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.

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Two worlds, heroes and real stereo

In the September 26, 2013 entry entitled Why doesn’t it sound (in here) like it sounds out there? I mentioned a growing awareness in my earliest days as an engineer that what I’d previously thought of as the world of audio was in fact two different worlds.  On the one hand there was the audiophile world that suggested recordings could be made and played back with the aim of recreating the sound of real musicians, playing real instruments in real spaces.  On the other hand was the professional world in which I’d been working, where the idea of sounding real did not seem to be a frequent consideration.  Some of the audiophile gear, particularly among the loudspeakers, was fantastic at approaching the sound of real music.  In contrast, the studio monitors were capable of playing at extraordinary volume levels.  Many of the recordings popular among audiophiles excelled at capturing a sense of real life, including not only the sounds of the instruments but the spaces in which the recorded performances occurred.  In contrast, the studio recordings, many of which captured their own magic, never allowed the listener to suspend disbelief.  They sounded like recordings where some audiophile recordings sounded instead like the music itself.

As my skills and experience grew, I came to feel each of these worlds could learn something from the other, to the mutual benefit of all concerned and especially the listener.  Yet how often I was reminded of how little interaction there tends to be between pro and audiophile worlds.  To this day, it seems to me that all too many pros often miss opportunities for much higher quality audio, while at the same time, all too many audiophiles lack an understanding of how their records are made.

One of the best examples of the latter is the oft mentioned desirability in the audiophile Internet fora of “flat transfers”, the idea being that the finished masters used as sources for replication of the finished product should have no equalization or other processing applied.  (The term “flat” suggests no frequency equalization is applied – nothing to “tilt” the frequency response – but the term can also imply no other processing as well.)  In my early days as an engineer, I felt the same way.  Then I had the opportunity to hear how most master tapes actually sound.  When one considers the types and number of microphones, where they are typically placed, the signal path in most studios and the monitoring (of which I have already spoken in earlier entries), it should come as no surprise that most master recordings need help.  Put another way, if a recording was made with sufficient treble energy to bring on a headache in the listener and if I can make that recording hurt less by the judicious application of frequency equalization, I would think EQ is in fact, a good thing.  Indeed, a tiny minority of very well made recordings are best served with no EQ at all but most studio recordings will benefit quite significantly from some well considered equalization.

Now I can understand that sometimes, the reason a recording might hurt so much is precisely because of EQ – bad EQ, perhaps because the engineer was trying to make bad monitoring sound right.  This goes back to The Questions I mentioned in the previous entry.  Is the EQ being applied to address a flaw in the recording or is it mistakenly being used to address bad monitoring?  This question should have been preceded by “How trustworthy is the monitoring in this studio?”  Whatever the reason, when heard on a system capable of getting out of the way sufficiently to allow one to hear the recording itself, careful application of EQ can be used to repair at least a good part of the damage done the first time.  If the recording can be made more listenable with EQ, should EQ be avoided simply because it has been misused elsewhere?  I’d first ask “How artifact free is this equalizer and the settings I intend to apply?”  (That last question, like most of the others, turns out to be critical for those interested in making high quality recordings.  A big part of the reason many have come to think of EQ as bad is that among those who use EQ, the question is almost never asked.  Even on the best equalizers, the wrong settings can cause sonic problems.)  With a positive answer, I would elect to apply the EQ.  My experience has supported this approach over the course of hundreds if not thousands of recordings.

I have always very much enjoyed it when an audiophile sensibility entered into the pro audio world and pointed to what could be.  Some of my fondest memories of my years at Atlantic involve the time I spent with the great mastering engineer George Piros.  George would often tell me of his early days working with Bob Fine and Wilma Cozart on their recordings for Mercury Living Presence.  I had not heard of these recordings before and when I followed up to find some of them, I found a great many joys both musical and sonic.  C. Robert (“Bob”) Fine was to become one of my engineering heroes and one of my inspirations insomuch as he made his stereo recordings with only three microphones.  George was to become one of my mastering heroes for his preservation of musical dynamics.  He remains one of the tiny handful of mastering engineers I can name who did not routinely apply dynamic compression to his signal path.  Everything George mastered, from Bob Fine’s classics to much of Atlantic’s classic jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock recordings has a sense of Life to it.  One of my favorite memories was made one day when walking past the outside of his mastering room.  I heard loud music through the heavily padded, “soundproof”, double-door “airlock”.  I decided to visit and upon entering the room, saw George leaning over the microscope of his lathe, examining the fresh groove he was cutting into the lacquer disc, while AC/DC’s music virtually peeled the paint from the mastering room walls.  For me, it remains one of the great moments in rock.

Not that George was an audiophile.  He was just one of those folks who could accurately intuit what a recording needed and apply it to get the results he wanted.  He did not mince words with regard to the program material or some of the tools popular in audio engineering circles.  George was famous among those who knew him for his “Piros-isms”, his unabashed commentary that would sometimes include language that would make a marine drill sergeant blanch.  But he was more famous for the same honesty he brought to his work and that honesty brought some audiophile “names” up to his mastering room.  Through George, I was introduced to Bert Whyte, whose monthly “Behind the Scenes” column was a favorite of mine in all the years I’d been reading Audio magazine.  Bert was the engineer on the great recordings for the Everest label.  (Like Bob Fine, he too used only three microphones and created fabulous results.)  I got to take home a test cut of a Whyte recording of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat”, a personal favorite, though I’d never heard it sound so good before.  On another occasion, another “name” from the audiophile world dropped by to work with George: Joseph Grado, inventor of the stereo moving coil phono cartridge, creator of the moving magnet cartridge I was using at home at the time and, as I learned, an operatic tenor too!  I remember being in the mastering room with both discussing monitors.  Joe said “You see Barry, George uses these studio monitors with no complaints” to which George responded “You mean those pieces of #$^%?”

I feel more than fortunate to stand astride both audio worlds and to have learned a great deal from each.  In an effort to find a synthesis of both worlds, to find the underlying unity which I felt to be larger than either, in 1987 I decided to become an independent engineer and formed Barry Diament Audio.  The learning opportunities once more expanded geometrically.

As I did not yet have my own studio and mastering work was starting to come in, I sought out studios where I could rent time, my prime criterion being monitoring I could trust.  As may be concluded from what I’ve said in this and previous entries, this was not an easy task.  In the end, I found a small number that were willing to accommodate my request for certain monitoring arrangements.  They would have to do until the time came when I designed my own room.

In keeping up with contacts in both the pro and audiophile worlds, an opportunity arose to visit with the editor of one of the audiophile publications I was reading.  I knew his reference playback system was reputed to be among the best.  What I was not at all prepared for was the fact that after being an avid music lover and audio enthusiast since childhood, after having done pro audio work in a number of studios and after having read all the books and journals on the subject I could find, I was going to hear stereo for the first time.

My conception of stereo before that evening was probably a lot like that of other folks, based on what we’d been “taught” over the years and what we’d heard on the old stereo demonstration recordings.  There might be a piano on the left and a guitar and bass in the center and drums on the right.  There might be a marching band proceeding across the room from one speaker to the other.  Most of the time whether in folks’ homes or in audio dealerships, I’d seen stereo speakers placed as far apart as a room would allow, often in the corners.  I thought I’d made great progress when I found that moving the speakers out of the corners and away from the walls resulted in much improved sonics.  What I didn’t realize is that I was still listening to a pair of what might effectively be mono sources, playing together.  There was “sound from the left speaker” and “sound from the right speaker” and some sound in between.  It was nice and it was fun but as I came to learn, it wasn’t stereo.

Among the first things I noticed when I visited that evening, aside from the jaw-dropping gear I’d only seen in magazine photographs, was that the speakers were, to my mind, “in the middle of the room”.  They weren’t just out of the corners and off the wall, they were well out into the space.  There was lots of room all around them.  I’d never seen a setup done this way.  One of the first records played that evening (we were listening to vinyl) was an old, well worn Leonard Cohen album.  The track featured his voice, accompanied by acoustic guitar.  This was not a super record, just an ordinary studio production and an old copy of the record too.  What I heard was something entirely unexpected on my part and something entirely new to me.

First, there was no “sound from the left speaker” and “sound from the right speaker” and some sound in between.  To my ears and brain, there were no speakers at all.  I had a scarily distinct sense of the artist and the air in the studio around him.  It was almost as if I could see him sitting on a tall stool in a large room with the lighting turned down.  (Of course, I have no idea whether he was sitting or standing and what level the lights in the room were set to but this was the impression created in my mind by the sound alone.)  Now some of that experience must be attributed to the gear itself.  The loudspeakers were outstanding at “disappearing” for sure, as they rightly should have been for their six-figure price and the commensurate associated gear to which they were connected.  But as I was to learn, their placement played a commanding role in allowing the system to achieve its potential.  And applying what I learned that evening to other, less extravagant speaker designs would similarly unleash their potential in ways that were new to me.

Stereo by definition implies solidity and hence three dimensions.  Properly done, the listener does not hear sound from the speakers.  On the contrary, the speakers seem to disappear and the entire part of the room in which they reside comes alive with the audio equivalent of a hologram.  The sound occurs on a stage (a soundstage) and the images upon that stage too, occur in three dimensions.  On the finest recordings containing such information, the listener can perceive a sense of depth, with for example, the instruments in the back row of an orchestra seeming to emanate from well behind the wall behind the speakers.  (In order for the listener to perceive them from a good pair of properly placed loudspeakers, these spatial cues must of course be captured in the recording.)

While this was all news to me, I later found the idea for proper placement of stereo loudspeakers dated back to the 1950’s in an article Peter Walker wrote for the English journal Wireless World.  Many know Walker as the designer of amplifiers and electrostatic loudspeakers marketed under the Quad name.

Monitoring was something I’d long recognized as critical in any recording or playback situation, yet this recognition existed for many years before I had the opportunity to hear real stereo for the first time.  Now I was starting to apply this newfound knowledge in my own listening room and in the studios I worked in.  (I wrote a bit more about speaker placement in an article called Setting up your monitoring environment.)  This was also making me think anew about how to capture real stereo in recordings.