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.

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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, an 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.

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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. It feels like dynamic resolution has been improved, adding a sense of realism 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.

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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.

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Giving Thanks

All commercial implications of the current holiday aside, I believe it is good to stop once in a while and observe a Thanks giving.  Somehow, even the name of the holiday seems to have been altered over the years, to the point where it is usually pronounced with the accent on the second syllable.  I hear most folks speak of the holiday as “thanks-gi-ving” but I prefer to call it the Thanks-giving, thereby placing the emphasis on its true meaning.

Now, as we approach the release of the latest Soundkeeper Recording, I want to pause for a moment and give thanks to the artists who have enabled me to undertake this long held dream.

Let me begin with Art Halperin, who started as a mastering client and whom I came to greatly admire as a composer, arranger, and musician.  When I told him I wanted to start a label and about the particulars of my goals, as well as the demands these would place upon the players, Art immediately volunteered his band, Work of Art, for the first project.

Those who play music with Art and those who know him socially share a unique camaraderie that could only arise in the presence of Art’s spirit and the warmth he exudes.  In some ways, the experience is a “you had to be there” but at the same time, this comes through in spades on Art’s recordings.  Perhaps because recording live really captures the essence of an event and not just its sound, this is especially true of his work for Soundkeeper.  Art, that first album being named Lift was as apt a title as could be, because that is what you and your music do for folks’ spirits.  Thank you.

It was at a social gathering that an acquaintance began speaking of Haitian music and asked me if I’d ever heard of Markus Schwartz.  I hadn’t heard of Markus before and despite my love of world music, I was not familiar with the music of Haiti.  I was in for a fabulous musical treat.  I attended his next live performance and was immediately smitten by both the music and his artistry.  I knew at once that I wanted to record this ensemble and spoke with Markus and the other players immediately after the first set.

The album we made together, Equinox, was a landmark for me.  Except for what might be termed a “warm up” session, where Markus and his band, Lakou Brooklyn, got familiar with the recording method, the entire album took only four hours to record!  The performances were entrancing and led me to appreciate the wider world of Haitian music.  Markus, the music is as organic as can be and is soulful to the max, just like you.  Thank you.

Another artist who started as a mastering client is Jason Vitelli.  There is a rare musical pleasure when one finds oneself listening to a true original.  Such was the experience of listening to Jason’s debut album, with its angular melodies, complex arrangements and literate lyrics.  On that album, Jason played almost all the musical parts himself.  For a Soundkeeper project, to be recorded live, without overdubs, he had to assemble a brand new band, finding players with the right musical chops who were also sympathetic to a new and different musical vision.

Jason, to this day, I am in awe of the concentration of effort you put into making the recording we call Confluence a reality.  Tirelessly auditioning players until a real, unified band was assembled, working with them as individuals and in sub-groups to hone arrangements, and ultimately delivering a unique collection of songs ranging from solos, a duet, trios, full ensemble pieces and some hard electric rock, all in your one-of-a-kind style.  Thank you.

One of my favorite musical idioms is the jazz quartet.  I’d always wanted to record a jazz quartet direct to stereo, with air around the players and natural sound from their instruments.  While recording Equinox, I came to appreciate the musicianship of the bass player on that project, Paul Beaudry.  As we got to know each other, I learned of Paul’s quartet, Pathways, and of their Jazz at Lincoln Center and U.S. State Department sponsored trips to different parts of the world.

After they returned from one such trip to Central and South America and the Caribbean, Paul wanted to record an album of the music they learned in several of the countries they visited.  The result was Americas.  Paul, the voice you give to your bass and your sheer energy never fail to catch my ear.  I still recall quite clearly just how difficult it was to sit still during the sessions and not just get up and dance around the auditorium.  Thank you.

Now we come full circle, with a new Soundkeeper Recordings project to be released within the next few weeks.  Eight years after the first album was released, it was time to rejoin Art Halperin and his band, Work of Art.  As always, Art, your special brand of magic fills everyone’s heart with joy.  How wonderful it has been to watch your development as an artist, and how lucky I feel to record another album with you.  Those beautiful songs and rich vocal harmonies you created for the new album stir my soul, as I’m sure they will for other listeners to Winds of Change. Thank you.

I’ve said before that making records is much harder work than many folks realize.  Remove the convenience and safety of the modern studio and it is harder still, particularly on the players.  But the best rise to the occasion and create something unattainable in any other fashion.  Art, Markus, Jason, and Paul, a heartfelt thank you for the friendship you give to me, your virtuosity, and for the music you give to the world.  I admire all of you and am more than fortunate to have had the opportunity to record your music.  Play on, my brothers!

Winds of Change

Almost eight years after we recorded the first release for my Soundkeeper Recordings label (documented in the December 13, 2013 entry in this blog, like the album, entitled Lift), I was once again joined by Art Halperin and his band, Work of Art, for a new project.

For a long time, Art and I had discussed a follow-up to Lift and now the time was right.  Art had written a great new collection of songs, which the band had been rehearsing.  I had recently made some new additions to the recording setup in terms of upgraded power and microphone cabling (see the previous entry in this blog, entitled New Connections).  And I found just the right recording locale for the project.

Instrumentation for the songs includes a wide collection of different guitars including both nylon-string acoustic guitars and Martin steel-string acoustic guitars, a Dobro type resonator guitar, a Guild 12-string guitar and a few electric guitars, one of which is the Fender Stratocaster given to Art by Eric Clapton.  Along with the guitars, a mandolin, pedal steel guitar, and ukuleles are also present on the recording, while double bass and drums accompany the voices throughout.  The rich vocal harmonies are a big part of these songs, some featuring up to four voices behind Art’s lead vocals.

For those interested in the recording setup, the equipment for these sessions was as follows:

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)
Laptop: Apple MacBook Pro
Software: Metric Halo Console X (including its Record Panel)
Power cables: Nordost Heimdall 2 (for interface) and Nordost Purple Flare (for laptop)
Power conditioner: Monster Cable HTS-400
Vibration isolation: Custom made base to support laptop and interface

One of the many nice things about this project was that the players, having already done one Soundkeeper Recording in Lift, were already familiar with the process and the fact that they would be together, hearing each other through the air, for real, as opposed to being separated by headphones and baffles and listening to an electronic mix via headphones.  Everyone knew they had to pay close attention to each other and to how their own sound blended with the whole.  They all knew we were capturing performances, without the ability to “punch in” later to fix any mistakes.

I selected a local 19th century church as the recording venue.  It is a stone structure with a wooden interior and a warm acoustic, providing a good sense of air around the players but maintaining a nice sense of intimacy, ideally suited to this music.

My expectation was that the stone construction of the church would result in a relatively cool interior, even for our late June recording sessions.  The good news is that we all had a great time, even though my thermal assumptions were off by a good measure.  In short, the music wasn’t the only thing that was warm.  Several large ceiling fans keep the air in the church circulating but these had to be turned off during recording, as the mics very clearly picked up the quiet hum they produced.  Next time at this locale, spring or fall would make optimal seasonal choices for the best indoor climate, free of the sounds heating or cooling systems would necessarily add.

We recorded in the church on two successive days and all the hard work Art and the band put in preparing for the sessions was clearly in evidence.  I have commented before on just how great the feel is in Art’s music.  It pleased me to no end to find that others noticed exactly the same thing upon hearing the early playbacks.  What surprised me at first, but upon reflection turns out to be no surprise at all, is how all the comments used the same word.  When my wife (and most trusted listening partner) first heard the playbacks, she said “This is such a joyful album!”  Others have used the very same adjective, including two of the players in subsequent independent communication with me about the sessions.  The word came up so frequently that one of my early candidates for the album’s title was “Joyful”.

The music and performances are certainly full of joy.  As it turned out, so were Art and yours truly as we listened to the impact the new cable additions brought to the results.  I mentioned in the previous entry in this blog that this project marked my first use of Nordost’s Tyr 2 cables to connect my microphones to the ULN-8’s mic preamps, as well as my first use of third-party power cables, in this case Nordost’s Heimdall 2 feeding the ULN-8 power supply and their Purple Flare feeding the laptop power supply.  As I said in that entry, both Art and I remarked that we’d never heard recorded acoustic guitars sound so much like the instruments themselves.  The speed and extension on the double bass too, matched the sound of the instrument at the sessions like we’d never heard before.  (Thank you Nordost, for taking my recordings to a whole new level!)  While I’d have been pleased with “Joyful” as the title, in the end we decided on an equally fitting one we like even more: Winds of Change.

The recording format was 24-bit, 192k sampling, captured by the ULN-8 to .aif files.    As has become the norm for Soundkeeper, we will release it in multiple formats, from 24/192 (.aif or .wav) files-on-disk, to 24/96 (.aif or .wav) files-on-disk, to 24/96 audio-only DVD (in DVD-V format), to CD-R, to pressed CD.

One other thing we decided to do for this project was document some of it on video, to share with Work of Art (and Soundkeeper) fans, some of the “behind the scenes” views of the recording sessions.  The videos will be completed once the audio mastering is complete and the album art is done.  There is still some work ahead of us before the album can be released.

Making a record is most definitely much harder work than most folks might realize, but making Soundkeeper Recordings has been, and continues to be, a delight.  How fortunate I am to know Art and his band, and to be able to produce and engineer this album.  For someone who loves making records, it doesn’t get better than this.

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.