Catching Up

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

Next time, the new album.

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!

Confluence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Confluence page on the Soundkeeper Recordings Web site contains more information about the album, including samples from all the tracks, lyrics, quotes from reviews of the album, photos from the recording sessions and a link to an interview with Jason Vitelli.

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