A comment about the recording studio

In response to a number of requests, let me give you an insight into my recording studio and evaluation room, known as The Loft. The equipment list is always changing. A partial list can be found on this website elsewhere. One thing you can count on is that the studio is equipped with equipment of my own design, in fact my latest designs. Some of the equipment that will be installed is experimental and made from extremely rare Western Electric 262B and 272A valves. Other equipment is available for sale.

When I was taught recording (through a five-year apprenticeship) in the 1970s, it was expected that the professional studio engineer would build their own equipment, except for the recorders and a few pieces too impractical to build on an individual basis. The reason for this was that it ensured the studio had a sound that no other studio had -- vital to being the most competitive at the highest-end. Also, frankly, at that time no one took you seriously if you couldn't design your own equipment. As an aside, I've had so many requests from other studios who wanted to buy my equipment that I've recently begun selling customized copies of my hand made equipment. It's a true pleasure to see my handiwork out there making other studio's work better.

So what's my job?

I see my job as having three main aspects. Firstly to discover new knowledge, if nothing else to find better ways to do things. Secondly, to make practical applications of that knowledge by designing products that satisfy the listener's tastes. Thirdly, to provide leadership in the audio industry by introducing new products or techniques that reflects what I feel is the ideal, in other words, the new standard of perfection or excellence to which we should all strive. This means I have to walk a fine line of avoiding risks by introducing products that cater to known listener preferences, yet taking risks to introduce new products that take listeners out of the comfort zone of the familiar. Also, I want everyone to be able to enjoy the pleasures of their music reproduced or recorded by the finest audio systems, so I have to balance the real-life need to earn a reasonable profit while making as many products as accessible to as many listeners as possible by keeping prices down. I love the challenges these seemingly-conflicting situations bring. What a great job this is!

Early in my career, I had to learn how to create equipment that reflected not my tastes but of that of others. This was quite difficult at first. The first thing I had to learn was that my opinion (or anyone else's opinion) of what is the best sound isn't the only opinion, and that other people's tastes in sound are as valid as my own. There is no such thing, I had to learn, as a "tin-eared person," or, arguably, a "golden-eared person." Audio is inherently subjective because you're dealing with one of the human senses: hearing. It's just as much a matter of taste as one's choice of fashions or favorite foods. I'm always astounded when someone criticizes another person's opinion on sound as "subjective" and acts as if the word "subjective" somehow marginalizes the other person's opinion. I don't expect anyone to have the same taste in audio that I do; in fact, it isn't necessary at all. What is necessary is that I match the sound to your taste. This experience has given me the unique ability to design sound that appeals to anyone (regardless of whether I enjoy it personally), and the ability to recognize when a piece of equipment sounds excellent, even if I myself don't particularly care for it. That's why I'm not worried about being able to make something that you'll truly enjoy.

Most designers create a piece of equipment that reflects their personal tastes, then set out to persuade you (or, worse, cajole or intimidate you) into accepting their opinion of what is the "best sound" -- then buying their equipment. I have too much respect for each persons' individual tastes in music to do that to someone. It's more important to me that you have the most enjoyable stereo possible instead of agreeing with me as to what the "best sound" is. That's why instead of designing only what I think is the best sound, I design what you feel is the best sound. If I can't design something to your taste, I'll tell you so and refer you to some other brand that I think will match your tastes, The last thing I want is for someone to have something from me that they do not like the sound of because that benefits no one.

Ode To My First Recording Studio

Back in the Good Old Days of the 1970s, the heady days of Nakamichi cassette decks, Disco and Mutually Assured Destruction (yikes! these are my good old days?), I was learning recording as an eager young apprentice, sitting at the feet of The Great Master (Engineer) and absorbing the wisdom of this stereo sage. At this time, one of the trends in the recording profession was toward minimalism, which meant: you have two ears, not 24, so use only two microphones recorded onto two tracks. Multitrack is evil. (Just ignore the studio's 24-track Studer A80.) Real stereo, which is holy, uses only two mics. Proof? Compare Nautilus or Crystal Clear minimalist recordings with the nasty sound from Big Labels. (Of course, this misses the point that a full orchestra performing Mozart is more beautiful than four guys who can play only three chords while screaming instead of singing. Yeah, yeah, yeah.) To teach us apprentices the wisdom of minimalism, The Great Master would have us check out one of the studios many decks, the Nakamichi 550 Versatile Cassette System and three Shure SM59 microphones. (Anyone remember those?) Thus equipped, our assignment: capture great music using Nakamichi's "Three Point Microphone Technique" and bring it back alive!

Well, I did: one of my friends and his two older brothers had a jazz trio and I recorded one of their gigs. Oh man, my life changed forever! Here I was with this amazing cassette deck and three microphones and I'm getting a recording that sounds as good as most commercial LPs. I knew this was what I was born to do. So, I talked my parents into letting me set up a studio in a disused bedroom. I made a bass trap out of 2x4 lumber and thin plywood and added long wooden slats, stained a dark walnut, on the side walls and painted the walls white. Bad idea: it made the room look like a jail cell. Disgusted with the look, I replaced the slats with thick dark brown cork sheets covering the entire walls, then stained the woodwork and door in blonde. Acoustic ceiling tiles painted sky blue and three mic mounts bolted to the ceiling completed my spacious 11-foot by 12-foot studio. The room sounded great (astonishingly) and I set up Master Control (the 550 and a pair of AKG K240 headphones) in my bedroom across the hall, running the cables down the corners, then under the doors and along the baseboards. Gaffer tape is your best friend at a time like that.

We were on a quiet side street, and other than occasional thunderstorms and low-flying airplanes, it was a good place to make music. The next step: getting bands. I got a couple of my friends' bands in to try things out. They loved being able to come in, set up and jam -- no microphones in sight. Its surprising how few people look up at ceilings. Word got around quick, and every weekend Id do two or three bands, then take my master cassettes to the studio to make copies for the bands to sell at their gigs. Before too long I had developed a reputation for great sound, and in just four months I made enough money to buy my own Nakamichi 550 and three AKG D-190E microphones. By Christmas that year I had made quite a bit of money. So I saved it for college, right? Wrong. I bought more equipment. A Nakamichi 600-II, a 610 preamp/mixer, three AKG D200E two-way dynamics, a dbx 224 noise reduction, dbx 117 Decilinear compressor/expander, Crown D75 amplifier and some KEF woofers and tweeters to make my own pair of monitor speakers.

To make a master tape, I'd switch in the dbx 224, set the 600-II to SX tape and 120 uS EQ, Dolby off, pop in either a TDK SA tape or a Maxell UD-XLII (whichever was on sale at the hi-fi shop), ask the band to play the loudest part of the loudest song, dial in the level, then cue the band and start recording. This setup gave me more than 90 dB dynamic range and just about flat 20 to 20,000 Hz, with a level of clarity equal to any Ampex, Studer or Scully reel-to-reel. After the session, I'd dub the tape over to the 550, using its peak limiter and some overall gentle compression from the 117 to make the copy master. Most bands chose cassette copies, but some actually had LPs pressed from the master cassettes. Many never knew that their albums were recorded on a cassette deck. Don't tell.

In the years since, I've owned bigger and better studios, but honestly, nothing had the magic that tiny studio-in-a-bedroom had. Doubtless part of it was the quality of the Nakamichi recorders. But there was something about just being able to play music without any distractions caused by the recording process. It let bands just make music, full of emotion and spontaneity, in a way that can never be captured in a traditional multitrack studio.

I found a few surviving masters from that time during unpacking this weekend. Brought back the memories. Made me almost hate my 24-track digital system. I've spent this weekend cleaning up my 610, which I still have. You know, I set up my original - and best -- recording system anew, in a larger room this time. My old Nakamichi cassette decks are making their old magic again.