set of ears, and to be really good at one, I’d have to let the other go.” And he did. He took a leap of faith and opened TurtleTone, which specializes in mastering music and DVD concerts of non-mainstream artists, including Flo Rida, Chita Rivera and Coalesce.

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