Equinox

Following the first Soundkeeper Recordings release, I came to discover what has in many ways been the most difficult part of having a record label.  Finding a venue with the right supporting acoustic for the music and instrumentation of a given project is not easy.  Neither is coordinating the schedules of all involved.  Certainly producing, engineering and mastering are labor intensive, as are selection and preparation of the album artwork, coding the associated pages for the Soundkeeper Web site and getting the word out to reviewers and customers.  None of these however, has proven to be as difficult as finding the right artists to record.

Of course the artist’s music must interest me sufficiently to want to undertake a new project.  That part is relatively easy.  The tough part is finding artists whose music moves me and who are also capable of making a recording the Soundkeeper way, which is to say, those artists who can perform their music in real time, without requiring the safety of the studio to fix mistakes or requiring an engineer to balance the music.  In this day of home studios and home recording, it seems the majority of players have gotten so used to the conveniences of the more common modern recording techniques, it feels like a rarity to encounter players who can, as I often put it, play a 5-minute piece in 5 minutes.  The fact that many require a few hours to accomplish this makes the patchwork approach used for most current recordings a more practical means of recording them.  In my experience though, the best way to achieve the excitement of a real performance in a recording is to record a real performance.

Hearing recordings of potential artists can be misleading.  Generally, those recordings are made using typical studio techniques and so, may not be good indicators of the artist’s true capabilities.  This was made all too clear by the experience of starting a few projects to which I had to put a stop once it was evident that other recording approaches were more suitable for those players.  I have found that only a simply made live recording (or of course, being present at a live performance by the artist) will tell me whether an artist is up for the admittedly very difficult task of “recording without a net”.

So it was that a few years passed after the first Soundkeeper Recordings release, with no new artists or albums on the label.  Then, one evening at a social gathering, fortune smiled but I didn’t know it at the time.  An acquaintance asked me if I’d heard of Markus Schwartz and talked a bit about Haitian music.  Until that moment, I’d never heard the name and while I had for years been a big fan of indigenous music from all over the world—nowadays not inappropriately called “world music”—I had almost no exposure to music from Haiti.  (There was one Haitian music ensemble I had previously approached about making a record but the leader declined.  He thought my offer of a recording at no cost to the artist, where the composer keeps 100% of the publishing rights and the artist gets a significant percentage of every sale “too good to be true”.)

Luckily for me, I was about to have the opportunity to hear more music from Haiti, from an artist who would only deepen my appreciation for it.  According to the person who asked if I’d heard of him, Markus and his band Lakou Brooklyn were scheduled to perform in a few weeks at a club not too far away.  I decided to attend the show and what I heard made my heart beat faster.  The ensemble was a quartet featuring percussion, electric guitar, bass and trumpet but it sounded like several more folks than four were playing.  Markus makes use of a JamMan, an electronic device with which he captures (i.e., records) himself playing a musical figure on a percussion instrument, then causes that capture to loop (i.e., continuously repeat) while he begins playing another musical figure on another percussion instrument.  This too is captured and added to the loop.  By doing this several times, with different instruments and playing the main part live, Markus sounds like a whole battery of percussionists, adding more complex textures to the sounds he creates.

The evening was more than memorable, with the combination of Markus’ rhythms, the beautiful melodies of a music I was fast falling in love with and the performances of the other players, all blending into one magical selection after another.  I felt I could have recorded them then and there and it would have made a fantastic album.  As soon as the set ended and the band took a break, I went over to compliment them all and introduce myself.

I told them about what I was doing with Soundkeeper and asked if they’d be interested in doing a project together.  As a means of illustrating the idea, I asked each player in turn a similar question.  I asked Markus what he thought of the idea of listening to his favorite percussionist with his ear an inch above the drums.  I asked the guitarist about hearing his favorite player while listening with an ear up against the grill cloth of the amp.  I asked the bassist about the idea of hearing the sound of the instrument from only a few inches away from the strings or worse, an inch from the grill cloth of an amplifier.  And I asked the trumpet player about listening to a trumpet with one’s ear in the bell of the horn.  All the players agreed the examples did not illustrate what they’d think of as an optimal listening experience.  Then I pointed out that this is where the microphones in typical recordings usually “listen” from.  All were experienced in the studio and nodded their recognition.  When I asked about the idea of listening to the ensemble in a fine performance acoustic, from a more realistic perspective, all expressed interest.  We exchanged contact information and the band returned to the stage for another set that had the audience enthusiastically “up”.  At the end of the evening, Markus and I promised to remain in touch.  Several months later, we were ready to schedule our recording session.

Ordinarily, the next step would be a search for a suitable room in which to record.  Something like the church in which the first Soundkeeper Recordings release was recorded would not be right for an ensemble with more prominent percussion and a horn.  These instruments would excite the space to a point where the room overpowered the instruments rather than supporting them.  I wanted a larger space for this ensemble, one with a shorter reverberation time but with the right character to allow the music to blossom.  It just so happened that I knew of such a space.  A good friend had recently taken an important position at an assisted living facility.  She invited me to tour the place, which is elegant in appearance and which I felt could easily be mistaken for a fine resort hotel.  On our walk around the main building, at the end of a long hallway, we came to an auditorium.  As soon as we entered, I knew the room was special.  Just listening to the space itself, with no music or other sounds, revealed a sense of air and balance in the room.  I clapped my hands a few times as I walked around the space and what came back from the room confirmed my initial impression.

The facility was built in 1908 and little touches like the metal stars on the auditorium ceiling only added to its charm.  I found more to like as I stepped onto the stage.  The first thing that caught my attention there was a beautiful, well-maintained Steinway grand piano, also dating from 1908.  (While we didn’t need a piano for the project Markus and I planned, it would be used for subsequent Soundkeeper Recordings albums.)  The next thing I noticed is something that remains unique in my experience of auditoriums and theaters.  In all the other rooms I’ve been in, the stage is a hollow construct.  Stomping one’s foot on such a stage produces a resonant thump.  The stage in this room is more like solid polished stone with a wooden border.  Stomping one’s foot on this stage produces little more than an ache in the foot.  Rather than absorb low frequencies, a stage like this ensures they are sent out toward the audience.  This room is indeed a find.  How could I get to use it to make a recording?

Since the auditorium’s prime use is to present entertainment to the residents of the facility, I proposed exactly that.  Markus would provide a performance for the facility residents in exchange for permission to use the auditorium for our recording.  I was delighted to find the idea appealed to everyone concerned and so, Markus and I had the venue for our project.

In the months before our recording dates, the equipment I use underwent one more change.  In the previous entry in this blog, I said Metric Halo, the makers of the interface I was using as microphone preamplifiers, A-D converters and D-A converters, was working on a new model.  I now had the new ULN-8 and from the first listen, it exceeded my high expectations.  The first thing it showed me was just how colored the bass end of the spectrum is on most other electronics.  The bottom from the ULN-8 sounds like the bass one hears in real life.  But there was more this device was going to show me.

Where the previous Metric Halo hardware I’d used tops out at a 96 kHz sampling rate, the ULN-8, offers the so-called “4x” rates of 176.4 kHz and 192 kHz.  I must admit that I was skeptical at first because a number of other converters I’d heard that were also spec’d for 4x rates ended up sounding worse at those rates than they did at the 2x rates (i.e., 88.2 kHz and 96 kHz).  I later came to attribute this to the significantly increased demands the 4x rates place on clocking accuracy and on analog stage performance at the wider bandwidths.  Apparently, it is easier to use a chip that will spec for 4x rates than it is to design a device that will deliver the performance those rates make possible.

I was so skeptical of the 4x rates that I actually did the first few recordings with the ULN-8 at the 2x rate of 96 kHz.  Then, when time availed, I decided to give 192 kHz a serious try.  Not only were my concerns toppled but there was something completely new to me about this experience.  Over the years, I’d used some of the finest analog recorders on the planet.  I was also fortunate to use some of the finest digital devices in my experience, including the other interfaces from Metric Halo.  What all of those—both analog and digital—have in common is that in a direct comparison of the input signal with the output from all of these fine devices, there is always a discernible difference.  With the ULN-8 operating at a sample rate of 192 kHz, a threshold is crossed where for the first time in my experience, there is a recording device which produces output I have not yet been able to distinguish from the input signal.

After mentioning this in some online fora, I found some folks were misquoting me, as if I’d said this has been my experience with recording at 192 kHz.  As I stated above, I’ve found too many devices that sound worse at this rate than they do at the easier, lower rates.  To be clear, the output that I haven’t been able to tell from the input has so far occurred only with the ULN-8, when it is used at 192 kHz.  Interestingly, one of my favorite audio engineers, Keith Johnson, has also used the word “threshold” to describe his experience with well done 4x sample rates.  This doesn’t surprise me because I think anyone who has made recordings over the years would be enamored of a device that for the first time, provides a truly uncolored version of the signal they feed it.  (Needless to say, when I see “white papers” on the Internet by folks claiming that 4x rates are either unnecessary or downright inferior to lower rates, I can only conclude that at best, they have not heard 4x rates done correctly.  Now that I have a recording device that at long last gives me audio truth like I’ve never heard it before, I read these papers as if the author is trying to convince me there are no colors in a rainbow.)

So, for those interested in such things, the equipment list for the project with Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn was as follows:

Microphones:  Earthworks QTC-1 (aka QTC-40, matched pair)
Mic cables:  Nordost Valkyrja
Interface:  Metric Halo ULN-8 (serving as microphone preamps and A-D converters)
Laptop:  Apple PowerBook
Software:  Metric Halo Console X (Record Panel)
Power conditioner:  Monster Cable HTS-400
Vibration isolation:  Custom made base to support laptop and interface

There was one more thing I introduced at the recording session.  It is something I’ve continued to do at the start of every recording session since then: the Soundkeeper invocation.  Once all the instruments and recording gear are all set up, once the sound check is done and everyone is warmed up, just before we begin recording, I gather all the players together.  We stand in a circle, join hands and I say a few words about what we are all about to do.  I ask them to emphasize the idea of “play” when they make the music, to think of the folks they are most fond of and to make the music for them and to also make the music for themselves and each other.  Lastly, we have a toast to the session, which may consist of a libation or some other beverage.  In this case, Markus produced some Barbancourt, a fine Haitian rum of which we had a tiny sip.  (I bought a bottle of it too.)  With that, we began the recording session.

Though I carry headphones to recording sessions, I use these primarily to ascertain that I’ve connected the microphones properly, that they are working as expected and that I’ve pressed the red button hard enough to engage recording.  Ultimate evaluation of the recording occurs when I return to my studio where the monitors are not shy about telling me all there is to tell.  Markus and I met at my studio the day after the session to hear the results.  We both decided that while there was much to like, there was more to be had both sonically and musically.  (This is not unusual when first working in a new room or when first working with a new ensemble.  Sometimes the first session becomes a test run, though it can also produce some great takes which make the final cut of the album.)  We both wanted to hear the bass a bit closer.  Musically, we thought the band having taken turns to hear playbacks via the headphones—and the amazing amount of detail being captured—may have resulted in the playing being a bit more cautious than it might have been.  Musicians are not used to hearing this amount of information about themselves from the recordings they do in studios.

At the invocation for the second session, I asked the band to avoid being cautious when they played and urged them to let the music fly free.  This time, we nailed it.  In fact, in what could be a world record (I see the unintended pun as I just typed those words), the total time for unpacking the gear, setting everything up, doing a sound check, warming up, having the invocation, recording, taking a break, recording some more and finally breaking it all down to leave was only four hours.  (One particular session I’d heard of while at Atlantic came to mind, where the band and engineer spent three days getting the reverb sound on the snare drum!)  What a thrill it was back in my studio to listen to the 24/192 playback and hear the full expression of the music—in three dimensions!—that I heard when standing at the position of the microphone array during the recording sessions.

The album features Haitian music of course but also contains Markus’ and the band’s arrangement of a composition by John Coltrane, with whom Markus shares a birthday.  The name of the composition marks the two days each year when the sun crosses the equator resulting in day and night being equal in length.  One of those is the day of the year both were born and so the name of this composition also became the title of the album: Equinox.

Since the original recording of Equinox was done at 24/192, I added two new custom burned formats to the others Soundkeeper offers: 24/192 .aif files-on-disc and 24/192 .wav files-on-disc.  With the right playback gear, the listener at home would now have access to the sound of my mic feeds.

The Equinox page on the Soundkeeper Recordings Web site contains more information about the album, including samples from all the tracks, lyrics, quotes from reviews of the album, photos from the recording sessions and a link to an interview with Markus Schwartz.

Thank you Brother Markus, for taking the chance on “recording without a net”.  And more importantly, thank you  for your friendship and for turning me on to the beauty and the heart in the music of Haiti.  No doubt, this gift you have given me has many more treasures for me to discover.

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