Sheffield Steel? Doug Sax The Mastering Lab

Sidebar: The Mastering Lab

Located for 21 years in the heart of Hollywood, The Mastering Lab is the oldest independent disc-mastering facility in Southern California. The rows of gold and platinum albums lining the lobby walls attest to both the room's longevity and its creative excellence.

Designed, built, and operated by Doug Sax, The Mastering Lab is somewhat of a maverick among disc-mastering rooms, reflecting Doug's single-minded (and often controversial) zeal for musical accuracy. Indeed, the facility is the very embodiment of his audio philosophy: Nearly every piece of equipment is either custom-made or highly modified to meet Doug's standards.

From such a perfectionist, one would expect a room filled with the latest cutting-edge technology. Although The Mastering Lab does feature some of the newest digital equipment, its heart and soul have remained essentially the same for its entire existence. The electronics in the signal path, as well as the monitoring system, were designed and built by Doug's brother, Sherwood Sax, 20 years ago, with only minor updates. Active electronics are kept to an absolute minimum, with everything using tubes, even the amplifiers that drive the mastering lathe cutting head. The mastering console, its front-panel paint long since worn away, has wear marks in the metal around frequently used knobs.

In addition, the monitoring level for evaluation and equalization has remained the same for 20 years. This unique consistency allows Doug to know exactly what's on the tape, without second-guessing the monitoring system or being fooled by the ear's varying sensitivity to high and low frequencies at different sound-pressure levels. Maintaining a stable, long-term reference produces a significant advantage: Each project can be compared, under identical conditions, with two decades' worth of records before it.

Every component in the signal path at The Mastering Lab, even switches, has been evaluated for its sonic transparency and, if necessary, redesigned and replaced. The tape machines have been completely rebuilt to be all-tube and transformerless. For program equalization, passive circuitry is used with a single class-A amplifier at the output to recover the equalizer's insertion loss. All XLR connectors have solid-silver contacts, chosen after extensive listening tests. The Sony PCM-1630 and JVC VP 900 digital processors used for making CD master tapes have also been modified: In addition to a new line stage, the input and output filters and sampling circuits have been replaced, with all changes based on listening tests.

The result is a facility that allows the music on the master tape to be transferred to a master lacquer or CD master tape with a minimum of degradation. Just as important, however, is the ability of the system to resolve what's on the master tape so that correct equalization decisions can be made, improving the sound of the record or CD.