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.

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Into the Majors

While keeping up with the recording studio scene in New York City, I heard there might be an opening at Atlantic Studios for a music editor.  In the two and a half years since I got my first job as a studio assistant, I had been involved with recording, overdubbing, mixing, editing and mastering.  The promotion to chief engineer brought with it a catalog of opportunities to experiment and learn, in which I immersed myself every day.  Now, Atlantic Studios beckoned!

I called the studio manager and much to my joy, an interview was scheduled.  We met, spoke and he offered me the position of music editor.  I accepted.  Atlantic Studios!  Atlantic Records!  First entry into studio A, the largest of the three studios on the premises, was a visit to hallowed musical ground.  So many records I’d grown up with, and others that were significant parts of the soundtrack of my life, were made in this room.  So many musical heroes created magic in this space.  Names sped through my mind:  Ray Charles, the Coasters, the Drifters, the Rascals, Aretha Franklin, Doctor John (the Night Tripper), John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young), Buffalo Springfield, Cream, the list goes on and on.  The roster also included a long list of artists who recorded elsewhere but whose work was released by Atlantic, among them, artists such as Led Zeppelin, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, AC/DC, Phil Collins, Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones – a dizzying array of musical delights for the new employee.

To friends, I summed up my primary responsibilities as music editor as being to make long songs shorter and short songs longer.  Despite the exception a few decades before, when radio stations played Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” single which clocked in at over six minutes, it was common practice to edit album length songs down to somewhere around three or at most, three and a half minutes in length in the hope that this made them more likely to get played on the radio.  When management at the record label decided that a certain album track would become a single, my job was to create a copy of the album master and cut the copy to a shorter duration.  (Since editing in those days was accomplished with a razor blade, and since the master mix used for the album was needed for the album, it was necessary to create a tape copy in order to create an alternate version of a song.)  On some occasions, the record producer would already have an idea of what parts of the song they wanted to remove in order to create the single but in most instances, I was left with this creative decision.  Of course, approval (or rejection) of the edit, was the producer’s call.  In a typical single edit, a verse might get removed.  If the song contained a long instrumental break, this was shortened.

The Procrustean task of the editor was a bit more complicated when a song needed to be lengthened.  Recall that these were the days of the “dance single”, versions of songs longer than those on the album, that had become popular in the dance clubs.  How to lengthen a five minute song to eight minutes or more?  Where radio singles involved removing verses or shortening instrumental breaks, dance singles would have verses (or choruses) repeated and instrumental breaks doubled (by repeating sections or using sections within the break to build a longer, more complex break).  All this, in those days, accomplished with a fresh razor blade, a grease pencil and an Edit-All bar (a metal block with a tape-width groove to secure the section of tape being edited, and angled slots through which to pass the cutting blade).  There was no “Undo” button.  There was no “Nudge” button to move an edit point.  Instead, the engineer manually “rocked” the tape back and forth past the playback head, a hand on each reel, listening to the slow-motion playback for the point at which they would make the edit.  When the engineer thought they had the point, they’d carefully mark the tape with the grease pencil, loosen the reels and place the section of tape in question into the Edit-All bar.  If an edit didn’t work, the tape had to be spliced back together and a new cut attempted.

For today’s users of DAWs (digital audio workstations), where one uses a computer mouse to select a musical passage and make a menu selection to alter said passage, imagine this:  On one occasion, we needed to “censor” one word the vocalist sang and the decision was to reverse it — make that one word occur backwards, while the rest of the music played normally. As our “workstation” of the day was nothing more than a razor blade and a stout heart, we needed to figure out where on the width of the 2” (~5 cm) wide multitrack tape the vocals were recorded.  Manually rocking the reels on the multitrack machine, we could find the start and end of the word in question.  Then, with a ruler, lines were drawn along the length of the tape to “outline” the location of the word.  Using that ruler, the razor and some determination, the word was cut from the tape and the excised section physically inverted, then re-taped in place.  And it worked!  What involved some time and a lot of sweat back then can be accomplished in a second today.

The editing room in those days was also a tape duplication room.  In addition to the reel-to-reel decks, there were racks of cassette decks.  Cassettes had replaced the 7” (~18 cm) reels of tape provided to producers as “refs” (reference copies) of a day’s work in the studio.  Cassettes were also made for the label’s promotion department, in order for the folks there to become familiar with each month’s album releases.  The reel-to-reel decks were also used to create sub-masters, which were formatted copies of albums, sent to tape duplication facilities for mass production of pre-recorded cassettes and (yes) 8-track cartridges.  Cassette sub-masters were pretty straight ahead copies of each album side.  The sub-masters used for 8-track cartridges got a unique treatment.  For those not old enough to remember the format, it was comprised of a continuous loop of tape inside a plastic cartridge.  As the program played the first stereo pair of tracks and reached the end of the loop, the playback device would switch to the next stereo pair of tracks for the next pass of the tape loop, then switch again to the third and four pairs of tracks each time the loop reached its end.  Having the four programs on adjacent pairs of tracks allowed for keeping the tape loop relatively short.  It also meant that sub-masters required an album be divided into four “programs”, each program destined for its own two tracks of the available eight.

Things got complicated when, for example, the first two or three songs on an album might total 10 minutes in duration and the next two or three songs might total 12 minutes and then next group of songs might total 8 minutes and the last group say, 9 minutes.  The goal was to build the four programs to be as equal in duration as possible.  Program 1 might have three songs, program 2 might have just 2 songs, etc.  The loop of tape put into an 8-track cartridge had to be long enough to accommodate the longest of the four programs.  In the example cited here, we’d need to have enough tape for the 12 minute program.  That means at the end of the 10 minute program, there would be a 2 minute wait until the player got to the end of the tape loop and advanced to the next program.  The wait between songs could be a long one and needless to say, completely discarded the spacing decided upon by the artist, producer and engineer when they assembled the album master.  From my own experience, I know that a difference of half a second in spacing between songs can change how an album feels when listened to from start to end.

Some record labels would opt to maintain the album sequence, equalize program lengths as best they could and the listener got to wait until the tape got to the end of the loop before the album proceeded.  Others would re-sequence the album — change the song order from that decided upon by the artist, producer and engineer — to arrive at the most equal program lengths possible for songs of the given durations.  (If a change in spacing between songs of half a second can change how an album feels, changing the order of songs can create what is essentially a different album.)  Still other labels would simply divide the total album duration by four and if a song was still in progress when the tape loop reached its end, it would continue when the playback device switched to the next program – often with several seconds of music simply missing. (!)  The technique at Atlantic was to maintain the sequence if possible, but rather than have songs interrupted when the tape loop reached its end, the songs would be faded for a gentler transition to silence.  Then, the tape would be backed up about 10 seconds and to start the next program, the song faded in from silence, picking up where it left off and continuing to its end.  The word in the studio was that one of the label’s major artists once said “Anyone that buys an 8-track deserves whatever they get”.  Its compromised sonics aside, it was for the obvious musical reasons that I was never a fan of the format.

Just a few short years later, the world of editing was going to be revolutionized. So was the world of recording, as new technology came to the fore, bringing with it new possibilities and new adventures.