George Horn's skill at the mysterious art of mastering added final touches to hundreds of albums. (George Horn Mastering)
Whether you love hip-hop, punk, modern jazz, jam bands, salsa or country music, George Horn’s fingerprints are all over your playlist.
As the chief engineer at a succession of Bay Area studios, most importantly during a nearly three-decade tenure at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Horn mastered thousands of albums by artists including Bob Dylan, Charles Mingus, MC Hammer, the Dead Kennedys, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Simon & Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Rosemary Clooney and Santana.
An unsurpassed master of the mysterious art of mastering, Horn died early Saturday morning at 87 from pulmonary hypertension exacerbated by COVID-19, according to brother-in-law William Stetler. Described by family and colleagues as an introverted, deeply private man, he launched his own independent mastering studio in 2008 after Concord Records acquired Fantasy’s vast catalogue of jazz labels. At his studio within the Fantasy Studios building, he and his last protégé, Anne-Marie Suenram, maintained the region’s only regularly working lathe for cutting vinyl records.
A San Francisco native, Horn spent his teenage years building and repairing electronic devices. After working in broadcasting, he became chief engineer at a number of labels and studios, notably Columbia Records and Bill Putnam's Coast Recorders Studios, before becoming chief engineer at Fantasy Studios in 1980.
The process of mastering has long held a bit of mystique. Horn learned the craft in the 1960s, when mastering was a mechanical job that meant using a record lathe to etch grooves onto a lacquer or acetate disc—and when, simultaneously, the Bay Area became ground zero for a rock movement unleashed as folk, blues and bluegrass musicians plugged in electric instruments.
In the digital age, the job of mastering means preparing any kind of audio for release—a more complicated job “that requires taking all these different tracks that may have been recorded in different studios with different engineers and making them sound like a coherent album,” said veteran Oakland audio engineer Myles Boisen.
“It’s a science and an art. As a producer, you want a good mastering engineer to sprinkle their magic mastering dust on it,” Boisen added. “There are nuances they can do above and beyond what’s done in mixing, putting the final sheen on a project before it’s transmitted to the marketplace. Mastering is the last chance for a fresh set of ears.”
Horn navigated the digital transition seamlessly, embracing the advent of compact discs and each subsequent sea change in the music business. At Fantasy, which owned a treasure trove of jazz recordings by epochal artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk, Horn and Fantasy colleague Joe Tarantino ushered classic albums by the labels Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary, and Pablo into the digital age as part of a vast Original Jazz Classics (OJC) reissue series.
“For me, his major accomplishment was working on the OJC reissues, just a huge number of essential jazz records by Monk, Miles, Trane, and on and on,” Boisen said. “That earlier generation of compact discs didn’t always sound really good, but he took the time and care to make those CDs sound great.”
As word of Horn’s passing spread on social media, numerous musicians and colleagues reached out to share stories about him. He may have been loath to talk about his life outside the studio, but in his circle, he was a quiet force who emanated respect for the artists entrusting him with their music. Nothing seemed to faze him, and when punk rock exploded in San Francisco, he became the go-to guy for mastering their records.
“He saw everything as a challenge, and he wanted to translate what people wanted,” said Jello Biafra, who started hiring Horn in the early 1980s for the Dead Kennedys. “Before long, he was also doing Flipper and all the stuff Subterranean put out, and of course the rest of the Alternative Tentacles releases too. I attended every single cut that he did, knowing I had somebody’s baby on the line. We had a lot of respect for each other.”
Among his fellow engineers, Horn was known for his versatility and exceptional ears. He imbued his artist-first sensibility in the select group of engineers he took under his wing. Gary Hobish, who runs A. Hammer Mastering and Digital Media in San Francisco, got his start under Horn at Fantasy in the early ’80s, where he learned that “in mastering, you have to be able to take on all comers," Hobish said.
“George was amazing at that. It seemed to me he didn’t feel it was his place to tell somebody how their record should sound. One day you’re doing a catalog cut of a classic Bill Evans recording from 1957 and the next day you’re doing a Flipper record or MX-80, something avant garde and intentionally harsh. I never saw a reaction or judgement either way. He knew he was contributing to an artistic scene.”
When interest in vinyl came roaring back, Horn was uniquely placed to take on the new flow of work. He never got rid of his lathe, and he had a young set of ears to assist him. Anne-Marie Suenram, a classically trained vocalist and pianist, met Horn while interning at Fantasy Studios, and he welcomed her evident interest in the mastering process.
“As soon as my internship was over he started training me,” she said. “Within a year, he didn’t need to oversee me and he let me do a lot of the mastering and cutting. He was very good to me. When I was expecting my daughter, he would insist on doing anything with chemicals, and he was very supportive during maternity leave.”
For the immediate future, Suenram will continue operations at Horn's studio in Berkeley, cutting records and mastering albums. She'll also be talking about him, she knows, for years to come.
“He really was very much a background character,” Suenram says, “and I'd like people to know about him.”
Horn is survived by his wife of 20 years, Diane Mansfield. Services will take place graveside on Friday, Aug. 27, at 2:45pm, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. Due to COVID, no gathering will follow.
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