I met with mastering engineer Joe Lambert on a three-album morning: By the time I arrived, he had wrapped up an appointment with a local singer-songwriter at his studio in Jersey City, New Jersey, and mastered records for an Australian pop artist as well as a heavy metal band. His discography, like Grundman’s, is long and star-studded: Kanye West, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Alice Cooper, and Mandy Patinkin have all sat on his couch. Last year, he did the soundtrack for The Revenant. Gently graying in his forties with a tattoo of an electric guitar on his left forearm and black-rimmed glasses, Lambert was now waiting for a producer and artist to come work on an indie rock album.
The engineer bounced around the room amiably, offering a tour of his gear and playing bits and pieces from the morning’s work. A little after 1 p.m., a tan-skinned, thin-lipped, uncombed skinny man entered the room and introduced himself as Max. It was Max Drummey, formerly of indie-pop footnotes Chester French and best known for his brief tabloid marriage to the late Peaches Geldof.His producer, Tyler Wood, trailed behind in a military jacket. In the presence of his latest clients, Lambert’s energy shifted slightly—he became a little louder, a little jokier, vaguely more bro-y. He gave warm, firm handshakes and left the room to get some water as the two young men settled themselves on the couch, shuffling off jackets and unzipping their backpacks. Drummey shuffled around the room looking slightly frightened, inspecting the gear. I asked him what name he plays under.
He hesitated. “…Max?”
“It’s a debut album,” explained Wood.
Lambert reentered with a smile. “So, guys. Are we making a rock record?”
“Yeah, we’re rocking today,” Wood replied.
Lambert looked sidelong at Drummey, who was huddled several leagues deep in a gigantic woolen sweater of the sort you find in thrift stores in New Mexico. “Usually, the quieter the musician, the louder the record,” he said. Drummey ducked his head.
Lambert gave each song a first, diagnostic listen, tilting his head slightly to one side and nodding approvingly. Then, he played it again, his hands moving lightly over his board, turning dials back slightly, clicking here and there. As he made adjustments, the song would brighten, or Drummey’s voice would sound closer or farther away. Periodically, he’d turn off the track and turn to another computer, pulling up a few songs that shared a style or arrangement pattern with what Max was trying to do.
At one point, Wood interrupted to ask, “What is that reference you played? It’s perfect, it’s humbling.” It was “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire.
After a few listens and some minor fiddling with one track, Lambert paused and swiveled to face the two men behind him. “It’s tough because if we’re gonna leave the vocal this loud we’re gonna need more bass.”
“My concern is that it’s getting over-compressed,” Wood interjected.
“Yeah, that’s me adding more bottom,” Lambert explained, adjusting the vocal track. “Your voice made me wanna boost it, but then the track felt duller, so if we take your voice down a little…”
Max: "Dictionary" (Unmastered Version)
Max: "Dictionary" (Mastered Version)
Throughout their conversations, Lambert remained as jocular and affable as a Little League coach, eager to offer his expertise but not emotionally invested or interested in handing out orders. At one point, he put two hands on Drummey’s thin shoulders and gave him a gentle shake, as if to help him break through his shyness. In addition to his expert ears and technical adjustments, he also offered avuncular kindness, musical and social intelligence. He was, as Emily Lazar put it, “nailing the right vibe.”
The songs blurred into each other. “I’m gonna go take a wee,” said Drummey, standing suddenly. “Don’t tell me what you did, just do what you think is best.”
Once he left, Lambert turned to Wood. “Now that the low end is clean, it sounds much wider to me.”
They listened on repeat for a while.
“Hear that guitar? That overtone? It just wasn’t there before,” said Lambert.
“Yeah, it’s those overtones that make the guitar good or bad,” Wood replied.
“That’s the good spot.”
The two nodded, satisfied.
Just then, Drummey popped back in. “Is it perfect now?”