Heba Kadry and Adrian Morgan began mastering albums at two of New York City's largest production houses — The Lodge and Sterling Sound, respectively. Their combined discographies are diverse, ranging from D'Angelo to Lightning Bolt. After years in the corporate studio setting, they connected after each decided to branch out on their own. As business owners and engineers, their primary goal is to create the most comfortable, affordable environment possible for artists in all stages of their careers.
Heba, how did you start making and recording music?
HebA: I'm Egyptian, but my parents lived and worked in Kuwait so that's where I spent most of my childhood and teen years until it was time to go to college. At some point in the early '80s my dad walked in with a Commodore [computer] and a Casiotone 610 synth under each arm and it was like the Kadrys had a sudden leap into the digital age! I still have that Casiotone back home and it's in great shape. My parents hired a piano teacher, and both my brother and I started taking lessons. I think at some point I witnessed my dad, who has perfect pitch, play tunes he picked up by ear on the Casio and I thought that was something I could figure out as well. That might be one of my earliest childhood memories. My parents played lots of Boney M and classical pieces. I stuck with piano lessons for about eight years and started experimenting with cassette decks, as well as overdubbing my vocals. Just the kind of shit kids do. By the time the '90s rolled around, right after the first Gulf war, Kuwait became a rapidly developing commercialized urban mecca, full of opulent malls and satellite dishes. That's when we first got MTV in our house and it was a shock to my 10-year-old brain. All this Brit-pop and grunge music I'd never heard before! I was transfixed. After high school I moved to Cairo, Egypt to attend The American University and that's where I was finally exposed to other kids in bands who liked indie music. None of my high school friends were remotely interested in noisy guitar music.
Adrian: Really? Nobody?
H: Not really. I was the only kid I knew of that listened to Oasis, The Stone Roses, and Nirvana. I went to a nerdy British high school in Kuwait where academia was the most important thing. I was definitely a weirdo at my school.
So living in Cairo opened your eyes to more music?
H: It opened my eyes to life in a gritty and chaotic city with more like-minded people. Cairo is an ancient city with greater exposition to other cultures. It's also been a popular trade route for centuries, so naturally it's got a lot going on. Kuwait is a tiny and relatively new country with a massive oil industry. Living in Kuwait was like living in a Starbucks. It was like a Western projection that wasn't grounded in reality. There was only one decent record store that didn't sell illegal, poorly dubbed versions of records. Most of what they offered was Top 40 stuff. The only way I could listen to a song repeatedly was by making VHS tape mixes of songs off MTV and then dubbing them to cassette so I could listen to it on the bus on my way to school. They sounded horrible, but I remained resourceful. I would arm friends visiting the US or Europe with a long list of CDs I needed. It was a pain in the ass, but I learned to treasure those albums like they were the most important things in my life. It made music such a precious experience to me.
What made you decide to come to the United States?
H: After college I landed a job at an ad agency in Cairo called J. Walter Thompson. I hated my job. I was terrible at it. I was an advertising exec. It was entirely soul sucking. One of the creative directors found out I played synths and asked me to write a jingle for a Cadbury chocolate commercial. I think they were trying to cut their budget down and keep the scoring in house. One thing led to another and I ended up doing a couple more jingles for various clients. One gig had a bigger budget that warranted booking time at the fancy recording studio in downtown Cairo called Studio Leila. The studio had a beautiful, fully automated Neve VXS console, as well as tons of analog outboard gear. I was introduced to the two engineers that worked there, Mohamed Saqr and Tamer al-Zu'aibi, who were the only all-analog mixers in the Middle East at the time. One of the guys recommended I check out the Recording Workshop in Ohio. I quit my job and went. After audio school I moved to Houston, Texas, and landed an internship at SugarHill Recording Studios. I worked my way up the ranks to become one of the junior engineers, in addition to booking sessions for the other engineers.
Adrian, you're also a longtime musician.
A: I started playing trombone in elementary school. I was a real dedicated band geek and that eventually led me to an obsession with jazz music. After high school, I decided to become a serious jazz performer and enrolled at Berklee College of Music. There I continued pursuing performance, as well as learning new skills in production and engineering. Soon that lead me to working in studios in New York City and eventually finding my career in mastering. On the side, I've been keeping my performance career alive. I started playing electric bass after a production I was involved in about 10 years ago and quickly became hooked. Since then, bass has become my primary instrument. I've even begun building them.
Yeah? Tell me more about that.
A: I have a new guitar shop endeavor called Novasonic LTD. The business is in the early stages. I started growing the Timeless tech shop over the years, which lead me to tinkering around with my basses in my spare time. At first I was just trying to improve my bass playing by finding that perfect string action, neck relief, and intonation.
You both started mastering at two of the biggest mastering houses in the world — The Lodge and Sterling Sound. What led you there?
H: I went to TapeOpCon in New Orleans in 2004 and checked out a mastering panel that featured Greg Calbi. He was so eloquent and approachable. I left feeling so inspired and intrigued. I didn't really know much about mastering at the time, and I had made up my mind that, in order to become a proper mastering engineer, New York was the place to make it happen. I applied for internships with a ton of studios and sold my car. I didn't know anyone, but I took the plunge. I finally got an internship at The Lodge, and through a stroke of luck, the studio manager at the time decided to leave three months into my internship and I was hired. I started mastering friends' recordings on off hours, or late at night, for free. No one really showed me how to master records and I honestly had no fucking idea what I was doing at first, but I just kept doing it. People started to like my work and offer me money for it!
What was your initial understanding of what you were doing to those albums?
H: It's hard to properly articulate. Mastering only seems like the most elusive side of the whole audio business because it's sort of hard to teach. It's all about instinct, as opposed to instructional. Mastering is one of the most highly detailed aspects of audio production, and sometimes tiny 1/4 dB increments can make a whole world of difference. I spent a lot of time listening to the mixes and following my own emotional instinct, as well as how my body reacted to the mixes when I first started sitting behind a mastering console. "What is it about this track that triggers a certain feeling? Is the vocal a focal point, or do the acoustic guitars need to shimmer more to support the emotion in the vocal performance?" In conjunction with referencing other releases that the artist suggested, you start to create a shape for the album and eventually figure out how to quickly achieve the things you are hearing in your head with the tools you have in front of you. Mastering is so simple; there's nothing complicated about it. It's just compression and EQ. What you learn to nurture, as you become a more experienced mastering engineer, are your ears and how you listen to records. I think most people can master a song, but not just anyone can master a complete album. That, in my opinion, is what makes a mastering engineer a great one — taking a collection of songs that may have been recorded over five years, at three different recording studios, and mixed by two different people, and still create a nuanced consistency. That is something that definitely comes with experience.
Adrian, how did you end up at Sterling?
A: I was out of a job in NYC and decided to blitz all of the music studios I could find with my resumé. In my search, I found the name Sterling Sound and thought, "Wow, that place sounds important." I faxed my resume to them and, with some sort of insane luck, I got a call back from the office manager who told me they wanted to meet the next day. Things were busy and they needed a production person at that point pretty badly, so I think it was a case of making myself known in the right place and time.
When did you first get into the studios?
A: I started out in the tech department on the eighth floor of the original 1790 Broadway building soldering cables and whatnot. Sterling Studios were on the ninth floor and they had just acquired the eighth floor from a neat old audio company called Gotham Audio. One day the front office called downstairs and said, "We need Adrian up here right now! Madonna's finished up her album and we need tons of 1630 masters made." They were panicked. I was thrown right into production, which at that point consisted of making 1630s and listening to the albums from top to tail to make sure there were no issues. It was a very fast-paced environment. I'd say almost 80 to 90 percent of pop music on the radio at the time was passing through there.
H: And if the tape goes out and there's some kind of glitch, then who gets the blame? He does!
A: Exactly. I didn't have any concept of what Sterling was, or its historical significance, until weeks into it. One day, several weeks after I started working in production, the guy running the front office came up to me with a completely blank look on his face and told me he had some bad news. I thought, "Just say it. Tell me I'm fired." He looked at me and said, "I've been let go, along with the entire front office. The engineers just bought the company. There's a whole new management coming in and you're going to meet them in about ten minutes."
A: Yeah. I walked outside and that's when I met the current president of the company. I was the lowest guy on the totem pole of this big, corporate studio. He told me that [Sterling engineer] Tom Coyne had been staying late, night after night, cutting vinyl and was getting tired of doing it. He wanted me to be the dedicated vinyl cutting guy. I had never done that before, but I learned and picked it up pretty quickly. I cut thousands of sides during my few years there. At our busiest, we were cutting over 20 sides a day. Cutting was often frustrating because if you misjudge the pitch, or something else goes wrong, you were in for long work hours. On top of that, there was no room for error at Sterling, so pressure was always high. I was walking on eggshells in those days, but I guess my experiences and all the discipline were a good thing in the end.
What were some of your first mastering projects?
A: At Sterling I was involved with some big projects, like D'Angelo's Voodoo and Dido's No Angel. On my own, musically, I was really into the emerging DIY electronic scene that was happening in the late '90s. I started connecting with a lot of those artists and labels, like Raz Mesinai, Marumari, So Takahashi, Lowfish, and Kid 606. I would hang out at a place called Brownie's on the Lower East Side on Wednesday nights and witness a fresh scene in electronic music. Some of those artists would cart in these large, elaborate electronic setups and pull off what I perceived to be a perfect performance. I was always impressed by that.
Heba, I first saw your name on one of your first mastering projects — Liturgy's second LP Aesthethica.
H: Yeah, that's a phenomenal album and an incredibly articulate band. Bettina [Richards] at Thrill Jockey Records has done a lot for me. I love that label.
They've released some of my favorite records.
H: And they are so completely dedicated to their artists and they never compromise the work or the artist's vision. We have such a great working relationship and a respect for each other. That's why they've been around for so long. Bettina really believed in me at a time when I was on no one's radar. I think this is what this business is all about. It really just takes one person to believe in you and if you have a genuine spirit and a true love for what you do, good things happen.
Tell me how Timeless Mastering came to fruition.
A: After I left Sterling, I was doing freelance DVD authoring and production work for a while. At that time the freelance market was great. There was good money to be made if you knew what you were doing.
You had obtained your own resources to do that?
A: I had saved some money and was very lucky to land some big DVD projects early on. The first one was for Nike; a street basketball thing. Things were actually going really well for a while. Not unexpectedly, the bottom fell out for the DVD industry. The local plants replicating the discs started their own in-house authoring, which in the end was good enough for most of my clients. Everything they needed could be done under one roof. They didn't need the third party freelancer anymore. So after that I decided I wanted to get back into mastering. I took some time to kind of reevaluate and looked around a lot and made myself aware of everyone out there who was doing mastering. I was browsing the Internet one day and I noticed in a forum somewhere that someone had described that their company would give you a "timeless" result. I was really into that and was surprised to see that no mastering studios existed under that name. It made perfect sense to me if we must have a "mastering brand." The idea is to create something that lasts. Something that people will listen to again. So I started the studio in my house.
What was your initial setup like?
A: Pretty minimal. Started in Logic Pro and eventually ended up on a PC. I had an Apogee Rosetta interface, some Chandler stuff, and a few other little things. A couple of German post-war broadcast units, a pair of [Siemens] W295B EQs. In my house I was working in a rectangular room with terrible acoustics. I even took stuff to the bar next door to give it a listen. Each project was so much work that I knew I had to find a proper space. I eventually found a spot over on North 15th in Williamsburg in a rehearsal space. The room was not great and the neighbors were loud. Shortly after that I started looking for another and found the space over on North 12th street by the water. I moved on the deal very quickly and decided to actually build a proper mastering room. I didn't know what I was doing, so I made many costly mistakes, but eventually got the project finished in about nine months. It's been a great little room, but now after nine years the real estate deal is up and we're getting ready to build a new room in Bushwick.
Heba, how did you connect with Adrian?
H: In 2012, I decided to strike out on my own after six years at The Lodge. I started reaching out to everyone I knew just to get an idea of what the mastering landscape was looking like. Paul Gold suggested I talk to Adrian. I emailed him, he emailed me back five minutes later. We got on the phone and right away, we clicked.
A: At that point, the pressure of having to run the business as just one person was becoming too much. The idea of having another talented engineer working in the room was appealing.
H: Over the next six months, I spent a lot of time here learning the room and the Eggleston monitors and discussing with Adrian how to tweak and improve the signal chain to fit my needs. He already had a pretty awesome setup and a great sounding room but I brought in some of my own gear and the chain started to get really exciting. Once I totally transitioned to Timeless I had anticipated weeks of no work but that actually never happened. The work kept pouring in and people seemed really stoked to work with me. As terrified as I was at the beginning it ended up being the best career decision I ever made.
And you're now Chief Mastering Engineer?
What did you bring gear-wise?
H: I brought in the Avalon 747SP, the [Waves] L2 hardware, a beautiful custom made opto-compressor T4 design by Greg Lomayesva (from Drip Electronics). It was built with specs I had requested including a Fairchild M/S [mid/side] matrix. We got the [Pendulum] PL-2 and decided to get the [Dangerous] Liaison, which is a really versatile patch bay and router that works well with the Dangerous Master. Most recently we bought John McEntire's beautifully rebuilt, transformerless [Ampex] ATR 102 tape machine. What else?
A: The M5!
H: Oh yeah, The TC Electronic M5000 [digital processor]. Such a weird box. It can sound like absolute shit or awesome. I believe it's the first digital multi-band compressor. It has that gnarly metallic early '90s sound I'm sort of nostalgically fond of. It was a step up from a [TC] Finalizer and a staple in most '90s mastering setups because of the dynamics package it came with. I'm really excited about our setup right now. Eventually we'd like to get a lathe and start cutting here too.
A: Yeah, we definitely want to make that happen.
H: I cut most of my records with Carl Rowatti upstate [at Truetone Mastering]. He has a beautiful Neumann VMS-70 lathe and SP-77 console. Whenever I have time in my schedule to attend the cut, I do. There's a wealth of knowledge to learn from Carl, and there aren't a whole lot of people with that kind of experience around or even the patience to pass it on to you.
What projects are you particularly proud of?
H: Oh wow, so many! Recently, Prefuse 73, Ty Segall, Zs, Evian Christ, remastering Thursday's debut album Waiting, White Lung, Future Islands, and The Sea and Cake. The new Lightning Bolt record is completely fantastic by the way.
They're one of my favorite bands.
H: Yeah we spent quite a few weeks on it. I've also worked with [Lightning Bolt drummer] Brian Chippendale on his solo project.
H: Yeah. The Lightning Bolt album was recorded and mixed at Machines with Magnets in Providence with Keith Souza and Seth Manchester. It's their first album recorded at a professional recording studio, so they walked in with a lot of concerns about departing from their usual sound. Uncharted territory for those guys. It's captured incredibly well and still maintains the chaotic rawness of the band. That was the fine line we had to tread in mastering. You don't want to alienate their fans completely. We had to question several things. "How much of the lo-fi-ness do we have to compromise while still giving the listeners a really awesome experience they've never really had before?" Brian Chippendale's ears are already tuned to how fucked up his records used to sound, meanwhile Brian Gibson leaned towards a cleaner more polished sound. It was this interesting dichotomy that lead to super long email exchanges. We tried out a few directions before we settled on a happy medium.
That's what I love about their albums Wonderful Rainbow and Ride the Skies.
H: This new album is them at their most pop forward and digestable, in my opinion. It's got more space and mixed in a more mono-centric fashion so it's easier to define where the instruments are balanced as opposed to prior records that featured an assault of over compressed noise. That sound was totally cool, but not appropriate for what they were going for with the new one. We also decided to cut it as a double LP for an improved signal to noise ratio. That album was such a fun experience and I'm really proud of it. Over the last few years I've worked with Guillermo Herren of Prefuse 73, who is is an incredible and prolific artist, as well. He's got a million ideas a minute and throws so many curve balls at me but it makes it super fun to work on. Sometimes I'll be essentially submixing his tracks first before we master it.
Meaning working with stems?
H: Yeah. It's not something that happens frequently because of many reasons. If there's a mix bus compressor hitting the signal pretty hard, the mix balance will obviously change quite a bit after the stems are bounced, so it's tricky business. Depending on my relationship with the client, the stem mastering discussion is something that may come up if there's an issue that can't be tackled at the mix stage anymore. If it's appropriate and helps achieve a better result, then I am all for it. I've been working with Guillermo for a couple of years and he leaves that decision completely up to me. Ego doesn't get in the way and that is liberating. I think people have this idea that the mastering engineer needs to be quiet and stay in their own lane. That's totally cool if that's what the client needs. Others do welcome the feedback. It really all depends, you have to learn what your boundaries are. Mastering is a real social experiment sometimes.
A: I'd definitely agree with that.
H: People will come to you teeming with all sorts of insecurities about their record. You're about to birth this massive baby and you sometimes need to coax it out in the world.
It sounds like you make it a priority to create a comfortable environment for artists.
H: I would love for artists to leave the studio feeling like they had a super fun relaxed mastering hang and a record they're completely psyched about. Mastering should be fun and engaging. Any time a client sits in on a session and starts the whole, "I have no idea what mastering is" speech, I like to get to the bottom of that pretty fast. It doesn't make sense to keep the client in the dark about what it is I'm doing.
A: In a way, it's almost like being a physicist who's constantly trying to prove and disprove their theories. To be on the constant lookout for a better sound means to be open minded about your tools and methods.
Do you find mastering has changed? I know you're getting ready to leave your space and building a new one.
A: The mastering trend now, besides the vinyl revival, is more people opting not to attend their sessions. Maybe it's not a trend as much as it's become a standard now. There are some pros to this. You're not constricted by geography and can work with artists from all over the world. However, I do prefer the artist or producer's attendance. It seems odd to work on a band or an artist's record that they've poured so much work into emotionally and physically and not be able to have a face to face conversation about it. Some guys just want you to do your thing because they're either spent and can't listen to it anymore or they're onto the next thing.
In regards to the new space, we're in the thick of building a new space in Bushwick and extremely excited about it. It's been a rather surreal time in the Brooklyn music scene. The proliferation of venues and recording studios forced to shut down in north Williamsburg has been heartbreaking. Some artists and engineers have left New York, but there's still so much cool stuff happening in Bushwick and even as far up as Hudson. This kind of stifling artistic climate we're in right now is the perfect time to create a counter culture movement, very much like New York in the '70s and '80s. Artists will always find a way to reinvent themselves, especially in a place like New York.