Musicians, who’s watching out for your music?

Back in March of 2014, I posted the Can you hear what you’re doing? (Part 1) entry in this blog. I said it would be the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups and recordings that get out of the way.  Since then, there have been other entries dealing with the subject.  The current entry, while not about studio setups, does deal with recordings a bit, and it deals with live performance.  And it is about things that get in the way.

I have been fortunate in recent times to attend concerts by some of my favorite artists, some of whom I’ve followed for decades but never, until now, got to see live.  The music at all of the shows was everything I’d hoped it would be, the players on their game, delivering thrilling performances, taking chances, and taking the audience on amazing musical adventures.  Why then, I always wondered, when the music is so great, is the sound so awful?

I remember one performance by a singer/songwriter whose work I very much admire.  The song was of the up-close-and-personal sort, an almost private voicing of the artist’s feelings.  I will never understand why the “soundman” decided this particular tune required deep reverb on the vocal, accompanied by spinning disco-type lights.  The effect was to take what was an intimately sung ballad and turn it into a sung-from-afar dance number.

More recently, I attended a show where the opening act was a very gifted solo artist accompanying his vocals by fingerpicking on a Martin acoustic guitar.  What is the special talent required on the part of the soundman to make the sound of a solo voice and acoustic Martin hurt?  All the inherent delicacy and sparkle of the Martin was gone.  It sounded more like a left-out-in-the-rain, trash instrument, while the vocals were heavily compressed and had the midrange frequencies boosted to the point where the words stabbed at the listener’s ears.

When the headlining band took the stage I noticed that the drums were being mic’d and fed through the public address (or PA) system.  If left unamplified, the drums would not have had the slightest difficulty filling the small auditorium in which the show took place.  They could have been loud from the last row of the balcony.  When amplified as they were, this forced a horserace of loudness for all the other instruments and all of the vocals.  The result was that I could see the musicians playing their hearts out, but the sound was a near-undifferentiated mélange of mush.  I could see how melodic the lines played by the bass player were, but I couldn’t hear them.  Oh, I heard lots of bass, but the lines, like all the other sounds from the stage, were just out of focus.  Loud, for sure, but not at all clear.

The show was musically engaging but sonically a mess, and I pondered why this is the case so much more often than not with live shows.  Certainly the public address systems in use are partly responsible.  They are seemingly optimized for high speech intelligibility at extreme volumes.  That might be great if you’re listening to someone speak from 1/4 mile away, but not so great when you’re in the same room listening to music.

Add to this the propensity of the soundman to “do stuff” at the mixing desk.  At the last show, I saw him working during that voice and solo acoustic guitar performance, and I wondered what it was that made him feel the need to push faders.  (Over the years I’ve learned that what makes some sound engineers great is not so much what they do but what they don’t do.)

Of course, as with everything else, there are exceptions.  I remember attending a show by the Grateful Dead many years ago.  The sound at their shows was justly lauded.  I remember a wall of loudspeakers behind the band—with tie-dyed grill cloths!  Their sound system simply reinforced the band—as opposed to being a weapon aimed at the audience.

It is getting to the point where seeing a musical artist live does not necessarily mean hearing them live.  Most of the time nowadays the audience is subject to the soundman’s take on what the musicians are doing.

One of my favorite moments in live music occurred at a show I attended a couple of years back.  The acoustic trio on the stage was about to play a traditional folk song and for this tune (unfortunately, only for this tune), they stepped to the very front of the stage, leaving the microphones behind them.  Something wonderful happened.  The audience got very quiet, very attentive.  We heard the three voices, along with the guitars and mandolin, blend beautifully.  It was pure musical magic.  Then they went back to the other side of the mics and the bright, piercing sound of the PA dominated the rest of the show.  But for that one song, I surmised other audience members might have felt it the same way.  Their enthusiastic response at the end of the tune confirmed this.  Even if they might not have been conscious of precisely why, I think the level of communication between artist and audience deepened profoundly during that song.  And then the moment was relegated to memory.

Do the players realize how their music sounds from this side of the PA?  Of course, I frequently ask the same question when listening to their records at home.  I question whether the drummer and the rest of the band really want the drums to sound as distorted as they sometimes do.  I didn’t notice him using a distortion pedal on the snare during any of the concerts.

In addition to systems and records that get out of the way, and let me hear the musical message as directly as possible, I long for live performances where the PA system and the sound person get out of the way.  It is the contact with the artist and their work that is where the greatest musical magic is to be found—for me anyway, and I would guess for a large number of other listeners too.

So where are the musicians in all of this?  I always wonder if they aware of how their music sounds from the audience.  Or perhaps they like the way it is presented.  If so, well, it is their music after all, and they should determine how it is heard.  But if not, I ask the musicians: Who will watch out for your music if not you?

Everything Still Matters

Soon after the previous entry in this blog—Everything Matters—was posted, I heard from a friend who recently purchased a 24-bit, 192 kHz, high-resolution download of a classic album.  Like many of us, he sought an even better “view” of the recording than is offered by the CD version he already owns.  To his surprise, he prefers listening to the CD version, and finds the high res download as sounding “a bit bright.”

The authors of some recent tech website articles denigrating high resolution might see my friend’s comments as vindication.  In my view, this says more about the authors than it does about the audible reality.  Why these websites didn’t choose authors more experienced with systems for music playback, and more interested in sound quality, remains a mystery.  (Vide John Atkinson’s very well considered Access Journalism vs Accountability Journalism.)

In order to determine whether high resolution is the source of the problem (any problem), it must be compared with its standard resolution equivalent.  This means for a valid comparison of delivery formats the only difference must be the delivery format.  Both versions must be created at the same mastering session, by the same engineer, using the same channel (signal path).  There, as the man once said, is the rub.  In most cases the two items being compared were created at different mastering sessions, often by different engineers, in completely different mastering studios.  Right away any sort of equivalence is out the window.

Different mastering engineers have different ears, different sensibilities, different approaches, different talents, and different weaknesses.  Even the same engineer might take a diverging tack when remastering something they’ve mastered in the past.  When the two versions are done by different engineers the likelihood of variance in their methods is pretty much a sure thing.  This is expectable since they don’t share a common set of ears, and no two engineers I know of will do things the same way.  With regard to new masterings, in Everything Matters I said, “Sometimes the results are improved sonics, with newly revealed nuances from the original recording that were lost in the original mastering.  Other times, and sadly all too often, the remastering is simply a louder, brighter rendering.”

There is also a very good to excellent chance the signal path for the two versions differed.  Even in the same studio, things tend to change and evolve over time.  For an album like the one my friend purchased, which was originally recorded on analog tape, the A-D converter used in mastering can have a profound effect on the results.  This is particularly true at higher resolutions, where I have found many converters are stretched beyond their capabilities.  To wit, a lot of converters specified for 24/192 actually perform worse at this rate than they do at lower rates.  This I attribute to the significantly increased demands on clocking accuracy and on analog stage performance at the wider bandwidths.  It would seem to be easy to put 24/192 on a spec sheet but not so easy to design a device that can perform to the potential of the format.  And the converter is just one of several components comprising the signal path, each of which will have its own sonic consequences.

All of the above assumes the same source tape was used for the different versions.  This is a big assumption, even when “original” is claimed.  I’ve experienced a number of instances where, having handled the tapes myself, I knew the subsequent claims from some quarters of “original” were at best mistaken. Whether original or not, if different source tapes were used, the outcome could be acutely altered.

The bottom line here should not be surprising: A carefully made CD (or CD resolution file) will easily outperform a not-so-carefully made 24/192 file.  This has to do with how effectively the capabilities of each delivery format are realized—or not realized, as this case illustrates.

I concluded Everything Matters by saying “Everything after the microphones (i.e., mic cables, AC mains power, AC mains cables, mic preamps, recording format, recording device , mix, if any, mastering, playback format, playback device, interconnecting cables, amplification, speaker cables, speakers, speaker positioning, vibration isolation, room acoustics, etc., etc.) merely determines how much of what was captured the listener gets to hear.”  In my experience, when everything in the production of an album is the same except for the delivery format, a 24/192 file should reveal so much more of the source as to make the 16/44 (CD) version sound coarse, ill-defined, airless, and broken by comparison.  So either my friend’s 24/192 file was created from an inferior source, or the mastering was just not up to that achieved for the CD.

To my ears, properly done digital audio at 24/192 fulfills the promise digital made back in 1982 when the sonically hamstrung CD format made its first appearance.  I have said elsewhere that 24/192 is the first format I’ve ever heard where I have not yet been able to distinguish the output from the input—the first format I know of that is capable of giving us a virtually perfect rendition of the source.  In view of this, I must admit to being somewhat astonished at the negativity from some quarters of the tech web and tech press.  Nevertheless, if music lovers are to receive the benefits of this wonderful fruit of technological progress, the folks creating it must tend their crop more carefully.

Everything Matters

In my earliest days as an assistant in a recording studio, I learned the ropes as basic tracks were laid down on tape, overdubs and “punch-ins” were added, stereo mixes were created, and the final, edited mixes were mastered.  From those early days onward, I frequently heard what I came to refer to as The Three Most Heard Phrases in Record Making:

“We’ll fix it in the mix” (when something in the recording was not quite right)

“We’ll catch it in the mastering” (when the mix didn’t exactly fix it)

“They’ll never hear it at home” (when it still wasn’t nailed in the mastering)

Rumor has it that Frank Zappa once said “We’ll fix it in the shrink wrap.”

There has been some discussion on the Internet recently about which aspect of record making has the greatest influence on the sound of the finished product.  Some say the space in which the original recording is made makes the greatest difference.  Others say “it’s all in the mastering.”  Asking three people will elicit at least four different answers.

The space where the recorded performance occurs will impact the musicians, influencing the sound they hear from the instruments and from the environment, thus influencing how they play.  But with typical recordings, where the microphones are placed close to the instruments, the sound of the environment is often minimized.  Alternatively, some recordings are made using very few microphones, which are placed to deliberately pick up the environment as well as the players.  Here, the space becomes in integral part of the final sound, as it is when a listener attends a live performance.  Still, this does not suggest the space has the greatest influence on the sound.  One might be in a fabulous room but the wrong microphone selection or the wrong microphone technique can very easily override the sound of the space.

Typical major label recordings involve three main production phases: recording, mixing, and mastering.  There are those who feel the mix—where a multitrack original is turned into a stereo (or in some instances, surround) version—is the biggest factor in shaping the final sound.  Instrumental and vocal level balances are determined during the mix.  Tonality is often adjusted, placement of instruments and vocalists on the “stage” is determined, and special effects might be added.  There is no doubt about the magnitude of influence the mix has.  Yet the final result will always be influenced by the ingredients used to create it.

With the advent of the remastering phenomenon, labels have given new life to older releases.  Sometimes the results are improved sonics, with newly revealed nuances from the original recording that were lost in the original mastering.  Other times, and sadly all too often, the remastering is simply a louder, brighter rendering.  Either way, through these re-releases, many music aficionados have discovered the influence mastering has on the sonics of a recording.  As the last stage of production and the first stage of manufacturing, mastering is the last opportunity to make small—or large—changes to the sound.  While the degree of influence on the final sound can sometimes be quite surprising, here too, the final outcome is always fundamentally impacted by the source material.  A pachyderm’s aural appurtenance does not a silken wallet make.

To my ears, an mp3 of a Keith Johnson recording, listened to in the car, on the highway (with the windows open!), can reveal more Life than many a typical studio master played on the finest, most carefully set up systems in the most optimally treated rooms.

In my experience, once the signals are leaving the microphones, 90-95% or more of the recording’s ultimate quality ceiling has already been determined.  Everything after the microphones (i.e., mic cables, AC mains power, AC mains cables, mic preamps, recording format, recording device , mix, if any, mastering, playback format, playback device, interconnecting cables, amplification, speaker cables, speakers, speaker positioning, vibration isolation, room acoustics, etc., etc.) merely determines how much of what was captured the listener gets to hear.

House Picks (Part 2)

The last entry, House Picks (Part 1), began with my writing “I am often asked which albums I consider to be particularly good sounding.  Sometimes the question involves recordings I’ve mastered and other times it is more general.  There is in fact an ever-growing group of recordings I turn to for reference whenever I make a change to the system in the studio, or when I’m evaluating a new piece of hardware or software, or when I just want to demo something for a client or friend.  Needless to say, I love the music on all of them.  This entry is about those I find to be sonically exceptional.  All of this comes to mind as I just happen to be evaluating a new change in the system.”

In the first part, I wrote about recordings of classical music.  This is because some of my all-time engineering heroes have primarily recorded this genre and because recordings of this type of music tend to be documents of real performances as opposed to the studio creations that dominate in the more popular musical genres.

In the world of popular music, it is more challenging to find recordings with great sonics.  There are several reasons for this.  Most typical studio productions are made using a large numbers of closely placed microphones.  The recordings are subjected to varying amounts of dynamic compression, sometimes used as a special effect but more often simply for the sake of loudness.  And lastly, what is commonly referred to as “stereo” is actually derived electronically during the “mix” where the individual monaural tracks are combined into two channels and each sound is sent to either the left channel, the right channel or some combination to give the appearance of the sound being somewhere in between.  Any sense of depth and space also tends to be created electronically rather than captured acoustically.  Even so, there are examples that, in spite of all the processing, still effectively convey musical meaning within the context of the sounds they provide.

To my ears, some of the best among these are the solo albums by Mark Knopfler.  The first one I heard, Sailing to Philadelphia (Warner Brothers 47753) was a great help when I was evaluating various means of isolating gear from external vibrations.  As the gear got better isolated, it was easier to hear the distinctive way Mark picks the strings of his guitars.  (Not that one had to listen for this; it just became more obvious.)

More recently, having purchased the rest of his catalog, I’ve often played tracks from The Ragpicker’s Dream (Warner Brothers 48318), Shangri-La (Warner Brothers 48858), Kill to Get Crimson (Warner Brothers 281660), Get Lucky (Reprise 520206), and all the others.

Another artist in the pop realm whose recordings I find sonically superior is Rickie Lee Jones.  Just yesterday, the track “Tigers” from Traffic from Paradise (Geffen 24602) provided some insight into the new degree of low level information being revealed by the most recent change to the system.  It is always amazing to me how, after knowing an album inside-out for many years, there may still be new sounds to hear in it.

Other Rickie Lee Jones albums that I find sonically special are The Evening of My Best Day (V2 Records 22171), The Sermon on Exposition Blvd (New West NW6112), and Balm in Gilead (Fantasy 31760).

Of the albums I’ve had the pleasure of mastering, my favorites are Enya’s Watermark (Geffen 24233) and the entire Bob Marley & the Wailers catalog in the series I did for the Tuff Gong label in 1990.  Of the Marleys, I’ll often pick Survival (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) or Exodus (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) when I want to test the system.  Another one of my prime choices from the albums I’ve mastered is Work of Art’s Waves (Sword In The Stone SSR56).

Finally, nothing tells me more about how a system (or device within it) is performing than recordings I’ve made myself for my own Soundkeeper Recordings label.  Having stood at the position of the microphone array at the recording sessions, and having compared the signals from the mics with what I was hearing in the air, provides a unique perspective into each of these projects.  Even more than when mastering an album, where one learns every little sound during multiple listens over the course of the mastering process, having made the original recording and been in the space with the players during the event itself affords an unequaled vantage point on the reproduction of same.  With this in mind, I’ll always bring out the recordings I know best of all.  These include Work of Art’s Lift (SRx001), Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn’s Equinox (SRx002), Jason Vitelli’s Confluence (SRx003), Paul Beaudry & Pathways’ Americas (SRx004), and Work of Art’s Winds of Change (SRx005).

The postman just delivered a package with some new albums I ordered.  I hope its contents are the makings of a future “House Picks” entry in this blog.  I’m off to the studio/listening room.

House Picks (Part 1)

I am often asked which albums I consider to be particularly good sounding.  Sometimes the question involves recordings I’ve mastered and other times it is more general.  There is in fact an ever-growing group of recordings I turn to for reference whenever I make a change to the system in the studio, or when I just want to demo something for a client or friend.  Needless to say, I love the music on all of them.  This entry is about those I find to be sonically exceptional.  All of this comes to mind as I just happen to be evaluating a new change in the system.

In general terms, there are certain engineers and certain artists from whom I’ve found consistent results that I deem outstanding in one or more ways.  I note that every engineer whose work I have admired has their own approach, different from others and also different from my own approach.  Nonetheless, I find much to enjoy in their work.

Among the first recordings I’ll play when I want to hear what something can do are some recorded by Keith Johnson for the Reference Recordings label.  The recording of John Rutter’s Requiem (RR-57) is one of my all-time favorites.  The 300 voices of the Turtle Creek Chorale and the Women’s Chorus of Dallas combine with the fabulous acoustics of the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and the Fisk organ therein, along with woodwinds and percussion to create musical and sonic magic.  I first heard this recording long before I saw a photo of the room in which it was made.  From the sound alone, it was clear this room has a very high ceiling.  After enjoying this record for years, I finally saw a photo of the space in which it was done, and learned the ceiling is some 80 feet above the floor.  For spatial reproduction, ability to separate complex musical passages, and the deep bass of that organ (you can feel the air pressure changes in the room!), this recording is a wonder.

An earlier Keith Johnson recording of the Turtle Creek Chorale is another favorite.  Testament (RR-49) features Randall Thompson’s music set to text by Thomas Jefferson.  The album also includes other compositions by Ron Nelson, Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. I’ve often said this record is so clear, you can almost tell what color sweater certain vocalists were wearing.

I have several recorded versions of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and The Firebird but Eije Oue’s traversals with the Minnesota Orchestra (RR-70) are easily among my favorites.  Like all of Keith’s work, space and dynamics are astounding.  This is a stunning recording of some of my favorite music.

For me, the pioneers, the trailblazers of great recording were the team of Wilma Cozart and engineer C. Robert Fine.  While their recordings for the Mercury Living Presence label might have just a bit of microphone-engendered brightness, they remain for me among the earliest examples of performances I enjoy which are superbly recorded.  When listening to these, I am constantly amazed to realize they were recorded more than half a century ago.

Some of my most treasured albums done by Fine and Cozart are their recordings of Antal Dorati and the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra performing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (434 331-2) and The Firebird (432 012).  I’m also partial to the team’s recordings of Janos Starker including Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello and Sonatas in G & D Major for Cello and Piano (432 756) and Italian Cello Sonatas (434 344).  Bob Fine’s recordings are magical windows to the performances.

Jack Renner’s recording for the Telarc label of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris (80058) played by the Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is a house favorite.

Next time, some samples from the world of popular music.

The People’s System

(This entry was updated 5/31/20 with current models and prices.)

A year ago, the entry in this blog called Can you hear what you’re doing? was the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups that avoid superimposing their own sonic thumbprint on the signals they reproduce.  I hope these entries will also be of interest to any music and sound enthusiast who seeks a system capable of what I call “getting out of the way” in order to provide more direct access to the recordings in their music collection.

Previous entries have talked about monitoring system setup and room acoustics.  In the entry preceding this one, Magnificent Maggies, I spoke of a particular favorite speaker design, Jim Winey’s Magneplanars, and how I’ve found them to be exemplary in terms of stepping aside and allowing the listener to truly hear the input signal.

To be clear, not everyone really wants to hear the input signal unaltered.  Some folks like their systems to offer certain colors that please their ears.  While I would never argue with whatever brings anyone their listening pleasure, this entry is directed toward folks who want the colors to come from the music and not from the gear used to listen to it.

A system that gets out of the way is pivotal for those making records.  Unless they can be confident they are assessing the sound of the recording itself, they risk altering the sound to make inaccurate monitoring sound “right.”   If that happens, when they listen elsewhere they find that the recording itself doesn’t sound the way they intended it to sound.  Such a system is important to music lovers too because it reveals all the nuances contained in their music libraries.

I have often been asked to recommend a system for musician friends, clients, and other friends. In the majority of instances the recommendations have been very similar.  What I’m going to describe here is the least expensive system I would trust for monitoring recordings.  (I’ve heard systems costing considerably more that do not elicit the same confidence on my part.)  It is equally suitable for any music lover, whether as a starter system in a college dorm or as an ultimate system for folks who don’t seek anything more.  One can certainly spend less and have a very enjoyable system, but I would not recommend such for anyone who makes records or anyone who wants to hear the most from their music.

It is important to remember that the ideal recommended system will vary depending on the source of the recommendation.  I often say that if you ask three folks an audio question, you will receive at least four different answers.  I will report on a system I have experienced in many rooms and which has brought smiles to many musicians, recordists, and other music lovers I know.

For the purpose of this entry, I’m going to divide the music system into two parts: the front end and the back end.  The front end might be as simple as a CD or turntable, or it might be as elaborate as a computer feeding an external digital-to-analog converter (also known as a DAC).  The front end is the source from which recordings are played.  The back end is the monitoring which includes the loudspeakers and the electronics that drive the speakers.  The system I’m recommending here is built around the monitoring.

In the previous entry, I said that I often refer to Magnepan’s now discontinued MMG (now MMGi) model ($650/pair) as “The People’s Speaker.”  To quote from that entry, “I’ve heard some $10,000 and $15,000 speakers that have so much ‘personality’ they end up exhausting the listener and engendering headaches.  MMGs, within their capabilities, just sound like what they are fed.  Properly set up, they are a joy that any music lover will intuitively recognize.”   Magnepan has recently upped the game significantly with the introduction of a new model replacing the MMG as “The People’s Speaker” and at the same $650 price: the LRS (Little Ribbon Speaker). The LRS are the core of what I’ll call “The People’s System.”

What is needed now are associated components that will allow the LRSs to reveal their magic.  The speakers must be paired with an amplifier to drive them.  The least expensive good match for the LRSs I’ve found so far is the RR-2160 stereo receiver ($999) from Outlaw Audio.  With sufficient power to drive the LRSs, the RR-2160 also serves as the control center for the system, where the input source can be selected and the playback volume adjusted, using either the front panel or the included remote.

While they are often overlooked when folks assemble audio systems, I’ve found the cables that connect all the individual pieces of gear to be critical in getting the best out of the whole.  In the entry called The High End Arrives, I recounted my earliest exposure to good cables.  It started with the loudspeaker cables.  From that entry: “…I already had ‘heavy gauge’ wires feeding the speakers.  Once the cable was sufficient to pass the requisite power to the loudspeakers, I wondered ‘how could cable make a difference?’  Once again I listened and once again I learned.  Where did all that musical information come from?  What was formerly just a guitar chord was now a set of individual strings sounding together to make that chord.  The room in which the musicians were playing was suddenly also much more clearly evident – both in recordings made in real rooms and those where a ‘room’ sound was added artificially via electronic reverberation.  Where cables had previously been not much more than an afterthought, required to get sound from one component in the chain to the next, I came to realize they are components in themselves and as with any chain, the weak link will determine the overall strength.”  I wrote more about the subject in the New Connections entry last year.

In my experience, the LRSs will easily reveal differences in cables and so I recommend using wires that are commensurate with the rest of the monitoring system we’re assembling here.  For this system, I recommend White Lightning speaker cables ($450/3-meter pair) from Nordost.  In order to connect a front end source component to one of the inputs on the Outlaw RR 2160, I recommend Nordost’s White Lightning interconnect cables ($205/1-meter pair).

Each of the cables is available with different types of connectors at each end.  I would choose Nordost’s “z-plug” banana connectors on their speaker cables, as these make for easy attachment at the amplifier and speaker ends.  Standard RCA connectors on the interconnect cables will work with the Outlaw RR-2160 and most source components.

Depending on the setup, shorter or longer speaker cables or interconnects may be desired.  In this example, I’ve chosen a 3-meter pair for the speaker cables and a 1-meter for the interconnects as good average lengths that work in most installations (and to “ballpark” the price).

So, excluding the front end source component(s), the system consists of:

Magnepan LRS loudspeakers  $650
Outlaw Audio RR-2160 receiver  $999
Nordost White Lightning speaker cables  $450
Nordost White Lightning interconnects  $205

The total cost for this part of the system is $2304.  All that is needed now is the front end source or sources.  I’ve heard this system make mellifluous musical magic with inputs as simple as a $35 Sony DVD/CD player spinning a CD, or as complex as a computer-centered digital audio workstation in a studio feeding the system via an external DAC.

One thing that might surprise folks who are new to components like these is that wonderful as they sound fresh out of the box, all of them will improve considerably once they have played music for a while.  The cables and electronics get better over the first 100 hours of use, while the speakers can take as much as 400 hours of playing music to get to their best performance.  Extension in the bass as well as the treble, smoothness in the upper frequencies, “airiness”, and dynamic range all exhibit improvements.  The dimensions of the stereo soundstage expand and overall focus attains greater detail.  The system will sound fantastic immediately but will ultimately get even better.

While I could happily live with this system as described (and truly believe it tells a lot more sonic truth than I’ve heard in most studios), one of its beauties is that each of the various components will stand up to having any of the others upgraded within each respective brand.  For example, go up a model in the Magnepan line, and the RR-2160 and White Lightning will still deliver.  Go up to separate electronics, like Outlaw’s 2200 amplifiers, and the LRSs will respond to the increased power while the White Lightning will still faithfully render the signal from link to link in the component chain.  Up the level of electronics still farther and the LRS will reveal the differences.  Go up to one of Nordost’s more elaborate cable designs, and the LRSs will reveal the increased performance.  These are all components that work superbly together, yet can also allow for growth.  And most importantly, the combination is true to the input signal.  Of course, models further up the Magnepan and Nordost lines will take the revelation level up accordingly.  (There are also some outstanding alternatives for more expensive electronics.)  But this system as it is, fits the goal mentioned at the start of this entry: It is capable of getting out of the way and providing more direct access to the music.  It gets my vote for The People’s System.

 

Magnificent Maggies

A recent conversation on one of the Internet audio forums revolved around a user’s question about whether his system should provide a “front row” or “center orchestra” perspective on the recordings he played through it.  Not surprisingly, the responses were wide-ranging and fully supported my frequent observation that what is “good”, “better” or “best” depends entirely upon precisely what one seeks.  Some folks want their system to provide a certain perspective.  My own contention is that if the system provides a certain perspective, whatever that perspective might be, it is in fact getting in the way of the perspective provided by the recording.  I would rather have a system that just gets out of the way and lets me hear past it, all the way to the recording.

About this time last year, I wrote an entry in this blog called Can you hear what you’re doing? and said it would be the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups that avoid superimposing their own sonic thumbprint on the signals they reproduce.  It is my hope that these will be of equal interest to any music and sound enthusiast who wants maximum access to the recordings in their music collection.  In that entry, I talked in general terms about monitoring system setup and went on in the subsequent entry to discuss room acoustics.  Here, we’ll get into the loudspeakers themselves and one design in particular, Jim Winey’s Magneplanars.

I have always felt the most important component in any studio or listening room is the monitoring (i.e., the loudspeakers and their setup).  Before I had my own studio, I would select places to work based solely on the monitoring, my feeling being if you can’t hear what you’re doing, nothing else really matters.  Every decision in record making, from microphone selection on, is based on what the monitors reveal (or don’t).  Similarly, when building any listening system, it is the monitoring that will determine what we hear from the rest of the playback chain and the recordings we listen to.

Some speakers can sound “very good”, presenting certain aspects of the sound in very pleasing ways.  They might be sweet in the treble or very powerful in the bass or they might exhibit great dynamic “slam” when the music suddenly goes from quiet to loud.  Some will favor the human voice.  Some will be especially good at reproducing a sense of spaciousness.  Personally, I wouldn’t want any of these.  I consider a loudspeaker (or any other component) that sounds “very good” to be a source of distortion.  I don’t want the speakers to favor any particular aspect of the sound and thus draw my attention to it.  I don’t want the speakers to “sound” at all.  I want the opposite: I want them to get out of the way and let me hear the recording.

When many folks see Magnepans for the first time, they tend to say things like “That’s a speaker?!”  These are not your usual cones-in-a-box like most other speakers.  Maggies—as they are affectionately known to their fans—are flat panels that radiate sound from both the front and the back.  Instead of using cones (or domes) as the driver elements, they utilize Magnepan’s proprietary flat drivers.  Lightweight and fast-responding, these drivers excel at following the music signal with an agility those more massive cones (and domes) can’t achieve.  The first models I experienced, back in the early 1970s, looked like Shoji screens.  While those early models did not have the bass or treble extension of the modern Maggies, they nonetheless provided a shockingly realistic portrayal of the music and showed just how much more music was available from records than what is commonly revealed by typical box speakers.  Over the years, the designs have been improved greatly, extending their reach into the bass and up into the treble, and expanding their responsiveness to changes in musical dynamics.  The larger models incorporate a true ribbon tweeter, extending the range into the stratosphere and providing a purity in the treble which, to my ears, remains unmatched to this day.

I have set up systems for many clients, friends and relatives built around Magnepan’s MMG model.  While it does not have the bass or treble extension or the overall resolution of models higher up in the line, this least expensive model in the Magnepan line ($599/pair) delivers a good measure of the Maggie Magic.  I know of one studio that replaced a pair of box type monitors with MMGs and the changes that resulted were profound.  (The owner never went back to boxes and has since purchased larger Magnepans to use as the studio monitors.)  While they may not plumb the deepest notes in the bass, their definition in this range sounds to me a lot more like bass in real life than that delivered by other designs.  Assuming the recording contains it, there is real pitch definition and speed on the bottom, something I’ve only heard approached by speakers costing much more.

I’ve heard some $10,000 and $15,000 speakers that have so much “personality” they end up exhausting the listener and engendering headaches.  MMGs, within their capabilities, just sound like what they are fed.  Properly set up, they are a joy that any music lover will intuitively recognize.  For this reason, I’ve come to refer to them as “The People’s Speaker”.  While enjoyable music systems can be built around less expensive loudspeakers, I wouldn’t want to use such for evaluating recordings or other gear.  For a system that I can trust when making records, a system that can truly get out of the way, I consider the MMGs the starting point.  (More on this in a future entry.)

Earlier this decade, Magnepan introduced its model 1.7, successor to the 1.6, itself the successor to the 1.5, which was the first Maggie I owned.  Unlike many other companies, Magnepan does not introduce new models very often.  Like other companies I admire, rather than arbitrarily replace products with others that incorporate superficial changes, they wait for really significant design improvements before offering a new model.  My old 1.5s used the planar magnetic driver for the woofer and incorporated Magnepan’s quasi-ribbon driver for the midrange/tweeter section of the speaker.  The 1.6s used a similar driver complement but over the years Magnepan enlarged the quasi-ribbon and redesigned the crossover as well as some aspects of the mechanical design of the speaker.  This increased its already fine coherence and its dynamic capability.  With the .7 series, Magnepan extended the use of its quasi-ribbon drivers to the bass and again improved the crossover, resulting in a substantial upgrade to an already fine design.

My 1.5s were not only used for leisure listening, they became indispensable as the monitors in my studio, making mastering decisions faster and easier.  This is a critical point and why I insist on monitoring that is absolutely trustworthy.  I spoke about this a bit in the blog entry cited earlier.  In most studios, one has to take the result outside to another system in order to “see how it sounds”.  The sound has effectively been adjusted to make the studio monitoring sound “right”, with the inevitable outcome that the sound isn’t so right when played elsewhere.  With Maggies serving as monitors, I feel confident I’m hearing—and working on—the recording itself, not the monitoring.  Their honesty makes the results stand up when played elsewhere on other systems.

In the intervening years, I’ve gone from using 1.5s in the studio, to using Magnepan’s 3.6s, and more recently, to 3.7s.  I consider the .7 to be a landmark in the progress of Magnepan’s designs with a new level of coherence, which I attribute to the crossover changes.  The word that keeps coming to mind as I listen to them is “solidity” as the images presented by the speakers now seem to have a palpability, a sense of real presence that can sometimes be scarily real sounding—if the recording allows it.

There are other Magnepan models, both smaller and larger than those I’ve mentioned so far. I believe each of them is a best buy in its price class.  The only caveats I would offer the reader are the following:

  1. These speakers are so transparent, some folks will blame them for issues the speakers are simply revealing about the recording, the rest of the system, or the setup.
  2. Maggies like a lot of current and should be used with amplifiers capable of delivering what the speakers want.  To my ears, low-powered amplifiers will not elicit their magic.
  3. While all speakers require proper placement to do their job, a speaker as revealing as a Maggie really needs air all around it to show its potential.  For background listening, they can be moved closer to the wall behind them but to really have them “disappear”, they should be well out into the room.  This is true for almost all speakers and in my experience, is certainly a prerequisite if the speaker is to truly get out of the way.

I’ve had the good fortune to hear other great speakers but so far, all of them cost an order of magnitude more than any Magnepan.  Yes, for $50,000, $100,000 and more, there are some really fantastic loudspeakers out there.  To this day however, there are still some things I think Maggies do better, even at a small fraction of the price.  And for overall performance, few in my experience are so chameleon-like as far as the signal they are fed, so elegant visually, and so inviting to the listener:  my favorite product in all of audio.

Music Performed (Part 2)

In the previous entry in this blog, I recalled some of the most memorable live music performances I’ve attended.  Most of my early musical experiences, both with recordings and concerts, were with popular music—rock and folk along with music from some Broadway shows and movie soundtracks.  In the early 1970’s, I came to appreciate that musical genre known as jazz and a new musical frontier opened for me.

I found new joy and new musical heroes in the music of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.  Unfortunately for me, I never got to attend live performances by many of these.  On the other hand, as I got more deeply into this music, I found I was fortunate to be listening at a time when it was undergoing some profound changes.  The beauty created by the master improvisers of the genre in the early years of jazz, as they spontaneously created melodic solos and new harmonic explorations, was being taken in new directions.  The 1970s were a fruitful decade for jazz and the live music scene in New York City was a prime showcase for the music.

Ornette Coleman’s music had already taught me to hear beyond the “solo-over-the-changes” tradition.  In his music, there was no background of repeated structure over which the soloist took musical flight, no regular rhythmic pulse or pattern of chords.  Listening to Ornette’s records, I learned there were other means by which the players could move the music forward.

In 1971, I first heard the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which took the idea of spontaneity to a large ensemble.  This was a recording of Michael Mantler’s pioneering efforts with a studio full of all-star players of the day, including Cecil Taylor and Larry Coryell.  But the impact of the concept really came home for me when the JCO held a series of weeklong open workshops at Columbia University in New York City.  During the course of the week, the leader/composer would show the orchestra members the work and in the ensuing evenings, go over the different parts of the piece with the players, until the final night when the orchestra performed it for the audience.  I was fortunate to attend during the week Don Cherry was teaching the orchestra his “Relativity Suite”.  I had been a Don Cherry fan since I first heard him on Ornette Coleman’s albums.  Being present as he brought forth “Relativity Suite” with a roster of top level players, is one of my fondest musical memories.

In contrast with the stupendous power of a full jazz orchestra, another special concert event I’ll always remember was a more intimate experience.  This was a duet performance at a church in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Sitting on a foam pad on the floor, I watched and listened as Karl Berger and Dave Holland, both only a few feet from where I was, created musical magic as the colors from their instruments filled the space.

This was the time of the loft scene in Manhattan’s SoHo district and among the more famous sites was Sam Rivers’ Studio RivBea.  I will never forget the night I attended the performance by drummer Sonny Murray.  It remains indelibly engraved in my heart and mind, not only because of the leading edge music performed that evening but also because I met the love of my life that night and it was the first musical event we attended together.

In the days that followed, we would frequent the Village Vanguard in the West Village, for many evening performances by Keith Jarrett and his bandmates Charlie Haden (whom I also knew from Ornette Coleman’s records) and Paul Motian.  Other memorable shows at the Vanguard were those by George Adams and his band, which included Charles Mingus alumni Don Pullen and Dannie Richmond.

It was 1972 when Miles Davis came out with “On the Corner” and when I heard there was going to be a concert at Carnegie Hall, I jumped at the opportunity to get tickets.  As he was always seeking new directions, the music Miles delivered that night wasn’t exactly like that from either of his justly famous quintets.  If there is a line between jazz and rock, the ensemble crossed it frequently.  I vividly remember the red, black, and green grill cloths on the wall of amplifiers behind the players.  And I recall all the instruments, including the congas, being played through wah-wah pedals.  Even if it was one of the best rock concerts I ever attended, I finally got to hear Miles live.

More than a decade later, I finally got to hear another jazz hero live.  Ornette Coleman had just released “Song X”, his collaboration with Pat Metheny.  I attended the performance at New York’s Town Hall where Ornette and Pat were joined by Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman.  A few years later, I had the pleasure of attending another Ornette Coleman concert, this time at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

I love the fact that jazz happens everywhere, from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall to clubs like the Vanguard in the city, to the streets themselves and well into the suburbs.  For many years, there was a small club north of New York City up in Westchester county, where the owner, Al Defemio, would sit in on drums with guest players ranging from amateur musicians to seasoned professionals.  Al’s handmade onion rolls were famous among the players and audience alike.  The players also loved that Al always made sure they were well fed.

On one occasion, I had the very good fortune to attend a Benny Golson performance at Defemio’s.  In the close quarters and relatively small audience that would fit in the club, it was as though Benny was playing for us alone.  We sat spellbound as we listened to him play “I Remember Clifford”.  In between sets when my wife and I went over to tell him how much we enjoyed his music, he invited us to sit down and join him.  We talked about musical composition and how he went about creating the pieces he played.  In combination with the music performed, who could ask for more?

Music Performed (Part 1)

There are different paths one can take when making a record and each offers its own unique rewards.  One path seeks to create something that cannot exist in real life, a work of sonic fiction valuable for the imaginary landscapes it embodies.  Another path seeks to capture, as closely as the latest technology allows, the sound of a real performance in a real space.  While I appreciate both types of recording, I am most interested in exploring the idea of records that sound like performances.  The reason is simple:  For me, the record is merely a vehicle that provides access to the music.  While I love records, for me, the greatest excitement in music is the performance event.  Capturing the performance event is my favorite way to make a record because listening to a performance is my favorite way to listen to music.

Jeff Buckley was spot on when he referred to music as a force of Nature.  Music has impacted so many parts of my life, I can’t imagine its absence.  Though most of the music I have come to love has come to me via recordings, for this entry of the Soundkeeper blog I’m thinking of those musical performances I attended that have left me with lifelong memories.  I wasn’t fortunate enough to attend concerts by the Beatles, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and many others too numerous to mention, and for these I will be ever grateful for the recorded legacies they left behind.  On the other hand, I have been lucky enough to be present at performances by many other musical heroes and these remain indelibly engraved in my being.

Several of the memories were created at the old Fillmore East on the lower east side in New York City.  My first visit occurred shortly after the release of John Mayall’s landmark album “The Turning Point” when I saw him play it live.  I also attended performances by B.B. King and Taj Mahal in this theater.  Sitting in the third row as Moby Grape rocked the room with “Omaha” and later, the band’s bassist Bob Mosley sang a solo a capella “Ode to the Man at the End of the Bar” brought home the energy of one of my favorite bands of the era.

In the Summer of 1971, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden was my first arena concert.  Musical hero after musical hero came upon the stage, thrilling me to live performances by so many folks I’d previously only heard via recordings.  From the opening set by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan (the latter one of my first world music heroes) to subsequent performances by George Harrison and Ringo Starr (right there, half of my all-time favorite band), Eric Clapton (one of my first guitar “teachers”, whose records I would play over and over again as I learned to play different parts), Leon Russell and Billy Preston, these were some of the most exhilarating performances I can remember.

When a Rolling Stones tour was announced, it seemed like getting tickets would be near impossible.  The promoters decided to hold a lottery whereby folks would send in postcards and the winners would be drawn at random, each winning postcard entitling the sender to purchase four tickets to the show.  I remember an evening of filling out postcard after postcard and dropping them in the mailbox.  As I was about to take a trip out of state, I’d asked good friends to try and secure a ticket for me, in case they got lucky with their entries.  When the drawing was complete, it turned out eight of the postcards I’d sent in were selected.  I got to go and so did 31 friends!  Our seats might have well been near the ceiling—not that there was any trouble hearing the sound system though—but hey, it was the Stones!  Live!

The best seats I ever had at the Garden were for Genesis on the “Duke” tour in 1980.  I’d just mastered the CD for this album and really enjoyed being present when the group performed the album at the show.

Fun though the arena shows are, my favorite live concerts have been the ones in smaller venues, where there is more real contact with the artist.  Perhaps my favorite of all was a triple bill at New York’s Beacon Theater.  The roster that night included Van Morrison, Linda Ronstadt, and Tim Buckley.  Van had just released “His Band and the Street Choir” and the band played many tracks from the album along with some favorites from the previous record, “Moondance”.  Though I was familiar with and admired Linda’s voice from her work with the Stone Poneys, she was still a relatively new discovery to me.  Tim Buckley had just released “Starsailor”, his follow-up to “Lorca”, both of which remain two of my favorite albums.  It was a treat to be present as his band performed songs from both albums and to hear Tim sing in person.  I particularly admired the musicianship in this band where both the vocals and instrumental lines would tend toward more oblique and quite original turns than are typical of most popular music.

More recently, I’ve had the good fortune to attend several performances by Richard Thompson at the Tarrytown Music Hall.  Over the course of a bit more than a year, I’ve also finally gotten to hear another of my favorite artists at this same hall:  I love all of their albums but being in the room when Los Lobos plays and sitting still are two things I am not able to do at the same time.

That visceral experience of being in the presence of music being performed is to me, life lived to its fullest.

Next time out, live jazz in New York City.

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!