The People’s System

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 MMG model ($599/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.”  The MMGs are the core of what I’ll call “The People’s System.”

What is needed now are associated components that will allow the MMGs to reveal their magic.  The speakers must be paired with an amplifier to drive them.  The most economical good match for the MMGs I’ve found so far is the RR-2150 stereo receiver ($699) from Outlaw Audio.  With sufficient power to drive the MMGs, the RR-2150 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 MMGs 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 ($429/3-meter pair) from Nordost.  In order to connect a front end source component to one of the inputs on the Outlaw RR 2150, I recommend Nordost’s White Lightning interconnect cables ($189/1-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-2150 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 MMG loudspeakers  $599
Outlaw Audio RR-2150 receiver  $699
Nordost White Lightning speaker cables  $429
Nordost White Lightning interconnects  $189

The total cost for this part of the system is $1916.  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-2150 and White Lightning will still deliver.  Go up to separate electronics, like Outlaw’s 2200 amplifiers, and the MMGs will respond to the increased power while the White Lightning will still faithfully render the signal from link to link in the component chain.  Go up to one of Nordost’s more elaborate cable designs, and the MMGs 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.

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.