Music’s mysterious ‘masters’

helley Blundell

North Canton studio employees explain finishing process

Kent State alumnus Nathan Lawson and Fotios Koulakos demonstrate the mastering process in their project studio in North Canton.

Credit: Beth Rankin

From your favorite artist to your favorite music store’s shelf, album production is a long and precise process.

But no step in this process is more precise than the final one — mastering.

“It’s what makes the difference between a professionally produced CD and a piece of unlistenable garbage,” said Fotios Koulakos, owner and chief mastering engineer of Straight Jacket Studios in North Canton.

“In essence, a mastering job can make or break an album — our goal is to make the whole product sound pleasant to the layperson.”

According to The Mastering Engineer’s Handbook by Bobby Owsinski, “mastering is the process of turning a collection of songs into a record by making them sound like they belong together in tone, volume and timing (or spacing in between songs).”

The mastering task has evolved greatly in recent decades. In the 1940s and ’50s, mastering engineers would physically cut grooves into vinyl records with a small cutting machine to finish off the album.

Now, mastering engineers complete albums with the aid of a computer, software manipulation and a lot of patience. This, according to Koulakos, makes the task shorter but not easier.

“There’s a certain protocol we have to fit into — we have to make the album sound professional, but we also have to be very careful to follow along with the original content and not destroy the vision of the artists, producers and original sound engineers,” Koulakos said.

Changes made by mastering engineers are on a microscopic level and are often things consumers take for granted.

Nathan Lawson, a recent Kent State graduate in electronic media production, did his internship at Straight Jacket Studios and now works for Koulakos part time.

“I’ve always loved music — I played guitar and saxophone in high school, but I knew it took a lot to make it in the music business as a performer,” Lawson said.

Not wanting to give up a career in music alltogether, Lawson began looking behind the scenes of the music process. He began producing and mixing some of his own work and experimenting with different production styles.

Later, Lawson met Koulakos at a gym. Both shared a passion for bodybuilding and, as they soon discovered, music.

Whereas Lawson learned a lot of his craft during his school years, Koulakos is completely self-taught.

“I started playing guitar in 1983 when there was literally nothing around music production-wise like there is now,” Koulakos said.

“I would have loved professional training, since learning everything on your own is a much longer process, but there just wasn’t that much information around when I was getting into the business.”

Koulakos started off like many mastering engineers did — doing small, multi-track recordings in an even smaller home studio.

Now, although his studio and his portfolio have grown, Koulakos still works from home like many in his profession.

Keith Cseak, owner and engineer of Speed of Sound mobile studio in Canton, has worked with Koulakos for about 18 years and knows the difficulties involved in the production process.

“Right now I’m just a learner in the mastering process, but I do understand the things that go into making a professional album,” Cseak said.

Cseak and Koulakos have worked on projects together and played together in numerous bands. Recording and mastering the work of clients, as well as producing their own work, they have had a long time to observe the evolution of the mastering process.

One thing both men agree on: When it comes to sound quality and the final product, louder is not better.

“I feel a lot of mastering engineers damage music by making albums as loud as possible,” Koulakis said.

Cseak also felt something is lost when volume is placed above quality in final production.

“The music loses all its nuances when you push it to the limit (of volume) — music today hits you in the face, and then it’s done.

“But, at the end of the day, we do what the customer asks. If they want to shake the walls, we’ll do all we can to make it happen.”

Koulakos also wrestles with the customer’s demands concerning volume on an album, but admits the paycheck is the main motivation.

“Do you not give the customer what they want, or do you eat?” Koulakos said.

But despite the downfalls and constant debates over quality of music production, Koulakos turned his studio into the only dedicated mastering studio in the area.

“We provide a good service and it’s more of a passion for me. It’s a lot more accommodating for what I want to do professionally,” Koulakos said.

Lawson, too, likes the mastering side of the process.

“When you accept a project, you really have to baby it — you’re changing things in microscopic detail and that takes time, energy and a lot of concentration.

“But there are limits to what can be done — it doesn’t serve anyone’s interest to work with a bad mix,” Lawson said.

Koulakos agreed with Lawson.

“There’s only so much we can do with a final production mix,” Koulakos said. “Although mastering is considered a ‘black art,’ it’s certainly not magic. It’s definitely no cure for lack of talent.”

And, as both Koulakos and Lawson are practicing, accomplished musicians in their own right, they feel they bring a different dimension to the work they do.

“With all the new technology out there, there are a lot of ‘Microsoft babies’ mixing stuff who really have no business doing it,” Koulakos said.

“They’re lacking that dimension you only get when you have a real understanding of music. Making the product the best it can be is what it’s all about.”

To contact StraightJacket Studios, call Koulakos at (330) 497-7557 or Lawson at (330) 554-2353.

Contact general assignment reporter Shelley Blundell at [email protected].