One of the benefits of having a music career in New York City is that you get to meet and work with some incredible people. Take mastering engineer Ellen Fitton.
When Ellen started out after college, her first stop was Atlantic Records, working as the assistant of the famous producer Arif Mardin. Mardin started out at Atlantic as Neshui Ertegun’s assistant (how’s that for lineage for you?) in 1963. Over the years he produced records for Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Willie Nelson, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and Queen among many, many others.
Ellen told me a little about her early experiences in the music business with Mardin and how she became a mastering engineer.
James: Hi Ellen, thanks for taking some time out for the blog. So when were you Arif Mardin’s assistant?
Ellen: 1985, at Atlantic Records, which was basically my first big gig. I was there for a couple of years, working for Arif and his engineer Michael O’Reilly. He was responsible for the Rascals and the Bee Gees and then Chaka Kahn. Many great artists from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
James: What was he like at the point you were working for him?
Ellen: He was the consummate old world gentleman. He must have been in his 50s. He was a balding guy with reading glasses, still with the button down shirt and a tie a lot of the time; but he’s totally hip. And he knows about every artist who’s coming and going and everything that’s happening at the time. You think when people get to a certain age they sort of “age out’ of popular music. But Arif was not only current — he was cutting edge. People like the Stones were coming to him and saying “Would you do this track with us?” because he was able to know what the next thing was going to be. It was great watching him work, and watching him put together a record. I especially enjoyed learning to edit from him.
James: By observing or was it more hands-on?
Ellen: At that point, by observing. Because we were still cutting tape. Towards the end, yeah, I would cut. But watching him at the reels I learned things like you don’t necessarily want to cut on the kick or downbeat. Cut on the snare — you know, knowing where to cut. It’s not where people would expect. You do it where it will be less noticed. It was really interesting the way he would edit together something… make a song…
James: That’s interesting — intuitively you would think that you would edit on the “1”
Ellen: Yes on the downbeat. That’s where everybody wants to hear the edit. But almost always the editing is somewhere else.
James: What was your role at that time?
Ellen: Second engineer. So I was a tape-op, setting up the mics, recalling mixes — because there was no total recall at that point in time. All the note taking. I remember vividly when I screwed up a punch in on a Chaka Kahn session. And it was weeks before he let me sit behind the remote control of the machine after that. It was one of those things where I was really really tired — like 14, 16 hour days. And then here’s this guy — at that age — who’s tireless. I’m ready to drop and I’m a kid but he had just boundless energy. When you work for someone as long as I had worked with Arif, all I would need to punch in would be a nod of his head. He didn’t want the artist to know necessarily when we were punching in and out — he just wanted them to sing and he would take the bits that he needed. This one day I was really tired and I thought he was going to nod, and cue me in, but he didn’t, and I punched in. And of course… “she’ll never sing that note again!” (Laughs) As it turned out, we ended up getting something better. But he didn’t let me forget that for a while. Which is a lesson learned. It’s part of the process.
James: When and why did you make the transition from recording to mastering engineer?
Ellen: It was not a conscious decision. In the late 80’s as I was transition from an assistant to engineer, the studio business was changing. Studios where closing left and right. After Atlantic was closed down, I was working as an independent engineer on pop projects at various studios. One day a friend mentioned to me that Sony Classical was looking for someone with recording chops who could also read an orchestral score. I had never considered my career going in that direction, but thought I would check it out. I was chosen for the gig and really enjoyed the work. In between recording dates and post production for each release, I would do reissue work for the classical label as well. When the classical recording work began to slow down, I began doing more reissues, classical at first, but then when Sony realized I had pop experience I began doing pop reissues as well. The frontline work just naturally followed, and one day I realized… I was a mastering engineer.