Independent Mastering’s Eric Conn (left) and Don Cobb in their main mastering suiteThis year marks the 10th year in business for Nashville’s Independent Mastering, a partnership of engineers Don Cobb and Eric Conn. The business name was a conscious choice, tying their business model to the movement of mastering away from the in-house, label-driven model of old to the mastering engineers as “free thinkers” model associated with elite modern mastering, exemplified by a passion for purity of signal path and sonic excellence.
This philosophy has paid off for the pair, has a decade of noteworthy credits. Recent work includes a diverse group of clientele, with mainstream artists like Joe Nichols, an Alison Krauss live project for WalMart, jazz artist Diane Schuur, Steve Martin’s bluegrass stylings, Irish band Cherish The Ladies and a Buddy Holly tribute from Paul Burch.
Independent Mastering is a study in equally yoked partners. Except for about six months when Conn left the late Denny Purcell’s Georgetown Mastering ahead of Cobb, “I’ve been working with Don since 1998, every single day,” says Conn. Though Conn says, “I do primarily the EQ; Don primarily does the editing and keeps the place running, in terms of management and time management.” both engineers can perform any necessary task and uniquely, both work on every project that comes through the facility.
Between them, Cobb and Conn calculate over 45 years of experience. Conn, a degreed musician, migrated gradually to music production and engineering. After a stint at Doug Sax’s Sheffield Lab Recordings, the direct-to-disk adjunct of The Mastering Lab, his first mastering experience came from four years with the Georgetown Masters, where he met Cobb. Also a musician, Cobb’s career includes engineering work for producer Chip Moman at Moman’s American Studio; at Franklin, TN’s Bennett House with legendary engineer Gene Eichelberger and producer Norbert Putnum; as an engineer at Putnum’s Digital Recorders facility; and spending 14 years with Purcell at Georgetown Masters.
In their current location on Music Row for a year now, Independent Mastering has two core studios— one designed for full-bandwidth monitoring and processing, the other as an edit suite. Conn reports that, for processing, they work in the analog domain “99 percent of the time.” The custom main mastering console was built in-house, even though the pair do not have a hardcore tech or electrical engineering background, learning what they needed “all from books, and observing other techs,” and asking a lot of questions. They build their own discrete op-amps for their gear, modifying the EQs and processors they buy; replacing ICs with discrete circuits; floating power supplies; and rerouting signal paths to ensure that bypass is truly bypass, and passive is truly passive.
“There’re no chips in the console, there’re no chips in the equipment,” says Conn. The main mastering desk features custom 1/2 dB step attenuators and a completely passive monitor path. For EQ, there are modified and completely custom units, and API 550s. Dynamics processors include Manley Labs’ Massive Passive and Variable MU, along with SSL, Universal Audio and Requisite Audio gear. There are selectable stages of “different flavors” of line amps, discrete solid-state or tube. Though little comes to them on tape these days, and they don’t favor using a tape stage as a processing tool, an MCI mastering deck is on hand, with their discrete op-amps in the circuitry; alternately Ampex 351 tube electronics can be employed.
To get back and forth between digital and analog, the main house converters are from Burl Audio, an Antelope Audio Isochrone master clock keeps everything in sync, and master metering is from Mytek. For sequencing, editing and other digital domain tasks, Independent Mastering has SADiE and Sonic Studio systems as there core, alongside other DAW platforms.
The mains in the critical listening room are soffit-mounted Steven Durr custom monitors, with TAD 15-inch woofers and a TAD horn driven by a 4001 TAD compression driver. The Durr crossovers, which include response EQ, feed Bryston amps for the low end and Macintosh amps for the HF, with the combination of acoustic treatment and processing yielding an extremely flat response.
The modern music scene is “certainly no longer an exclusively professional’s club,” says Conn. With a clientele trending independent (the studio name now seeming prescient), projects arrive often with poor documentation and no clear path mapped. Conn says, “I don’t really mind that, because you’re helping someone pursue their dream.” Be they a weekend warrior or a seasoned profession, he says, “Everybody, I think, deserves a voice.” While in “a shrinking industry now that is more prosumer than professional, you need to be open to the other sources of revenue,” Conn says they treat all their clients with equal respect, as it’s “just the right way to treat people.” That philosophy, and their passion for excellence, is Independent Mastering’s foundation for decade two.