Celebrating The Influence Of Mastering Engineer Doug Sax

Doug Sax on Bobby Owsinski's Production blogIt’s hard to underestimate the influence that engineer Doug Sax had on the business of mastering. He was one of the first independent mastering engineers and literally defined the art when he opened his world-famous Mastering Lab in Hollywood in 1967.

Sadly, Doug passed away in 2015, but his  magic remains a big part of the albums he worked on for major diverse talents as The Who, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Diana Krall, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rod Stewart, Jackson Browne, and many, many more. His influence on the latest generation of mastering gurus like Gavin Lurrsen and Colin Leonard means that his techniques, art and taste still live on in a whole new generation of music. Here’s a brief excerpt from the 4th edition of the Mastering Engineer’s Handbook that describes his approach (which could be a very valuable lesson if you’re doing your own mastering as well).

Bobby: Do you have a philosophy about mastering?

Doug Sax: Yes. If it needs nothing, don’t do anything. I think that you’re not doing a service by adding something it doesn’t need. I don’t make the stew, I season it. If the stew needs no seasoning, then that’s what you have to do, because if you add salt when it doesn’t need any, you’ve ruined it. I try to maintain what the engineer did. A lot of times they’re not really in the ballpark due to their monitoring, so I EQ for clarity more than anything.

When you first run something down, can you hear the final product in your head?

Oh yes, virtually instantly, because for the most part I’m working with music that I know what it’s supposed to sound like. Once in a while I’ll get an album that’s so strange to me because of either the music or what the engineer did that I have no idea what it’s supposed to sound like, and I often will pass on it. I’ll say, “I just don’t hear this. Maybe you should go somewhere where they’re glued into what you’re doing.”

For the most part, I’m fortunate to usually work on things that sound pretty good. I work on most of the recordings from great engineers like Bill Schnee, George Massenburg, Ed Cherney, and Al Schmitt. These are clients that I’m the one they go to if they have a say in where it’s mastered. Every room has its claim to fame, and mine is that I work on more albums nominated for engineering Grammys than any other room, and probably by a factor of three or four to the next closest room. 

How has mastering changed over the years from the time you started until the way it is now?

My answer is maybe different than everyone else’s. It hasn’t changed at all! In other words, what you’re doing is finessing what an engineer and artist has created into its best possible form. If an engineer says, “I don’t know what it is, but the vocal always seems to be a little cloudy,” I can go in there and keep his mix the same, yet still make the vocal clearer. That’s what I did in 1968, and that’s what I still do. The process is the same, and the goal is the same. I don’t master differently for different formats, because you essentially make it sound as proper as you can, and then you transfer it to the final medium using the best equipment.

One thing that has changed recently is that every client that comes in wants vinyl again. Almost nothing comes into the Lab that doesn’t do vinyl anymore. For one thing, it doesn’t cost that much. For another $1,500 you can be doing vinyl, and you’re in a young market as the people buying these turntables are 18 to 25, and that’s proven. If you want to get your album to people that are really listening to the music, that’s the way.

Do you think that working on vinyl would help a newer mastering engineer who’s never had that experience? 

I don’t know if working on vinyl helps. I think having worked on many different types of music over the years helps. In one sense, being from the vinyl days I was used to doing all the moves in real time. I always cut directly from the master tapes, so if you blew a fade on the fourth cut, you started over again. So the concept of being able to do everything in real time instead of going into a computer probably affects the way I master now. I don’t look at things as, “Oh, I can put this in and fine-tune this and move this up and down.” I look at it as to what I can do in real time.

I find that the idea that you have a track for every instrument and you put them all together to have great clarity doesn’t work. I think it works the opposite way. The more you separate it, the harder it is to put together and have clarity, so if you’re EQing for musical clarity to hear what is down there, that’s unchanged today from way back 40 years ago. It’s the same process, and the EQ that would make somebody call up and say, “Wow, I really like it. I can hear everything and yet it’s still full,” is still as valid today as it was then. 

Many artists won’t spend the money on recording and mixing, but it seems they’ll spend it on mastering to get the ears of a pro. Have you experienced that?

Yes, but I think the caveat is how much money they’re willing to spend. The amount of money it takes to open up a mastering facility today is minuscule compared to what it used to be. You can do almost everything without a big investment. The question then becomes, “Are you willing to spend the extra money for the expertise of the mastering engineer?” Just owning a Pro Tools system does not make you a mastering engineer.

The fact that you have a finely tuned room and a super high-quality playback system is hard to compete with.

Yes, but if you figure in the jobs that no one attends, they can’t experience that, so we have to supply something that they can hear at home that’s better than what they could do themselves. There are some engineers that do come to our facility, but the majority is being sent to us now.

What’s the hardest thing you have to do?

I come from a time when an album had a concept to it. The producer worked with one engineer and one studio, the group recorded everything, and there was cohesiveness as to what was put before you. Once you got what they were doing, you sort of had the album done. The multiple-producer album to me is the biggest challenge, because you might have three mixes from Nashville, a couple from New York, and two that are really dark and muddy, and three are bright and thin. The only good part that I see about this is that you absolutely have to use a mastering engineer in this case, or the mixes don’t work together. The hard part for the mastering engineer is to find some middle ground, so that the guy with the bright, thin sound is still happy with what he’s done and doesn’t drive off the road when the dull, thick one plays after the bright, thin one. That’s the biggest challenge in mastering—making what is really a cafeteria sound feel like a planned meal. 

I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve trained a lot of good mastering engineers, and I’ll tell them, “You’re not going to learn how to master working on a Massenburg mix. It’s pretty well done, and if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t have sent it. When you get mixes from engineers that are not great, or you get these multiple-engineer things, then you can sort of learn the art of mastering by making these things work using your ears.”

You can read more from The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.

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