My How Things Have Changed, Part 1.

Since I began my recording career in 1974, I've seen a great many changes -- the rise of digital audio being only one of many. The one change that actually disturbs me the most if the fall of barriers to entry into the profession. When I began my career, my training was an intensive apprenticeship combined with a very diversified formal education. One aspect of this was that you were expected to be able to design, then build (or modify), practically every piece of equipment in the studio: microphones, all the various electronics, loudspeakers, recorders, the acoustic treatments, even music instruments. No one took you seriously as a truly expert engineer unless much of the equipment in your studio was designed and built by your own hand. Buying equipment was seen as a convenience, often to create a degree if compatibility with another studio in your syndicate. Yes, I do use a Crown D75 amplifier (along with my own designs) because I was so accustomed to hearing it that I wanted to have one as a convenient cross-reference, so to speak.

Today, people try to impress me with the equipment they bought for their studio. Sorry, I don't mean to come off snobbish, but nothing you can buy will impress me, but if you built it that gets my respect.

Do you want to set up the best studio in your area? Don't buy, build your own equipment. Build as much as you can. Don't buy some else's monitors, save the money you would have spent on that Telefunken mike and build your own! Buy a ready-made mike preamplifier? No! Learn electronics and build your own!

Now, that said, I do, of course, make custom-engineered equipment for other recording studios to buy.

Hypocrisy?

I can see that, but hear me out: I have unique expertise and over thirty years' experience in studio equipment design. After consulting with you on a custom-engineered product, you'll have something that, in essence, you really did design, and that is unique to your studio. I and my staff simply saved you some time and effort, but the end result is the same -- you didn't buy some off-the-shelf product anyone else can buy. Instead, you envisioned an entirely new and unique sounding piece of equipment and I simply realized your vision, saving you time and research-and-development money.

The D-50a Reissue

They say that what was once old will become new again. I have had the pleasure of seeing one of my old loudspeaker designs, the D-50a, go back into production after almost thirty years.

My goal for the D-50a was to create a bookshelf loudspeaker having vivid spatial imaging, low distortion, detailed bass and crisp detailed treble while maintaining excellent midrange. I wanted a little speaker that sounded huge, filling a room with sound, and hopefully could be played loudly in small rooms without fatigue or harshness. Drawing on my recording experience, I voiced the design to enhance rock and pop music, yet still be enjoyable while listening to classical or acoustic musical forms. Its design is truly a creature of the 1970s because I designed the first one in 1977 and finally had it market-ready by 1979.

Production of the original models ran from 1979 to 1989, when I was no longer able to obtain the Philips/Noreclo woofer and couldn't find a suitable replacement. Fortunately, after many years of development, I now have a faithful recreation of the D-50a's original woofer. The D-50a was the first speaker I designed using Theile/Small mathematics, which was quite new and represented the state-of-the art. I had to borrow a friend's Texas Instruments programmable calculator to do the math, which was too cumbersome for pen-and-paper.

The D-50a 30th Anniversary Reissue Bookshelf Loudspeaker features several improvements without losing its vintage sound: Higher-quality polyester capacitors and inductors, Acoustically-inert MDF cabinets with quality veneer replace the original particle board cabinets, Gold bi-wire binding post terminals replace the original spring-loaded push terminals, Acoustically-transparent cloth grilles replace the original sculpted-foam grilles. You can buy one through my company at KVG Laboratories.

A brief history of the LP

The LP has an interesting history. The recent trend of 45-rpm 12-inch audiophile LPs is good to see. Bell Laboratories engineers here in the USA calculated the optimum disc speeds, and it worked out that 33-1/3 rpm is perfect for 16-inch discs (like broadcast transcriptions and Vitaphone discs), 45 rpm is ideal for 12-inch discs, and 78 rpm (approximately) for 10-inch discs; in short, the larger the diameter the slower the disc speed.

When Dr. Peter Goldmark invented the "Long-playing microgroove record" for Columbia Records. When I had the chance to speak to him in 1976, he explained that he had to meet certain budgetary requirements imposed by Columbia. So he chose 33-1/3 rpm to be able to master using professional broadcast disc recorders (RCA, Fairchild, Presto, and Westrex models) then widely available. These were designed for 16-inch discs. He chose 10-inch diameter discs for the first LPs (12-inch LPs came later) so that the discs could be pressed on Columbia's 78-rpm record pressers; at that tim eColumbia was pressing 78 rpm records from a material called Vinylite. With those constraints (10-inch disc running at 33-1/3 rpm) he calculated the groove pitch and groove width needed for the record to have approximately 30-minutes of monophonic sound on each side. The result: a .22 to .25 mil spherical stylus.

Note that when the RIAA established its standards for LP manufacture, they allowed greater modulation and wider-spaced grooves, giving RIAA LPs far greater fidelity than original Goldmark/Columbia LPs.

Picking out a mat for framing your photographs

When you pick out colors for mats when presenting a photograph:

White is standard for museum and gallery presentation of black-and-white photos.

White will tend to make the colors in color photos look darker, and less saturated.

Black will tend to make the colors in color photos look more saturated, but be careful as it can make colors look gaudy or cheap.

Dark grey or charcoal grey will tend to make the colors in color photos look vivid without being unnaturally over-saturated. Find an old photographer's "18% grey card" that some photographers use for precise exposure metering; that shade of grey is nearly perfect for presenting colors in their most accurate setting. some pros use 18% grey mats as masks to judge color accuracy and saturation after enlarging or printing.

A colored mat will tend to de-emphasize its own color and emphasize its complement.

Beige, or other medium-tone earth tones are considered by some artists to flatter landscapes, but others regard them as tacky affectations.

Avoid pink or skin tone colors with portraits. When in doubt, basic black, a neutral off-white or a good grey will do.

Regarding colored mats as inferior to white mats or deciding to ask a colored mat for its papers is racist. (Joking)

What's with all this LP and MP3 stuff?

Alas, those of us who aren't content with low-fidelity audio (like low bitrate MP3s) are now, and have always been, the minority. I've always contended that, once exposed to higher quality sound, few persons would choose to go back to low-fi media (8-track cartridges and 45-rpm big-hole discs come to mind) - unless forced to do so because of budgetary concerns. My experience, however, has contradicted my idealism: most persons seem to enjoy the music itself without the benefit of high fidelity.

We all experience recorded music differently. For old-school audiophiles and studio professionals, the higher the fidelity, the greater the enjoyment. Others seem to be able to enjoy only the tune and rhythms of the music itself and technical quality of the reproduction is largely irrelevant to them. Oddly, most musicians I've known don't demand hi-fi sound; this could explain why. Having devoted my career to advancing the art of highest-fidelity sound, it's hard to accept the reality of the popularity of low-fi media.

Also consider that listening to music is a learned experience; if a person has grown up exposed only to lo-fi media then that person has learned to enjoy lo-fi audio. Although most of those individuals are immediately impressed and can enjoy hi-fi recordings, this doesn't necessarily translate into a desire to own only hi-fi gear from that point on. Add to this the number of those who cannot discern quality sound regardless, much as there are those who cannot discern fine wine or gourmet food and are content with eating at McDonalds or canned foods.

I can tell you from my own professional experience that the large numbers of sales of CDs or other hi-fi media are indeed spurred by the downloading of low-fi MP3s; however, my A&R person, as well as my own professional experience, informs me that the recording industry has changed fundamentally -- the era of mainstream listeners buying entire albums is over. Most buyers today "buy music by the slice" as my A&R person says. Studios, artists, and distribution channels have to adapt to the new market realities.

We've come full circle. More than 100 years ago, recordings were bought one-at-a-time; listeners would go to a music retailer (who sold instruments and sheet music primarily) and purchase a single cylinder or disc record.

Over time, music retailers offered price discounts if you bought several songs from the same artist. The record album was born, although the first ones were still single-song records packaged in a flip book made like a photograph album, which is the origin of the name "record album."

Which is why I make my money with MP3s and my pleasure with the finest sound I can grab. Oh, and for the record, even 96KB MP3s can be mastered to give the illusion of near-CD sound for most listeners, excluding orchestral music recordings.

Many audiophiles feel that 12-inch 33-1/3 or 45 RPM LP analog discs are the epitome of sound resolution and quality. While analog LPs are indeed the "best" sound for many audiophiles, many other legitimate audiophiles would disagree. Generalizations like "such-and-such is the BEST" are something I avoid because they're seldom without exceptions.

By the way, I've mastered LPs over the past 32 years, and as a result my ear is so trained to hear the slightest fault in an LP that, while I do enjoy as good LP, I prefer far superior formats such as 15 or 30 ips reel tape or DSD master decks. Honestly, I don't have the passion for LPs many audiophiles do, to my constant regret, but the changes that occur in an LP's frequency response, imaging, dynamic range and distortion that occur as the record plays are distracting to me.

I wish everyone who enjoys high quality stereos could hear a truly fabulous playback on studio equipment like an Ampex ATR-100, MR-70, or MM-1100; Scully 100, 280 or 280B; MCI JH-16, 3M 79, Studer A80, Genex 9000 or a Pyramix system fitted with Meintner A/D/A decoders. I doubt you'd ever hear an LP with the same enthusiasm again. But then again, I'm jealous you feel the LP is "the best" because this means that you have more opportunities for audio pleasure than I do.

Something to consider about the modern LP microgroove record (just one of many distribution media). Firstly, even the best LPs are what? Copies. Copies mass-produced from a superior-quality master recording. Since 1933, it has been technologically possible to record a full symphony orchestra to such a degree of fidelity that the reproduction is nearly indistinguishable from a live performance. Over the decades, changes in technology have made that potential quality more affordable and more practical. My recording equipment has that capability, and has had since 1978.

There now exist a handful of distribution media that can deliver the listener a copy that equals a studio master. Unfortunately, these have yet to be made available to the public for reasons of practicality: the demands on the playback chain of such a recording place the cost of ownership out of reach for most persons. Even if you could afford it, as I hope will happen as technology becomes cheaper, you have more problems: you need superb acoustics in a quiet environment, which is another rarity.

Therefore, the goal of the mastering engineer is the same as that of a magician: to practice a unique sleight-of-hand, namely to create a distribution media that sounds as if it equals a master recording, even though it is actually markedly inferior, without requiring an impractical degree of complexity in the playback equipment to achieve that illusion. Furthermore, the distributed recording must maintain that illusion in less-than-ideal acoustic environments that often have quite noisy ambient sound levels.

The fact that a distribution medium with the severe limitations of the LP microgroove record, whether 33-1/3 rpm or 45 rpm, is testimony of the success of mastering facilities to achieve their sleight-of-hand. or should I say sleight-of-ear?

Consider the LP microgroove record's technical quality. If you do not exceed the RIAA's recommended modulation limits, then under ideal conditions your record will boast 30 cps to 20 kc cps frequency response, or 20 cps to 50 kc with the Enhanced RIAA curve. THD will vary from about 1% (outer grooves) to 3% (inner grooves). Dynamic range equals about 45 dB, stereo separation about 30 to 35 dB, and channel balance about 1.5 dB to 2 dB.

Impressed? That's worse than a non-Dolby cassette deck. Audiophile labels usually exceed RIAA modulation limits, squeezing another 9 to 12 dB dynamic range, barely, while extending LF response to as low as 5 cps. That's still worse than a cassette deck, except for the bass. Only a few real-world on-the-shelf LPs ever achieve that level of quality..

So why do LPs sound so wonderful despite such awful actual performance? Because the mastering engineer knew his craft and practiced it well. He fooled your ears into hearing quality that didn't really exist. How did he do that? Well, that's a trade secret that mastering engineers guard closely.

This highlight my greatest personal frustration on the topic of high quality stereo: that an LP is indeed better than the digital formats available to the home audiophile. The same is true for analogue as a whole.

Personally am wish that I was able to enjoy LPs like most audiophiles do, and I'm not meaning that in any way to be derogatory of anyone who loves the sound of LPs! My audiophile friends are always amazed that I put up with turntables and boxcars that no true audiophile would touch. Would you like my Yamaha YP-D3 with its Stanton 681EEE? Or how about my Dual 1249 with its Shure V-15 Type III? Oh, I know, you want my Rabco ST-7 and its Microacoustics 2002e. No no no, you want my Rega/Grado 'table. I'm joking, I'm quite sure that's wrong on all counts, and I agree with you; none of those are audiophile quality turntables. I'm practical, so until I can find something that lets me enjoy an LP, short of a Scully automatic record lathe, then I'm putting up with turntables that are adequate.

I have an old Uher 4000 Report S I used to use for live broadcast recording and frankly even it sounds better than the vast number of consumer digital. This is truly an insult to lossy digital formats like MP3, because my Uher -- with its tizzy-sounding germanium transistor circuitry -- isn't that great sounding an analog deck!

One professional goal that I've been working toward is to develop something better than the LP yet affordable, and I've been working on both analog and digital formats. You know why digital rules in studios? Money. It's far cheaper for a studio to run a digital system than it is an analog system. Replicating CDs or compiling downloadable MP3s on iTunes store is vastly cheaper than pressing 180 gram or better LPs.

SACD is capable of analog sound that is close to, or equal to, LP; but very few releases realize the format's potential. I've been able to record and master CDs that have an analog feel reminiscent of CD, but again, few CDs rise to the level of an LP, but it shouldn't be that way.

Making digital rival analog is possible, but it requires the same approach for both technologies: no compromises can be made in recording technique or recording equipment. Digital has seduced studios into the false belief that because digital is better than analog (better spec sheets) so you don't need to be as meticulous with miking technique, you can heavily process the sound, and you don't need the best microphones. Wrong! Analog recordists often take the opposite approach -- little or no processing, and use the best equipment you can afford, then sweat until you have mike placement perfect.

Bottom line, and I could be wrong, but from my seat behind the studio monitors gives me this perspective: I think it's not so much that LP and analog technology beats digital, it's that analog studios use better, more meticulous recording technique than digital studios; and that an average audiophile analog studio is far better equipped than the typical digital studio. If digital studios would be as meticulous and uncompromising as an analog studio has to be, you'd be enjoying SACD, or even -- heresy! -- Redbook CD.

We'll find out this year; I'm making a few experimental digital recordings with the objective of creating analog-sounding LP-like CD and SACD releases.