Magic Garden Mastering is a boutique facility in Atwater Village, Los Angeles, run by accomplished mastering engineer Brian Lucey. Credits include Michael Bublé, Elvis Costello, Shania Twain, Chet Faker, Lucinda Williams, Depeche Mode and The Black Keys, as well as the soundtrack to many hit movies and streaming series. Last week his client Juanes won the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Grammy for “Origen”, which is the 7th time he’s mastered a Grammy winner.
Recently, Lucey upgraded his room to Dolby Atmos capability, making Magic Garden the first analog dominant Atmos-capable mastering studio in the world. The overhaul included the addition of ten speakers to create a 7.1.4 system as well as extra amplifiers, digital-to-analog converters, audio interfaces, an advanced speaker optimization system and dozens of analog EQs.
We got a chance to talk shop with Lucey and get the inside scoop on his history in the industry, his thoughts on the developing art of Dolby Atmos mastering and what it took to create this setup.
How did Magic Garden get started?
I was a pro musician in NYC in the late 80s and by the 90s, I had 2” tape machines, a console and great hardware in my house. Throughout the 90s, mastering really wasn't on the radar, but in ‘99, I started it up for myself and some friends. I was unhappy with the tone and price of 99% of what was available. To solve this, I put together the mastering chain I have now through extensive experimentation. This was like buying three- and five-thousand-dollar guitar pedals, swapping them in and out on a desk, not a pedalboard. There was actually a time when I knew every product on the market, what it sounded like and how it compared to the rest. Of course, that’s impossible now because the market keeps blowing up every year. After a few years, I sold my recording/mixing equipment and started mastering full-time. I'm still happy with the chain I put together and have used it since with only two additions in the last couple of decades. I can do the things I wanted to hear as an artist in the 90s and many people enjoy my work, so I’m very fortunate.
What makes Magic Garden unique?
I suppose it’s the unique perspective, as I think of the big picture like a producer would, yet feel music with the emotional sensibilities of an artist. Balance is key. Frame of reference is key. My birth parents are artistic folks and my stepdad is extremely analytical, so this balance of analysis with aesthetics, at a high standard, is what I saw growing up.
I just turned 55, so I initially listened to vinyl and cassettes and did not enjoy the early eras of digital audio. CD digital in the 80s tended to be overly clinical and there was not much happening in terms of low-end, low mids or proper harmonics. Often there were many straight tape transfer-sounding results, which was rough for me coming from vinyl, and as a musician. The harmonics were all wrong.
Through the 90s, pop music became louder and louder, emphasizing mid-range and compression—cutting low end, cheating to get volume. I started thinking that there has to be a way that digital’s superior capture ability can incorporate organic low end and low midrange, be cooler and feel better. That was my aim with mastering in the late 90s.
Fast-forwarding to today; the big thing that makes Magic Garden different is that you're the only primarily analog Atmos mastering studio at the moment.
Yes, that's what Dolby has confirmed. Buddy Judge at Apple recently said that is the case as well. It was very tricky to set up but it’s now working great. Atmos is a big learning curve and a lot of tech, even if we do it in the simplest way possible. I was searching for a way to incorporate the tone from transformers and discrete op amps. I would also say the monitoring here is superior to the normal high end.
My first response to this technology was honestly not positive, it felt like a move from Apple and Dolby that wasn’t fully mapped out. I didn’t see much interest from artists. And then I realized that Apple is one of the world’s largest corporations and that they didn’t make this decision lightly. I also concluded that Atmos is the evolution of the audio playback art form, the solution to surround.
What’s different about mastering in Atmos, as opposed to stereo and surround formats?
It’s a new thing, very different technically from stereo and yet musically it’s the same concepts that apply. What they invented ten years ago is this notion of objects, which are mono music channels floating in space. And there are beds, yet there is no stereo bussing. An object is a channel that exists in a theoretical cube and we're able to place and/or move that sound object anywhere within the space, including up toward the atmospheric / ceiling / Atmos speakers. The number of speakers on playback is irrelevant with Atmos, which is what makes this an intelligent format that is the solution to the decades-long, surround sound dilemma.
The surround issue was always about the number of speakers and how to sell these different, changing, physical formats. Total chaos. In Atmos, it doesn't matter what your playback situation is—the decoding will deal with that. And it’s streamable. You can listen on everything from headphones up to a massive number of speakers in a Dolby Theater.
Since you can’t just run everything through a stereo chain, what’s your approach?
My process uses analog EQ on objects to upgrade tone, punch and size in the image overall. At the moment, I’m using 80 channels of analog EQ. I could work with less, but this allows me to handle anything that will come in the future. Of course, some tracks need compression too. There is no dogma, it’s still a taste thing, based on communication with each client. There are also LFE (low frequency effect) checks and other technical things that we all need to do. We do not want to blow up little speakers, the world over, even if headphones are dominant today!
Different people have varying philosophies on the processing, but one area of mastering which is consistent between stereo and Atmos is that our monitoring environment must be great. It has to be of the highest quality due to the complexity of the 12 or more speakers that create a compelling 3D image. As with stereo, the key is to really understand translation in every possible environment.
What monitoring do you use?
If we go back to the mid-2000s, I bought the second pair of Barefoot speakers that Thomas ever made, by hand. That was before I had major credits and before anyone had heard of Barefoot Sound. I used those for four years and was vocal about how they were going to change the world. This whole notion of a small full-range speaker was novel at the time.
Maybe around 2009, I moved to a three-way floorstanding monitor called the Allegra made by a German genius named Joachim Gerhard. I had those with upgraded crossovers until two years ago when I was contacted by another genius named Kevin Malmgren who used to work for Von Schweikert and also EgglestonWorks, the company that makes Bob Ludwig’s speakers. Kevin, for twenty years, has designed for his own boutique company called Evolution Acoustics.
Kevin offered me the pair of speakers that I have now, which are handmade prototypes of his Evolution Acoustics MMThree. I bought these along with the external EXACT upgraded crossovers, which are huge—like four feet tall. These are the best speakers I've ever heard—and of course, that's what we all say until we hear something else, yet I don't know how I could do better.
So for Atmos, the sound that I was used to was a stereo pair of these Evolution Acoustics MMThree EXACT powered by some very linear tube amps out of South Korea, a company called Allnic Audio. The A-6000 is the most powerful and linear 300B SET amplifier ever made. I believe these are the best amps in the world—and wow, have I tried a lot of amps! I use Acoustic Zen cabling. I love the designer Robert Lee—a cellist and EE guy. Love his price point value and all his cable flavors.
How did you expand the setup you loved into 7.1.4?
My goal was to stretch the sound that I had with stereo into multi-dimensions; to literally maintain the sound and to get to work on day one. Previously, when doing research for a B-room rig, I discovered that Evolution Acoustics has a tiny speaker that turns out to be really amazing. It's my second favorite speaker they make, and it’s called the Micro One. It’s low-cost, designed in the USA and made in China. It has many of the qualities of these hundred-thousand-dollar mains, for cheap. It’s an insane deal.
I also added a couple of SVS SB13 subs with upgraded amps. So the newest amp from SVS. I use two of them running together, and it's a crazy amount of power, like 2400W RMS/8000W Peak. For other amplification, I use two Parasound A 51s. Those give me a few Class A watts per channel, to flow with the linear tube amps.
The D-to-A conversion I use for stereo is the Bricasti M1 SE, which is the third-best converter in the world. The best two are made by Berkeley Audio Design, yet with my rig, the Bricasti subjectively works better. We're talking about a very fine line between extremely high-end converters.
D-to-A conversion in Atmos is an important factor. Many people seem to be using the Avid MTRX Studio interface for their D-to-A, but I use the MTRX only because it’s necessary for a setup using two computers and all this analog outboard. We can get one without converters and we can use Dante or MADI to hook it up to any converters we want. I’m using Dante and MADI in my rig with three HDX cards.
I had three of the Bricasti M1 SE’s already, so that's the six main listener-plane channels. And because those are very expensive, I did a lot of testing and found the Merging Technologies HAPI MKII with the newest converters to be a good choice for the other 6 channels. That eight-channel unit handles the four speakers on the ceiling as well as the center channel and the sub, plus headphones. I also use the Lynx Aurora (n) converters for analog EQ inserts and headphone outputs. That way, I have two different D-to-A options for headphone-checking the Dolby binaural decoding stack, with Sennheiser HD 800s.
What was the calibration and setup process like?
The Trinnov D-MON 12 was a critical component and I highly recommend it to anyone who's doing this, no matter what speakers they're using; no matter what the setup. It solves so many problems at such a high level and it takes literally five minutes to set up. It does more in five minutes than four people working for a week could do. My main gear recommendation here isn't speakers or amps or any of that, it’s the Trinnov.
The Trinnov is the most powerful piece of equipment that anyone could ever put into an Atmos studio because it deals with so many elements so quickly. It deals with the measurements for distance, adjusts the 3D placement, improves phase, group delay and speaker amplitude linearity, plus it upgrades the room issues. Beautiful results quickly, and more than physical measurements and treatments alone could accomplish.
Plus, we can save different presets. In my room, the whole back wall is on casters and behind it, there’s a 10-foot-high window with accordion doors that open up to the street. I generally have it closed, but if I want to open the doors for some fresh air, I can click the preset with the door open and it will make everything sound like it sounds with the door closed. So powerful. With a stereo setup and the two-channel Trinnov ST2, you could set the measurement microphone in the back of the room at the sofa position and make a preset for the client so it sounds right to them back there, with no low-end mess.
I was highly skeptical of Trinnov at first, as I've never liked any of the software involved in tuning. I was always old-school in terms of making the room right. And those rules still apply—the better the room and speakers, the better the result—even after the Trinnov. It's not like Trinnov eliminates those needs. But if you've done all you can with the physical side, then you bring in the Trinnov and it's really quite remarkable, especially for speakers with a traditional crossover. I could not live without it for my Atmos room.
What do you think the future of Dolby Atmos in the music world looks like?
It’s the early days and I'm looking long-term. There's a certain amount of surrender to this chaotic process that we all need to give in to. For audio engineers who often thrive on control, surrender is a difficult task and chaos is not welcome. Yet, if we can simply accept the process of Apple and Dolby getting together and artists coming on board, I’m confident that it's going to work out. Everyone has the same interest: powerful, inspiring music and consistent high-level engineering. We all want this highly creative product to survive, thrive and be a winner. It’s so much joy in real rooms and can be great on headphones, too. My personal goal today is to set the high sonics bar in this emerging format. I've gone from very skeptical to one hundred percent all-in. No matter the future of the format, it’s a breath of fresh air to work in Atmos. And like everyone else who has been working in this format, I can communicate as needed with people like Jordan Glasgow at Dolby or Buddy Judge and Ceri Thomas at Apple for support and to offer feedback.
The good news is that everyone wants the same things and it's only going to get better over time. Headphone results will improve, cheap and good speakers will be in more rooms, VR is coming. Everything will be more creative once artists get inspired by this new format. It’s a new thing and needs to be enjoyed and treated as such. Sure, it’s a chaotic start and there is some understandable insecurity about how this changes the future, but there’s a big upside. And it’s all going to get better. Meanwhile, stereo will never lose dominance, never go away as the standard, it’s just too practical. Step one with atmospheric pop music? Get more artists into more rooms, then the creative sparks can fly.