Grammy night 2017: Adele, in the midst of a triumphant run of accolades, is announced as winner of album of the year for her landmark 25. As the superstar makes her way to the stage she’s surrounded by her collaborators, many of them among the biggest names in the industry. To her left are the superstar producers Max Martin and Ryan Tedder, and just to the right of the teary-eyed singer during her heartfelt acceptance speech is a man wearing glasses clad in a tuxedo. That’s Tom Coyne, the veteran sound engineer who mastered the blockbuster album. The award he’s receiving is the pinnacle of industry achievement for an album that would eventually become one of the best selling of all time. Two months later, Coyne passed away after a five-year battle with cancer on April 12, 2017, at age 62.
“He was not in good health then,” remembers close friend Murat Aktar, who serves as the President of Sterling Sounds, the engineering company Coyne had worked for and was a partner in. “Making it to the event was quite a struggle and I remember he had trouble getting on stage. It was incredibly poignant. He was achieving the highest high with his illness in the background.” Coyne was suffering from multiple myeloma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer that affects white blood cells in bone marrow and is considered a cousin of leukemia. “I remember he told us not to Google it,” remembers Aktar of Coyne’s diagnosis in 2012. “Of course we did right away. Years ago best-case scenario was six months and now they’ve come up with treatments that can keep it at bay. He was optimistic till the very end and was always hopeful something would happen.”
Coyne’s involvement in Adele’s 25 is only one of the smash albums bolstered by his handiwork; just a blip in an impressive career that includes some of the most culturally significant music of the past three decades. Since 2010 alone, Coyne was nominated for record or album of the year on an almost annual basis, winning six in total along with a Latin Grammy for record of the year in 2013. To get a sense of Coyne’s tremendous output, in 2016 alone he was part of the teams for record of the year nominees “Blank Space” (Taylor Swift) and “Can’t Feel My Face” (The Weeknd), only to be beaten by another song he mastered, Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson's ubiquitous “Uptown Funk.”
Coyne also mastered the entirety of Britney Spears’ catalog starting with her 1999 debut ...Baby One More Time, the majority of Beyonce’s (including 2008’s I Am… Sasha Fierce and her 2013 self-titled effort), as well as landmark albums from Sam Smith (In the Lonely Hour), Taylor Swift (1989 and Red), Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (The Heist), Amy Winehouse (Frank), and even the cast recording of Hamilton -- just to name a small few. “He had an incredible career,” notes Aktar of Coyne’s impressive discography. “How many people can say they’ve been at the top of any field? He really loved it in a very humble and reflective way.”
All the more impressive is Coyne’s longevity, with the New Jersey native’s mastering career kicking off during the early '80s dance wave; one of his first credited titles is Kool and the Gang’s earworm classic “Ladies Night.” Back then, Coyne was a part of Frankford-Wayne Mastering Studios, which at the time dominated the genre, before transitioning to The Hit Factory, which true to its name helped master hits for the likes of Will Smith’s Fresh Prince persona. It wasn’t until 1994 when Coyne took a job at Sterling Sound where he quickly became known for his sense of humor as well as a healthy competitive streak with his Sterling cohorts while working out of the company’s New York City studios at Chelsea Market.
“He and I would work on projects together and when he was particularly proud of the work he had done on one, I would find a note inside the project’s folder that said, ‘Beat the pro,’” remembers Sterling’s Senior Mastering Engineer Randy Merrill of Coyne, who became a partner in the company in 1997. “It was his way of saying, ‘Try to beat my mastering,’ and his way of encouraging me to always be learning and improving, listening and comparing to what other people are doing, never getting too comfortable or complacent.”
According to Aktar, Coyne’s demeanor never changed depending on the project (his '90s resume boasts albums courtesy of everyone from the Wu-Tang Clan to the Backstreet Boys). “One of the core things he believed in was a single standard of service. There weren’t different version of Tom; one the stars got and another other acts got. Everyone got treated the same and it wasn’t fake or some act, it was just who he was.” That’s not to say Coyne wasn’t proud of his role in music history, which included perks of hobnobbing with industry’s elite. When Taylor Swift was nominated for a bevy of Grammys for her 1989, she invited Coyne and his coworkers to her apartment. “She was incredibly generous and supportive of the entire crew,” recalls Aktar of the memorable night. “Going to her home was beyond thrilling, and she was lovely.” Coyne also developed a shorthand with many of the industry’s producers. “(Aside from an artist) a lot of times a master's relationship is with the mixer or producer,” says Aktar, noting Max Martin was a frequent collaborator.
Questlove, another one of Coyne’s many industry fans, expressed his sentiments about the engineer on Instagram after he passed. “His ears were bar none the best,” the Roots drummer explained, saying he’d only let Coyne work on his productions. “Coming to his mastering studio was always my favorite part of making records. He was so patient with me especially the way I get down with sequencing and segue timing on albums. He knew I placed songs in rhythm like they were being spun at a club.”
Despite succumbing to his illness on April 12, 2017, Coyne’s legacy continues. In addition to a research fund set up in his name through the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, his work continues to trickle out and accolades keep pouring in. Exactly one year after Coyne snagged album of the year with Adele he was nominated yet again, this time for his work on Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic. Before the ceremony Aktar, along with Tom’s doctor, Dr. Paul Richardson, wife of 37 years Mary-Kay, and children Dillon and Briana, convened for dinner to reflect on Tom’s accomplishments before trekking to the Sunday night ceremony at Madison Square Garden. When Mars was announced the winner of album of the year, Mary-Kay helped accept on behalf of Tom and, boasting a neck full of pearls and standing squarely behind Mars, became a subject of fascination herself with E! calling her “Bruno Mars’ mystery guest.”
“It’s a fitting coda,” muses Aktar with a laugh. “(His legacy) is the kind of thing that helps. It’s comforting and takes the sting out of it. He had a wonderful life and understood that right until the end.”