Mastering Engineer Doug Sax: 1936–2015

A Personal Remembrance

Mastering Engineer Doug Sax: 1936–2015

The great mastering engineer Doug Sax passed away on April 2 a few weeks short of his 79th birthday. It would not be an exaggeration to say that virtually everyone who has listened to recorded music has heard Sax’s work; the list of albums he’s mastered is staggering. For the past five decades Sax’s The Mastering Lab has been the first choice of everyone from chart-topping pop stars to audiophile-reissue labels. Consider that he mastered The Doors' first album in 1967 and Bob Dylan's 2015 release Shadows in the Night.

But Doug Sax was much more than the world’s greatest mastering engineer; he is also the father of the modern direct-to-disc recording, and also of stereo direct-to-disc recording. Before the advent of magnetic tape, all recording was direct to disc (and mono). But two decades after the widespread adoption of tape in the late 1940s, Sax resurrected this lost art and built a record label, Sheffield Lab, around the technique. He recruited his high-school friend, Lincoln Mayorga, to be the musical half of Sheffield Lab. By bypassing tape, and recording a musical performance directly into the master lacquer in real-time, Sax thought he could make better-sounding records. Those Sheffield direct-to-disc LPs are now legendary for their sound quality. How many audio systems were sold during the 1970s and 1980s through a demonstration of Thelma Houston and Pressure Cooker? Or Harry James’ King James Version? Those records, and others in the Sheffield catalog, still stand today as stunning reminders of how great direct-to-disc can sound.

Doug Sax inadvertently played a pivotal role in my career. I was a recording engineering student in 1981 when I came across an article in Recording Engineer/Producer magazine detailing the creation of Sheffield Lab 17, Tower of Power Direct. I came from the professional audio world whose values are often not aligned with those of audiophiles. I read in amazement about the hand-made tube microphones with integral preamps that put out line level signals. About how all connectors in the signal path were removed and hardwired in place with silver solder. About how the entire recording/mastering chain was pure tube (including the amplifiers that drove the cutting heads), and how the engineer mixed the band on the fly while the cutting engineer captured that signal in the master lacquer as the band performed the entire LP side without interruption. For me, discovering these extraordinary recording techniques that were never taught in a college program fundamentally changed the way I viewed recording and reproducing music. It was like discovering a whole new world. As I learned more about Sheffield's techniques, and listened to the records, Doug Sax became my hero. He embodied an ethos in which no measures were deemed too extreme in the pursuit of musical realism.

Sax was also highly opinionated and outspoken when it came to audio technology that he believed to be inferior. He reviled early transistor amplifiers, favoring vacuum tubes. He was one of the first, and most vocal, critics of digital audio and the CD format. Many of us remember the Sheffield Lab tee-shirts that read “Stop Digital Madness” or “Digital Finishes What the Transistor Started.”

Fast-forward five years to when I was working in a CD mastering facility. Part of my job there (initially) was to check and prepare incoming CD mastertapes for disc cutting. This involved programming the PQ subcode, the information on a disc that tells the CD player when a track starts, its program time, and other such data. One morning I received a CD mastertape of a Sheffield Lab title, The Name is Macowicz by pianist Adam Macowicz. One of the tracks begins with a fade-up of tape hiss (the CD master was made from a back-up tape made during the direct-to-disc session), followed by a fade-up of room ambience, followed by a count-off, followed by the downbeat. Which of these points, I wondered, should be considered the start of the track?

I called The Mastering Lab with some trepidation (given how I idolized Sax), and the receptionist put Sax himself on the line. When I explained the dilemma, he was flabbergasted that some guy in a CD factory cared about such a thing. We became instant friends. In those days, CD production was a mysterious process that operated completely outside the realm of the audio world. Sax had been accustomed to having his work destroyed in the CD cutting process; he told me of engineers who took it upon themselves to equalize his master with a high-frequency boost to make the CD “clearer.” Now he had an "in" with someone in a CD factory who cared about sound quality. I worked with Sax on several projects over the next three years to get better-sounding CDs. One of these experiments involved cutting the CD master from an entirely different master-playback chain based on the JVC 900 system rather than the industry standard Sony PCM-1600.

When I left CD mastering to join Stereophile in May, 1989, as Technical Editor, I visited Sax at The Mastering Lab to interview him for publication. He knew that I was interested in the just-emerging field of hard-disc-based audio editing, and didn’t hesitate to tell me how misguided that approach was. As he was preparing to play back an analog mastertape for me to listen to, he discovered that the edit at the head wasn’t as tight as it could have been. Sax pulled the tape out of the machine’s tape path, put it in an editing block, cut out a quarter-inch of tape, and put it back together. It took him about ten seconds. He turned and looked at me over his shoulder with his intense look and said in a reprimanding voice, “That would have taken you thirty minutes in a digital editor.” He was right, of course.

Given the number of recordings that have benefited by Doug Sax's ear and hand over the past five decades, it's safe to say that no other single person improved the listening experience for more people than Doug Sax.

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