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.

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Pressing Matters

It is my sincere hope that this blog provides entries of interest to music lovers, musicians, and audio enthusiasts, as well as folks who make records.  A few previous entries, such as Can you hear what you’re doing? (Part 1) and Can you hear what you’re doing (Part 2), were aimed specifically at those setting up studios in order to make records, among whom there are a great many musicians.  Of course, it has been my hope that others would find these of interest as well.  So it is with the current entry.  While it is intended primarily for those who make records, if I’m lucky, those who purchase and listen to records will also find something of value herein.

With audio mastering completed for the new Work of Art album entitled Winds of Change (first mentioned in the August 22, 2014 entry of this blog, also called Winds of Change), and with the album artwork approved, it was time to contact the CD replicator in order to get the “pressed” versions manufactured.  Actually, CDs are not pressed like vinyl records.  They are made using an injection molding process, but the term pressing seems to have endured in common use.

Those familiar with my label, Soundkeeper Recordings, know that we release each album in several different formats.  In addition to the regular CD, we offer six custom burned formats, including CD-R and five formats with higher resolution than a CD can provide:
–   Music-only DVD-R with 24-bit, 96 kHz audio, playable in most regular DVD players
–   24-bit, 96 kHz .aif files-on-disc
–   24-bit, 96 kHz .wav files-on-disc
–   24-bit, 192 kHz .aif files-on-disc
–   24-bit, 192 kHz .wav files-on-disc

For more about the different resolutions, see the May 22, 2014 entry in this blog, Is “too much” not enough?

As far as standard, 16-bit, 44.1 kHz CD resolution, the reason Soundkeeper Recordings offers our releases in CD-R format, and the true subject of this entry, is something I’ve said since I heard the finished product for the very first CD I mastered, back in January of 1983—CDs made at different plants all sound different from each other and none sounds indistinguishable from the master used to make it.  This may sound strange in view of the marketing that has accompanied the CD format from the beginning, primarily in the form of the slogan “Perfect Sound Forever” and the widely accepted idea that nothing can change once the signal is in a digital format.

Imagine my surprise then, when I first started mastering CDs and found that the same digital U-Matic tape (the format used at the time to send CD masters to replication facilities) sounded different depending on which side of the Sony DAE-1100 editor I used to play it.  The DAE-1100 was commonly used at the time to assemble CD masters.  The unit controlled tape machines for the ¾” tape cartridges that comprised the U-Matic format.  One or two machines could be used on the Playback side and another machine was used on the Record side.  The CD master was assembled on a U-Matic tape in the machine connected to the Record side of the editor.

Early on in my experience with this system, I wanted to compare a tape that was copied from another, just to hear for myself that a digital copy was indistinguishable from the original, as we’d all been told.  Unfortunately, the test never got that far.  What I found was that the original tape, played from the Playback side of the editor sounded better than the copy.  Something was getting lost on the copy, as it seemed coarser and less well defined than the original.  I don’t recall what made me try it but I decided to swap the tapes, listening to the copy from the machine attached to Playback side of the editor and the original from the machine attached to the Record side.  To my surprise, now the copy sounded better (i.e., more like the analog source tape I was using) than the original digital conversion.  When heard from the Record side of the editor, the original digital tape now sounded coarser and less well defined than the copy!  Clearly, there was something else going on.

Perhaps it was this experience that diminished the surprise when the finished CDs for that first CD mastering project came in and I compared them with the CD master used to make those discs.  Here the coarseness was even greater than what I’d encountered on the different sides of the DAE-1100 editor.  The finished CDs almost sounded “out of focus” compared with the CD master, such was the extent of the loss of clarity and fine detail.

Things got more interesting when I created CD masters for albums where large sales were expected.  In those days, there were fewer CD plants than there are today and they were all working at capacity.  In order to accommodate expected demand for the big sellers, the CD master would be cloned and those clones were sent to multiple replicators in order to get back sufficient numbers of finished discs to meet the demand.  This was an education in that I discovered that CDs from different plants all sounded different from each other.  Sometimes CDs from different lines within the same plant sounded different from each other.

So much for “Perfect Sound Forever”.  The format has been claimed to deliver perfect copies of the master.  Logic would demand that if this is the case, all those perfect copies would sound indistinguishable from each other and they’d all sound indistinguishable from the masters from which they were made.  But they weren’t then and they still aren’t today.  (There is an exception that I’ll get to shortly.)

Having sent CD masters to plants all over the world and all over the USA, I’ve had the opportunity to compare a lot of finished product to the masters from which said product was made.  Happily, the days of U-Matic tapes are long gone and the advent (long ago) of computer workstations made for many improvements.  Still, even with the most sophisticated CD mastering tools, the reality from the replication facilities remains—the finished discs don’t sound like the masters.

In my experience, a slow-burned CD-R made directly from the computer-based CD master, sounds more like that master than any pressed CD, even the best in my experience.  This is why Soundkeeper Recordings offers our releases in CD-R format as well as replicated CDs.  But how then, to select a CD replicator?  If they all produce discs that sound different from the CD master, how does one find the most faithfully made discs?  This is the question that was on my mind when I started the label.  Knowing that a lot of folks just prefer a factory-made disc to a burned version, even if the latter is more faithful to the master, I needed to find a replicator for Soundkeeper CDs.  My whole reason for starting this label was to avoid the compromises I feel are too often part of the record making process.  I wanted a no-compromise replicator — if such a thing existed.

I reached out to contacts at most of the plants I’d sent masters to over the years.  I told them about my concept for the label and that I needed the most faithful to the master, highest quality discs.  All but one of them told me essentially the same thing.  They said their CDs were perfect replicas of the CD master.  Since my own experience consistently told me something quite different, I could only conclude they were not hearing it the same way I was.  Or they just weren’t listening and were simply repeating the received mantra.  I thanked each in turn and moved on to the next person on my list.

Out of all the replication facilities, only one person at one facility told me, with no prompting from me whatsoever, “Oh the finished CDs will never sound like the CD master.”  I wanted to hear more but knew by then that I’d found my CD replicator.  Here at last, was someone who appeared to actually be listening.  It turned out, this replicator took an unusual approach to making their finished CDs too.  Where many plants increased their throughput – and hence, their income – by speeding up the process, this plant kept with the slower methods.

The first step in manufacturing a CD involves cutting what is called the glass master.  The CD master from the mastering facility is fed into a Laser Beam Recorder (LBR), where a laser is used to create the pits in a photoresistant coating on a glass disc.  This disc is used in the subsequent steps of CD manufacturing.  Most plants cut the glass master at high speed.  Some will cut the glass master in real time, at additional cost.  Many folks have found real-time glass cutting to result in finished discs that sound closer to the original CD master.  The person at this plant told me they cut all their glass in real time, at no additional cost.  It is just how they do it.

In addition, most CD replicators have moved to shorter injection molding cycles.  The faster the cycle, the more finished discs that can be produced in a given day.  Typical injection molding cycles for CDs are now about 4 seconds long.  The person at this plant told me they use a slower cycle, closer to 9 seconds long.  This makes for better formed pits on the finished discs, making it easier for the laser in the CD player to read the discs and minimizing the incidence of playback errors.

Whether the real-time glass cutting and slower injection molding cycle are the reasons or whether some other factors might be involved, I don’t know.  What I do know is that when I master an album, I listen to it so many times that I become intimately familiar with all the details of its sound.  Often, when I hear the finished CD that comes back from the replicator, it takes only a few seconds to hear the typical loss of focus and fine detail.  Something like a chord strummed on an acoustic guitar becomes a loose mélange rather than the six discrete, individual string sounds heard on the CD master.  With CDs from this replicator, the sound is so much closer to the CD master, I need to synchronize playback of the finished disc with the CD master in order to discern the remaining differences.  (Still not as close to the master as the CD-R but closer by far than I’ve heard from other CD plants.)

Now earlier on in this entry, I mentioned an exception.  In fact, I wrote about this in the February 23, 2014 entry in this blog, entitled Listening to Tomorrow.  Basically, what I’ve found is that what I’ve written about in the current entry comes into play when the CD is played in a CD player or via a CD transport.  This has been my experience regardless of the player or transport, or its price.  However, when the CD is properly extracted to a computer, the audible differences do go away.  To date, after 31 years of the CD format, it is only via computer that I’ve heard the audio from a CD disc sound indistinguishable from the master used to create that CD.  Still, those listening to computer music servers with CD or better resolution (as opposed to mp3 or other reduced formats) are in the minority.

Most of the music lovers I know of who purchase CDs will listen to them in CD players or via a separate CD transport feeding an external digital-to-analog converter (DAC).  In order to provide these folks with a CD that truly represents the CD master approved by the artist and producer, selection of the replicator is critical.  To this end, I feel very lucky to have found Bryan Kelley and the folks at GrooveHouse Records, who I have been recommending to mastering clients since my first conversation with Bryan, and who, as far as I’m concerned, are the official CD replicators for Soundkeeper Recordings.

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.

Perfect Sound Forever? (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect Sound Forever? (Part 1)

In early 1983, I created my first master for Compact Disc.  I first heard of the format nearly a decade earlier, while still in college.  I remember a promotional mock-up, looking very much like a miniature LP jacket.  Inside, was a cardboard disc printed with the distinctive rainbow reflections of the real thing.

Atlantic’s west coast affiliate, Warner Brothers, was already creating CD masters when it was decided that Atlantic would open its own CD mastering room.  I was to be the CD mastering “department” and was sent to Los Angeles to spend a few days with my counterpart, learning the procedures Warner Brothers had in place for creating CD masters.

At this point, the only CD mastering rooms I knew to exist were at Sony in Japan, Polygram in Germany, Warner in California, perhaps DADC in Terre Haute and now, Atlantic.  To my knowledge, I was one of the first engineers to do CD mastering.  Technically, the process of creating a master for CD replication is referred to as “premastering”.  To the replication facilities, the term “mastering” refers to the first stage of manufacturing, when the glass master is “cut”.  Glass mastering is the creation of a glass disc, etched by a laser beam recorder.  This disc is electroplated and used as the first part in the process that yields the injection molded finished CD.  Still, in terms of the creative process, which occurs prior to manufacturing, creating a CD master is still referred to as “mastering”.  Mastering, for any format, not just CD, has always been the last step in the creative process and also, the first in the manufacturing process.  It is the last chance to make any adjustments to the sound and it is where the “part” used to initiate manufacturing is created.

In those days, the CD master sent to the replication facility was recorded on a U-Matic video tape cartridge, housing ¾” (~19 mm) wide tape.  It was recorded using the video capacity to store the digital audio signal.  A parallel track stored the usual time code used by both video and digital audio.  The system was built around two U-Matic machines (one to play, one to record), the 1610 (later 1630) analog to digital (and digital to analog) converters, and the DAE-1100 digital audio editor.  Ancillary gear included another Sony device, the DTA-2000, to analyze finished tapes and provide a printout of error occurrences per minute.  This, along with a written “table of contents” indicating start and end time code locations for every track and other incidental details was sent to the replication facility with the CD master.  A pair of U-Matic machines, the 1630, the analyzer and the electronics associated with the editor filled an equipment rack several feet tall.

The editor itself was a small console, a few feet wide.  It contained controls for up to three tape machines (two for playback, one to record), readouts of the time code indicating the location of the tape in each machine, controls to perform editing, and a fader used for gain (i.e., level) adjustments.  Editing in the digital domain no longer involved using a razor blade to physically alter the original tape, as we had always done with analog tape.  (There were some short-lived exceptions in the form of the digital multitrack reel-to-reel recorders that were to come later.)  Digital editing was now effected by playing the original tape while recording the edits onto a new tape.  The finished result needed to be created sequentially.  If, upon listening to the results of an editing session, the producer decided to add to or remove anything from the middle of the program, a new tape was created, requiring the entirety of the program prior to the new edit to be copied first.

As the music was playing and the engineer heard the section where the desired edit point was located, the press of a button on the editor would store a 6-second sample of the music — the three seconds before the button press and three seconds after.  The playback and record machines would stop.  A small wheel in the middle of the editor was used to manually move forward and backward in the captured sample of audio, so the engineer could precisely locate the edit point on the newly recording tape.  Turning this wheel accomplished what used to be done with analog tape by having one hand on each reel and manually “rocking” the tape past the analog machine’s playback head in order to locate the desired edit point.  Where the edit point used to be marked with a grease pencil, all the engineer needed to do now was press another button on the editor.  Now that the “out” edit point was selected on the record machine, a similar process of location would be done on the playback machine to find the “in” point from which the new tape was to continue.  Once the edit point on each tape was selected, a preview button started a process where both tape machines would shuttle backward a predetermined amount of time, still synchronized with each other and then both started to play.  The audio would be from the record machine (i.e., what had already been recorded prior to the edit point) until the edit point was reached, when audio would switch to the playback machine, in effect, allowing the engineer to hear the edit before committing to it.

If a recording or mixing studio console was reminiscent in some way of an airplane or Space Shuttle cockpit, my first look at the DAE-1100 editor reminded me of Star Trek.  It felt like the future, with its smooth, uninterrupted surface of subtle grey, with darker gray, red, orange and blue “buttons”.  Being able to test an edit without committing to it meant all sorts of edits could be attempted without fear of having to splice together a missed edit.  I used to describe the precision of the edits as allowing me to “get in and out within the width” of the razor blade cuts we used to make.  In comparison, I described the thought of editing with a razor blade as now feeling much like editing with a hammer.

Having long experienced what seemed to me to be the inadequate monitoring in the studios I’d worked in, visited and read about in the professionally oriented magazines, I sought to do something different in the new CD mastering room at Atlantic.  Rather than loudness optimized speakers, placed against the wall, near the corners, over the engineer’s head, or small, dynamically challenged speakers placed where they would create a midrange dip at the listening position – both commonly seen in every studio in my experience, I wanted to bring some audiophile sensibilities into the room.  At my request, studio management agreed to install a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10 speakers (my favorites at the time).  These I placed a few feet off the wall behind them, in free space, with nothing else near the speakers.

Once the room was set up properly and known master tapes played back to my satisfaction, it was time to get my first really good listen to digital audio.  The advance word from the hobbyist and professional magazines, as well as from colleagues who’d already gotten to listen to a bunch of the earliest CD samples, was very positive.  Everyone was enthusiastic.  I was going to hear what had widely been touted as “Perfect Sound Forever”.  With great enthusiasm and anticipation, I listened to my first sample.  Then I listened to another one.  And another one.  I listened to all the samples we had.  I went back and listened to some analog master tapes and vinyl LPs to make sure the monitoring was what I expected it to be.  With the analog sources, it was.  With the digital sources, I wondered just what everyone had been raving about.