Adam Ayan - Ayan Mastering

Mastering with Adam Ayan: Grammy-Winning Insights

Mastering engineers often work behind the scenes, tucked away in studios with $20,000 monitors and arm-thick audio cables, yet their meticulous craftsmanship profoundly shapes the final sound and emotional resonance of a song or album. They ensure that every note, beat, and nuance is polished to perfection, allowing the artist’s vision to shine through. Adam Ayan is a prime example of this. With a Grammy-winning career spanning over two decades, Adam has mastered tracks for legends like Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. His journey from Bob Ludwig’s assistant at Gateway Mastering to the launch of his own venture, Ayan Mastering, is filled with lessons, innovations, and a relentless pursuit of audio perfection.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Adam to discuss his career and the evolution of his mastering techniques over the years. Adam shares insights into the importance of client relationships, his approach to mastering, and what the future holds for this essential craft.

How has working with Bob Ludwig influenced your approach to mastering? Are there specific lessons or techniques you’ve adopted from your time with him?

Adam Ayan: It has been many, many years since I was Bob’s assistant, and up to the closing at Gateway Mastering last June I had been working out of my own mastering room there with my own clientele since 2001. That said, of course back when I was Bob’s assistant I learned all of his tricks and techniques, and throughout my 24+ years of mastering have developed a bunch of my own as well. One of the biggest lessons I learned early on from Bob was the ability to listen to clients, and to be willing to attempt changes and ideas that they had that might not be your first instincts. I was super impressed as a young assistant when a client would ask for a revision that maybe wasn’t feeling instinctual to Bob or myself, but Bob would always be willing to try it and in many cases learn just what the client was going for in the process, as opposed to pushing back on the revision notes. Super important to not only develop your ears for audio and musicality but also for hearing your clients out!

You recently launched Ayan Mastering, congratulations! What inspired you to launch your own mastering studio? Can you share some of the challenges and rewards you’ve encountered during this process?

Adam Ayan: Thank you! I launched Ayan Mastering in 2023, and had my first sessions under that banner starting the first week of July 2023, immediately following Gateway’s closing. I have always wanted to have my own studio and my own business where I could be 100% in control of my mastering present and future. 

The biggest challenge has been finding the appropriate long term commercial space for my studio. Presently I am working an interim space that is working out amazingly well and affording me the luxury of time to make the best location decision possible while still working in service of my many clients. I hope to circle back around to you when that time comes and share all of the details!

The rewards are many, and the most gratifying of them is being the owner of my own business. The day I signed the paperwork to incorporate Ayan Mastering was so super exciting! Essentially it cemented the fact that I am the sole owner, decider, and benefactor of my work and talents. I have mastered countless records over the years and cultivated a clientele that has followed me to Ayan Mastering, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of them. Owning your own business is hard work, but it is all worth it!!

How do you approach building and maintaining relationships with your clients? What strategies do you use to ensure their artistic vision is preserved throughout the mastering process?

Adam Ayan: First and foremost I treat every artist and client the way they should be treated – as the most important part of what I do. That should go without saying of course, but I do often hear from my clients that they have had experiences in the past where that isn’t the case. One of the greatest compliments I get from my independent clients is when they tell me they feel like they were treated like artist “xyz” (insert name of any famous artist I work with!) – which is exactly how they should be treated and if they are on my schedule how they will be treated.

To preserve the artist’s artistic vision throughout the process I be sure to keep an open line of communication. Often that communication can be directly with the artist, or as is regularly the case the record producer. In fact, producers are how I get chosen to master a project a vast majority of the time. 

Adam Ayan - Ayan Mastering

When you first receive an album for mastering, what are the initial steps you take to understand the project? How do you balance technical precision with artistic intent?

Adam Ayan: I always dive right into the project/session. One of the positive attributes of mastering is a fresh perspective. The artist, producer, recording engineer, and mixing engineer have been working on and living with the recording for a long time, and focusing on all of the small details that make up the big picture. The mastering engineer gets to see/hear the big picture almost always for the first time the day of the mastering session. That new and fresh perspective is really important to the process. I have mastering instincts that I trust implicitly, and get right to shaping the sonics on my first listen. The artistic intent is always the most important thing, so I do not let the technical stuff get in the way of that. Your technical ability is really just a means of getting to the artistic intent, serving the music first.

Can you describe your preferred signal chain when mastering? How do you decide which pieces of equipment or plugins to use for a particular project?

Adam Ayan: For many years now I have been working exclusively “in the box” with plugins. I still maintain an analog/hybrid signal path, but almost never use it anymore. I discovered a long time ago that working fully with plugins is making my work that much better, and opening new creative paths to sonic excellence. Equipment and plugin choice for a given project is always dependent on just what that project needs sonically. I know all of my tools very well, and can choose them based on the color (or lack of color!) they add to the signal path, and what that means for any given recording. Often song to song that can be different within the scope of an EP or album. Basically whatever tools will get me to the end result in the best way possible are what I choose.

If you could only take one piece of analog gear to a desert island, what would it be and why? Additionally, are there any new pieces that you are particularly excited about or that you think is a game-changer?

Adam Ayan: It would probably be my GML 9500 EQ. If I had to use only one EQ on a project (and I usually use more than one!) I could get most jobs done with that one alone.

Analog has not excited me in quite a long time – “in the box” is where it is at for me!

GML9500 EQ

In terms of plugins, which ones are your go-to choices in your signal chain? Are there any plugins that you find indispensable for achieving your signature sound?

Adam Ayan: The digital equivalent of the GML 9500 would be the MDW EQ, and that is indispensable for me. Like the 9500, if I had to use only one EQ in a session that one would get me there every time. 

I’d like to think I do not have a signature sound, and no one plugin defines how my masters turn out. 

Loudness has been a hot topic in mastering for years. How do you approach the issue of track loudness? What strategies do you use to ensure that a track is competitively loud without sacrificing dynamics and overall quality?

Adam Ayan: My goal has always been to provide masters that are “competitive” loudness-wise while maintaining musicality. That is not a simple thing to do! Finessing gain structure, choosing the best limiters and compressors, and utilizing EQ properly are all part of my toolbox for loudness without sacrifice. I tell clients I push for level up to the point of diminishing returns. Those diminishing returns are: lack of clarity, lack of dynamics, and loss of bass response. I find often my point of diminishing returns may be further along than other MEs, simply because I have worked very hard to hone that skill.

What resolution do you typically master at? How important do you think high-resolution audio is in the final product that listeners receive?

Adam Ayan: I like to master from the native sample rate (the rate it was recorded and mixed at) and 24 bit. I think high resolution audio for the end listener is super important, and am very happy that most of the streaming services now stream high-res audio by default. I’ve always said that the average listener’s ears are better than they even know, and that means the better the audio quality the better the musical experience, and that’s exactly what we are trying to do! 

What are your thoughts on the rise of AI-driven mastering plugins and services? Do you see them as a threat to traditional mastering engineers, or as tools that can complement human expertise?

Adam Ayan: I have yet to see/hear any algorithm AI or otherwise that can replicate, not to mention better, what a good mastering engineer (human!) can do. I of course am playing close attention to the development of AI and what that means for audio and music production, and how it may enhance my creativity. That said I am not threatened at all by it. However, I am a bit disappointed in the mastering engineers that have partnered with software companies that are claiming that their super inexpensive AI driven online services can do anything that even approaches what a good mastering engineer can do for a recording. They’re wrong and they’re selling us out!!

Dolby Atmos has become increasingly popular in recent years. Have you been working on any interesting projects in Dolby Atmos. If so, how has this immersive audio format influenced your mastering process? What adjustments or changes have you had to make in your setup and approach to accommodate Atmos projects?

Adam Ayan: I have not jumped into mastering Dolby Atmos just yet. I have of course mastered many 5.1 Surround titles when that was an up and coming format. But, as of right now I am so busy with stereo mastering I have not made the leap to Atmos.

First and foremost, I treat every artist and client the way they should be treated as the most important part of what I do.

From your perspective, how has the music industry evolved over the years, especially in terms of production and mastering? What trends do you find most impactful?

Adam Ayan: The internet of course changed everything – the way people make, market, and get records out to the general public. One of the biggest changes from a production standpoint that I have seen is the ability for artists to record and release one song at a time. Basically projects in smaller bites. I have several days each week where I am working on singles for multiple artists, sometimes 10 – 15 singles in a day. The streaming world affords an artist to stay prolific and in front of their audience regularly, and as a mastering engineer allows me to work on a huge variety of music on a daily basis. One of my favorite things about my job!

How do you view the role of a mastering engineer in the larger context of music production? What philosophical principles guide your approach to mastering?

Adam Ayan: Distance running is my favorite sport, and I liken mastering engineers to that running buddy that jumps in and sees you over the last several miles of a marathon. I help see my clients over the recording “finish line.” To continue that analogy I also like to get involved earlier when I can and when it is appropriate, in some ways as a “trainer.” There are a lot of instances when clients will send me mixes once they’ve started that part of the process, looking for some feedback and guidance on where there sonics are landing while mixing. A mastering engineer also serves as the last artistic/sonic step in the entire process, and the first step in distribution. So in many ways we serve as final guidance and input on a recording, and at the very end of the process after an artist and the rest of their team has put weeks or months into the recording. I take that role seriously and do the best I can to make sure that their music makes it to the listeners’ ears in the best way possible. Sound Your Best is the Ayan Mastering tagline and philosophy!

How has technological advancement impacted your work as a mastering engineer? Are there any specific innovations that have significantly changed the way you master music?

Adam Ayan: The biggest change through my career has been the advancement of the DAW and the ability to master music “in the box” with better results than working in the analog domain (or hybrid signal path). It took several years for the DAW and plugins to get to that point, but once they did it was a big change in the way that I work. I would point specifically to the development of what I like to call “broad stroke tools”/plugins. Digital had been superior for a very long time at surgical type moves in mastering, but not as good at broad/musical strokes. Once the plugin world started catching up in that domain (about 15 years ago now) it was a big shift in the way that I work. 

What advice would you give to aspiring mastering engineers who are just starting out? Are there any particular skills or mindsets that you believe are crucial for success in this field?

Adam Ayan: The number one skill for mastering engineers is critical listening. Aspiring mastering engineers should spend a lot of time listening to commercial recordings, and especially those that are deemed by many in the industry to sound great – benchmarks of sonic quality. Internalize what amazing recordings sound like and that becomes your own sonic benchmark of excellence to strive for. I also still strongly believe in the mentor/assistant relationship as a very important one in this business. Learning the craft from an accomplished mentor is invaluable, if a harder situation to find oneself in these days.

Thanks for taking the time for the interview and your great perspective!

Adam Ayan: Thanks for this Dennis!

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Dennis Martin

Dennis Martin is a music producer, manager, composer and founder of Trend & Chaos. Follow him on Instagram & Twitter.