Saturday, February 28, 2009

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.


  1. I haven't read the very early issues. So these are going to be a great read. You should still be writing the 'First Word' pages for the magazine now Greg

    Thanx Muchly

  2. Wow John, I didn't notice that comment of yours until today (21/04/2009). I hope you're still enjoying them...