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.

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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 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Decisions (Part 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.