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.

Three Decisions (Part 3)

Having freed myself from working with loudness oriented clients and with the design and setup of my studio complete, the results of two of my three decisions had been accomplished.  What remained was to put the third decision into effect: it was time to make the first recording for what would be my new label.

This began with a search on which I would embark again many times in the future and expect to continue with as long as I make records.  I needed to find a space with the right supporting acoustic for the music and instrumentation of the ensemble I was going to record.  I wanted a fairly spacious locale as well, to allow room for the music and sound to “breathe” since the microphone array would capture this as an integral part of the whole.

Art Halperin had composed a lot of new material and taught it all to the members of his band, Work of Art.  He told me he knew of a place that might work for the recording.  It was an old 18th century church located deep in the woods of upstate New York and Art said we could get permission to record there.  The idea of recording in an old church sounded very appealing to me and we made plans for the recording session.  (Since the outside of the church above the stonework was painted green, and the locale reminded me of a well known recording that was also made in upstate New York, as an homage to that album, beloved by many, I came to refer to the project at hand as “Music from Large Green”.)  The plan was for the band to go up on a particular Saturday, set up and rehearse.  Art had a friend who lived nearby and who had a house that could accommodate the players for the weekend.  I’d drive up the following day and we’d make a record.

One thing about October in the woods of upstate New York is that it can get pretty cold.  The good news is the band remembered to bring a space heater along with all the other gear.  The bad news, as I found out in a phone call late on Saturday, is that the church’s electrical system could not handle the combined load of the guitar amps, bass amp and space heater.  The combination blew out the electrical power—not a good condition when the we needed AC power for the amplifiers as well as the recording gear.

Sometimes, the desire to get something done overpowers any apparent limitations.  At least that was the hope to which I was clinging.  I decided to drive up on Sunday anyway to see if there was anything we could do.  (The full story of this project was told in Recording In Stereo (Part 2).  In short, once I got there, I could find nothing visibly wrong.  The fuses were all intact yet we had no power.  It was looking like we’d have to postpone the session, an idea that depressed everyone as we’d all built up excitement about the idea and the band, even with the curtailed rehearsal time the day before, was ready to go.

The church really was deep in the woods.  The nearest house was several hundred feet away and the next nearest considerably further.  Art’s friend decided to go over to that first house and speak with the owners.  We will forever be indebted to that family, who very graciously offered to let us use their electrical power.  Our good fortune continued with the fact that one of the band members just happened to have a sufficient number of electrical extensions in his car to reach all the way from that house through the woods and into the church.  Pretty soon, the sounds of electric guitars and electric bass as well as drums warming up filled the church.  The microphone array was placed and when the connections were made, the level meters danced on the laptop screen.

To fine tune the placement of the microphones, I walked around the front of the church listening to the balance between the direct sound from the amplifiers and drums and the ambience of the church.  I had my matched pair of Earthworks QTC-1 (aka QTC-40) microphones set up on a stereo bar that kept the mics about 16 inches (~41 cm) apart.  Between them, I installed what Art called the “Diament disk”—actually my variation on the Jecklin disk.  The microphone cables fed two channels on the Metric Halo MIO 2882 which served as mic preamps and A-D converters.  The Firewire output from the 2882 fed my PowerBook hard drive.

Signals were converted to digital at 24-bits and a sampling rate of 96 kHz.  This was the maximum resolution the 2882 could capture and would serve well as I intended to create not only 16-bit, 44.1k audio for CDs but also 24/96 high resolution audio that would exceed what the CD format can deliver.  The Record Panel in the Metric Halo Console X software was used to capture the audio and store it in my preferred .aif format.

To quote from the article cited above, “We ended the session after about eight hours, anxious to get back to the listening room to hear the results of our efforts.  The monitoring system revealed the concept had been proven.  One can indeed record a rock band direct to stereo.  The drums sounded BIG, filling the space with their power.  The bass drum had that ‘in your chest’ feeling I’d long been seeking.  The electric bass had a snap and precision of pitch I haven’t heard on a rock record before and the electric guitars, well, I’ve always heard it while in their presence but I’ve never heard the sound of an electric guitar and its amp this way on a record before.  There was a ‘bite’ anyone familiar with the real sound knows well but in my experience has never before been preserved on a recording.”

Perhaps the biggest result of the session was that it provided yet another opportunity for me to learn, both what was right and what was not.  Again from the article, “In the end however, this was after all a first shot at the concept as well as being the first time I’d recorded in this particular location.  Next time in this room, I’d experiment with placing the mics just slightly closer to the plane described by the front of the drum set and the guitar and bass amps that flanked it.  A bit more of the direct sound in such an ambient locale would probably provide even more or the visceral impact we found so enjoyable when listening to the playback.  Also, in the absence of the Saturday rehearsal time, the music, though full of good feeling, ended up being less than we believe it could have been.  This only left us inspired to do this again and plans are already under way to capture performances we’ll be proud to release on a distributed recording.”

We did return to the church two more times and both of those sessions produced the first release on my label.  The results of my third decision had materialized and Soundkeeper Recordings was born.  Next time, making Lift.

Three Decisions (Part 2)

Around the same time I was setting up a studio of my own, I was also consulting for musician, client and friend Art Halperin, offering suggestions and design ideas as he rebuilt his own studio from the ground up.  Since I prefer to record on location in performance spaces, my own studio was to be used primarily for post-production work and mastering.  Art needed a space in which the musicians could gather to create the original recordings as well.  Both spaces provided opportunities to try out new ideas and to make some new discoveries.

While my own studio was built within an existing space, Art’s new studio, Top of the World, was custom built from scratch.  Everything from the dimensions of the space to the materials from which it was constructed started as an idea, discussed and rolled around until it was decided upon.

I was thrilled to finally have my own work space, with my own gear.  The system was sounding fantastic but there was still room for improvement.  Art had installed similar gear at Top of the World and there too, good as everything sounded, we felt it could be taken up a notch.  What both spaces needed was a full acoustic treatment.  Indeed any space used for serious listening needs this, whether pre-constructed or a newly built room.

Looking at all the available options and trying them, one type of design stood out above all the others, in performance and conveniently, in ease of use as well.  This was the cylindrical design based on a modification of Harry Olsen’s pioneering work in the 1950’s with his “functional sound absorbers”.  Rather than installing separate devices in the room to address each of the three types of room issues (resonant modes in the bass, early reflections in the treble and diffusion), a single type of device addressed all three issues simultaneously.  (For more on resonant modes and room treatments, see Setting up your monitoring environment.)  Since both new rooms needed the treatments, Art and I decided to build our own, so we ordered the raw materials and spent three days building enough cylinders to fully outfit both studios.

The cylinders were stacked in pairs around each room, making columns that evoked mental images of the Parthenon.  The larger diameter, 16 inch (~41 cm) columns were placed in the corners and at the half-way point along each wall, with the corners addressing the fundamental resonant modes for each dimension of the room and the half-way points addressing the first harmonic of each fundamental.  The smaller diameter, 9 inch (~23 cm) columns were placed at the quarter points along each wall to address the second harmonics.  In this way, the resonant modes of both rooms were quelled.

Each cylinder was built with one side that is soft and absorbent in the treble and the other side reflective in the treble.  When placed in the room, the cylinders were oriented with the absorbent side facing the nearest loudspeaker and the reflective semi-cylinder facing away from the speaker.  By doing so, the soft side serves to capture early reflections in the treble, helping to preserve the tonality and imaging from the speakers without interference from the room, while the reflective side provides the diffusion of late reflections—those sounds that have already been around the room—to help preserve the sense of life in the room.

All too often, we see photographs of studios that more closely resemble padded cells, with so-called “acoustic foam” placed everywhere.  Rather than absorb only the early reflections, these tend to soak up the life in the room, making the sound unnatural and simply sitting in the room uncomfortable.  We also see photographs of studios with diffusion placed very close to and facing the loudspeakers.  The result of this is that those early reflections in the treble that should be absorbed are instead splayed in all directions and are therefore guaranteed to reach the listener’s ears, hardening tonality, obscuring low level detail and causing a loss of focus in the images and soundstage presented by the monitors.

Upon installation of the cylinders, the wholesale transformation in the sound of both studios was immediate and obvious.  Where before the treatment, one could hear changes in the bass response as one moved around the room, as soon as the traps were in place, the bass not only remained consistent everywhere in the room but low level detail was much easier to hear, as were the spaces “between the notes”.  The room was no longer “ringing” and filling in the quieter moments between sounds in a recording (or live sounds in the room).  Even conversation became much easier to hear.  The space captured in recordings, whether real or synthesized in the studio, became much more evident.  In effect, the room had gotten out of the way.

I can remember one more thing about the day we finished building the traps for our rooms.  It took a few trips in my Honda to get all of the cylinders for my studio from Art’s patio where we built them to their new home.  I never heard the system in the car sound as good as it did on each of those rides.

There was still one more discovery to be made with regard to the systems in both studios.  It all started at a meeting of a local audio society where one member passed around a 1/2 inch (~13 mm) steel ball and a small “bowl” in which the ball was supposed to sit.  He claimed that using a trio of these devices underneath a component, to lift it from its own feet, made for very positive changes to the sound.  My initial response was doubtful.  How could putting a component on different “feet” change its sound?  Then again, I’d once asked “How can a turntable affect the sound of a record?” and on another occasion “How can a cable possibly make a difference in the sound?”  Both times I ended up learning something and coming to appreciate what I’d learned.  So I decided to embark on another set of experiments.

Over the course of the next month or two, I got hold of a very wide variety of items sold as replacement “feet” for audio and video components and proceeded to audition all of them.  I had sets of cones, spikes, miniature trampolines with elastic suspensions and many other designs.  Most of the devices were claimed by their manufacturers to provide isolation from vibrations that would degrade component performance.  Some claimed to block vibrations from entering the gear.  Others claimed to “drain” vibrations generated by the gear itself.

My expectation was that none of these would have any effect whatsoever.  Once again, it was my very good fortune to learn something new.  Actually, I learned a number of things, first among them was that anything placed under (or atop) an audio (or video) component will change its performance.  I emphasize “change” because the effects I heard from some types of devices were not necessarily positive.  I also learned that a number of the devices sold as isolators were not isolators at all and in fact acted as couplers, performing the exact opposite of an isolator.

While the couplers changed the sound, the changes were somewhat random from component to component.  The couplers changed the sound by altering the resonant characteristics of the component’s chassis.  Some of these, claimed by their manufacturers to “drain” vibrations from a component, were also referred to by an ingenious term which I would guess was invented by a savvy marketer.  They were called “mechanical diodes”, the claim being that vibrations would pass through them in one direction but would be blocked in the other direction.  I found it very easy to dismiss these claims by showing how a component placed atop these devices would move in direct response to any motion in the supporting surface or shelf.  In other words, the devices were perfect couplers and any path for vibrations is always a two-way street.

Further, with regard to the claim of “draining”, it occurred to me that when something is drained, by definition, I would expect there to be less of it in the place from which it has supposedly been drained.  When I drain the water from my kitchen sink, the result is less water in the sink.  If I run the water while I drain the sink and the quantity being drained matches the quantity being added, the net result is the amount of water does not change.  If the amount of vibration supposedly being drained does not exceed the amount being generated by the component, the net result is the same amount of vibration in the component.  Effectively, nothing has been drained except the customer’s wallet.

The surprise came when I got to the real isolators.  The well designed roller bearings, like the one I first saw at the audio group meeting and well designed air bearings defied my expectations and left my jaw hanging.  These acted as mechanical low-pass filters, devices with an inherent resonance above which they did not transmit vibrations.  (For more detail, see Vibration control for better performance.)  I was not at all prepared for what these did for every single component with which I tried them, which was to improve every characteristic of audio (and video) I know how to describe.  In addition, the improvements were consistent and repeatable from component to component and further, they were cumulative with system performance improving as each additional component was set “afloat”.  The improvements were such that I wondered why others were not shouting the news from the audio rooftops.

I considered how these devices worked and having learned that isolation begins at approximately 1.4 times the resonant frequency of the device, it became clear that the lower the resonant frequency of the device, the sooner it would begin to provide effective vibration isolation.  Further, there was an inverse relationship between how damped the device’s resonance was and how steep the rolloff above resonance was (i.e., how much isolation the device provided).  In other words, the less damping on the resonance, the steeper the rolloff (the greater the degree of isolation).  With this in mind, I thought I could improve on the commercial roller bearing designs I’d tried, so I made some drawings and took them to a local machinist.  (Actually, I spoke with a number of machinists, some of whom provided silly pricing quotes, including one who wanted an additional $75 “set up change”.  Not seeking to be “set up”, I thanked them and went elsewhere until I found the shop I chose to work with.)  I had some prototypes made and these proved so successful, I went back and had enough made to place under everything in the studio.  Partly because they reminded me of the “ball-and-socket” joint where a human femur meets the pelvis and partly in honor of how an old time jazz musician might refer to a place in which they liked to play, I christened my design “Hip Joints”.

While the improvements in digital devices were more pronounced than in say, solid state amplifiers (which nonetheless, still showed improvement), I was in for another shock when I decided to try them under the loudspeakers.  For years I’d been “taught” that speakers must be mounted rigidly and here I was placing them atop the loose springs that were a set of Hip Joints.  Once again, an opportunity for learning presented itself.  I’d never heard the speakers sound so good.  I referred to the speakers directly on the floor as “bound and gagged” by comparison.

While roller bearings provide isolation from vibrations in the horizontal (and rotational) planes, they do not isolate in the vertical plane.  Air bearings, on the other hand, provide isolation in the vertical plane.   Since I wanted to apply multiple-axis vibration isolation, I sought a way to combine Hip Joints with air bearings.  As a result, I made a new set of design drawings and with the aid of a good friend with the unique ability to turn wood into art, created the “Enjoyyourself” racks.  Unlike most racks, which provide clear paths for vibrations from the ground to get into every component they house, the Enjoyyourshelf racks have a separate, fully adjustable air bearing and a set of Hip Joints for each shelf.  (I call it the world’s first piece of furniture with a fully independent suspension!)  Upon first audition of gear on these racks, I heard the sound completely freed from the confines of the loudspeakers and the soundstage (on those recordings containing such a large space) expand well beyond the boundaries of the studio.  By design, the air bearing inflation is adjustable without having to first remove the gear, which allows for changes in inflation while the music is playing—a most informative situation.

As I said in the article cited above, “I’m still having a bit of trouble accepting that the ocean tide or the wind or a truck changing gears 1/4 mile away has such a profound effect on the performance of my audio and video gear.  What I have no trouble with is the results of isolating my gear from these effects.  The performance gains in every parameter I can think of are clear, consistent and repeatable.  Frequency extension into the treble and downward in the bass is improved.  Stereo imaging gets better focused.  The soundstage takes on greater proportions.  Dynamic swings both large and small are more like real life.  Overall, there is a much greater sense of the system getting out of the way, leaving the listener with a considerably increased sense of contact with the recorded event.”

With the installation of the acoustic treatments, followed by the addition of vibration isolation measures to all the components, the studio had “arrived”.

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.

Real stereo, loudness wars and a fork in the road

Having been an avid music lover and audio enthusiast since childhood, having done pro audio work in a number of studios for over a decade and having read all the books and journals on the subject I could find, I was not prepared for that experience in 1988 when I heard stereo for the first time.  Apart from the unparalleled joy the experience elicited (as in “Who knew audio playback could be this realistic?”), it engendered a great deal of thought, including the realization that what I’d heard until then was essentially dual mono, synchronized but separate programs, not the coherent and convincing whole possible with real stereo.

Now that I’d learned how proper setup of stereo loudspeakers allowed the speakers to better “disappear” and (with recordings containing the information) leave behind a three dimensional sense of the performers and the space in which they played, I saw new possibilities for the recordings themselves.

In my last experiment with direct to stereo recording, I had considered the relationship between the positions of the two microphones during recording and the two speakers during playback.  I thought there might be some reciprocity between the both ends of the chain.  To more closely emulate the space between playback speakers, I used a 6 foot (~1.8 meter) spacing between the microphones.  Considering the time element, my reasoning was that the time a signal took to get from left mic to right mic should match the time it took to travel between the speakers in the listening room, hoping the symmetry would get me closer to “being there” when listening to the result.  While that recording avoided the hole-in-the-middle common too many recordings made with two widely spaced microphones, I found that instruments positioned slightly off center during the recording session had a tendency to “pull” to the near speaker on playback.  (I wrote an article called Recording in Stereo about my experiences in these tests.  A highly abridged version follows herein.)

How to get stable stereo without introducing the time-based distortions (i.e., “ghost” images) that would result from adding more microphones?  I decided to try some iterative experiments in the studio, recording my speaking voice as I walked around in front of the microphones.  Each test was repeated with the spacing between microphones changed slightly.  I started with my original 6 foot spacing, announcing my position to the microphones, for example “3 feet left of center, 2 feet left of center, 1 foot left of center, center, 1 foot right of center, 2 feet right of center”, etc.  Next, I did the same thing with the mics a bit closer together, then another test with the mics still closer together and so on until the mics were 7 inches (~18 cm) apart, matching the spacing between a typical listener’s ears.

To quote the article cited above, “On playback, I paid particular attention to the just off center area that had proven problematic with the 6 foot spacing.  Somewhere around 15 inches (~38 cm), things seemed to gel.  All the qualities I liked were there with considerably less vagueness in the image.  My long held belief in recording with omnis spaced at 6 feet was being revised.”

“I started researching just how it is our brains perceive stereo and the cues required for localization (our ability to determine where a sound is coming from).  What I learned was our brains use three types of cues to determine localization:  intensity, time and frequency [specifically, differences in intensity, time and frequency between the sounds arriving at each of our ears].  Then it dawned on me that if nature could have gotten by with fewer cues, it would have done so.  I began to consider what was needed to supply all three types of cues in a stereo recording.”

The last step was the design of an absorbent baffle to be placed between the microphones.  Again from the article, “I’d found my way to record in stereo, incorporating all three types of cues nature uses to inform us of where a sound is coming from:  intensity, timing and frequency.  The timing information provided by the omnis benefited from the disk-shaped baffle which provided increased intensity differences between mics as well as frequency discrimination between mics.”

All the while these experiments went on, I was doing mastering work for a number of labels.  A disturbing trend was making itself evident, in that all too many of the A&R folks and producers at the labels were talking more and more about loudness.  I can recall one “name” producer who asked me “How much do you usually raise the level of tapes that come in here?  We do 6 dB.”  I wasn’t sure how to reply to his query because my experience had long ago taught me that some tapes require the level to be dropped, not raised, if one wanted to get the best possible results from the master.  Other record folks were requesting a “balls to the wall” sound (ouch!).  These were the foundations of the so-called “Loudness Wars”, an arms race of sorts, where folks wanted their record to be louder than everyone else’s.  There were folks who evaluated my mastering work with VU meters and not with loudspeakers!  “If it goes in the black, you lose.”  (For more on the subject, see my article Declaring an end to the loudness wars.)

At this point, I had to stop and ask myself why I became an audio engineer and just what I sought to accomplish in my work.  I knew for sure that the weaponizing of sound and music was not among my goals.  What a strange dichotomy.   As I sought to create recordings that sounded more like life and had more dynamic range, the larger trend in the industry was to eviscerate dynamics, seeking ever greater quantity without regard for the cost in quality.

Where the best records of “loud” music invite the listener to turn up the playback volume, casualties of the loudness wars cause physical discomfort.  My personal take is that the loudness wars have played a large part in the decline of the record industry.  Highly compressed sound brings about a stress response in the listener.  Joe and Jane Average may not be consciously aware of this but as a result, they don’t buy nearly as many records as they used to and they don’t listen to the ones they do purchase as many times as they used to.  New records are supposed to bring pleasure, not a “fight or flight” response.

Having considered my reasons for being an audio engineer, I decided to take a two-fold approach.  First, those making mastering inquiries are asked how important final level is to them.  The many benefits of achieving loudness with the playback volume control, as opposed to recorded level, are explained.  Those whose prime interest is in the quality of the music and sound tend to become clients.  Those who really want loud records are gently referred elsewhere.  (I know many mastering engineers say they prefer not to squeeze the life from their clients’ recordings but consent to do this because they need or want the work.  That is a personal decision each individual must make for themselves.)  Second, my fascination with making records that sound like music itself—as opposed to simply sounding like records—was on the rise.  While mastering can be very rewarding, I came to understand 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.  In other words, the overall quality is already there (or not) as soon as the signals enter the mic cables.  Everything else is just relatively minor adjustments to the overall picture.

Having rented time in a few different studios to do my mastering work, I started thinking of designing a space for myself.  The idea was more than appealing since I could have complete control over the acoustic design and gear selection.  Of course, monitoring, as always, was the prime concern.  In addition, it was time to assemble a recording kit of my own and lose the dependence on what I could borrow or rent.  And to provide a vehicle for distributing the new recordings, I was thinking about a new kind of record label.

Perfect Sound Forever? (Part 2)

There I was in 1984, Atlantic Records’ “CD mastering department”, responsible for creating a good portion of the masters used to replicate the monthly CD releases for the label and associated divisions (Atco, Elektra, etc.).  Demand for CD was on the increase and it was clear this was where recorded music was going.  The small CD section at the local Tower Records store was a bit larger every time I visited, slowly but surely encroaching upon the real estate that was, for the moment, dominated by vinyl LPs.  I saw customers so eager for new CDs, I got the impression even a disc of dog barks would be a hot sales item.

The manufacturers behind the format proclaimed “Perfect Sound Forever”, distortion-free music on a medium that would not wear out.  It sounded too good to be true.  Like most things that sound too good to be true, it wasn’t true.  I remember the expectation with which I first listened to digital masters and to the earliest CDs.  Despite the raves of my colleagues and those in the press, what I heard every time I listened sounded to me not like an evolutionary step forward for audio but like an electronic equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard, an irritating harshness that felt like a good deal of the music had been replaced by something unnatural, something mechanical, something cold.

A number of colleagues I spoke with did not seem to have the same experience.  In fact, they looked at me askance when I expressed great disappointment in what I’d heard, as if I was missing something so obvious, they couldn’t believe it.  They would point out how flat the frequency response measurements were, that the wow-and-flutter (a measure of speed inaccuracy) was virtually unmeasurable.  They would say “Just listen to the noise!”, amazed to have a medium that did not add any hiss.  I would respond “Just listen to the music!”

Yes, piano recordings did display a steadiness of pitch devoid of the indeterminacy sometimes engendered by analog media (played on less than great tape machines or turntables, or when either the tape was stretched or the vinyl pressing suffered a slightly off-center hole).  If any hiss was audible at all, it was the hiss from the original analog recording.  The digital medium wasn’t adding any that I could detect.  Yet, what good were rock steady speed and dead silent backgrounds when the piano sounded like it was made of aluminum?  And the cello sounded like a cousin of the kazoo?  Instrumental harmonics were bleached into thin, pale ghosts of themselves and the very air around the players (on recordings that had such) seemed to have been sucked from the room.  A great rock record invites the listener to turn up the volume.  Doing so with a rock CD just brought on the headache that much sooner.  What was wrong?

I had done everything I knew to ensure the highest possible quality.  I set up the CD mastering room with the audiophile sensibilities I sought to bring to my work.  I created CD masters bypassing most of the electronics in the room, keeping the signal path as short as possible, introducing only what was absolutely necessary and avoiding extra switches, wires, patch bays, consoles, etc.  I even took to carrying my own cables to work every day, replacing the generic studio cables connecting the output of the tape machine to the analog-to-digital converters with one of the best audiophile designs of the day, one that had repeatedly shown me it was capable of passing more of the musical information, with less degradation than the regular studio cabling.  Still, even with the CD masters created this way, a comparison with their vinyl counterparts, made using a far less purist approach, showed just how much more of the musical information on the master tape made it to the finished LP than ever made it to the CD.  There were no exceptions.  This was the case every single time.  Digital acolytes in the press attributed any favor shown the LP to euphonic (i.e., pleasant sounding) colorations in the medium, where CD was supposedly truer.  But as is often the case, the audible evidence said otherwise.  A well set up $100 turntable/cartridge combination would, in terms of bringing back the sound of the master recording, sonically wipe the floor with a $1000 CD player.

A fellow mastering engineer, one whose work I had admired for years, called one day and invited me to sit on a panel of mastering engineers to discuss CD at a meeting of the Audio Engineering Society in New York City.  I gratefully accepted and not long afterward, found myself sitting at a long table on stage in an auditorium, next to four other colleagues, all of us involved in CD mastering.  When I spoke, I felt quite alone in that my colleagues all sang the praises of the new medium while I (quite shyly at the time) said “I just don’t feel it sounds as good as my vinyl yet.”  (Yet?!?)  I explained how I felt vinyl was revealing much more of the musical information contained in the master tapes.  Despite any technical flaws or issues in manufacturing and playback, things that did not at the time seem to plague CD (at least not when one just looked at the surface of things), vinyl was providing more music and to my ears, that was more important.  When I left that evening, I thought folks were looking at me as though I had two heads.

What we came to learn as time passed and more audiophile companies got involved with digital and CD, was that a major part of that bad sound in the early days was due to the digital recording and playback gear itself, perhaps most specifically in the filtering that is an essential part of these mechanisms but also in the converter chips at their core.  I found it interesting that when folks like Bob Stuart started writing articles about jitter (timing irregularities between samples in the stream of digital data), a number of folks who had previously raved about CD (seemingly because of the “good” specifications they’d read) now found issues with the format.

With the advent of new knowledge came new filter designs and new converter chips.  The players were starting to get better.  Even the Sony 1630 converters I used in the studio got new retrofit filters that made for noticeable sonic improvements.  The CD format was growing in popularity every day and clearly was going to be around for a while.  The thought occurred that vinyl mastering engineers were routinely credited for their work on albums but no one as yet (at least to my knowledge) had been credited with CD mastering.  I spoke about this with management and after a conversation with the art department, saw the first CD booklet with my name in it.  As the format continued to grow and demand for more releases increased, outside facilities were contracted to create masters in addition to the ones that were keeping me busy full-time.  The only problem was the art department was not always informed when a master was going to be done by a third party.  As a result, some CDs I mastered did not have a credit and some CDs mastered by others have my name on them.  (In a way, I came to know whence the phrase “Be careful what you wish for” comes.)

I made some other observations regarding the digital audio of the day.  First, the playback and record sides of the Sony DAE-1100 digital audio editor did not sound the same.  The official word was that a digital tape could be cloned (“clone” being the term used to describe a digital copy) to create an identical copy.  Yet, when I cloned a digital tape and played it back to compare it with the original, the original always sounded cleaner.  Was there some degradation in the copy?  I found it interesting that when I took the tapes out of their respective machines and swapped them, putting the copy in the “playback” machine and the original in the “record” machine, the original now sounded degraded.  It turned out (for reasons I’m still not sure of) that playing back a tape from playback side of the editor just sounded better than playing the same tape from the record side.

As CD grew, we started using more and more replication facilities.  When sales for a particular release were expected to be large, often a single replicator could not produce a sufficient quantity of discs, so I’d create a CD master and then send clones of that master to different replicators.  When the discs came back, I made another discovery.  The discs from all the replicators sounded different from each other, sometimes subtly so and other times not so subtly.  And none of the discs sounded indistinguishable from the master used to make it.

It was plain to see there was much more to be learned about this digital juggernaut.  My thinking was that we’d had vinyl for about a hundred years.  In another hundred years, I expected CD would be pretty good.  Happily, it hasn’t taken nearly as long as that.  Today, CD can be “pretty good” if not exactly competitive with fine vinyl, despite what is said in some quarters.  Perfect sound forever?  Not to my ears.  It is more like “Decent sound, once in a while” but I can see how that is a bit less catchy as a marketing phrase.

Sonically, there was lots of room for digital to grow.  As futuristic as the equipment seemed at the time, it too, along with many of the very techniques involved in recording and editing, would soon undergo a revolution, as recording and mastering began to take advantage of the nascent world of desktop computing.