Audio, Etc. (July 1978)

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I am just back from two days of a digital recording session, the first classical session in the U.S.A. done for regular commercial LP release. My overwhelming impression, and the most important message I can pass on to you, is that in every respect, right up to the next -to -last detail, it was precisely like any standard (i.e. analog) recording session. Though the end result has all the fabulous qualities of the digital system that we have lately been reading about.

The last detail was the digital recorder itself, the Sound stream. At the moment, it is the only digital recorder in active commercial use hereabouts though five minutes from now there'll probably be five more and in a month or so a dozen things are moving fast. Anyhow, this was at least a fleeting "first" and an important one as such, in view of what will be the future of our recording. That's why I was there.

Along with the Soundstream machine in Cleveland's Severance Hall, there was its boss and originator, Tom Stockham, Soundstream President, and Bruce Rothaar, his digital designer, acting as a dual recording crew.

Also on hand and representing the far end of the recording chain was the disc cutting man for the session, though minus his lathe, none other than Stan Ricker, who operates that ultra-quality half -speed JVC cutting service on the West coast, originally designed for CD-4 but now used for unusually fine cutting of any type original. Please note: Direct-to-disc cannot be cut at half speed! Nature won't allow it. But the results of this digital session, after editing in Utah, will indeed go on to Ricker's half -speed cutter along with the Soundstream playback unit. No reason why the sound should not match anything direct-to-disc can do.

(And the same, remember, with every digital copy, ad infinitum.) Stan Ricker, who is a musician as well as a cutting man, was on hand to see that, straight from the beginning, the very moment of live sound and real time, the recording accommodated itself optimally for his cutter. That's the way to do it if you want hi-fi.

There was no representative of the press on hand (i.e. the final step, the There was a yellow telephone on stage next to the Conductor, for private consultation, run by batteries, and an out loud squawk box which, since it died at a crucial moment, will remain nameless. (JACK-CAN YOU HEAR ME? JACK! JACK!) And a red light.

The Soundstream itself has two elements. The transport is Honeywell Instrumentation Deck, a beaut, with wide tape running at 30 ips. The Digital Processor--there's pressing plant) but maybe this hadn't been finalized. However, everybody else in between was around, including a record company, Telarc, with its pair of executive producers and a large body of the Cleveland Orchestra. I didn't count noses but it was a good stageful. And there was a Conductor, Frederick Fennell. Remember?-those fabulous old Mercury Living Presence band recordings of his, some now being reissued ?


Ed Canby discussing the Soundstream recorder with its creator, Tom Stockham, during the Severance Hall recording session.

Also, between and around these people, was a lot of incidental but rather necessary equipment. Three mikes on tall stands, Studer/Schoepps SKM 52U omnis feeding a Studer 169 console. And for playback offstage, a couple of ADS speakers in close-order drill, about six feet apart, aimed inwards. (The favored listener took the hot seat, a few feet in front of them.) only the one-does the analog-to-digital and the D-to-A conversion. It's air cooled, complex, and mighty mysterious.

Probably secret, as well. It works like a charm and didn't break down even once. Uses 16-bit coding, which is plenty for all the fi you can imagine I'll say no more. See earlier digital articles in this mag.

Finally, there were in absentia (deceased) three fairly eminent composers represented in Severance Hall, namely J.S. Bach, Gustav Holst and George Frideric Handel.

They might well have been bemused, not to say bewildered, by the hoopla going on in their name. Recording is indeed a unique art, analog or digital.

And so, having put things in their proper order of precedence, I will let go of Telarc's leg and admit that the whole thing was Telarc's idea and Telarc's operation. Having recently been into direct -to -disc, they are now moving into digital, and I expect others will follow-as soon as there are more recorders. Our own Bert Whyte, for instance, has already been working with Soundstream. So this was a Telarc operation, but an unusual one, as per above, in its direct contact on the spot with the other important people involved in the entire chain of production. Excellent idea.

Severance Hall, built on a campus oasis in the middle of greater Cleve land, is a splendid auditorium for music and gave endless pleasure to my ears wherever I explored its acoustics.

The place was built in the art deco period and looks it, sort of related to Radio City Music Hall, richly decked out inside with low -relief streamlined palm trees and what -not with lots of curves and curleques in the corners the last flowering of optimum acoustical irregularity before the modern school of angles and rigid geometrics took over. There is a deep, wide stage with a more recent wood panel shell, curiously shaped in rounded waves-did it produce the distinct vibrato reverb that I kept hearing? I liked it. Like, say, the vibrato in a good cello sound. You'll hear it in the recording listen to the bass drum's vibrato die-away. Interesting effect.

I climbed up to the very top seats in the large balcony, hundreds of feet out, and to my astonishment found that I could understand every word being said down on the stage by a few casually practicing musicians during one of the rest breaks. I even caught a whisper. Don't think that "concert hall sound" means a big blur! Not only words but music. Every bit of musical sound, as oboe, trumpet, clarinet practiced bits of their parts, came through startlingly big, round, and beautiful. In every part of that hall, the sound was virtually the same, rich, strong, warm, and absolutely clear. And balanced you do not need to listen on dead center. Far from it! I had originally set myself up on stage, on a line with the mikes but far over to one side, so I could hear what the conductor had to say. Even there, the music was entirely listenable. The hall seems to impose its own over-all balance, in every part of itself; it did not matter where I wandered, up and down the side aisles, on the floor, close, distant-always that strong, warm sound. True, a slight shift of close-up mikes can make sonic changes on tape (and Telarc made minor adjustments to the mikes, as well as to the musicians themselves). But what matters for fine recording is that you have that marvelous stability of sound all around you as the basic acoustic from which you may work.

That is the true concert -hall sound, and I've never heard it better.

I noted some interesting spatial effects. On the floor, just out from under the balcony, the sound clearly came from the sides and above in a smooth blend, with very little stage directionality; that is taken care of by the eyes. Retreat under the balcony a few feet, and you can hear the difference.

For "concert hall realism" you do indeed need overhead ambience, upwards space-and one of the good illusions of the four-way home system is a reasonable degree of this very thing, an overhead virtual ambience. We will need more of it.

There were two Telarc sessions, first Holst, the two Suites Nos. 1 + 2 for Band (plus a Bach arrangement thrown in) and, second, Handel, the Royal Fire Works Music in the original all -wind version, more or less. Eight oboes for that, quantities of horns, trumpet, bassoons, percussion-quite an array for the recorded fi to come. The Holst pieces are virtuoso works for large modern band, the flashiest band music I ever hope to hear, with everything from euphoniums (euphonia?) to flugel horns, an anvil, and four sizes of sax plus more percussion than you could count. It is an astonishing thing to watch a first-class band, such as this one, dig straight into such tricky music, mostly on a sight-reading basis, and play the stuff virtually note -perfect the first time. One good run-through, plus a few cogent suggestions on phrasing and balance from Fennell, and they were ready to record, two or three takes for each movement plus occasional repair patches of a minute or so for later editing. Yes, digital tape CAN BE edited, if a bit expensively.

Recording, Editing and Errors I must say, it is an ugly thought that electronic instruments might some day put an end to this superb mastery of the older "mechanical" way of music making from printed notes. It is one of the great accomplishments of our species, homo sapiens sapiens, a thing to cause awe in the beholder.

To be sure, there were a few gargles in the horns (there always are) and one fine trumpet blooper. No problem! A quick re -do of a short piece, and all was repaired, and same for the horn gargles. Now just suppose that, if this were a direct -to -disc session, the same had happened. In that case we would have rehearsed the entire work, movement after movement, and then tried to record it in toto, complete. One trumpet bloop near the end and the entire thing has to be done all over-and surely something else will go wrong.

And if the first movement is OK but the second not so good, can we do better? Unlikely. Not only a strain on the musicians, this, but extremely costly in recording time, for ever -doubtful musical results. This is not a concert! For recording, the flexibility of modern editing is ideal; it gets down the best of the music, all of it, selectively, with maximum efficiency and the least wear and tear. If you don't like the results, blame the producer or the editor-or the musicians. But don't blame the system. It works. It is essential for almost every type of musical recording.

A concert is a concert, and very different. It exists once and is gone forever. It has an audience, which is there, along with the musicians, in real time which does not repeat. NOTHING else compares to this live situation and no record can duplicate it, only suggest it by marvelous illusion. But recorded performances, too, can be incomparably good. We have a fine art ourselves, if we do it right.

I wish that more fi enthusiasts could attend a session such as this one. There is the fabulous sound of live music in a great hall, and there are the musicians.

Listen to the potent BAMM of the bass drum (with that vibrato reverb)-and imagine a tall, large youth with a perfectly round face and a broad grin; who hits the drum like an athlete. He couldn't stand still, kept swinging back and forth around the back of the stage, even during takes, stopping casually now and then to deliver an enormous and unerring whack on his instrument.

Don Miller, of the Orchestra. He also wallops the anvil in Holst for a sound you will not believe. Then there was the one string bass (common in wind music), a magnificent elderly gent with white stereo moustaches sprouting out 45/45, as lean as a bean and much more musical. Irv Nathenson. And the snare drum department (plus triangle, cymbal, etc.)! In the Handel you'll hear the sound loudly in the left channel you would have seen three players, one tall and thin, one short and plump, and a third a kid who looked around 16. Fun watching them practice together; you could see the mistakes when their movements didn't match.

Instant Replay Don't think the musicians weren't interested in the recording process. They didn't know much about digital but the younger ones flocked back to the re cording room to hear each take-the place was jammed. (The older musicians, more conservative, stayed a bit aloof.) Things have changed. For maybe 800 years no musician ever heard the sound of his own performance, solo or in a group-now, the musical feedback is everywhere and without a doubt it has already changed the very sound of music. One clarinet, Frank Cohen, principal in the Cleveland Orchestra, even came back for an extra playback so he could hear how a new mouthpiece sounded-not to him but to the outside world. That's a new dimension for you.

A tuba man, Ron Bishop (curiously he had a deep bass voice) talked a half hour to Stan Ricker, the half -speed man, about the acoustics of the tuba in recording and also the bass drum, both of which I gather Stan plays himself. It was he, by the way, who was out on stage tuning up the bass drum's opposite heads for a reinforcing resonance. Ricker made an interesting audio point. It seems that normally in the orchestra the bass drum's two vibrating surfaces face sidewise while the player stands facing forward.

Looks nice, but the big boom goes out sidewise to right and left from the heads-and arrives at the microphones (and even the audience) out of phase, neatly canceling the lowest frequencies. Weak bottom. Whereas if the drum is turned sidewise, so the heads face fore and aft, though it may look clumsier, the sounds now combine in one wavefront that reaches the mikes in phase, dead on center. SoB000M! That's what you get, and that's what we got. Thanks to Stan Ricker.

An even more important point is that a big out -of -phase low -frequency signal is sheer poison for the disc cutting head, as well as the phono playback, because it translates into vertical stylus motion. In -phase signals come out lateral and the stylus, cutting or playback, is much better able to follow big lateral excursions than the vertical powerhouses. So mono bass, in phase (there isn't much directionality anyway), is what you need for big booms.

Finally, Stan Ricker told me that in half -speed disc cutting he does not use any form of compression or limiting whatsoever. Instead he goes straight out to the recording session and sees to things ahead of time at the source.

He did this time, anyhow. It takes that kind of musical/engineering teamwork, today, from bass drumhead to your eardrums, to produce our best fi. Especially if you are going into digital.

(Source: Audio magazine, June 1978; by Edward Tatnall Canby)

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