Featured photo of the Scully Lathe by Danny Gross
In any city with a celebrated history in music, there are always a multitude of people whose combined personal stories create a rich musical legacy, and Seattle is no exception. Past, present and future are intertwined, and they play in concert as both the music and its history progress. The individuals who choose to create, hone their craft, and push boundaries drive that progress — and ultimately the story.
Levi Seitz of Black Belt Mastering is one such individual.
While many may think of the numerous noted bands and artists as the sole reasons Seattle has risen to prominence in the music world, there are countless talented individuals behind the scenes and in the studios ensuring that what’s given to the public is the best product possible. The truth is that hammering out the writing, instrumentation and vocals are just the beginning of an album’s journey to release. In reality, there’s a talented team of engineers behind music production, and not the least of which is the mastering engineer.
Meeting a master
Enter Levi Seitz of Black Belt Mastering. Seitz is a native Seattleite and mastering engineer who stands 6’3” and possesses a friendly and jovial demeanor that allows him to create an environment where artists, musicians and engineers are on equal standing. I experienced this first hand went I went to visit Seitz at his studio in the north Seattle neighborhood of Greenwood.
Seitz hosted me for several hours as we discussed life, music, finding his passion and the philosophy that ties it all together for him. When I entered his studio, I was immediately captivated by his most recent acquisition — the Scully Lathe. Designed by Irishman John J. Scully in 1919, the lathe dominated the marketplace from the 1930s to the 1960s. During that time period, almost all major lacquer masters were cut on a Scully Lathe.
Seitz said Scully only made 600 of his particular lathe in the early 1960’s. Two hundred of those were recalled, decommissioned and scrapped due to a manufacturing error. As a result, only 400 are left, and even fewer of them are probably in working order. In short, Seitz owns one of the rarest pieces of music production equipment in the world. However, with a footprint of approximately 15 square feet and weighing in at 1200 pounds, you certainly couldn’t mistake it for anything else.
“Four and a half years ago I knew it was prohibitively expensive [to own a Scully lathe], and I began working and saving towards that. And now that I have a lathe, this is really just the beginning of everything,” said Seitz.
Returning to vinyl roots
With the dearth of lathes in the U.S., Seitz’s particular lathe has gone through its own journey before arriving at his studio in Seattle. Seitz has traced its history back to MCA records in Nashville during the 1960s. After that, it was purchased by Mattel Inc., and modified to cut records for children in the early 1980s. Most recently, the lathe lived at Telegraph Mastering in Portland.
In a world where songs are streamed millions of times on Spotify and new music streaming services emerge each year, vinyl offers listeners the opportunity to form a physical relationship with their music.
The lathe sets Seitz apart in more ways than the fact he owns an incredibly unique piece of music production equipment. It allows him to produce music in a very tangible way, which has become a long lost artform as digital editing and production tools have taken center stage. It also allows Seitz to capitalize on vinyl’s resurgence as a physical, high quality medium for music. In a world where songs are streamed millions of times on Spotify and new music streaming services emerge each year, vinyl offers listeners the opportunity to form a physical relationship with their music.
When asked about the value of that relationship, Seitz believes there may be a latent dissatisfaction with a pure-digital music library. “It can be overwhelming when you have 10,000 songs to choose from. Which one song do you want to listen to right now? What vinyl forces you to do is take a record sit down with it, put it on and listen to a side all the way through,” Seitz said. “And you can really internalize and appreciate all the songs on that record.” Seitz also points out that many vinyls sold today come with digital downloads so you can ultimately have a copy that is both physical and digital.
In addition to providing a physical element to music, many vinyl enthusiasts are loyal to the format because of the unique quality it adds to the sound. Masters cut on a Scully lathe are no exception. Seitz said he was drawn to the Scully specifically after hearing a record cut by one of his personal recording heroes, Chris Bellman. Bellman is a mastering engineer at Bernie Grundman Mastering studios, and has shared Grammy awards with such notable artists such as Alanis Morissette and Joan Sebastian.
“I hear [Bellman’s] cutting work on records and it blows me away. The reason I specifically wanted to find a Scully was largely influenced by him cutting on a Scully and the sound he was able to get,” Seitz said. “It’s encouraging and it challenges me to hit that level.”
Seitz has made it a habit to challenge himself, and pushes himself to reach new heights. Even at an early age Seitz was inquisitive, and he was willing to take on the unknown in the effort to learn and create.
Before you understand how Seitz came to own the only working stereo lathe in Seattle, it’s important to look at where he came from.
Levi Seitz grew up 30 miles south of Seattle in Tacoma, Washington. His musical journey, like so many others, began with his family. His father played guitar at their church and practiced every week around the house and with Seitz’s uncles. His mother was an artist. “For me it was that combination of learning how to play music from my dad and learning how to appreciate art from my mom and combining those things.”
His interest in electronics was apparent even when he was young, and his penchant for tearing apart his mother’s radio could also be seen as a bellwether for where he was headed in life.
“I still remember how disappointed I was,” Seitz said. “I got home, plugged in the four track, plugged in my guitar and hit record. After I listened to it I realized, wow, I have so much to learn because it sounded like garbage.”
“Early on, [music] wasn’t technical, it was about recording songs,” Seitz said. “The by-product of that was finding a way to record them.” The three components of music, art, and technicality slowly started to become intertwined as Seitz entered his teenage years. “Those things served me well as I was getting into recording technology.”
He began experimenting with recording when he got his first piece of gear — a Fostex 2 channel four track recorder. “I still remember how disappointed I was,” Seitz said. “I got home, plugged in the four track, plugged in my guitar and hit record. After I listened to it I realized, wow, I have so much to learn because it sounded like garbage.”
Seitz described the experience as sobering, but it also sparked his curiosity about recording music. He wanted to know exactly how a professional record was made, and he began the process of saving money, selling old gear, and investing in new gear. It was a practice that would serve him well later in life. A two-track recorder turned into a four-track, which turned into an eight-track recorder. As Seitz made his way to college, he made the jump to digital editing software and recording.
The breakthrough internship
After two and a half quarters at the Art Institute of Seattle, Seitz dropped out. He was discontent with the money he was paying compared to what he was getting out of his education. He had a knack for figuring things out on his own anyway.
“Honestly, it was just too expensive and I always felt like I was able to learn more by just digging in and getting my hands dirty,” he said. After dropping out, Seitz didn’t get his hands as dirty in musical mud as he would have liked, and he did what most aspiring artists must do when they reach a road block: he got a job to pay the bills. Strangely enough, Seitz found himself working at a jewelry store. His music education lay dormant, but not for long.
“I thought I had made it. I had an ‘adult’ job,” Seitz said. “I left after six months.”
Seitz’s intuition about leaving school ended up serving him well in the end when he found out about an internship in Portland. While everyone else was occupied with school or work, he wasn’t tied to any obligations and free to pursue the opportunity.
“If you’re doing good work and you’re pleasant to work with, people will pick up on that,” Seitz said.
“I heard about an internship through my friends at school with Larry Crane of Jackpot Studios. Everyone wanted to do it, but none of them could do it because they were in school. I called up Larry and in two months I was in Portland.”
Seitz admits that his 20-year-old self didn’t leverage the internship as well as he could have. “Foolishly I valued my weekends more than coming in at odd times when asked to come hang out,” he said. “After four months [at Jackpot] I worked at Starbucks for the rest of my year in Oregon.”
But he did learn one important lesson that would serve him well later in life. “If you’re doing good work and you’re pleasant to work with, people will pick up on that,” Seitz said. “They’ll recognize your skill, they’ll recognize that you’re fun to work with and want to work with you. Then they’ll tell their friends to work with you.”
The birth of Black Belt
Seitz returned to Washington to finish up his schooling at the University of Washington with a degree in Art Media. In late 2005, Seitz was still unsure which direction he wanted to take in music, but after completing his degree, he was more sure than ever that music was his passion and something he wanted to pursue. From 2005 to 2007, Seitz took a role at Microsoft working on dialogue editing and recording, as well as sound design and sound for film.
In 2007, the economy took a downturn and hours at Microsoft became scarce. Seitz decided to take a gamble. “I decided to take one last chance and throw a Hail Mary and try music under one more context. I had been to couple of mastering studios at that point and I had a number of friends who were recording music and mixing” Seitz said. “I only knew a couple of people who were doing mastering. It just felt like a good opportunity for me to pursue.”
Seitz set a plan in motion in 2009 that shaped who he is today. After setting a budget, writing a business plan and reaching out to friends who would give him album mixes to practice on, Black Belt Mastering was born.
“It’s a very sobering experience, much in the same way that after I got my first 4 track recorder. I realized how much work I had to do,” Seitz said of opening the studio. “There were so many other elements to balance between the client, what they want and what your standards are. In my first year I mastered two records for free and that was it.”
Recalling his teenage years, Seitz patiently began building out his studio. It was a slow crawl, but he saw improvements as he earned more money to upgrade his equipment.
“As you work on more records, you start to make a little money, then you take that and reinvest it in your studio over and over again while simultaneously maintaining and building relationships.”
Black Belt now
These days, Black Belt Mastering is a sought after studio in the Seattle music scene. Going strong for six years now, and with 700-plus records mastered, Seitz continues to gain forward momentum. And now with the addition of the historic lathe, it has another important advantage: the ability to create physical connections between listeners and their music.
That connection doesn’t come easily though. Seitz relied on the tribal knowledge of his fellow mastering engineers to learn the process and art of cutting records. In doing so, he had to look at music and his equipment in a different context. No longer does a slight change in a song simply mean a sonic adjustment. Seitz has to think about how that adjustment can physically alter a record groove. As the audio signal makes its way to the lathe, minute vibrations allow the cutting ruby to slice through lacquer at a width equivalent to two human hairs. Precision is non-negotiable.
Seitz seems to truly love his craft and everything involved with it. But even more so he seems to love the people and community he works with. Despite working with clients from all over the world, he has no plans of grandeur and instead wants to keep his operation focused on the greater Seattle area and help local artists grow.
“It’s so important to me that [my clients] feel like I’m listening to them.”
“I made it a goal of mine to [make Black Belt] as interactive as possible. I offer attended mastering sessions where clients could feel comfortable because I wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be afraid to discuss their artistic vision with me,” Seitz said. “It’s so important to me that [my clients] feel like I’m listening to them.”
It seems as though Seattle has been granted the kind of mastering engineer who not only supports the music community he works in, but will help carry on a larger musical legacy. The city’s musical story is a compilation by a myriad of contributors, and Seitz and Black Belt Mastering have only begun to put their mark on that collective work.
Bonus: See the lathe in action here