You Might Not Know Adam Ayan, But You’ve Heard His Work

He finesses recordings by the music world’s biggest names from a Portland-area barn.

Adam Ayan of Ayan Mastering mixing music in his Portland area-studio
Photo by Ryan David Brown
By Victoria Waslyak
From our June 2024 issue

On a wooded plot in a Portland suburb, a brown-clapboard barn hums with unreleased music. In the morning, rollicking rock riffs or twangy country notes might trickle out, morphing into a symphony of contemporary classical music by lunchtime. Inside, mastering engineer Adam Ayan sits behind a semicircle of monitors, keyboards, and control panels with an intimidating mosaic of knobs and buttons, fine-tuning the sound on each track. After 25 years working with renowned Portland mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, who retired in 2023, Ayan opened Ayan Mastering last summer, in a finished barn he rents from a friend (whose location he does not want to disclose, citing security concerns).

If you’ve listened to, say, the recently released Best of Bruce Springsteen or any number of recordings by the likes of Taylor Swift, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Pearl Jam, you’re already familiar with Ayan’s work. The whitewashed walls of his studio glimmer with a dozen platinum and gold records by clients such as Lana Del Rey, Nirvana, and Carrie Underwood. There are dozens more plaques in his Portland home, as well as a 2006 Grammy Award (for mastering jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s posthumous album, The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax) and five Latin Grammy Awards. Ayan was nominated for another Grammy in 2008 and again last year, along with Ludwig and Maine-native singer Amy Allen. Ayan brought his wife, Allison, and teenage sons, Zach and Evan, to the Los Angeles awards ceremony that February. 

A Massachusetts native, Ayan got his start in the music world at age 15, when he played bass guitar in local rock bands and his school jazz band. He studied music performance in college and wanted to be a touring musician. But after enrolling in sound-recording classes, he changed his tune. “The creativity it takes to do that work really started to speak to me and completely turned me around,” he says. He graduated with a degree in sound-recording technology and thought about seeking music-industry work in a big city. But Ludwig’s firm, Gateway Mastering, needed a production engineer, so Ayan applied. Three years later, Ludwig gave him a room at Gateway, where he could cultivate his own clientele. He remembers the thrill he felt during one of his early solo sessions, when he worked with Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson to refine the band’s live album Rush in Rio. “I was 10 years removed from being 16 and seeing that same band at the Worcester Centrum,” he says, “and I was being treated like an equal.” 

High-profile clients aside, mastering is fairly low-profile work these days. In the ’90s, Portlanders might spot Eric Clapton at a burger joint or Springsteen heading to the gym when they were in town to work with Ludwig and Ayan. Now, in the age of digital recording and smaller record-company budgets, fewer stars make the trip. Instead, Ayan receives digital audio files that he adjusts in myriad incremental ways to make the sound more vibrant, visceral, and cohesive when played through any medium, whether it’s vinyl, earbuds, or an internet stream. (He likens it, loosely, to fiddling with the bass and treble settings on a car radio.) Careful listening, Ayan says, is among the most critical aspects of the job. So much so that, before Ludwig hired him, he took a listening test that involved fixing mistakes Ludwig had inserted into a series of recordings. 

When Ludwig’s firm closed, Ayan’s clients followed him to his new studio, where he’s mastered more than 400 projects to date, ranging from singles to full albums. On a recent afternoon, he tinkered with tracks by country singer Laci Kaye Booth, Latin star Juan Luis Guerra, and Japanese singer-songwriter Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi. Later, waves of old-timey organ notes, a sighing string section, and brassy horns rippled through the studio when he played “Chloë,” a lilting big-band tune he mastered on indie troubadour Father John Misty’s latest record.

Ayan’s next goal is to find a permanent Portland-area home for Ayan Mastering that’s a bit homier than the barn. He’s also keen to expand his portfolio, leaning into more R&B and hip-hop and collaborations with independent artists. “This is what I’ve been working towards for 28 years as a professional engineer,” he says. “I’m fully steering the ship now.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

Get all of our latest stories delivered straight to your mailbox every month. Subscribe to Down East magazine.