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.

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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.

Toward a definition of high resolution audio

We are starting to see the idea of high resolution audio gain some traction beyond the audiophile world, where it has been enjoyed for the past several years.  Some of the major labels, perhaps seeing new opportunities for commerce, have formed a working group to define exactly what high resolution audio is.

I think we’re going to see a wide variety of perspectives on this one.  The labels are using variations of the term “Master Quality”, with different designations, depending on whether the original source is an analog tape, a CD master, or some other digital format.  My take is this can be quite vague, particularly in view of the fact that there is such enormous variation from recording to recording, even within one of the above source formats.  In some ways, the sonic differences between recordings can far exceed the sonic differences between formats.

Another definition, which seems to come up a lot in the hobbyist fora, is “anything better than CD quality ”, meaning anything where the digital audio is encoded with a word length longer than CD’s 16-bits and a sample rate higher than CD’s 44.1k.  (Word length and sample rate are discussed in the previous entry, Is “too much” not enough?)

Sometimes I think terms like “Master Quality” or “CD quality” are oxymorons, like “the sound of silence”, “jumbo shrimp”, “living dead”, or “civil war”.

Personally, I would differentiate between “high resolution” and “not as low resolution”.  (How’s that for a selling point?  “This new album is not as low resolution as the previous one!” ;-} )

As I hear it, going from 16/44 to 24/44 is an improvement, as is going to 16/48 or 24/48, but I wouldn’t refer to any of these as “high resolution” for the simple reason that to my ears, they are not.  24/44 does not do as much damage to low level information as 16/44 but in my view, it still suffers from an inadequate sampling rate, as does 24/48.  The anti-aliasing filter (also discussed in the previous entry) is still way too close to the top of the audible range and its consequences reach down well into the audible range.  (Yes, I know some claim otherwise.  I’m still waiting to hear the audible evidence to support such claims.  So far, it speaks otherwise.)

As we get to the 2x sample rates (i.e., 88.2k or 96k), there is much less damage and perhaps I’d refer to these as “intermediate resolution”.  I say this because of what I perceive as the critical threshold that is crossed when 4x rates (i.e., 176.4k or 192k) are properly done.  While “properly done” still seems to describe the minority of devices carrying these numbers in their spec sheets, those that do achieve it do something I’ve never heard from any other format, including the best analog—and that is what I have been referring to as “getting out of the way”.  This alone makes the 4x rates, to my ears, a bigger jump upward in quality over the 2x rates than the latter are over standard CD.  And this alone differentiates them in my mind as being true high resolution.

While the intermediate resolution rates can sound very good, this is exactly what I believe prevents me from thinking of them as high resolution:  they sound.  I don’t want gear or recordings or formats that sound “good”, “detailed”, “smooth”, etc., I want them to not sound.  I want them to get out of the way, leaving the sound to that which is being recorded, played and listened to—the performance.

I’m reminded of how the video world defined intermediate resolutions—those better than standard but not really high—with the term “extended”.

Personally, I’d place anything at 1x rates (or with a 16-bit word length) in the SRA (“Standard Resolution Audio”) category.  This would include 16/44, 16/48, 24/44 and 24/48.  With the latter two, my experience has been that while the added word length helps, the limitations of having the low-pass filtering so close to the audible range—and thus, its effects within the audible range—mean that in the end, these are all effectively just minor variations of “CD resolution”.  (I would ultimately consider 16/96 or 16/192 SRA also.  There is, in my view, no good reason to record with less than 24-bits and if the release is going to be at one of these sample rates, I would deem word length reduction to 16-bits counterproductive and just plain silly.)

The above is at odds with what appears to be the more common “anything better than CD” definition of high resolution.  To me, that is like saying anything better than a Big Mac is filet mignon.  Or anything better than Night Train is Dom Perignon.  I don’t think so.  I think there are intermediate levels and that it takes more than being better than mediocre (or just plain bad) to quality as “fine”.

Any 2x recording (88.2 kHz or 96 kHz) again, at 24-bits, I would refer to as ERA (“Extended Resolution Audio”).  Now we have a real improvement in fidelity to the input.  It doesn’t quite get out of the way, but to my ears, it is noticeably better than SRA.

HRA (“High Resolution Audio”), I would reserve for 4x recordings (176.4 kHz or 192 kHz) again, at 24-bits.  Properly done and played back on gear that can actually perform at these rates, we have the first format in my experience that is truly capable of getting out of the way.  This is what high resolution audio is about.

By these definitions, I would consider Soundkeeper Recordings’ CDs as well as our CD-Rs to be SRA.  The latter is certainly closer sounding than the pressing but ultimately, they’re both 16-bits.  I’d call our 24/96 DVDs and 24/96 files-on-disc releases ERA and our 24/192 files-on-disc releases HRA.

Of course, as I’ve long said, my belief is that 90-95% or more of a recording’s ultimate sonic quality has already been determined by the time the signals are leaving the microphones.  The delivery format just determines how much of that original quality is available for playback.  I’d rather hear a CD (or even an mp3) of a Keith Johnson recording than a 24/192 (or the original masters) of recordings from a lot of other engineers.  But best of all, is the HRA version of Keith’s work.