JESSICA THOMPSON
Mastering Engineer, Coast Mastering
(San Francisco, Califorinia)

illustration by Maggie Negrete + interview by Madeleine Campbell

“I’m always careful not to push things outside of their own reality. A live recording should sound like a space. It has specific reverb decays and reflections. I never want to destroy that space or turn it into something artificial through the mastering process.”

WiS: I just read the new Tape Op review of the SPL: Iron Mastering Compressor last night and didn’t even realize until the end it was partially your writing.
JT: Yeah! I just bought one. At the end of the demo period I decided to keep it so I sold one compressor and bought that one. I love it.

Small world. Jade Payne is also featured in this issue. We talked the other week and she mentioned you. She said she knew you from The Magic Shop days.
Oh, nice! Jade is great.

She is. Are you a New York native?
I’m not. I went to college in Connecticut and decided to go to grad school in New York. I stuck around for twelve years after that.

Were you studying audio in school?
No, I was in the Media Studies department at The New School.

How did you get started in mastering?
I had an internship with Emily Lazar at her studio, The Lodge. It was probably a Craigslist posting. I got very lucky with the timing. She needed someone and I was a good fit. She hired me within a matter of weeks. I put in my time and worked really, really hard. I learned so much about music and engineering and how to treat your clients.

How long were you there?
About two years. After that, my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband, was working in a different department at The Lodge in music production. We decided to quit our jobs and travel for a while. We co-ordinated our resignations and hopped on a plane to Greece and Turkey. We were totally checked out of music and technology work which was amazing. We backpacked and ate really good food. We got married then he went to grad school in Boston. We spent a year and a half there where I worked with Jeff Lipton at Peerless Mastering. I met him at the Tape Op conference and we got along. I knew he needed someone and I approached him.

Timing is your strong suit!
Ha. Yes! But I’m patient. I wait for an opportunity then I seize it.

And after Boston you went back to NYC?
Yeah. My husband was given a really great opportunity back at the Lodge. I was a little burned out. I wasn’t sure if I was going to stick with mastering at that point. I dabbled in sound for video for a while but decided it wasn’t for me. I needed music. That’s when I connected with Steve Rosenthal at The Magic Shop. I met him at an ARSC [Association for Recorded Sound Collections] conference and told him I wanted to work with him. He said “Great! Thanks!” Three months later I heard from him and it worked out. I was there for seven years as the chief mastering engineer.

What was a highlight project for you?
I did a huge Erroll Garner restoration project. It was nominated for a Grammy. That was enormous and intense.

He’s a Pittsburgh native!
Yes, he is. We worked on it for over a year. I felt so deeply connected to that music. I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life.

How was it recorded?
On a portable tape player. 7.5 IPS, ¼” tape with one microphone.

Wow. What was that process like? I mean, how do you even begin to process that?
You intuit what you think things could and should sound like. You imagine what that sound is and then figure out how to use your tools to that achieve sound. It’s not always possible. There are definitely limitations. I can give you a specific explanation and a more general explanation.

Please.
So more specifically, when I started this project, I actually pulled up one of my favorite Ahmad Jamal recordings, Live at The Pershing. I listened to that and then the Erroll Garner recordings. Ahmad Jamal’s was a professional recording. Erroll Garner’s was not. It wasn’t recorded to be released. It was just going to be a radio broadcast. I’m always amazed by the sound of Ahmad Jamal playing in this beautiful space. I was working with something that doesn’t sound like that. You mentally connect those two distinct recordings and figure out where you can take it and still be true to what it is. I’m always careful not to push things outside of their own reality. A live recording should sound like a space. It has specific reverb decays and reflections. I never want to destroy that space or turn it into something artificial through the mastering process. Studio constructed recordings are totally different. And that’s the fun thing about working with electronic music. You’re not beholden to your architecture. I approach it in a more general sense, too. My undergrad degree is in anthropology. You might think there’s little connection between what I studied and what I do now but after many years, I see a lot of overlap. I think about the history of formats and where things fall in different cultural contexts. I’m very analytical and respectful of my work.

Beautiful. Don’t try to change something into a totally different space.
Right.

Coast just had it’s grand opening party this past weekend?
Yes!

What made you decide to move to the west coast?
It was really a perfect storm. I had two kids and a tiny apartment. All of my family is in Colorado and Wyoming. My sister is in the Bay Area and we were constantly flying across the country to visit. My husband and I were ready for a change. Professionally, I knew The Magic Shop was most likely going to close down within a year. We asked ourselves “Should we move to Colorado or the Bay Area?” I had met Michael Romanowski at a conference. I approached him and started a conversation and basically said “I’d like to join your studio.” Once we decided what we were doing I got in touch and basically said “Okay, I’m moving to town!” I joined up with Coast Mastering which is Michael, Piper and myself. I’m very happy to be a part of this group. We all get along well.

And you’re in a new space, too?
Yes. We moved into a new facility in October. Their rent was going up and they were trying to buy the building. Finally they decided they wanted to find a space in the East Bay so they moved into the Fantasy Studio buildings. It’s gorgeous. We moved in September and started working on records in October. This past July was our grand opening. There were so many people here from all angles of the industry. Engineers, producers, journalists and lots of great friends. It was nice to be able to show off the space.  

What’s the space like? And what is your go-to gear?
We have two mastering rooms. Michael’s is equipped for stereo and surround. Piper and I share a room. We both had a lot of gear so now that we’ve combined forces, we have a super rack of outboard gear. Let’s see, I like the Manley Massive Passive. The SPL. We have a GML EQ I turn to often. A few pieces have floated in and out as we refine how we like to use things. We switched to Sequoia software recently, which, for me, was a significant upgrade. At The Magic Shop I had purchased all my gear myself. I also have an archiving and restoration suite. I do a lot of tape transfers, vinyl transfers and DAT [digital audio tape]. That’s where all my playback machines and record cleaning machines live. I spend a lot of time sitting back there with headphones on.

Tell me about a transfer project you particularly enjoyed.  
I worked on a cassette archive recorded on a boombox in the early ‘80s New York avant-garde noise scene.

That must be a tough genre to digitally restore.
It definitely presents some unique challenges. You have the noise imprint from a poor recording or media that’s degraded over the last 30 years. You have to figure out how you define the noise and highlight aspects of the recording that are sonically engaging but etch out that which detracts from the vivacity of the music. I also just finished a big archive for a blues artist and political activist named Barbara Dane. She is so super cool. She is 89 and just made a new CD.

Is there a strong relationship between your mastering work and your restoration work?
For sure. They play into each other. They’re similar in that it’s so much about perspective. You need consistency across different songs. You’re trying to highlight the best of everything. You’re constantly asking yourself “What should it sound like? How can I take it there?”

How has it been balancing all of your work with motherhood?
I have to say, I was so lucky. I found out I was pregnant the day before I started at The Magic Shop. I was so worried I’d be the weird new girl who was barfing all the time. I told Steve and he was like “That’s fantastic! Do you want my crib?” The studio owner gave me his crib! He was so supportive. When you are a freelance engineer, you take off when you need to take off. I was so grateful to have a supportive partner. I did my first record five or six weeks after having my first child. Having children does make me value my time at work and my time at home more. I am able to leave my kids at school or with a care provider and then go to work and completely focus on my work. It makes me feel more like a whole person. I can go to work. I can focus and be that person. I can step away from it and go home and play with my kids.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Sometimes I wish I started earlier. I came to the career kind of late. But far more importantly I’d say listen to everything. Listen to it intensively. Be prepared to put in the work and really devote yourself to listening and learning. I’ve been really adamant lately about encouraging engineers to pursue it fully. You can’t just dabble in any creative field that requires such a deep knowledge and history and technology tools and delivery formats. There’s no way to get around hard work.
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www.coastmastering.com