Serge Espitia is a mastering engineer out of Maplewood, New Jersey. With over a decade of experience in the music industry, he has spent time working in some of the most recognizable studios in the world, including Blue Jay Recording in Boston, and East Side Sound, Stratosphere Sound and Masterdisk in New York.
In 2011, Serge began putting together his own Brooklyn-based studio space under the banner of Tiny Thunder Audio. Eventually, he headed to New Jersey and shifted focus from tracking and mixing to predominantly mastering.
Recently, we sat down to talk with Serge about the history of Tiny Thunder, his philosophy on mixing vs. mastering, and some of the gear choices that he’s made for his studio.
Tiny Thunder originally started out as a recording and mixing spot and then transitioned into a mastering operation. Tell us a bit about the studio's history and the move into mastering.
The studio started out more than 10 years ago. I had recently completed an internship at Stratosphere Sound and decided to start my own studio. I settled in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in a very small room where I kept busy mixing and doing a lot of vocal sessions. A couple of years into that space, I decided to expand into a larger room where I could do full tracking. I moved into a loft, bought a 32-channel console as well as a Pro Tools HD rig and started recording local bands.
At that particular point in time, Brooklyn really became a hub for recording studios since most of the big rooms in Manhattan started to close down. So in the span of a year or so, there was an explosion of rooms the same size as mine that really saturated the market and made it almost impossible to compete and keep up. As time went by, I realized that I was mostly working to pay my rent without making a real profit. In the end, that set-up wasn’t in the cards for me, so I decided to close shop and move to New Jersey since my wife works there.
A couple of years went by, and I got the opportunity to manage operations and sales for Stereodisk, a vinyl pressing factory located in Kenilworth, NJ. That’s where the love for mastering really sparked. We were cutting lacquers in the facility and there’s a dedicated mastering room there and that’s where I started toying with the idea of getting a home studio. I didn't want to be in a position where I was paying overhead, rent and a commercial space ever again.
Up to that point, I had unloaded all of my old studio’s equipment so I knew I would have to start my new room from scratch. I talked to Jacob Schneider at Vintage King about the idea of having my own space, and before I knew it, we put together a set-up that allowed me to start mixing records again as well as trying to master them on my own.
As I progressed with my audio journey, the only constant was mastering. I started to work on developing my skills and I realized that I really enjoyed the mastering process. I enjoyed analyzing music and thinking of ways to enhance it and make sure that it’s up to commercial standards.
A lot of people think of mastering as a mysterious black art or that it’s just about making things louder, but it’s really not that at all! To me, mastering is a matter of personal taste, knowing when to correct and learning how to properly embellish the material.
Like all things, good taste comes from experience and years of critically listening to music, so every mastering engineer I know has his/her own approach to the process, and I find that incredibly interesting. Also, working from a home studio did not allow for much live recording and I knew mixing was not something I wanted to tackle full time. So that’s when I decided to pursue mastering exclusively.
Not long after that, I got an opportunity to join Scott Hull at Masterdisk working on the marketing and business development side of things. Scott brought me even further into the mastering realm and has been mentoring me ever since.
Scott has done work for some huge artists like Steely Dan, John Mayer and Bruce Springsteen. How has working with him helped you learn more about mastering?
Even though I’m more involved in the marketing/business side of things at Masterdisk, learning from Scott has been huge in my development as a mastering engineer. The institution is legendary. It’s a really interesting place to be. A lot of the greats have walked through those doors.
Scott is humble to the core, and he’s the type of guy who lives for his passion and craft, and is so meticulous about what he does that just being around him causes you to inherit some of that. He always says, “Perfect is close enough.” For me, I try to take what I learn from people like Scott and apply it to my work. He’s not afraid to share his knowledge or to teach you anything related to music, production or mastering because he knows the results for each person will be different.
Once he takes you on, he wants to make sure you understand the whole process starting out with basic concepts to make sure you know exactly how his room is set up and how it sounds. That being said, you could spend hours talking to him about different topics, his knowledge is very impressive. Like I said, Scott is the best.
How do you think the role of a mastering engineer differs from that of a mix engineer?
That’s a great question. Making that jump from mixing to mastering was hard for me. I really had to change my entire approach. I feel that, as a mix engineer, you can go in and be aggressive or be subtle and you really have an opportunity to put your stamp on things. In other words, as a mix engineer you can approach a song in specific, individual terms and base your decisions on those aspects of the composition. As a mastering engineer, you’re thinking about general terms for no other reason than you only have a stereo track to work with, so one move will alter the material in its entirety. It’s more of a give and take, if you will.
When I started mastering, I quickly realized that I was doing too much at first. I was compressing and EQing too much, and I was overthinking the whole process. So I had to take a step back and relearn the way I listened to music, as well as the way I approached it as an engineer in order to be discreet and enhance the mixes I've been given, without changing them dramatically.
Alright, now that we covered how you got into mastering, let's talk about the gear at Tiny Thunder. What's your set-up like?
When I started working with Jacob at Vintage King, we originally were outfitting the studio for mixing and mastering. We started with converters first. The initial set-up had an Antelope Audio Pure2 mastering converter as well as a pair of Mytek Brooklyn DAC and ADC.
I’ve always been more of an analog guy, that’s how I really learned how to work with music. The setup I had back then included a Neve 33609, Neve 8803, API 2500, API 5500, a pair of Distressors, a Manley Variable Mu, and a Massive Passive. Later, I added a couple of 500 Series lunchboxes that had things like a TK Audio SSL style compressor, a pair of Acme Audio Opticoms, API 550bs, and a pair of the RND Tape Emulators. I worked with that for a while, and then I started to really move more into mastering territory.
Once I decided I was going to go full time with the mastering, it was clear that most of the equipment being used needed to change. I had a two-prong approach. On the one hand, I wanted the absolute best gear I could afford. The second part was to offer a relaxed, toned down environment where people had a personable experience, while still getting the same quality and access to gear pieces that people might have at other, more expensive places.
I realized for my particular needs, I really needed a mastering console. I needed ways to reference the mix against the master, the ability to work in Mid Side, a dedicated monitor controller, a lot of things like that. With Jacob’s help, I decided to go with the Maselec MTC-1X Mastering Transfer Console. It basically had all of the different things that I needed in one package. So that was the start of the switch to a mastering setup. Then I picked up the Dangerous Music Convert-AD+ and Convert-2 D/A, as well as an SPL Mercury DA Converter.
In my workflow, I need to be able to work fast. As much fun as collecting equipment is, I really needed to select a few tools that would get used in all sessions. The Spectra 1964 V610s were one of the first pieces to arrive. I have them at the beginning of the chain. They really clean the audio on the way in and get rid of the nasty peaks. What I find really special about them is the amount of headroom that they provide. You really don’t see any dynamic range loss with them. I also have an SPL PQ, which really delivers. It has that super punchy sound. Another piece here is the Dangerous BAX EQ. That was a piece that took me a while to get used to. It’s very clean, but once my ears got used to it, it has really become an indispensable part of my set-up.
What kind of projects are you mostly working on genre-wise? Does that affect your gear or workflow at all?
I would say that the three that I get the most are indie/folk, rock, and hip-hop. Hip-hop is always hard for me. I feel like everyone is striving for a similar thing, so there’s a lot of rules to it. How the low end sits, how the vocals sit, loudness, all that. When I’m working with bands, we’re talking about the concept of the album and how to best represent that. Rock records are what I grew up on, so when I work on that type of material, I tend to go back to the sounds I grew up with. I feel like it’s more about the vibe, color, and space in that genre. I tend to be a lot more aggressive with hip hop, and I find myself using more digital tools for it while using more analog processing for the rock and folk work.
Let’s talk about a couple of your favorite projects you’ve worked on.
Sure! Most of my work is done for independent artists, but lately and by pure accident, I got to work with Ryan Toby, who has written for Justin Bieber and is in his own right a monster composer. When Covid-19 forced us into quarantine, he started putting out an impressive amount of work. Basically, he set out to release 10 albums in 10 weeks under the title of “Songs For the Lockdown” (he did release all 10). The opening track of volume 10, “Takes One Minute” landed on my desk since Ryan’s co-writer and Grammy-winning producer Alex Chiger wanted to get my feedback on it. I liked it so much I asked him if he would let me master it, he agreed and they both loved it.
I also do a lot of work with producer/engineer Adam Tilzer (James Iha, Fountains of Wayne, The Sounds, Little Steven). Adam was one of the engineers at Stratosphere Sound but also went on his own shortly after Stratosphere closed its doors, and has since put together an incredible roster of independent singer-songwriters that he produces for.