Gifts from the Cinema

On more than one occasion, it has occurred to me that movies are, in many ways, the visual equivalent of music.  When done well, the result is an emotional connection with the recipient of the message.  Repeated viewing, like repeated listening, provides opportunity to deepen the connection and hence, the appreciation.

The two art forms often work together, each enhancing what the other brings to the audience, without diminishing the ability of either to stand on its own.  Music can profoundly affect how a movie (or a scene within it) is perceived.  Movies can also provide another means of finding great music we might not hear otherwise.

Some great movies I’ve enjoyed over the years have in turn led me to some great music.  I am confident the impact of films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, “North by Northwest”, and “Vertigo”, Orson Wells’ “Citizen Kane”, J. Lee Thompson’s “Cape Fear”, François Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451”, or Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” would have been radically different without the music of Bernard Hermann.

Similarly, Nino Rota’s music played a significant role in the movies of Federico Fellini as well as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy.  Perry Henzell’s “The Harder They Come” is known for the reggae music that comprises its soundtrack.  Carol Reed’s noir classic “The Third Man” is highlighted by the distinctive sound of a zither, played by Anton Karas, who composed the score.

Recently, I saw an extraordinarily beautiful film from Italy that was released in 2013: Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” (aka “La Grande Bellezza”).  Aside from the story, the characters, the acting, the cinematography, and the visuals of this movie, I found the soundtrack captivating, with a variety of musical cues from different sources, in different genres.  I purchased the soundtrack disc(s) as well as the DVD and have found it as difficult to stop listening as it has been to stop viewing this new favorite.

This movie is loaded with musical gems, from the opening a cappella “I Lie”, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble, to Danish soprano Else Torp’s performance of Arvo Pärt’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” (with lyrics from the Robert Burns poem of the same name), to the Kronos Quartet’s rendition of Vladimir Martynov’s “The Beatitudes”.  In addition, the soundtrack features some more pop oriented music including a sensitive performance by Damien Jurado performing his “Everything Trying” and even some club-oriented dance music.  You’d have to see the movie to understand how it all works together.  Musically as well as cinematically, there is much to treasure.

Winds of Change

Almost eight years after we recorded the first release for my Soundkeeper Recordings label (documented in the December 13, 2013 entry in this blog, like the album, entitled Lift), I was once again joined by Art Halperin and his band, Work of Art, for a new project.

For a long time, Art and I had discussed a follow-up to Lift and now the time was right.  Art had written a great new collection of songs, which the band had been rehearsing.  I had recently made some new additions to the recording setup in terms of upgraded power and microphone cabling (see the previous entry in this blog, entitled New Connections).  And I found just the right recording locale for the project.

Instrumentation for the songs includes a wide collection of different guitars including both nylon-string acoustic guitars and Martin steel-string acoustic guitars, a Dobro type resonator guitar, a Guild 12-string guitar and a few electric guitars, one of which is the Fender Stratocaster given to Art by Eric Clapton.  Along with the guitars, a mandolin, pedal steel guitar, and ukuleles are also present on the recording, while double bass and drums accompany the voices throughout.  The rich vocal harmonies are a big part of these songs, some featuring up to four voices behind Art’s lead vocals.

For those interested in the recording setup, the equipment for these sessions was as follows:

Microphones: Earthworks QTC-1 (aka QTC-40, matched pair, separated by a custom designed baffle)
Mic cables: Nordost Tyr 2
Interface: Metric Halo ULN-8 (serving as microphone preamps, analog-to-digital converters, digital-to-analog converters, and headphone amplifier)
Laptop: Apple MacBook Pro
Software: Metric Halo Console X (including its Record Panel)
Power cables: Nordost Heimdall 2 (for interface) and Nordost Purple Flare (for laptop)
Power conditioner: Monster Cable HTS-400
Vibration isolation: Custom made base to support laptop and interface

One of the many nice things about this project was that the players, having already done one Soundkeeper Recording in Lift, were already familiar with the process and the fact that they would be together, hearing each other through the air, for real, as opposed to being separated by headphones and baffles and listening to an electronic mix via headphones.  Everyone knew they had to pay close attention to each other and to how their own sound blended with the whole.  They all knew we were capturing performances, without the ability to “punch in” later to fix any mistakes.

I selected a local 19th century church as the recording venue.  It is a stone structure with a wooden interior and a warm acoustic, providing a good sense of air around the players but maintaining a nice sense of intimacy, ideally suited to this music.

My expectation was that the stone construction of the church would result in a relatively cool interior, even for our late June recording sessions.  The good news is that we all had a great time, even though my thermal assumptions were off by a good measure.  In short, the music wasn’t the only thing that was warm.  Several large ceiling fans keep the air in the church circulating but these had to be turned off during recording, as the mics very clearly picked up the quiet hum they produced.  Next time at this locale, spring or fall would make optimal seasonal choices for the best indoor climate, free of the sounds heating or cooling systems would necessarily add.

We recorded in the church on two successive days and all the hard work Art and the band put in preparing for the sessions was clearly in evidence.  I have commented before on just how great the feel is in Art’s music.  It pleased me to no end to find that others noticed exactly the same thing upon hearing the early playbacks.  What surprised me at first, but upon reflection turns out to be no surprise at all, is how all the comments used the same word.  When my wife (and most trusted listening partner) first heard the playbacks, she said “This is such a joyful album!”  Others have used the very same adjective, including two of the players in subsequent independent communication with me about the sessions.  The word came up so frequently that one of my early candidates for the album’s title was “Joyful”.

The music and performances are certainly full of joy.  As it turned out, so were Art and yours truly as we listened to the impact the new cable additions brought to the results.  I mentioned in the previous entry in this blog that this project marked my first use of Nordost’s Tyr 2 cables to connect my microphones to the ULN-8’s mic preamps, as well as my first use of third-party power cables, in this case Nordost’s Heimdall 2 feeding the ULN-8 power supply and their Purple Flare feeding the laptop power supply.  As I said in that entry, both Art and I remarked that we’d never heard recorded acoustic guitars sound so much like the instruments themselves.  The speed and extension on the double bass too, matched the sound of the instrument at the sessions like we’d never heard before.  (Thank you Nordost, for taking my recordings to a whole new level!)  While I’d have been pleased with “Joyful” as the title, in the end we decided on an equally fitting one we like even more: Winds of Change.

The recording format was 24-bit, 192k sampling, captured by the ULN-8 to .aif files.    As has become the norm for Soundkeeper, we will release it in multiple formats, from 24/192 (.aif or .wav) files-on-disk, to 24/96 (.aif or .wav) files-on-disk, to 24/96 audio-only DVD (in DVD-V format), to CD-R, to pressed CD.

One other thing we decided to do for this project was document some of it on video, to share with Work of Art (and Soundkeeper) fans, some of the “behind the scenes” views of the recording sessions.  The videos will be completed once the audio mastering is complete and the album art is done.  There is still some work ahead of us before the album can be released.

Making a record is most definitely much harder work than most folks might realize, but making Soundkeeper Recordings has been, and continues to be, a delight.  How fortunate I am to know Art and his band, and to be able to produce and engineer this album.  For someone who loves making records, it doesn’t get better than this.

New Connections

It was almost a year ago, in one of the earliest entries in this blog, entitled The High End Arrives, that I recounted some of my first experiences with better gear.  In both of the specific instances mentioned, my expectations were toppled.  First, a different turntable changed my thinking from “turntables just turn” to having a greater appreciation for just how much more is involved in retrieving music from the spiral groove.  In the second instance, a change of speaker cables taught me that everything the signal passes through has an impact on the final sound.

That was a valuable lesson, particularly, as I came to learn later, when applied to making recordings, not just playing them back.  While I was reading about debates regarding whether cables could make an audible difference, I was bringing my own to work when I started mastering for CD.  I’d found that replacing the “pro” cables in the studio (which connected the output of the master tape playback machine with the input of the analog-to-digital converters) with “audiophile” cables let more of the musical information in those tapes get through to the CD master.  It wasn’t that the cables I installed were making the sound better.  They just did a better job of getting out of the way.

How odd, it seemed to me, that in some quarters, folks were actually trying to legislate audio, lobbying New York City’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs at the time, in an effort to make audio cable advertising illegal. (!)  It is one thing to listen and not hear any difference.  It is also understandable that one might not comprehend what mechanisms could possibly be responsible for the sonic differences others hear.  I certainly wouldn’t want to force anyone to use cables they don’t want to use.  But by the same token, please don’t take mine away because you don’t hear what I’ve been enjoying.

When I started Soundkeeper Recordings, I sought to use the simplest, highest quality signal path to make my recordings.  To this end, I tried replacing my professional microphone cables with a set of balanced cables from an audiophile manufacturer.  If cables made such important differences in playback systems and helped me create more faithful CD masters, I was interested in hearing what they did at the very front of the signal chain, connected to my microphones.  In retrospect, I am not surprised this turned out to be one of the more obvious places where doing a better job of getting out of the way resulted in more Life getting to the recording.  They made the pro cables sound coarse, grainy, and closed in by comparison.  In short, they revealed the sonic fingerprint those pro cables superimposed on everything.

In a post from November of last year, entitled Three Decisions (Part 1), I talked about my first experience with cables from Nordost.  When I first built my own studio, after spending a number of months auditioning a wide variety of candidates for cabling, I kept returning to Nordost cables as they always allowed me to feel like I was hearing past them, to the recording itself—which is exactly what I sought from the monitoring system in the studio.  Where other cables I’d used sounded “good” (something I consider to be a coloration), these seemed very clearly to allow the sound of the gear being connected—and ultimately, the recording—to pass without editorializing or superimposing their own sonic fingerprint.  I listened to a number of different products within their line and found a family resemblance insomuch as that ability to get out of the way.  The more expensive models just seemed to take it further.  And the balanced interconnects, used as microphone cables, showed me that my microphones were even better than I’d previously thought they were.  Price being a major consideration at the time, I started with their least expensive speaker cables and interconnects, which replaced cables that cost three times their price (and which, in terms of getting out of the way, they sonically left in the dust)!  Over the years, I’ve stepped up to more elaborate models within the line.

Cut to the present time.  I have used different cables over the years and have enjoyed continual improvements in each one’s ability to get out of the way and let more of the music through.  For the past several months, I have been using a new set of cables, covering the signal path from my microphones all the way to my loudspeakers.  I have also been using some types of cables that I’ve never tried before.  For example, I learned years ago that better loudspeaker cables and better interconnects (both for analog and digital signals) made for great strides in the quality of a recording or playback system.  What I’d never tried yet though, were replacements for the AC cables that came with some of my gear.  (I’d also never tried using a better HDMI cable for video or anything other than a basic USB cable to connect the hard drive that houses my music library.)

Most of the new cables are from Nordost’s Heimdall 2 series.  While I was curious to hear the whole system with the new cables in place, I was intrigued by the AC cables, so I started by replacing only the AC cables on the components that did not have captive cables.  The first AC cord went from the wall outlet from one of the dedicated lines feeding the studio, to the power distribution block.  The next one went to the power supply feeding my Metric Halo ULN-8, which serves as my digital-to-analog converters in the studio (and also as my microphone preamps, analog-to-digital converters and headphone amplifier during recording sessions).  Others went to the studio power amplifiers and subwoofers.

Experience has taught me not to assess any audio component until it has played music for at least a week—and with loudspeakers, many weeks.  While the basic character might be evident right out of the box, maximum performance does not occur until the component has been in use for a while, until it has been “burned in”.  (I have read a lot of theory on why this is the case, as well as arguments from some quarters as to why it cannot be.  Not surprisingly, the latter come from the same folks who would say I’m imagining the differences I hear between cables.  All I can say is, if I’m imagining this, I imagine it every single time my assistant switches to these cables without my seeing which are installed.  And I’m having a great time!)

As one who has long appreciated what good cabling can do for a system, I was surprised it took me so long to try replacement AC cables.  And I was absolutely thrilled at how much more alive the system sounded.  By then however, my curiosity about what Heimdall 2 would do for the rest of the system came to the fore and I replaced the speaker cables, analog interconnects, and digital interconnects (S/PDIF from the CD transport and the USB cable from the hard drive housing the music library for the server).  The system was now wired with Heimdall 2 all the way from the AC outlets to the loudspeakers.  I put the CD player on continuous repeat and left the studio, only returning to occasionally grab a listen or switch to a different disc.  I wanted to give the system plenty of time to get wherever it was going.

By the time I started the serious listening, it was one of those events where you want to listen to recording after recording (and can’t hear them all fast enough) to find out what the new changes reveal about them.  If the AC cables brought a new and previously unheard sense of “snap” and life to the system, upgrading the rest of the cables forced a reevaluation of the system’s limitations.  I am hearing the Magnepan 3.7s do things I didn’t think Magnepans can do.  Specifically, there is now a dynamic “slam” within the system’s capabilities that I had long thought was just something I had to trade in exchange for the multiplicity of wonderful things the speakers can do, that make me love and admire them so much.  The AC cables are certainly a big part of this but bringing all the other cables in the system to Heimdall 2 solidified it even further.

The other major change I noticed with the new cables is how much easier it is to hear individual parts in a recording, particularly with complex passages played by large ensembles but also with simpler arrangements played by smaller groups.  It is just so much easier than before, to focus the attention on an individual voice in a choir or an individual horn in a section, etc.  And the system was no slouch about this before.  It has just been elevated a couple of steps.  Big steps!

In addition to the Heimdall 2 that has transformed the system in the studio, I am using a pair of Nordost’s Tyr 2 balanced interconnects as my new microphone cables.  I had the opportunity to give these a real test a few weeks back, when I recorded what I expect will be the next release on Soundkeeper Recordings.  In addition to the Tyr 2 cables on the microphones, this was the first time I made a recording with the new Heimdall 2 AC cable feeding the power supply for the Metric Halo ULN-8 (again, serving as the microphone preamps and analog-to-digital converters during recording sessions, not to mention the digital-to-analog converters and headphone amplifier for monitoring during the sessions).  Also on hand was a Nordost Purple Flare (figure-8 type) AC cable, which replaced the stock cable on my Apple MacBook Pro laptop, where the captured audio was stored.

Back in the studio after the sessions, I heard the same benefits mentioned earlier, captured in the recordings.  How much of this was the result of the different AC cables and how much was contributed by the stellar Tyr 2 cables on the microphones, I don’t know.  What was obvious to me though, and to the artist too when he first heard the playbacks and voiced exactly what I’d been thinking, is that we’ve never heard recorded acoustic guitars sound this way, i.e., so much like the instruments themselves.  The artist and his band utilized a wide variety of guitars on this project, both acoustic and electric, from nylon stringed classical instruments, to various Martin steel stringed guitars, to a 12-string Guild, to a resonator guitar (along with a number of electric instruments).  The sound of each, as well as that of the mandolin, double bass, percussion and other instruments, was captured as we heard them during the sessions, to a degree that is new to both of us.

As I’ve been listening to these cables for a good while now and have been reporting my music and audio experiences in this blog, I wanted to share some of this but had no intention of writing a “review”.  There are a number of other models further up Nordost’s own line.  Based on my previous experience with the ones I’ve heard, I would expect each of those to take it up another step or two from what I’ve been thrilling to each time I listen.  Meanwhile, the new connections have taken my recordings and my listening to a whole new level.

 

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.

Is “too much” not enough?

As digital audio and the means of playing it back mature, there is an increasing divergence of perspectives to be found on the Internet.  Some revel in the sonics of music heard at high resolution, while others argue that the CD standard is not to be audibly improved upon and still others want even higher resolution.  All this while Joe and Jane Average download one song at a time at resolutions that throw away at least 75% of the information contained on a CD.

There are new efforts from some quarters to show Joe and Jane what they’re missing and to elevate what the download services offer.  The idea is to, at the very least, deliver 100% of what the CD offers and at best, deliver true high resolution.  Yet these efforts have spawned Internet “papers” and articles in effect, ridiculing the very idea of high resolution and arguing the supposed inaudibility of its benefits, or worse, suggesting that high resolution by definition will sound worse, not better.

I can’t speak for what others find but I can say that whatever these folks are reporting is quite the opposite of what I experience.  I’m hearing fidelity such as I’ve dreamed about for years and when I read those stories, they strike me much as though the authors are trying to convince me there are no colors in a rainbow.

The arrival of high resolution digital has the potential to fulfill the promise digital audio first made more than a quarter century ago.  Back then, astute listeners wondered at the marketing mantra “perfect sound forever” while cringing at the dry, bleached and airless sounds delivered by the first CD players.  While a great deal of progress has been made during the intervening years, the inherent limitations of the format remain.

Looked at in the most rudimentary fashion, the specifications for CD would, on the surface, appear to be all that is needed to perfectly reproduce anything that can be heard.  Human hearing is nominally sensitive to frequencies from 20 Hz through 20 kHz (i.e., 20 cycles per second through 20,000 cycles per second).  As we age, the top end limit decreases and most adults would be lucky to hear 15 kHz.  With CD, music is sampled 44,100 times per second.  That is, the digital recorder “looks at” the sound 44,100 times every second and captures a sample.  According to the theory, all frequencies below half the sample rate, (in this case, all frequencies below 22,050 cycles per second) will be captured accurately and since this is well beyond what most folks can hear, it all sounds quite neat.

These digital samples are each a series of digital bits, with each bit representing one of two binary states or values, often thought of as “ones and zeros”.  Each sample is stored in a digital word.  The CD standard uses 16-bit words, where each sample contains 16 values.  The particular combination of ones and zeros represents the level (i.e., volume) of each sample.  A series of 16 zeros (i.e., 0000000000000000) would be the lowest level that can be encoded and represents complete silence.  A 16-bit word representing an intermediate level might look like this: 0111011110101110.  The highest level would be 0111111111111111, a zero followed by 15 ones.  (For technical reasons which are beyond the scope of this entry, the loudest value is not a series of 16 ones.)

A word length of 16-bits allows up to 65,536 different levels to be represented.  The difference between the loudest sound that can be captured and the noise floor of the format is called the signal-to-noise ratio.  Signal-to-noise ratio is measured in units of loudness called decibels (dB).  For a 16-bit format like CD, the signal-to-noise ratio is approximately 96 dB, which means the noise floor (the inherent noise of the format) is 96 decibels below the loudest sound that can be captured.  This is much quieter than vinyl or analog tape.  Any hiss heard on a CD is captured from the source and is not inherent in the medium.  Many folks confuse the signal-to-noise ratio specification with dynamic range (the difference in level between the loudest possible sound and the lowest sound).  We’ll come back to this later and see why this is misguided.

The problems start when we move from the theoretical to the practical.  (Someone, perhaps it was Yogi Berra, once said “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.”)  When digital audio is recorded, any frequencies above half the sample rate can cause problems – they engender aliases or aliasing distortion, false frequencies that are not part of the program material.  In order to avoid aliasing, when digital audio is encoded, as well as when it is played back, most digital processors use a filter to ensure that no frequencies above half the sample rate can pass.  These anti-aliasing filters have audible side effects, manifesting in the time domain – the signal gets smeared in time.  Some designers will use gentler filters to minimize the time smear but in doing so, they cause the higher frequencies to fall off prematurely.  A number of modern playback devices have user-selectable filters where the listener can select between steep filtering and its associated time issues or gentler filtering and its associated frequency issues.

So, while CD can capture all the audible frequency range, the requisite filtering means the frequencies delivered to the listener are not all arriving on time or are not all arriving in the same proportion in which they were captured, or some combination of both of these.  One great advantage of the higher sample rates is that the anti-aliasing filter is moved far above the audible range.  This allows gentler filtering to be used without affecting the audible frequency range.

In recent years, thanks in no small part to formats like DVD and others, which are capable of storing more information than will fit on a CD, digital audio has grown up from the 16-bit words and 44.1 kHz sample rates by which sound is encoded for CD.  We’ve had 24-bit audio with sample rates of 96 kHz, 176.4 kHz and 192 kHz.  For reference, a 24/96 (24-bit, 96 kHz) version of a given recording contains more than three times the information contained in the same recording at 16/44 (16-bit, 44.1 kHz).  A 24/192 version contains more than six times the information.  And where a word length of 16-bits allows up to 65,536 different levels to be represented, going to 24-bits increases the dynamic resolution 256 times, allowing up to 16,777,216 different levels to be represented.

The widespread use of computers (and computing devices) for audio playback has enabled the proliferation of high resolution audio and emancipated music from the confines of silver discs and the limitations imposed by the process of retrieving music from these in real time.  (Separating the processing “overhead” from the playback will provide higher quality playback.)  Good as the best disc players and transports can be, my experience has been that there is invariably a loss of focus and fine detail, often subtle, sometimes not so subtle.  It is only via proper computer playback that I’ve heard results that I find indistinguishable from listening to the master used to create those silver discs.

This is good news, even for music at CD resolution, because the listener at home can now hear what is effectively the CD master itself.  However, while the limitations of playback from molded disc have been removed, the limitations of the format remain.  In addition to the frequency and time-related issues brought about by having the anti-aliasing filter just above the audible range, there are the consequences of inadequate word length.  Although the noise floor with a 16-bit medium like CD is 96 dB below the loudest possible sound that can be captured by the format, many often confuse this signal-to-noise ratio with dynamic range.  The assumption is that if the noise floor is 96 dB below the loudest sound, sounds just above the noise floor will be captured with the same fidelity, providing a range of dynamics as wide as the signal-to-noise ratio.  In fact, with a 16-bit medium, the fidelity plummets at lower levels.

The full resolution, in this case 16-bits, is only realized for sounds near the top of the volume range.  Each bit captures about 6 dB of the dynamic range (about 6.02 dB to be more precise but let’s use 6 in this example to keep things simple), so in a 16-bit system, sounds lower in level than 6 dB below the maximum will effectively be captured at less than 16-bit resolution.  To wit, if this lower level information is say, 12 dB lower in level, it will be encoded at what is effectively approximately 2 bits less than the full resolution of the format (i.e., 14 bits in a 16-bit recording, 22 bits in a 24-bit recording). If it is say, 36 dB lower in level, it will be encoded at what is effectively approximately 6 bits less resolution (i.e., 10 bits in a 16-bit recording, 18 bits in a 24-bit recording).

Some information, such as the trailing end of reverb as it fades away, or the higher harmonics of musical instruments, can be well more than that 36 dB lower in level than the loudest sounds and will be encoded with resolutions corresponding to fewer bits.  This results in the thinned, bleached and coarsened instrumental harmonics in even the best 16-bit recordings, as compared to a good 24-bit recording (or of course, the original sound in real life).  It also results in the defocusing of the spatial information and in the relative airlessness in the 16-bit recording compared to a good 24-bit recording (and real life).

While the level meter may show a peak on that 16-bit recording that is within the top 6 dB, this, like the waveform views shown by some computer software, is only a view of the “top” part of the musical waveform — the loudest part.  Sounds and components of sounds that are underneath the top part (i.e., in the background) are not captured as faithfully.  Accordingly,  when considering the dynamic range of the format, it is a good idea to take into account the relative distortion at different levels within the range.  If increasing distortion is not desirable, the real dynamic range potential is going to be considerably less than what the spec sheet might suggest (or is often echoed in the audio press and in some places on the Internet).  Note that even with low level information as in the examples above, a 24-bit recording still delivers more resolution than a 16-bit recording at its best.

Why then, would someone publish a “white paper” against higher resolution or declare that resolutions like 24/192 are “pointless” or worse?  A few possible reasons come to mind:

  1. The higher sample rates place significantly increased demands on the gear used to record and play them back.  For example, digital gear contains an internal clock to control the timing as the device encodes or decodes the stream of digital samples.  Spacing between the samples must be kept accurate or the reconstructed analog waveform that we hear will not have the correct shape and hence, will not provide the correct sound.  Irregularities in timing are referred to as jitter.  Higher sample rates also mean the analog stages of the gear must be able to perform at the wider bandwidths.  Perhaps the folks complaining about high resolution are using gear that does not have clocking that is up to the task and analog stages that can perform at high bandwidth.  Such will either not reveal any benefits or will actually sound worse than they do at the easier, lower rates like 24/96. (This is true of a number of “professional” units as well as those sold to audio enthusiasts.  A  built-in, $250 “soundcard” simply won’t do it, regardless of what the specs claim.  In today’s market, it may cost 10 times this amount for a device truly capable of revealing the potential of these sample rates.  Maybe it is no wonder these folks hear little or no difference.)
  2. It could be possible that the rest of the system these folks are using isn’t up to resolving a wide band recording.  Or it could be that these folks are just not sensitive to these particular differences.  I’ve always found that different folks have different sensitivities to different aspects of sound.
  3. Perhaps they believe CDs (or 24/96) already sound identical to the input signal.  If that is the case, I can understand that anything more would seem wasteful.

Sample rates like 176.4k and 192k don’t, as some have erroneously suggested “have more jitter”.  Sample rates don’t have jitter.  As stated above, higher sampling rates do place greater demands on clocking accuracy (just one reason why buying a DAC
(digital-to-analog converter) “by the chip” is at best a foolish enterprise).  They also place greater demands on the analog stages surrounding the digital stage.

Why some would see these characteristics as “flaws” (and write papers or articles on the subject), I don’t understand.  I’ve always gone with empirical evidence over theoretical analysis; that is, when “theory” and direct experience are at odds with each other, I’ll tend to seek a new theory.  (As I see it, theory should explain the experience, not the other way around.)

All this to say, when a firmware upgrade enabled 192k capability in the converters I use for my work, I approached it conservatively — even continuing to do a few recording sessions at 96k because I was familiar with it and could be confident in the results.  But then I started running tests at 192k and quite quickly found I had to get my jaw up off the floor: for the very first time in my experience, I was hearing (with this device anyway) a recording device “disappear”.  I had never heard that before, even with the best analog recorders and most certainly nothing close with the best digital recorders, even with this very device when used at 96k.

Now I felt a threshold had been crossed (I’ve read similar words since then from one of my favorite audio engineers, Keith Johnson).  The results no longer sounded like “great digital”; they no longer sounded “digital” at all.  They didn’t sound like “great analog” either.  The jump from 24/96 to 24/192, when done well, is to my ears a much more significant jump than the one from 16/44 to 24/96.  It’s all about that threshold; this is the promise digital made in 1983, finally and for real.  (While it certainly sounds more faithful to the input signal than 16/44 does, 24/96 doesn’t yet, to my ears, “get out of the way”.  Having the anti-aliasing filter moved well up and away from the audible range definitely helps but it is the rates like 176.4k and 192k where I find the threshold is crossed.  Interestingly, to me, while many speak of the treble response, I find some of the greatest benefits to be in how much more lifelike I find the bass.)  24/192 pointless?!?  Only if real progress in music reproduction is pointless.

While some decry the higher sample rates, either declaring them to offer no audible sonic differences from the lower ones or to offer inferior sonics (!) to the lower ones, other voices are talking even higher numbers.  We are seeing marketers talking 32-bits and sample rates like 384 kHz.  As long as there are customers who are taken in by sheer numbers, there will be those who see an opportunity for commerce, who will accommodate them with sheer numbers.

I get a chuckle out of these things because my experience has been that in reality (that is, with the hardware or software one can go out and buy today, as well as the recordings one can purchase to play on these), I see gear that isn’t particularly clean at 24-bits.  I see other gear which, when presented with 4x sample rates (176.4k or 192k), performs worse than it does at 2x rates (88.2k or 96k).  Yet the spec sheets and ads say “24-bit” (or more) and they say “192k” (or more).  And the reviewers simply echo the numbers.

In the here and now, if it is a minority that can achieve the performance potential of 24/192, I take claims of higher numbers as a joke at best and cynical marketing at worst.  Just my opinion of course but with so few showing they can design for 4x rates, why would anyone think those same few could deliver 8x rates (or more)?  I find it interesting that those claims are not coming from the designers of gear that can achieve the potential of 4x rates.  (We have the equivalent of makers of 2-cylinder subcompacts claiming to make cars that an outrun a Lotus!)

The numbers game isn’t limited to hardware.  I’ve seen one company release CDs they claim were made with “32-bit mastering” and another claim “100 kHz resolution”.  (Do they have 100k gear or are they rounding up from 96k?)  Does anyone think those CDs are anything other than 16-bit, 44.1k?  If there are such folks, I have a fine bridge in New York City to sell.  The tools I use to create a CD master have 80-bit data paths and I’m working at 192k.  The higher quality tools do result in a higher quality CD but should I then say they are made with “80-bit mastering”?  Or that they exhibit “192 kHz [or 200 kHz] resolution”?  I’d rather make records than sell bridges.

The finest 24/192 I’ve heard to date has given me back recordings I have not yet been able to discern from the direct input from my microphones.  (To be clear, I am referring to gear that actually seems to achieve the potential of these numbers and not merely gear that sports them on a spec sheet.)  Would 32/384 sound better?  I suppose I’d have to hear the flaw(s) in properly done 24/192 first.  And second, if the first condition was met (and in my experience, it has not even been challenged yet), that 32/384 gear would have to actually achieve the potential of that resolution and not merely claim it on a spec sheet.  For me, right now, it is just marketing.  Someday perhaps, we’ll have the audible evidence.  Perhaps.  Right now, I’m trying to imagine how it might be better than what is (so far) indistinguishable from the input signal.

24/192?  32/384?  64/768?  Or should I wait for the 128/1536 version?
Is the best of today’s 24/192 too much?  Is it not enough?  I think it is just right.

 

Can you hear what you’re doing? (Part 1)

If there’s one thing the advent of digital audio has accomplished, it is what I call the democratization of record making.  Unlike the days when musicians needed to interest a large company in order to get a record made, today many have small studios of their own and with the help of the Internet, self-release their music to the world.

While the technology and the means have certainly become much more widely available than they used to be, the information on how to use the technology has not proliferated to anything like the same degree.  There are plenty of magazines, both print and Web-based and several Internet fora where recording enthusiasts gather and these provide “how to” instructions. What is missing however, is the reasoning behind the how: the why.

So the new studio owner buys the hardware and software they read about and proceeds to turn the knobs, real and virtual, and then wonders what went wrong.  Not in every single case of course but from what I’ve heard over the years, the ones who are truly pleased are the exceptions.  Perhaps they sought something that did not sound like a true representation of themselves and their instrument(s).  Nothing wrong with that.  What is “good” or “better” or “best” depends entirely upon precisely what one seeks.

For those who seek to make recordings that sound less like recordings and more like musical performances (real or imagined), the standard recipes won’t work.  They are designed to achieve certain types of sound.  They are not designed to “get out of the way”.  (I use that phrase often lately when discussing audio gear or setups or recordings that I’ve found particularly involving. To my mind, they work because they “get out of the way” and allow the listener better access to the music.)

This blog entry will be the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups and recordings that get out of the way.  The series will not necessarily be consecutive in terms of publication (there may be other topics interspersed along the way) but the goal will be to raise some issues not raised elsewhere.  If these provide food for thought and perhaps inspiration for trying something different, I’ll consider them successful.  For those that don’t make records or don’t play instruments but who comprise the audience, the listeners, I hope there is something here of interest for you as well.

Above all, my recommendation is to not simply take my word for what you can expect to hear, since I can only report on how sounds strike my ears.  I encourage all to listen for themselves and draw their own conclusions.  Remember that asking any three audio folks a question will result in at least four different answers (five of which may well be wrong).  Only listening for yourself will tell you how something sounds to you.

In some earlier entries in this blog, I’ve mentioned something I’ve called “The Questions”.  To quote from one of those entries, “These are questions that need to be asked if one is ever to arrive at answers.  They are the questions I’d never seen mentioned in any of the books on recording I’d ever read or in any of the magazines.  They are the questions I was never taught to ask when I was an assistant engineer, the questions that students in today’s “audio engineering” schools never encounter.”

Let’s start our exploration by asking the first question I always ask about any studio: “Can you hear what you’re doing?”  This can be rephrased to accommodate listening setups as well as recording setups: “Can you hear past the system, all the way to the recording itself?”  Seems like an obvious question – at least it should be – but the fact is, in my experience, monitoring is all too often the weak link in most studios I’ve visited.  Since every decision regarding the sound at every step in the process of record making is based on what the monitors tell us, if you can’t hear past the monitoring all the way to the recording, if you can’t hear what you’re doing, you can’t determine how your recording is going to sound.  You can’t make it sound the way you want it to because you don’t know how it sounds.

Many studios have different sets of monitors and these all have very different presentations.  (This is discussed in the entry called Why doesn’t it sound (in here), like it sounds out there?)  Folks will often take a reference out of the studio to “see how it sounds” on some other system or even in the car(!).  Each provides its own view, like lenses with different tints or like prisms but more often than not, none simply gets out of the way.  From the blog entry cited above: “After all, if the engineer can’t hear what they are doing, the best they can do is attempt to blindly steer in the desired direction but the results are effectively left to happenstance.  It occurred to me that adjusting sound while referencing typical studio monitoring is like mixing paint colors while wearing sunglasses.  Over the years, a few folks have claimed to be able to hear “around” the monitors but the audible evidence always tells a different story.”

Certain types of systems will always apply certain types of colorations to how the recording is presented.  That will not change.  A system that gets out of the way, allowing access to the recording itself, removes any questions about what has been captured and how well (or not) it has been captured.  A recording that sounds right on such a system will sound its best on the greatest number of other systems.

Does that mean that everyone needs to buy a certain type of speaker and all will be well?  That would be nice but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  Monitoring is more than the speakers.  It is the room in which one listens.  It is where in the room the speakers are located.  And where in the room the listening position is located.  And where just about everything else in the room is too.  The good news is that by paying attention to all these things, just about any speaker can be helped to get just a little more out of the way.  While the basic character, the basic potential of a given speaker design won’t be changed, in most instances, whatever that potential is can be a lot more fully realized.

This is a big subject and there is much to be said.  This time out, we’ll just start with a few ideas to experiment with.  To start, let’s talk about acoustics. To keep it simple, we’ll break the subject into two areas: bass acoustics and treble acoustics.  Every enclosed space, meaning every listening room, every studio and control room that isn’t outdoors, will have resonant modes.  These are frequencies in the bass where the room tends to “sing”.  When the speakers present content with these frequencies (or their harmonics), the room will tend to “hold onto” these parts of the sound, even after they have stopped in the input signal.  In addition to causing these frequencies to linger too long, filling what should be quieter parts of the signal, some of these resonances will cause certain frequencies to be disproportionately louder (or softer) than they are in the input signal.

While proper acoustic treatments can make important differences in the sound (and will be covered in a future entry in this series), the starting point will determine their effectiveness.  If the goal is to get the monitoring out of the way, a key part of this is getting the room itself out of the way.  Better to minimize any excitation of room resonances from the start.  Placement of the monitors plays a big part here.  As we approach a room boundary, resonant excitation increases.  As we approach places where boundaries meet, such as corners, excitation increases further.  In most studios, we find the listening position behind the console (i.e., mixing board) and the console placed toward the front of the room.  This common placement tends to put the monitors in positions that are very good at stimulating room resonances.  Moving the monitors away from boundaries results in less interference from the room.  I have often said “Every foot from the wall adds $1000 to the sound.”

In terms of acoustics, bass issues manifest themselves in the room’s resonant modes.  In the treble, it is reflections that cause acoustic issues.  The most harmful are called “early reflections” because they arrive at the listening position just after the arrival of the direct sound from the loudspeakers.  These slightly delayed sounds will alter instrumental timbres and smear stereo imaging, in effect, defocusing the audio “picture”.  Here again, proper acoustic treatment of early reflections can make significant differences in the perceived sound but here too, placement is the first step in ensuring the system and room get out of the way to the greatest degree.

Early reflections can occur from room boundaries and from objects in the room, especially from objects between the monitors and the listening position.  Consider the large reflective surface that is the console in most studios.  It is common to see loudspeakers placed atop the meter bridge of the console.  Sounds bouncing off the console reach the engineer’s ears just slightly behind the direct sound from the speakers.  The reflected sound combines with the direct sound and at these distances, one of the results will be a dip in the midrange (a weakening of sounds in the “presence region”).  In an effort to remedy this, the engineer tends to reach for the equalization controls to boost the level of midrange frequencies and “restore” the missing presence.  The problem is, the “remedy” is being applied to a recording that isn’t missing anything.  Because the monitoring has not gotten out of the way and is instead providing false information, something that is not contained in the recording but is in fact an artifact of the monitoring setup, the engineer is being misled and a recording that doesn’t need a thing is being arbitrarily brightened.  Played on a system that doesn’t suffer from the same reflections, the recording now has an artificial, hardened “edge”.

With all the above in mind, we’ve started to answer the questions “Can the room affect what I hear from the speakers?” and “Can where I place the speakers and what I place near them affect what I hear from the speakers?”  If monitoring is the crucial aspect of setting up a studio, where to start?  My experience has been that it is best to start with a clean slate.  For any studio or listening space, rather than fill the space and see what’s left for the monitoring, I find it best to start with the monitors themselves and place everything else afterward.  I’ve already mentioned staying well away from room boundaries.  In the middle of the last century, engineer Peter Walker determined that room excitation can be minimized by placing the monitors near 1/3 points along the room’s diagonals.  In other words, as a start, find the points that divide the room’s length and the room’s width in three.  Placing the monitors near these points will excite the room the least.  I have had good success in several rooms and studios by leaving 1/3 the room’s width between the speakers and 1/3 the room’s length behind them.  (For more on this subject, see Setting up your monitoring environment.)

For now, before placing other items in the room, set the listening position at a point just slightly farther from a line drawn between the speakers, than the center of each speaker is from the center of the other speaker.  In other words, if the center of the left speaker is for example, 72 inches (~1.8 meters) from the center of the right speaker, place the listening position so that your head is slightly further than this distance from either one of the speakers, say perhaps, 80 inches (~2 meters).  Aim the speakers at a point just behind the listening position.

To those not familiar with such a setup, having speakers near the 1/3 points can seem like the speakers are “in the middle of the room”.  But listen to how much easier it is to hear past the speakers, to the recording itself.  Now you hear the bass contained in the recording and not the sympathetic, out of tune “woof” of room resonance.  The sound becomes freed from the confines of the speakers and has a depth dimension (if the recording contains this — more on the subject in a future entry).  The sense of the speakers getting out of the way is increased as the speakers themselves become less obvious sources of the sound.  The part of the room behind the speakers simply comes alive with the stereo “soundstage”, as determined by the recording itself.

Having a monitoring setup like this doesn’t just increase how much you can hear from the recording.  It changes how you go about making recordings.  Now you can hear what you’re doing.

Americas

Among my favorite musical constellations are those comprised of jazz quartets and quintets.  Indeed, much of my personal music collection is filled with albums by classic quartets and quintets.  These albums are musical riches I’ll enjoy for many years to come, however, I’ll also always wish the recordings themselves did greater justice to the pantheon of jazz geniuses.  Having mostly been recorded using the studio techniques that have since become the norm, we hear the great horn players as if listening with an ear in the bell of the instrument or at best only a few inches away.  We hear the pianists from a position under the lid of the instrument (!) only inches above the hammers.  We hear the bassists as if our ears were close enough to the instrument to get in the players’ way.  Sometimes we don’t even hear the instrument but an electronic representation as provided by an electronic pickup and an amplifier.  And the great drummers too often end up being heard with a severely reigned in version of what used to be the dynamic drive they provided—that is, when their drums and cymbals are not completely overloaded and distorted.  Fabulous as the music is, these recordings do not sound the way those musicians sounded.

Recording a fine jazz quartet or quintet using the Soundkeeper approach was something I looked forward to for a long time.  After meeting Paul Beaudry and being very impressed with his melodic sense, overall inventiveness and stamina as a musician, I spoke with him about the idea of doing a Soundkeeper project together.  We met again on a number of occasions and Paul expressed interest in a recording based on some recent experiences he’d had where his band went abroad.  The trip was part of a Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad tour co-sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  The band, known as Paul Beaudry & Pathways, visited Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Nicaragua and Honduras, giving concerts, holding musical seminars and learning the local music.  Paul wanted to record an album celebrating the music of North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.  In addition to music from each of the countries they visited on the tour, Paul included music from Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Haiti.  There was also one beautiful composition from the USA, written by the band’s pianist.  With the concept in hand, Paul also had the album’s name: Americas.

After investigating a few other potential venues in which to record, I chose to return to the same 1908 auditorium in which I’d recorded the last two Soundkeeper projects.  The acoustics are just right and the room’s Steinway grand piano (also dating from 1908) is sweet.  The challenge was to capture the sound of each player as well as their interactions with each other, which are such a crucial component of the spontaneous creation that is jazz at its best.  I wanted to hear not simply Paul’s bass but his fingers pulling on the strings of the instrument.  A prime objective was to maintain the natural perspective of a listener in the best seat at the performance, rather than from a too close, artificially “zoomed in” point of view.  I wanted to hear the wood in the Steinway, with its natural brilliance and warmth.  I wanted the weight and metal of the tenor saxophone (and the reed of the soprano), which to my ears, are not usually captured on jazz recordings but are always in great evidence when in the presence of a horn player.  And I wanted the expansiveness of the drums as the drummer moved around the set, going from drum to drum and cymbal to cymbal.  I wanted to capture the full range of dynamics without any sense of restriction.  In typical studio recordings, where the balances are achieved electronically by the engineer, players often seem to swing forward for their solos, then retreat as the solo ends, as if each sat upon a trapeze.  As I much prefer having the musicians themselves create the musical balances, this recording needed to accommodate the band’s overall dynamic shifts as they provided each other the space to “stretch out” at different points along the way.

Such were our goals going into the recording sessions and much to my joy, the players facilitated the accomplishment of these goals.  I had recorded Paul before, when he played on Equinox, so he was already familiar with the auditorium and with my recording methods.  He had communicated this to the other players, each of whom took to the approach with an open mind, an open heart and a readiness to explore the musical and sonic terrain together.  For me, the experience was one of exhilaration as I watched the meters, periodically checked the sound with headphones and otherwise just sat dancing in my seat, moving to the music they made for the microphones and for each other.  Even now when I listen to this recording, I find it impossible to sit still.  This is moving music.  With AmericasPaul Beaudry & Pathways clearly demonstrate how music transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries, providing a truly universal means of communication.

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

Thank you Paul.  I’ve always loved the contrabass and your mastery of it speaks directly to the soul.  Thank you too for introducing me to some great music from foreign lands, assembling a great bunch of players and for doing the first straight ahead jazz quartet project on Soundkeeper Recordings.

Confluence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equinox

Following the first Soundkeeper Recordings release, I came to discover what has in many ways been the most difficult part of having a record label.  Finding a venue with the right supporting acoustic for the music and instrumentation of a given project is not easy.  Neither is coordinating the schedules of all involved.  Certainly producing, engineering and mastering are labor intensive, as are selection and preparation of the album artwork, coding the associated pages for the Soundkeeper Web site and getting the word out to reviewers and customers.  None of these however, has proven to be as difficult as finding the right artists to record.

Of course the artist’s music must interest me sufficiently to want to undertake a new project.  That part is relatively easy.  The tough part is finding artists whose music moves me and who are also capable of making a recording the Soundkeeper way, which is to say, those artists who can perform their music in real time, without requiring the safety of the studio to fix mistakes or requiring an engineer to balance the music.  In this day of home studios and home recording, it seems the majority of players have gotten so used to the conveniences of the more common modern recording techniques, it feels like a rarity to encounter players who can, as I often put it, play a 5-minute piece in 5 minutes.  The fact that many require a few hours to accomplish this makes the patchwork approach used for most current recordings a more practical means of recording them.  In my experience though, the best way to achieve the excitement of a real performance in a recording is to record a real performance.

Hearing recordings of potential artists can be misleading.  Generally, those recordings are made using typical studio techniques and so, may not be good indicators of the artist’s true capabilities.  This was made all too clear by the experience of starting a few projects to which I had to put a stop once it was evident that other recording approaches were more suitable for those players.  I have found that only a simply made live recording (or of course, being present at a live performance by the artist) will tell me whether an artist is up for the admittedly very difficult task of “recording without a net.”

So it was that a few years passed after the first Soundkeeper Recordings release, with no new artists or albums on the label.  Then, one evening at a social gathering, fortune smiled but I didn’t know it at the time.  An acquaintance asked me if I’d heard of Markus Schwartz and talked a bit about Haitian music.  Until that moment, I’d never heard the name and while I had for years been a big fan of indigenous music from all over the world—nowadays not inappropriately called “world music”—I had almost no exposure to music from Haiti.  (There was one Haitian music ensemble I had previously approached about making a record but the leader declined.  He thought my offer of a recording at no cost to the artist, where the composer keeps 100% of the publishing rights and the artist gets a significant percentage of every sale “too good to be true.”)

Luckily for me, I was about to have the opportunity to hear more music from Haiti, from an artist who would only deepen my appreciation for it.  According to the person who asked if I’d heard of him, Markus and his band Lakou Brooklyn were scheduled to perform in a few weeks at a club not too far away.  I decided to attend the show and what I heard made my heart beat faster.  The ensemble was a quartet featuring percussion, electric guitar, bass and trumpet but it sounded like several more folks than four were playing.  Markus makes use of a JamMan, an electronic device with which he captures (i.e., records) himself playing a musical figure on a percussion instrument, then causes that capture to loop (i.e., continuously repeat) while he begins playing another musical figure on another percussion instrument.  This too is captured and added to the loop.  By doing this several times, with different instruments and playing the main part live, Markus sounds like a whole battery of percussionists, adding more complex textures to the sounds he creates.

The evening was more than memorable, with the combination of Markus’ rhythms, the beautiful melodies of a music I was fast falling in love with and the performances of the other players, all blending into one magical selection after another.  I felt I could have recorded them then and there and it would have made a fantastic album.  As soon as the set ended and the band took a break, I went over to compliment them all and introduce myself.

I told them about what I was doing with Soundkeeper and asked if they’d be interested in doing a project together.  As a means of illustrating the idea, I asked each player in turn a similar question.  I asked Markus what he thought of the idea of listening to his favorite percussionist with his ear an inch above the drums.  I asked the guitarist about hearing his favorite player while listening with an ear up against the grill cloth of the amp.  I asked the bassist about the idea of hearing the sound of the instrument from only a few inches away from the strings or worse, an inch from the grill cloth of an amplifier.  And I asked the trumpet player about listening to a trumpet with one’s ear in the bell of the horn.  All the players agreed the examples did not illustrate what they’d think of as an optimal listening experience.  Then I pointed out that this is where the microphones in typical recordings usually “listen” from.  All were experienced in the studio and nodded their recognition.  When I asked about the idea of listening to the ensemble in a fine performance acoustic, from a more realistic perspective, all expressed interest.  We exchanged contact information and the band returned to the stage for another set that had the audience enthusiastically “up.”  At the end of the evening, Markus and I promised to remain in touch.  Several months later, we were ready to schedule our recording session.

Ordinarily, the next step would be a search for a suitable room in which to record.  Something like the church in which the first Soundkeeper Recordings release was recorded would not be right for an ensemble with more prominent percussion and a horn.  These instruments would excite the space to a point where the room overpowered the instruments rather than supporting them.  I wanted a larger space for this ensemble, one with a shorter reverberation time but with the right character to allow the music to blossom.  It just so happened that I knew of such a space.  A good friend had recently taken an important position at an assisted living facility.  She invited me to tour the place, which is elegant in appearance and which I felt could easily be mistaken for a fine resort hotel.  On our walk around the main building, at the end of a long hallway, we came to an auditorium.  As soon as we entered, I knew the room was special.  Just listening to the space itself, with no music or other sounds, revealed a sense of air and balance in the room.  I clapped my hands a few times as I walked around the space and what came back from the room confirmed my initial impression.

The facility was built in 1908 and little touches like the metal stars on the auditorium ceiling only added to its charm.  I found more to like as I stepped onto the stage.  The first thing that caught my attention there was a beautiful, well-maintained Steinway grand piano, also dating from 1908.  (While we didn’t need a piano for the project Markus and I planned, it would be used for subsequent Soundkeeper Recordings albums.)  The next thing I noticed is something that remains unique in my experience of auditoriums and theaters.  In all the other rooms I’ve been in, the stage is a hollow construct.  Stomping one’s foot on such a stage produces a resonant thump.  The stage in this room is more like solid polished stone with a wooden border.  Stomping one’s foot on this stage produces little more than an ache in the foot.  Rather than absorb low frequencies, a stage like this ensures they are sent out toward the audience.  This room is indeed a find.  How could I get to use it to make a recording?

Since the auditorium’s prime use is to present entertainment to the residents of the facility, I proposed exactly that.  Markus would provide a performance for the facility residents in exchange for permission to use the auditorium for our recording.  I was delighted to find the idea appealed to everyone concerned and so, Markus and I had the venue for our project.

In the months before our recording dates, the equipment I use underwent one more change.  In the previous entry in this blog, I said Metric Halo, the makers of the interface I was using as microphone preamplifiers, A-D converters and D-A converters, was working on a new model.  I now had the new ULN-8 and from the first listen, it exceeded my high expectations.  The first thing it showed me was just how colored the bass end of the spectrum is on most other electronics.  The bottom from the ULN-8 sounds like the bass one hears in real life.  But there was more this device was going to show me.

Where the previous Metric Halo hardware I’d used tops out at a 96 kHz sampling rate, the ULN-8, offers the so-called “4x” rates of 176.4 kHz and 192 kHz.  I must admit that I was skeptical at first because a number of other converters I’d heard that were also spec’d for 4x rates ended up sounding worse at those rates than they did at the 2x rates (i.e., 88.2 kHz and 96 kHz).  I later came to attribute this to the significantly increased demands the 4x rates place on clocking accuracy and on analog stage performance at the wider bandwidths.  Apparently, it is easier to use a chip that will spec for 4x rates than it is to design a device that will deliver the performance those rates make possible.

I was so skeptical of the 4x rates that I actually did the first few recordings with the ULN-8 at the 2x rate of 96 kHz.  Then, when time availed, I decided to give 192 kHz a serious try.  Not only were my concerns toppled but there was something completely new to me about this experience.  Over the years, I’d used some of the finest analog recorders on the planet.  I was also fortunate to use some of the finest digital devices in my experience, including the other interfaces from Metric Halo.  What all of those—both analog and digital—have in common is that in a direct comparison of the input signal with the output from all of these fine devices, there is always a discernible difference.  With the ULN-8 operating at a sample rate of 192 kHz, a threshold is crossed where for the first time in my experience, there is a recording device which produces output I have not yet been able to distinguish from the input signal.

After mentioning this in some online fora, I found some folks were misquoting me, as if I’d said this has been my experience with recording at 192 kHz.  As I stated above, I’ve found too many devices that sound worse at this rate than they do at the easier, lower rates.  To be clear, the output that I haven’t been able to tell from the input has so far occurred only with the ULN-8, when it is used at 192 kHz.  Interestingly, one of my favorite audio engineers, Keith Johnson, has also used the word “threshold” to describe his experience with well done 4x sample rates.  This doesn’t surprise me because I think anyone who has made recordings over the years would be enamored of a device that for the first time, provides a truly uncolored version of the signal they feed it.  (Needless to say, when I see “white papers” on the Internet by folks claiming that 4x rates are either unnecessary or downright inferior to lower rates, I can only conclude that at best, they have not heard 4x rates done correctly.  Now that I have a recording device that at long last gives me audio truth like I’ve never heard it before, I read these papers as if the author is trying to convince me there are no colors in a rainbow.)

For those interested in such things, the equipment list for the project with Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn:

Microphones:  Earthworks QTC-1 (aka QTC-40, matched pair)
Mic cables:  Nordost Valkyrja
Interface:  Metric Halo ULN-8 (serving as microphone preamps and A-D converters)
Laptop:  Apple PowerBook
Software:  Metric Halo Console X (Record Panel)
Power conditioner:  Monster Cable HTS-400
Vibration isolation:  Custom made base to support laptop and interface

There was one more thing I introduced at the recording session.  It is something I’ve continued to do at the start of every recording session since then: the Soundkeeper invocation.  Once all the instruments and recording gear are all set up, once the sound check is done and everyone is warmed up, just before we begin recording, I gather all the players together.  We stand in a circle, join hands and I say a few words about what we are all about to do.  I ask them to emphasize the idea of “play” when they make the music, to think of the folks they are most fond of and to make the music for them and to also make the music for themselves and each other.  Lastly, we have a toast to the session, which may consist of a libation or some other beverage.  In this case, Markus produced some Barbancourt, a fine Haitian rum of which we had a tiny sip.  (I brought a bottle of it too.)  With that, we began the recording session.

Though I carry headphones to recording sessions, I use these primarily to ascertain that I’ve connected the microphones properly, that they are working as expected and that I’ve pressed the red button hard enough to engage recording.  Ultimate evaluation of the recording occurs when I return to my studio where the monitors are not shy about telling me all there is to tell.  Markus and I met at my studio the day after the session to hear the results.  We both decided that while there was much to like, there was more to be had both sonically and musically.  (This is not unusual when first working in a new room or when first working with a new ensemble.  Sometimes the first session becomes a test run, though it can also produce some great takes which make the final cut of the album.)  We both wanted to hear the bass a bit closer.  Musically, we thought the band having taken turns to hear playbacks via the headphones—and the amazing amount of detail being captured—may have resulted in the playing being a bit more cautious than it might have been.  Musicians are not used to hearing this amount of information about themselves from the recordings they do in studios.

At the invocation for the second session, I asked the band to avoid being cautious when they played and urged them to let the music fly free.  This time, we nailed it.  In fact, in what could be a world record (I see the unintended pun as I just typed those words), the total time for unpacking the gear, setting everything up, doing a sound check, warming up, having the invocation, recording, taking a break, recording some more and finally breaking it all down to leave was only four hours.  (One particular session I’d heard of while at Atlantic came to mind, where the band and engineer spent three days getting the reverb sound on the snare drum!)  What a thrill it was back in my studio to listen to the 24/192 playback and hear the full expression of the music—in three dimensions!—that I heard when standing at the position of the microphone array during the recording sessions.

The album features Haitian music of course but also contains Markus’ and the band’s arrangement of a composition by John Coltrane, with whom Markus shares a birthday.  The name of the composition marks the two days each year when the sun crosses the equator resulting in day and night being equal in length.  One of those is the day of the year both were born and so the name of this composition also became the title of the album: Equinox.

Since the original recording of Equinox was done at 24/192, I added two new custom burned formats to the others Soundkeeper offers: 24/192 .aif files-on-disc and 24/192 .wav files-on-disc.  With the right playback gear, the listener at home would now have access to the sound of my mic feeds.

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

Thank you Brother Markus, for taking the chance on “recording without a net.”  And more importantly, thank you  for your friendship and for turning me on to the beauty and the heart in the music of Haiti.  No doubt, this gift you have given me has many more treasures for me to discover.