By Brian F. Johnson
It felt awfully odd pulling out my old brick of a cassette recorder in a room specially designed for mastering DVDs and Super Audio CDs, where surround sound speakers tower over the corners of the room. I was sitting down to interview one of the best pair of ears in Colorado — David Glasser, the founder and chief engineer at Airshow Mastering — and amidst some of the most technologically advanced audio mastering equipment, that old cassette recorder was like having a dinosaur walk into a modern-day science lab. It was almost comical.
But Glasser, isn’t afraid of dinosaurs. With over 30 years experience in audio engineering, a man who has mastered over 60 Grammy nominated records and is a three-time nominee and two-time Grammy winner himself, his calm and humble nature, not to mention his dry sense of humor, takes over the room.
Having grown up on the East Coast in the town of Amityville, N.Y. (the same one from the famed movie Amityville Horror), Glasser began his audio career with the Boston Symphony, followed by eight years of recording and production for National Public Radio. (Longtime NPR listeners have heard Glasser’s work on the new shows “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.”)
In 1987 Glasser started Airshow Mastering in Washington, D.C., to offer remote recording services for concerts, festivals and special events, but as the business grew, his desire to leave the East Coast also grew. A friend of his, Steve Szymanski, who is the vice president of Planet Bluegrass in Lyons, Colo., had suggested that Glasser check out Boulder, and after visiting the area he was sold. So in 1997 he moved Airshow to Colorado, while keeping a studio just outside the nation’s capitol in Springfield, Va.
The following are excerpts from my conversation with Glasser, inside that pristine room, Studio C, at Airshow’s Boulder facility.
Marquee: What was the first album you ever bought?
Glasser: Bought? I forget if it was the first Jimi Hendrix or the first Richie Havens record, but I bought them both at around the same time when they first came out. Wait. That’s not true, I had the Beatles before that, either the first or second Beatles album.
Marquee: What was the first concert you ever attended?
Glasser: My first real concert I was too young to appreciate. I think I went with some youth group or something to see Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Ponies. But the first concert that really had a huge impact was a huge concert with the Chambers Brothers, and I was a huge Chambers Brothers fan, The Soft Machine, Janis Joplin with Big Brother and Jimi Hendrix in 1968. That was major.
Marquee: Explain to people who don’t know what mastering really is.
Glasser: It’s putting the finishing polish on the music and a pretty good analogy is like a colorist in film. It’s the person who has taken all of the film shot over, say, a six-month period in various lighting conditions and makes sure that it all looks like it belongs in the same movie. We do the same thing. We put the finishing polish on the sound to make sure that it is what the artist intended it to be, and that it all hangs together, no matter what kind of music it is.
Marquee: Why do you do what you do?
Glasser: I’m a big music fan and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that and plus, like all engineers, I like playing with the toys.
Marquee: There’s such a shift to MP3s and lower quality music going on right now, does that bother you and what if these rumblings that the CD is dead come true?
Glasser: It bothers me a little bit, and I think that goes for all of the guys who work here. We’re all about high quality and making things sound the best they can and when it gets down to an MP3, or satellite radio for that matter, it loses a lot of that vibe that the original had, but you can only worry about it so much. As for the physical product, I hope it doesn’t die. That’s just where I come from. I like the physical artifact. I’m a nut for box sets and you can’t get that experience in a download.
Marquee: What projects are you most proud of, is it the projects you were honored with Grammy’s for, or are there others?
Glasser: Of course I’m really proud of the Grammys but even if the Anthology of American Folk Music hadn’t won a Grammy I would still be very proud of it, because I’ve come to learn that that was a really important product when it came out originally in the ’50s and our version was, of course, the re-issue. So I’m really proud of that. (Glasser’s other Grammy was for Screamin’ and Hollering’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charlie Patton.) But I’m really thrilled to have worked on the Grateful Dead Movie, because I’ve been a Dead Head for forever. And I’ve loved working with artists who I’ve been a real fan of, like Peter Rowan or the Stanley Brothers. I’m just proud to have been associated with their projects.
Marquee: What other projects were a nice surprise for you?
Glasser: Most of the time it’s a surprise and that’s a nice thing. It’s so great when it happens. It’s happened locally with Buckskin Stallion. Troy’s (Schoenfelder) music just blew me away and I hadn’t had any expectations of what it was going to be. Uncle Earl, I mastered their first CD and it was a really big thrill and Arthur Lee Land was great too.
Marquee: What’s your feeling on the trend of commerce over content in mainstream music and using things like Autotune and stuff that allows people who maybe shouldn’t be making records to produce something.
Glasser: Well, I think it’s just one way of making records and a way of making music, but it’s not the only way and there’s a lot more people making their own music these days where you don’t have to have an old school recording studio and trained operators the way you used to. So more and more people are making music, which means that there’s more bad music, but there’s a lot more good music too and I think that’s a good thing. Surely it’s not the fault of the music that the music industry is where it is today. It’s the fault of the culture.
Marquee: With the ears that you have, can you actually enjoy other people’s work or are you always looking at it under the microscope for what could have been done sonically?
Glasser: You can listen at all different levels. So when I’m listening for musical enjoyment I try to turn off the analytical sonic thing. It’s not that hard. If it’s good music that’s going to come through no matter what, no matter how poorly or weirdly it’s recorded. I sort of came to appreciate that when I started working on all these archival things. They were from recordings made in the ’20s and ’30s on old 78s and some of them really sounded bad, but the music is so cool that you immediately learn to listen through all of the noise and the emotion still comes through.