Lacquer Channel

Lacquer Channel
"Where I Play"? Anywhere but here. Don't even think about laying tracks at this studio.

For more than 35 years, the Lacquer Channel has built up its legendary status in the Canadian music industry by excelling in only one service: mastering. This is the final step on the long road of music production, or at least it should be says proprietor and chief evangelist Noah Mintz. With so much music made at home, why bother with the extra expense of mastering?

"Because it's unfinished" he declares with great certainty. "Mastering since the dawn of recording has been an important part of the process. If mastering is an afterthought then it's unfinished."

Then he really gets going: "Mastering isn't a career, it's a bit of a cause. Mastering engineers get very behind their craft. All of us at Lacquer Channel are dedicated mastering engineers; that's all we do." Don't settle for "mastering services" at a studio, he cautions. "A lot of recording studios look at mastering as a revenue stream, not a genuine art form."

The Lacquer Channel, as the name suggests, was originally cutting master discs for vinyl in 1975. It was a partnership of two Canadian production legends: Jack Richardson and Bob Ezrin. They soon teamed up with Paul Gross (of Metalworks studio fame) and moved into their own facilities. The mastering studio handled a bevy of classic records from domestic releases like Rush's first few records, to international work by the likes of Peter Gabriel, Public Enemy and U2. Ironically, Mintz says they no longer produce lacquer masters; they decommissioned their lathe last year due to increasing costs and lack of tech support in Canada.

But the Lacquer Channel wants not for gear. With 35 years' of purebred tech filling the place, the studio offers an unrivalled sonic experience in Canada. "We have such a great complement of vintage gear and we're still predominantly an analog mastering studio. Around 2005, me and [partner] Phil Demetro really retrofitted the studio. We got rid of the [extremely rare] Neve consoles and some of the old equipment ― the stuff that was old and inconsistent. We kept some stuff, [like] Neve EQs, which are the only two in Canada that are being used in mastering. We have Songtech EQs. They are the gold standard in mastering EQs; Lacquer Channel has two of them."

But gear is only the starting point. The engineers (including George "Golden Ears" Graves) have over 50 years experience between them. Mintz describes his own mystic revelation about his craft around year ten. "You feel it. I often do mastering for Howie Beck, and he gets 99 percent of what he likes out of the albums he records. If I was given those albums without any direction whatsoever, I would do a lot more with it, but he's coming in saying 'Look, this is the way it's supposed to sound.' Sometimes with those albums all I've added was a half a dB of gain [volume] and nothing else. But you know what? It took me four hours to find the right way to make that gain. There are a hundred different ways to add gain. There are hundreds of plug-ins out there; every plug-in sounds different. I can use a compressor, I can use an EQ, I can use tubes, transformers, straight wire ― it's endless how much gain I can use. Gain is not just gain."

Despite the Lacquer Channel's undisputed place in the Canadian music business establishment, there's a bit of an indie vibe to the place since Mintz took over. "I still have the philosophy of working within people's budgets no matter what those budgets are. I personally don't turn down anyone based on what they can spend."

That's pragmatic. The days of major labels demanding the loudest-possible radio-ready masters accounting for 50 percent of their business are long gone. Nowadays, as with Howie Beck's example, it's more about helping artists to fully realize their vision. "More and more people are recording on their own. It's great. But it's a mixed blessing," says Mintz, citing some of the technical pitfalls of home recording. Some, like out-of-phase sounds, are incurable. But a pair of expert ears amid a paradise of gear can work wonders. "People are creating more creative work than they've ever done, but they realize they need mastering."