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Master of his domain: Larry DeVivo of Silvertone Mastering.

photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen

Master! Master!
By John Brodeur

A specialist in the final phase of the recording process, Larry DeVivo
talks of his life as a professional listener

Let’s say you’re a musician.
You wrote some songs and practiced them for months. You booked time at a studio, recorded your music, and polished it to a fine, radio-ready sheen. Your album is finished, and it’s time to go ahead and press some CDs. It’s as simple as that, right?

Not quite. There’s a transitional step between recording and reproduction that many people probably don’t even know about. In some ways, it’s the most important part of the process.

“Mastering is the end of the artistic process [and] the beginning of the manufacturing process,” says Larry DeVivo, head engineer and proprietor of Saratoga Springs-based Silvertone Mastering. “It’s like the editor at a magazine—the writer writes his piece, but the editor has to fit it into a framework. [Mastering] is truly the end of the recording chain—the last chance to affect your music in any way, shape or form artistically; the first in the chain of replication. We make the disc [from which] they are going to cut the glass [master]. >From there, they stamp all your discs.”

It’s an interesting racket that requires much more than a set of ears and some simple math skills. A mastering engineer’s job requires not only listening to many different genres and considering sound quality and dynamics (“You’re not going to master a punk album the same way you’re going to master a string quartet,” he says), but also thinking ahead, beyond the end of the record-making cycle. Sure, a project has to sound good on your home stereo, but DeVivo has to consider how it will stack up when it hits the airwaves.

“I have to be conscious of today’s levels in the market. That level has been a moving target ever since CDs have been invented. If Outkast comes on, and then your song comes on, and you’re six decibels lower . . . people will say ‘the drums aren’t impacting me, I can’t feel the bass, the singer doesn’t feel quite as present.’ Radio compressors are still geared to deal with music from 30 years ago. That’s why you’ll hear the Beatles on the radio and it sounds freakin’ great, but then the latest whoever will come on, and you’ll be like ‘Oh my God, listen to the distortion!’ But that’s part of the sound today. It’s unbelievable to me how everything has to be in your face today. And I’m a mastering engineer—I’m the one responsible for bringing it in your face!”

Larry DeVivo grew up in Saratoga Springs, “across the street from the track.” He dabbled in music early on in life, and got his first taste of the music industry when he joined his older brother’s “hippy psychedelic” band as a bass player at age 14. “I was touring five to seven days a week, playing with a lot of older musicians,” he recalls. Not exactly the typical high-school experience, but it definitely planted a seed for his future career. “I was fortunate in that I got to be in a lot of cool studios early on. It was always the other side of the glass—the engineering side—that intrigued me.”

Later, he spent a few years at colleges in the Northeast before relocating to Berkeley, Calif., to complete a degree in business. “To earn a living in this industry, you had better have the business chops to go along with it. It’s harder now than ever,” he asserts.

Being in California’s Bay Area also allowed DeVivo to work with some of the best names in the music industry. “That’s where I really learned my studio chops. I was taught by a guy named Steven Jarvis—he was kind of my mentor out there. Steven recorded everybody, from the Grateful Dead to Jefferson Airplane.
. . . And Steven was taught by Wally Heider, [who] started Filmways and Universal Recording. He was one of the
pioneers. So I got the tricks third-generation-removed from the guys who invented them.”

Finding steady work as a recording engineer in California wasn’t always easy or rewarding. “I did a lot of work for record companies out there. I used to record the baby bands—development deals.” Although a few demo projects that he put to tape went on to bigger things—the first single by early ’90s R&B act Tony! Toni! Toné! was developed from his 8-track demo recording—he was never credited (by the nature of the work). At the same time, he was beginning to realize that there were other options available.

“[Mastering] was an outgrowth of engineering for me,” he says. DeVivo would take recently mixed projects to mastering engineer George Horn at Berkeley’s famed Fantasy Studios. “I enjoyed music in that room more than I ever enjoyed music in my life. It showed me what was going on in my mixing room, so I always liked to [listen there] to see how my mix translated. After so many sessions, you develop a rapport with the mastering engineer, and I was hearing and pointing out stuff that George wasn’t catching or not getting to yet.” When Horn asked him if he had ever considered getting into mastering, DeVivo responded, “Oh, I’ll do that when I get old.

“And here I am!” he adds, laughing.

DeVivo and his wife, Erica, moved back to Saratoga in the early 1990s. “When I first moved back here, I built a [house] and put in a recording studio. That was the first time I had a home studio, and I realized I didn’t like having a home studio.” Plus, he found that many of the local musicians he worked with would leave out that all-important step. “I’d say, ‘You can’t skip mastering,’ and they’d be like, ‘What’s mastering?’ ”

Fed up with the long hours and chaotic atmosphere (“My wife would come home and there would be 10 guys scattered through the house”) of the home-recording life, and noticing an available niche, DeVivo contacted Nashville-based studio-designer Steven Durr to help him build a dedicated mastering facility.

The venture seems to be paying off. The list of past clients at www.silver reads like an index of area musicians, from classical and jazz to rock and punk, DeVivo has had perhaps a heavier hand in shaping the overall sound of this area’s CD releases than anyone might realize. He estimates that between 70 and 80 percent of local releases pass through his facility and, by keeping his rates well below the industry average, he maintains a high number of repeat customers.

His work hasn’t gone unnoticed on the national level, either. Through word-of-mouth, profiles in Mix and Modern Recording, and regular contributions to Tape Op magazine (a free periodical for studio enthusiasts), he’s attracted work from clients and labels thousands of miles outside the Capital Region. “I’ve gotten projects from as far away as Jamaica,” he explains, citing a Jimmy Cliff-produced reggae project that was sent to him for mastering. “One morning I get a call—it’s like 6 AM—and it’s Jimmy Cliff at the board telling me how they love the shit. I was all by myself freaking out!”

DeVivo is detail-oriented, focused and, most importantly, a good listener, which makes him just the right personality for this line of work. “[Mastering] is fun because you get to set up the ultimate listening environment. If you’re a true music lover like I am . . . there’s no better profession.” Over the course of our interview, he mentions records by both the Gipsy Kings and Outkast as being among his favorites, and takes particular pleasure in showing off his studio’s bass response by playing the latter’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below CD.

Not surprisingly, he’s also a gear geek. “What I have is a complement of the best digital and the best analog equipment out there,” he says. I have everything from the vintage Pultec EQs to the modern Weiss EQs. The Daniel Weiss compressors run $5,000 or $6,000 because of how powerful they are and what they can do. This one piece has 12 SHARC processors; an Apple computer has six,” he grins, like a kid showing off his action-figure collection.

So what exactly does all this stuff do? DeVivo explains that, in the mastering process, he uses “compressors and limiters and equalizers to reshape the frequency spectrum of the musical content; to get rid of any low-end rumble or masking that’s going on because of recombinant frequencies.”

To demonstrate, he plays an unmastered snippet of a jazz-fusion project he’s working on. “You have a certain low-mid tone in the guitar that’s the exact same low-mid tone that the bass is emitting. That’s fitting with the low-mid that the kick is putting out. Three times that, you have quite the buildup of that one frequency. I’m trying to get that cleaned up, but what’s changing is the tone of the guitar. The kick drum and the bass in this particular song are just about the same frequency.” He holds his hands close together to demonstrate the narrowness of the frequency spectrum. “There’s no separation. What I’m trying to do is give each one of them definition,” he adds, spreading his hands wider.

His enthusiasm is evident when he plays back the same snippet, post-
mastering. “Hear how that cleaned it up quite a bit?” he asks. There is now an audible clarity and separation between the conflicting voices. “Listen to that snare,” he says, again playing back last night’s unmastered version. He switches back once more, and, again, the difference is obvious.

“What I try to do is leave dynamics and subtle nuances. If you look at the waveforms of any of these things,” he says, gesturing to the ProTools monitor on his right, where the sound channels are reduced to red and blue squiggles, “you can see I left a lot of dynamics in there, but the levels are going to compete.”

DeVivo insists that mastering can improve a recording by “anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent. You only have one chance to make an impression. If some A&R guy in the industry puts your disc on after the last one and the impact isn’t there—well, the smart ones would know to listen to the music and see if the artist is there, but nine times out of 10, they’re looking for how it impacts them immediately.”

Placing the fate of your recording—your entire musical career, perhaps—on one man’s ears might seem dangerous. DeVivo assures that, in mastering, “you have to have a delicate balance. You can’t be reshaping it to where it’s changing the mix.” He boils the process down to a “happy compromise. You can’t affect one thing in a positive way without affecting something else in a negative way. It’s just the yin and yang of life, and this is no different.”

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