At one point, Ron McMaster, Capitol Studios’ renowned vinyl mastering engineer, was thinking about retiring because he wasn’t busy enough. Now, at last, he’s really and truly retiring… because he’s too busy.
McMaster, 69, revealed his plans to Variety on the eve of invitations going out for a July 12 retirement party in the Capitol tower that promises to draw bold-faced names that usually appear higher in the album credits than his own. A favorite of producers like Don Was and T Bone Burnett, he has cut LPs for the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Radiohead and virtually the entire vintage Blue Note catalog.
In the basement of a building shaped to resembled a stack of vinyl, he’s been at work mastering CDs as well as LPs for 38 years. But it’s vinyl he’s most associated with, and that medium’s wild resurgence over the last decade has turned him into something of a cult figure among collectors as well as the producers and artists who value his touch at the vintage record-cutting lathe that sits alongside his console.
“The fact that [vinyl] is still strong blows my mind,” McMaster tells Variety. “It makes me real happy. I never thought it would be ending like this, for me.”
In the early 2000s, LPs were just starting to make a comeback, but the prevailing winds still seemed to be leading him out the door. “There was a time when it slowed down quite a bit, and I was almost going to retire then,” he says, “just because I felt like the digital world and the different things that were coming up weren’t really my bag. And then all of a sudden vinyl exploded, and I became the only one around here in this building that could do it. I still had the lathe here, so then I became extremely busy, busy enough where we brought the other lathe that used to be next door out of storage. Someone hooked it up, and then I trained him how to operate it, and now he’s cutting full-time, too.”
It was the full-time part that got to McMaster, a little shy of four decades into his tenure in the subterranean studio. “I just couldn’t take the workload demand. I’m 69 years old, going on 70. I can only do this for so much longer, because I actually do about two to three albums per day and ship them out of here, which is quite a bit of work. And the company loves it, but Ron gets real tired after five days straight of doing that. I go home and rest and I found I just don’t bounce back as quick as I used to.”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, McMaster’s name was best known to jazz buffs, because he was the go-to guy for the Blue Note label, whose vinyl re-releases continued to find a thirsty audience even as LPs fell out of favor in the rock and pop worlds. This century, while continuing to work on jazz reissues, he’s mastered or remastered vinyl versions of well-known works by the Beach Boys (“Pet Sounds”), Radiohead (“Kid A”), Frank Sinatra (“Only the Lonely”) and George Harrison (the recent “Dark Horse” boxed set) as well as working on new projects like T Bone Burnett’s “Hunger Games” soundtrack and Robert Plant/Allison Krauss collaboration. Last year, Blue Note head Don Was got him to master a very non-jazz-related project he was producing, the Rolling Stones’ “Blue and Lonesome.”
McMaster even became his own client a few years ago, cutting the vinyl for Jack White’s Third Man label on a release of a psych-rock album, “Gotta Survive,” that he and his Sacramento-based psych-rock band, Public Nuisance, recorded but had shelved back in the late 1960s.
McMaster doesn’t plan on exiting the business altogether after he clears out the last of his things at the end of July. “My goal is just to kind of slow it down a little bit, and still stay in touch, and if I can help people out, I’m more than happy to,” he says. “Ron just needs a little more time outside of the console. I’ve been humping over this board for a long time. So, I’m teaching someone now that’s learning very well and will be able to spend a good amount of time cutting a lot of those records. And then if I can help out, they know where I’m at. I’m still going to be in town. So it’s not like I’m gonna disappear.”
He’ll miss the tower, he says. “Capitol’s a very interesting place to work,” he says. “It’s like this little family; you can come back. I still have people that come back in to that used to work here in the late ‘80s or the ‘90s that I knew, and you just pick up where you left off. It’s different from a lot of places. It’s not the same as ‘I worked at Macy’s for 35 years.’”
One thing that’s different at the end of his tenure than the beginning, or middle: His studio is a popular stop on private tours of the tower. And that includes tourists who are coming down from the upper levels of the building, which didn’t always happen in vinyl’s more fallow years. “Now I get [Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO] Steve Barnett coming down here, and I know his wife. It’s kind of crazy.”
For a full career overview interview with McMaster, look for the July 10 print edition of Variety.