Musicians, who’s watching out for your music?

Back in March of 2014, I posted the Can you hear what you’re doing? (Part 1) entry in this blog. I said it would be the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups and recordings that get out of the way.  Since then, there have been other entries dealing with the subject.  The current entry, while not about studio setups, does deal with recordings a bit, and it deals with live performance.  And it is about things that get in the way.

I have been fortunate in recent times to attend concerts by some of my favorite artists, some of whom I’ve followed for decades but never, until now, got to see live.  The music at all of the shows was everything I’d hoped it would be, the players on their game, delivering thrilling performances, taking chances, and taking the audience on amazing musical adventures.  Why then, I always wondered, when the music is so great, is the sound so awful?

I remember one performance by a singer/songwriter whose work I very much admire.  The song was of the up-close-and-personal sort, an almost private voicing of the artist’s feelings.  I will never understand why the “soundman” decided this particular tune required deep reverb on the vocal, accompanied by spinning disco-type lights.  The effect was to take what was an intimately sung ballad and turn it into a sung-from-afar dance number.

More recently, I attended a show where the opening act was a very gifted solo artist accompanying his vocals by fingerpicking on a Martin acoustic guitar.  What is the special talent required on the part of the soundman to make the sound of a solo voice and acoustic Martin hurt?  All the inherent delicacy and sparkle of the Martin was gone.  It sounded more like a left-out-in-the-rain, trash instrument, while the vocals were heavily compressed and had the midrange frequencies boosted to the point where the words stabbed at the listener’s ears.

When the headlining band took the stage I noticed that the drums were being mic’d and fed through the public address (or PA) system.  If left unamplified, the drums would not have had the slightest difficulty filling the small auditorium in which the show took place.  They could have been loud from the last row of the balcony.  When amplified as they were, this forced a horserace of loudness for all the other instruments and all of the vocals.  The result was that I could see the musicians playing their hearts out, but the sound was a near-undifferentiated mélange of mush.  I could see how melodic the lines played by the bass player were, but I couldn’t hear them.  Oh, I heard lots of bass, but the lines, like all the other sounds from the stage, were just out of focus.  Loud, for sure, but not at all clear.

The show was musically engaging but sonically a mess, and I pondered why this is the case so much more often than not with live shows.  Certainly the public address systems in use are partly responsible.  They are seemingly optimized for high speech intelligibility at extreme volumes.  That might be great if you’re listening to someone speak from 1/4 mile away, but not so great when you’re in the same room listening to music.

Add to this the propensity of the soundman to “do stuff” at the mixing desk.  At the last show, I saw him working during that voice and solo acoustic guitar performance, and I wondered what it was that made him feel the need to push faders.  (Over the years I’ve learned that what makes some sound engineers great is not so much what they do but what they don’t do.)

Of course, as with everything else, there are exceptions.  I remember attending a show by the Grateful Dead many years ago.  The sound at their shows was justly lauded.  I remember a wall of loudspeakers behind the band—with tie-dyed grill cloths!  Their sound system simply reinforced the band—as opposed to being a weapon aimed at the audience.

It is getting to the point where seeing a musical artist live does not necessarily mean hearing them live.  Most of the time nowadays the audience is subject to the soundman’s take on what the musicians are doing.

One of my favorite moments in live music occurred at a show I attended a couple of years back.  The acoustic trio on the stage was about to play a traditional folk song and for this tune (unfortunately, only for this tune), they stepped to the very front of the stage, leaving the microphones behind them.  Something wonderful happened.  The audience got very quiet, very attentive.  We heard the three voices, along with the guitars and mandolin, blend beautifully.  It was pure musical magic.  Then they went back to the other side of the mics and the bright, piercing sound of the PA dominated the rest of the show.  But for that one song, I surmised other audience members might have felt it the same way.  Their enthusiastic response at the end of the tune confirmed this.  Even if they might not have been conscious of precisely why, I think the level of communication between artist and audience deepened profoundly during that song.  And then the moment was relegated to memory.

Do the players realize how their music sounds from this side of the PA?  Of course, I frequently ask the same question when listening to their records at home.  I question whether the drummer and the rest of the band really want the drums to sound as distorted as they sometimes do.  I didn’t notice him using a distortion pedal on the snare during any of the concerts.

In addition to systems and records that get out of the way, and let me hear the musical message as directly as possible, I long for live performances where the PA system and the sound person get out of the way.  It is the contact with the artist and their work that is where the greatest musical magic is to be found—for me anyway, and I would guess for a large number of other listeners too.

So where are the musicians in all of this?  I always wonder if they aware of how their music sounds from the audience.  Or perhaps they like the way it is presented.  If so, well, it is their music after all, and they should determine how it is heard.  But if not, I ask the musicians: Who will watch out for your music if not you?

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The Lowdown on Downloads

Three years ago I posted the entry in this blog called Listening to Tomorrow.  I wrote about the wonders I experienced after loading my music library onto a computer hard drive and using the computer as a “music server.”  Since then, the idea of music existing as computer files—as opposed to physical discs one loads into a player—has expanded.

Today, there are a myriad of music server applications for the various computer operating systems.  For those who want to take the fidelity beyond the capabilities of their computer’s sound card, there are countless external digital-to-analog converters (DACs) to choose from.  There are also numerous online sources for downloading music.  Some still offer the data-reduced formats such as mp3.  Others now tout “full CD quality”—in some quarters, an oxymoron.  And some offer extended-resolution and high-resolution files.  (For more information on the different formats, see the blog entry cited above.)

My music server has become the way I listen, whether via Wi-Fi feeding smaller systems in the house, or via direct connection to the music library drive when listening on the main system.  Yet for several reasons, as a consumer I have been hesitant to purchase downloads.  Early experiences with more than one provider were disturbing in that what was often sold as “high resolution” turned out to be upsampled Redbook—in other words, plain old CD sound, in a high res “package”—sold at a high res price.  Whatever the reason (or reasons), this was so rampant I feared the fledgling market might never get off the ground.

I was also not enamored of the .flac format in which the vendors delivered their downloads.  While called a “lossless” way to reduce file size, making for convenient, faster download times, the results were not so lossless according to everyone participating in the comparison tests we ran in my studio.  (Based on what I see on the Internet and in many printed audio journals, it seems many listeners are not bothered by flac.  In our tests however, the results were unanimous—everyone heard a difference between the source .aif masters and the .flac files created from them.)

In time I was glad to see some vendors offer what appeared to be the raw PCM formats I prefer, such as .aif and .wav.  These are the formats used to make the recordings.  However, it turned out that at least with some of the vendors, what was being delivered to the customer was still a .flac file.  The “download manager” software the vendors provided for use on the customer’s computer expanded the file back to .aif or .wav.  For my own purchases, I avoided the downloads and stayed with CDs or with the high resolution files-on-DVD versions that some of the vendors sold.  When the discs arrived, I’d extract the files—this is called “ripping” a disc—and add them to the server myself.  For all the files on my server I chose the uncompressed .aif format—the same format I use to make and master recordings.

As the owner of the Soundkeeper Recordings label, I stayed away from offering downloads for several reasons, even though many folks have requested them over the years.  The prime reason is that I seek to deliver our recordings to our customers with nothing less than the very best sonics, and from my perspective the download schemes I’ve seen involve compromises.

A full album at high resolution (24-bit/192 kHz sampling rate) can be larger than four Gigabytes in size.  Where others reduce file size—and by that means shorten download times—by utilizing so-called “lossless” compression formats (such as .flac or .alac), to my ears these result in subtle alterations of the sound, hence I don’t consider them lossless.  Trading fidelity for convenience is not what Soundkeeper wants to offer our customers.

Another common approach taken with downloads, is to break albums up into “singles”.  Our artists go to considerable efforts to create whole albums, so this is the only way we want to deliver their work to our customers.

It took a while for the answer to come but I believe there is another way.  Soundkeeper Recordings will soon offer downloads without any of the compromises cited above.  How to deliver full albums at up to 24/192 resolution?  Fans of the so-called “lossless” formats compare them to zipping a word processor file.  Yes, the zipped words come back intact, even though I can’t say I find the same to be true of flac’d music.

So what about zipped music?  We’ve used zipped music files before, such as those on the Format Comparison page of the Soundkeeper Recordings website.  And when unzipped, no one who participated in our tests could differentiate between the source file and the copy that had been zipped.

What about file size?  Converting an .aif or .wav file to a .zip file does not reduce the size to any significant degree.  It does make for simple downloads though, without exacting a sonic price.  When the files have been downloaded, the user unzips the file and simply drags the tracks into the server application of their choice (iTunes, Amarra, etc.).

One of the reasons I prefer .aif format for my music files is that the files can contain metadata (artist, album title, track title, composer, album cover art, etc.).  This metadata becomes part of the file.  The .wav format does not support metadata, so when the user adds this information in their music application, it resides in the application and not in the file.  If the file is moved out of the application, the metadata is lost.  In contrast, move an .aif file and the metadata travels with it.  The .aif file downloads from Soundkeeper Recordings will have the full metadata in them when they arrive on the customer’s machine.

Within the next week, we’ll begin offering downloads in six formats: 16/44, 24/96, and 24/192, .aif or .wav.  For those who prefer disc formats, we plan to continue offering these.  The downloads are just a long overdue addition that will please a different set of Soundkeeper listeners.

Everything Still Matters

Soon after the previous entry in this blog—Everything Matters—was posted, I heard from a friend who recently purchased a 24-bit, 192 kHz, high-resolution download of a classic album.  Like many of us, he sought an even better “view” of the recording than is offered by the CD version he already owns.  To his surprise, he prefers listening to the CD version, and finds the high res download as sounding “a bit bright.”

The authors of some recent tech website articles denigrating high resolution might see my friend’s comments as vindication.  In my view, this says more about the authors than it does about the audible reality.  Why these websites didn’t choose authors more experienced with systems for music playback, and more interested in sound quality, remains a mystery.  (Vide John Atkinson’s very well considered Access Journalism vs Accountability Journalism.)

In order to determine whether high resolution is the source of the problem (any problem), it must be compared with its standard resolution equivalent.  This means for a valid comparison of delivery formats the only difference must be the delivery format.  Both versions must be created at the same mastering session, by the same engineer, using the same channel (signal path).  There, as the man once said, is the rub.  In most cases the two items being compared were created at different mastering sessions, often by different engineers, in completely different mastering studios.  Right away any sort of equivalence is out the window.

Different mastering engineers have different ears, different sensibilities, different approaches, different talents, and different weaknesses.  Even the same engineer might take a diverging tack when remastering something they’ve mastered in the past.  When the two versions are done by different engineers the likelihood of variance in their methods is pretty much a sure thing.  This is expectable since they don’t share a common set of ears, and no two engineers I know of will do things the same way.  With regard to new masterings, in Everything Matters I said, “Sometimes the results are improved sonics, with newly revealed nuances from the original recording that were lost in the original mastering.  Other times, and sadly all too often, the remastering is simply a louder, brighter rendering.”

There is also a very good to excellent chance the signal path for the two versions differed.  Even in the same studio, things tend to change and evolve over time.  For an album like the one my friend purchased, which was originally recorded on analog tape, the A-D converter used in mastering can have a profound effect on the results.  This is particularly true at higher resolutions, where I have found many converters are stretched beyond their capabilities.  To wit, a lot of converters specified for 24/192 actually perform worse at this rate than they do at lower rates.  This I attribute to the significantly increased demands on clocking accuracy and on analog stage performance at the wider bandwidths.  It would seem to be easy to put 24/192 on a spec sheet but not so easy to design a device that can perform to the potential of the format.  And the converter is just one of several components comprising the signal path, each of which will have its own sonic consequences.

All of the above assumes the same source tape was used for the different versions.  This is a big assumption, even when “original” is claimed.  I’ve experienced a number of instances where, having handled the tapes myself, I knew the subsequent claims from some quarters of “original” were at best mistaken. Whether original or not, if different source tapes were used, the outcome could be acutely altered.

The bottom line here should not be surprising: A carefully made CD (or CD resolution file) will easily outperform a not-so-carefully made 24/192 file.  This has to do with how effectively the capabilities of each delivery format are realized—or not realized, as this case illustrates.

I concluded Everything Matters by saying “Everything after the microphones (i.e., mic cables, AC mains power, AC mains cables, mic preamps, recording format, recording device , mix, if any, mastering, playback format, playback device, interconnecting cables, amplification, speaker cables, speakers, speaker positioning, vibration isolation, room acoustics, etc., etc.) merely determines how much of what was captured the listener gets to hear.”  In my experience, when everything in the production of an album is the same except for the delivery format, a 24/192 file should reveal so much more of the source as to make the 16/44 (CD) version sound coarse, ill-defined, airless, and broken by comparison.  So either my friend’s 24/192 file was created from an inferior source, or the mastering was just not up to that achieved for the CD.

To my ears, properly done digital audio at 24/192 fulfills the promise digital made back in 1982 when the sonically hamstrung CD format made its first appearance.  I have said elsewhere that 24/192 is the first format I’ve ever heard where I have not yet been able to distinguish the output from the input—the first format I know of that is capable of giving us a virtually perfect rendition of the source.  In view of this, I must admit to being somewhat astonished at the negativity from some quarters of the tech web and tech press.  Nevertheless, if music lovers are to receive the benefits of this wonderful fruit of technological progress, the folks creating it must tend their crop more carefully.

Everything Matters

In my earliest days as an assistant in a recording studio, I learned the ropes as basic tracks were laid down on tape, overdubs and “punch-ins” were added, stereo mixes were created, and the final, edited mixes were mastered.  From those early days onward, I frequently heard what I came to refer to as The Three Most Heard Phrases in Record Making:

“We’ll fix it in the mix” (when something in the recording was not quite right)

“We’ll catch it in the mastering” (when the mix didn’t exactly fix it)

“They’ll never hear it at home” (when it still wasn’t nailed in the mastering)

Rumor has it that Frank Zappa once said “We’ll fix it in the shrink wrap.”

There has been some discussion on the Internet recently about which aspect of record making has the greatest influence on the sound of the finished product.  Some say the space in which the original recording is made makes the greatest difference.  Others say “it’s all in the mastering.”  Asking three people will elicit at least four different answers.

The space where the recorded performance occurs will impact the musicians, influencing the sound they hear from the instruments and from the environment, thus influencing how they play.  But with typical recordings, where the microphones are placed close to the instruments, the sound of the environment is often minimized.  Alternatively, some recordings are made using very few microphones, which are placed to deliberately pick up the environment as well as the players.  Here, the space becomes in integral part of the final sound, as it is when a listener attends a live performance.  Still, this does not suggest the space has the greatest influence on the sound.  One might be in a fabulous room but the wrong microphone selection or the wrong microphone technique can very easily override the sound of the space.

Typical major label recordings involve three main production phases: recording, mixing, and mastering.  There are those who feel the mix—where a multitrack original is turned into a stereo (or in some instances, surround) version—is the biggest factor in shaping the final sound.  Instrumental and vocal level balances are determined during the mix.  Tonality is often adjusted, placement of instruments and vocalists on the “stage” is determined, and special effects might be added.  There is no doubt about the magnitude of influence the mix has.  Yet the final result will always be influenced by the ingredients used to create it.

With the advent of the remastering phenomenon, labels have given new life to older releases.  Sometimes the results are improved sonics, with newly revealed nuances from the original recording that were lost in the original mastering.  Other times, and sadly all too often, the remastering is simply a louder, brighter rendering.  Either way, through these re-releases, many music aficionados have discovered the influence mastering has on the sonics of a recording.  As the last stage of production and the first stage of manufacturing, mastering is the last opportunity to make small—or large—changes to the sound.  While the degree of influence on the final sound can sometimes be quite surprising, here too, the final outcome is always fundamentally impacted by the source material.  A pachyderm’s aural appurtenance does not a silken wallet make.

To my ears, an mp3 of a Keith Johnson recording, listened to in the car, on the highway (with the windows open!), can reveal more Life than many a typical studio master played on the finest, most carefully set up systems in the most optimally treated rooms.

In my experience, once the signals are leaving the microphones, 90-95% or more of the recording’s ultimate quality ceiling has already been determined.  Everything after the microphones (i.e., mic cables, AC mains power, AC mains cables, mic preamps, recording format, recording device , mix, if any, mastering, playback format, playback device, interconnecting cables, amplification, speaker cables, speakers, speaker positioning, vibration isolation, room acoustics, etc., etc.) merely determines how much of what was captured the listener gets to hear.

House Picks (Part 2)

The last entry, House Picks (Part 1), began with my writing “I am often asked which albums I consider to be particularly good sounding.  Sometimes the question involves recordings I’ve mastered and other times it is more general.  There is in fact an ever-growing group of recordings I turn to for reference whenever I make a change to the system in the studio, or when I’m evaluating a new piece of hardware or software, or when I just want to demo something for a client or friend.  Needless to say, I love the music on all of them.  This entry is about those I find to be sonically exceptional.  All of this comes to mind as I just happen to be evaluating a new change in the system.”

In the first part, I wrote about recordings of classical music.  This is because some of my all-time engineering heroes have primarily recorded this genre and because recordings of this type of music tend to be documents of real performances as opposed to the studio creations that dominate in the more popular musical genres.

In the world of popular music, it is more challenging to find recordings with great sonics.  There are several reasons for this.  Most typical studio productions are made using a large numbers of closely placed microphones.  The recordings are subjected to varying amounts of dynamic compression, sometimes used as a special effect but more often simply for the sake of loudness.  And lastly, what is commonly referred to as “stereo” is actually derived electronically during the “mix” where the individual monaural tracks are combined into two channels and each sound is sent to either the left channel, the right channel or some combination to give the appearance of the sound being somewhere in between.  Any sense of depth and space also tends to be created electronically rather than captured acoustically.  Even so, there are examples that, in spite of all the processing, still effectively convey musical meaning within the context of the sounds they provide.

To my ears, some of the best among these are the solo albums by Mark Knopfler.  The first one I heard, Sailing to Philadelphia (Warner Brothers 47753) was a great help when I was evaluating various means of isolating gear from external vibrations.  As the gear got better isolated, it was easier to hear the distinctive way Mark picks the strings of his guitars.  (Not that one had to listen for this; it just became more obvious.)

More recently, having purchased the rest of his catalog, I’ve often played tracks from The Ragpicker’s Dream (Warner Brothers 48318), Shangri-La (Warner Brothers 48858), Kill to Get Crimson (Warner Brothers 281660), Get Lucky (Reprise 520206), and all the others.

Another artist in the pop realm whose recordings I find sonically superior is Rickie Lee Jones.  Just yesterday, the track “Tigers” from Traffic from Paradise (Geffen 24602) provided some insight into the new degree of low level information being revealed by the most recent change to the system.  It is always amazing to me how, after knowing an album inside-out for many years, there may still be new sounds to hear in it.

Other Rickie Lee Jones albums that I find sonically special are The Evening of My Best Day (V2 Records 22171), The Sermon on Exposition Blvd (New West NW6112), and Balm in Gilead (Fantasy 31760).

Of the albums I’ve had the pleasure of mastering, my favorites are Enya’s Watermark (Geffen 24233) and the entire Bob Marley & the Wailers catalog in the series I did for the Tuff Gong label in 1990.  Of the Marleys, I’ll often pick Survival (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) or Exodus (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) when I want to test the system.  Another one of my prime choices from the albums I’ve mastered is Work of Art’s Waves (Sword In The Stone SSR56).

Finally, nothing tells me more about how a system (or device within it) is performing than recordings I’ve made myself for my own Soundkeeper Recordings label.  Having stood at the position of the microphone array at the recording sessions, and having compared the signals from the mics with what I was hearing in the air, provides a unique perspective into each of these projects.  Even more than when mastering an album, where one learns every little sound during multiple listens over the course of the mastering process, having made the original recording and been in the space with the players during the event itself, affords an unequaled vantage point on the reproduction of same.  With this in mind, I’ll always bring out the recordings I know best of all.  These include Work of Art’s Lift (SRx001), Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn’s Equinox (SRx002), Jason Vitelli’s Confluence (SRx003), Paul Beaudry & Pathways’ Americas (SRx004), and Work of Art’s Winds of Change (SRx005).

The postman just delivered a package with some new albums I ordered.  I hope its contents are the makings of a future “House Picks” entry in this blog.  I’m off to the studio/listening room.

House Picks (Part 1)

I am often asked which albums I consider to be particularly good sounding.  Sometimes the question involves recordings I’ve mastered and other times it is more general.  There is in fact an ever-growing group of recordings I turn to for reference whenever I make a change to the system in the studio, or when I just want to demo something for a client or friend.  Needless to say, I love the music on all of them.  This entry is about those I find to be sonically exceptional.  All of this comes to mind as I just happen to be evaluating a new change in the system.

In general terms, there are certain engineers and certain artists from whom I’ve found consistent results that I deem outstanding in one or more ways.  I note that every engineer whose work I have admired has their own approach, different from others and also different from my own approach.  Nonetheless, I find much to enjoy in their work.

Among the first recordings I’ll play when I want to hear what something can do are some recorded by Keith Johnson for the Reference Recordings label.  The recording of John Rutter’s Requiem (RR-57) is one of my all-time favorites.  The 300 voices of the Turtle Creek Chorale and the Women’s Chorus of Dallas combine with the fabulous acoustics of the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and the Fisk organ therein, along with woodwinds and percussion to create musical and sonic magic.  I first heard this recording long before I saw a photo of the room in which it was made.  From the sound alone, it was clear this room has a very high ceiling.  After enjoying this record for years, I finally saw a photo of the space in which it was done, and learned the ceiling is some 80 feet above the floor.  For spatial reproduction, ability to separate complex musical passages, and the deep bass of that organ (you can feel the air pressure changes in the room!), this recording is a wonder.

An earlier Keith Johnson recording of the Turtle Creek Choir is another favorite.  Testament (RR-49) features Randall Thompson’s music set to text by Thomas Jefferson.  The album also includes other compositions by Ron Nelson, Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. I’ve often said this record is so clear, you can almost tell what color sweater certain vocalists were wearing.

I have several recorded versions of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and The Firebird but Eije Oue’s traversals with the Minnesota Orchestra (RR-70) are easily among my favorites.  Like all of Keith’s work, space and dynamics are astounding.  This is a stunning recording of some of my favorite music.

For me, the pioneers, the trailblazers of great recording were the team of Wilma Cozart and engineer C. Robert Fine.  While their recordings for the Mercury Living Presence label might have just a bit of microphone-engendered brightness, they remain for me among the earliest examples of performances I enjoy which are superbly recorded.  When listening to these, I am constantly amazed to realize they were recorded more than half a century ago.

Some of my most treasured albums done by Fine and Cozart are their recordings of Antal Dorati and the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra performing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (434 331-2) and The Firebird (432 012).  I’m also partial to the team’s recordings of Janos Starker including Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello and Sonatas in G & D Major for Cello and Piano (432 756) and Italian Cello Sonatas (434 344).  Bob Fine’s recordings are magical windows to the performances.

Jack Renner’s recording for the Telarc label of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris (80058) played by the Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is a house favorite.

Next time, some samples from the world of popular music.

The People’s System

(This entry was updated 10/29/17 with current models and prices.)

A year ago, the entry in this blog called Can you hear what you’re doing? was the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups that avoid superimposing their own sonic thumbprint on the signals they reproduce.  I hope these entries will also be of interest to any music and sound enthusiast who seeks a system capable of what I call “getting out of the way” in order to provide more direct access to the recordings in their music collection.

Previous entries have talked about monitoring system setup and room acoustics.  In the entry preceding this one, Magnificent Maggies, I spoke of a particular favorite speaker design, Jim Winey’s Magneplanars, and how I’ve found them to be exemplary in terms of stepping aside and allowing the listener to truly hear the input signal.

To be clear, not everyone really wants to hear the input signal unaltered.  Some folks like their systems to offer certain colors that please their ears.  While I would never argue with whatever brings anyone their listening pleasure, this entry is directed toward folks who want the colors to come from the music and not from the gear used to listen to it.

A system that gets out of the way is pivotal for those making records.  Unless they can be confident they are assessing the sound of the recording itself, they risk altering the sound to make inaccurate monitoring sound “right.”   If that happens, when they listen elsewhere they find that the recording itself doesn’t sound the way they intended it to sound.  Such a system is important to music lovers too because it reveals all the nuances contained in their music libraries.

I have often been asked to recommend a system for musician friends, clients, and other friends. In the majority of instances the recommendations have been very similar.  What I’m going to describe here is the least expensive system I would trust for monitoring recordings.  (I’ve heard systems costing considerably more that do not elicit the same confidence on my part.)  It is equally suitable for any music lover, whether as a starter system in a college dorm or as an ultimate system for folks who don’t seek anything more.  One can certainly spend less and have a very enjoyable system, but I would not recommend such for anyone who makes records or anyone who wants to hear the most from their music.

It is important to remember that the ideal recommended system will vary depending on the source of the recommendation.  I often say that if you ask three folks an audio question, you will receive at least four different answers.  I will report on a system I have experienced in many rooms and which has brought smiles to many musicians, recordists, and other music lovers I know.

For the purpose of this entry, I’m going to divide the music system into two parts: the front end and the back end.  The front end might be as simple as a CD or turntable, or it might be as elaborate as a computer feeding an external digital-to-analog converter (also known as a DAC).  The front end is the source from which recordings are played.  The back end is the monitoring which includes the loudspeakers and the electronics that drive the speakers.  The system I’m recommending here is built around the monitoring.

In the previous entry, I said that I often refer to Magnepan’s MMG (now MMGi) model ($650/pair) as “The People’s Speaker.”  To quote from that entry, “I’ve heard some $10,000 and $15,000 speakers that have so much ‘personality’ they end up exhausting the listener and engendering headaches.  MMGs, within their capabilities, just sound like what they are fed.  Properly set up, they are a joy that any music lover will intuitively recognize.”  The MMGis are the core of what I’ll call “The People’s System.”

What is needed now are associated components that will allow the MMGis to reveal their magic.  The speakers must be paired with an amplifier to drive them.  The most economical good match for the MMGis I’ve found so far is the RR-2160 stereo receiver ($799) from Outlaw Audio.  With sufficient power to drive the MMGis, the RR-2160 also serves as the control center for the system, where the input source can be selected and the playback volume adjusted, using either the front panel or the included remote.

While they are often overlooked when folks assemble audio systems, I’ve found the cables that connect all the individual pieces of gear to be critical in getting the best out of the whole.  In the entry called The High End Arrives, I recounted my earliest exposure to good cables.  It started with the loudspeaker cables.  From that entry: “…I already had ‘heavy gauge’ wires feeding the speakers.  Once the cable was sufficient to pass the requisite power to the loudspeakers, I wondered ‘how could cable make a difference?’  Once again I listened and once again I learned.  Where did all that musical information come from?  What was formerly just a guitar chord was now a set of individual strings sounding together to make that chord.  The room in which the musicians were playing was suddenly also much more clearly evident – both in recordings made in real rooms and those where a ‘room’ sound was added artificially via electronic reverberation.  Where cables had previously been not much more than an afterthought, required to get sound from one component in the chain to the next, I came to realize they are components in themselves and as with any chain, the weak link will determine the overall strength.”  I wrote more about the subject in the New Connections entry last year.

In my experience, the MMGis will easily reveal differences in cables and so I recommend using wires that are commensurate with the rest of the monitoring system we’re assembling here.  For this system, I recommend White Lightning speaker cables ($429/3-meter pair) from Nordost.  In order to connect a front end source component to one of the inputs on the Outlaw RR 2160, I recommend Nordost’s White Lightning interconnect cables ($195/1-meter pair).

Each of the cables is available with different types of connectors at each end.  I would choose Nordost’s “z-plug” banana connectors on their speaker cables, as these make for easy attachment at the amplifier and speaker ends.  Standard RCA connectors on the interconnect cables will work with the Outlaw RR-2160 and most source components.

Depending on the setup, shorter or longer speaker cables or interconnects may be desired.  In this example, I’ve chosen a 3-meter pair for the speaker cables and a 1-meter for the interconnects as good average lengths that work in most installations (and to “ballpark” the price).

So, excluding the front end source component(s), the system consists of:

Magnepan MMGi loudspeakers  $650
Outlaw Audio RR-2160 receiver  $799
Nordost White Lightning speaker cables  $429
Nordost White Lightning interconnects  $195

The total cost for this part of the system is $2073.  All that is needed now is the front end source or sources.  I’ve heard this system make mellifluous musical magic with inputs as simple as a $35 Sony DVD/CD player spinning a CD, or as complex as a computer-centered digital audio workstation in a studio feeding the system via an external DAC.

One thing that might surprise folks who are new to components like these is that wonderful as they sound fresh out of the box, all of them will improve considerably once they have played music for a while.  The cables and electronics get better over the first 100 hours of use, while the speakers can take as much as 400 hours of playing music to get to their best performance.  Extension in the bass as well as the treble, smoothness in the upper frequencies, “airiness”, and dynamic range all exhibit improvements.  The dimensions of the stereo soundstage expand and overall focus attains greater detail.  The system will sound fantastic immediately but will ultimately get even better.

While I could happily live with this system as described (and truly believe it tells a lot more sonic truth than I’ve heard in most studios), one of its beauties is that each of the various components will stand up to having any of the others upgraded within each respective brand.  For example, go up a model in the Magnepan line, and the RR-2160 and White Lightning will still deliver.  Go up to separate electronics, like Outlaw’s 2200 amplifiers, and the MMGis will respond to the increased power while the White Lightning will still faithfully render the signal from link to link in the component chain.  Go up to one of Nordost’s more elaborate cable designs, and the MMGis will reveal the increased performance.  These are all components that work superbly together, yet can also allow for growth.  And most importantly, the combination is true to the input signal.  Of course, models further up the Magnepan and Nordost lines will take the revelation level up accordingly.  (There are also some outstanding alternatives for more expensive electronics.)  But this system as it is, fits the goal mentioned at the start of this entry: It is capable of getting out of the way and providing more direct access to the music.  It gets my vote for The People’s System.