Capitol Studios’ Mastering King Goes Out on a Vinyl High

Says Ron McMaster, who retires on July 12, of making records: "The fact that it’s still strong blows my mind."

Ron McMaster
Malina Saval

There’s a theory dubbed “nominative determinism,” a fancy name to describe people who gravitate to jobs that fit their names. You could hardly find a better example than the man who has sat alongside a mixing console and vinyl lathe in one of the basement studios in the Capitol Records tower for more than three decades.

“What better name for a mastering engineer than… Ron McMaster!” says Ben Blackwell, the co-founder of Third Man Records, who has worked with the veteran on several projects. “Look up his credit on the Demolition Doll Rods’ first album — it’s my favorite listing on a record ever.” A quick scan of the credits reveals the listing burned into Blackwell’s memory: “Masterfully Mastered by the Master at Tower Mastering — Ron McMaster.”

Down in Capitol’s room RR1 — a small studio space virtually no one in the tower knows by its proper name, because everyone just thinks of it as Ron’s room —  McMaster fields a question about whether name = destiny with a characteristically patient chuckle. “I wish I had a dollar for every time that’s come up,” he says, adding that it’s as if some are saying, “‘I don’t believe that’s your real name.’ What do I have to do, show my driver’s license?”

Soon, the masterfully mastering master will be at rest, or semi-rest. At 69, the intra-industry legend has opted to retire, and Capitol is sending him off Thursday with a gala party down the hall in the rather larger Studio A that is bound to draw a lot of other names familiar to credits scanners, and maybe a few who appear on the front sleeves, too. It’s a gala that will honor not only McMaster but, by association, the entire vinyl resurgence that people associate with the man whose initials have been cut into the runoff groove of untold thousands of LPs since 1980.

His official last day is July 12, but he’ll be around after that, training (and, in the future, occasionally filling in for) an apprentice. “I’m looking forward to teaching and helping out the new generation of vinyl cutters,” he says. “I never thought I’d do that. I figured this was dead. There was a time in my life [when] nobody cared. They walked by this room and didn’t even bother. I did CD mastering, and did the Blue Note stuff, but to cut vinyl? The fact that it’s still strong blows my mind [and] makes me real happy. I never thought it would be ending like this, for me.”

No longer a corner of no man’s land, Capitol Music Group chairman Steve Barnett is a regular subterranean visitor. And McMaster earns particular accolades from the CEO of Universal Music Group’s catalog division, Bruce Resnikoff, who calls McMaster “an instrumental part of the UMe family” as “the go-to mastering engineer for so many important artists and iconic albums, from the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ and Coltrane’s ‘Love Supreme’ to Blue Note and Capitol’s rich catalogs. With the vinyl resurgence, his skills have been in demand more than ever, and we’ve been fortunate to have his steady hand making our records sound as good as ever.”

Don Was, the head of Blue Note, says that no one should feel bad for McMaster having been sequestered underground all these years, far from the madding crowd in the floors above. “Steve loves him and comes down to see him a lot and brings people through. He thinks Ron working there is one of the great virtues of the tower. So it’s nice for him to have the recognition now,” Was says, “but I would say that possibly being tucked away in the basement has contributed to his longevity over time!” Like many, Was appreciates the unchanging feel of McMaster’s room, which features vintage stonework from famed studio designer George Auspurger that dates back before any present employee’s time. “It’s a nice hang down there. The feng shui must be right in that room, because it feels good to sit in there. There are times I’ve gone down from my office just as a little escape and some peace and quiet.”

It may seem peaceful to a visitor, but McMaster’s eternally genial and laid-back nature belies a pace he says has finally gotten to him. He handles not only Capitol and Universal releases but outside projects that Capitol Studios books independently — and, as everyone in the business knows, every artist wants a vinyl component, and there’s a shortage of capable mastering engineers as well as pressing plants. “I just couldn’t take the demand,” he admits. “I’m 69 going on 70 and I do two to three albums per days.”

McMaster used to work as a session drummer in the 1970s at a since-demolished studio down the block, where he would watch Neil Diamond and the Wrecking Crew and learn. “I would watch the mastering guys, and in the morning, they’d do a rock album, and in the afternoon they’d do a jazz album, and the next day they’d do a Hawaiian or blues album. I love that turnaround.”

McMaster started with the United Artists label in 1980 and switched over to Capitol in ’86, right at the dawning of the CD era. He focused a lot of his efforts in the ‘80s on jazz, but not everything was Blue Note-level stuff. “I can remember working with Angelyne [on her EP], and that was just crazy,” he laughs. By the ‘90s, he was still cutting vinyl — but mostly for the DJ-scratching or jukebox markets. Meanwhile, he was charged with remastering the CD reissues of Blue Note albums originally mastered for LP by that label’s legendary Rudy Van Gelder. To this day, you can still find jazz fan forums where collectors bicker over whether they prefer “the Van Gelders” or “the McMasters.” Either way, you know you’ve made it as an engineer if your name has been turned into a plural noun for something desirable and collectible.

During the leanest vinyl years, McMaster’s discography — to the extent that it’s online, because not every label remembered to credit him —  focused on jazz. But, he adds, “Man, I can’t tell you how many Chipmunks records I’ve done.”

McMaster has put together a list of some of his favorites works and, surprisingly, neither Angelyne nor Alvin made the cut. It includes, of course, the Blue Note catalog of early releases, which he’s remastered three times, plus “Frank Sinatra Sings Only the Lonely,” the T Bone Burnett-produced “Hunger Games” soundtrack, “Duke Plays Ellington,” “Meet Glen Campbell,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Freaky Styley,” Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil,” and the recent George Harrison vinyl boxed set. The most recent pick on his favorites list is the Rolling Stones’ “Blue & Lonesome,” done by special request of its producer, Don Was. Luis Miguel’s “Romances” is on the list, and McMaster cites Miguel as one of the rare artists who’s hands-on enough to come into his studio to observe every part of the mastering process. An oft-noted favorite is “Pet Sounds,” partly for the challenge it posed: “It’s a beautiful album and has a lot of dynamics — there’s a lot of real quiet, soft parts in there and there’s parts that just explode.”

But vinyl was supposed to be dead, right? For a lot of years, it seemed as if McMaster’s vinyl mastering and cutting skills would be about as useful to him as his drumming.

Speaking of his drumming career: When Ben Blackwell’s name comes up, McMaster says, “Oh, our A&R guy.” To which anyone who knows him only as a mastering engineer may go: Huh? But therein lies a fascinating side tale of delayed gratification, as McMaster isunder contract with Third Man as a recording artist, with his former group, Sacramento-based garage-psych outfit Public Nuisance, even though they haven’t recorded a note since 1968. Public Nuisance was signed to producer Terry Melcher’s label and cut a finished album, only to have it shelved when Melcher, feeling threatened by the Manson family, disappeared underground. Fast forward to 2002 when a newly pressed CD swiftly sold out all 3,000 copies, one of which made its way to Jack White. McMaster found out through  an MP3 of the White Stripes covering Public Nuisance’s “Small Faces” at a 2003 Detroit concert. He didn’t think much more of it until, almost a decade later, a call came in from White’s label: Would the band be interested in signing to Third Man for the purposes of a vinyl release of the prophetically titled “Gotta Survive” album?

“I said, ‘Well, we’ll agree to this deal if I can do the mastering.’ They go, ‘Of course, we know who you are!’ So they let me master the record. Well, let me tell you, I was my worst client! Because you’re never happy, right? But everything came out fine and I couldn’t have been happier.”

Not every artist or producer understands the dynamics that come into play when mastering vinyl, and that it isn’t just an automated transfer from the digital file. Says Was: “I think people see a lathe and they think you’re just running a machine, like it’s a stamping plant or something like that. But there are so many technical pitfalls that have to be overcome in order to keep both sides on the record and keep it from jumping out of the groove, and to still maintain warmth and a low end, and deal with management of the real estate on the disc, so that you can still have some volume, and that it lasts over a long period of time. It’s an incredible artform, and he’s just a master of it.”

Was took McMaster out for lunch the other day, and says “he seems pretty happy with everything but the pace of it. He’s so in demand that I think it’s just exhausting. He’s doing the work of three or four guys.” So what are his plans? Surprisingly, maybe, it’s to… listen to music, and more instances of “being at home where I can go through my records and find something I haven’t listened to in ages? What was it the other day?” It’ll come to him. “Oh, it was a Richard Thompson album I had done years ago. I saw it and thought, I want to put that on.” He pauses. “Man, it was good.”