One of my favorite bands in the early aughts was Creeper Lagoon. I saw them live several times, and they were always amazing. They put out two great albums and then seemed to disappear. Then a few years ago I saw their singer, Ian Sefchick, on the cover of Mix Magazine as part of an article about Capitol Studios (Tape Op #114). Last year, Creeper Lagoon held a reunion show at Noise Pop in San Francisco and I connected with Ian. We later met up at the famous Capitol Records tower, where he works as a mastering engineer. He also makes really great compressors in his garage in Burbank, under the name Magic Death Eye!
How did you go from Creeper Lagoon to end up mastering at Capitol? I was always a fan of your band, and then it seemed like you guys sort of disappeared.
Well, I'll try to make it short. Creeper kind of fell apart. It was that stereotypical thing of everybody hating each other. Narcissistic craziness and drugs. Me and Sharky [Laguana] couldn't get along. The final straw was when we in were in London. I was at the end of my rope from touring nonstop for over a year. We were in the hotel restaurant and I said, "I quit... for real this time." Sharky brought a napkin up to my hotel room and said, "Fine. I get the band van, you get the Pro Tools rig, and we're done." I said, "Fine." I signed the napkin and flew home the next day. That was it.
And now he runs a van rental company, and you work with Pro Tools!
Exactly. Well, at the time it was a good deal because that was back when a Pro Tools rig was still worth a good amount of money. It was probably a $15,000 setup that DreamWorks had bought us. And yeah, Sharky literally used that van to start his van rental business [Bandago]. He was parking it on a street in San Francisco and trying to keep it alive. He eventually found an investor, and he's doing really well now. It was really cool when we had the reunion to have our lives reconnect with our families. We hadn't talked the whole time before that. Anyway, I slummed around in San Francisco for a while, and I kind of lost my mind. I moved to L.A. because I needed a new start. San Francisco was full of dangerous familiarity. I couch surfed around L.A. for a while and slowly got my head screwed on straight. I started another band for a while called On The Speakers. We toured with some cool bands like Built To Spill, French Kicks, and Ben Kweller. We even played a show with Death Cab [For Cutie]. To be honest, I was getting tired of the whole thing. I was touring sober at that time, and it really felt like a day job. At around the same time, I met my wife who lived in Alabama. We started seeing each other, and she eventually moved to L.A. We lived together and unexpectedly got pregnant. At that point I was like, "Well, time to get a real job!" It was a sign. The universe wanted me to grow up. After getting turned down at Guitar Center – they said I didn't have enough experience [laughs] – I ended up working at an electronics junkyard in Sun Valley called Apex. I worked there for five or so years. This is where I developed some deeper electronics skills. A lot of the guys who came in there were studio techs. I already had electronics experience from building tube guitar amps as a teenager, so it was an easy transition to building and working with recording gear. At Apex we had an abundance of vintage tubes and transformers. I could build whatever I wanted and I had guys to help me. That got me deeper into the gear building and gave me my tech chops. Meanwhile, I'd started jamming with a guy who was an intern here at Capitol Studios. One day he called me up and said, "Hey, they're looking for a tech at Capitol, and I just recommended you." I came in for an interview, showed the head tech some of what I'd been working on, and got the job. In L.A., it's always about knowing somebody. Once I started working here, it was pretty natural because I'd already been in the studio environment for many, many years. It was cool because all of a sudden I was working on the other side. I'd see these rock dudes come in; in sessions, stressing out and being narcissistic. I was like, "Been there, done that." I had a great couple of years working with Jon Brion [Tape Op #18] and Greg Koller. That got me really deep into gear, because they're gear fanatics. Jon Brion's a very talented producer. They have very eccentric tastes in gear, and they have a lot of it. They have one of the original Curve Bender EQs from Abbey Road. We would have late night listening sessions where I'd do mods for them and bring it back to the studio. We'd sit there and go, "No, that sounds too peaky or distorted." I'd go work on it some more and bring it back. I was in a spot where I could immediately make changes to electronic circuits, as well as have really talented mixers and producers sit with me and tell me why they did or didn't like things.
How did you end up cutting vinyl?
I started servicing the lathe for Ron McMaster, who is the senior cutter – the only cutter here at Capitol for a long time. He told me one day after working on his lathe for months that there was another lathe in storage. It was a [Neumann] VMS 66, and Wally Traugott had worked on it. Wally Traugott cut the first version of The Dark Side of the Moon, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and tons of albums in the '70s. This was the lathe that he cut all of those albums on, so I begged the management to bring it out of storage. This was right before vinyl started coming back. They were hesitant. I said, "Just give me a closet." I literally set it up in a closet. I put it back together within three months or so; re-capped it, totally restored it, and started cutting. As soon as that happened, all of a sudden Ron started getting way too many orders to deal with himself, so I started taking those on. That was the beginning of my mastering career here, around four or five years ago.
How many years were you a maintenance tech here before you started mastering?
About half and half; so, almost ten years total. When I was doing maintenance here, I was mastering at home. I was doing a lot of indie projects. I got my chops down in parallel with my tech jobs. It all fell into place. By the time I got my room here, I was ready to go. It took me about three or four months to learn my room and really get comfortable with it. Mastering is a very subjective art. I joke sometimes that a mastering person is a person who couldn't make it in mixing. Kind of like an audiophile who can't play an instrument. Gotta be the authority on something, right? But seriously, since the advent of the software-based "look ahead" limiter, you really don't need all the fancy shmancy analog gear to make a great master.
Well, what do you need?
You need a good, treated room, full bandwidth speakers, and taste. Those things aren't easily had these days but, I have to say, a lot of the mixes I get from great mixers are 99% there. It's almost like I'm one extra stopgap between the mixer and the public. "Is this good, dude?" "Yeah, man; it sounds great. I'm gonna put a dB on it with the [FabFilter] Pro-L2 and give it to the label." Most professional mixers want you to do the most minimal changes to the songs. They worked their ass off getting everything perfect, and the last thing they want is for some mastering guy to put a smiley face EQ on it and slam the shit out of it. I might add a dB of 15 kHz shelf from a tube EQ. That adds something special to where the mixer will go, "Damn, what did you do? It sounds amazing." Then the mastering guy thinks he's a fucking star. All that work: the songwriting, the tracking, the mixing, the drama... and I think I'm the star.
Mastering is a pretty competitive business...
Definitely. There is a lot of glory [in it], and not much art. It's like a CEO that makes a bunch of cash for making the right decision. I make decisions based on what I think sounds good. All the major label work that sounds amazing, that's the mix. It was like that to begin with. I know I work at a major label; big mastering houses that get big artists and have budgets for promotion, to wine and dine producers and A&R. It's business. There are people who have talent and can make great decisions, like Bob Ludwig [Tape Op #105]. I cut lacquers from his masters and they always sound great. I'm not knocking individuals; I'm just pointing out some ridiculousness that goes along with my profession. I was in the trenches and I lived every aspect of the music industry. When I was mastering at home, I did a lot of projects for free and most of it was terrible, mix-wise. I had to learn all kinds of tricks to try and fix big problems from amateur mixers. Then I would get blamed if it didn't sound like a professional release. The old adage that you can't polish a turd applies. But the more successful you become, the less you actually have to do that because your clients are better mixers. I do want to say that there are some important rules to follow if you're going to master audio professionally. You don't want to hurt the audio in any way. Mastering guys should take an oath, like doctors. You need to understand gain staging and signal integrity. You need to know your reference level and make sure all your converters are calibrated properly to that level. And if you're gonna have analog gear, make sure it's Magic Death Eye branded. [laughing] I mean, if you don't have a handle on that, stay in the box. Theoretically, if you know your room and have [Steinberg] Cubase with a [Waves] L2, you can master like a pro. If you have an ear and it translates to all the other ears, on all the other systems out there, why not? I mastered the last Gregg Allman album [Southern Blood], mixed by Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #84, 129]. Don Was [Tape Op #113] produced it and basically said, "Bob said, 'Don't fuck with it.'" I sweated over that. But I did what he said and I didn't fuck with it because it sounded great like it was. I made the decision to add a bit of level and let it be. Maybe I put a half dB of high end on it. So, yeah; in an alternate universe, some dude in his bedroom could have done that on Cubase. And I got nominated for a Grammy for that.
Are there certain plug-ins that you use quite a bit and are excited about?
Yes. FabFilter, every day. They're my favorite plug-ins. Can I plug my own? [laughing]
Sure, go ahead.
I released a plug-in of my mono compressor. I found a brilliant German named Christian Siedschlag who has a small plug-in company named DDMF. His plug-ins sounded amazing, so I contacted him and we started to work together. I sent him a hardware unit; he did some wizardly modeling and popped out an amazing version of the Magic Death Eye mono compressor. It took a year of back and forth to get it right. I pushed him to model every detail. And yes, I use it to master sometimes. It's one of those plug-ins that you can put on anything and it works. Yeah, I'm biased, of course; but anyone out there can download the demo and prove me wrong. [laughing]
You've got an interesting setup here.
Oh, yeah. This is gonna be my new product; an A-to-D converter. I'm really stoked on it. It's pretty simple. A hand-wound transformer directly connected to the A-to-D chip. No filtering electronics. No op amps. Technically it's considered "wrong," but sonically it's so right. Converter codecs these days are very advanced. Even cheap ones beat the noise floor of the op amps feeding them. They all up-sample now.
None of them sound like shit now. Back in the old days, some of them did.
Yeah, but now they have it down. The technology has surpassed the supporting circuitry regarding dynamic range. Now, in mastering, of course you're pushing everything. Different converters do sound different as you clip them. I can push ridiculous amounts of level into this chip, and it doesn't sound terrible.
Are you cutting vinyl on everything you master?
I do both. If I get a big major label job from, say, a Universal artist, it will usually be a name brand mastering house. Then I just cut it. Some projects that I get from producers, like Rich Costey, he likes me to cut [lacquers] from the unmastered mixes he does. I always like doing it that way because, number one, the record's different than the digital release. I also get to have a little bit more control with dynamics. I often also do a little limiting; but I do not crush it like the digital masters. I think you come out with cooler-sounding vinyl that way. I wish most people would do it like that, but I often just get the digital masters to cut from.
You're just cutting?
Yes. You have to do a lot of things to be able to get it onto the vinyl so it sounds as nice as the digital master. Regarding the vinyl, I would say at least 60 percent of my work is being a skilled transfer guy. A lot of the more indie work I do is where I have the most fun. I'll master it, and I'll cut it. I get some great-sounding mixes from smaller studios. I don't have to do much mastering. I put it to vinyl, and it's great. Beautiful-sounding music.
Do you ever cut straight from tape to the lathe?
No. The only person who can do that here is Ron, because you need a console that has eight paths of audio.
I remember back in the day where people would have two paths, and then they'd switch settings on the unused path between songs. They'd write everything down, and reset it during the song.
That's exactly what you have to do. But that's really 8 mono tracks. You have a stereo program that gets cut. You have a stereo preview that tells the head how fast to go as it's cutting. It's a one second ahead audio preview. That's four channels there. Then you need a whole other set of those to crossfade over so you can EQ in between songs. So, four stereo paths. You need to have a special console set up to do that. To really do it right, you need a Studer because the Studer tape machine's the only tape machine that has a preview and a program head, as well as a tape extender loop to make the perfect one second delay. I have it in here, but I haven't used it yet. Ron has one downstairs, and he has the actual console. I built a transfer console that's still in the tech shop, three-quarters of the way built. When Ron leaves, I can pick that up. That's a whole other ball game. Honestly, transferring the tape into the computer and then cutting from the computer, I can tell you I would be able to make a better vinyl than if I had to use all analog gear and transfer. It's way more magical and mojo-y; but, at the end of it, if I'm allowed to use my software de-essers and precision EQs in the box from the tape being transferred in there, I can make sure that it sounds as close to the tape without the noises and weirdness you'd have if you were trying to do it all analog.
I remember the days when I was a kid driving down here to get music mastered and watching those guys scramble to reset the EQ between each song. I thought, "Man, that's stressful."
It is stressful. Ron's really good at it. I have to pick that up. I haven't had to, because he's been able to do it. I'm ready to do it. I have all the equipment, but I haven't done it. He showed it to me and I understand how it works. I'm gonna have to practice it a little bit. The thing about cutting vinyl is that you can't get any more analog than that cutter head scratching a groove into acetate. I don't care what you put into it. Even if you have analog before that, you're not adding any more analog.
Well, you get the purists who say that once there's been conversion, it's ruined!
Purists are ridiculous. I saw this guy on YouTube explaining why modern music is awful. This blanket statement. He said there're only two guys who wrote all the pop music for the last ten years. It's the same lyrics. Then he started talking about compression and dynamic range. It was funny, because the video was done with the most sterile elevator background music. They've got a guy with a polo shirt on, and they kept switching to these Hallmark card pictures of people laying in the park with headphones on. It's the most homogeneous video ever, and they're talking about how music's homogeneous. It's like, you can't tell somebody what to feel. My daughter listens to the worst-produced pop songs ever, and she loves them. Yeah, a lot of today's pop music is awful, but that's just advertising noise. There's so much good music underneath all the advertising and marketing.
Is Ron still here too?
Ron's here, but he is retiring. [Ron retired in September of 2018.] He's had a 35 year career in vinyl mastering. There's gonna be a big party. It's going to be great. He taught me a lot. Everything I know about how it was done in the old days. I brought in and added my own modern ideas – what I knew about plug-ins, and applied that to what he taught me. We came up together with a really cool mix between modern and vintage, as well as the ways we could make vinyl sound better. Now there's going to be a new mastering guy here named Kevin Bartley. He's going to take over for Ron. Ron and I are training him. The legacy lives on!
When Ron leaves, do you become the main mastering guy?
I guess so! Kevin is going to be working in Ron's room, so he may be thought of as taking over that kind of sound. We're going to keep the room vintage. My setup is a little bit more modern. I have my own way of doing things. Ron's room definitely has a sound.
Wow, that's a cool progression. Now the gear: How did the Magic Death Eye gear come about?
Magic Death Eye came out of working with guest engineers recording at Capitol. I started modding so much of their gear, and I was working on the other house engineers' gear at Capitol. I would build it, they'd start using it, and they'd buy it from me for cheap. After a while I was like, "Well, I'd better start actually putting a name and a faceplate on this." They looked really funky. I'd build them out of anything I could find around. Old computer chassis, or whatever. I suppose it was cool that way, but that's how the custom thing carried over to Magic Death Eye. I also don't care about changing it up midway through. The stereo compressor I built first had a clipper in it. Then it had a limiter. Now I've settled on having a really nice wet/dry feature on it. Everybody that I sell these things to I consider family, and I service my products for free forever. I have a personal relationship with them, like I do with you. I enjoy that the most. When somebody's interested in buying a compressor, they usually have heard of me through somebody else, another friend. We become friends talking about it. I like to think of it as a custom piece of gear that can change. It's a little community of people who use it and appreciate it. And I don't have to make tons of money off it because I have a day job. I'm able to use things like vintage Bakelite knobs that I get off eBay, and I don't worry about having to make a hundred units and selling them for super cash. I should be selling them for twice as much as I sell them for, if I was going to make a living off it; but I'd rather keep it really cool.
You're building each one by hand then, right?
Yes, definitely. By hand, in sunny Burbank, California.
So, your weekends are spent in your garage, soldering. You have no life. [laughter]
My daughter plays water polo, and I try to make it out to her games whenever I can, but that's about it. I don't have a life. Most partying I do is watching Netflix with my wife at night. Goliath has been good this season.