—Article by David Menconi
Pretty much by definition, mastering engineers do their work behind the scenes and largely unheralded. That describes Brent Lambert, proprietor of Kitchen Mastering on Brewer Lane in Carrboro, who has quietly built a nationwide reputation over the past 20-plus years for his work with a broad range of local, regional, national and even international acts – Ani DiFranco, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure, Alejandro Escovedo, Cracker, Mipso, Avett Brothers, Sarah Shook, Nnenna Freelon and many more.
“I love Brent more than anyone alive, he’s just a treasure,” says John Darnielle, frontman of frequent Kitchen clients the Mountain Goats. “He’s so undersung. Most people don’t even know what mastering engineers do, but it’s a really important, exciting and cool process – and Brent is one of the best alive. So good, and he lives here.”
Lambert recently picked up a nice accolade when the New Orleans Nightcrawlers’ 2020 album “Atmosphere,” which he mastered, won a Grammy Award for best regional roots music album. While it didn’t come with an actual Grammy statue, Lambert did get a nice certificate that he now has hanging on the wall at the studio.
“I used to really want a Grammy very badly,” Lambert says with a laugh. “I’ve worked on about six prior nominees, and none of them won. But the older I got, the less it seemed to mean, even though I voted in the Grammys myself and always took it seriously. Even voted against myself sometimes, because I always want to be honest about what’s the better record or song. But this year I completely forgot about the Grammys, and there it is. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to work?”
Mastering is the final stage of making a recording, and it represents the last chance to either rescue or ruin a project. Lambert says it’s similar to the detail work a colorist does to the final print of a film, from routine things like standardizing between-track silences and sound levels to major sonic tweaks when things are out of whack.
“You bring continuity and clarity,” Lambert says. “Help refine the achievement and vision of the producer and artist. It takes specialized tools in a precise listening environment, and the role varies depending on the project. The better it is coming in, the more nuanced the changes might be. With some of the more challenging problems, there are new digital tools that make it possible to do amazing things.”
Lambert has experience mastering all levels of projects, from albums made in the highest of high-end studios down to the humblest of home recordings. That’s made him a key player locally.
“Brent has been a go-to guy for us from the get-go,” says Glenn Dicker, co-founder of Hillsborough-based Yep Roc Records, another frequent customer. “Somehow he is always able to put some heavy magic into our records – even in the early days when our low budgets really needed that extra juice. Brent always brought his A game to make every record sound as awesome as possible.”
Lately Lambert has been doing a lot of work with acts from Louisiana, including a new album by 1950s hitmaker Tommy McLain (backed up by blues-rock musician C.C. Adcock) and a reissue of the late great New Orleans r&b legend Ernie K-Doe. Also in his pipeline are a dB’s retrospective collection, Adrian Duke Band from Charlottesville, Va., and a series of live albums recorded at the legendary New Orleans nightclub Tipitina’s.
“I wish people would fall back in love with the sound of records,” Lambert says. “Not take music for granted so much. With YouTube, Spotify, Pandora and everything else, music is everywhere and it’s been devalued. Take the time to look and listen, connect with artists on a deep level. I wish people took it more seriously as an art form worth spending their time and money on.”