Can you hear what you’re doing? (Part 1)

If there’s one thing the advent of digital audio has accomplished, it is what I call the democratization of record making.  Unlike the days when musicians needed to interest a large company in order to get a record made, today many have small studios of their own and with the help of the Internet, self-release their music to the world.

While the technology and the means have certainly become much more widely available than they used to be, the information on how to use the technology has not proliferated to anything like the same degree.  There are plenty of magazines, both print and Web-based and several Internet fora where recording enthusiasts gather and these provide “how to” instructions. What is missing however, is the reasoning behind the how: the why.

So the new studio owner buys the hardware and software they read about and proceeds to turn the knobs, real and virtual, and then wonders what went wrong.  Not in every single case of course but from what I’ve heard over the years, the ones who are truly pleased are the exceptions.  Perhaps they sought something that did not sound like a true representation of themselves and their instrument(s).  Nothing wrong with that.  What is “good” or “better” or “best” depends entirely upon precisely what one seeks.

For those who seek to make recordings that sound less like recordings and more like musical performances (real or imagined), the standard recipes won’t work.  They are designed to achieve certain types of sound.  They are not designed to “get out of the way”.  (I use that phrase often lately when discussing audio gear or setups or recordings that I’ve found particularly involving. To my mind, they work because they “get out of the way” and allow the listener better access to the music.)

This blog entry will be the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups and recordings that get out of the way.  The series will not necessarily be consecutive in terms of publication (there may be other topics interspersed along the way) but the goal will be to raise some issues not raised elsewhere.  If these provide food for thought and perhaps inspiration for trying something different, I’ll consider them successful.  For those that don’t make records or don’t play instruments but who comprise the audience, the listeners, I hope there is something here of interest for you as well.

Above all, my recommendation is to not simply take my word for what you can expect to hear, since I can only report on how sounds strike my ears.  I encourage all to listen for themselves and draw their own conclusions.  Remember that asking any three audio folks a question will result in at least four different answers (five of which may well be wrong).  Only listening for yourself will tell you how something sounds to you.

In some earlier entries in this blog, I’ve mentioned something I’ve called “The Questions”.  To quote from one of those entries, “These are questions that need to be asked if one is ever to arrive at answers.  They are the questions I’d never seen mentioned in any of the books on recording I’d ever read or in any of the magazines.  They are the questions I was never taught to ask when I was an assistant engineer, the questions that students in today’s “audio engineering” schools never encounter.”

Let’s start our exploration by asking the first question I always ask about any studio: “Can you hear what you’re doing?”  This can be rephrased to accommodate listening setups as well as recording setups: “Can you hear past the system, all the way to the recording itself?”  Seems like an obvious question – at least it should be – but the fact is, in my experience, monitoring is all too often the weak link in most studios I’ve visited.  Since every decision regarding the sound at every step in the process of record making is based on what the monitors tell us, if you can’t hear past the monitoring all the way to the recording, if you can’t hear what you’re doing, you can’t determine how your recording is going to sound.  You can’t make it sound the way you want it to because you don’t know how it sounds.

Many studios have different sets of monitors and these all have very different presentations.  (This is discussed in the entry called Why doesn’t it sound (in here), like it sounds out there?)  Folks will often take a reference out of the studio to “see how it sounds” on some other system or even in the car(!).  Each provides its own view, like lenses with different tints or like prisms but more often than not, none simply gets out of the way.  From the blog entry cited above: “After all, if the engineer can’t hear what they are doing, the best they can do is attempt to blindly steer in the desired direction but the results are effectively left to happenstance.  It occurred to me that adjusting sound while referencing typical studio monitoring is like mixing paint colors while wearing sunglasses.  Over the years, a few folks have claimed to be able to hear “around” the monitors but the audible evidence always tells a different story.”

Certain types of systems will always apply certain types of colorations to how the recording is presented.  That will not change.  A system that gets out of the way, allowing access to the recording itself, removes any questions about what has been captured and how well (or not) it has been captured.  A recording that sounds right on such a system will sound its best on the greatest number of other systems.

Does that mean that everyone needs to buy a certain type of speaker and all will be well?  That would be nice but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  Monitoring is more than the speakers.  It is the room in which one listens.  It is where in the room the speakers are located.  And where in the room the listening position is located.  And where just about everything else in the room is too.  The good news is that by paying attention to all these things, just about any speaker can be helped to get just a little more out of the way.  While the basic character, the basic potential of a given speaker design won’t be changed, in most instances, whatever that potential is can be a lot more fully realized.

This is a big subject and there is much to be said.  This time out, we’ll just start with a few ideas to experiment with.  To start, let’s talk about acoustics. To keep it simple, we’ll break the subject into two areas: bass acoustics and treble acoustics.  Every enclosed space, meaning every listening room, every studio and control room that isn’t outdoors, will have resonant modes.  These are frequencies in the bass where the room tends to “sing”.  When the speakers present content with these frequencies (or their harmonics), the room will tend to “hold onto” these parts of the sound, even after they have stopped in the input signal.  In addition to causing these frequencies to linger too long, filling what should be quieter parts of the signal, some of these resonances will cause certain frequencies to be disproportionately louder (or softer) than they are in the input signal.

While proper acoustic treatments can make important differences in the sound (and will be covered in a future entry in this series), the starting point will determine their effectiveness.  If the goal is to get the monitoring out of the way, a key part of this is getting the room itself out of the way.  Better to minimize any excitation of room resonances from the start.  Placement of the monitors plays a big part here.  As we approach a room boundary, resonant excitation increases.  As we approach places where boundaries meet, such as corners, excitation increases further.  In most studios, we find the listening position behind the console (i.e., mixing board) and the console placed toward the front of the room.  This common placement tends to put the monitors in positions that are very good at stimulating room resonances.  Moving the monitors away from boundaries results in less interference from the room.  I have often said “Every foot from the wall adds $1000 to the sound.”

In terms of acoustics, bass issues manifest themselves in the room’s resonant modes.  In the treble, it is reflections that cause acoustic issues.  The most harmful are called “early reflections” because they arrive at the listening position just after the arrival of the direct sound from the loudspeakers.  These slightly delayed sounds will alter instrumental timbres and smear stereo imaging, in effect, defocusing the audio “picture”.  Here again, proper acoustic treatment of early reflections can make significant differences in the perceived sound but here too, placement is the first step in ensuring the system and room get out of the way to the greatest degree.

Early reflections can occur from room boundaries and from objects in the room, especially from objects between the monitors and the listening position.  Consider the large reflective surface that is the console in most studios.  It is common to see loudspeakers placed atop the meter bridge of the console.  Sounds bouncing off the console reach the engineer’s ears just slightly behind the direct sound from the speakers.  The reflected sound combines with the direct sound and at these distances, one of the results will be a dip in the midrange (a weakening of sounds in the “presence region”).  In an effort to remedy this, the engineer tends to reach for the equalization controls to boost the level of midrange frequencies and “restore” the missing presence.  The problem is, the “remedy” is being applied to a recording that isn’t missing anything.  Because the monitoring has not gotten out of the way and is instead providing false information, something that is not contained in the recording but is in fact an artifact of the monitoring setup, the engineer is being misled and a recording that doesn’t need a thing is being arbitrarily brightened.  Played on a system that doesn’t suffer from the same reflections, the recording now has an artificial, hardened “edge”.

With all the above in mind, we’ve started to answer the questions “Can the room affect what I hear from the speakers?” and “Can where I place the speakers and what I place near them affect what I hear from the speakers?”  If monitoring is the crucial aspect of setting up a studio, where to start?  My experience has been that it is best to start with a clean slate.  For any studio or listening space, rather than fill the space and see what’s left for the monitoring, I find it best to start with the monitors themselves and place everything else afterward.  I’ve already mentioned staying well away from room boundaries.  In the middle of the last century, engineer Peter Walker determined that room excitation can be minimized by placing the monitors near 1/3 points along the room’s diagonals.  In other words, as a start, find the points that divide the room’s length and the room’s width in three.  Placing the monitors near these points will excite the room the least.  I have had good success in several rooms and studios by leaving 1/3 the room’s width between the speakers and 1/3 the room’s length behind them.  (For more on this subject, see Setting up your monitoring environment.)

For now, before placing other items in the room, set the listening position at a point just slightly farther from a line drawn between the speakers, than the center of each speaker is from the center of the other speaker.  In other words, if the center of the left speaker is for example, 72 inches (~1.8 meters) from the center of the right speaker, place the listening position so that your head is slightly further than this distance from either one of the speakers, say perhaps, 80 inches (~2 meters).  Aim the speakers at a point just behind the listening position.

To those not familiar with such a setup, having speakers near the 1/3 points can seem like the speakers are “in the middle of the room”.  But listen to how much easier it is to hear past the speakers, to the recording itself.  Now you hear the bass contained in the recording and not the sympathetic, out of tune “woof” of room resonance.  The sound becomes freed from the confines of the speakers and has a depth dimension (if the recording contains this — more on the subject in a future entry).  The sense of the speakers getting out of the way is increased as the speakers themselves become less obvious sources of the sound.  The part of the room behind the speakers simply comes alive with the stereo “soundstage”, as determined by the recording itself.

Having a monitoring setup like this doesn’t just increase how much you can hear from the recording.  It changes how you go about making recordings.  Now you can hear what you’re doing.

Americas

Among my favorite musical constellations are those comprised of jazz quartets and quintets.  Indeed, much of my personal music collection is filled with albums by classic quartets and quintets.  These albums are musical riches I’ll enjoy for many years to come, however, I’ll also always wish the recordings themselves did greater justice to the pantheon of jazz geniuses.  Having mostly been recorded using the studio techniques that have since become the norm, we hear the great horn players as if listening with an ear in the bell of the instrument or at best only a few inches away.  We hear the pianists from a position under the lid of the instrument (!) only inches above the hammers.  We hear the bassists as if our ears were close enough to the instrument to get in the players’ way.  Sometimes we don’t even hear the instrument but an electronic representation as provided by an electronic pickup and an amplifier.  And the great drummers too often end up being heard with a severely reigned in version of what used to be the dynamic drive they provided—that is, when their drums and cymbals are not completely overloaded and distorted.  Fabulous as the music is, these recordings do not sound the way those musicians sounded.

Recording a fine jazz quartet or quintet using the Soundkeeper approach was something I looked forward to for a long time.  After meeting Paul Beaudry and being very impressed with his melodic sense, overall inventiveness and stamina as a musician, I spoke with him about the idea of doing a Soundkeeper project together.  We met again on a number of occasions and Paul expressed interest in a recording based on some recent experiences he’d had where his band went abroad.  The trip was part of a Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad tour co-sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  The band, known as Paul Beaudry & Pathways, visited Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Nicaragua and Honduras, giving concerts, holding musical seminars and learning the local music.  Paul wanted to record an album celebrating the music of North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.  In addition to music from each of the countries they visited on the tour, Paul included music from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Haiti.  There was also one beautiful composition from the USA, written by the band’s pianist.  With the concept in hand, Paul also had the album’s name: Americas.

After investigating a few other potential venues in which to record, I chose to return to the same 1908 auditorium in which I’d recorded the last two Soundkeeper projects.  The acoustics are just right and the room’s Steinway grand piano (also dating from 1908) is sweet.  The challenge was to capture the sound of each player as well as their interactions with each other, which are such a crucial component of the spontaneous creation that is jazz at its best.  I wanted to hear not simply Paul’s bass but his fingers pulling on the strings of the instrument.  A prime objective was to maintain the natural perspective of a listener in the best seat at the performance, rather than from a too close, artificially “zoomed in” point of view.  I wanted to hear the wood in the Steinway, with its natural brilliance and warmth.  I wanted the weight and metal of the tenor saxophone (and the reed of the soprano), which to my ears, are not usually captured on jazz recordings but are always in great evidence when in the presence of a horn player.  And I wanted the expansiveness of the drums as the drummer moved around the set, going from drum to drum and cymbal to cymbal.  I wanted to capture the full range of dynamics without any sense of restriction.  In typical studio recordings, where the balances are achieved electronically by the engineer, players often seem to swing forward for their solos, then retreat as the solo ends, as if each sat upon a trapeze.  As I much prefer having the musicians themselves create the musical balances, this recording needed to accommodate the band’s overall dynamic shifts as they provided each other the space to “stretch out” at different points along the way.

Such were our goals going into the recording sessions and much to my joy, the players facilitated the accomplishment of these goals.  I had recorded Paul before, when he played on Equinox, so he was already familiar with the auditorium and with my recording methods.  He had communicated this to the other players, each of whom took to the approach with an open mind, an open heart and a readiness to explore the musical and sonic terrain together.  For me, the experience was one of exhilaration as I watched the meters, periodically checked the sound with headphones and otherwise just sat dancing in my seat, moving to the music they made for the microphones and for each other.  Even now when I listen to this recording, I find it impossible to sit still.  This is moving music.  With AmericasPaul Beaudry & Pathways clearly demonstrate how music transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries, providing a truly universal means of communication.

The Americas 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 Paul Beaudry.

Thank you Paul.  I’ve always loved the contrabass and your mastery of it speaks directly to the soul.  Thank you too for introducing me to some great music from foreign lands, assembling a great bunch of players and for doing the first straight ahead jazz quartet project on Soundkeeper Recordings.

Confluence

What a great feeling it is to turn someone on to new music and find they appreciate it as much as you do.  I love hearing about new music or new artists from friends and acquaintances and very often, have become as much a fan as the person making the recommendation.  Sometimes the new music or artist comes to me via my work, such as when folks contact me about mastering an album project on which they’ve been working.

So it was in the summer of 2008 that I received an inquiry about mastering a self-recorded album from an artist based in New York City.  In what had become a standard practice with prospective mastering clients, I asked the sender my usual question about how important overall level was to him.  (I had long ago decided to only accept mastering jobs when loudness was not among the client’s goals.)  When he told me he was interested in musical dynamics, I asked to hear some samples of his music.  When I listened to the music, I wanted more of it and after more exchanges with the artist, a mastering session was scheduled.

What I found during the mastering was that I was getting increasingly addicted to his music.  The melodies were long and complex, the arrangements, some cinematic in scope, were full of colors and always going somewhere other than where I might have expected.  The lyrics and themes had a literacy that is not as common in rock or popular music as it might be.  This was no background music.  It asked something of the listener, as much music I’ve come to love does.  And it rewarded the listener’s efforts.  Long before I’d completed mastering the album, entitled No Photographs, I asked the artist, Jason Vitelli, if he had any interest in doing a project with me for Soundkeeper Recordings.  Happily, the idea appealed to Jason and we agreed to pursue it at some point after the release of his debut.

When the time came to start on our new project, the first order of business was to find the right musicians.  Jason played almost all the instruments on No Photographs but since my approach is to record entire performances in a single take, he needed to assemble a band for the new project.  Thus began a long process for Jason of seeking out players and background vocalists, setting up auditions and trying out the best candidates.  Sometimes the initial audition showed promise but further examination revealed the wrong chemistry and meant more searching was necessary.  The band members needed to be good of course but they also needed to be tuned in to Jason’s music—they had to become his band.  In addition, they needed to be able, as an ensemble, to perform the music in real time and balance against each other without the assistance of the usual studio techniques, where everyone is isolated with headphones and the balance is achieved by the engineer instead of by the players.  It took close to two years from the time Jason and I first spoke about it until there was an ensemble that knew Jason’s music and was ready to record.  Where his debut was a solo effort, this project would involve joining with other musicians in the creative endeavor.  This flowing together with others gave us the name for the new album: Confluence.

A prolific songwriter, Jason brought a lot of music to the project.  His songs impressed me but so too did his feel for selecting the right instrumental colors to express them.  The arrangements varied from solo songs with Jason at the piano, to duets, a trio (with cello and French horn) and full ensemble pieces.  The ensemble pieces varied in instrumentation as well.  Some included guitar, piano, electric bass, drums, cello, French horn and celeste while others were a straight electric quartet with two electric guitars, electric bass and drums.  The challenges came one after the other.  In the largest of the ensemble pieces, the delicate sound of the celeste (a real, acoustic instrument, not an electronic keyboard simulation) needed to balance against the louder instruments in the ensemble.  As engineer, my job was to capture the balance of all the instruments, in addition to two vocal parts (Jason’s lead vocals and a background vocalist) all with a single pair of microphones.  There would be no opportunity to “fix” the balances after the fact.  This was taking “recording without a net” to the extreme.  We were in uncharted territory and I loved it.

One of the other challenges this project brought was one I’d looked forward to for many years.  Some of Jason’s new songs featured a pair of electric guitars, electric bass and drums playing some hard-edged electric rock.  I very much looked forward to capturing the in-your-chest feeling one always gets in the presence of a real live rock band but which I’ve never heard on any record before.  This album was going to include what I believe are the world’s first purist recordings of all-out electric rock!

I mentioned in the previous entry in this blog that it is not unusual for the first recording in a new room or with a new ensemble to become a test run, though it can also produce some great takes which make the final cut of the album.  The room component of this project was easy.  I chose to use the same auditorium in which I’d recorded the previous Soundkeeper Recordings release as the acoustics there are sublime.  As in the previous instance, use of the auditorium was granted to us in exchange for a concert, which Jason and some fellow musicians performed for the residents of the facility housing the auditorium.  The tougher part was that though we scheduled the solo performances for different recording sessions than those with the ensemble, the wide variety of ensemble arrangements meant rearranging the stage for almost every song.  This also meant getting the right sound balances anew for each song.  In effect, I was going to record several different ensembles, with each song being a unique experience.

There was one more production and engineering challenge to consider before we got to the recording sessions.  For some songs, Jason stood with his guitar front and center on the stage but for others, he was located away from the center.  For example, for the songs on which he played piano, his vocals came from that location, which was on the left side of the stage.  Similarly, on the solo piano pieces, from the point of view of the audience (i.e., the microphone array), he sat toward the left side of the stage as the grand piano, with its lid open, filled the center.  How, I wondered, would the listener take hearing the vocals from the left when every other recording of popular music in my experience always had the vocalist centered?

From the liner notes of the finished album:  “It has become de rigueur for lead vocals in a recording, particularly with popular music, to be placed in the center of the stereo soundstage.  The origins of this dictate may be more technical than artistic.  (It is easier to cut a lacquer for vinyl record production when the strongest sounds are equal in both stereo channels.)”

“Since one of our goals recording Confluence was to present the music as it would be heard by a listener present at the performances, we decided the performance alone would determine where Jason would be heard on the soundstage”

Confluence was recorded with a stereo microphone array, direct to two channels.  The lead vocals, as well as all the other sounds on the record, are heard from their actual positions on the performance stage.”

The Confluence 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 Jason Vitelli.

Certainly the most challenging project I’ve ever been involved with as a producer or engineer, I believe this album is a tour de force for Jason Vitelli.  Thank you Jason, for giving me the opportunity to record your music.  To this day, I am astonished a major label did not steal you away from Soundkeeper and scoop you up into an exclusive deal before we could complete the album.  Now there are two albums of your music that I can joyfully share with other music lovers seeking something new, original, intelligent, heartfelt and altogether amazing.

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.)

For those interested in such things, the equipment list for the project with Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn:

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 brought 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.

Lift

Several months after our initial attempt to record the first release for my Soundkeeper Recordings label (documented in the previous entry in this blog, Three Decisions (Part 3) and in Recording in Stereo (Part 2), Art Halperin and his band Work of Art joined me once again deep in the woods of upstate New York, at the 18th century church I’d come to call Large Green.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Art’s music is its changing nature.  Our first project together had me mastering reggae, the second project, a blend of folk and rock.  The music Art brought to the previous session was primarily electric rock.  The new songs he composed in the interval between the sessions were a mix of folk, rock, bluegrass and a jazzy ballad.  (The recording containing electric rock would have to wait for a future project, which would yield the third Soundkeeper Recording.  My feeling was that having the artist follow his muse was by far the greater priority.)

Like his music, the constellation of players making up his ensemble also varies, depending on where his musical vision takes him.  Where the previous date at the church featured a quartet with two electric guitars, electric bass and drums, this time out the ensemble was primarily acoustic in nature.  Art still plugged in for a few of the songs, using the Fender Stratocaster given to him by his friend Eric Clapton, but on most of the tunes the instrumentation consisted of an acoustic guitar, a second acoustic guitar or a banjo, a mandolin, acoustic bass and drums (or percussion) to accompany Art’s vocals and the two harmony vocals.  In addition, some of the songs included a part for lute.  I smiled at the idea of having a lute and a banjo on the same record.

Unlike typical studio productions where each of the multiple microphone or instrument feeds is recorded to its own track on a multitrack recorder and combined later in the “mix” to 2-channel stereo, recording direct-to-stereo in the way I chose begins with no more than two channels.  Among other things, this means that rather than synthesize placement of the players on the stereo stage electronically, as is done in a typical mixdown, placement of all the instruments and voices upon the stereo stage is accomplished physically—in reality—and therefore, has to be decided upon ahead of time.  In other words, anything I want to hear from the left has to be placed on the left before we started recording.  And anything I want to hear from the background has to be placed in the background before we started recording.  Effectively, this means the mix must be done before the recording is made.

The multitrack recordings typically made in studios are usually comprised of multiple monaural captures of the instruments and voices, panned somewhere between left, center and right during the mix to simulate a stereo spread.  This isn’t at all the same as capturing the sounds in real stereo, utilizing the different types of cues our brains use to localize sounds in the real world.

In addition to the placement of voices and instruments on the stereo stage, the balances between individual voices and instruments need to be considered.  Further, the balances between each of the members of the ensemble and the room need to be considered.  Where a typical studio production would control this electronically, my approach to making the record—having the sound of a real room—means the balances, like the placement of the voices and instruments, must be achieved beforehand.  (I remember the day after one of my earliest stereo experiments, done while I was at Atlantic Studios.  The chief engineer was listening to a playback with me and after a short while, turned to me and asked “What did you use to get the room sound?”  He seemed surprised at my response, which was “The room.”)

There is no doubt that removing the convenience of the usual studio approach and the “safety” it provides places increased pressure on the players as well as on the engineer.  Musical performances and the sonic balance must all gel in specific ways for the recording to work.  If one musician makes a mistake, the whole ensemble must play again.  If the engineer doesn’t get the balance or some other aspect of the recording, the performance is missed.  With a pickup this sensitive, other variables come into play as well, such as the fly all the way at the back of the church, whose easily heard buzzing was not in the right key as the last chord of one song faded away.  That little fly made us do another take.  I came to refer to this method as “recording without a net”.

Certainly there are many ways to make a satisfying recording.  I moved toward this approach because it provides things I’ve not found with any other method.  First, the players must perform for real.  They must be at their best as individuals and as an ensemble.  They must listen intently to each other (as well as to how their sound interacts with the space in which they are playing) and they must do so in real time, as the music is occurring—just like a real performance.  The result is a certain “electricity” or frisson in the performance.  Foregoing the safety of the studio, namely being able to “punch in” to fix mistakes and being able to adjust balances later on, is considerably more demanding but provides considerably greater rewards.  In addition to the musical ones, the sound itself, when captured as one coherent stereo entity has an ease, a sense of focus and a sense of Life that I have never experienced from other recording techniques.

After a long day of music making and fun, it was a joy to get back to my studio and hear the first playback.  Finally, we had the makings of what would be the first release.  We still didn’t have it all though.  What we captured was wonderful but Art had more songs that we wanted to record, so we arranged another recording session.  While the equipment used at the recording session was the same as I mentioned in Three Decisions (Part 3), there were a few changes for the next session.  For those interested in such things, the gear was as follows:

Microphones:  Earthworks QTC-1 (aka QTC-40, matched pair)
Mic cables:  Mogami Neglex 2534
Interface:  Metric Halo MIO 2882 (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

Before the next recording session occurred, I tried a different set of microphone cables.  I knew from previous experience that cables could have a significant effect on system performance and with the microphone cables being the first cables the signals would encounter on the way to the listener, I was curious to hear what the wires from Nordost would do.  As I mentioned in Three Decisions (Part 1), “Of all the cables I listened to, several of the products from Nordost consistently stood out as I brought them back in to compare against others…  With the Nordost cables in the system, I felt confident I was able to hear past them, that they were merely passing the signal from one component to the next without editorializing.”  Once again, these cables impressed, to the point where I felt I was finding out that the Earthworks microphones were even better than I thought they were.  With the new mic cables, there was a sense of diminished grain and increased definition.  The sound was less “bright” but more open and extended, more coherent, solid and natural, more real.

The other piece of hardware that changed before the next recording session was the interface.  I knew Metric Halo was working on a new model and having found so much to like in all of the hardware and software I’d tried from them, I also knew I was going to want to get one.  In preparation, I’d sold the 2882 and as the new model was still off in the future, borrowed a different Metric Halo unit for the recording session.  This model, the ULN-2, utilizes different microphone preamplifiers than the 2882, offering a somewhat different sound.

So, for the next recording session, the following items replaced their counterparts mentioned above:

Mic cables:  Nordost Valkyrja
Interface:  Metric Halo ULN-2 (serving as microphone preamps and A-D converters)

Now that everyone was familiar with the space and with my approach to recording, that next session went very smoothly.  The rest of the songs were recorded and when Art and I listened to the results, from the opening strums of his Martin acoustic guitar to the fade of the church ambience after the last chord in the last song, we knew we had the album we wanted to release.  The feel of the music was there in spades and sonically there was a palpable three-dimensionality in the playback that really gave an uncanny sense of being in the room at Large Green, in the presence of the performers.  This was exactly what I set out to record.  After we deliberated and entertained dozens of possible candidates, Art came up with the name for the album: Lift.  I loved the simplicity and the optimism and thought it perfect for the first release on Soundkeeper Recordings.

From the beginning, it was my intention to offer Lift in several different formats.  Starting with the CD, prior to releasing the album, I spoke with folks at a few dozen different CD replicators.  My experience over the years, having sent CD masters to replication facilities all over the world, is that “pressings” from different plants all sound different from each other and none sounds indistinguishable from the master used to create it.  (This is at complete odds with the claims that it is all “just ones and zeros” and every copy is identical to every other copy.   My experience has been consistent and without exception, regardless of the playback hardware used, since the first CD I compared with its master back in early 1983.)  To be clear, the differences can range from subtle to not subtle at all.  Always, there is a loss of focus and fine detail when compared with the CD master.

At every plant but one, the personnel claimed their product sounds identical to the master.  I thanked each of them and contacted the next plant on my list.  Ultimately I found one where the contact, with no prompting from me whatsoever, said “They’ll never sound identical to the master.”  That plant got the job and in that instance and every other one I’ve sent them in the ensuing years, they have delivered finished CDs which, while still not indistinguishable from the master, are so close that I need a direct, synchronized comparison to discern the remaining losses.  (There is more to say on this subject, which will come a few paragraphs hence.)

Another thing I discovered early on is that a CD-R burned at slow speed directly from the CD master sounds closer to the master than even the finest CD pressings in my experience.  Here the difference is quite subtle but it is there nonetheless.  With this in mind, I decided to offer Soundkeeper customers the option of a burned-to-order CD-R as a slightly closer-to-the-master disc than the pressed CD.

Since Lift was recorded at 24/96 (24-bits and a 96 kHz sample rate), I wanted to offer a third option that would completely surpass the CD and provide the listener with the resolution of the original master.  At the time, the best way to do this was to take advantage of the fact that the DVD-V standard allows for 24/96 audio that is playable in any ordinary DVD machine that plays videos.  (This should not be confused with the subsequent—and now essentially defunct—DVD-Audio standard, which requires a special machine.)  These would also be custom burned-to-order on DVD-R discs.

A few years after Lift was released, computer audio started to take off among audio enthusiasts.  With computer audio, various software applications allow listeners to enjoy music played back from files rather than discs, directly from their computer rather than via a disc player.  At first, computer audio meant music distributed in the sonically compromised mp3 format (aka “eMPty3”) where the lion’s share of the data (along with the high fidelity) was removed in order to shrink file size.  Now, audio enthusiasts were starting to listen to full resolution (and high resolution) files via their computers.

Most interesting to me was that here at last was a no-compromise way to deliver to the listener the sound of the master itself.  Another benefit of computer audio, as I found, is that when different CD pressings are properly “ripped” (i.e., copied) to the computer’s drive, the sonic differences between them disappear.  Further, once played from the computer, the differences between these (as heard via a CD player or transport) and the master from which they were made also disappear.  Possibly the subject for a future entry in this blog but the short version is that while playback from disc, even with the finest CD players or transport/DAC combinations does not sound indistinguishable from the master used to create said disc, playback from the computer does.  At long last, the listener at home can have the sound of the master.

This prompted me to add two additional release formats.  I chose to stay with raw PCM formats such as .aif (my preferred format, in which I do all my engineering work) and .wav.  Many of the online services offering high resolution downloads have gone with so-called “lossless” formats such as .flac.  While these can result in audio which to my ears is very close to the original, there is a long, long way in my view, from “very close” to “indistinguishable” and one of my prime reasons for starting Soundkeeper was to release no-compromise recordings.  To this end, additional burn-to-order options in the form of 24/96 .aif files-on-disc and 24/96 .wav files-on-disc were added.

Each of the custom burned formats is shipped with the same printed artwork as the pressed CD.  I thought it would be a nice touch if the first several in each of the custom burned formats also was signed by the artist, so starting with Lift, that is what we have done with each new release.

The Lift 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 Art Halperin.

The last part of the picture I had in mind for the new label involves the business end and the relationship with our artists.  First, where most recording contracts involve the label taking ownership of the publishing, I decided I wanted the composer of the music to retain 100% ownership of it.  Next, instead of getting pennies per sale, I wanted the artist to receive a very significant percentage of every sale.  Not only is the percentage considerably larger than what the biggest acts get from the major labels, the percentage increases with the number of sales.  I very much wanted Soundkeeper Recordings to treat its artists like the gems they are.  After all, they give us the gift of the music.

I am forever indebted to Art as well as all the Soundkeeper artists, who not only present us with the music but who have presented me with the opportunity to make the kind of records I’ve always wanted to make.  Art my dear friend, you helped me realize a dream.

Three Decisions (Part 3)

Having freed myself from working with loudness oriented clients and with the design and setup of my studio complete, the results of two of my three decisions had been accomplished.  What remained was to put the third decision into effect: it was time to make the first recording for what would be my new label.

This began with a search on which I would embark again many times in the future and expect to continue with as long as I make records.  I needed to find a space with the right supporting acoustic for the music and instrumentation of the ensemble I was going to record.  I wanted a fairly spacious locale as well, to allow room for the music and sound to “breathe” since the microphone array would capture this as an integral part of the whole.

Art Halperin had composed a lot of new material and taught it all to the members of his band, Work of Art.  He told me he knew of a place that might work for the recording.  It was an old 18th century church located deep in the woods of upstate New York and Art said we could get permission to record there.  The idea of recording in an old church sounded very appealing to me and we made plans for the recording session.  (Since the outside of the church above the stonework was painted green, and the locale reminded me of a well known recording that was also made in upstate New York, as an homage to that album, beloved by many, I came to refer to the project at hand as “Music from Large Green”.)  The plan was for the band to go up on a particular Saturday, set up and rehearse.  Art had a friend who lived nearby and who had a house that could accommodate the players for the weekend.  I’d drive up the following day and we’d make a record.

One thing about October in the woods of upstate New York is that it can get pretty cold.  The good news is the band remembered to bring a space heater along with all the other gear.  The bad news, as I found out in a phone call late on Saturday, is that the church’s electrical system could not handle the combined load of the guitar amps, bass amp and space heater.  The combination blew out the electrical power—not a good condition when the we needed AC power for the amplifiers as well as the recording gear.

Sometimes, the desire to get something done overpowers any apparent limitations.  At least that was the hope to which I was clinging.  I decided to drive up on Sunday anyway to see if there was anything we could do.  (The full story of this project was told in Recording In Stereo (Part 2).  In short, once I got there, I could find nothing visibly wrong.  The fuses were all intact yet we had no power.  It was looking like we’d have to postpone the session, an idea that depressed everyone as we’d all built up excitement about the idea and the band, even with the curtailed rehearsal time the day before, was ready to go.

The church really was deep in the woods.  The nearest house was several hundred feet away and the next nearest considerably further.  Art’s friend decided to go over to that first house and speak with the owners.  We will forever be indebted to that family, who very graciously offered to let us use their electrical power.  Our good fortune continued with the fact that one of the band members just happened to have a sufficient number of electrical extensions in his car to reach all the way from that house through the woods and into the church.  Pretty soon, the sounds of electric guitars and electric bass as well as drums warming up filled the church.  The microphone array was placed and when the connections were made, the level meters danced on the laptop screen.

To fine tune the placement of the microphones, I walked around the front of the church listening to the balance between the direct sound from the amplifiers and drums and the ambience of the church.  I had my matched pair of Earthworks QTC-1 (aka QTC-40) microphones set up on a stereo bar that kept the mics about 16 inches (~41 cm) apart.  Between them, I installed what Art called the “Diament disk”—actually my variation on the Jecklin disk.  The microphone cables fed two channels on the Metric Halo MIO 2882 which served as mic preamps and A-D converters.  The Firewire output from the 2882 fed my PowerBook hard drive.

Signals were converted to digital at 24-bits and a sampling rate of 96 kHz.  This was the maximum resolution the 2882 could capture and would serve well as I intended to create not only 16-bit, 44.1k audio for CDs but also 24/96 high resolution audio that would exceed what the CD format can deliver.  The Record Panel in the Metric Halo Console X software was used to capture the audio and store it in my preferred .aif format.

To quote from the article cited above, “We ended the session after about eight hours, anxious to get back to the listening room to hear the results of our efforts.  The monitoring system revealed the concept had been proven.  One can indeed record a rock band direct to stereo.  The drums sounded BIG, filling the space with their power.  The bass drum had that ‘in your chest’ feeling I’d long been seeking.  The electric bass had a snap and precision of pitch I haven’t heard on a rock record before and the electric guitars, well, I’ve always heard it while in their presence but I’ve never heard the sound of an electric guitar and its amp this way on a record before.  There was a ‘bite’ anyone familiar with the real sound knows well but in my experience has never before been preserved on a recording.”

Perhaps the biggest result of the session was that it provided yet another opportunity for me to learn, both what was right and what was not.  Again from the article, “In the end however, this was after all a first shot at the concept as well as being the first time I’d recorded in this particular location.  Next time in this room, I’d experiment with placing the mics just slightly closer to the plane described by the front of the drum set and the guitar and bass amps that flanked it.  A bit more of the direct sound in such an ambient locale would probably provide even more or the visceral impact we found so enjoyable when listening to the playback.  Also, in the absence of the Saturday rehearsal time, the music, though full of good feeling, ended up being less than we believe it could have been.  This only left us inspired to do this again and plans are already under way to capture performances we’ll be proud to release on a distributed recording.”

We did return to the church two more times and both of those sessions produced the first release on my label.  The results of my third decision had materialized and Soundkeeper Recordings was born.  Next time, making Lift.

Three Decisions (Part 2)

Around the same time I was setting up a studio of my own, I was also consulting for musician, client and friend Art Halperin, offering suggestions and design ideas as he rebuilt his own studio from the ground up.  Since I prefer to record on location in performance spaces, my own studio was to be used primarily for post-production work and mastering.  Art needed a space in which the musicians could gather to create the original recordings as well.  Both spaces provided opportunities to try out new ideas and to make some new discoveries.

While my own studio was built within an existing space, Art’s new studio, Top of the World, was custom built from scratch.  Everything from the dimensions of the space to the materials from which it was constructed started as an idea, discussed and rolled around until it was decided upon.

I was thrilled to finally have my own work space, with my own gear.  The system was sounding fantastic but there was still room for improvement.  Art had installed similar gear at Top of the World and there too, good as everything sounded, we felt it could be taken up a notch.  What both spaces needed was a full acoustic treatment.  Indeed any space used for serious listening needs this, whether pre-constructed or a newly built room.

Looking at all the available options and trying them, one type of design stood out above all the others, in performance and conveniently, in ease of use as well.  This was the cylindrical design based on a modification of Harry Olsen’s pioneering work in the 1950’s with his “functional sound absorbers”.  Rather than installing separate devices in the room to address each of the three types of room issues (resonant modes in the bass, early reflections in the treble and diffusion), a single type of device addressed all three issues simultaneously.  (For more on resonant modes and room treatments, see Setting up your monitoring environment.)  Since both new rooms needed the treatments, Art and I decided to build our own, so we ordered the raw materials and spent three days building enough cylinders to fully outfit both studios.

The cylinders were stacked in pairs around each room, making columns that evoked mental images of the Parthenon.  The larger diameter, 16 inch (~41 cm) columns were placed in the corners and at the half-way point along each wall, with the corners addressing the fundamental resonant modes for each dimension of the room and the half-way points addressing the first harmonic of each fundamental.  The smaller diameter, 9 inch (~23 cm) columns were placed at the quarter points along each wall to address the second harmonics.  In this way, the resonant modes of both rooms were quelled.

Each cylinder was built with one side that is soft and absorbent in the treble and the other side reflective in the treble.  When placed in the room, the cylinders were oriented with the absorbent side facing the nearest loudspeaker and the reflective semi-cylinder facing away from the speaker.  By doing so, the soft side serves to capture early reflections in the treble, helping to preserve the tonality and imaging from the speakers without interference from the room, while the reflective side provides the diffusion of late reflections—those sounds that have already been around the room—to help preserve the sense of life in the room.

All too often, we see photographs of studios that more closely resemble padded cells, with so-called “acoustic foam” placed everywhere.  Rather than absorb only the early reflections, these tend to soak up the life in the room, making the sound unnatural and simply sitting in the room uncomfortable.  We also see photographs of studios with diffusion placed very close to and facing the loudspeakers.  The result of this is that those early reflections in the treble that should be absorbed are instead splayed in all directions and are therefore guaranteed to reach the listener’s ears, hardening tonality, obscuring low level detail and causing a loss of focus in the images and soundstage presented by the monitors.

Upon installation of the cylinders, the wholesale transformation in the sound of both studios was immediate and obvious.  Where before the treatment, one could hear changes in the bass response as one moved around the room, as soon as the traps were in place, the bass not only remained consistent everywhere in the room but low level detail was much easier to hear, as were the spaces “between the notes”.  The room was no longer “ringing” and filling in the quieter moments between sounds in a recording (or live sounds in the room).  Even conversation became much easier to hear.  The space captured in recordings, whether real or synthesized in the studio, became much more evident.  In effect, the room had gotten out of the way.

I can remember one more thing about the day we finished building the traps for our rooms.  It took a few trips in my Honda to get all of the cylinders for my studio from Art’s patio where we built them to their new home.  I never heard the system in the car sound as good as it did on each of those rides.

There was still one more discovery to be made with regard to the systems in both studios.  It all started at a meeting of a local audio society where one member passed around a 1/2 inch (~13 mm) steel ball and a small “bowl” in which the ball was supposed to sit.  He claimed that using a trio of these devices underneath a component, to lift it from its own feet, made for very positive changes to the sound.  My initial response was doubtful.  How could putting a component on different “feet” change its sound?  Then again, I’d once asked “How can a turntable affect the sound of a record?” and on another occasion “How can a cable possibly make a difference in the sound?”  Both times I ended up learning something and coming to appreciate what I’d learned.  So I decided to embark on another set of experiments.

Over the course of the next month or two, I got hold of a very wide variety of items sold as replacement “feet” for audio and video components and proceeded to audition all of them.  I had sets of cones, spikes, miniature trampolines with elastic suspensions and many other designs.  Most of the devices were claimed by their manufacturers to provide isolation from vibrations that would degrade component performance.  Some claimed to block vibrations from entering the gear.  Others claimed to “drain” vibrations generated by the gear itself.

My expectation was that none of these would have any effect whatsoever.  Once again, it was my very good fortune to learn something new.  Actually, I learned a number of things, first among them was that anything placed under (or atop) an audio (or video) component will change its performance.  I emphasize “change” because the effects I heard from some types of devices were not necessarily positive.  I also learned that a number of the devices sold as isolators were not isolators at all and in fact acted as couplers, performing the exact opposite of an isolator.

While the couplers changed the sound, the changes were somewhat random from component to component.  The couplers changed the sound by altering the resonant characteristics of the component’s chassis.  Some of these, claimed by their manufacturers to “drain” vibrations from a component, were also referred to by an ingenious term which I would guess was invented by a savvy marketer.  They were called “mechanical diodes”, the claim being that vibrations would pass through them in one direction but would be blocked in the other direction.  I found it very easy to dismiss these claims by showing how a component placed atop these devices would move in direct response to any motion in the supporting surface or shelf.  In other words, the devices were perfect couplers and any path for vibrations is always a two-way street.

Further, with regard to the claim of “draining”, it occurred to me that when something is drained, by definition, I would expect there to be less of it in the place from which it has supposedly been drained.  When I drain the water from my kitchen sink, the result is less water in the sink.  If I run the water while I drain the sink and the quantity being drained matches the quantity being added, the net result is the amount of water does not change.  If the amount of vibration supposedly being drained does not exceed the amount being generated by the component, the net result is the same amount of vibration in the component.  Effectively, nothing has been drained except the customer’s wallet.

The surprise came when I got to the real isolators.  The well designed roller bearings, like the one I first saw at the audio group meeting and well designed air bearings defied my expectations and left my jaw hanging.  These acted as mechanical low-pass filters, devices with an inherent resonance above which they did not transmit vibrations.  (For more detail, see Vibration control for better performance.)  I was not at all prepared for what these did for every single component with which I tried them, which was to improve every characteristic of audio (and video) I know how to describe.  In addition, the improvements were consistent and repeatable from component to component and further, they were cumulative with system performance improving as each additional component was set “afloat”.  The improvements were such that I wondered why others were not shouting the news from the audio rooftops.

I considered how these devices worked and having learned that isolation begins at approximately 1.4 times the resonant frequency of the device, it became clear that the lower the resonant frequency of the device, the sooner it would begin to provide effective vibration isolation.  Further, there was an inverse relationship between how damped the device’s resonance was and how steep the rolloff above resonance was (i.e., how much isolation the device provided).  In other words, the less damping on the resonance, the steeper the rolloff (the greater the degree of isolation).  With this in mind, I thought I could improve on the commercial roller bearing designs I’d tried, so I made some drawings and took them to a local machinist.  (Actually, I spoke with a number of machinists, some of whom provided silly pricing quotes, including one who wanted an additional $75 “set up change”.  Not seeking to be “set up”, I thanked them and went elsewhere until I found the shop I chose to work with.)  I had some prototypes made and these proved so successful, I went back and had enough made to place under everything in the studio.  Partly because they reminded me of the “ball-and-socket” joint where a human femur meets the pelvis and partly in honor of how an old time jazz musician might refer to a place in which they liked to play, I christened my design “Hip Joints”.

While the improvements in digital devices were more pronounced than in say, solid state amplifiers (which nonetheless, still showed improvement), I was in for another shock when I decided to try them under the loudspeakers.  For years I’d been “taught” that speakers must be mounted rigidly and here I was placing them atop the loose springs that were a set of Hip Joints.  Once again, an opportunity for learning presented itself.  I’d never heard the speakers sound so good.  I referred to the speakers directly on the floor as “bound and gagged” by comparison.

While roller bearings provide isolation from vibrations in the horizontal (and rotational) planes, they do not isolate in the vertical plane.  Air bearings, on the other hand, provide isolation in the vertical plane.   Since I wanted to apply multiple-axis vibration isolation, I sought a way to combine Hip Joints with air bearings.  As a result, I made a new set of design drawings and with the aid of a good friend with the unique ability to turn wood into art, created the “Enjoyyourself” racks.  Unlike most racks, which provide clear paths for vibrations from the ground to get into every component they house, the Enjoyyourshelf racks have a separate, fully adjustable air bearing and a set of Hip Joints for each shelf.  (I call it the world’s first piece of furniture with a fully independent suspension!)  Upon first audition of gear on these racks, I heard the sound completely freed from the confines of the loudspeakers and the soundstage (on those recordings containing such a large space) expand well beyond the boundaries of the studio.  By design, the air bearing inflation is adjustable without having to first remove the gear, which allows for changes in inflation while the music is playing—a most informative situation.

As I said in the article cited above, “I’m still having a bit of trouble accepting that the ocean tide or the wind or a truck changing gears 1/4 mile away has such a profound effect on the performance of my audio and video gear.  What I have no trouble with is the results of isolating my gear from these effects.  The performance gains in every parameter I can think of are clear, consistent and repeatable.  Frequency extension into the treble and downward in the bass is improved.  Stereo imaging gets better focused.  The soundstage takes on greater proportions.  Dynamic swings both large and small are more like real life.  Overall, there is a much greater sense of the system getting out of the way, leaving the listener with a considerably increased sense of contact with the recorded event.”

With the installation of the acoustic treatments, followed by the addition of vibration isolation measures to all the components, the studio had “arrived”.

Three Decisions (Part 1)

In the previous entry, dated November 8, 2013 and entitled Real Stereo, loudness wars and a fork in the road, I recalled the advent of the Loudness Wars and the fact that upon reflection as to my reasons for becoming a professional audio engineer, I was clear that the weaponizing of sound and music was not among my goals.  Another realization that crystallized around the same time was that 90-95% (or more) of any recording’s ultimate sound quality has already been determined by the time the signals are leaving the microphones.

As I planned my future, I made three decisions.  The first was that I would only accept mastering clients whose goals were quality oriented rather than loudness oriented.  Next, rather than just come in on a recording project for the last stage of production (which mastering is), I wanted to work on the 95% or more that was the determination of the signals leaving the microphones—I wanted to do original recordings, in real stereo.  To this end, it was time to start a label.  The third decision was to design and build my own work place, with my own gear, so there would no longer be any need to rent time in other studios or to borrow or rent gear for recording sessions.

The second decision (making real stereo recordings) really led to the third (building a room) because in order to make the type of no-compromise recordings in which I was interested, I needed a room I trusted absolutely, that I would have access to any time I desired and which was outfitted with the type of gear I felt necessary in order to make and evaluate those uncompromised recordings.  Since my preferred spaces for making recordings are real performance spaces, those in which a given type of music would be best served, such as auditoriums, churches, galleries, etc., my own room would be used for post-production, primarily editing and mastering.

Around the same time all this planning and deciding was occurring but before it was put into effect, I received a message that was to mark the beginning of a treasured friendship and a series of very rewarding musical and sonic collaborations, taking me into the creation of my own work space, the start of the record label, and beyond.  The message asked if I was the Barry Diament who had remastered the Bob Marley & The Wailers catalog for CD release several years earlier.  The sender was working on a reggae album and was inquiring about having me master it.  I responded that I did indeed remaster that catalog and we ended up booking the mastering session, which was to occur at a local studio with monitoring I trusted.

As the session neared, I came to learn more about my new client and soon to be dear friend, Art Halperin.  It turned out the esteemed record producer and talent scout John Hammond had signed Art a few years earlier, as the first artist scheduled to record for his Hammond/CBS Records.  (Hammond signed a few other talented artists over the years, including Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn to name but a few.)  Art completed a 10-song album for the label but with Hammond’s passing, the project was not released.

Even before I heard the music, I knew I liked Art.  I remember the mastering session on the day we first met in person.  As all was being prepared and we got ready to do some serious listening, Art asked me how much consideration I give to level when mastering an album.  (This was prior to the days when I got any concerns about level out of the way before taking on a new job.)  I looked at Art and said “None whatsoever.”  I wondered if the session might end then and there.  But Art understood.  And he stayed.

Relative levels between tracks would be adjusted if necessary, in order for each song to flow into the next, without the listener having to make any volume adjustments.  Once the entire program was cohesive with itself, final level is set based on the loudest part of the program.  Since musical dynamics were going to be left intact, with no compression applied, all that needed to be done was to ensure the overall level was set so that the loudest part took maximum advantage of the medium.  The rest would fall into place naturally.  And it did.

Like many musicians, Art had his own recording studio and was very interested in the process of record making.  After that initial mastering session, he and I were to have many conversations about recording and about the approach I had become increasingly attracted to.  The fact that Art often played more than one instrument or sang more than one vocal part on his own recordings led me to consider how the “direct to stereo” technique I favored could be applied while still allowing for the convenience of overdubbing multiple musical parts.  (For more on this, see Recording in Stereo (Part 2).)  This worked out so well, it has become Art’s preferred method for the projects he has recorded in his studio since then.

Through all of these discussions, I talked about wanting to apply what I’d learned from my microphone experiments to making a recording of pop music using techniques that had previously only been considered for classical music.  There would be no opportunity for overdubs, no “punch ins” to fix mistakes, no post-production mix.  The musicians would stand virtually naked before the microphones, which would capture them as they sound for real.  Art immediately expressed interest in doing this with his band.  Of course we needed to find a space in which to record, a space that would provide the right supporting acoustic for the music and instrumentation.  Art said he knew of such a place too.

Plans were coming together for the recording project.  This would also be the first using the new gear and the first to be mastered in the new room I’d set up.  How far the gear had come since the original Sony system, which required a rack the size of a refrigerator, not to mention a mortgage.  A top grade recording and mastering system would now reside in a laptop computer, with one external interface box.  It was small enough and light enough to fit in a daypack for transport to remote recording sessions and was sonically orders of magnitude beyond the old system.

The most important part of the room, as it has always been for me, is the monitoring.  For the room to be trustworthy, the monitoring must be able to “get out of the way” and provide access to the recording itself.  Without this, nothing else really matters as the engineer would be left guessing — as I found the case to be with most studios and control rooms I’d worked in, visited or read about.  To be clear, by “monitoring” I refer not just to the speakers themselves (i.e., the brand and model) but to the implementation of the entire monitoring system: where the speakers are placed in the room, where the listening position is placed in the room, where everything else is placed in the room (only after the first two have been properly determined), the acoustic treatment of the room, and the ancillary gear, from power supplies to cables.  (For more about the monitoring, see Setting up your monitoring environment.)

I’d been very fortunate to hear some very capable loudspeaker designs over the years.  Among my favorites by far are Jim Winey’s designs from Magnepan.  The “Maggies”, as aficionados call them, are not like typical “cones in a box” speakers in that there are no cones and no box.  Most importantly, I find they have a unique ability to sound, not like “good speakers” but like music itself.  (This is much more easily experienced than communicated with words.)  Properly set up, Maggies excel at “getting out of the way”, a characteristic I find critical if one seeks to hear past the system and gain access to the sound of the recording itself.

Years earlier and much to my surprise, I’d heard how much the cables connecting audio gear can affect system performance.  In selecting gear for the new room, I spent many months listening to a number of top contenders for interconnects and loudspeaker cables.  (I find it interesting that cables are still the subject of much debate in the audio world.  I have yet to hear two that sound the same to me.)  Of all the cables I listened to, several of the products from Nordost consistently stood out as I brought them back in to compare against others.  With many types of audio products, certain designs are made to have a certain “sound” or color.  I was looking for a design that did not exhibit this sort of personality.  I wanted one that revealed just how different sounding every recording is from every other recording.

Uncolored devices reveal the many differences from recording to recording.  When different recordings have commonalities in the sound, for example a certain character in one part of the frequency spectrum, it is safe to assume one is hearing a coloration in one or more components of the playback chain.  Colorations reduce the inherent differences between recordings.

With the Nordost cables in the system, I felt confident I was able to hear past them, that they were merely passing the signal from one component to the next without editorializing.  (Interestingly, they replaced cables that cost three times their price.)  The combination of Nordost cables with Magnepan speakers has proven a magical one — two product lines that are extraordinary at getting out of the way, thereby providing unimpeded access to the recording.  For listening, this allows the qualities of a recording to shine at their best.  For recording and mastering work, this is crucial as it makes the difference between guessing how a recording sounds and knowing.

The last major hardware piece of the puzzle is the interface between the computer and the audio system.  In the simplest terms, during recording, the interface takes the analog microphone signals and converts them to digital, feeding the signals to the recording software on the computer.  During playback (for work in the studio as well as for just listening), the interface takes the digital signals from the computer, converts them to analog and feeds them to the monitor amplifiers for the loudspeakers.  While these are often split into separate jobs accomplished by separate pieces of gear, a chance question from an acquaintance led to a fortuitous discovery.  One day, a musician I knew asked me if I’d ever heard of Spectrafoo.  I told him I had not but the odd name made me curious enough to look it up.  What I found was a software tool for sonic analysis like no other I’d heard of before or since.  But perhaps more significantly, I got turned on to the company that made it, Metric Halo.

It turned out that in addition to their software, Metric Halo also made some very interesting hardware.  Their “mobile i/o” (or MIO) interfaces provided exactly what I’d been looking for in terms of a very high quality, yet portable unit that would serve as remote recording “studio” for recording sessions and as central hub of my room.  Actually, I’d already selected a competing interface that had great specifications and great reviews.  I set up a comparative listen and it was all over — I was ordering an MIO.

To complete the remote recording package, it was time to get my own microphones.  I chose a matched pair of Earthworks QTC-1s (now called QTC-40), the first mics I’d ever heard that made my previous favorites, the B&Ks, sound a bit colored by comparison.  The QTC-1s are outstanding at capturing the sounds that occur in their presence.

So far the results of the three decisions I’d made were taking shape nicely.  I felt liberated from mastering clients who sought quantity over quality, plans were in place for making the type of recordings I really wanted to make, and a studio of my own was now a reality.  Now, to put those recording ideas into practice.  Art and I planned the next steps.

Real stereo, loudness wars and a fork in the road

Having been an avid music lover and audio enthusiast since childhood, having done pro audio work in a number of studios for over a decade and having read all the books and journals on the subject I could find, I was not prepared for that experience in 1988 when I heard stereo for the first time.  Apart from the unparalleled joy the experience elicited (as in “Who knew audio playback could be this realistic?”), it engendered a great deal of thought, including the realization that what I’d heard until then was essentially dual mono, synchronized but separate programs, not the coherent and convincing whole possible with real stereo.

Now that I’d learned how proper setup of stereo loudspeakers allowed the speakers to better “disappear” and (with recordings containing the information) leave behind a three dimensional sense of the performers and the space in which they played, I saw new possibilities for the recordings themselves.

In my last experiment with direct to stereo recording, I had considered the relationship between the positions of the two microphones during recording and the two speakers during playback.  I thought there might be some reciprocity between the both ends of the chain.  To more closely emulate the space between playback speakers, I used a 6 foot (~1.8 meter) spacing between the microphones.  Considering the time element, my reasoning was that the time a signal took to get from left mic to right mic should match the time it took to travel between the speakers in the listening room, hoping the symmetry would get me closer to “being there” when listening to the result.  While that recording avoided the hole-in-the-middle common too many recordings made with two widely spaced microphones, I found that instruments positioned slightly off center during the recording session had a tendency to “pull” to the near speaker on playback.  (I wrote an article called Recording in Stereo about my experiences in these tests.  A highly abridged version follows herein.)

How to get stable stereo without introducing the time-based distortions (i.e., “ghost” images) that would result from adding more microphones?  I decided to try some iterative experiments in the studio, recording my speaking voice as I walked around in front of the microphones.  Each test was repeated with the spacing between microphones changed slightly.  I started with my original 6 foot spacing, announcing my position to the microphones, for example “3 feet left of center, 2 feet left of center, 1 foot left of center, center, 1 foot right of center, 2 feet right of center”, etc.  Next, I did the same thing with the mics a bit closer together, then another test with the mics still closer together and so on until the mics were 7 inches (~18 cm) apart, matching the spacing between a typical listener’s ears.

To quote the article cited above, “On playback, I paid particular attention to the just off center area that had proven problematic with the 6 foot spacing.  Somewhere around 15 inches (~38 cm), things seemed to gel.  All the qualities I liked were there with considerably less vagueness in the image.  My long held belief in recording with omnis spaced at 6 feet was being revised.”

“I started researching just how it is our brains perceive stereo and the cues required for localization (our ability to determine where a sound is coming from).  What I learned was our brains use three types of cues to determine localization:  intensity, time and frequency [specifically, differences in intensity, time and frequency between the sounds arriving at each of our ears].  Then it dawned on me that if nature could have gotten by with fewer cues, it would have done so.  I began to consider what was needed to supply all three types of cues in a stereo recording.”

The last step was the design of an absorbent baffle to be placed between the microphones.  Again from the article, “I’d found my way to record in stereo, incorporating all three types of cues nature uses to inform us of where a sound is coming from:  intensity, timing and frequency.  The timing information provided by the omnis benefited from the disk-shaped baffle which provided increased intensity differences between mics as well as frequency discrimination between mics.”

All the while these experiments went on, I was doing mastering work for a number of labels.  A disturbing trend was making itself evident, in that all too many of the A&R folks and producers at the labels were talking more and more about loudness.  I can recall one “name” producer who asked me “How much do you usually raise the level of tapes that come in here?  We do 6 dB.”  I wasn’t sure how to reply to his query because my experience had long ago taught me that some tapes require the level to be dropped, not raised, if one wanted to get the best possible results from the master.  Other record folks were requesting a “balls to the wall” sound (ouch!).  These were the foundations of the so-called “Loudness Wars”, an arms race of sorts, where folks wanted their record to be louder than everyone else’s.  There were folks who evaluated my mastering work with VU meters and not with loudspeakers!  “If it goes in the black, you lose.”  (For more on the subject, see my article Declaring an end to the loudness wars.)

At this point, I had to stop and ask myself why I became an audio engineer and just what I sought to accomplish in my work.  I knew for sure that the weaponizing of sound and music was not among my goals.  What a strange dichotomy.   As I sought to create recordings that sounded more like life and had more dynamic range, the larger trend in the industry was to eviscerate dynamics, seeking ever greater quantity without regard for the cost in quality.

Where the best records of “loud” music invite the listener to turn up the playback volume, casualties of the loudness wars cause physical discomfort.  My personal take is that the loudness wars have played a large part in the decline of the record industry.  Highly compressed sound brings about a stress response in the listener.  Joe and Jane Average may not be consciously aware of this but as a result, they don’t buy nearly as many records as they used to and they don’t listen to the ones they do purchase as many times as they used to.  New records are supposed to bring pleasure, not a “fight or flight” response.

Having considered my reasons for being an audio engineer, I decided to take a two-fold approach.  First, those making mastering inquiries are asked how important final level is to them.  The many benefits of achieving loudness with the playback volume control, as opposed to recorded level, are explained.  Those whose prime interest is in the quality of the music and sound tend to become clients.  Those who really want loud records are gently referred elsewhere.  (I know many mastering engineers say they prefer not to squeeze the life from their clients’ recordings but consent to do this because they need or want the work.  That is a personal decision each individual must make for themselves.)  Second, my fascination with making records that sound like music itself—as opposed to simply sounding like records—was on the rise.  While mastering can be very rewarding, I came to understand that 90-95% (or more) of any recording’s ultimate sound quality has already been determined by the time the signals are leaving the microphones.  In other words, the overall quality is already there (or not) as soon as the signals enter the mic cables.  Everything else is just relatively minor adjustments to the overall picture.

Having rented time in a few different studios to do my mastering work, I started thinking of designing a space for myself.  The idea was more than appealing since I could have complete control over the acoustic design and gear selection.  Of course, monitoring, as always, was the prime concern.  In addition, it was time to assemble a recording kit of my own and lose the dependence on what I could borrow or rent.  And to provide a vehicle for distributing the new recordings, I was thinking about a new kind of record label.