The building doesn’t look like anything special. Outside it’s a mostly non-descript green building with no signs or demarcations other than a simple address. Just by its appearance it’d be impossible to tell that this place is home to one of the great living legends of Music Mastering. Undoubtedly it is driven and walked by thousands of times a day perhaps by those going to Roscoe’s right down the street.
But on this day in particular Nick Bravo and OP1, two artists, had the opportunity to work with Bernie as he mastered their tracks. First off: “Bernie”, it’s hard to call him anything else. It’s not that he isn’t deserving of the utmost respect for his work, he is. It’s just that the engineer carries himself in such a normal way. He’s kind, humble, loves to tell stories, and have a laugh. He speaks simply, clearly, to the point but never in a harsh or forceful way. He never lords his position or flaunts his power that he clearly has in the industry. And while it is certain that he would be gracious enough to be called “Mr. Grundman”, somehow it won’t do. Bernie suits him just fine.
Inside Bernie Grundman Mastering the walls of the immense interior space are tastefully decorated with a few pieces of artwork. The waiting room is simple but comfortable, filled with all of the current industry related periodicals. An assistant brings water and is very polite as we sit and wait for Bernie. Make no mistake, we are on his time. A bit further inside is “The Wall”. What else can it be called? On it are scores of gold and platinum records from the biggest names in music. All of which Bernie has mastered. Most notably Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. There are also records from Santana and Quincy Jones to name but two. Despite this consolidated wall, that isn’t even all of the award winning records he has Mastered. Smattered around in other places throughout the studios are other platinum and gold albums.
Eventually Bernie is ready and he invites us into the closest mastering booth, just around the corner from the waiting area. It is modest in size. And its appointments are simple. Just enough space for a two engineers and perhaps two artists to sit on the couch and watch the Master work. The booth expectedly has the best accoutrements available. Sound dampening material covers all the walls and the ceiling is made from beautiful wood that is curved to prevent reflections. A massive console takes one part of the square around Bernie, a computer with a few displays on the other. No extra garnish. A simple purpose built location. Bernie takes a seat on an engineering stool while Nick and OP1 sit on the couch.
Before getting started OP1 and Bernie share stories. OP1 spent some time abroad in Italy, a place they both share as an interest. Bernie has his espresso imported from Rome, insisting that not only is the flavor better but it doesn’t carry any of the bitterness that often accompanies blends here in the US. They both practice a little Italian with one another, Bernie wishing that he had a bit more time to spend with the language before noting that from a practical perspective, here in Hollywood, learning Spanish makes better business sense.
Bernie is personable. With his many years working in the industry it is certain that above all else he has come to understand that this is a people business. And he is interested in the people. He takes his time and drinks the (imported Roman) espresso that one of his assistants left waiting for him on the console as OP1 and Nick continue to wax on about various subjects.
When it finally does come time for Bernie to do what he does, he is as quick and as sharp as ever. His analytical ability to take apart tracks with his mind is a skill clearly honed over many decades. Separating the instruments from the vocals is something he does with ease as he widens the soundstage with a few simple knob turns. His face is concerted focus as he looks at the meters and occasionally up towards the monitors as he listens for the finer sections of the track. Nothing escapes him. Not even a deeply layered beat using a Roland 808. It seems there isn’t any piece of technology or instrumentation that he isn’t immediately familiar with.
Bernie had four tracks to Master that day. Most notably the track that brought Nick Bravo and OP1 together in the first place: ‘Skywalkerz’. A collaboration in which both of them sought to bring positivity through music. Having never worked together Nick wasn’t sure everything would work out. Sometimes things just don’t. But his story about meeting OP1 and finding a like-minded individual felt serendipitous.
Bernie takes his time with the tracks but at the same time it feels like he’s cutting through them at record speed. He comments that he likes their sound and states that the mixing on a particular track was very well done. OP1 is visibly pleased, as the track Bernie was referring to was one that almost never saw the light of day. “There was a lot of adversity to creating that track” notes OP1. Bernie continues to work like a machine. Driven undoubtedly as he was when he started in this business.
Alternatingly and sometimes at the same time Nick and OP1 take breaks and check on their phones to see what is going on in the rest of the world. Bernie continues to hammer away. He clearly still does things the old way via old methods. He writes down his notes on a sheet of paper, noting the positions of the control dials that he’ll eventually give to another technician to input and create the finalized digital master.
It seems as soon as he started, he finished. 4 hours slipped by and his work is complete. Bernie has done his checks and his double checks. He is nothing if not thorough and very precise. The heavy studio door opens and the trio hop outside ostensibly for the photo op. It is a notable day for both of the musicians. How often do you get to work with a legend? Bernie seems content to take some photos and chat. In no big rush to head off to the next thing. Further cementing the understanding of him that he is a people person and just as personable as he is at first glance.
The three travel down the hall, joined with the executive producer of Skywalkerz, Daniel, to the place where the technician is inputting Bernie’s information for the final master. Bernie talks about how vinyl and vinyl production is coming back. With so much interest “manufacturing hasn’t been able to keep up” he says. He also notes that Vinyl mastering is an art that most studios don’t do anymore as it’s more complex than creating a digital one. It is one that he and his studio have been able to consistently do throughout the decades.
The discussion drifts on to electronic music and Bernie’s son Paul is brought in to discuss the finer points as that is more his forte Bernie notes. The day unfortunately could not go on forever and soon enough all of us must part ways and be onto the next part of our lives. Still for a half day we were treated to another world with a genius willing to lend us his time and expertise. The course of Nick and OP1’s musical journey if-ever-so-slightly shifted for the greater. Memorable to say the least.