CULVER CITY, CA—“The power of this system is how it remembers everything,” says Eric Boulanger, at the controls of the “RoboLathe” at his mastering studio, The Bakery. With the vinyl resurgence continuing unabated, Boulanger’s lathe has been busy, most recently cutting Green Day’s Revolution Radio, Tinariwen’s Elwan and both the score and soundtrack to Oscar-winning musical La La Land.
Boulanger—French for baker, hence the studio name—opened the facility on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, CA in mid-2015. The choice of location is not as unusual as it might seem.
“I’ve been a violinist my whole life. I play professionally for film and TV, so I frequent the scoring stages here,” he says.
Previously on staff since 2007 at the Mastering Lab in Ojai, CA, Boulanger found himself increasingly picking up clients in Los Angeles. He was already considering opening his own shop in L.A. when facility owner Doug Sax became sick and ultimately passed away.
“That was emotional, since I was so close to Doug. But I had the opportunity to tell him everything I had been keeping secret,” he says.
Boulanger was looking for a suitable location in the L.A. area when Sony Pictures staff recording engineer Adam Michalak, whom he knew through a mutual friend, gave him a tour of the lot and introduced him to Tom McCarthy Jr., EVP of Post Production Facilities at Sony Pictures Studios. McCarthy offered him a former executive screening room in the Irving Thalberg Building that was designed for TV movies shot on 35mm film and hadn’t been used for years.
In July 2015, Boulanger moved in, removed the seats and set up his ATC SCM150 monitors on borrowed speaker stands. “I brought in my laptop, measured everything and found the sweet spot.”
With that, a Sony team built a platform to level the raked floor. “This screw,” he says, pointing beneath his chair, “is the listening position. If I’m recalibrating things, I can set my rear speakers up with a measuring string. It’s basic, but boy, does it work.”
The room was already acoustically treated, but Boulanger needed to decouple his custom speaker stands from the floor. “The thing that makes the imaging so spectacular is that each stand is filled with 650 pounds of sand,” he says. He also customized the speakers, adding limiters, outboard power supplies and, courtesy of Sony, AC wiring upgrades.
Boulanger has duplicated Sax’s Mastering Lab layout, with the console behind the listening position and the workstation to one side. In the console, he says, “Pretty much the only recognizable stock gear is the Manley [Massive Passive].”
Two apparently standard LA-2As have been modified for a gentler reaction time and flatter response, duplicating Mastering Lab tweaks. Josh Florian at JCF built converters to Boulanger’s specifications. “One trick is that they are filterless. When you think of PCM sampling, by the time [a project] gets to me, it has been filtered a bunch of times. The only point of worrying about aliasing and filters in a converter is simply noise, but there are ways around that.”
Sources can follow a fully analog, fully digital or a hybrid path through the console. “What I usually end up doing is a hybrid,” he says, ultimately using whatever processing is most appropriate to each track. “The beauty of it, and the core design, is the fact that I can switch between the three on one switch.”
Boulanger subsequently hired mastering engineer Jett Galindo, who Sax also mentored, and built a vinyl cutting room in the former projection booth with assistance from Sony’s chief engineer Nathan Oishi and his team. The cutting lathe was previously owned by the late mastering legend Stan Ricker.
“The two rooms are almost fully independent,” says Boulanger, who has been enjoying a constant flow of vinyl mastering projects. “I can’t think of one major label record album that I’ve done in the last two years that hasn’t had vinyl. On top of that, the vinyl room gets extra work because of all the catalog that comes in. And there’s a good chunk of business from other mastering studios,” such as Bob Ludwig’s Gateway facility.
Boulanger has heavily modified the lathe, implementing DSP to correct the limitations of a typical analog cutting head. “Most people don’t realize just how much processing is involved with a cutter head,” he says. Lathes typically include added EQ cards to apply the RIAA curve and enable the device to cut as accurately as possible from 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
“My cutting amp is 60 percent digital,” he adds. Combined with the DSP, “That affords me the bells and whistles of automation. Everything about the sonics and the motion of the lathe is all saved within the Pro Tools session.”
When the label ordered new lacquers after the La La Land soundtrack sold so many copies that the pressing plant stampers wore out, Boulanger decided to put his automated system to the test. He loaded the session, did the paperwork while it was cutting, then emailed a photo of the finished lacquers in the FedEx box together with the packing list and an invoice to the label.
“I wanted to go for the shock and awe,” he says. “It took me an hour and a half.”