From LP To MP3

Dec 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Janice Brown



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Assuming the mainstream music market develops some high-res digital-distribution channels, mastering engineers may soon be delivering multiple digital release formats. Stubblebine assures, however, “It doesn't add too much more work or cost much more for the client to ask for two more formats because you've done most of the work getting up to the point where you have a finished, edited, EQ'd and mastered 176kHz file, and then it's just incremental work to repurpose to the CD master, the 176 master, the 96 master.”

The high-res releases from major labels that would really spark consumer interest could be years away, however, as Calbi speculates. “Because we all work in 16-bit/44.1 in terms of delivery, the engineers here don't have copies of material mastered over the past several years in high resolution,” he explains. “So if they wanted to re-release an album by a legacy artist, the labels would have to go back and remaster, which would take a real commitment and investment. Because they don't have the money, we're stuck in that in-between period, where the technology can do it but the business plan doesn't make any sense.”

Instead of coming from the larger recording industry, that commitment is being demonstrated by the efforts of individuals. Doug Sax and Bill Schnee introduced a new 2-track digital recording format at AES. “We recorded a jazz group and a small rock group direct to 2-track at 192kHz/24-bit using these new A/D and D/A converters made by JCF Audio,” says Sax, who along with Schnee, originally pioneered direct-to-disc recording with releases on his Sheffield Lab audiophile label. “We wanted to see if there was any interest and if people heard any of the merits that we heard in making it. We feel this is our purpose now — to try and explore what can be done. It was very well-received.”

Producer T Bone Burnett is another emerging figure in the movement to improve digital audio. His new CODE technology, which he described in Mix's October issue as “a quality-control system,” will provide a set of standards for digital audio that would work to optimize sound for every file format.

Controlling the Process

Eager to deliver elevated music experiences but frustrated by the mandate to compensate for inferior production quality while meeting commercial demands, Paul Stubblebine Mastering, Sterling Sound and Bernie Grundman Mastering have all started in-house record labels. Stubblebine held a forum on this trend at AES '08. “I wondered, what is it that's making us want to start labels that are all so different from what the mainstream music business looks like,” says Stubblebine. “I think we all feel, without dwelling on the negative, that the whole idea of making smaller and smaller files for file sharing hasn't really moved us in the right direction so we've looked for other ways of working.”

Stubblebine's Tape Project produces reel-to-reel releases, Sterling's Experience Vinyl deals in vinyl and Grundman's Straight Ahead Records takes a natural approach — live recording and mixing using proprietary electronics for optimizing quality (a system that reportedly uses less overall electronics than any other).

“We're all operating off the same impulse — to allow the home listener to hear music at the kind of quality level we hear it at in the studio,” says Stubblebine, “without the distractions of what comes from compressing the stuff down to MP3 and AAC — that lack of resolution that, for many of us, is just not enough.”

The in-house labels give these mastering engineers the opportunity to focus wholly on sound quality without pressure to push the levels at the expense of dynamics. The Straight Ahead releases, explains Grundman, “are live-to-2-track and mixed right on the spot, using all custom-built equipment in the signal path. We use a special equalizer that has almost no electronics in it. We've carefully selected each piece of equipment in the chain according to what has the most natural, cleanest sound.” Neil Larsen's group, Orbit, featuring Robben Ford, recently released a Straight Ahead record as a double-vinyl LP and an Emerald Audiophile Series CD. The sound quality of this CD, made with a dark-green polycarbonate that enables a more accurate reading of the digital data from the disc, reportedly “rivals the vinyl.”

Mastering a Tape Project release follows the flow of any other mastering session, says Stubblebine. “We'll get the master tape up, run it through our chain, and once we've got it optimized we'll run that twice to the 1-inch, 2-track. We'll edit those together and we'll have reel A and reel B running masters. In some cases, it requires quite a bit of EQ, and in others, none whatsoever, and we'll just do a straight connection. The major difference is in our approach because we know we're mastering for people that have decent or great stereo systems, so there's no question of compromising the sound quality.”

Of Experience Vinyl, Calbi says, “We wanted to do something that would promote the studio in terms of our commitment to good sound. It's so rare to have a tape that you can put on a machine and transfer to a piece of acetate and send it to a plant, but we found one that we're releasing by an artist named Kim Taylor. It was a beautiful tape and we did a beautiful transfer onto vinyl. It sounds really tactile and rich-sounding. That's our second release; we also did a blues album by Michael Powers, and we plan on doing more.”

Janice Brown is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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