I interviewed Bob Weston in 2000 [Tape Op #18] about his music recording career to date. Bob and I remained in touch, and along the way I met Jason Ward, another studio guy who toured as a live sound engineer as well. In 2007 Bob and Jason opened Chicago Mastering Service, and while visiting Chicago in July 2011 I dropped in to see why they both had moved into the mastering world and what they had learned along the way.
What year did you take possession of this space?
Jason: I feel like it was very late summer, or fall, of 2006.
Bob: We opened in April of 2007, so it was fall of '06 when we got the space. It's already been four years and some change.
What was the impetus? Neither of you guys were known for mastering.
B: No. Neither one of us had mastered anything.
J: We just thought there was a big hole, in Chicago at least. There's a lot of good people and a lot of good studios, but there just wasn't a place that felt like it was of our community that was doing mastering. There are tons of recording people, but bands would send their mastering needs out to far-flung places.
B: As a recording engineer, I dealt with tons of bands and studios and labels here in Chicago. Yet all the work for mastering went somewhere else; like New York, L.A. or Arizona. It seemed like there was a niche that needed to be filled.
J: I feel like I'd finish projects and think, "Ugh, where am I going to send it to be mastered?"
B: There are studios here and they are decent, but it seems the people we hung around with weren't using them.
J: I think you want to feel that your mastering engineer has an insight into the music you're creating. I think we felt that's what was lacking in the studios around here, to a certain extent.
I remember when you guys were first talking about it — it made sense to me. You guys both know a lot of people around here.
B: There are many people doing mastering around Chicago, but I think part of our allure is the pro setup; like the higher level listening room. Carl Saff is in Chicago and he does really great work.
J: He does. He's been jazzing this scene up for a while now.
B: I haven't been to his place, but I don't think it's as acoustically built out as this place. He does awesome work. We just felt like we could come in and try to do this at a different level without putting anyone else out of business.
Was anyone else cutting vinyl in town, at the time?
B: Not that we know of. There are so few people who cut vinyl. I try to be in touch with people who own lathes as much as possible. We have to have a network to help each other out.
J: You have to have someone who can bail you out if you break your lathe or something.
B: It's nice to have a network. There are so few people that do it that there's never a lack of work for anybody. You don't have to worry about that!
I figure. There's Golden, SAE/Roger Seibel...
J: And posh places like Sterling. They cut, but it's a different range financially.
There's Clint Holley... [at Well Made Music]
B: In Cleveland?
Yeah, I met him when I was out there.
B: I think we're the only ones that we know of doing this in Chicago with this kind of music.
J: It's word of mouth.
Did you have to learn how to use a lathe?
J: We did.
B: We were looking for books, but there aren't any!
J: We have to give Carl Rowatti props.
B: ...of Trutone Mastering Labs. We bought our lathe from him.
J: He gave us the two-day boot camp of the nuts and bolts on how to cut.
B: And he's been available by phone since then. I think it was in our contract. We went to New York; he showed us how to use the lathe and got us up and running. We learned how to use it in his studio, then we broke it down together and loaded it in a U-Haul. As part of the purchase price, he flew out to help us with the assembly and final calibration.
J: We brought our friend and studio tech, Shea Ako, along to help walk us through it all as well.
B: Then Carl came out and showed us a little more and then we started practicing.
J: We just found people to ask questions of. We'd call someone on a lark and they'd say, "Oh, yeah! Let me tell you about this." We have a phone sheet called "Lathe Dudes" and it's all the people we started calling that would talk with us on the phone.
I've used Roger Seibel a lot for the Elliott Smith mastering and vinyl.
B: Yeah, he's awesome. I've talked to him about the Zuma [Variable Pitch Computer] — part of the lathe a bunch. His was all souped up by the Zuma guy.
I figured it's a small group of people.
J: People are psyched to talk to each other because we know what the other one is talking about.
B: It's funny, but we didn't know where to go for a lathe. You can call Al Grundy, who's the guy at International Cutterhead Service. You can buy a beautiful refurbished lathe from him.
J: Which, you know, maybe we should've done... Maybe we will if we ever buy another one. He's at the top of our list.
B: Yeah, he's the best. So, we just started randomly calling mastering studios. Just calling and asking, "Hey, do you have a used lathe for sale?" I got Carl on the phone and Carl was like, "Let me get this straight: you guys have never used a lathe before?" "No, we haven't." "And you guys are in Chicago?" "Yes." "Sure, I've got a lathe for you!" [laughter] He's in New York and we heard that when The Hit Factory closed he'd bought their three lathes and stuck them in his basement. We think he wanted to cut down on competition. He wanted them off the New York market!
J: That's our take, at least.
B: Yeah, that's what we assume. When he found out we were in Chicago and we didn't know what we were doing, he was happy to sell us one! He ended up being awesome!
J: Yeah, he gave us a big running start.
B: His help was huge. And the lathe he sold us is great.
There's only going to be a handful of people who are going to learn this — they don't want the craft to fade away.
J: I show people the lathe and they're always blown away that there aren't going to be any more made. Well, there aren't that many people that want to do it all the time.
How many lathe cutters were there in the '80s as opposed to the '90s? There's a massive difference.
B: There's got to be a lot of [Neumann] VMS-70 lathes kicking around in the back of rooms.
J: There's enough to last for the foreseeable future.
Was learning to cut vinyl interesting?
J: We did a lot of test cuts. We had clients who wanted cuts and we'd just be pretty straightforward and let them know we were just getting into it.
B: Once you know the basics of running the lathe... the thing is calibrated like a tape machine. What goes in, comes out. That's the idea, anyway. The hardest thing to figure out is what the groove-width needs to be, what the spacing between each groove will be and how loud you can make it... how long each side can be so it fits on the disc. Those are the three main variables, and learning how to adjust those variables and how they interact was the hardest part.
J: I think the main thing that really is the totally subjective part is that typically you're doing some corrective EQ. It's like the tape machine — technically it's totally linear but then you start sweeping and hear the bumps and dips. Usually, given any certain material, we're making slight EQ adjustments while trying to make it sound like there weren't any EQ adjustments; just to get it as transparent and versatile for different turntables as you can.
What are the percentages of where you're cutting from a digitally prepared master?
J: We 100% cut from digital. That's the only way we cut. In a way it's a lot easier. You can do a lot more detailed tweaking to things than they could when it was running off an analog tape machine where they had to make these quick, rough adjustments between songs.
I mastered a record with George Horn many years ago at Fantasy Studios. I remember him doing EQ on the fly.
B: But then the mix engineers at the time did a better job. They had to have their shit together a lot more. Things would be sequenced and levels would be pretty good from song to song. When you get things coming in digitally, it's all over the map level-wise. If a tape came in like that and you wanted a live, analog cut of the stuff the way it's mixed these days, it would be almost impossible.
J: We just re-mastered a heavy metal record that I totally love. It came in the original tape boxes with the cutting sheets from Capitol. It was really simple: +2 on the low-end, now turn it off. Turn it back on the last song. [laughter]
That's pretty cool.
B: Mastering used to be quality control and transfer. It wasn't a big, artistic thing. You weren't trying to fix the mixes; you were just trying to get a good transfer.
J: You weren't trying to put your own mojo all over it.
You bring up a really good point of the quality of things coming in. Do you end up with records where you want to remix things?
B: Every once in a great while I'll have to tell someone they made a grave technical error in the mix.
J: I sent some local clients back to the drawing board when they came in for an attended session a few weeks ago. Usually we try to get people to send in things beforehand, especially if it's attended.
B: We like to be able to get in a quick listen.
J: Just in case there's a big problem or we can't read the files. These guys couldn't send in stuff beforehand and I thought it would be fine. It turns out their drums were completely out of polarity with each other. As soon as I started playing it, I went cross-eyed! I had to send them home.
B: Luckily it doesn't happen too often! The only other thing that would happen is if people, in their DAW, don't get the gain structure right. Sometimes you get these files in and the highest peaks are at -3, but it's totally clipping there. No, we don't want the peaks up to zero, but we also don't want to see it clipped down at -3.
J: We have mention of it up on our website: Things to watch out for. We try to have it open to people who are doing more of their own mixing.
Both of you guys have come up through the ranks as recording engineers and really learning your craft. It must be interesting to listen to other people's work.
J: It's interesting. When those people came in with the out of polarity piece, I'd totally had the exact same experience! That's how I learned too, and now I always listen for it and I'll never do it again.
I got a call from John Golden years ago, "I'm trying to cut the stuff you recorded to vinyl and your snare is out of phase with your overheads."
J: You should check out those old Dischord records! [laughter]
B: Oh, yeah! Those old Dischord records have the crazy out-of-phase guitars, right? Some Big Black records have this stereo reverb that must be out of phase. Whenever you see the snare drum hit, the phase meter would go "bang, bang" to the other side. Steve [Albini, Tape Op #10] and I re-mastered that and realized it would be hard to cut.
J: It's amazing what you can cut.
B: You can cut almost anything. The question is can everyone play it back? That's more the issue. So, we were talking about how we do stuff. We have the lathe room next door and we'll cut from a digital source — 24-bit at whatever sampling rate it comes in at. We'll cut little snippets of songs onto scrap lacquers and come into the control room. We have a fancy turntable and a crappy/consumer-y turntable. A record can sound different on every single turntable, just due to how well the turntable is setup and its quality. A CD sounds pretty much the same from one player to the next for the most part. But the signal coming out of the phono preamp — there are no two record players that will sound the same, I can guarantee you. So when you're trying to make a record sound like the digital source, what does that mean? That's the question!
J: We guess things like, "That's the best midpoint that's going to sound pretty great on everything..."
B: We'll work according to genre; you've got to know who your audience is when you're cutting the lacquers. Perhaps it's for a bunch of 20 year olds who have shitty turntables! We have to be careful that things aren't going to jump the stylus out of the groove, like on a dance thing.
Do you jump up and down next to the turntable, like it's at a club? [laughter]
B: No, not yet!
So, what was the process with the build out of this room — the mastering suite here?
B: We hired a guy I used to work for, Bob Alach of Alactronics in Boston. He's a brilliant acoustician. He designed this room, the HVAC, electrical, this console furniture, and specified the speakers and their placement. He designed the console because it's like another wall... its design and location all matter for the acoustics. It's all his acoustical design. It took him a long time to get the plans to us.
J: We had a super tolerant landlord. We told him we'd be here for a really long time. He floated us a few months of rent. He knew we were gonna rent it, but we had to wait for the plans.
B: Jason and I did a lot of the work and friends helped us. For the HVAC, we found a guy that would work in the evenings.
J: It was a union installer guy and we were his crew.
B: He'd give us ducts and say, "Have these installed in the morning."
J: We have a friend who's a really good carpenter who would come in at big moments, like when we needed the walls to be straight! We did all the dry walling and rough framing inside. We did the leveling of the floor and the electrical. We built about 80% of it ourselves.
Wow, that's a crazy undertaking!
J: It was.
B: It's kind of crazy to switch over. It's funny — at the end we felt weird because we'd felt like construction workers for so long. Then we had to switch over to being mastering engineers!
J: I used to sit in here and think about how one day this was going to be old hat. That's going to be amazing! I remember being covered in fiberglass...
B: How did we survive?
J: Yeah, we worked in here for two months without a lick of heat!
B: No, I mean financially.
J: I worked two jobs.
B: I must've been still recording? Oh, my wife was making money!
J: There were some serious tight belt times. Luckily we had spouses that were making money and onboard with the plan.
B: We've made back our investment.
J: Yeah. Well, at least we've paid back the banks.
B: Each of us took out lines of credit on our houses and dumped that in.
J: Yeah, the housing boom helped build this place.
B: We've paid each other back on our initial investment.
It is possible. One thing that struck me was that I don't see any speakers.
J: That was a Bob Alach thing. The speakers are hidden behind sheer cloth. It's a psychoacoustics thing. When you have visual input as to where the speakers are, it changes how you perceive the stereo field, the stereo image. It helps with stereo perception.
J: We don't have to close our eyes. We can just work.
Do you have multiple sets or just one?
J: Just one. The room was designed to work around the frequency response of the speakers.
B: It's so different from recording. When you're a recording or mixing engineer you can work in any studio and it's usually fine. But you don't hear about mastering engineers going to different studios. You build your room and then you listen to a million records in there that you know.
J: You're a part of the system in there.
B: We built this place; then Jason and I sat in here and listened to all of our favorite records for weeks. You just know what good records sound like in here without thinking about it. I couldn't master a record as well in another room.
I thought it was interesting, the custom routing thing you had Shea build.
J: He had a more economically feasible version.
The in-line one we were talking about?
B: Yeah. We have a custom-built mastering transfer console. The source material either comes from the tape machine or one of the computers. It feeds into the transfer console and you can adjust the balance on the way in. And then there's a bunch of inserts for the analog outboard. We do most of our mastering with analog gear. This transfer console has a routing matrix where you can put all the analog gear in any order you want just by hitting a button. It's got a box with a bunch of gold-plated relays in the back. Shea custom designed and built that thing for us, and the meter bridge.
I figured that. The VU meters look awesome.
J: Bob said, "Get the biggest ones possible!"
B: Yep. They stopped making those last year, unfortunately.
What is the panel on the left of the meters with the green LED?
B: Our subwoofers are self-powered and that shows that they're on. Then there's a red light if they go into limiting. I've never seen that happen, but you want to see it if they do.
Besides digital, what kinds of sources can you handle?
B: Quarter-inch and half-inch ATR. We don't have the one-inch headstack.
J: Don't forget DATS! We've used that more often than I would've thought. It's a pretty solid machine. I've never had a DAT that wouldn't play on this machine.
B: Back to the room... one of the things Bob wanted to do, because everyone has to have a computer screen now, we have a projector with a screen on the wall between the speakers. How do you do mastering with a computer monitor in your face blocking the speakers? I think the design for this room is worth every penny. This room is so accurate and detailed... highly resolved.
J: It's very revealing.
B: Yes! It makes it so easy to do our work in here. You can just hear everything. The clarity is amazing. Sometimes the mix engineer will be in here and say, "Oh, my god! I never heard that in my studio." Our biggest tool is the acoustics of this room. People ask what kind of speakers we use: I don't even hear the speakers — I just hear the music.
J: A lot of time when you're mixing, you're in a random room where someone just threw the speakers up.
So, what's up for the future?
B: I don't know. What's the five-year plan?
J: To turn out a bunch of minion engineers who can take over and then we can go on vacation in the Riviera!
B: It was so hard logistically and labor-wise to build this place, but it would make sense that we would build a couple more rooms in this building, or go buy a building. All of that is really daunting though! Ultimately it would be amazing to have two rooms, a couple of assistants and a second lathe.
J: Yeah, and maybe extra engineers. When we first started this we talked to a couple of financial people and they asked us, "What's your exit strategy?" Exit strategy? I don't know; I'm just going to work here and do record mastering. They were asking me about retirement. Um, I don't know!
There's not one for Tape Op, believe me! [laughter]
J: We both feel that it would be cool to have another engineer or two. It would be nice, at some point in life, to leave town for a couple weeks and still make money! We're still kind of amazed to have two employees. But, it's great. I think we're pretty cool people to work for.
Who are your employees?
B: We've got a studio manager and assistant engineer.
J: Our studio manager does all the scheduling.
B: Oh, my god he does so much!
J: He knows about all the music that's current. He tells us what's cool and what's a big deal.
B: He'll help us schedule in the hot acts, even if we're booked.
J: He's a big music fan. He helps a lot!
J: Yeah, it's a really good fit.
B: There's so much grunt work too. We did it all ourselves the first year and a half.
J: It made it really hard to earn money. Cutting records, sending out UPS stuff, answering the phone, doing the scheduling, shuffling the paperwork... I'm not making $100 an hour; I'm making nothing. It's actually cost effective to get some help.
B: Your time is better spent that way.
It's really clean and organized here.
J: We talked about knick-knacks and agreed on no unauthorized objects in the room!
B: We talked about every aspect of going into business together.
J: We had a bunch of bro dates. We didn't really know each other at first.
Really? That's weird. I knew both of you guys.
J: We'd each say things about mastering and other people would always say that we should talk. I literally cold emailed Bob in the middle of the night after a bad mastering experience.
B: We met for a couple of dinners and I said, "I'm a total fucking pain in the ass. Are you sure you want to get into it?" [laughter]
J: "You don't want this, man!"
B: We agreed on a lot about being partners. It's been great.
J: We're both aware of how important good communication is; we always try to maintain the "keep it good" mantra.
So, for a typical vinyl mastering session, you'll come in and do the work here and then go over and do the cutting?
J: Yeah, I'll pop in back and forth between cuts and he'll be working on something else. It's the best way for us to both maximize our time.
How many sessions are attended and unattended? What's the ratio?
B: I think it's 90% unattended.
J: We have a lot of international clients. That kind of blows my mind! It's nice; it gives us some flexibility with schedules. It allows you to keep a lot more balls in the air.
What's the ratio of clients who want vinyl and CD mastering to just CD mastering?
J: That's harder to say. A lot of it is cutting lacquers. I don't really know how it breaks down exactly.
B: How does it feel to you?
J: I know in terms of numbers at the end of the year, cutting is about 50% of our business. It's a lot; so much more than we thought it would be.
B: When we made our plan we thought, "Should we get a lathe? That would be really neat. We probably won't make money with it and never use it, but it'll legitimize the place." A year in, it's like "what the..."
J: I thought if we were really raging we'd cut 10 records a month. Now we cut 10 records a week. I think we cut 250 records last year.
The timing is good for the resurgence in vinyl.
B: It's awesome for mastering. No matter how many you press or sell, you still need one master.
J: We have a lot of great clients and we get to work on a lot of fun stuff. It's been awesome.
How much do you both end up working here?
J: It's not that bad. About 40 [hours a week].
Are either of you doing recording sessions these days?
J: Bob is doing jazz recordings.
B: Somehow I ended up doing these free jazz recordings. I think because the recording style reminds me of when I first started recording bands, because it's all live. It all happens at the same time and no one wants to do a million overdubs.
There's something refreshing about that!
B: The only other thing I record is Mission of Burma. I think another impetus for the place was that I was getting fewer and fewer recording jobs. I needed something to do!
J: It seems like more so with recording that it's a "flavor of the month" thing. Bands always want to go with who's exciting and new. With mastering, you have a reputation and you make things sound good.
You don't really want a new mastering engineer!
J: Yeah, that's what I mean. It seems like a better game plan.
You guys have gotten over the hump and you're in. I'm sure, initially, you had to prove yourselves.
B: It's nice that we already had recording and live sound reputations. We already had a client base and community of friends. It's not like we just graduated from Full Sail and were waiting for someone to give us a shot.