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Alumni Profile: Gavin Lurssen '91

The Masterer's Touch

by Mark Small '73

 
  Mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen
  Photo by jasonvaughnart.com

According to mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen, people in his line of work used to inhabit the background of the music industry. "Nobody used to care about mastering engineers," Lurssen says. "But now everyone wants to know what we think. All of the mastering houses I know of are doing well because more music is being made and consumed now than ever before. Everything you hear has been mastered. Music needs that process to become ready for the market."

Lurssen is among a small, exclusive group of mastering engineers who add the finishing touches to top albums and soundtracks before CDs are manufactured and released to the public. They set the overall volume level of a recording; correct the balance between the right and left sides; add reverb, EQ, and other processing; and are the last people in the production sequence to affect a recording's sound quality.

"For some projects, the schedules are so tight and the producers so busy that an album might go to the stores before the producer ever hears what you did," says Lurssen. "For high-profile records, there's no time to send it back for additional tweaking. You have to get it right the first time."

And indeed, Lurssen has a reputation for doing just that. Consequently, he's gained the trust of many top producers who have called on him to work on albums by such artists as Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Leo Kottke, Bad Religion, Green Day, P.O.D., blink-182, Ben Harper, Elvis Costello, Quincy Jones, and scores of others (see www.lurssenmastering.com for a list of his credits).

In 2001, when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences first recognized mastering engineers for work in the Album of the Year category, Lurssen was the first mastering engineer to receive a Grammy. That award was for mastering T Bone Burnett's production of the soundtrack for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Lurssen collected a second award for mastering Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey, the best historical album of 2003.

"When I got the first Grammy, people asked if I was going to raise my prices," Lurssen says. "I said, 'Absolutely not.' As flattering and meaningful as it was to get it, a Grammy doesn't change the value I assign to what I do."

But becoming a mastering engineer was by no means a lifelong dream for Lurssen. In June of 1991, with his degree in film scoring in hand, he left his parents' home in Washington, D.C., for Los Angeles. "I wanted to get into the music business, I didn't care how," he says. "I packed my futon, clothes, cassette tapes, and guitar and drove across the country." Somehow, with only $700 in his pocket and no job or credit cards, he found a place to live.

He started doing office work in Hollywood at the Mastering Lab, owned by legendary mastering engineer Doug Sax. After Lurssen had been there a year, one of the mastering engineers left. "I went to Doug and told him I could do that work," says Lurssen. "He just said, 'Aw, get out of here.' I was only 24 and didn't take no for an answer. I started hanging out in the mastering room, watching how things were done and giving my opinions."

Lurssen got a break when producer George Massenburg offered him the chance to master the James Taylor (Live) album in 1993. Massenburg liked the results, and the record sold well. "This is a service business, and George felt I'd served him well," Lurssen says. "Once others in the industry heard that he liked my work, they booked me to do their records. Things started to build."

Ultimately Lurssen worked for Doug Sax for 15 years and picked up key elements of his mastering style, including simplifying the signal path to reduce noise. "From Doug I learned the importance of eliminating things from the analog chain that don't need to be there. For instance, the signal may be routed through equipment that's switched off. If you connect only to the gear that's needed, you get a cleaner chain."

Then, in December of 2006, Lurssen opened his own studio. "For years, I'd been buying my own equipment and working on projects independently at the Mastering Lab," he says. "So when I opened my own place, it wasn't like starting over. I thought I would lose about 50 percent of my business the first year, but I actually had an increase. I've built long-standing, trusting relationships, and my clients followed me to my own studio."

Accordingly, the schedule at Lurssen Mastering is heavily booked, and that's the way the proprietor likes it. "I put in long hours and I haven't had a day off in two weeks," Lurssen says. "But I'm not complaining. I find this very exciting. I'm building my brand."

Lurssen has made a reputation in the business during a time when technology has changed the landscape. He's seen engineers and studios go under with the home-studio boom, but remains upbeat about his future. He frequently participates in panel discussions about how people can make money in the music business given the current state of the industry. "No one has all the answers to these questions," he says. "I'm in a service business comparable to the guys during the gold rush who were selling shovels and tents. I'm not digging for the gold. I'm not the rock star. I'm in the support business around them, and what I do is very satisfying."