Magic Garden Mastering Opens in Grandview
It’s no secret that the Columbus music scene is jam-packed with amazing talent these days. Although the stages of our local music venues are filled night after night with mind-blowingly gifted artists and musicians, some really cool things are happening behind the scenes as well. Enter Brian Lucey. Brian emailed last week to let me know that his new Grandview studio, Magic Garden Mastering, is going to be having an opening bash next week. He also spilled the beans that he’s recently finished mastering The Black Keys newest album Brothers to be released in May. A couple days later, I had the pleasure of meeting with Brian to tour his awesome new space, learn about the artistic science of mastering, chat about Dan Auerbach and The Black Keys, and discuss where he’s been and where he’s headed. And most importantly, he gives me the scoop on how to join in his sweet opening bash and Brothers listening party.
Lauren Wilson: Let’s start at the beginning. In a nutshell, what is mastering and what does it do to enhance a recording?
Brian Lucey: There are multiple steps to making an album. The musicians record tracks, the tracks are mixed, and then the mixes are mastered into a cohesive album. The ultimate presentation of the mix is what mastering is. Mastering is a mindset. It’s the way you listen to music…how the whole song or album is laid out, shaped, feels, and flows. Mastering for me is hearing the client, and having good taste to implement their vision. It’s having a nice room and great equipment. I take each track, and I listen to them. I adjust the volume. I do some digital EQing and some analog EQing. Tracks can be compressed which takes the peaks of the music and brings them down. I can do things with the left and right extremes different than the middle. I can change harmonics. Harmonics are kind of the clothes, the hair, and the outfit the music wears. A tube guitar amp creates certain harmonics whereas a cheesy Casio keyboard has different harmonics. The reason one sounds cool and rock and the other sounds cheesy and cold is because of those harmonics. A lot of mixers do everything in a computer not using any outboard equipment. Mastering can put that analog goodness and sweetness and depth back in there.
Mastering engineers tend to have a sound, although we try not to! It’s more like a signature on the work that enhances the artist’s vision. My chain has a certain sound because I picked all the equipment and that’s my thing. People hear that. Freddy Blitzer once told me that your sound is what you do the first two minutes you work on a song.
The most important part of engineering is making the album connect emotionally to the listener and getting the sound the artist wants. I have a musical ear and have been a musician my whole life. And I think I have pretty good taste. I’m good at reading people and understanding what they want and mean. We start the mastering process by getting the first single done. I do a sample, send it along, and they comment. Once they approve the single, I make the rest of the album to flow with that sound. From the single, I can figure out what they really want the album to sound like. If their words aren’t clear at first, I’ll send them two options on the single to figure out what they really want.
LW: How long have you been mastering? How did you get into it?
BL: I started mastering the same way I started mixing. In the mid-90’s, I was an artist and dissatisfied, so I started experimenting. I took out one of those crazy 125% home loans and bought a bunch of gear and got started. So I’ve been mastering for a little over ten years. I discovered that it was my best talent and brought me the most joy. I’ve done some producing that I’m very proud of, but I don’t really produce anyone anymore. But I may do Stephanie Nilles’s new album. She’s cool…like a female Tom Waits.
I started engineering when I was eleven years old, recording with a mono cassette from Radio Shack. I was a professional musician when I was twenty. I went to NYC. I was some hot shot guitar player or something. Because of that, most people in this town always knew me as a musician. There’s a thing sometimes, it seems, where people in your own town aren’t so sure of you, so I got a lot of work out of town and out of the country. Then over time people in town who’d heard that work are like, wow, you’re not just some rock singer/guitar guy, you’re a great mastering engineer. Mastering is a word of mouth kind of profession. I don’t advertise. I just want a client to be so excited about the work we’ve done that they tell three or four friends. It’s a business and client base that develops organically. You move up the food chain if your work is good.
LW: So it would seem then that as you increase the caliber of people you work with, the caliber of your referrals increases. Yeah?
BL: Yeah, it does at times. I’m not snotty about who I work with. I’m as happy to work with the guy who records in his bedroom or the girl who’s never made anything before as I am to work on that Black Keys album. Obviously that is a big album, and that’s fun and exciting. And frankly it’s an ego boost, but it doesn’t change who I am. I don’t judge music. I find something to love about everything I work on, and I respect every artist equally. If I find myself judging what somebody is doing, I stop what I’m doing and go get lunch. I have a strict rule that if somebody comes into the room, there are no comments. If you don’t like it, I don’t want to hear it. If you do like it, fine. That’s cool. But I don’t allow negative comments. I’m there to serve. Mastering is a service business. The musician serves the muse, and I serve the musician. Because you gotta serve somebody…as the song goes.
LW: Yeah. You gotta love some Dylan, right?
BL: No doubt.
LW: Not every artist out there is recording in a fancy recording studio. Lots of folks today are creating music in their bedrooms, basements, and even rented storage units. How does that affect the way you do your work, and what kind of tips can you offer up to folks doing their own recording?
BL: I’m going to first answer the question you didn’t ask. That question is: do those people need mastering? And the answer is, yes they do. When you release a record, it doesn’t matter how much money you spend making music. When you release a record, you are competing with the recorded history of music. It’s tough to think about that when you start doing it, but when it comes time to release it, you better damn well think about it. People are going to give you anywhere from thirty seconds to five minutes, and you have to make a first impression. So, no matter how lo-fi your recording style is, there are things you can augment to make a good first impression. Mastering is all about making a first impression. If you don’t make a good impression, all that work is for nothing. Song ordering is also super important. So many people don’t understand how song ordering makes an impression on people. Take The Black Keys album for example. Brothers opens with Everlasting Light. It’s this beautiful groove with Dan singing falsetto, and it goes really nowhere. It’s a teaser. It’s a great opener. It doesn’t totally knock your socks off and give away all the cards. It’s just enticing. It’s groovy. It’s undeniable. Mastering and song ordering are about making those initial impressions and connecting the audience to the work. Everybody wants to connect and be as popular as they can be. It’s part of taking that organic thing and getting it to connect in the right way to the heart and mind of the listener. But to answer your question the quality of work I’m getting just keeps getting better all the time, and I have a number of mix tips on my website that mixers can read.
LW: You seem to keep pretty busy these days. Who have you been working with?
BL: Locally I’ve worked with folks like Jesse Henry and the Royal Tycoons, Colin Gawel, The Receiver, Andrew Hartmann and Still Motion, producer Jay Alton, mixers Joe Viers and Jeff Ciampa, Josh Fitzwater, Earwig, Ardor, Goatmill, XFactor1, OfHuman, State Your Cause, American Nude, Elisa Nicolas, and many others I’m sure I’m forgetting to mention (sorry!). I worked with Dan (Auerbach) on the Hacienda CD and LP. I’m super proud of the album Cat’s Dream I worked on with Dick Halligan, who is a founding member of Blood, Sweat, and Tears. I’ve worked with Chris Poland, a founding member of Megadeth. I did a drum clinic video for DW Drums with Brain and Buckethead. I worked with O.A.R on Red Rocks and other various live tracks. I may master their new studio CD. I’ve worked with Danyel Morgan who is a bassist and songwriter from Robert Randolph and the Family Band. I’ve mastered many records for Bigg Robb who was in Zapp for like two decades. Right now I’m working on Sami Yusuf who is an international singer and songwriter with five million albums sold. I’m working on Jessica Lea Mayfield’s album with Dan (Auerbach) producing. And of course I mastered The Black Keys new album, Brothers.
Although I’ve worked with Dan on his projects since 2008, I never thought I’d get a Black Keys album. I’m off the radar because of where I live, and I kind of like it that way. But I also love getting these big time gigs. The major labels and established mixers are often tied by habit or convenience to certain mastering studios. For examples, The Black Keys were using Bob Ludwig before me, because Nonesuch/WEA used Bob for years, and Bob Ludwig is the man. So I was thrilled to hear that I was getting the Keys album. And then I was thrilled to hear that Tchad Blake was mixing it. Then I heard the songs and was thrilled again. It’s been a great experience, and it’s not even released yet. Now I hear that Rolling Stone is really into it, as well as many other writers. And with good reason, it’s a cool record.
LW: So how is it that you came to work with Dan Auerbach and The Black Keys in the first place?
BL: Well it’s kind of weird really. He called me in 2008 out of nowhere. I don’t know why or how he found me. He said, “Hey man, it’s Dan. I’m a producer in Akron, and I wondered if you could tell me…is your mastering as good as (insert names here … the big guys)” …basically asking if I was as good as the guys in New York or LA? What do you say to that? Of course I think the work is that good, but how do you be diplomatic and humble? I’m a rocker, so I’m not terribly diplomatic. But I’m trying to be. So I tell him that my clients tell me that my work is as good, and I have clients that used to use all the big names. I’m in Ohio so it’s obviously less money. I’m not well known and I probably never will be. I think that’s what I said to him. But I told him that the work is very good, and I’d be happy to give him a sample. He said that’s kinda what he figured. He said he’d had some work done by big names, and he wanted to stay in Ohio if possible. So we worked together on the record for Hacienda. We worked together on that for about a month, talking about how he made it, and I was really impressed. Then he asks me to send him the final files the next day because he’s going on tour. Since he’s from Akron, I think he’s probably heading to Detroit, Pittsburgh, maybe even NYC. So the next day we’re on the phone, and he says “we’re in Phoenix.” And it wasn’t until then that I Googled him. And then I wrote back. “Dude, you’re The Black Keys.” And he’s like “yeah, I am.” He was totally humble then, just as he always is today.
So we had this month of rapport, and then I had to admit to him that I don’t really know The Black Keys, because I’m older and busy I can’t follow everything. I told him that I’d check it out. He told me that the tour rolled through Columbus in a couple months, and he wanted me to come check them out. So I went, and I checked them out, and of course I loved it. I met Dan and his wife and child. I picked up Attack and Release. And to this day, it’s the only Keys album I own. I don’t know any of the rest of it, although Q Prime Mgmt was nice enough to send me the whole catalog and DVDs, so I will check it out someday.
But Dan and I just kept working together. Hacienda got four stars in Rolling Stone. I’m working on Jessica Lea Mayfield’s album with him right now. So we’ve grown into a nice rapport. We talk about family stuff and music stuff and industry stuff. And the fact that he’s become really popular is a blessing to me. I really like this guy. He’s a good guy, and he’s an amazing artist. I’ve been working a long time to get a cool major label record, and I got this one, and it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread. And I got this one soon after I moved in here, so it’s a big start to this space.
But the bottom line is that Dan is a brilliant artist, and I am fortunate to be working with him. Lyrically and musically and in hiring Tchad Blake to mix, he’s done a brilliant thing with this album. As his manager said to me, Dan’s a once in a generation artist. We’re fortunate that he’s homegrown, and he loves Ohio, there’s even a song Ohio that he’s just written that’s very charming to me.
LW: So how long have you been in the new space here in Grandview?
BL: I moved down here from Delaware County back in January and did ‘Brothers’ soon after.
LW: What do you love about your new space? What makes your studio great?
BL: There’s a lot of talent in the building here at 1305 Holly. There’s always something going on. Everyone always has clients coming and going and projects happening. I go down the hall and check in on John Daugherty, and he’s submitting music to a national restaurant chain. I check on Fred Blitzer, and he’s perfecting final mixes for Angela Perley’s new album. I stopped to see Mike Landolt yesterday, and he was working on horn tracks with Jerry Depizzo for the new O.A.R. record. Jeff Powell is co-writing with a young singer Dean Evans in his room. And that’s just another day at the office. Then you have James Godwin who’s a world class photographer who can’t even take photos because he’s busy doing stuff for Vital Film Works. We’ve got The Receiver in here last night rockin’ a rehearsal, Coin Gawel rehearses in Landolt’s room, American Nude and Angie Perley rehearse in Freddy’s room, and two weeks ago Governor Strickland is wandering around and making a video with Steve Elshoff and Your Story Everywhere. It’s a happening joint.
My new studio space is a beautiful place to work. I designed the room with the help of Ethan Winer at Real Traps. My mom is an interior designer, so I’ve been raised with a good design background. I took my acoustic and interior design knowledge and obsessed about this room late at night for weeks. It’s got a solid hickory floor and acoustical walls six inches thick over a concrete frame. The back wall is two feet thick of bass trapping. And I have great equipment in here, so all-in-all it’s easy to do great work.
LW: You’re holding an official opening party next week to see the space and hear the new Black Keys album. Give us the scoop on that? How can folks come check that out?
BL: Yeah. The Magic Garden Mastering Grand Opening party is Thursday May 13 from 5-7 pm at 1305 Holly Avenue. The Rossi is making pizza, and we will have Pabst Blue Ribbon. The guest list is limited to 150 at the door. Invites are by RSVP only. I’ll be playing the new Black Keys record, Brothers throughout the whole building. If you want to come check it out, email me at [email protected] for an invite.
You can also find out more about Brian and Magic Garden mastering on his website www.magicgardenmastering.com.