Saturday, February 28, 2009

FFW05: Choosing monitors

As I learnt more about sound engineering and got over the pathetic obsession with knob-twiddling and plug-in piddling that afflicts most engineers, I realised that the most important parts to get right were those that involved the interface with air: microphones and studio monitors. Although the correct placement of either may seem mysterious, its foundation lies in physics and there's really no mystery at all. More about that later...

This First Word, written in early 1999, offers simple advice for choosing studio monitors. A companion piece was published as First Word in AudioTechnology #07, and includes practical advice for setting up studio monitors (see 'FFW07: Lessons in coupling & isolation'). This stuff will always be relevant, although my recommendations of reference recordings may require updating...

Choosing Monitors
For our previous issue I took on the task of reviewing a pair of JBL’s new LSR32 studio monitors. I say ‘task’ because the review that appeared in the magazine was one of numerous versions I’d written in my attempts to explain precisely how good those monitors sounded, and who they would appeal to.

Reviewing monitors can be difficult, but deciding which monitors to buy is even harder. Magazine reviews can be helpful but they’re ultimately someone else’s opinion. Choosing the right monitors is like choosing prescription lenses without the help of an optometrist – the monitors that bring my hearing into focus may not work for you. So where do you start? Try the following approach:

(1) References
To test the overall accuracy and fidelity of monitors, you need a recording that contains nothing but real acoustic instruments recorded in real acoustic spaces, with no EQ or processing. A good pair of monitors will reproduce those instruments with a lifelike reality, from the attack of a xylophone to the end of a natural reverb tail. For this, you can’t go past a minimalist direct-to-stereo recording from a high fidelity audiophile label. I recommend The Ultimate Demonstration Disc from Chesky Records because it contains some truly excellent acoustic recordings, each highlighting a particular aspect of high fidelity performance, and each accompanied by a narrator explaining what to listen for - a real education and a great tune-up for your ears. (Don’t confuse this disc with The Ultimate Test CD from Essex Entertainment Inc., which is not recommended.)

While it’s important for a monitor to provide good high fidelity performance, you’ll also need to establish how it performs in a close-miked multitrack recording situation. Can it handle the repetitive ‘thud thud thud’ of a kick drum in solo mode? Or the challenging uncompressed attack of a raw snare? For those day-to-day studio sounds, it’s hard to go past Alan Parsons’ and Steven Court’s excellent Soundcheck 2 CD, which contains everything from drums and guitars through to strings and woodwinds; all recorded by one of the world’s leading sound engineers without any EQ or processing. Close-miked sound doesn’t get much better than this! Soundcheck 2 also contains numerous test and alignment tones and, like The Ultimate Demonstration Disc, has great educational value. (With a score of four, Soundcheck tops my list of ‘most stolen CDs’. Don’t leave it lying around when other engineers and recording musicians are present.)

For a personal context, you’ll need a well-recorded disc of the style of music you prefer to work with. Something recorded and mixed in a major studio by a top engineer, with good production values, is the requirement here. Every musical genre has a handful of top acts who use the best engineers in the best studios, and sometimes they release an album that is both musically and technically satisfying. That’s the kind of recording you’re after. For example: Quincy Jones’ Q’s Jook Joint (R&B/vocals); Metallica’s Black Album (heavy metal/rock); Yello’s Flag (electronic/dance); Garth Brooks’ Sevens (country/western); James Horner’s Glory (orchestral/film score).

Finally, you might want to take along a disc of something you’ve recorded and mixed, but only if you can be objective about it. If you’re a well-established engineer with numerous albums under your belt, that shouldn’t be a problem. But if you’ve spent less than 10 hours of your life listening to a professional mastering engineer telling you what’s wrong with your mixes, then you may find it hard to be objective. So if your recording sounds like crap while the others sound great, don’t blame the monitors. In fact, monitors that highlight the differences between your recordings and others are definitely worth considering.

(2) Familiarisation
Before auditioning any monitors you need to totally familiarise yourself with your reference discs, and the best way to do that is to carefully listen to them through headphones. I don’t advocate using headphones for mixing because they over-exaggerate the small details in a recording, but that’s exactly why they’re good for this process. Once you learn where those all-important little details exist in your reference discs – and what they sound like – you’ll find them much easier to focus on when listening without headphones. That’s a powerful skill for judging a monitors’ low level resolution and accuracy.

(3) Room Effect
You need to understand that no matter how good a pair of studio monitors are, the acoustics of the room itself will have a major impact on the sound you hear from them. For example, a good pair of monitors should have a ‘flat’ frequency response (±2dB or less) throughout their usable range, yet the room’s acoustic behaviour can cause deviations exceeding ±18dB! These effects vary depending on the dimensions and materials of the room itself, the locations of the monitors within the room, and your listening position. By the way, the notion that near-field monitoring overcomes these room problems is comforting but not totally correct.

(4) Use Before You Choose
People often choose studio monitors as if they’re choosing speakers for their hi-fi system, by playing some favourite CDs and buying the pair that sounds best. That approach overlooks one of the fundamental requirements of studio monitors, which is to monitor and mix. Before choosing a pair of monitors, you need to spend time recording and mixing on them, and playing those mixes through various systems to see how they translate to the real world. Remember, the goal is to find the monitors that work best in your studio, not necessarily in your hi-fi system. You also need to find out whether you can listen to a pair of monitors for extended time periods without suffering hearing fatigue.

Shooting it out…
Make a list of the monitors in your price range, find out where you can audition them, and book a quiet time to do so. Using your reference discs, make a shortlist of the monitors you prefer. Now, considering points (3) and (4), you need to get the shortlisted monitors into your studio before you can make a final decision. You need to experiment to find the right placement in your room, and you need to do some complete sessions on them. This is a crucial and unavoidable fact of buying monitors, and something that every responsible salesperson understands. You may have to pay a security deposit, but, whatever you do, don’t buy a pair of monitors until you’ve tried them in your studio.

For more monitoring information, see Michael Stavrou’s Mid Tuning Your Loudspeakers and my Strategic Monitoring, both in AudioTechnology #01. Remember that the right pair of monitors is the single most important and long-lasting investment in your sound recording future. So be methodical, avoid impulses, and listen carefully.

The closing paragraph of this First Word mentions Michael Stavrou, otherwise known as 'Stav'. He's somewhat of an engineering legend - in Australia, at least - and is also the brains behind the Smart AV console. I had always admired Stav's engineering abilities and insights, and wanted to include an interview with him in our premiere issue. I visited him in studios and I visited him at home, all the time snapping pics and keeping my Sony ProWalkman in record mode in the hope of capturing some pearls of wisdom. But they just weren't forthcoming; although being highly obliging, he seemed reluctant to talk and the interview was going nowhere. Eventually he confessed that he didn't want to give too much away in an interview because he was planning on writing a book. I suggested that writing a regular column for the magazine would be a good way to get the book started: it would force him to write a regular installment every two months, it would prime readers for his forthcoming book, and the columns themselves could be considered as first drafts for the book. Fortunately he agreed, and thus was born the regular column Stav's Word - a wonderful part of AudioTechnology, full of great advice and unusual ways of thinking about sound engineering. Stav published his book, Mixing With Your Mind, a few years ago, and it has been a hot seller ever since. And it all started with a frustrated attempt at an interview...

FFW04: Preset Mentalities & The Children Of The Revolution

Presets... I've always hated them. Preset synth sounds, preset effects settings, preset templates for recording, mixing and/or mastering. They might make it easier to use stuff, but they also destroy any need to understand the tools at hand and thereby discourage original thinking, original application and, ultimately, original music. Here's First Word #04, from early 1999...

Preset Mentalities & The Children Of The Revolution
As issue three of AudioTechnology went on sale, Chris Holder and I found ourselves at Q Studios, where a beaming Richard Meucke was showing off their brand new G+ SSL console and generally looking extremely pleased with himself. After much perserverance, Q Studios – formerly Rhinoceros Recorders – had finally been restored to its former glory as one of Australia’s most prestigious tracking and mixing studios, and one of the largest facilities in the Southern Hemisphere.

So there we were, Chris, myself and a handful of local engineers, producers and studio managers, all getting the royal tour. But that wasn’t the only reason we were there. Quantegy (the tape manufacturer formerly known as Ampex) had released a brand new tape formulation – GP9 Grand Master Platinum – and were using Q Studios to introduce it to the local industry. Double whammy!

GP9 grew from Quantegy’s acquisition of the 3M company; a hybrid, if you like, with the best of Quantegy’s and 3M’s tape technologies all rolled into one reel. To demonstrate this new tape, Quantegy had collected an excellent group of musicians and enlisted Simon Leadley to do the engineering. Quantegy’s Dave Williams had devised a very clever tape splicing, biasing and switching scheme that allowed different tape formulations to be compared against each other and against the live performance without changing reels or re-aligning the recorder. Other tapes used in the comparison included Quantegy’s 499 and 456, and BASF’s 990.

In my opinion, the GP9 was clearly in a new league and undoubtedly the most high resolution and true-to-life of all the tapes, doing an especially good job of reproducing the important low mid harmonics on kick drums, bass guitars and the lower registers of male vocals. It was also a hands-down winner when recording difficult sounds like hi-hats and sibilants, and made the good old 499 and 456 formulations sound more old than good. 3M’s technologies had certainly injected new blood into Quantegy, and allowed them to go beyond what either company was capable of doing on their own. A true synergy.

Eventually, we started talking about which tape we’d prefer. “Well, they all have different tonal characters,” said Chris, “and I’d probably choose the tape that best suits the style of music I’d be recording.” “Right”, said Simon Leadley, “tape becomes just like presets…”

Oh oh, someone said the ‘P’ word. If there’s one thing I detest about recording and music technology, it’s presets. In the tape context that Simon was using, the concept of presets is absolutely acceptable. Each tape sounds noticeably different and, apart from tape speed and recording level, there are no parameters to adjust once the machine is properly aligned and calibrated. But what about synths, samplers, effects processors and digital consoles? All of these products have dozens of user-adjustable parameters, but they are not always easy to understand, and that means less sales. Rather than focusing on better user-interfaces that educate the users on what the parameters do and how to use them (e.g. Apple’s ‘Balloon Help’ system), manufacturers take the easy way out by piling in the presets. After all, you’re more likely to buy something that gives you instant results on the showroom floor…

Now, let’s be fair to the manufacturers. Their user manuals often go to great lengths explaining the fundamentals of a product and what each parameter does. But when you’ve got a pile of presets allowing you to get up and going straight away, who’s going to read the manual? And let’s be fair to presets. They do provide a great way to land in the ball park – an effect preset called ‘snare reverb’ may be a good starting place for creating a unique snare reverb to suit the mix. But how many people are using them that way? Very few, I’m afraid.

In the late ‘70s, Teac introduced the affordable tape recorders and mixers that spawned the Home Recording Revolution. I was playing with analogue synthesisers at the time, particularly Roland’s System 100M. This was a totally modular synth which required plugging in a handful of patch leads before you’d hear anything that resembled a musical sound. There were dozens of parameters, but no memories and no presets. To make a useful sound you had to understand the theory behind subtractive synthesis, and that provided a great background for understanding how different sounds worked together. For me, every new sound was a unique sonic event, hand-crafted from raw materials and never to be repeated. My goal was to create unique and individual sounds that held the listener’s interest while fitting perfectly into the mix.

Teac’s Home Recording Revolution let me carry that thinking into studio and live sound engineering situations. After choosing the right microphone, each instrument would be given its own individual EQ and effect settings, which no other sound shared, and which were designed to make it unique and interesting while also fitting into the mix. That approach has remained with me to this day. In fact, I believe it to be one of the secrets behind achieving separation and clarity in a complex mix.

Many other manufacturers spurred on the Home Recording Revolution, and, as the equipment got better, we saw the emergence of the Project Studio in the mid ‘80s. Even then, most equipment users had a background in sound manipulation and understood what all the parameters were for.

But as we approach the next millennium, even the most affordable recording and music technology has become very complex, with hundreds of powerful parameters hidden behind menus full of simple presets. There’s a new generation of users who have only ever been exposed to this kind of technology. They are not encouraged to learn what all the parameters are for, and therefore they learn nothing about the art of sound manipulation.

These are The Children Of The Revolution, and their approach to sound engineering is one of hunting and pecking – just like shopping in a supermarket. Rather than learning how to program a synth or tackling the fundamentals of equalisation and effects, this ‘preset mentality’ encourages them to step through hundreds of presets in a process of elimination, trying to find the one that best fits the application. It’s time consuming, boring, and a great detriment to the creative process. And quite often the chosen preset is, in reality, the best of a bad lot.

Some years ago I reviewed one of the first affordable digital consoles, and was rather dismayed when I scrolled through the EQ library and saw a handful of guitar EQ presets, all set up and ready to go. I’m not doubting the benefit in being able to save an EQ setting and recall it later, as there are many applications where this is very useful. But to provide a bunch of preset EQs worries me. Any professional engineer worth their salt knows there can be no such thing as the perfect guitar EQ preset, in the same way that there is no such thing as the perfect vocal microphone or the universally applicable snare reverb. It all depends on the individual instrument, how it is played, and the way it fits into the mix. One size does not fit all, nor should it! But The Children Of The Revolution know no better, and blindly reach for the ‘rock guitar’ preset. As a result, all their guitar recordings have the same tonality. While artists are striving for originality, technology is encouraging similarity. Had a listen to the charts lately?

The preset mentality is destroying creativity. In their attempts to make things simpler to use, manufacturers are inadvertantly ‘dumbing’ their users and leaving The Children Of The Revolution with no voice of their own. So please, let’s pull the art of sound engineering out of the supermarket and put it back into the studio, where it belongs. Learn what the parameters of your equipment do, and use your presets as starting points only. Your work will be better for it.

AudioTechnology #04 remains an interesting issue to me for a couple of reasons. Most notably, it contained the first instalment of Rupert's Word, a short-lived column that Rupert Neve wrote to follow his interview (in this issue he discussed harmonic distortion). It also contained my review of JBL's LSR32s - the first JBLs I ever liked, and damn fine monitoring speakers too. I was so impressed that I interviewed one of the LSR32's designers, Doug Button. What he said made sense...

FFW03: Level headed

It's late 1998... popular music is getting increasingly louder and I'm feeling increasingly exasperated. I gave up listening to commercial radio years earlier due to the excessive amount of processing used to make it loud, and now commercial CDs are sounding just like commercial radio - continually loud and in-your-face, with no contrast, no room to breathe, and no space to appreciate the little things that make music great.

The saddest part about this time in history was that recording technology had advanced to a point where we could have all the dynamic range imaginable - more than could be reproduced through an analogue playback system, in fact - and yet sound engineering had 'advanced' to a point where it wanted virtually none of it. The Loudness War, as it came to be known, was in full swing. Since then, loudness has triumphed and sound quality appears to be lost forever - at least in commercial music. But like a beacon of hope, the third and final part of my interview with Rupert Neve, published in this issue, closed on an uplifting and reassuring note. As long as designers like Mr Neve are around, there's still hope for quality audio!

Here's First Word #03...

Level headed
“Not more Chesky!” cried Philip Spencer, AudioTechnology’s sales director, as I tossed a new set of discs in front of him. “Chesky! Chesky! Chesky! It’s all you ever listen to. You’d think they were the only record label in the world!”. “Well,” I said defensively, “they are one of the only labels releasing 24-bit 96k recordings on DVD…” I could see I’d gotten his attention. “You, er, want to hear some?” “Yeah, right, with what?” He cautiously surveyed the room, then fixed a triumphant stare on me. “In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t have a DVD player…” Moments later, Sony Australia’s Peter Norman waltzed through the door with his usual boyish grin. “Hi Greg, here’s that DVD player you wanted to borrow.” While Peter and I got in each other’s way setting up the DVD player, Philip reluctantly tore the shrink wrap off the discs while muttering something about doing some real work. “But Philip, this is work”, I taunted.

Peter had brought in a Sony DVP-S715 DVD player, which plays DVDs, CDs and Video CDs. It’s a fine sounding machine, with a good solid drawer, a well-appointed remote control and, most importantly, 24-bit 96k converters. It’s one of a select number of DVD players capable of playing 24-bit 96k audio, and we were about to hear this emerging format ourselves for the first time.

The source material was Chesky Record’s excellent Super Audio Collection & Professional Test Disc. Along with some very useful test tones, Chesky have compiled a selection of their 24-bit 96k recordings onto the DVD Movie format disc, which supports two channels of 24-bit 96k audio. These are master recordings of tracks that have previously been released on Chesky CDs, so it’s easy to do a direct comparison between 16-bit 44.1k and 24-bit 96k versions of the same recording. Which is exactly what we did.

So what does this new 24-bit 96k format sound like? Personally, I think it’s stunning. It’s not a radical difference from 16-bit 44.1k, but it’s the right difference. If human perception has a quality threshold – a minimum level of sonic quality required for things to sound natural and real – then 16-bit 44.1k audio falls below that threshold, while 24-bit 96k clearly exceeds it.

One of the standout tracks on the Chesky DVD is an acoustic cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, performed by Livingston Taylor. This beautiful recording takes full advantage of the 24-bit 96k technology’s wider dynamic range, higher resolution and extended frequency response. The CD version is noticeably lack-lustre when compared to the DVD, yet, as far as CD quality is concerned, it’s still a standout recording. Which brings me to the point of this editorial: dynamic range. It’s the wonderfully subtle dynamic range of this recording, on both CD and DVD, that really got me thinking.

One of the theoretical rules for digital audio states that you get 6dB of dynamic range per bit (actually, it’s 6.0206dB, but who’s counting?). So a 16-bit recording has a dynamic range of 16 x 6dB = 96dB, while a 24-bit recording has 144dB (in practice, problems such as thermal noise restrict this to around 120dB). How much dynamic range do we need? Let’s consider the dynamic range of human hearing. If the softest sound we can hear is 0dB SPL (Sound Pressure Level), then the threshold of pain is somewhere around 130dB SPL. That gives human hearing a dynamic range of 130dB. Yet many of our latest commercial recordings have a paltry 6dB or less!

Dynamic range – the ability to play softer or louder – is one of the most important forms of musical expression. So why are we so hell-bent on reducing it? There is a commonly held belief that for a recording to be commercially successful, it must be as loud as every other commercial recording, or louder! Because we can only get so much level onto a CD, this perceived loudness is created by applying powerful compression during the mastering stage, thereby sacrificing dynamic range.

Many musicians compare their mixes against songs heard on commercial radio. Invariably, the radio songs have more ‘punch’, so musicians want more punch (i.e. compression) applied to their mixes to make them competitive. What they fail to understand is that commercial radio stations apply considerable processing, including multiband compression, to their audio before transmitting it – and that’s what produces the extra ‘punch’. Broadcasters have their reasons for doing this; some good, some bad. Nonetheless, what we hear on commercial radio is a heavily processed version of the artist’s mastered mix. Using commercial radio as a mixing or mastering reference is a big mistake.

Once upon a time, all mastering was done by talented specialists who understood the concept of dynamic range and the processes used in broadcasting, and strived to produce a finished result that translated well into any environment. These people truly deserved the title of ‘mastering engineers’. Many are still in business today, but staying in business means doing what the client wants – including heavy compression. It compromises the sound quality, and it therefore compromises their professional reputation.

Worse yet, the true professionals now face a particularly ugly competitor: backyard wannabes with PCs, soundcards, six months experience and the nerve to call themselves mastering engineers! Ask these people to define ‘mastering’ and they’ll tell you it’s the process of making each mix as loud as possible. As Charlie Brown says, “Good grief…”.

Maintaining your dynamic range is an important part of maintaining your musical expression. Remember, it’s the soft parts of your mix that make the loud parts ‘loud’. I’m tired of listening to music that’s compressed to the max and continuously in-your-face. I’m tired of listening to commercial CDs that are designed to make my high quality monitoring system sound like commercial radio. It sounds bad, it’s fatiguing to listen to, and it implies that I, as a listener, have a limited attention span. It’s just as insulting as the excessively loud canned laughter you hear on TV sitcoms. AND IT’S JUST AS ANNOYING AS PEOPLE WHO WRITE EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

So, when it comes to mastering your mixes, keep a level head and say ‘no’ to heavy compression. (Your mixes will still sound punchy on the radio, because commercial broadcasters will still be doing what they’ve always done.) As for me, I’m saving to buy a DVP-S715 DVD player and as many well-recorded 24-bit 96k DVDs as I can get my hands on. Philip, on the other hand, is waiting for the Spice Girls to be remastered at 24-bit 96k. In the meantime, he’s borrowing my ear plugs…

FFW02: Learning to listen

My initiation into audiophilia! After spending a night listening to some serious audiophile recordings through my high quality ATC reference monitors, I was somewhat impressed by the vocabulary used by audiophiles to describe subjective aspects of sound. I was also somewhat concerned that I had never thought to listen for those things, let alone assign words to describe them. I learnt a lot about the art of listening that night; stuff that has affected my approach to recording, mixing and mastering ever since. [In fact, my quest for realism in recordings morphed into a search for reality in recordings - a search that took me to the Himalaya and, ultimately, into the arms of my beautiful Nepalese wife Punam!]

Issue 02 of AudioTechnology contained interviews I'd done with David Chesky and Bob Katz regarding a CD released on Chesky Records called 'I Ching: Of the Marsh and the Moon'. Chesky Records are a well-known audiophile label, and I thought it prudent to write a First Word that provided a subtle linked to the interview and also put across an audiophile point of view.

The Chesky/Katz interviews went beyond the engineering/recording technique and ventured into the design and circuitry of the recording equipment itself, which sat nicely alongside part two of my three-part interview with Rupert Neve (further discussions of sound quality from a designer's point of view). As an editor, I was always on the look-out for an emerging theme within an issue, and this one was staring me right in the face!

Learning to listen
A couple of guys I know are building a D/A converter. While most readers will think that’s a pretty impressive feat, those familiar with digital electronics won’t be so impressed. Any half smart technician can knock together a ‘quick and dirty’ D/A converter with a small collection of LSI chips, a handful of op amps and a late night session with the soldering iron. Given the right chips, it’s a bit like Lego blocks…

But these guys, Terry and Craig, have spent most of their spare time over the last three years working on this converter. Why spend so long building something that can be thrown together in an evening? Because Terry and Craig are serious high fidelity listeners, and their converter is designed for audiophiles who demand a high standard of sound quality. That means lots of designing, redesigning, building and listening. And that’s how I got involved…

While planning the first issue of AudioTechnology, I got the following phone call. “Hello, Greg? Terry here, mate. We’ve built a D/A converter and need to borrow some super accurate studio monitors for our listening tests. Still got your 20s?” He was referring to my trusty old ATC SCM20 passive monitors, which I had sworn by for years. Little did he know that I was, at that very moment, reviewing ATC’s new SCM20A PRO active monitors, but finding the sonic quality of my ‘pro’ studio equipment to be hopelessly under-specified. Knowing Terry and Craig’s hi-fi leanings, this was the perfect win/win opportunity – they get to hear their D/A converter through a pair of very accurate studio monitors, and I get to connect said monitors to some very good audiophile equipment. I bundled the ATCs in the car, grabbed a pile of my favourite reference discs, and hit the highway.

The evening that followed was surreal, to say the least. In an earlier draft of this column I wrote 600 words describing what we did and what we heard that night – listening to the differences between silver and copper interconnect cables, hearing the detrimental effects of placing little wooden cones under the D/A converter, and so on. Then I deleted it all because you probably wouldn’t believe it anyway, especially if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool sound engineer who thinks hi-fi guys are nuts and everything is hunky-dory in studio land. Let me tell you, it isn’t.

My collection of reference discs contains the same discs you’ll find in other engineers’ collections, all representing good sound engineering. But against some of the audiophile standard discs we played that night, my discs were embarrassingly inadequate. The ATCs, on the other hand, were superlative and easily rose to the audiophile challenge. As did Terry and Craig’s D/A converter.

The biggest revelation of the night, however, was not what we were listening to, but how we were listening to it. Sound engineers in the studio have the luxury of soloing a channel to get a fix on a particular instrument. Once your ear/brain system gets a lock on that instrument in isolation, it’s much easier to identify it within a complex mix. Audiophiles, on the other hand, never have that luxury because they only have access to finished and mastered stereo mixes. By necessity, they develop very different listening skills and a different vocabulary – a broader language evolved to describe and ‘isolate’ individual aspects of a recording in the absence of a solo button.

The sound engineer’s vocabulary contains a handful of simple words for describing the sonic qualities of individual tracks, such as warm, cold, bright, and dull. It also contains words for describing the mix, such as clarity, separation, width, and depth, plus terms like dynamic range and signal-to-noise.

The audiophile’s vocabulary extends to phrases like midrange purity, visceral impact, focus, rhythm and pace, blackness, and holographic imaging. These aren’t just fancy ways of saying simple things, they represent intangible and unmeasurable aspects of sound quality - aspects you may not even consider if your understanding of sound quality is limited to the sound engineer’s ‘track by track’ vocabulary.

So there I was, alone with my sound engineer’s vocabulary, flanked by two well-versed audiophiles. I don’t know if they heard the qualities I enjoyed on my reference discs, but I had certainly never noticed the aspects they were criticising, until they pointed them out to me in the vocabulary of the audiophile. Like so many subjective things, you often can’t hear something in a recording until someone brings it to your attention. From then on, you know what to listen for and you’ll always hear it.

In his book ‘Word Power’, Edward de Bono explains how words represent concepts. When you understand a word, you understand the concept. Like many concepts, the subjective aspects of sound quality are intangible. Without the right word, you have no way of communicating what you’re hearing. In fact, you may not even know what to listen for. As a sound engineer or recording musician, if you can’t communicate what you’re hearing or don’t know what you’re listening for, you’re in trouble.

There’s a layer of sound quality beyond that which most sound engineers, recording musicians and equipment designers are aware of, because we don’t have the concepts to explain it or the equipment to reveal it. But it’s real and not hard to demonstrate. All you need is access to a proper audiophile hi-fi system and the right reference discs. I’d highly recommend ‘The Ultimate Demonstration Disc’ from Chesky Records. It contains a selection of tracks demonstrating the audiophile’s vocabulary, with narration between tracks describing what to listen for. If you buy this CD and don’t notice the sound qualities they’re demonstrating, get a better playback system!

The audiophile point of view will become increasingly important as we enter this era of larger word sizes and higher sampling rates. When you hear a recording that satisfies both the sound engineer and the audiophile, you’ll also hear a level of musicality rarely found on commercial CDs. And isn’t ‘musicality’ what it’s all about? The more musicality we can get into our recordings, the better. But first, we have to learn to listen.

My association with Terry and Craig continues. Most notably, from 2000 to 2003 Terry designed, built and continually refined a beautiful two-channel microphone preamplifier for use with my Royer SF12 stereo ribbon microphone. As part of that process he became a keen mountain biker (it's a long story) and enjoyed some serious air time on the trails around the Royal National Park. In 2003 the two of them joined forces to design and build a number of precision digital clock generator/distributors, to my specifications, for use at the Sydney Opera House.

FFW01: The money, the box, and the $5000 question...

This First Word was published in AudioTechnology #01, our premiere issue, in February 1998. One of the highlights of that issue was part one of a fascinating three-part interview I'd conducted with equipment designer Rupert Neve (parts two and three were published in issues 02 and 03 respectively). I knew after completing the interview that I was onto something special, and decided to use the topic of equipment design and pricing to introduce our new magazine to the market. Combined with the Rupert Neve interview, I figured our readers would quickly realise that AudioTechnology was going to be a magazine that tried to tell it like it is; rather than being yet another fanboy magazine that never said a bad word about anything...

Here's the first First Word:

The money, the box, and the $5000 question
I was recently given a new product to review, which I’ll refer to as ‘The Box’ for reasons which will become obvious later. The Box was a stereo version of a tool that every sound engineer uses on a regular basis – except this one was a tube device, and therefore added that warm and fuzzy tube sound to whatever signal passed through it. I immediately thought of Rick O’Neil.

Anyone who knows Rick will know these three facts: Firstly, he has the smartest and most screwed up cat in town, which has nothing to do with this story. Secondly, he’s a lover of all things warm and fuzzy, including his cat, which still has nothing to do with this story. Thirdly, he’s never short of an opinion, and will probably denigrate me for mentioning his cat when it has nothing to do with this story.

As a lover of all things warm and fuzzy, and one who’s never short of an opinion, Rick was the obvious candidate for the review. I gave him The Box, a deadline and a word count. Soon after, he called with a problem. The Box was working perfectly, but there was a similar product in his studio – which we’ll call The Other Box – that was considerably cheaper. It offered the same features, looked and sounded almost as good, and was built almost as well. But The Other Box cost only $2000, while The Box was $5000 more expensive. When describing The Box in comparison to The Other Box, Rick’s enduring words were: “It’s better, but I can’t hear $5000”.

Those words have stuck in my head ever since, alongside other gems such as “That’s a problem we should be glad to have” (G. Maxwell Twartz, Technical Audio Group), and “Show me the money” (Cuba Gooding Jr, Hollywood).

Rick’s comment raises an interesting question – what is $5000 supposed to sound like? More generically, what is a 350% price differential (from $2000 to $7000) supposed to sound like? What do you hear for the extra money?

Audio Technology’s Sales Director, Philip Spencer, has a story of his own. Before coming to Australia, Philip ran a recording studio in England based on a low cost but popular brand of mixing console. One day he had the opportunity of visiting the offices of AMEK, and was given a demonstration of their ‘Big by Langley’ console. As the salesman talked him through the channel strip, Philip said, “Wait a minute… My console has most of these features, and can do most of these things. How do you justify charging three and a half times the price for this one?” The salesman directed Philip’s attention to the EQ stage, rolled the tape and walked out of the room. Never being afraid to give a knob a twiddle, Philip reached for the EQ and answered his own question. He heard the difference. Whether the increase in sound quality was proportional to the price increase is debatable. But once again, what is a 350% price differential supposed to sound like?

In the case of The Box, Rick has been around high end studio gear long enough to know that he wasn’t hearing a $5000 difference. Perhaps a $2000 or $3000 difference, but not $5000. Philip, on the other hand, had been using the same console for so long that he no longer ‘heard’ what it was doing to his sound. He didn’t believe that a console offering similar features, but costing three and a half times more, could be worth the investment – until he heard the sound of that extra money. To badly paraphrase Cuba Gooding Jr, “Hear me the money!”

So what do you get for the extra dollars? You get that wonderful tonal character we call ‘the sound’. Good musical instruments have it, high end hi-fi gear has it, even Harley Davidson motorbikes have it. When you enter the world of expensive pro audio equipment, it’s one of the things you’re paying for.

With state-of-the-art electronics, any technician can design a circuit that satisfies the technical criteria for low noise, low distortion, wide bandwidth, linear frequency response, etc. Those old challenges have been well and truly overcome, and the circuit design process is cheap and easy. The rash of low cost, high quality products entering the market over the last decade are testament to this. They’re clean, they’re quiet, and they do a great job for the money – but few of them have ‘the sound’.

So why does it cost so much more to get that little bit extra, that elusive quality we call ‘the sound’? It costs more because you’re paying for an experienced and talented designer who knows how to build warmth and musicality into a product. These qualities don’t come cheap, and they can’t be added to an existing circuit. They have to be engineered into the circuit from the very beginning. And that’s expensive.

No matter how good a circuit’s technical specifications are, it will always contain certain non-linearities that define its characteristic ‘sound’ – for better or worse. When you buy a premium product, you’re paying for a designer who knows how to tweak those non-linearities into musically pleasing sounds. You’re paying for someone who knows how to control the harmonic content of the distortion so it sounds warm and smooth, rather than cold and harsh. You’re paying for someone who knows how to shift the energy spectrum of the noise floor into less audible frequency bands, and how to minimise the detrimental effects of phase problems and ringing.

If all these tweaks are considered a science, then the art lies in the designer’s ability to engineer them directly into the fundamental signal path of the circuit. They are the inherent non-linearities of a circuit designed to sound warm and musical, while still satisfying all the technical criteria.

And that’s the kind of specialist designer artwork you should be paying a premium for, no matter whether you’re buying audio electronics, a prestige car, a Stradivarius violin, or a suit from Giorgio Armani. Designers of the calibre of Rupert Neve et al, have advanced the design of audio circuitry to a sonic artform. Who can put a price on that kind of talent?

I was always fond of mentioning my interactions with the other AudioTechnology writers and staff members in First Word, because it showed the sense of community that existed behind the magazine - and, ultimately, behind its success. This First Word makes references to Philip Spencer and Rick O'Neil.

Philip was my business partner in forming Alchemedia Pty Ltd, the publishing company we created for AudioTechnology. We met while working on Australian Digital magazine for The Federal Publishing Company; but, more significantly, we started Sound Australasia magazine for Pacific Publications. It would be fair to say that neither of us was particularly happy with that magazine - it started off with much promise, but was continually pushed in the direction of sensationalism and gossip. (What would you expect from a publisher of celebrity gossip magazines?!?!)

Not long after I resigned from Sound Australasia, Philip presented the idea of starting our own magazine. And thus was born AudioTechnology - the audio magazine that
I always wanted to read. Philip continues to run and grow Alchemedia, and continues to be one of the coolest guys I've ever worked with. (Anyone who could put up with the pretentious bullshit I carried on with in the early days of AudioTechnology - all with the intention of making the best audio magazine ever, of course - deserves much respect!)

In addition to being one of Australia's top mastering engineers, Rick O'Neil is a great story teller and writes a regular column for AudioTechnology that continues to this day. Called 'Last Word', it is the last thing published in each issue. By placing my somewhat serious First Word at the start and Rick's humorously provocative Last Word at the end, Rick and I formed the bookends for each issue of AudioTechnology.

Last Word began life in AudioTechnology's miserable predecessor, Sound Australasia. One day in 1996 Rick visited my office at Pacific Publications saying he wanted to write a regular column similar to the late great Stephen St Croix's 'Fast Lane' column in Mix magazine. I figured he was worth giving a chance, and it paid off: Last Word has been one of the most popular columns in AudioTechnology for more than a decade now, and Rick's name has become a household word in the Australian recording industry. He also runs a lively on-line audio forum.