For over 20 years, mastering engineer Stephen Marsh has been using his golden ears to bring expert detail and focus to hundreds of records, scores, soundtracks, and reissues.
It was a quick decision while working at Taco Bell one evening that determined the New York native’s audio fate. A friend of his was moving to the West Coast, and Marsh figured he’d tag along to attend a 6-month recording program at Musician’s Institute. After arriving, he stumbled upon a phone number on a bulletin board that led to an internship at Sony Music Studios in Santa Monica, CA.
Soon deep in the trenches of a major label studio, Marsh spent the next six years learning from a handful of incredible engineers, including his main mentor David Mitson, who made a name for himself working with the likes of Willie Nelson, Johnny Winter and Dolly Parton.
Today, Marsh runs his own mastering facility in Hollywood. And business is good—really good. During the past two years alone, he’s mastered soundtracks for TV shows including The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Hannibal, Narcos, and The Man in the High Castle.
Throughout his career, Marsh has amassed an impressive array of music mastering credits filling his discography to the brim with names like Rage Against the Machine, Alice Cooper, Kenny Loggins, Los Lobos, Bob Dylan, Incubus, James Taylor, and Keb’ Mo’.
His secret? Marsh claims that he’s simply attentive to what the end listeners really care about:
“I always try to listen like a consumer,” he tells me. “If it’s hip hop, I want to feel that bottom right away. If it’s rock, I want those guitars to hit me. If it’s pop, the vocal performance needs to grab you.
“As you critically listen, you need to remain in the audience and not join the band onstage. Remaining as objective as possible is key. It’s not a math equation you’re finding the solution to; it’s an emotional equation that you’re trying to solve.”
What led to your initial interest in mastering?
All my early listening experiences were with vinyl. As a kid, I’d sit down, put a stack of records on my dad’s Dual, lean my back against one of the big [floor standing speakers] he had, and let the bass rumble through me as I poured over every little detail of the album cover, credits included. I kept seeing the same names pop up over and over again and started to question who this small band of folks were that were making all these records.
My interest in all things music production sprung from those experiences. Each and every time I sit in the studio and crank up a new tune for the first time, I think I’m doing that in part—maybe subconsciously—[trying] to recreate that feeling of wonder and discovery, and that heavily informs the decisions I make behind the console. At the end of the day, what we take away from music is how it makes us feel.
What did your early days at Sony Music Studios entail?
My first gig there was as a runner, so I made a lot of rather strong coffee, fetched a great deal of food, and shuffled a multitude of tapes about town.
[After] a few months of keeping my head down, never saying no, and doing my best to learn the ropes, the chief mastering engineer, [David Mitson], recognized something in me he could mold and took me on as his apprentice.
That was in 1995 and I continued to work with David as his second and night-shift engineer through to his retirement in 2001.Our bread and butter was reissue mastering for Legacy Records, Sony’s in-house catalog label. Our focus was primarily blues-oriented and we worked on classic recordings by everyone from Big Bill Broonzy to Willie Dixon, with a couple hundred stops in-between.
After Sony, was it difficult to go independent?
I departed Sony when they closed their West Coast operation and while the post-9/11 recording business had its fair share of obstacles to success, there were a lot of opportunities as well. It happened to coincide with a time of massive change in the way money flowed through our industry.
Prior to about 2000 or so, if you controlled the means of production—the physical recording infrastructure that is—then you had a great deal of leverage in setting rates and establishing the terms of working relationships with labels. They needed you, there were a lot of them, they had lots of money and the work typically followed the facility.
After that time, things began to shift pretty quickly to the independent model. A billion private studios sprung up and now labels wanted streamlined systems, they didn’t want to get an invoice for the producer and the engineer and the studio and the cartage and the rentals—they wanted it “all-in”. The producer was expected to bundle in whatever it was they needed to do the job they were hired to do. All of a sudden, the work didn’t follow the facility, it followed the person doing the work, and that was pretty much the beginning of the end of the classic “big analog console/big tracking room” recording studio paradigm as a commercial venture.
A few still maintain, but both coasts have largely been gutted of a lot of the places recording artists used to call home. This work is primarily done by smaller groups of people working in well-equipped homes or private facilities.
It just so happens that with mastering, the work following the person has always been the model. When that massive shift happened, I was more or less ideally positioned to just keep on plucking along as I always had, somewhat insulated from the upheaval going on around me.
Many people—even seasoned artists and engineers—consider mastering to include a little bit of sorcery. What do you feel is the most ‘magical’ aspect?
Mastering is really just a whole lot of very simple things lined up together and done in a specific sequence, and as such, any part of it taken alone is something I think most folks would understand fairly readily. However, when taken all at once, it may seem daunting, and my industry has typically done little to allay that belief.
The analogy I use most is that of an analog recording console: A layman looks at a big desk and is stupefied by all the controls, but once you explain that 90% of the desk is just one narrow strip repeated over and over, it immediately becomes easier to grasp.
All that is to say I think some of the “magical” business is more of an idea than anything tangible. However, I absolutely agree that when the right project gets into the hands of the right engineer, some fuzzy math does tend to occur, and suddenly 3 + 3 + 3 can equal 12 rather quickly. When the goosebumps hit and you can literally feel the other people in the room responding to what they’re hearing, that’s magical.
I’ll tell you a secret: Mastering with the artist in the room is like having a massive crutch to lean on. Artists just feel things in a different way, a deeper more meaningful way, and I swear if you can tune in to their frequency, you can just feel when they think it’s right.
Does your approach change when mastering an album as opposed to a single and if so, how?