Two worlds, heroes and real stereo

In the September 26, 2013 entry entitled Why doesn’t it sound (in here) like it sounds out there? I mentioned a growing awareness in my earliest days as an engineer that what I’d previously thought of as the world of audio was in fact two different worlds.  On the one hand there was the audiophile world that suggested recordings could be made and played back with the aim of recreating the sound of real musicians, playing real instruments in real spaces.  On the other hand was the professional world in which I’d been working, where the idea of sounding real did not seem to be a frequent consideration.  Some of the audiophile gear, particularly among the loudspeakers, was fantastic at approaching the sound of real music.  In contrast, the studio monitors were capable of playing at extraordinary volume levels.  Many of the recordings popular among audiophiles excelled at capturing a sense of real life, including not only the sounds of the instruments but the spaces in which the recorded performances occurred.  In contrast, the studio recordings, many of which captured their own magic, never allowed the listener to suspend disbelief.  They sounded like recordings where some audiophile recordings sounded instead like the music itself.

As my skills and experience grew, I came to feel each of these worlds could learn something from the other, to the mutual benefit of all concerned and especially the listener.  Yet how often I was reminded of how little interaction there tends to be between pro and audiophile worlds.  To this day, it seems to me that all too many pros often miss opportunities for much higher quality audio, while at the same time, all too many audiophiles lack an understanding of how their records are made.

One of the best examples of the latter is the oft mentioned desirability in the audiophile Internet fora of “flat transfers”, the idea being that the finished masters used as sources for replication of the finished product should have no equalization or other processing applied.  (The term “flat” suggests no frequency equalization is applied – nothing to “tilt” the frequency response – but the term can also imply no other processing as well.)  In my early days as an engineer, I felt the same way.  Then I had the opportunity to hear how most master tapes actually sound.  When one considers the types and number of microphones, where they are typically placed, the signal path in most studios and the monitoring (of which I have already spoken in earlier entries), it should come as no surprise that most master recordings need help.  Put another way, if a recording was made with sufficient treble energy to bring on a headache in the listener and if I can make that recording hurt less by the judicious application of frequency equalization, I would think EQ is in fact, a good thing.  Indeed, a tiny minority of very well made recordings are best served with no EQ at all but most studio recordings will benefit quite significantly from some well considered equalization.

Now I can understand that sometimes, the reason a recording might hurt so much is precisely because of EQ – bad EQ, perhaps because the engineer was trying to make bad monitoring sound right.  This goes back to The Questions I mentioned in the previous entry.  Is the EQ being applied to address a flaw in the recording or is it mistakenly being used to address bad monitoring?  This question should have been preceded by “How trustworthy is the monitoring in this studio?”  Whatever the reason, when heard on a system capable of getting out of the way sufficiently to allow one to hear the recording itself, careful application of EQ can be used to repair at least a good part of the damage done the first time.  If the recording can be made more listenable with EQ, should EQ be avoided simply because it has been misused elsewhere?  I’d first ask “How artifact free is this equalizer and the settings I intend to apply?”  (That last question, like most of the others, turns out to be critical for those interested in making high quality recordings.  A big part of the reason many have come to think of EQ as bad is that among those who use EQ, the question is almost never asked.  Even on the best equalizers, the wrong settings can cause sonic problems.)  With a positive answer, I would elect to apply the EQ.  My experience has supported this approach over the course of hundreds if not thousands of recordings.

I have always very much enjoyed it when an audiophile sensibility entered into the pro audio world and pointed to what could be.  Some of my fondest memories of my years at Atlantic involve the time I spent with the great mastering engineer George Piros.  George would often tell me of his early days working with Bob Fine and Wilma Cozart on their recordings for Mercury Living Presence.  I had not heard of these recordings before and when I followed up to find some of them, I found a great many joys both musical and sonic.  C. Robert (“Bob”) Fine was to become one of my engineering heroes and one of my inspirations insomuch as he made his stereo recordings with only three microphones.  George was to become one of my mastering heroes for his preservation of musical dynamics.  He remains one of the tiny handful of mastering engineers I can name who did not routinely apply dynamic compression to his signal path.  Everything George mastered, from Bob Fine’s classics to much of Atlantic’s classic jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock recordings has a sense of Life to it.  One of my favorite memories was made one day when walking past the outside of his mastering room.  I heard loud music through the heavily padded, “soundproof”, double-door “airlock”.  I decided to visit and upon entering the room, saw George leaning over the microscope of his lathe, examining the fresh groove he was cutting into the lacquer disc, while AC/DC’s music virtually peeled the paint from the mastering room walls.  For me, it remains one of the great moments in rock.

Not that George was an audiophile.  He was just one of those folks who could accurately intuit what a recording needed and apply it to get the results he wanted.  He did not mince words with regard to the program material or some of the tools popular in audio engineering circles.  George was famous among those who knew him for his “Piros-isms”, his unabashed commentary that would sometimes include language that would make a marine drill sergeant blanch.  But he was more famous for the same honesty he brought to his work and that honesty brought some audiophile “names” up to his mastering room.  Through George, I was introduced to Bert Whyte, whose monthly “Behind the Scenes” column was a favorite of mine in all the years I’d been reading Audio magazine.  Bert was the engineer on the great recordings for the Everest label.  (Like Bob Fine, he too used only three microphones and created fabulous results.)  I got to take home a test cut of a Whyte recording of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat”, a personal favorite, though I’d never heard it sound so good before.  On another occasion, another “name” from the audiophile world dropped by to work with George: Joseph Grado, inventor of the stereo moving coil phono cartridge, creator of the moving magnet cartridge I was using at home at the time and, as I learned, an operatic tenor too!  I remember being in the mastering room with both discussing monitors.  Joe said “You see Barry, George uses these studio monitors with no complaints” to which George responded “You mean those pieces of #$^%?”

I feel more than fortunate to stand astride both audio worlds and to have learned a great deal from each.  In an effort to find a synthesis of both worlds, to find the underlying unity which I felt to be larger than either, in 1987 I decided to become an independent engineer and formed Barry Diament Audio.  The learning opportunities once more expanded geometrically.

As I did not yet have my own studio and mastering work was starting to come in, I sought out studios where I could rent time, my prime criterion being monitoring I could trust.  As may be concluded from what I’ve said in this and previous entries, this was not an easy task.  In the end, I found a small number that were willing to accommodate my request for certain monitoring arrangements.  They would have to do until the time came when I designed my own room.

In keeping up with contacts in both the pro and audiophile worlds, an opportunity arose to visit with the editor of one of the audiophile publications I was reading.  I knew his reference playback system was reputed to be among the best.  What I was not at all prepared for was the fact that after being an avid music lover and audio enthusiast since childhood, after having done pro audio work in a number of studios and after having read all the books and journals on the subject I could find, I was going to hear stereo for the first time.

My conception of stereo before that evening was probably a lot like that of other folks, based on what we’d been “taught” over the years and what we’d heard on the old stereo demonstration recordings.  There might be a piano on the left and a guitar and bass in the center and drums on the right.  There might be a marching band proceeding across the room from one speaker to the other.  Most of the time whether in folks’ homes or in audio dealerships, I’d seen stereo speakers placed as far apart as a room would allow, often in the corners.  I thought I’d made great progress when I found that moving the speakers out of the corners and away from the walls resulted in much improved sonics.  What I didn’t realize is that I was still listening to a pair of what might effectively be mono sources, playing together.  There was “sound from the left speaker” and “sound from the right speaker” and some sound in between.  It was nice and it was fun but as I came to learn, it wasn’t stereo.

Among the first things I noticed when I visited that evening, aside from the jaw-dropping gear I’d only seen in magazine photographs, was that the speakers were, to my mind, “in the middle of the room”.  They weren’t just out of the corners and off the wall, they were well out into the space.  There was lots of room all around them.  I’d never seen a setup done this way.  One of the first records played that evening (we were listening to vinyl) was an old, well worn Leonard Cohen album.  The track featured his voice, accompanied by acoustic guitar.  This was not a super record, just an ordinary studio production and an old copy of the record too.  What I heard was something entirely unexpected on my part and something entirely new to me.

First, there was no “sound from the left speaker” and “sound from the right speaker” and some sound in between.  To my ears and brain, there were no speakers at all.  I had a scarily distinct sense of the artist and the air in the studio around him.  It was almost as if I could see him sitting on a tall stool in a large room with the lighting turned down.  (Of course, I have no idea whether he was sitting or standing and what level the lights in the room were set to but this was the impression created in my mind by the sound alone.)  Now some of that experience must be attributed to the gear itself.  The loudspeakers were outstanding at “disappearing” for sure, as they rightly should have been for their six-figure price and the commensurate associated gear to which they were connected.  But as I was to learn, their placement played a commanding role in allowing the system to achieve its potential.  And applying what I learned that evening to other, less extravagant speaker designs would similarly unleash their potential in ways that were new to me.

Stereo by definition implies solidity and hence three dimensions.  Properly done, the listener does not hear sound from the speakers.  On the contrary, the speakers seem to disappear and the entire part of the room in which they reside comes alive with the audio equivalent of a hologram.  The sound occurs on a stage (a soundstage) and the images upon that stage too, occur in three dimensions.  On the finest recordings containing such information, the listener can perceive a sense of depth, with for example, the instruments in the back row of an orchestra seeming to emanate from well behind the wall behind the speakers.  (In order for the listener to perceive them from a good pair of properly placed loudspeakers, these spatial cues must of course be captured in the recording.)

While this was all news to me, I later found the idea for proper placement of stereo loudspeakers dated back to the 1950’s in an article Peter Walker wrote for the English journal Wireless World.  Many know Walker as the designer of amplifiers and electrostatic loudspeakers marketed under the Quad name.

Monitoring was something I’d long recognized as critical in any recording or playback situation, yet this recognition existed for many years before I had the opportunity to hear real stereo for the first time.  Now I was starting to apply this newfound knowledge in my own listening room and in the studios I worked in.  (I wrote a bit more about speaker placement in an article called Setting up your monitoring environment.)  This was also making me think anew about how to capture real stereo in recordings.