The People’s System

A year ago, the entry in this blog called Can you hear what you’re doing? was the first in a series written with the hope of helping musicians and other recordists who are interested, like myself, in studio setups that avoid superimposing their own sonic thumbprint on the signals they reproduce.  I hope these entries will also be of interest to any music and sound enthusiast who seeks a system capable of what I call “getting out of the way” in order to provide more direct access to the recordings in their music collection.

Previous entries have talked about monitoring system setup and room acoustics.  In the entry preceding this one, Magnificent Maggies, I spoke of a particular favorite speaker design, Jim Winey’s Magneplanars, and how I’ve found them to be exemplary in terms of stepping aside and allowing the listener to truly hear the input signal.

To be clear, not everyone really wants to hear the input signal unaltered.  Some folks like their systems to offer certain colors that please their ears.  While I would never argue with whatever brings anyone their listening pleasure, this entry is directed toward folks who want the colors to come from the music and not from the gear used to listen to it.

A system that gets out of the way is pivotal for those making records.  Unless they can be confident they are assessing the sound of the recording itself, they risk altering the sound to make inaccurate monitoring sound “right.”   If that happens, when they listen elsewhere they find that the recording itself doesn’t sound the way they intended it to sound.  Such a system is important to music lovers too because it reveals all the nuances contained in their music libraries.

I have often been asked to recommend a system for musician friends, clients, and other friends. In the majority of instances the recommendations have been very similar.  What I’m going to describe here is the least expensive system I would trust for monitoring recordings.  (I’ve heard systems costing considerably more that do not elicit the same confidence on my part.)  It is equally suitable for any music lover, whether as a starter system in a college dorm or as an ultimate system for folks who don’t seek anything more.  One can certainly spend less and have a very enjoyable system, but I would not recommend such for anyone who makes records or anyone who wants to hear the most from their music.

It is important to remember that the ideal recommended system will vary depending on the source of the recommendation.  I often say that if you ask three folks an audio question, you will receive at least four different answers.  I will report on a system I have experienced in many rooms and which has brought smiles to many musicians, recordists, and other music lovers I know.

For the purpose of this entry, I’m going to divide the music system into two parts: the front end and the back end.  The front end might be as simple as a CD or turntable, or it might be as elaborate as a computer feeding an external digital-to-analog converter (also known as a DAC).  The front end is the source from which recordings are played.  The back end is the monitoring which includes the loudspeakers and the electronics that drive the speakers.  The system I’m recommending here is built around the monitoring.

In the previous entry, I said that I often refer to Magnepan’s MMG model ($599/pair) as “The People’s Speaker.”  To quote from that entry, “I’ve heard some $10,000 and $15,000 speakers that have so much ‘personality’ they end up exhausting the listener and engendering headaches.  MMGs, within their capabilities, just sound like what they are fed.  Properly set up, they are a joy that any music lover will intuitively recognize.”  The MMGs are the core of what I’ll call “The People’s System.”

What is needed now are associated components that will allow the MMGs to reveal their magic.  The speakers must be paired with an amplifier to drive them.  The most economical good match for the MMGs I’ve found so far is the RR-2150 stereo receiver ($699) from Outlaw Audio.  With sufficient power to drive the MMGs, the RR-2150 also serves as the control center for the system, where the input source can be selected and the playback volume adjusted, using either the front panel or the included remote.

While they are often overlooked when folks assemble audio systems, I’ve found the cables that connect all the individual pieces of gear to be critical in getting the best out of the whole.  In the entry called The High End Arrives, I recounted my earliest exposure to good cables.  It started with the loudspeaker cables.  From that entry: “…I already had ‘heavy gauge’ wires feeding the speakers.  Once the cable was sufficient to pass the requisite power to the loudspeakers, I wondered ‘how could cable make a difference?’  Once again I listened and once again I learned.  Where did all that musical information come from?  What was formerly just a guitar chord was now a set of individual strings sounding together to make that chord.  The room in which the musicians were playing was suddenly also much more clearly evident – both in recordings made in real rooms and those where a ‘room’ sound was added artificially via electronic reverberation.  Where cables had previously been not much more than an afterthought, required to get sound from one component in the chain to the next, I came to realize they are components in themselves and as with any chain, the weak link will determine the overall strength.”  I wrote more about the subject in the New Connections entry last year.

In my experience, the MMGs will easily reveal differences in cables and so I recommend using wires that are commensurate with the rest of the monitoring system we’re assembling here.  For this system, I recommend White Lightning speaker cables ($429/3-meter pair) from Nordost.  In order to connect a front end source component to one of the inputs on the Outlaw RR 2150, I recommend Nordost’s White Lightning interconnect cables ($189/1-meter pair).

Each of the cables is available with different types of connectors at each end.  I would choose Nordost’s “z-plug” banana connectors on their speaker cables, as these make for easy attachment at the amplifier and speaker ends.  Standard RCA connectors on the interconnect cables will work with the Outlaw RR-2150 and most source components.

Depending on the setup, shorter or longer speaker cables or interconnects may be desired.  In this example, I’ve chosen a 3-meter pair for the speaker cables and a 1-meter for the interconnects as good average lengths that work in most installations (and to “ballpark” the price).

So, excluding the front end source component(s), the system consists of:

Magnepan MMG loudspeakers  $599
Outlaw Audio RR-2150 receiver  $699
Nordost White Lightning speaker cables  $429
Nordost White Lightning interconnects  $189

The total cost for this part of the system is $1916.  All that is needed now is the front end source or sources.  I’ve heard this system make mellifluous musical magic with inputs as simple as a $35 Sony DVD/CD player spinning a CD, or as complex as a computer-centered digital audio workstation in a studio feeding the system via an external DAC.

One thing that might surprise folks who are new to components like these is that wonderful as they sound fresh out of the box, all of them will improve considerably once they have played music for a while.  The cables and electronics get better over the first 100 hours of use, while the speakers can take as much as 400 hours of playing music to get to their best performance.  Extension in the bass as well as the treble, smoothness in the upper frequencies, “airiness”, and dynamic range all exhibit improvements.  The dimensions of the stereo soundstage expand and overall focus attains greater detail.  The system will sound fantastic immediately but will ultimately get even better.

While I could happily live with this system as described (and truly believe it tells a lot more sonic truth than I’ve heard in most studios), one of its beauties is that each of the various components will stand up to having any of the others upgraded within each respective brand.  For example, go up a model in the Magnepan line, and the RR-2150 and White Lightning will still deliver.  Go up to separate electronics, like Outlaw’s 2200 amplifiers, and the MMGs will respond to the increased power while the White Lightning will still faithfully render the signal from link to link in the component chain.  Go up to one of Nordost’s more elaborate cable designs, and the MMGs will reveal the increased performance.  These are all components that work superbly together, yet can also allow for growth.  And most importantly, the combination is true to the input signal.  Of course, models further up the Magnepan and Nordost lines will take the revelation level up accordingly.  (There are also some outstanding alternatives for more expensive electronics.)  But this system as it is, fits the goal mentioned at the start of this entry: It is capable of getting out of the way and providing more direct access to the music.  It gets my vote for The People’s System.

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.

 

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.)

So, for those interested in such things, the equipment list for the project with Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn was as follows:

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 bought 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.

Lift

Several months after our initial attempt to record the first release for my Soundkeeper Recordings label (documented in the previous entry in this blog, Three Decisions (Part 3) and in Recording in Stereo (Part 2), Art Halperin and his band Work of Art joined me once again deep in the woods of upstate New York, at the 18th century church I’d come to call Large Green.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Art’s music is its changing nature.  Our first project together had me mastering reggae, the second project, a blend of folk and rock.  The music Art brought to the previous session was primarily electric rock.  The new songs he composed in the interval between the sessions were a mix of folk, rock, bluegrass and a jazzy ballad.  (The recording containing electric rock would have to wait for a future project, which would yield the third Soundkeeper Recording.  My feeling was that having the artist follow his muse was by far the greater priority.)

Like his music, the constellation of players making up his ensemble also varies, depending on where his musical vision takes him.  Where the previous date at the church featured a quartet with two electric guitars, electric bass and drums, this time out the ensemble was primarily acoustic in nature.  Art still plugged in for a few of the songs, using the Fender Stratocaster given to him by his friend Eric Clapton, but on most of the tunes the instrumentation consisted of an acoustic guitar, a second acoustic guitar or a banjo, a mandolin, acoustic bass and drums (or percussion) to accompany Art’s vocals and the two harmony vocals.  In addition, some of the songs included a part for lute.  I smiled at the idea of having a lute and a banjo on the same record.

Unlike typical studio productions where each of the multiple microphone or instrument feeds is recorded to its own track on a multitrack recorder and combined later in the “mix” to 2-channel stereo, recording direct-to-stereo in the way I chose begins with no more than two channels.  Among other things, this means that rather than synthesize placement of the players on the stereo stage electronically, as is done in a typical mixdown, placement of all the instruments and voices upon the stereo stage is accomplished physically—in reality—and therefore, has to be decided upon ahead of time.  In other words, anything I want to hear from the left has to be placed on the left before we started recording.  And anything I want to hear from the background has to be placed in the background before we started recording.  Effectively, this means the mix must be done before the recording is made.

The multitrack recordings typically made in studios are usually comprised of multiple monaural captures of the instruments and voices, panned somewhere between left, center and right during the mix to simulate a stereo spread.  This isn’t at all the same as capturing the sounds in real stereo, utilizing the different types of cues our brains use to localize sounds in the real world.

In addition to the placement of voices and instruments on the stereo stage, the balances between individual voices and instruments need to be considered.  Further, the balances between each of the members of the ensemble and the room need to be considered.  Where a typical studio production would control this electronically, my approach to making the record—having the sound of a real room—means the balances, like the placement of the voices and instruments, must be achieved beforehand.  (I remember the day after one of my earliest stereo experiments, done while I was at Atlantic Studios.  The chief engineer was listening to a playback with me and after a short while, turned to me and asked “What did you use to get the room sound?”  He seemed surprised at my response, which was “The room.”)

There is no doubt that removing the convenience of the usual studio approach and the “safety” it provides places increased pressure on the players as well as on the engineer.  Musical performances and the sonic balance must all gel in specific ways for the recording to work.  If one musician makes a mistake, the whole ensemble must play again.  If the engineer doesn’t get the balance or some other aspect of the recording, the performance is missed.  With a pickup this sensitive, other variables come into play as well, such as the fly all the way at the back of the church, whose easily heard buzzing was not in the right key as the last chord of one song faded away.  That little fly made us do another take.  I came to refer to this method as “recording without a net”.

Certainly there are many ways to make a satisfying recording.  I moved toward this approach because it provides things I’ve not found with any other method.  First, the players must perform for real.  They must be at their best as individuals and as an ensemble.  They must listen intently to each other (as well as to how their sound interacts with the space in which they are playing) and they must do so in real time, as the music is occurring—just like a real performance.  The result is a certain “electricity” or frisson in the performance.  Foregoing the safety of the studio, namely being able to “punch in” to fix mistakes and being able to adjust balances later on, is considerably more demanding but provides considerably greater rewards.  In addition to the musical ones, the sound itself, when captured as one coherent stereo entity has an ease, a sense of focus and a sense of Life that I have never experienced from other recording techniques.

After a long day of music making and fun, it was a joy to get back to my studio and hear the first playback.  Finally, we had the makings of what would be the first release.  We still didn’t have it all though.  What we captured was wonderful but Art had more songs that we wanted to record, so we arranged another recording session.  While the equipment used at the recording session was the same as I mentioned in Three Decisions (Part 3), there were a few changes for the next session.  For those interested in such things, the gear was as follows:

Microphones:  Earthworks QTC-1 (aka QTC-40, matched pair)
Mic cables:  Mogami Neglex 2534
Interface:  Metric Halo MIO 2882 (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

Before the next recording session occurred, I tried a different set of microphone cables.  I knew from previous experience that cables could have a significant effect on system performance and with the microphone cables being the first cables the signals would encounter on the way to the listener, I was curious to hear what the wires from Nordost would do.  As I mentioned in Three Decisions (Part 1), “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 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.”  Once again, these cables impressed, to the point where I felt I was finding out that the Earthworks microphones were even better than I thought they were.  With the new mic cables, there was a sense of diminished grain and increased definition.  The sound was less “bright” but more open and extended, more coherent, solid and natural, more real.

The other piece of hardware that changed before the next recording session was the interface.  I knew Metric Halo was working on a new model and having found so much to like in all of the hardware and software I’d tried from them, I also knew I was going to want to get one.  In preparation, I’d sold the 2882 and as the new model was still off in the future, borrowed a different Metric Halo unit for the recording session.  This model, the ULN-2, utilizes different microphone preamplifiers than the 2882, offering a somewhat different sound.

So, for the next recording session, the following items replaced their counterparts mentioned above:

Mic cables:  Nordost Valkyrja
Interface:  Metric Halo ULN-2 (serving as microphone preamps and A-D converters)

Now that everyone was familiar with the space and with my approach to recording, that next session went very smoothly.  The rest of the songs were recorded and when Art and I listened to the results, from the opening strums of his Martin acoustic guitar to the fade of the church ambience after the last chord in the last song, we knew we had the album we wanted to release.  The feel of the music was there in spades and sonically there was a palpable three-dimensionality in the playback that really gave an uncanny sense of being in the room at Large Green, in the presence of the performers.  This was exactly what I set out to record.  After we deliberated and entertained dozens of possible candidates, Art came up with the name for the album: Lift.  I loved the simplicity and the optimism and thought it perfect for the first release on Soundkeeper Recordings.

From the beginning, it was my intention to offer Lift in several different formats.  Starting with the CD, prior to releasing the album, I spoke with folks at a few dozen different CD replicators.  My experience over the years, having sent CD masters to replication facilities all over the world, is that “pressings” from different plants all sound different from each other and none sounds indistinguishable from the master used to create it.  (This is at complete odds with the claims that it is all “just ones and zeros” and every copy is identical to every other copy.   My experience has been consistent and without exception, regardless of the playback hardware used, since the first CD I compared with its master back in early 1983.)  To be clear, the differences can range from subtle to not subtle at all.  Always, there is a loss of focus and fine detail when compared with the CD master.

At every plant but one, the personnel claimed their product sounds identical to the master.  I thanked each of them and contacted the next plant on my list.  Ultimately I found one where the contact, with no prompting from me whatsoever, said “They’ll never sound identical to the master.”  That plant got the job and in that instance and every other one I’ve sent them in the ensuing years, they have delivered finished CDs which, while still not indistinguishable from the master, are so close that I need a direct, synchronized comparison to discern the remaining losses.  (There is more to say on this subject, which will come a few paragraphs hence.)

Another thing I discovered early on is that a CD-R burned at slow speed directly from the CD master sounds closer to the master than even the finest CD pressings in my experience.  Here the difference is quite subtle but it is there nonetheless.  With this in mind, I decided to offer Soundkeeper customers the option of a burned-to-order CD-R as a slightly closer-to-the-master disc than the pressed CD.

Since Lift was recorded at 24/96 (24-bits and a 96 kHz sample rate), I wanted to offer a third option that would completely surpass the CD and provide the listener with the resolution of the original master.  At the time, the best way to do this was to take advantage of the fact that the DVD-V standard allows for 24/96 audio that is playable in any ordinary DVD machine that plays videos.  (This should not be confused with the subsequent—and now essentially defunct—DVD-Audio standard, which requires a special machine.)  These would also be custom burned-to-order on DVD-R discs.

A few years after Lift was released, computer audio started to take off among audio enthusiasts.  With computer audio, various software applications allow listeners to enjoy music played back from files rather than discs, directly from their computer rather than via a disc player.  At first, computer audio meant music distributed in the sonically compromised mp3 format (aka “eMPty3”) where the lion’s share of the data (along with the high fidelity) was removed in order to shrink file size.  Now, audio enthusiasts were starting to listen to full resolution (and high resolution) files via their computers.

Most interesting to me was that here at last was a no-compromise way to deliver to the listener the sound of the master itself.  Another benefit of computer audio, as I found, is that when different CD pressings are properly “ripped” (i.e., copied) to the computer’s drive, the sonic differences between them disappear.  Further, once played from the computer, the differences between these (as heard via a CD player or transport) and the master from which they were made also disappear.  Possibly the subject for a future entry in this blog but the short version is that while playback from disc, even with the finest CD players or transport/DAC combinations does not sound indistinguishable from the master used to create said disc, playback from the computer does.  At long last, the listener at home can have the sound of the master.

This prompted me to add two additional release formats.  I chose to stay with raw PCM formats such as .aif (my preferred format, in which I do all my engineering work) and .wav.  Many of the online services offering high resolution downloads have gone with so-called “lossless” formats such as .flac.  While these can result in audio which to my ears is very close to the original, there is a long, long way in my view, from “very close” to “indistinguishable” and one of my prime reasons for starting Soundkeeper was to release no-compromise recordings.  To this end, additional burn-to-order options in the form of 24/96 .aif files-on-disc and 24/96 .wav files-on-disc were added.

Each of the custom burned formats is shipped with the same printed artwork as the pressed CD.  I thought it would be a nice touch if the first several in each of the custom burned formats also was signed by the artist, so starting with Lift, that is what we have done with each new release.

The Lift 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 Art Halperin.

The last part of the picture I had in mind for the new label involves the business end and the relationship with our artists.  First, where most recording contracts involve the label taking ownership of the publishing, I decided I wanted the composer of the music to retain 100% ownership of it.  Next, instead of getting pennies per sale, I wanted the artist to receive a very significant percentage of every sale.  Not only is the percentage considerably larger than what the biggest acts get from the major labels, the percentage increases with the number of sales.  I very much wanted Soundkeeper Recordings to treat its artists like the gems they are.  After all, they give us the gift of the music.

I am forever indebted to Art as well as all the Soundkeeper artists, who not only present us with the music but who have presented me with the opportunity to make the kind of records I’ve always wanted to make.  Art my dear friend, you helped me realize a dream.

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.