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.  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 ($600/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 that these:

  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.

Winds of Change

Almost eight years after we recorded the first release for my Soundkeeper Recordings label (documented in the December 13, 2013 entry in this blog, like the album, entitled Lift), I was once again joined by Art Halperin and his band, Work of Art, for a new project.

For a long time, Art and I had discussed a follow-up to Lift and now the time was right.  Art had written a great new collection of songs, which the band had been rehearsing.  I had recently made some new additions to the recording setup in terms of upgraded power and microphone cabling (see the previous entry in this blog, entitled New Connections).  And I found just the right recording locale for the project.

Instrumentation for the songs includes a wide collection of different guitars including both nylon-string acoustic guitars and Martin steel-string acoustic guitars, a Dobro type resonator guitar, a Guild 12-string guitar and a few electric guitars, one of which is the Fender Stratocaster given to Art by Eric Clapton.  Along with the guitars, a mandolin, pedal steel guitar, and ukuleles are also present on the recording, while double bass and drums accompany the voices throughout.  The rich vocal harmonies are a big part of these songs, some featuring up to four voices behind Art’s lead vocals.

For those interested in the recording setup, the equipment for these sessions was as follows:

Microphones: Earthworks QTC-1 (aka QTC-40, matched pair, separated by a custom designed baffle)
Mic cables: Nordost Tyr 2
Interface: Metric Halo ULN-8 (serving as microphone preamps, analog-to-digital converters, digital-to-analog converters, and headphone amplifier)
Laptop: Apple MacBook Pro
Software: Metric Halo Console X (including its Record Panel)
Power cables: Nordost Heimdall 2 (for interface) and Nordost Purple Flare (for laptop)
Power conditioner: Monster Cable HTS-400
Vibration isolation: Custom made base to support laptop and interface

One of the many nice things about this project was that the players, having already done one Soundkeeper Recording in Lift, were already familiar with the process and the fact that they would be together, hearing each other through the air, for real, as opposed to being separated by headphones and baffles and listening to an electronic mix via headphones.  Everyone knew they had to pay close attention to each other and to how their own sound blended with the whole.  They all knew we were capturing performances, without the ability to “punch in” later to fix any mistakes.

I selected a local 19th century church as the recording venue.  It is a stone structure with a wooden interior and a warm acoustic, providing a good sense of air around the players but maintaining a nice sense of intimacy, ideally suited to this music.

My expectation was that the stone construction of the church would result in a relatively cool interior, even for our late June recording sessions.  The good news is that we all had a great time, even though my thermal assumptions were off by a good measure.  In short, the music wasn’t the only thing that was warm.  Several large ceiling fans keep the air in the church circulating but these had to be turned off during recording, as the mics very clearly picked up the quiet hum they produced.  Next time at this locale, spring or fall would make optimal seasonal choices for the best indoor climate, free of the sounds heating or cooling systems would necessarily add.

We recorded in the church on two successive days and all the hard work Art and the band put in preparing for the sessions was clearly in evidence.  I have commented before on just how great the feel is in Art’s music.  It pleased me to no end to find that others noticed exactly the same thing upon hearing the early playbacks.  What surprised me at first, but upon reflection turns out to be no surprise at all, is how all the comments used the same word.  When my wife (and most trusted listening partner) first heard the playbacks, she said “This is such a joyful album!”  Others have used the very same adjective, including two of the players in subsequent independent communication with me about the sessions.  The word came up so frequently that one of my early candidates for the album’s title was “Joyful”.

The music and performances are certainly full of joy.  As it turned out, so were Art and yours truly as we listened to the impact the new cable additions brought to the results.  I mentioned in the previous entry in this blog that this project marked my first use of Nordost’s Tyr 2 cables to connect my microphones to the ULN-8’s mic preamps, as well as my first use of third-party power cables, in this case Nordost’s Heimdall 2 feeding the ULN-8 power supply and their Purple Flare feeding the laptop power supply.  As I said in that entry, both Art and I remarked that we’d never heard recorded acoustic guitars sound so much like the instruments themselves.  The speed and extension on the double bass too, matched the sound of the instrument at the sessions like we’d never heard before.  (Thank you Nordost, for taking my recordings to a whole new level!)  While I’d have been pleased with “Joyful” as the title, in the end we decided on an equally fitting one we like even more: Winds of Change.

The recording format was 24-bit, 192k sampling, captured by the ULN-8 to .aif files.    As has become the norm for Soundkeeper, we will release it in multiple formats, from 24/192 (.aif or .wav) files-on-disk, to 24/96 (.aif or .wav) files-on-disk, to 24/96 audio-only DVD (in DVD-V format), to CD-R, to pressed CD.

One other thing we decided to do for this project was document some of it on video, to share with Work of Art (and Soundkeeper) fans, some of the “behind the scenes” views of the recording sessions.  The videos will be completed once the audio mastering is complete and the album art is done.  There is still some work ahead of us before the album can be released.

Making a record is most definitely much harder work than most folks might realize, but making Soundkeeper Recordings has been, and continues to be, a delight.  How fortunate I am to know Art and his band, and to be able to produce and engineer this album.  For someone who loves making records, it doesn’t get better than this.