The last entry, House Picks (Part 1), began with my writing “I am often asked which albums I consider to be particularly good sounding. Sometimes the question involves recordings I’ve mastered and other times it is more general. There is in fact an ever-growing group of recordings I turn to for reference whenever I make a change to the system in the studio, or when I’m evaluating a new piece of hardware or software, or when I just want to demo something for a client or friend. Needless to say, I love the music on all of them. This entry is about those I find to be sonically exceptional. All of this comes to mind as I just happen to be evaluating a new change in the system.”
In the first part, I wrote about recordings of classical music. This is because some of my all-time engineering heroes have primarily recorded this genre and because recordings of this type of music tend to be documents of real performances as opposed to the studio creations that dominate in the more popular musical genres.
In the world of popular music, it is more challenging to find recordings with great sonics. There are several reasons for this. Most typical studio productions are made using a large numbers of closely placed microphones. The recordings are subjected to varying amounts of dynamic compression, sometimes used as a special effect but more often simply for the sake of loudness. And lastly, what is commonly referred to as “stereo” is actually derived electronically during the “mix” where the individual monaural tracks are combined into two channels and each sound is sent to either the left channel, the right channel or some combination to give the appearance of the sound being somewhere in between. Any sense of depth and space also tends to be created electronically rather than captured acoustically. Even so, there are examples that, in spite of all the processing, still effectively convey musical meaning within the context of the sounds they provide.
To my ears, some of the best among these are the solo albums by Mark Knopfler. The first one I heard, Sailing to Philadelphia (Warner Brothers 47753) was a great help when I was evaluating various means of isolating gear from external vibrations. As the gear got better isolated, it was easier to hear the distinctive way Mark picks the strings of his guitars. (Not that one had to listen for this; it just became more obvious.)
More recently, having purchased the rest of his catalog, I’ve often played tracks from The Ragpicker’s Dream (Warner Brothers 48318), Shangri-La (Warner Brothers 48858), Kill to Get Crimson (Warner Brothers 281660), Get Lucky (Reprise 520206), and all the others.
Another artist in the pop realm whose recordings I find sonically superior is Rickie Lee Jones. Just yesterday, the track “Tigers” from Traffic from Paradise (Geffen 24602) provided some insight into the new degree of low level information being revealed by the most recent change to the system. It is always amazing to me how, after knowing an album inside-out for many years, there may still be new sounds to hear in it.
Other Rickie Lee Jones albums that I find sonically special are The Evening of My Best Day (V2 Records 22171), The Sermon on Exposition Blvd (New West NW6112), and Balm in Gilead (Fantasy 31760).
Of the albums I’ve had the pleasure of mastering, my favorites are Enya’s Watermark (Geffen 24233) and the entire Bob Marley & the Wailers catalog in the series I did for the Tuff Gong label in 1990. Of the Marleys, I’ll often pick Survival (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) or Exodus (Tuff Gong 422-846-202) when I want to test the system. Another one of my prime choices from the albums I’ve mastered is Work of Art’s Waves (Sword In The Stone SSR56).
Finally, nothing tells me more about how a system (or device within it) is performing than recordings I’ve made myself for my own Soundkeeper Recordings label. Having stood at the position of the microphone array at the recording sessions, and having compared the signals from the mics with what I was hearing in the air, provides a unique perspective into each of these projects. Even more than when mastering an album, where one learns every little sound during multiple listens over the course of the mastering process, having made the original recording and been in the space with the players during the event itself affords an unequaled vantage point on the reproduction of same. With this in mind, I’ll always bring out the recordings I know best of all. These include Work of Art’s Lift (SRx001), Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn’s Equinox (SRx002), Jason Vitelli’s Confluence (SRx003), Paul Beaudry & Pathways’ Americas (SRx004), and Work of Art’s Winds of Change (SRx005).
The postman just delivered a package with some new albums I ordered. I hope its contents are the makings of a future “House Picks” entry in this blog. I’m off to the studio/listening room.