Five Questions: Adam Ayan, Grammy-Winning Mastering Engineer

A mastering veteran's views on evolving technologies, career paths
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Since 1998, Grammy-winning engineer Adam Ayan has been a fixture at Gateway Mastering, where he honed his craft under the guidance of legendary engineer Bob Ludwig. To date, Ayan has mastered more than 100 Gold, Platinum, or Multi-Platinum projects from the likes of Paul McCartney, Madonna, the Foo Fighters, and Katy Perry. When I caught up with Ayan, he had just been nominated for Latin Grammy Awards for his work on Juan Luis Guerra’s Todo Tiene Su Hora.

Working at Gateway, you were mentored by one of the best. You also have a degree. How should aspiring mastering engineers balance their education and apprenticeship?

I always tell students that they should first pursue a four-year degree in audio and music, similar to the program I graduated from at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. That’s not to say that a degree makes a great engineer, or that there aren’t great engineers that do not have degrees, because there are many. But in 2015, I really believe a degree is an imperative step. But, it must be coupled with finding a good mentor/assistant situation.

I benefitted from coming into the industry in the ’90s when it was somewhat easier to find work at an established facility. I knew I wanted to work with Bob at Gateway and was very fortunate to get the opportunity to do so, starting as a production engineer and editor. I then became Bob’s direct assistant, and within a relatively short period of time we both realized that I had the aptitude and ears to master records. Most studio situations today are much more insular, and I feel lacking in the cool stuff that happens when a young engineer can learn from a great mentor, and also when peers can learn from each other.

You’ve been working in mastering for almost 20 years; how has your role evolved?

Starting in the early and mid-2000s, I found I was being asked a bit more to evaluate mixes ahead of mastering sessions, and to help clients get used to their new recording and mixing environments (project studios vs. commercial facilities). It makes for a better end result overall, and also allows me to be a bigger part of the production team and to develop hopefully career-long relationships with my clients.

I’ve also found that I am being asked to have a more creative role in the sonics of every project. Historically speaking, mastering was first the job of translating what was achieved in the studio onto the consumer medium (vinyl); it’s evolved to be a much more creative step.

We’ve seen a lot of self-mastering tools, even automated mastering software, emerge of late. How do you educate musicians on the importance of working with a professional mastering engineer?

I’ve found that once a musician has experienced good mastering and how it positively affects their music, they never will go back to skimping on the process. My overall feeling, and what I try to relay to potential clients is this: They’ve worked very hard to make a recording that as a piece of art and as a part of themselves should be something that they are forever proud of. Mastering is a big part of the process.

As for automated software—it might hype a mix, make it louder and brighter, etc., but that is not what mastering is. A piece of software or automated process just can not make human judgments, and can not replicate the feeling a human gets when the music and recording are just right.

What’s your perspective on evolving streaming options and their impact on fidelity and loudness?

Streaming has the potential to change the loudness issue in a positive way for good. Most streaming services deal with loudness and level matching of recordings in the opposite way that FM radio does: Instead of compressing everything more, and trying to bring the quieter recordings up to the same loudness level as the loudest recordings, streaming services lower the level of the loudest recordings to match the level of the quietest ones. When you do that, you take away the first-blush “louder is better” perception. You also quickly expose the flaws of overly compressed super-loud records. This means that the incentive to make super-loud records will go away, and more dynamic records will be more desirable.

I think that streaming sounds way better than most want to admit. Yes, there are low bitrate streams that need to be improved upon. Mobile is the driver there—but that is going to change.

You’ve mastered thousands of projects for artists ranging from Megadeth to Cirque Du Soleil. Can you talk about a couple of your favorite sessions?

Within the first few years of my mastering career, I had the opportunity to master a live record/DVD for Rush. I was a huge fan of the band as a young musician. Fast-forward about 10 years, and I’m mastering Rush in Rio with Alex Lifeson attending the session!

In this past year, I had the opportunity to master Lana del Rey’s latest record, Honeymoon. Lana did not attend the session, but I have to say it is one of my favorite projects of recent memory—a masterpiece of an album!