It wasn't long ago that mastering an audio recording was a huge ordeal: You booked time with one of the handful of trusted mastering engineers, located mostly in New York or Los Angeles, then tucked your boxes of half-inch reel-to-reel tapes under your arm, braved the X-ray/metal detector folks at the airport, and spent the day manually cutting and splicing tape. Finally, you were ready to "cut a record," meaning you left the studio with an actual acetate or direct metal master.
These days, most mastering studios use computers to program their "moves," and the mixes are mastered onto a Sony 1630 cassette, slightly larger than a videotape. While home recording has become affordable, mastering studios (and good mastering engineers) are still a rare breed.
Which makes it all the more extraordinary to have a bona fide mastering facility here in Carrboro. Since '99, Kitchen Mastering studio occupies one side of a white two-story structure on a tiny industrial street. Passing the building, you'd never dream that it's the preferred mastering studio for bands and producers throughout the Southeast. Owner/engineer Brent Lambert, who started the Kitchen out of his home in the early '90s, has built a state-of-the-art facility with a growing national profile--check out the framed gold and platinum albums for the Squirrel Nut Zippers in the front lobby. While the space is small, the Kitchen exhibits a feng shui sense of order: The furnishings are sleek and upscale, from the blond, wood-and-metal, curved front desk and sage-green sofa, to the mastering room itself, acoustically designed by the prestigious John Arthur Design Group.
I ask Lambert how the Kitchen compares to, for example, Gateway Mastering [owned by legendary mastering engineer Bob Ludwig]. "I have the best stuff you can buy, but I don't have, say, every make and model of tape machine manufactured," he says. "I've got one excellent tape machine" [a modified, hot-rodded Ampex ATR 120 1/2-inch].
I quietly crash a mastering session for Austin-native Alejandro Escovedo's forthcoming solo disc. Escovedo, in town for a Go! Rehearsal gig, sits next to producer/engineer Chris Stamey on the gray leather chairs that line the back wall. Holding his session notes, Stamey directs questions and comments to Lambert, who seems to be literally sculpting the sound. "I carved a little out of the low end, did you like that?" he asks over his shoulder. Everyone likes it. "Hey Chris, is the bass actually panned or is it a stereo effect?" Lambert asks. Stamey looks bemused. "I wouldn't have put stereo ... Oh, I was trying to build a fake orchestra thing; it's acoustic and electric bass," he says. Lambert makes a few adjustments and steps back. "The guitars sound huge," he says, thoroughly enjoying himself.
The mastered tracks seem more immediate than the premastered mixes. There's greater clarity and separation--the instruments take on a three-dimensional quality. "Let's say the bass is playing up the neck a lot and it's overlapping with the guitars, or the snare drum has a lot of low midrange [frequencies] that are interfering with the guitars. I look for those areas that sound cloudy and refine 'em," Lambert explains.
"It's such a rush to finally hear it [the finished product]," Escovedo says, summing up the mastering experience. "I'm actually excited about my record again."
Lambert's take on his input is modest. Although he's mastered records by Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, the Meat Puppets, S.C.O.T.S. and hot Mexican star Anahi, he still insists that, "the most important thing to me when I'm working on something is the bypass switch [which lets you listen to the original unmastered recording]. I mean, if you hit the bypass and what you've got going on doesn't sound better than the original track, then you're not doing the record any good," he says. Twice, he's gotten demos from young bands and has told them to go back and work on the tape. "I've learned to be pretty diplomatic," he says. "I point out the good things first, but you want to be honest, otherwise they're not going to come back."
A casually dressed, snappy-looking guy in his late 30s, Lambert is an interesting mix of musician and brainy tech wiz. One of the Florida native's earliest memories is of his dad's NASA job in the '60s: The family could watch rocket launches from their Cape Canaveral backyard. When the space program lost its funding, they moved to Miami's Coconut Grove, then still a hip artists' community. His family was anything but traditional. His mom drove a Firebird and wore bellbottoms: She dug the Doors and played the autoharp. His sister became a professional ballerina, leaving home at 10 and getting picked by Baryshnikov to join the American Ballet Theater when she was 13. His father, besides designing software and computer programs, had a "weird sense of musical taste," Lambert recalls. "He was really into show tunes--Man of La Mancha, those kinds of things--and he loved the Tijuana Brass."
Lambert developed a passion for surfing, competing all through his high-school days. One of his surfing buddies had an older brother whose band had an MCA record deal. "They were pretty cool," Lambert says.
This was '74. "The '70s in Miami were, like, party city," he says. "The band had this big house in Miami. We were 'the little kids,' but occasionally they would let us hang," Lambert says. He and his friend would sneak in on nights when the band was out partying and check out the band's digs. "They had this big downstairs rehearsal/recording studio with 2-inch tape machines [multi-tracks], the whole deal."
The mixture of guitars, gear and studio equipment--not to mention the pretty girls who hung around the band--seemed like Wonderland to the budding music fan.
"That made a pretty big impression on me," he admits. "We thought, 'Man, this is what we want to do. Our parents work, but this looks like fun,'" he says.
But after his parents' divorce, he didn't see as much of them, especially his dad. "That had a lot to do with me getting into music, too, I think; I had a lot of angst," he recalls. Although he was only in junior high, he made up his mind to become a recording engineer.
He couldn't have lived in a better place. The University of Miami had one of the first four-year music engineering programs in the country. There was one catch: To be accepted into the program, you had to be an accomplished musician as well, considering you were competing with music majors for a slot. Lambert talked his parents into buying him a guitar and, at 13, started twice-weekly guitar lessons so he'd be accepted into the program. "I busted my ass for four years," he says.
The university had a renowned music program at the time, with a jazz program that spawned such heavy cats as Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs), Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. Alongside his Deep Purple and Allman Brothers albums, Lambert got introduced to jazz--from Joe Pass to Miles Davis--through his guitar teacher. "This guy had three jazz guitars and a huge jazz record collection stuffed in a little apartment," he says. "I used to get jobs working as a busboy at restaurants where he [his guitar teacher] was playing just so I could hear him more," Lambert confesses, laughing. "I'm sure they thought I was the biggest geek."
Accepted in '79, Lambert found the program to be a mixture of Zen discipline and an "old-school British, BBC approach": two years of math, physics, and electrical engineering, with an emphasis on such basics as microphone technique.
"Everyone that went in there--of course--all they wanted was to sit down at the big Nieve console [mixing board] and get to twist knobs," he recalls, "and they did everything to keep you from doing that, which was cool, ya know?" He pauses, "It took me 10 years after I left there to appreciate it."
By '82, with one semester left, Lambert followed his father to North Carolina when his dad took a job with The News & Observer. Feeling at home--Chapel Hill reminded him of a pre-yuppie Coconut Grove--Lambert played in bands and picked up "solo and be-bop jazz gigs" while earning a business management degree. He developed a rep as a player, doing session work at Wes Lachot's studio and crossing paths with people like musician/producer Chris Stamey, with whom he gigged, and future MusicPak partner Tim Harper (see sidebar).
"When he got to town, he definitely had the rep of being 'brainy jazz guy,'" Harper says. "The word was that Lambert had 'great ears,'" he adds.
At a jazz festival, Lambert met his future wife Kirsten (pronounced Shirsten). A DJ for WXYC, she landed a job at WQDR as the production manager in charge of voice-over spots. He saw a chance to get back into recording.
"I got a loan from my stepfather for $30,000, which was a lot of money for me," he says. "Now I pay that much for one piece of gear, but back then it was a big deal." He started doing radio production--commercials and jingles--in '93, and by '95 was mastering records in their home kitchen.
Lambert, an accomplished hobby chef, kept the Kitchen name after they moved to their present space. "To me, cooking and doing music are very similar," he explains. "In both, you have to learn the basics. You need an understanding of how food works--the ingredients--and you have to have the technique to do certain things. You have to learn everything you can, and then just forget about it and go on intuition."
He compares mixing an album to cooking a wonderful dinner. "When somebody comes in, I look at their project--the ingredients--and then I think, 'How could this sound?' It's like, 'Here's what I've got; here's what it could be,' then you use your technical skills to get there," he says. "I think every mastering engineer has an aesthetic, just like every mix guy, every artist."
I ask if it's hard dealing with the expectations of bands and/or producers. "Before I got into mastering, I was really critical of everything--just like young bands are," Lambert admits. "One thing it [the job] has taught me is tolerance. You learn to look for the good thing. Even in the crappiest, out-of-tune, out-of-time, punk rock thing that comes in, there's always something good."