The People’s System

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 model ($599/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 MMGs are the core of what I’ll call “The People’s System.”

What is needed now are associated components that will allow the MMGs to reveal their magic.  The speakers must be paired with an amplifier to drive them.  The most economical good match for the MMGs I’ve found so far is the RR-2150 stereo receiver ($699) from Outlaw Audio.  With sufficient power to drive the MMGs, the RR-2150 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 MMGs 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 2150, I recommend Nordost’s White Lightning interconnect cables ($189/1-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-2150 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 MMG loudspeakers  $599
Outlaw Audio RR-2150 receiver  $699
Nordost White Lightning speaker cables  $429
Nordost White Lightning interconnects  $189

The total cost for this part of the system is $1916.  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-2150 and White Lightning will still deliver.  Go up to separate electronics, like Outlaw’s 2200 amplifiers, and the MMGs 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 MMGs 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.

Magnificent Maggies

A recent conversation on one of the Internet audio forums revolved around a user’s question about whether his system should provide a “front row” or “center orchestra” perspective on the recordings he played through it.  Not surprisingly, the responses were wide-ranging and fully supported my frequent observation that what is “good”, “better” or “best” depends entirely upon precisely what one seeks.  Some folks want their system to provide a certain perspective.  My own contention is that if the system provides a certain perspective, whatever that perspective might be, it is in fact getting in the way of the perspective provided by the recording.  I would rather have a system that just gets out of the way and lets me hear past it, all the way to the recording.

About this time last year, I wrote an entry in this blog called Can you hear what you’re doing? and 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 that avoid superimposing their own sonic thumbprint on the signals they reproduce.  It is my hope that these will be of equal interest to any music and sound enthusiast who wants maximum access to the recordings in their music collection.  In that entry, I talked in general terms about monitoring system setup and went on in the subsequent entry to discuss room acoustics.  Here, we’ll get into the loudspeakers themselves and one design in particular, Jim Winey’s Magneplanars.

I have always felt the most important component in any studio or listening room is the monitoring (i.e., the loudspeakers and their setup).  Before I had my own studio, I would select places to work based solely on the monitoring, my feeling being if you can’t hear what you’re doing, nothing else really matters.  Every decision in record making, from microphone selection on, is based on what the monitors reveal (or don’t).  Similarly, when building any listening system, it is the monitoring that will determine what we hear from the rest of the playback chain and the recordings we listen to.

Some speakers can sound “very good”, presenting certain aspects of the sound in very pleasing ways.  They might be sweet in the treble or very powerful in the bass or they might exhibit great dynamic “slam” when the music suddenly goes from quiet to loud.  Some will favor the human voice.  Some will be especially good at reproducing a sense of spaciousness.  Personally, I wouldn’t want any of these.  I consider a loudspeaker (or any other component) that sounds “very good” to be a source of distortion.  I don’t want the speakers to favor any particular aspect of the sound and thus draw my attention to it.  I don’t want the speakers to “sound” at all.  I want the opposite: I want them to get out of the way and let me hear the recording.

When many folks see Magnepans for the first time, they tend to say things like “That’s a speaker?!”  These are not your usual cones-in-a-box like most other speakers.  Maggies—as they are affectionately known to their fans—are flat panels that radiate sound from both the front and the back.  Instead of using cones (or domes) as the driver elements, they utilize Magnepan’s proprietary flat drivers.  Lightweight and fast-responding, these drivers excel at following the music signal with an agility those more massive cones (and domes) can’t achieve.  The first models I experienced, back in the early 1970s, looked like Shoji screens.  While those early models did not have the bass or treble extension of the modern Maggies, they nonetheless provided a shockingly realistic portrayal of the music and showed just how much more music was available from records than what is commonly revealed by typical box speakers.  Over the years, the designs have been improved greatly, extending their reach into the bass and up into the treble, and expanding their responsiveness to changes in musical dynamics.  The larger models incorporate a true ribbon tweeter, extending the range into the stratosphere and providing a purity in the treble which, to my ears, remains unmatched to this day.

I have set up systems for many clients, friends and relatives built around Magnepan’s MMG model.  While it does not have the bass or treble extension or the overall resolution of models higher up in the line, this least expensive model in the Magnepan line ($599/pair) delivers a good measure of the Maggie Magic.  I know of one studio that replaced a pair of box type monitors with MMGs and the changes that resulted were profound.  (The owner never went back to boxes and has since purchased larger Magnepans to use as the studio monitors.)  While they may not plumb the deepest notes in the bass, their definition in this range sounds to me a lot more like bass in real life than that delivered by other designs.  Assuming the recording contains it, there is real pitch definition and speed on the bottom, something I’ve only heard approached by speakers costing much more.

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.  For this reason, I’ve come to refer to them as “The People’s Speaker”.  While enjoyable music systems can be built around less expensive loudspeakers, I wouldn’t want to use such for evaluating recordings or other gear.  For a system that I can trust when making records, a system that can truly get out of the way, I consider the MMGs the starting point.  (More on this in a future entry.)

Earlier this decade, Magnepan introduced its model 1.7, successor to the 1.6, itself the successor to the 1.5, which was the first Maggie I owned.  Unlike many other companies, Magnepan does not introduce new models very often.  Like other companies I admire, rather than arbitrarily replace products with others that incorporate superficial changes, they wait for really significant design improvements before offering a new model.  My old 1.5s used the planar magnetic driver for the woofer and incorporated Magnepan’s quasi-ribbon driver for the midrange/tweeter section of the speaker.  The 1.6s used a similar driver complement but over the years Magnepan enlarged the quasi-ribbon and redesigned the crossover as well as some aspects of the mechanical design of the speaker.  This increased its already fine coherence and its dynamic capability.  With the .7 series, Magnepan extended the use of its quasi-ribbon drivers to the bass and again improved the crossover, resulting in a substantial upgrade to an already fine design.

My 1.5s were not only used for leisure listening, they became indispensable as the monitors in my studio, making made mastering decisions faster and easier.  This is a critical point and why I insist on monitoring that is absolutely trustworthy.  I spoke about this a bit in the blog entry cited earlier.  In most studios, one has to take the result outside to another system in order to “see how it sounds”.  The sound has effectively been adjusted to make the studio monitoring sound “right”, with the inevitable outcome  that the sound isn’t so right when played elsewhere.  With Maggies serving as monitors, I feel confident I’m hearing—and working on—the recording itself, not the monitoring.  Their honesty makes the results stand up when played elsewhere on other systems.

In the intervening years, I’ve gone from using 1.5s in the studio, to using Magnepan’s 3.6s, and more recently, to 3.7s.  I consider the .7 to be a landmark in the progress of Magnepan’s designs with a new level of coherence, which I attribute to the crossover changes.  The word that keeps coming to mind as I listen to them is “solidity” as the images presented by the speakers now seem to have a palpability, a sense of real presence that can sometimes be scarily real sounding—if the recording allows it.

There are other Magnepan models, both smaller and larger than those I’ve mentioned so far. I believe each of them is a best buy in its price class.  The only caveats I would offer the reader are the following:

  1. These speakers are so transparent, some folks will blame them for issues the speakers are simply revealing about the recording, the rest of the system, or the setup.
  2. Maggies like a lot of current and should be used with amplifiers capable of delivering what the speakers want.  To my ears, low-powered amplifiers will not elicit their magic.
  3. While all speakers require proper placement to do their job, a speaker as revealing as a Maggie really needs air all around it to show its potential.  For background listening, they can be moved closer to the wall behind them but to really have them “disappear”, they should be well out into the room.  This is true for almost all speakers and in my experience, is certainly a prerequisite if the speaker is to truly get out of the way.

I’ve had the good fortune to hear other great speakers but so far, all of them cost an order of magnitude more than any Magnepan.  Yes, for $50,000, $100,000 and more, there are some really fantastic loudspeakers out there.  To this day however, there are still some things I think Maggies do better, even at a small fraction of the price.  And for overall performance, few in my experience are so chameleon-like as far as the signal they are fed, so elegant visually, and so inviting to the listener:  my favorite product in all of audio.

Music Performed (Part 2)

In the previous entry in this blog, I recalled some of the most memorable live music performances I’ve attended.  Most of my early musical experiences, both with recordings and concerts, were with popular music—rock and folk along with music from some Broadway shows and movie soundtracks.  In the early 1970’s, I came to appreciate that musical genre known as jazz and a new musical frontier opened for me.

I found new joy and new musical heroes in the music of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.  Unfortunately for me, I never got to attend live performances by many of these.  On the other hand, as I got more deeply into this music, I found I was fortunate to be listening at a time when it was undergoing some profound changes.  The beauty created by the master improvisers of the genre in the early years of jazz, as they spontaneously created melodic solos and new harmonic explorations, was being taken in new directions.  The 1970s were a fruitful decade for jazz and the live music scene in New York City was a prime showcase for the music.

Ornette Coleman’s music had already taught me to hear beyond the “solo-over-the-changes” tradition.  In his music, there was no background of repeated structure over which the soloist took musical flight, no regular rhythmic pulse or pattern of chords.  Listening to Ornette’s records, I learned there were other means by which the players could move the music forward.

In 1971, I first heard the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which took the idea of spontaneity to a large ensemble.  This was a recording of Michael Mantler’s pioneering efforts with a studio full of all-star players of the day, including Cecil Taylor and Larry Coryell.  But the impact of the concept really came home for me when the JCO held a series of weeklong open workshops at Columbia University in New York City.  During the course of the week, the leader/composer would show the orchestra members the work and in the ensuing evenings, go over the different parts of the piece with the players, until the final night when the orchestra performed it for the audience.  I was fortunate to attend during the week Don Cherry was teaching the orchestra his “Relativity Suite”.  I had been a Don Cherry fan since I first heard him on Ornette Coleman’s albums.  Being present as he brought forth “Relativity Suite” with a roster of top level players, is one of my fondest musical memories.

In contrast with the stupendous power of a full jazz orchestra, another special concert event I’ll always remember was a more intimate experience.  This was a duet performance at a church in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Sitting on a foam pad on the floor, I watched and listened as Karl Berger and Dave Holland, both only a few feet from where I was, created musical magic as the colors from their instruments filled the space.

This was the time of the loft scene in Manhattan’s SoHo district and among the more famous sites was Sam Rivers’ Studio RivBea.  I will never forget the night I attended the performance by drummer Sonny Murray.  It remains indelibly engraved in my heart and mind, not only because of the leading edge music performed that evening but also because I met the love of my life that night and it was the first musical event we attended together.

In the days that followed, we would frequent the Village Vanguard in the West Village, for many evening performances by Keith Jarrett and his bandmates Charlie Haden (whom I also knew from Ornette Coleman’s records) and Paul Motian.  Other memorable shows at the Vanguard were those by George Adams and his band, which included Charles Mingus alumni Don Pullen and Dannie Richmond.

It was 1972 when Miles Davis came out with “On the Corner” and when I heard there was going to be a concert at Carnegie Hall, I jumped at the opportunity to get tickets.  As he was always seeking new directions, the music Miles delivered that night wasn’t exactly like that from either of his justly famous quintets.  If there is a line between jazz and rock, the ensemble crossed it frequently.  I vividly remember the red, black, and green grill cloths on the wall of amplifiers behind the players.  And I recall all the instruments, including the congas, being played through wah-wah pedals.  Even if it was one of the best rock concerts I ever attended, I finally got to hear Miles live.

More than a decade later, I finally got to hear another jazz hero live.  Ornette Coleman had just released “Song X”, his collaboration with Pat Metheny.  I attended the performance at New York’s Town Hall where Ornette and Pat were joined by Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman.  A few years later, I had the pleasure of attending another Ornette Coleman concert, this time at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

I love the fact that jazz happens everywhere, from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall to clubs like the Vanguard in the city, to the streets themselves and well into the suburbs.  For many years, there was a small club north of New York City up in Westchester county, where the owner, Al Defemio, would sit in on drums with guest players ranging from amateur musicians to seasoned professionals.  Al’s handmade onion rolls were famous among the players and audience alike.  The players also loved the face that Al always made sure they were well fed.

On one occasion, I had the very good fortune to attend a Benny Golson performance at Defemio’s.  In the close quarters and relatively small audience that would fit in the club, it was as though Benny was playing for us alone.  We sat spellbound as we listened to him play “I Remember Clifford”.  In between sets when my wife and I went over to tell him how much we enjoyed his music, he invited us to sit down and join him.  We talked about musical composition and how he went about creating the pieces he played.  In combination with the music performed, who could ask for more?

Music Performed (Part 1)

There are different paths one can take when making a record and each offers its own unique rewards.  One path seeks to create something that cannot exist in real life, a work of sonic fiction valuable for the imaginary landscapes it embodies.  Another path seeks to capture, as closely as the latest technology allows, the sound of a real performance in a real space.  While I appreciate both types of recording, I am most interested in exploring the idea of records that sound like performances.  The reason is simple:  For me, the record is merely a vehicle that provides access to the music.  While I love records, for me, the greatest excitement in music is the performance event.  Capturing the performance event is my favorite way to make a record because listening to a performance is my favorite way to listen to music.

Jeff Buckley was spot on when he referred to music as a force of Nature.  Music has impacted so many parts of my life, I can’t imagine its absence.  Though most of the music I have come to love has come to me via recordings, for this entry of the Soundkeeper blog I’m thinking of those musical performances I attended that have left me with lifelong memories.  I wasn’t fortunate enough to attend concerts by the Beatles, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and many others too numerous to mention, and for these I will be ever grateful for the recorded legacies they left behind.  On the other hand, I have been lucky enough to be present at performances by many other musical heroes and these remain indelibly engraved in my being.

Several of the memories were created at the old Fillmore East on the lower east side in New York City.  My first visit occurred shortly after the release of John Mayall’s landmark album “The Turning Point” when I saw him play it live.  I also attended performances by B.B. King and Taj Mahal in this theater.  Sitting in the third row as Moby Grape rocked the room with “Omaha” and later, the band’s bassist Bob Mosley sang a solo a capella “Ode to the Man at the End of the Bar” brought home the energy of one of my favorite bands of the era.

In the Summer of 1971, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden was my first arena concert.  Musical hero after musical hero came upon the stage, thrilling me to live performances by so many folks I’d previously only heard via recordings.  From the opening set by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan (the latter one of my first world music heroes) to subsequent performances by George Harrison and Ringo Starr (right there, half of my all-time favorite band), Eric Clapton (one of my first guitar “teachers”, whose records I would play over and over again as I learned to play different parts), Leon Russell and Billy Preston, these were some of the most exhilarating performances I can remember.

When a Rolling Stones tour was announced, it seemed like getting tickets would be near impossible.  The promoters decided to hold a lottery whereby folks would send in postcards and the winners would be drawn at random, each winning postcard entitling the sender to purchase four tickets to the show.  I remember an evening of filling out postcard after postcard and dropping them in the mailbox.  As I was about to take a trip out of state, I’d asked good friends to try and secure a ticket for me, in case they got lucky with their entries.  When the drawing was complete, it turned out eight of the postcards I’d sent in were selected.  I got to go and so did 31 friends!  Our seats might have well been near the ceiling—not that there was any trouble hearing the sound system though—but hey, it was the Stones!  Live!

The best seats I ever had at the Garden were for Genesis on the “Duke” tour in 1980.  I’d just mastered the CD for this album and really enjoyed being present when the group performed the album at the show.

Fun though the arena shows are, my favorite live concerts have been the ones in smaller venues, where there is more real contact with the artist.  Perhaps my favorite of all was a triple bill at New York’s Beacon Theater.  The roster that night included Van Morrison, Linda Ronstadt, and Tim Buckley.  Van had just released “His Band and the Street Choir” and the band played many tracks from the album along with some favorites from the previous record, “Moondance”.  Though I was familiar with and admired Linda’s voice from her work with the Stone Poneys, she was still a relatively new discovery to me.  Tim Buckley had just released “Starsailor”, his follow-up to “Lorca”, both of which remain two of my favorite albums.  It was a treat to be present as his band performed songs from both albums and to hear Tim sing in person.  I particularly admired the musicianship in this band where both the vocals and instrumental lines would tend toward more oblique and quite original turns than are typical of most popular music.

More recently, I’ve had the good fortune to attend several performances by Richard Thompson at the Tarrytown Music Hall.  Over the course of a bit more than a year, I’ve also finally gotten to hear another of my favorite artists at this same hall:  I love all of their albums but being in the room when Los Lobos plays and sitting still are two things I am not able to do at the same time.

That visceral experience of being in the presence of music being performed is to me, life lived to its fullest.

Next time out, live jazz in New York City.

Giving Thanks

All commercial implications of the current holiday aside, I believe it is good to stop once in a while and observe a Thanks giving.  Somehow, even the name of the holiday seems to have been altered over the years, to the point where it is usually pronounced with the accent on the second syllable.  I hear most folks speak of the holiday as “thanks-gi-ving” but I prefer to call it the Thanks-giving, thereby placing the emphasis on its true meaning.

Now, as we approach the release of the latest Soundkeeper Recording, I want to pause for a moment and give thanks to the artists who have enabled me to undertake this long held dream.

Let me begin with Art Halperin, who started as a mastering client and whom I came to greatly admire as a composer, arranger, and musician.  When I told him I wanted to start a label and about the particulars of my goals, as well as the demands these would place upon the players, Art immediately volunteered his band, Work of Art, for the first project.

Those who play music with Art and those who know him socially share a unique camaraderie that could only arise in the presence of Art’s spirit and the warmth he exudes.  In some ways, the experience is a “you had to be there” but at the same time, this comes through in spades on Art’s recordings.  Perhaps because recording live really captures the essence of an event and not just its sound, this is especially true of his work for Soundkeeper.  Art, that first album being named Lift was as apt a title as could be, because that is what you and your music do for folks’ spirits.  Thank you.

It was at a social gathering that an acquaintance began speaking of Haitian music and asked me if I’d ever heard of Markus Schwartz.  I hadn’t heard of Markus before and despite my love of world music, I was not familiar with the music of Haiti.  I was in for a fabulous musical treat.  I attended his next live performance and was immediately smitten by both the music and his artistry.  I knew at once that I wanted to record this ensemble and spoke with Markus and the other players immediately after the first set.

The album we made together, Equinox, was a landmark for me.  Except for what might be termed a “warm up” session, where Markus and his band, Lakou Brooklyn, got familiar with the recording method, the entire album took only four hours to record!  The performances were entrancing and led me to appreciate the wider world of Haitian music.  Markus, the music is as organic as can be and is soulful to the max, just like you.  Thank you.

Another artist who started as a mastering client is Jason Vitelli.  There is a rare musical pleasure when one finds oneself listening to a true original.  Such was the experience of listening to Jason’s debut album, with its angular melodies, complex arrangements and literate lyrics.  On that album, Jason played almost all the musical parts himself.  For a Soundkeeper project, to be recorded live, without overdubs, he had to assemble a brand new band, finding players with the right musical chops who were also sympathetic to a new and different musical vision.

Jason, to this day, I am in awe of the concentration of effort you put into making the recording we call Confluence a reality.  Tirelessly auditioning players until a real, unified band was assembled, working with them as individuals and in sub-groups to hone arrangements, and ultimately delivering a unique collection of songs ranging from solos, a duet, trios, full ensemble pieces and some hard electric rock, all in your one-of-a-kind style.  Thank you.

One of my favorite musical idioms is the jazz quartet.  I’d always wanted to record a jazz quartet direct to stereo, with air around the players and natural sound from their instruments.  While recording Equinox, I came to appreciate the musicianship of the bass player on that project, Paul Beaudry.  As we got to know each other, I learned of Paul’s quartet, Pathways, and of their Jazz at Lincoln Center and U.S. State Department sponsored trips to different parts of the world.

After they returned from one such trip to Central and South America and the Caribbean, Paul wanted to record an album of the music they learned in several of the countries they visited.  The result was Americas.  Paul, the voice you give to your bass and your sheer energy never fail to catch my ear.  I still recall quite clearly just how difficult it was to sit still during the sessions and not just get up and dance around the auditorium.  Thank you.

Now we come full circle, with a new Soundkeeper Recordings project to be released within the next few weeks.  Eight years after the first album was released, it was time to rejoin Art Halperin and his band, Work of Art.  As always, Art, your special brand of magic fills everyone’s heart with joy.  How wonderful it has been to watch your development as an artist, and how lucky I feel to record another album with you.  Those beautiful songs and rich vocal harmonies you created for the new album stir my soul, as I’m sure they will for other listeners to Winds of Change. Thank you.

I’ve said before that making records is much harder work than many folks realize.  Remove the convenience and safety of the modern studio and it is harder still, particularly on the players.  But the best rise to the occasion and create something unattainable in any other fashion.  Art, Markus, Jason, and Paul, a heartfelt thank you for the friendship you give to me, your virtuosity, and for the music you give to the world.  I admire all of you and am more than fortunate to have had the opportunity to record your music.  Play on, my brothers!

Pressing Matters

It is my sincere hope that this blog provides entries of interest to music lovers, musicians, and audio enthusiasts, as well as folks who make records.  A few previous entries, such as Can you hear what you’re doing? (Part 1) and Can you hear what you’re doing (Part 2), were aimed specifically at those setting up studios in order to make records, among whom there are a great many musicians.  Of course, it has been my hope that others would find these of interest as well.  So it is with the current entry.  While it is intended primarily for those who make records, if I’m lucky, those who purchase and listen to records will also find something of value herein.

With audio mastering completed for the new Work of Art album entitled Winds of Change (first mentioned in the August 22, 2014 entry of this blog, also called Winds of Change), and with the album artwork approved, it was time to contact the CD replicator in order to get the “pressed” versions manufactured.  Actually, CDs are not pressed like vinyl records.  They are made using an injection molding process, but the term pressing seems to have endured in common use.

Those familiar with my label, Soundkeeper Recordings, know that we release each album in several different formats.  In addition to the regular CD, we offer six custom burned formats, including CD-R and five formats with higher resolution than a CD can provide:
–   Music-only DVD-R with 24-bit, 96 kHz audio, playable in most regular DVD players
–   24-bit, 96 kHz .aif files-on-disc
–   24-bit, 96 kHz .wav files-on-disc
–   24-bit, 192 kHz .aif files-on-disc
–   24-bit, 192 kHz .wav files-on-disc

For more about the different resolutions, see the May 22, 2014 entry in this blog, Is “too much” not enough?

As far as standard, 16-bit, 44.1 kHz CD resolution, the reason Soundkeeper Recordings offers our releases in CD-R format, and the true subject of this entry, is something I’ve said since I heard the finished product for the very first CD I mastered, back in January of 1983—CDs made at different plants all sound different from each other and none sounds indistinguishable from the master used to make it.  This may sound strange in view of the marketing that has accompanied the CD format from the beginning, primarily in the form of the slogan “Perfect Sound Forever” and the widely accepted idea that nothing can change once the signal is in a digital format.

Imagine my surprise then, when I first started mastering CDs and found that the same digital U-Matic tape (the format used at the time to send CD masters to replication facilities) sounded different depending on which side of the Sony DAE-1100 editor I used to play it.  The DAE-1100 was commonly used at the time to assemble CD masters.  The unit controlled tape machines for the ¾” tape cartridges that comprised the U-Matic format.  One or two machines could be used on the Playback side and another machine was used on the Record side.  The CD master was assembled on a U-Matic tape in the machine connected to the Record side of the editor.

Early on in my experience with this system, I wanted to compare a tape that was copied from another, just to hear for myself that a digital copy was indistinguishable from the original, as we’d all been told.  Unfortunately, the test never got that far.  What I found was that the original tape, played from the Playback side of the editor sounded better than the copy.  Something was getting lost on the copy, as it seemed coarser and less well defined than the original.  I don’t recall what made me try it but I decided to swap the tapes, listening to the copy from the machine attached to Playback side of the editor and the original from the machine attached to the Record side.  To my surprise, now the copy sounded better (i.e., more like the analog source tape I was using) than the original digital conversion.  When heard from the Record side of the editor, the original digital tape now sounded coarser and less well defined than the copy!  Clearly, there was something else going on.

Perhaps it was this experience that diminished the surprise when the finished CDs for that first CD mastering project came in and I compared them with the CD master used to make those discs.  Here the coarseness was even greater than what I’d encountered on the different sides of the DAE-1100 editor.  The finished CDs almost sounded “out of focus” compared with the CD master, such was the extent of the loss of clarity and fine detail.

Things got more interesting when I created CD masters for albums where large sales were expected.  In those days, there were fewer CD plants than there are today and they were all working at capacity.  In order to accommodate expected demand for the big sellers, the CD master would be cloned and those clones were sent to multiple replicators in order to get back sufficient numbers of finished discs to meet the demand.  This was an education in that I discovered that CDs from different plants all sounded different from each other.  Sometimes CDs from different lines within the same plant sounded different from each other.

So much for “Perfect Sound Forever”.  The format has been claimed to deliver perfect copies of the master.  Logic would demand that if this is the case, all those perfect copies would sound indistinguishable from each other and they’d all sound indistinguishable from the masters from which they were made.  But they weren’t then and they still aren’t today.  (There is an exception that I’ll get to shortly.)

Having sent CD masters to plants all over the world and all over the USA, I’ve had the opportunity to compare a lot of finished product to the masters from which said product was made.  Happily, the days of U-Matic tapes are long gone and the advent (long ago) of computer workstations made for many improvements.  Still, even with the most sophisticated CD mastering tools, the reality from the replication facilities remains—the finished discs don’t sound like the masters.

In my experience, a slow-burned CD-R made directly from the computer-based CD master, sounds more like that master than any pressed CD, even the best in my experience.  This is why Soundkeeper Recordings offers our releases in CD-R format as well as replicated CDs.  But how then, to select a CD replicator?  If they all produce discs that sound different from the CD master, how does one find the most faithfully made discs?  This is the question that was on my mind when I started the label.  Knowing that a lot of folks just prefer a factory-made disc to a burned version, even if the latter is more faithful to the master, I needed to find a replicator for Soundkeeper CDs.  My whole reason for starting this label was to avoid the compromises I feel are too often part of the record making process.  I wanted a no-compromise replicator — if such a thing existed.

I reached out to contacts at most of the plants I’d sent masters to over the years.  I told them about my concept for the label and that I needed the most faithful to the master, highest quality discs.  All but one of them told me essentially the same thing.  They said their CDs were perfect replicas of the CD master.  Since my own experience consistently told me something quite different, I could only conclude they were not hearing it the same way I was.  Or they just weren’t listening and were simply repeating the received mantra.  I thanked each in turn and moved on to the next person on my list.

Out of all the replication facilities, only one person at one facility told me, with no prompting from me whatsoever, “Oh the finished CDs will never sound like the CD master.”  I wanted to hear more but knew by then that I’d found my CD replicator.  Here at last, was someone who appeared to actually be listening.  It turned out, this replicator took an unusual approach to making their finished CDs too.  Where many plants increased their throughput – and hence, their income – by speeding up the process, this plant kept with the slower methods.

The first step in manufacturing a CD involves cutting what is called the glass master.  The CD master from the mastering facility is fed into a Laser Beam Recorder (LBR), where a laser is used to create the pits in a photoresistant coating on a glass disc.  This disc is used in the subsequent steps of CD manufacturing.  Most plants cut the glass master at high speed.  Some will cut the glass master in real time, at additional cost.  Many folks have found real-time glass cutting to result in finished discs that sound closer to the original CD master.  The person at this plant told me they cut all their glass in real time, at no additional cost.  It is just how they do it.

In addition, most CD replicators have moved to shorter injection molding cycles.  The faster the cycle, the more finished discs that can be produced in a given day.  Typical injection molding cycles for CDs are now about 4 seconds long.  The person at this plant told me they use a slower cycle, closer to 9 seconds long.  This makes for better formed pits on the finished discs, making it easier for the laser in the CD player to read the discs and minimizing the incidence of playback errors.

Whether the real-time glass cutting and slower injection molding cycle are the reasons or whether some other factors might be involved, I don’t know.  What I do know is that when I master an album, I listen to it so many times that I become intimately familiar with all the details of its sound.  Often, when I hear the finished CD that comes back from the replicator, it takes only a few seconds to hear the typical loss of focus and fine detail.  Something like a chord strummed on an acoustic guitar becomes a loose mélange rather than the six discrete, individual string sounds heard on the CD master.  With CDs from this replicator, the sound is so much closer to the CD master, I need to synchronize playback of the finished disc with the CD master in order to discern the remaining differences.  (Still not as close to the master as the CD-R but closer by far than I’ve heard from other CD plants.)

Now earlier on in this entry, I mentioned an exception.  In fact, I wrote about this in the February 23, 2014 entry in this blog, entitled Listening to Tomorrow.  Basically, what I’ve found is that what I’ve written about in the current entry comes into play when the CD is played in a CD player or via a CD transport.  This has been my experience regardless of the player or transport, or its price.  However, when the CD is properly extracted to a computer, the audible differences do go away.  To date, after 31 years of the CD format, it is only via computer that I’ve heard the audio from a CD disc sound indistinguishable from the master used to create that CD.  Still, those listening to computer music servers with CD or better resolution (as opposed to mp3 or other reduced formats) are in the minority.

Most of the music lovers I know of who purchase CDs will listen to them in CD players or via a separate CD transport feeding an external digital-to-analog converter (DAC).  In order to provide these folks with a CD that truly represents the CD master approved by the artist and producer, selection of the replicator is critical.  To this end, I feel very lucky to have found Bryan Kelley and the folks at GrooveHouse Records, who I have been recommending to mastering clients since my first conversation with Bryan, and who, as far as I’m concerned, are the official CD replicators for Soundkeeper Recordings.

Gifts from the Cinema

On more than one occasion, it has occurred to me that movies are, in many ways, the visual equivalent of music.  When done well, the result is an emotional connection with the recipient of the message.  Repeated viewing, like repeated listening, provides opportunity to deepen the connection and hence, the appreciation.

The two art forms often work together, each enhancing what the other brings to the audience, without diminishing the ability of either to stand on its own.  Music can profoundly affect how a movie (or a scene within it) is perceived.  Movies can also provide another means of finding great music we might not hear otherwise.

Some great movies I’ve enjoyed over the years have in turn led me to some great music.  I am confident the impact of films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, “North by Northwest”, and “Vertigo”, Orson Wells’ “Citizen Kane”, J. Lee Thompson’s “Cape Fear”, François Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451”, or Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” would have been radically different without the music of Bernard Hermann.

Similarly, Nino Rota’s music played a significant role in the movies of Federico Fellini as well as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy.  Perry Henzell’s “The Harder They Come” is known for the reggae music that comprises its soundtrack.  Carol Reed’s noir classic “The Third Man” is highlighted by the distinctive sound of a zither, played by Anton Karas, who composed the score.

Recently, I saw an extraordinarily beautiful film from Italy that was released in 2013: Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” (aka “La Grande Bellezza”).  Aside from the story, the characters, the acting, the cinematography, and the visuals of this movie, I found the soundtrack captivating, with a variety of musical cues from different sources, in different genres.  I purchased the soundtrack disc(s) as well as the DVD and have found it as difficult to stop listening as it has been to stop viewing this new favorite.

This movie is loaded with musical gems, from the opening a cappella “I Lie”, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble, to Danish soprano Else Torp’s performance of Arvo Pärt’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” (with lyrics from the Robert Burns poem of the same name), to the Kronos Quartet’s rendition of Vladimir Martynov’s “The Beatitudes”.  In addition, the soundtrack features some more pop oriented music including a sensitive performance by Damien Jurado performing his “Everything Trying” and even some club-oriented dance music.  You’d have to see the movie to understand how it all works together.  Musically as well as cinematically, there is much to treasure.