Bernie Grundman wants to change the way you hear music — for the better – Los Angeles Times
âA mechanical tool is following an intricate signal.â
âThese are coaxial speakers, and the tweeterâs in the throat of the woofer.â
âNow you have 16 sets of stampers for a set of lacquers.â
The language can get pretty heady when Bernie Grundman is talking shop at his sprawling, 20,000-square-foot studio in the heart of Hollywood.
One of the music industryâs most respected mastering engineers, Grundman specializes in an arcane yet crucial part of the recording process â the last step, essentially, before a piece of music is readied for mass consumption on CD or vinyl or, as is most often the case these days, as a stream of digital information beamed down from the cloud via Spotify or Apple Music.
Mastering involves striking the final balance of the various elements in a mix, getting the dynamics just right, controlling the amount of silence between tracks â each of which can significantly affect an intricate production like some of those Grundman has mastered, including Michael Jacksonâs âThrillerâ and Steely Danâs âAja.â
Yet for all his facility with the nuts and bolts of audio technology, Grundman, 73, insists that what he really deals in â the reason A-list producers and pop stars have been coming to him for decades â is feeling.
âOur object here is to make sure that these recordings connect emotionally with the listener,â he said on a recent morning at his studio, where heâs scheduled to present a seminar Monday as part of the month-long Red Bull Music Academy series that has also featured performances by St. Vincent and Ryoji Ikeda. âWe want them to feel all the depth and the value of the music, that expression of the human experience.â
Grundmanâs studio, which he opened 20 years ago following earlier stints in other buildings around town, reflects that intimate aspiration.
A former Social Security office just a few blocks from such storied Sunset Boulevard recording studios as United and EastWest, the high-ceilinged place houses six separate mastering suites for staff engineers including Mike Bozzi (who mastered Kendrick Lamarâs three studio albums) and Patricia Sullivan (who regularly works with film composers such as Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer). Each is decorated slightly differently, with specific lighting schemes and wood finishes.
In Grundmanâs suite, a row of framed snapshots â there he is with Tom Waits â sits behind a cozy sofa; in each picture, he looks like somebodyâs favorite uncle, grinning warmly as though the other person had just caught a 10-pound bass or won first place in a spelling bee.
âIâm one of the old-timers,â he said with a self-effacing chuckle. Grundman was dressed in a button-down shirt and jeans, his hair parted neatly on the side. As he and I spoke, a young assistant placed a demitasse cup before me.
âNow, see, thatâs important,â Grundman said. âYouâre getting our secret weapon. This comes from Rome; itâs one of the best espressos Iâve ever had. Very smooth.â
I took a sip.
âNo bitter aftertaste,â he noted with pride. âYou donât need anything in it.â
The creature comforts may be a natural extension of Grundmanâs friendly nature. But they also make good business sense at a moment when his uncommon technical skill â his ability to make a recording sound alive â isnât quite as valued as it once was.
Not that heâs hurting, exactly. Last year, Grundman mastered the latest album by rapper Childish Gambino (the stage name of actor, writer and director Donald Glover of âAtlantaâ), which spun off the Top 40 radio hit âRedbone.â
But in an era when many music fans are abandoning physical formats for lower-quality digital streaming (and listening through crummy earbuds), Grundmanâs pricey mastering work strikes some acts and labels as an unnecessary expense.
âBudgets are low,â he said, one result of a dramatic drop in record sales that began around 2000 with the advent of peer-to-peer software like Napster. âAnd because a lot of records only come out on iTunes or Spotify, these inferior formats, youâre not going to hear the differenceâ between what Grundman does and what a computer plug-in can do.
âSay what I do for somebody is 30% better,â he continued. âWell, when you put it through the coding device that does the digital compression [for streaming], that 30% is now only 10 or 15.â
In its effort to reduce the size of a digital file, the compression âmakes all the instruments sound like each other,â he said. âThey start to lose their individual integrity,â which is precisely the thing Grundman says heâs seeking to preserve.
âBut some people donât mind that, because it doesnât distract them from the other things theyâre doing. Now we can work on our computer or look at our phone and not be distracted by the music.â His face flashed a rueful expression.
âItâs kind of sad.â
Grundman is making up for some of that lost business with a boom in work he once thought was destined to dry up: remastering classic albums for reissue on vinyl.
According to the music tracking firm BuzzAngle, vinyl sales were up 20% in the first half of this year versus 2016, driven in part by a nostalgic impulse among some listeners to hold a record in their hands.
In recent years, Grundmanâs operation has handled reissues from U2 and Pink Floyd, and he recently oversaw a new rollout of Buffalo Springfieldâs catalog.
During our chat, he led me out of his suite to a cramped space at the rear of the building in which two hulking machines sat â solid aluminum lathes tricked out with computers designed to carefully etch grooves into vinyl discs.
âWhen we moved in here, we thought discs were half-dead,â Grundman said. âNow this is probably our busiest room.â
Grundmanâs goal in mastering vinyl is crafting records that will sound good on a wide range of record players â from the $100 jobs Urban Outfitters sells up to the high-end models that go for thousands.
Heâs not dismissive of those cheapo numbers, either. Whatever gets people listening to music more intently which vinyl requires, because âyou have to take the record out of the jacket, put it on the turntable, flip it over to the other sideâ â is a positive development in his view.
âYou hear stories that kids, teenagers and stuff, are actually getting together and listening to records,â he said. âThatâs good!â
Grundman certainly listened deeply when he was a kid. Growing up in Phoenix, he had his mind blown by âStudy in Brown,â the 1955 album by jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach; around the same time, he started hanging out in the projectionistâs booth at a small theater where his mother worked as the bookkeeper.