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Audeze speaks with mastering engineer Adam Haggar

Adam Haggar is a mastering engineer who believes in the simple, clarifying power of an impeccable-sounding outboard mastering chain. At Mount Olympia Mastering, Haggar approaches processing in an intuitive way that gives “voice” and priority to the artist’s approved mixes. More recently, he’s taking a special interest in enabling the subtle ambiences and atmospheric effects found in his client’s work, regardless of genre.

"I've been using the 4z's regularly in and out of the mastering studio and I'm most impressed with the dynamics and dimension of the low end... They're definitely the first headphones I've used where I can confidently judge the subtle yet important changes affecting bounce and feel." - Adam Haggar


Here's our chat with Adam:

Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?

Some things that come to mind are the Rob Ellis-produced (PJ Harvey, Marianne Faithful) debut record and 7-inch for UK alt-rock duo Blue Violet [check out “A Girl Like You” and “White Beaches”]. I also mastered an alt-country/rock LP called, “Robert Francis + The End Times Vol. 1,” that I’m very proud of. Barny Barnicott did a great job mixing it. They’d had it mastered previously by a famous mastering guy, who’s done records I grew up on and still love. Maybe he just had an off day, but my versions prevailed and everyone was extremely happy when they heard what was possible with the mixes. This led to another very well-written (and recorded) LP that Robert produced for the artist Maxim Ludwig. Really hope this one comes out soon so your readers can check it out. Also worth mentioning was a fiery single I mastered for Migos a while back called ,“Blue Benjamin Hunnies.” Hope that one comes out for the world to hear one day as well.. There were some mind-blowing performances on that track. 

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?

I play a supportive role in all of these projects. My job is to listen in as pure a way as I can - to take note of my impressions as a first listener - and to ensure that all of my client’s punches (both emotional and physical) will land, so to speak, as they were intended. I do my best to anticipate what kind of scenarios the music will encounter as it propagates through space and time. I use tools like EQs in subtle ways that are a bit like lighting a stage for optimal presentation of the music’s melodic, rhythmic, and spatial narrative. So basically, I’m giving previously-mixed recordings a subtle, illuminating, corrective enhancement, and quality control, before formatting their final files for distribution (streaming audio, vinyl records, CDs).

How did you get started in mastering?

I've always found purpose in supporting other artists and have been very fortunate in who I've had the chance to learn from. I studied music and music technology at UNC Asheville, a program with a strong emphasis on physics, electronics, and electroacoustic synthesis (with occasional lab visits from Dr. Bob Moog himself!). Then I moved to NYC, where I spent the better part of my 20’s as a sort of career mixing assistant. I interned and apprenticed my way up the commercial studio hierarchy and was eventually trusted and complimented on my studio work ethic by some important clients. It was in these professional situations where I really got my chops up technically and on the interpersonal side of things, providing mixing assistance to people like Dan Grech-Marguerat (Radiohead, Beck, Lana Del Rey), The Scissor Sisters, Jimmy Douglas (Justin Timberlake, Timbaland), Elliot Goldenthal (Across The Universe, Frida), & Bonzai Caruso (Damian Marley).

Eventually I moved to LA to sort of break the monotonous spell of assistant life. I got a side gig here as Events Production Manager of a landmark Hollywood music venue (the Fonda Theater), and taught mixing and mastering at Icon Collective in Burbank. Mount Olympia Mastering began to take root as I mastered works of certain talented mixing students. Meanwhile I was attending every mastering session I could with established, LA-based mastering engineers. I eventually negotiated an arrangement to master for my own clients in the off-hours at Darkart Mastering, Mike Bell's Multi-Platinum-Award winning mastering house (Justice, Diplo, Skrillex) in DTLA. We combined our gear, and I learned a lot while sharing a workflow and a mastering desk with Mike. I mastered hundreds of projects, acquired more of the necessary gear, and eventually had a great client base.

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?

In the winter of 2007, I was invited to spend the afternoon 1 on 1 with Moby at his home studio in Manhattan. I was one of four people that he was interviewing for a full-time position to help him finish the record he was making. I got to know him a little bit, and the whole session was a trip! His studio was very futuristic and exciting. In the end, he chose one of the other three. I guess if things had gone the other way, I almost certainly wouldn’t have moved to LA a few months later and synced up on my mastering journey! Another thing that really influenced me was a short conversation I had at a party with the legendary producer/mixer Jack Joseph Puig. I hadn’t been mastering very long at the time, and I had the chance to ask him what he might look for if he were trying out a new mastering option. “A GREAT sounding chain,” he answered very directly. It has taken a lot of experimenting and quite a few revisions to the chain, but I've come to understand more fully why he'd value that over all else.. and if you’re reading this Jack, I’m definitely ready when you are!

Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?

This story is a situation where my Audeze headphones could have really saved the day if I’d had them at the time. I’ve heard it said that success is the product of luck-meets-preparation. Well, I once had the opportunity to master a song for Childish Gambino, right after one of his huge hits. I believe I was in the running with Bernie Grundman and Chris Athens. The only problem was when the call came, I had literally just finished unloading my mastering studio from a cross-country U-haul trip earlier that day and everything was in boxes. Of course they needed it the same day as well! I knew I had to at least give it my best shot and it was only a single, so I frantically unpacked my gear and tried to test out a little corner of a basement I had temporary access to. I'd never listened to a note of music in that space before going for it, so it was a definite hail-Mary. To be clear, I don't recommend mastering this way. In the end they didn’t use my master, but they didn’t use the Athens or the Grundman masters either.. (I think they went with the mixer's rough master for this single). I’m happy to say that my studio is very well squared away these days, but I've also got my LCD-4z’s to rely on for whatever kind of crazy scenario might get thrown at me next!

Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools recently?

The gear I use for processing masters varies from song to song, but there are a few components that end up getting used on just about everything. I couldn’t live without my Weiss EQ1, for example. It’s a great utility box and it’s on almost every project. The next most used EQ is the Knif Soma. It’s a gorgeous-sounding, modern passive tube-EQ that’s handmade in Finland by Jonte Knif. I also really love what my Mutec MC-3+ re-clocker does, and the sound of the Benchmark DAC3-DX that feeds my analog chain. There’s a chemistry to the way each component in the chain interacts. Taken together, they've really become a living breathing instrument that reacts to the music in a certain way depending on how it’s played and pushed.

I also love my Chord Mojo. It has a uniquely musical and modern sound that I can totally master with when I'm needing to be more portable.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?

I'm a believer that it's important to specialize if you want to stand out and make a name for yourself. It takes time and a bit of experimentation to figure out what you're best at sometimes, so start out by saying yes to any and all opportunities that come your way. You may find that you're actually pretty good at something you'd previously overlooked. I never had any doubt that I'd be working professionally in music for life. I just didn't know if it would be writing or performing or what. Eventually you discover what really makes you come alive and dig deeper into your own well. And the people in your orbit will show you and let you know if you can't see it for yourself right away. I got a lot of great feedback about my mastering early on and it started to seem like a no-brainer that this was going to work out well for me.

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I've always sort of hopped back and forth between 'phones and speakers to keep perspective as I work. I had several pairs of Sony MDR 7506's in the early years, and I used to use them for checking tops and tails, fades, noise floor, things like that. Later, when I switched to open-back Sennheiser HD600’s and a Benchmark DAC1 headphone rig, I began to trust the cans with more and more critical decision making - things like checking in on dynamics, distortion, and even a bit of EQ on occasion, while relying primarily on my full range PMC IB1's for the bulk of my work. Audeze are the first line of headphones I've ever really considered as a viable tool to rival speakers in a pinch or just in general.

Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?

I have a fun little story about running into Snoop Dogg when he was alone backstage at the Fonda Theater. I was working as an events production manager there at the time. I don’t get star-struck very often, but I guess it must’ve been obvious that time. He brought it in and gave me an elbow-bump and a “what’s up, homey..” it made my day, and I think it helps my resume too.

How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them so far?

I've been using the 4z's regularly in and out of the mastering studio and I'm most impressed with the dynamics and dimension of the low end. It's a physical thing, like working with speakers. The stereo picture kind of sits out in front of me slightly too, which is conducive to making small adjustments out around the peripheries of a recording. They're definitely the first headphones I've used where I can confidently judge the subtle yet important changes affecting bounce and feel. I like to work at really low volumes when checking top end and presence, and everything scales nicely when listening that way with the 4z and a good DAC.

Here are some highlights from my mastering work over recent months:

The Rob Ellis-produced (Marianne Faithful, PJ Harvey, Placebo) debut record and 7-inch for UK alt-rock duo Blue Violet. [check out “A Girl Like You” and “White Beaches”]

"Connection" is a trip-hop, downtempo-ambient album to get lost in by the artist Supertask (aka Kyle Bishoff). This will be out on vinyl too. [check out "Gateway" and "Source Code"]

A dance-y new EP, “Definitely Not Cats,” by former Rise Records rockers Alive Like Me.

"Stockholm" is an EP with some very memorable songs from a new electro-folk duo called Importer & Bobby Guard. It starts with a great song called, "Summer Kings" [the second song is great too!]

There were also some cool singles from an experimental side project called Eklund, which is actually the Swedish producer Per Eklund (Britney Spears, Alessia Cara, Josh Radin). [see "730," while the other two are coming out soon]