Q&A with Barry Diament of Soundkeeper Recordings

Barry Diament with his Metric Halo ULN-8 which serves as his mic preamps, A-D and D-A converters

Some of you already know about Barry Diament from his CD mastering days at Atlantic Records where he was the mastering engineer for too many classic CD releases to do justice to with a short list (here's one longer list and I'll cherry pick Led Zeppelin II, Physical Graffiti, and the majority of the Bob Marley and The Wailers catalog to give you a peak at the tip of the iceberg). And some of you may know Barry from his label Soundkeeper Recordings or his audio recording, production, consulting, mastering, and editing services offered through Barry Diament Audio.

You may also recall our Soundkeeper Recordings Format Comparisons post that talks about their free downloads of the same recordings in various levels of resolution (16/44, 24/96, and 24/192) so you can listen for yourself. And others still may have seen Barry's often informative comments on various forums.

Barry Diament was kind enough to agree to this Q&A and as you'll see, his answers are thorough and illuminating.

You have a very interesting resume that includes being one of the first CD Mastering Engineers. Can you talk a bit about your history as a recording engineer and bring us up to date with your Soundkeeper Recordings label?

First, I want to say Thank You for your interest, Michael. I’m honored to be on AudioStream.

I started recording when I was eleven, playing with my brother’s Concord reel-to-reel deck. While recording the weekly jams I had with a few friends, I found that I could play drums and then, using the sound-with-sound feature, add a guitar part later. I’d found “overdubbing” without knowing what it was.

During my college years, I was reading all the audio magazines I could get my hands on, from Audio to Stereo Review to High Fidelity, later finding some of the British magazines, such as Hi-Fi News in a local magazine store. Then came the discovery of Stereophile and The Absolute Sound, both of which (in addition to Bert Whyte’s columns in Audio) became a sort of audio “school”, in addition to the other reading and experimenting I was doing.

"While the studio experience was wonderful, I noticed early on that what I heard in the control room did not sound like what I heard out in the room with the musicians."

After college, I got my first studio job as an assistant engineer, setting up microphones and operating the tape machines during recording sessions. Once I was promoted to senior (then chief) engineer, I was doing recording, overdubbing and mixing and later learned to cut vinyl in the in-house mastering room. While the studio experience was wonderful, I noticed early on that what I heard in the control room did not sound like what I heard out in the room with the musicians. So began my fascination with monitoring and the realization that this was, in my view, the single most important factor in the studio. After all, if one could not hear what they were doing, nothing else really mattered.

Then I started to ask what I call “The Questions”, things I was never taught and which, to my knowledge, are not taught in the real “audio engineering schools” that have arisen in the intervening years. Questions like “Why this microphone?” and “Why place it here?”

When I heard an editor’s position opened up at Atlantic Records, I jumped at the chance and luckily for me, landed the job. My specific task was to make long songs shorter (to create “single” versions of album length songs, radio stations preferring to keep songs not much longer than three minutes) and to make short songs longer (to create the “dance” versions that were popular in the clubs).

"In January of 1983, Atlantic purchased the gear to create CD masters, built a mastering room and I was made the “CD mastering department”."

In the mid-late ‘70s, I’d heard talk of a new future format for recorded music called the Compact Disc. I remember a cardboard mock-up someone had given me, of a rainbow colored disc only about 5 inches in diameter, in what seemed like a miniature LP jacket. By 1982, Atlantic’s sister company, Warner Brothers, was already creating CD masters for the Warner family of labels (Warner, Atlantic, Elektra, etc.). In January of 1983, Atlantic purchased the gear to create CD masters, built a mastering room and I was made the “CD mastering department”. To my knowledge, at the time, only Sony in Japan, Polygram in Germany and Warner in Los Angeles and perhaps one or two other facilities had CD mastering engineers.

I remember hearing my first CDs then and thinking that the removal of hiss, crackles and wow and flutter (speed irregularities) was a good thing but the sound of the instruments themselves was not the great improvement it was promoted as being. In fact, I found my vinyl records to much more closely represent what I was used to hearing in the studio.

Over the years, some significant improvements in CD sound quality followed, from better players, more successfully able to reproduce the sound of the digital CD master to better CD mastering gear. When Atlantic installed Apogee’s retrofit filters in the Sony mastering gear, there was a nice step up in sonics but I still felt there was a long way to go.

In order to do the best job I could, I set about making some improvements in the mastering room, starting with the monitoring. I had the studio replace the little box speakers in the room with a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10s, later followed by DQ-20s. I treated the reflection points on the walls with absorbent material and brought my own cables to work every day in order to bypass the console, switching, patch bay and other standard accoutrements of a typical mastering room. Typically, I would wire directly from the output of the Studer reel-to-reel deck to the input of the Sony 1630 A-D converters. If I felt some EQ was necessary, I’d add only the EQ, with nothing else in the signal path.

"By the mid-1990’s I realized that many clients were starting to evaluate my work using the level meters instead of the loudspeakers."

In 1987, I left Atlantic to form BDA and worked primarily as an independent CD mastering engineer. I worked out of a few different studios, choosing them based on my assessment of the monitoring accuracy. By the mid-1990’s I realized that many clients were starting to evaluate my work using the level meters instead of the loudspeakers. At this point, I had to stop and ask myself just what I sought to accomplish as an audio engineer.

Now, I enjoy loudness when it is appropriate but in my experience, if you want to shake the walls with AC/DC (or with Mahler), the best way to achieve this is with the playback volume control. Any other way, such as arbitrarily increasing the level on the recording itself involves a host of sonic trade-offs. First among them, is the sense of Life that comes from musical dynamics. Since my goals as an engineer are sourced in my love of music, I didn’t want to participate in the ongoing Loudness Wars. All the truly great sounding records and CDs in my collection had much lower average levels than what the majors were releasing. I wanted to preserve all the musical Life in every source I mastered too and never used compression myself. While some say it increases “punch”, the sonic evidence tells a quite different story. Besides, how does one increase punch by reducing dynamics, where the punch “lives”? So, I started accepting only those jobs where the client’s prime interest was the musical presentation and the preservation of musical dynamics.

I also started to think more about the Questions I mentioned earlier. I asked myself if I ever wanted to listen to a great piano player with my head under the lid of a grand piano and my ears just inches above the hammers. Or if I wanted to listen to a ripping guitar solo with my ear up against the grill cloth of a Marshall (amplifier) stack. Or a great horn player with my ear in the bell of the horn. How about a great vocalist with my ear an inch from their lips? This in fact, is where the mics in a typical studio recording “listen” from. I realized that those recordings I found truly amazing sonically used considerably fewer microphones and none were ever placed as close to what they were capturing as is done in a typical studio recording.

Soundkeeper Recordings studio

I came to realize that 90-95% of a recording’s ultimate sound quality has already been determined by the time the signals are leaving the microphones. This was the genesis of Soundkeeper Recordings. I knew then that my greatest interest in audio and recording is in making records that give the listener the feeling they are in the presence of the performance, in the room where the performance took place.

To be clear, there is a very large library of recorded music that I love, which was made using the typical studio techniques involving multiple, closely placed microphones. Over the years, the recording art has evolved to the point where musical magic can be created which bears little relationship to the original performance. Wonderful and magical as many of these recordings are, they were made to sound like "records"; my goal is to explore the idea of records that sound like performances. Two different approaches, each with its own rewards.

Soundkeeper Recordings are made with all the musicians playing live, in real time. In order to keep the signals as coherent as possible, there is only one microphone per playback channel. The mics are arranged in a stereo array and are separated by a baffle of my own design. Musical balances are achieved by moving players and instruments physically, rather than moving faders on a mixing console. The recordings are captured in stereo with no overdubs or further processing. What leaves the microphones is essentially the finished recording. (Because I record with a lot of headroom, final levels are adjusted in the mastering room.) The results sound very much like what I hear when standing at the position of the microphone array at the recording sessions.

Provenance is a main concern for many HD download customers. Some people would like this provenance information to include things like what generation master tape was used for a given reissue. This is certainly a new requirement as I'm not aware of many LPs or CDs that provide this information. In your experience, how often is it the case that an album, regardless of format, was created from the original master tape and why is this important?

The first issue of an album is generally created from the original master. In the case of huge sellers, there will often be subsequent masterings. This is particularly true for vinyl because the vinyl lacquer created in the mastering room is only good for the production of so many “mothers” used for creating of the final pressings.

"What this means is that with hit albums, there is no guarantee a given purchased copy was mastered from the original master tapes."

In vinyl mastering, it has been common practice to make a separate tape recording during the initial mastering stage, which contains the same signal sent to the cutting lathe. In other words, this separate tape recording would capture the level adjustments, EQ and any other processing the mastering engineer uses while cutting the lacquer. The labels would keep this “EQ’d copy” (or “EQ’d limited copy”) and use these when subsequent lacquers are required. These could be cut “flat” (i.e., with no further alteration) and reflect the changes made during the original mastering. What this means is that with hit albums, there is no guarantee a given purchased copy was mastered from the original master tapes.

Aside from EQ’d copies created during mastering, sometimes the label is not in possession of the original mixed tapes. This is something I encountered a lot while at Atlantic. The originals might be in a musician’s private library or they might be in an overseas tape library. The label receives a “flat” copy of the original tape for use in creating the records or CDs they sell.

Is this important? There is no hard answer. A well made analog tape copy will exhibit a slight increase in background hiss and perhaps a very slight loss of transient speed. However, in my experience, these are of much smaller magnitude than the changes the mastering engineer is going to make. The question is much like asking whether purchasing produce from a gourmet shop will produce a better meal than purchasing it from a supermarket. If all other things are equal, I believe the answer would likely be yes. But all other things are rarely equal. If two different chefs prepare meals from the same ingredients, the results will often be quite different. Personally, I’d rather choose the chef than the ingredients. Put another way, I’d rather listen to a record George Piros mastered from a third generation copy than some other engineer might have mastered from the original studio mixes.

"Put another way, I’d rather listen to a record George Piros mastered from a third generation copy than some other engineer might have mastered from the original studio mixes."

To the issue of provenance, I believe what many folks really want to know is less about what mic cable was used in the original recording and more about whether the resolution of the download they are purchasing is truly the resolution it is purported to be. Is it really 24/96 or really 24/192? Or is it merely 16/44 (CD resolution) delivered in a high resolution “package”?

On your Soundkeeper Recordings site, you recommend CD-Rs over CDs for those buyers who will play back their music on a transport or player yet you also recommend the CD for those buyers that intend to rip their music to hard drive. Could you explain why a CD-R is better than a CD when spinning a disc and why this difference doesn't matter when ripping and playing back from hard drive?

I wish I could explain why. I’ve read a number of theories and some of them may or may not make sense.

From my earliest days in CD mastering, I always noticed that the finished CDs from different replication facilities all sound different from each other and none sounds indistinguishable from the CD master used to make it. Often, CDs made on different production lines within the same plant don’t sound like each other either. In all cases, there is a loss of “focus” and fine detail, usually subtle, sometimes not so subtle.

When it came time to choose a plant to do Soundkeeper’s CDs, I spoke with a few dozen facilities. The one I ultimately chose was the only one which, without any prompting from me, did not claim their CDs sound exactly like the masters. It turns out, their CDs are the closest in my experience. I can still distinguish between the CD and the master from which it was made but with their discs, I need a synchronized playback against the master to discern the differences.

This plant cuts the glass master (the first step in CD production) in real time, instead of the more typical 4x or faster used by most other facilities nowadays. They also use a ~9 second injection molding cycle, rather than the more common ~4 second cycle. Whether these account for why their discs are more faithful, I don’t know. Some say procedures like this make for better formed “pits” in the disc, making it easier for the player to read the disc with less “jitter” (i.e., timing errors). I don’t know if this is the case but I do know I like the results.

With a well made CD-R (burned at relatively slow speed on a high quality blank), I find the results of playback in a CD transport or player sound closer to the CD master than even the best pressings in my experience.

I think something similar occurs with processes such as SHM, Blu-Spec and HQCD, where the processes are different from usual and sometimes the materials in the disc itself are different. I recently compared some of these with their plain CD counterparts. I was pretty surprised by the degree of difference I heard and found it to be so obvious, I would have bet I was listening to two different masterings, with different EQ!

To “prove” this, I extracted both the “special” disc and the plain CD to computer hard drive so I could perform a “null” test. In a null test, two digital files are synchronized (to the sample) and mixed together. The polarity of one of the files is reversed. What results is that everything the two files have in common, i.e., what is the same in the files, is cancelled (or “nulled”), leaving only what is different between the files. To my surprise, the result of the null test was dead silence. Listening to the two files from the computer resulted in both sounding indistinguishable from each other. It was a slightly clearer version of the “better” disc heard from the CD player. Whether commercial CD, “special” material or process CD or a fine CD-R, my experience has consistently been that extraction to computer and playback from there (as a raw PCM file in .aif or .wav format) gets me the true sound of the master.

"What I do know is that as an audio enthusiast, I’ve always wanted to hear “the master” at home. With computer audio, this is finally a reality."

What is the difference between playback from a transport or player and playback from the computer? To create a CD, those “ones and zeros” of digital code must be further encoded, using a scheme referred to as “8:14 modulation”. This is used to create the nine different length “pits” and “land” (the space between the pits) on the finished disc. Among other things, the player must spin the disc at the correct speed, track the spiral of pits, keeping the laser properly focused, read the disc, decode the 8:14 modulation, decode the resulting binary code, apply any necessary error correction, convert it to stereo analog signals and feed it to the outputs, often using a common power supply for all these functions. The computer, given something like a raw PCM file in .aif or .wav format, has a much simpler job. Whether all this accounts for the audible differences, I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that as an audio enthusiast, I’ve always wanted to hear “the master” at home. With computer audio, this is finally a reality.

With this in mind, if computer playback is the goal, the advantages CD-R has in transports and players are no longer there, hence, my recommendation of the less expensive CD to Soundkeeper customers who listen via their computers.

Soundkeeper Recordings studio

You have been vocal about your preference for recording, as well as delivering, your Soundkeeper Recordings in 24-bit/192kHz format. Why 24/192?

The reason is because I feel properly done 24/192 crosses a very important threshold. Over the years, I’ve used all sorts of analog recorders and digital recorders but the output of these devices was always quite different sounding from the signal they received at their input.

Even the best 24/96 digital I’ve heard, while certainly much better than 16/44 CD in terms of fidelity the input signal, still sounds very different to me than the input that is coming directly from the microphones.

"For the first time in my experience, those reservations I have always had about digital, where I felt there were some things the best analog did better, simply evaporated."

When I first heard properly done 24/192, it was a jaw dropper. For the first time in my experience, those reservations I have always had about digital, where I felt there were some things the best analog did better, simply evaporated. This is, to my ears, a bigger jump up in quality over 24/96 than that was over 16/44. It no longer feels like a great digital recorder or a great analog recorder. It feels like the recorder has been effectively removed from the equation and I am listening directly to the mic feed.

I mention “properly done 24/192” because I’ve heard a number of converters with these numbers on their spec sheet, which actually sound worse to me at this rate than they do at 24/96. This, I attribute to the significantly increased demands made by the higher rates on clocking accuracy and for wide band performance from the analog stages.

When the higher rates are well executed, the results are simply magical. Though I hear it throughout the range, perhaps surprisingly, I find many of its benefits particularly audible in the bass. The only downside I’ve found so far is that I can no longer blame the gear for any flaws in my recordings. Of those, I must take full ownership.

There is continued discussion and controversy over dynamic range compression. Mainly, how do we know if a given recording has been compressed to the point of not being worth listening to or buying. Some people are using sites like the "Unofficial Dynamic Range Database" to gauge the level of dynamic compression used in a given recording and to help inform their purchase decisions. Do you have any advice for how to interpret things like a "DR Value" and generally does loudness, which you've written about, automatically equate to a poor sounding recording?

I very much applaud the efforts of the folks behind the Dynamic Range Database. I have long felt that preservation of musical dynamics (as opposed to their eradication in the ongoing Loudness Wars) is one of the last frontiers in recorded sound.

That said, I would hesitate to assign quality to a recording based on a number. While a low number will certainly indicate what many, including myself, would deem an undesirable curtailing of dynamics, a high number, in my view, is no guarantee of quality. It is important to remember tests like this are looking at only one aspect of what is a complex reality. For example, who cares if the dynamic range is high if the treble has been boosted to the point of being able to loosen dental fillings?

"Ultimately, in order to evaluate a recording, particularly how any individual might feel about that recording, I don’t know of any substitute for actually listening."

As to whether loudness automatically equates to a poor sounding recording, I think this is a matter of degree. I have some recordings I consider good sounding but which are still compromised, in my opinion, by dynamic compression. I can only wonder how they’d sound if their dynamics were left unhindered. Personally, I think they’d be better but I should add that these recordings were not at all eviscerated to the point that many others are nowadays.

Ultimately, in order to evaluate a recording, particularly how any individual might feel about that recording, I don’t know of any substitute for actually listening.

Beyond dynamic range and provenance, are there other important factors people should factor in when making music purchase decisions with an ear toward sound quality?

Keeping in mind that it is possible to have a high DR rating, with the source being the original recording itself and still end up with something that doesn’t sound very good, we’re back to listening as the only real way to tell.

I think it would be a mistake to interpret a DR rating of 20 as, in and of itself, being better than a rating of 19. If they are two versions of the same recording, I’d want to know the recording and mastering engineer for each, as that would tell me more than the numbers ever could.

Still, in the end, the recording has no other purpose than to be listened to, so I’d rather hear a sample in order to know if I want to buy it.

Some audiophiles have a stated preference for a direct-from-master approach, meaning no EQ applied during the final mastering process. Is this the ideal?

In most cases, I would say it is not. While I understand and appreciate the sentiment, this is invariably suggested by folks who have not heard many (perhaps any) masters.

When I first started as an engineer, having been an audiophile first, I too believed EQ is bad and that all masters should be transferred “flat” (with no alteration). Then I learned how most records are really made and got to hear how many masters really sound.

One must consider the microphones used in most recordings and the colorations they bring to the results. Combine this with where the mics are placed (generally in places where the listener would not want to place their ear) and the fact that the signal will then be sent over long lengths of not-so-great cables, through dozens and dozens of switches and patch points and then “adjusted” to make the result, played back on not-so-great monitoring, sound “right”, is it any surprise that most recordings need help?

"Another thing to keep in mind is that there is EQ and there is EQ; I think it took me 15 years to learn how to use it invisibly."

Put another way, if I’ve got a master that sounds thin, with a treble hyped to the point of keeping insects away and I can make the results sound less painful with EQ, I would find EQ to be quite a good thing. Another thing to keep in mind is that there is EQ and there is EQ; I think it took me 15 years to learn how to use it invisibly. The idea is, for example, to bring out the “bite” in a horn section, not to bring out 5 kHz. All too often, when we hear an EQ’d program, we hear the EQ more than we hear what it was trying to accomplish program-wise.

All that said, with some recordings, there is no need for EQ. I’ve worked with mixes that came in sounding so right, they needed absolutely nothing. And with some recordings, which were made with the intention of capturing life - usually the minimally mic’d, “purist” recordings - there is also no need for EQ. In such cases, if no minor level adjustments are necessary, a straight from the master approach is the one I’d choose.

I've seen you mention George Piros, the mastering engineer, on a number of occasions and was wondering if you could tell us a little about your experiences with him and why he's made such a lasting impression.

I had the very good fortune to work with George when we were both at Atlantic. He would often tell me of his days with Bob Fine and Wilma Cozart and the work they all did on the Mercury recordings, which I only later came to hear and then to love so much.

George is one of my engineering heroes, being one of the only mastering engineers I ever met who did not routinely add a compressor or limiter to his signal path. In fact, I never saw him patch one into his mastering channel.

I spent many an afternoon in his mastering room, watching him work and discussing audio and music. George always called it as he heard it, no matter who he was speaking with. I loved his directness and his passion. And no matter what, he always served the music.

One memory that will always stay with me came from a time shortly before George retired. I was walking past the outside of the padded, double-door “airlock” outside George’s room and heard some rocking music coming from inside. I entered the room and saw George bent over the lathe, peering into the microscope, looking at a groove he was cutting in a test lacquer... while AC/DC played at a level that could peel the paint from the walls.

Through George, I also got to meet Bert Whyte and Joe Grado, both of whom came up to George’s mastering room to work with him and share audio stories.

In addition to being involved on the recording and mastering side, you are also an audiophile. Do you think this helps inform some the choices you make in the recording studio?

It has always been key in everything I’ve done as an engineer. From the realization of the critical importance of monitors and their setup to all the other components in the chain, being an audiophile has helped me develop as an engineer.

"It is why, when on an AES panel of CD mastering engineers in the early ‘80s, mine may have been the only voice in the room to (shyly at the time) declare my vinyl records still brought me closer to the music."

It has shaped my sensibilities in terms of what I want to achieve in my work and is the reason I refused to take part in the Loudness Wars. It is why, when on an AES panel of CD mastering engineers in the early ‘80s, mine may have been the only voice in the room to (shyly at the time) declare my vinyl records still brought me closer to the music.

And it is what led me to form Soundkeeper Recordings, where I believe I’ve done my best work to date.

Paul Beaudry & Pathways’ Americas session photo

Are there an upcoming projects you'd like to share with us?

With Paul Beaudry & Pathways’ “Americas” released just last month, I’m still in the “promo” phase for that project but there are a few new ones under consideration, which might come to pass later this year and see release in the next.

One is a reggae project - perhaps the world’s first “purist” reggae recording. I’ve also proposed a project with a young alto saxophone player I heard last month, who really entranced me with his playing. I’m always on the lookout for artists whose music moves me and who are interested in trying the “recording without a net” approach.

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COMMENTS
kenmac's picture

One of the best Q&As on AS yet. Very informative 

labjr's picture

Thanks for the Q&A.

I've always enjoyed reading Barry's opinions which seem to be methodical and well thought out.

Since he uses Metric Halo ULN-8 and has a high regard for it, I'm wondering if there will be a review of the Metric Halo ULN/LIO 8? Maybe you can tell us how accurate or enjoyable you find it?

Perhaps Barry could shed some light on the subject of accuracy vs enjoyment. As an audiophile does he listen to music differently than when he's recording in the studio? 

Thanks,

Larry

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I appreciate hearing from people involved in the actual doing. 

Since he uses Metric Halo ULN-8 and has a high regard for it, I'm wondering if there will be a review of the Metric Halo ULN/LIO 8? Maybe you can tell us how accurate or enjoyable you find it?

I do not have plans to review the Metric Halo but that may change.

Perhaps Barry could shed some light on the subject of accuracy vs enjoyment. As an audiophile does he listen to music differently than when he's recording in the studio?

I'm not sure if Barry has the time to participate here but that's an excellent question.

bdiament's picture

Hi Larry,

In my experience, not everyone will always choose accuracy.  I choose it myself because it is what I find most interesting (and I need it for my work) but I can understand folks deriving their listening pleasure from other approaches.

For example, I find that while most of the better converters today sound very good, that is exactly what I don't like about many of them.  Some will "enhance detail", regardless of the input signal.  Others will sound "silky smooth" even with programs that are not so smooth.  Many of these receive rave reviews in the print and on-line press.

For my work and for my own listening, I'd rather have gear that gets out of the way, to the extent possible and let's me hear the input, for better or worse (usually, it is for both  ;-}).

Your question about whether I listen differently when working is an interesting one.  During recording or mastering (or mixing or editing), there is certainly another part of the brain that is called into action.  I know this because once the job is done and some time passes, there is a freshness (perhaps related to relaxation) with which I'll hear the same program.  Still, sometimes the analytical part of listening kicks in automatically and I have to actively "turn it off" if I'm going to enjoy certain recordings.  To a degree, I think this may be true of any audiophile.

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

remlab's picture

Michael

I have not made up my mind about the gist of this article yet.. 

http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

It would be interesting to get Barry's take on it.. 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

It's clear that Barry disagrees with the main premise in that blog post and he explains why in the section here that discusses 24/192.

When given the option, I tend to favor experience over ideas when it comes to things that in the end rely on experiencing. 

I should have also mentioned that I forwarded a link to these comments to Barry and I believe he may have some time to comment.

bdiament's picture

Hi remlab,

As Michael has pointed out, I've expressed my feelings about 24/192 in the Q&A.

I find such "articles" a bit funny sometimes because my experience with 24/192 (in a good design) has been that at long last, the promise of digital has been fulfilled.  For the first time in my experience, I've got a recording device that produces results I have not yet been able to distinguish from listening to the direct mic feed.

To be clear, as I mentioned in the Q&A, I've heard a number of devices spec'd for "24/192" that, to my ears, do not deliver and in fact, sound worse at this rate than they do at lower rates.  I consider this a problem with the individual design and not with the format.  (I've tasted bad pizza too but I do not blame the tomatoes.  ;-})

So reading an article or "white paper" telling me this is somehow overkill or that it is *worse* feels much like someone telling me there are no colors in a rainbow.

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

remlab's picture

Thank you for responding so fast. The author of that article did seem to be hell bent on attaining his hi rez audio playback as inexpensively as possible, which obviously tells us where he's coming from. I also found it odd that a guy who developes audio codecs for a living has had no previous experience with high resolution audio. If I were him, I'd have been doing comparative listening tests with every format I could get my hands on from the very beggining, in order to validate my work. Hmm..

deckeda's picture

Another very enjoyable interview, and I always like hearing what Mr. Diament has to say. It's a real treat to have a bit of "access" to industry insiders from a publication that's not involved in production.

Michael, there's something that's concerned me about the DR questioning in the interviews. Perhaps this is a misinterpretation on my part but I've rarely had the sense that a complaint about DR wasn't meant within the context of available alternative formats / releases.

In particular it seems LPs of new titles have a reputation for being more dynamic than the digitally-distributed versions regardless of bit rate, sample rate, lossy or lossless. Never heard it, but "Stadium Arcadium" (Red Hot Chili Peppers) is supposedly one of the poster childs for this phenomenon, where the LP is "much more" dynamic than the CD.

I recently got a taste of this. I bought Best Coast's "The Only Place" LP --- presumably sourced from digital, as most stuff is these days --- and a friend let me listen to his 24/96 copy at my home he bought online. The former presented everything more dynamically and rhythmically diverse, and it was noticable listening from another room. The latter is supposedly DR=6. There are too many variables present in anyone's analog and digital playback setups to spend a lot of time analyzing what I heard and so, I won't.

My point here is to see if it's less about "what the artist wanted" and instead learn why there would be any real differences among formats. I did read (sorry, more hearsay, I know) about a recording that was placed into two production paths: LP and everything else. The LP got mastered "normally" and all the digital versions (iTunes/Amazon lossy, CD and hi res) got dynamically compressed more. Perhaps there are some producers out there who'd be willing to expound upon that very broad assertion, or shoot it full of holes.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

This is an interesting topic - maybe Barry can address this idea of why there are differences when mastering for vinyl as opposed to digital (if I've paraphrased you correctly)...

Best Coast's "The Only Place" is a great example of how little provenance info is available - anywhere. The LP is sold through all of the audiophile sites and Amazon etc. and the HD download is available at HDtracks. Of the sites I checked out, including these and a few more, they all cut and paste what the label provided re: album info which does not include whether or not this was recorded to tape. 'Studio B' at Capital is certainly set up for analog recording so it's possible.

deckeda's picture

JD McPherson's awesomely fun Signs and Signifiers is heralded by both the studio where it was recorded (HiStyle) and the label who released it (Rounder Records) as having been recorded with analog tape. JD and his bassist/producer/HiStyle Studio owner Jimmy Sutton vocally prefer it.

Rounder is part of the Concord Music Group, and CMG's Paul Blakemore mastered the LP; someone else mastered the CD.

From the LP's inner gatefold:

Engineered and Mastered by Alex Hall

Mastered for LP by Paul Blakemore at CMG Mastering

What follows is more curiosity related to provenance, less so about notions of "quality" or format differences. Fair warning. Some will begin to wince at the rabbit hole I fell down as they read it: 

CMG Mastering is located in another city from both the recording studio and from wherever the tape was stored, so the question is, was the tape sent to CMG, was a hard disk copy, or were files FTP'd to CMG?

In other words I don't assume Blakemore used the analog tapes to master, but maybe he did. No mention about any of that on the LP.

You need a preview head and either digital delay or a transport with extra capstains to create an analog delay so that the lathe's cutter knows what to expect. Some mastering houses can (and will) still do that but I don't know about CMG. Obviously, those are the kinds of things Barry and Paul would know.

And I did send Mr. Blakemore a note via his web site asking him all of this but haven't heard back. Somebody call Fremer and delegate this sleuthing!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

CMG Mastering is located in another city from both the recording studio and from wherever the tape was stored, so the question is, was the tape sent to CMG, was a hard disk copy, or were files FTP'd to CMG?

I see what you're getting at but we are getting off the path of relevance, imo. And if you can't tell from listening, does it matter whatsoever? 

bdiament's picture

Hi deckeda,

It is not at all unusual for a master tape to be shipped to the mastering facility.  Services like FedEx overnight make this easy.

You said:
"You need a preview head and either digital delay or a transport with extra capstains to create an analog delay so that the lathe's cutter knows what to expect."

This should be "you need a preview head OR either digital delay..."  Any mastering house that cuts for vinyl from analog will have a deck with a separate preview head.  The lathe's computer will receive the preview signal, while the cutting head receives its signal from the playback head.

A digital delay would be needed for cutting a lacquer from a digital souce.  In this case, the real-time signal would feed the lathe's computer and the delayed signal would feed the cutter head.

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

 

bdiament's picture

Hi Michael,

There may be several reasons for differences between mastering for vinyl and mastering for digital.

First, the producer, artist or label may choose a different engineer for each.  Assuming each is presented with an original (i.e., unaltered) source, every engineer has different sensibilities and a different approach.

Another reason might be that some engineers approach each format differently.  I believe the intent is to "compensate" for each medium in some way.  For example, a great many vinyl cutters will mono the bass and limit the peaks.  Some will filter the bass below a given frequency or perhaps filter the top end.  All of these make cutting the lacquer easier.  (To my knowledge, George Piros never did any of these.  Neither have I.)

On the digital side, I've spoke with mastering engineers who, recognizing that the finished CD, played on a transport or player, does not sound like the CD master, will also attempt to "compensate" by using certain processes. 

My own feeling is that such "compensations" exact a sonic price.  Further, I don't believe they are necessary simply because the best sounding examples I've heard on vinyl, CD or any other format were mastered without without fear of the format.  In other words, each format is going to do what it is going to do.  Taking the sound further from the ideal does not result in the finished product being closer.

Lastly, those mastering engineers who participate in the Loudness Wars can push digital a lot harder than they can push analog.

To be clear, all of the above, as everything I've said, is just my own perspective.  In my experience, if you ask three audio folks a question, there will always be at least four different answers.  ;-}

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com
 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

For your time and participation - I'm very much enjoying this process and learning more than a thing or three.

In my experience, if you ask three audio folks a question, there will always be at least four different answers.  ;-}

Agreed. (I think ;-)

dalethorn's picture

Is it OK to assume that when not filtering bass or treble etc., that the engineers check for any potentially troublesome spikes or other such things?

bdiament's picture

Hi dalethorn,

I think any good engineer will check the program for issues that should be brought to the attention of the producer and/or simply fixed.

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

agentsmittie's picture

This is to Barry

I always wanted to try your hires recordings.  However your offering is physical media only. Being from overseas this makes it inconvenient and costly for me to buy.

Is there any particular reason why a web based business like yours is avoiding download purchase?  I mean even the draconian mmainstream labels ate doing it .    It puzzles me why you are missing that important market sector.

 

bdiament's picture

Hi agentsmittie,

Actually, there are several reasons we don't offer downloads.  Since I'm asked this quite often, I've added it to the Soundkeeper Recordings FAQ page here.

Best regards,
Barry
www.soundkeeperrecordings.com
www.barrydiamentaudio.com

Brown Sound's picture

Very informative, indeed. Thank you, Barry and Michael.

Jitterjabber's picture

Great interview,

I would recommend the book "Mastering Audio" by Bob Katz as a great way to better understand audio, mastering, sample rates...this is a very well written book by someone I respect.

Best,

-hifiqc

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