Kay Sa

Thelonious Monk came up several times when I was discussing a new Soundkeeper Recordings project with Markus Schwartz. It was in the autumn of 2017 that I first proposed doing a follow-up to Markus’ Equinox, which I produced and recorded back in 2010, and which was selected by Stereophile as their Recording of the Month in February of 2011. That October marked the centennial of Monk’s birth and there were celebrations and concerts to commemorate the occasion.

Markus had been thinking about Monk and wanted to incorporate some of his music in the new project. He was also considering a different constellation of players to comprise his band, Lakou Brooklyn, this time out. His frequent musical associate Monvelyno Alexis would remain an important part of the band, taking on lead vocal duties for this album, in addition to his role as guitarist, composer, and co-arranger. Instead of the trumpet and flugelhorn featured on Equinox, this project would feature soprano and alto saxophones played by Godwin Louis, who is a graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance, and was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Saxophone Competition. For this session, Markus also brought a different contrabass player to the ensemble: Haitian music pioneer Bobby Raymond.

I wanted a spacious, lively, yet warm environment for the recording sessions and chose to return to the 19th century church I used for the previous Soundkeeper Recording, Winds of Change. Coordinating the busy schedules of all involved, Markus said we could record at the end of June. I reserved the space and on the appointed day, the band arrived early to set up and get the feel of the space. The plan was to run through the tunes, take an afternoon break, and then return to the church and play the tunes again as a second “set” as if at a gig.

This session marked my first serious use of the new Metric Halo 3d hardware and software. I set up the gear and ran a few sound checks with the players, letting them listen to the short recordings I captured as part of the sound check. When everyone was satisfied with what they heard, we were ready to go.

For those interested in such things, the equipment used for the Kay Sa recording session:

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

The material included a number of traditional Haitian tunes, some augmented by music and lyrics from Monvelyno. The band also played two tunes by Thelonious Monk: “Bye-Ya” and a Rara (Haitian processional music) version of “Epistrophy.” When Markus and I, listening to the playbacks in my studio, had trouble deciding which of the two takes of “Bye-Ya” to include in the album, it dawned on me that we could include both. We chose one for the body of the album and the other as a “bonus” track to add after a pause following the last main track.

Every session has its special moments and while this one holds many great memories for me, one in particular stands out because it provided a perfect illustration of the power of music. Early in the session, the band played “Minis Azaka,” a traditional Haitian song with original lyrics and music from Monvelyno. As the song proceeded, I found myself standing and swaying to the music. As Monvelyno sang the lyrics in Haitian Creole, a language I do not speak or understand, I stood there wiping tears from my eyes. When the take was over, I told the band that was the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever had the good fortune to record. I was still wiping my eyes when Markus informed me that the lyrics are powerful and sad. I didn’t see the translation until many weeks after the session, but in those moments as they played it, without my understanding the words, the music and the Monvelyno’s vocal performance spoke to me in a profound way. Jeff Buckley was spot on when he said music isn’t merely an art form, it is a force of nature.

The 3d-updated Metric Halo hardware and software came through brilliantly, allowing a new sense of inner dynamics to be captured in the recording, along with a sense of focus and of the air in the room that I’ve not heard before with other recording devices, analog or digital.

Stand by for a Kay Sa page on the Soundkeeper Recordings website, with more information about the album, including samples from all the tracks, lyrics, photos from the recording sessions, etc. The album will be released on May 1st. 

Brother Markus, thank you again. You, Monvelyno, Godwin, and Bobby have given music lovers another treasure trove of beautiful Haitian music to inspire the soul and warm the heart. Ayibobo!

Advertisements

Catching Up

With 19 months having passed since the last entry in this blog, yes, it is high time to do some catching up.

One of the most interesting projects I’ve worked on since the last entry in this blog was the newest album by Jason Vitelli, whose Confluence I had the good fortune to produce, record, and release on Soundkeeper Recordings. For his latest, Head Above Tide  (extended-res version here), Jason needed a different approach than the one we used for Confluence. Where the latter was recorded live to stereo, for this project he needed the ability to overdub and to record different parts at different times. The project utilized the technique of recording the various parts with a stereo microphone array, similar to what I use for Soundkeeper projects, but with provision for laying each of them down at different times. (I wrote about this technique in Recording in Stereo (Part 2)). 

The basic tracks and many of the overdubs were done at Top of the World Studios, which I designed for my good friend Art Halperin. Art and Jason recorded it and the three of us mixed it there. Then I mastered it back at my own studio. Those familiar with mastering know that it involves listening to an album repeatedly. After doing the mixes and mastering this record, I think it notable that when I wanted to relax afterward and listen to some music, I kept going back to this album. Kudos to Jason for creating another original that challenges the listener (as all great music does) and rewards the effort with new joys on each hearing.

***

The first time I mentioned Metric Halo in this blog was back in November of 2013 in the entry called Three Decisions (Part 1). For those who may be new to MH, they are a premier supplier of pro audio hardware and software, with a fiercely loyal following among those who’ve been lucky enough to use their gear. The hardware consists of computer interfaces that serve as microphone preamps, A-D (analog-to-digital) converters, headphone amps, and D-A (digital-to-analog) converters, with more features than I will list here. The software consists of various plug-ins, a sophisticated audio analysis application, and the MIO Console with Record Panel, the latter being built into their hardware units. Granted I have not heard every single competing product out there, but I believe I’ve heard the contenders (many in blind comparison tests). That said, to my ears, the MH gear excels in each of these categories to the point where, in terms of ability to simply get out of the way, I have not heard anything that comes close to matching it, much less besting it.

A while back, Metric Halo announced an upgrade was coming for their hardware and software. They called it 3d – a step up from the 2d boards it was to succeed. Keeping in mind the last sentence in the previous paragraph, I was curious to hear what the new hardware and software would achieve. Earlier this year, the hardware upgrade for my ULN-8 became available. The 3d hardware was in, but the beta software was still to be developed. And the unit wouldn’t run without it.

***

Toward the end of 2017, I spoke with Markus Schwartz about the idea of doing a follow-up to the Equinox project I produced and recorded back in 2010, and which was selected by Stereophile as their Recording of the Month in February of 2011. Thus the seed was planted for the next Soundkeeper Recording. Markus had ideas about the music and direction he wanted to go in, and about the players he would select for this outing. I told him about the upgrade to the recording gear from Metric Halo, and that there was time since I couldn’t record until I had received and tested the new software. More on this project in the next entry in this blog.

By the Spring of 2018, the software component of the 3d upgrade arrived and the listening tests began. Somehow, designer B.J. Buchalter had taken what I’d already felt was the best recording gear I’d ever experienced (particularly when used to make high-resolution, 24-bit, 192k recordings), and raised it up another level. Dynamics, at both micro and macro levels, are more in evidence. Spatial resolution and overall sense of focus have been improved, increasing the realism of the recordings and allowing the gear to get even further out of the way than its previous iteration. Sometimes you have to hear something better to know how something can be better. Congratulations B.J. and Metric Halo.

***

When Soundkeeper first started with downloads, we were breaking up the extended-resolution (24/96) and high-resolution (24/192) versions of our albums into gigabyte-sized files in order to keep download times as short as possible. Somewhere along the way we realized this was not necessary, and that a full album at any of the resolutions we offer could be provided as a single downloadable zip file.

Another development related to downloads is that most customers now seem to prefer these to the files-on-disc formats we offered before we got into downloads. For those who play files on their computers or via a dedicated music server, this makes sense as there are no shipping costs and the music arrives in minutes. With this in mind, the next Soundkeeper Recordings release will be offered as a CD and in six downloadable formats: 16/44, 24/96, and 24/192, as .aif and .wav. There will be no files-on-disc formats and no CD-R version. (We do have some stock of these for our previous releases but they will not be replaced once they’ve sold out.)

Next time, the new album.