Beginning his foray into music as an artist, John Golden has been mastering records for nearly 50 years, a time span very few share. I started making records back in the 1980s, and had the good fortune to be referred to John back at the very start of my career by engineer/producer Kevin Army (Operation Ivy, Green Day). John has guided me from having made some of the worst albums imaginable (and I do not intend that as any reverse grandiosity, but mean that the records were literally horrible) to winning a Grammy, and I can say without a doubt that I’ve learned more from John than any other single person about recording. He brings to music a generous, nonjudgmental spirit, having worked with artists as wide ranging as Earth, Wind & Fire, Iggy Pop, Sonic Youth, Brian Eno [Tape Op #85], Tom Jones, Sir George Martin, Air Supply, Sonny Rollins, and the Hawaiian music legend Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – to name just a few. He has also done extensive catalogue work for underground labels such as Sub Pop, SST, K Records, and Kill Rock Stars. Golden Mastering is in its 24th year, and John’s children, JJ and April, master alongside him while his wife, Diane, handles traffic and business.

How many singles and albums do you estimate that you have mastered in your career?

I did a rough tally back in 1994 and it was already well over 10,000, even back then. The problem with getting an accurate count is some people credited me differently as John Golden or Johnny Golden. And a lot of people didn’t credit me at all! Since the artwork always took longer to print than the music to be pressed, often labels didn’t even know in advance who would be working on it. At K-Disc I often did three albums a day. That was not uncommon, at all.

I first met you in 1987 at K-Disc in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard.

And that’s where the transition from major to indies began to take place. I remember distinctly doing a single for Black Flag around 1982. It was on SST and this engineer named Spot [Tape Op #13] came in with this 7-inch reel of tape. It was a song called “TV Party.” I threaded the tape and listened to it all the way through. Then I listened to the B-side. After that Spot said, “How come you listened to the whole song?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I went to this other place and the guy up there played the intro, skipped to the middle, and then went to the end. Then he just rewound it all and cut it. I’ve never seen anyone play the whole thing through. That’s awesome.” So the word got out, “Hey, there’s this guy over at K-Disc that listens to the music the whole way through!” [laughter]

So how did you feel about that transition?

Punk rock was a far departure from the type of program I was used to doing – like jazz, blues, and R&B. But word got out through that one single, and K-Disc became kind of an independent scene. I started working for Sub Pop doing the “Singles Club.” Calvin Johnson started doing a record club for K Records [International Pop Underground]. I could hardly keep up. I would work weekends, and I always worked 14 hour days. I just couldn’t get anything done in eight hours. During that time digital came out. Before that, you cut the records in real time. People now are used to working with a mouse and a computer. It’s a one-way ride with vinyl; there is no stopping. All of the levels, fades, and EQ were done live. If I made a mistake, I had to throw out the lacquer and do it all over again. I had to watch and document the tape machine counter times for EQ and fade times, since it was too late to fade by the time that you saw the tape leader. Digital changed everything – I could make EQ cutting copies without loss of generation. Every Tuesday and Thursday was SST day, and Sub Pop was Wednesday and Friday. I did SST’s entire catalog until around 1990 or 1991.

Since you work with a great diversity of musical forms and genres, what do you see as the similarity in your work?

To hopefully create a sense of continuity throughout the project. The mastering process tends to expose and emphasize problems in the recording, so it’s important for artists to listen to their mixes very carefully and be sure they are as perfect as they can be before mastering. I take a reserved approach with mastering. I go into it with the idea that I feel I need to absorb what the project is. I also like to listen all the way through, just to hear it at least once without doing anything so that I have a concept of where it is coming from; but I also want to know if there are any deviations in the mixes or songs, and if they are intentional. I feel better decisions are made with this approach. I am a little more conservative than some, in that I feel that the recording and mixes the artists and engineers are sending are ones that they are already happy with, and I want to respect that.

What are the biggest differences in the...

The rest of this article is only available with an archive subscription or by purchasing back issue #121. For an upcoming year's free subscription, and our current issue on PDF...

Or Learn More