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Alumnus Mastering the Art of Mentoring

Adam Ayan Makes Things Sound Better

adam ayan (second from right) returned to UMass Lowell to discuss his experiences as a mastering engineer Photo by Tory Germann
Adam Ayan, second from right, with Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Luis Falcone, mentor William Moylan and, far right, Music Chair Alan Williams.

By David Perry

As one of the world’s leading mastering engineers, Adam Ayan ’97, SRT, can talk about all of the tricks of the trade in minute detail. Analog versus digital, gaps, crossfades and the “Frankenstein mix.”

But the six-time Grammy winner also knows how to connect with his audience, and when he returned to campus as the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Alumni Showcase speaker, Ayan delivered a perfect mix of sage advice and personal anecdotes to the crowd of 100 students, faculty and alumni who came to hear him.

For nearly an hour, he spoke of connections and the need to use them to one’s advantage, as well as the support that led him to his profession.

Ayan, whose studio is part of Bob Ludwig’s Gateway Studios in Portland, Maine, returned to the university for the first time since the Sound Recording Technology 30th anniversary reunion three years ago. He brought his wife Allison and sons Evan, 5, and Zach, 9. His parents were in the crowd at O’Leary Library, too.

Ayan has worked on more than 100 gold, platinum and multiplatinum projects and mastered 33 Grammy-winning records. He has worked with Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters and Carrie Underwood. When Pearl Jam needed two seminal albums remastered, Ayan was their man. And he recently finished remastering several Queen recordings, including The Complete BBC Sessions.

Ayan has spent most of his career with Ludwig, a legendary recording engineer who once won five Grammys in a single night. Their association started in 1998, when Ludwig was looking for a production engineer as an assistant.

At that time, Ayan happened to check in with SRT program founder and music professor William Moylan, who had been a mentor during his time at UMass Lowell. Moylan had told him, “if you’re ever on a job hunt, reach out to us. Things cross our desk.”

 An overture from Ludwig had crossed Moylan’s desk, and he passed it along to Ayan.

‘You have to take ownership of what you do in your career. You need to market yourself.’ -Adam Ayan ’97

“Otherwise,” Ayan told the crowd, “I never would have heard of that job.” He eventually got an interview, and he was well-prepared. As president of the Audio Engineering Society at UMass Lowell, he’d once invited Ludwig as a guest speaker.

He described the mastering process as moving a recording from the studio to the marketplace. More often than not, he is involved in “making major creative decisions.” Mastering engineers often receive a set of tracks recorded by widely divergent musicians, in different studios, and make them sound cohesive.

Mastering is also a process not fit for assumptions, Ayan said.

The first time he recorded a Portuguese singer, her sibilance bothered him. He thought she hissed when she pronounced the letter “s.”

“She was in the room with her manager, and I started softening the sibilance,” he recalled. When he played his master back, the singer said, “It sounds great, but did you cut the sibilance back? Because in Portuguese, changing that sound means changing the words, changing their meaning.”

“It was a great lesson for me,” Ayan said.

Ayan works with top rock artists and is also a hot commodity in the pop-country and Latin markets. He said work comes through “the tentacles of the business” and that his connections were made over several years.

He told students that as unsavory as he finds self-promotion, “you have to take ownership of what you do in your career. The days of credits on album covers are all but gone. You need to market yourself.”

Ayan noted that his biography always mentions UMass Lowell.

“I am proud of that degree, of what I learned and what I was offered here,” he said.

Ayan fielded students’ questions and stayed to “bounce ideas” back and forth with them after his talk.

Students appreciated the chance to hear about Ayan’s path from campus to award-winning mastering engineer.

“He made me realize it’s up to you — what you do and how you get there,” said Matthew Ciccone, a freshman SRT major. “What he does seems pretty cool, and impacts the final product of music. I know I’ve heard his work.”

For Ayan, the visit to campus was an opportunity to give back to a place that he says was instrumental in his success.

“I was gratified and humbled to return to campus as a success story, and a mentor. I definitely recall what it was like to work hard as an SRT student. I’m proud to be an alumnus and hope I can help current students,” he said.