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

Reality Check

Michael Fossenkemper

Michael Fossenkemper

If the up-side of a niche in mastering is that you can be known as the only guy in town that does what you do, however, the downside is being pigeonholed and being rocked by the impact of any tremors the industry experiences.

Take Fossenkemper, for instance. The audience for the obscure music that he works on is limited, which means limited sales, which means limited fees that he can charge his clients. That said, Fossenkemper has to get creative to give his clients the product they desire for a price they can afford and for a fee that won’t bust a hole in his pocket. “My responsibility is to find a way that my clients can put out a good quality product and still make it make sense from a monetary standpoint,” he explains. “If they aren’t at least able to break even, then they haven’t gotten their money’s worth.” To make sure they do, Fossenkemper is always looking for ways to streamline the process, and he carefully weighs the pros and cons of new technology before jumping on the latest trend. “I am always conducting research and looking at new technology that’s available, testing out new gadgets and figuring out what will be truly beneficial,” he says. “As a small mastering studio, I’ve got to be wise about what I’m spending money on, so I typically only make a purchase if a product will help me do something better than I could do it before.”

While Polito may not be battling with tight budgets to the same extent, his challenges are still tied to his clients’ bottom line. “The time differential between mastering a full-length CD and remastering a full-length film is extreme,” explains Polito, who says that while it takes anywhere from four to eight hours for a CD, it takes from five days to two weeks to remaster a film. As there is no way to cut corners when it comes to the process, Polito makes up the time in other areas. “We use a well-integrated database that contains all elements, project notes, element labels, logs, interstudio memos, workflow charts, et cetera, so that anyone on my staff can look up a project to see what the status is at any given time,” he says. Polito says these types of database-management systems are normally only found at the big studios, but considering that a single film or TV show remastering project can be accompanied by as many as 30 boxes of elements, he felt the investment in an efficient system was wholly justified.

Sometimes, however, even the most careful planning, efficiency measures and credits are no match for a sour economy and mutating industry trends. In spite of being a 20-plus-year veteran of the industry and earning Gold and Platinum RIAA Awards, Dykhouse was no exception. For seven years, he operated his mastering studio from a large industrial space. “Five-hundred-dollar-per-month air-conditioning bills were not out of the question,” says Dykhouse, who is on the desert side of Orange County, Calif. To complicate matters, the explosion of the iTunes revolution and the trickle of singles coming in forced him not only to close the doors on the building and open a mastering studio in a separate space inside a home, but also to diversify his services to supplement his income. “The good news for me is says. In fact, he has yet to meet half of his clients, so while closing the industrial space wasn’t in his original plans, the new setup has worked out well.

“I never intended to develop a niche in mastering,” says Polito. “My focus has always been to do what I do best, the best that I can.” That philosophy seems to embody the successful niche mindset.

Kevin Hill is the owner/engineer and Lisa Horan is the creative director of Studio Unknown, a full-service audio post-production facility and recording studio that specializes in helping clients discover creative sound for film, video, Web, gaming and artist projects.

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