Q&A with Elliot Mazer

Elliot Mazer (left) & Neil Young

Elliot Mazer's resume reads like a small army of overachievers. Grammy-award-winning Record Producer, Studio Owner, Recording Engineer, Inventor, Professor, and more, Elliot has worked with some of our best-known recording artists including Janis Joplin, Santana, Sinatra, The Who, and most famously Neil Young. He has also been involved in the developmental phases of the digital technologies of our time including work at Stanford University’s Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), building what is regarded as the first all-digital recording studio, and more recently working with the Warner Music Group on their Archive Project, and consulting to OraStream and Pono. Elliot was kind enough to take time away from his busy schedule to answer some questions for AudioStream for which I am very appreciative. Thank you Elliot.

Elliot Mazer in His Master's Wheels mobile recording unit

How did you get started in the music industry?
I worked in a record store (Sam Goody) and spent a lot of time looking at album jackets. One day, a salesman for Decca arrived. He had a few boxes of the single "My Generation" (The Who). I listened to it and had the store stock the 50 45s he had. In those days, the labels gave retail 100% return privileges which resulted in retail taking more chances on new product.

I played that single in the store as much as allowed. By the second day all 50 were sold. Two things happened: I fell in love with The Who (have been working with them for a few years now) and I realized that when you played good music for people, they wanted to own it.

Bob Weinstock the owner and President of Prestige Records was a customer. I talked to him when I could. He asked me what I was getting paid. I told him about $33 /week. He said he would give me $40 and teach me how to produce records. I started working for Prestige soon thereafter.

You have worked as a recording engineer, producer, as well as designed and owned your own recording studio. Can you discuss the relationship, similarities, and differences between the live performance and the recorded document of that performance? What aspects, if any, of the live performance are you trying to capture in a recording? Will we ever be able to truly reproduce a live performance in our homes?
I am primarily a Record Producer. I learned engineering and concepts for studio design while producing. Songs and performances are the essence of a record. The studio and engineers have to do their best to help the artists achieve the desired result. Many engineers and studios were not equipped to properly record small rock groups with singers singing live with the band (New York and L.A.). Most of the records that I produced were done that way.

"Songs and performances are the essence of a record."

I got increasingly frustrated with the engineers I encountered in New York and LA. I was lucky to start working in Nashville in the mid-sixties. The studios were setup for rhythm sections. Each instrument had its own space and was comfortable. The earphone systems helped the musicians and the engineers knew how to get good drum, bass and guitar sounds. I learned from them and added my NY / LA experiences and came up with some sounds I liked.

I love live performances done in a studio. The shared energy between musicians adds a new dimension to the recording. On-stage creates a completely different type of performance. One can capture more excitement as the crowd excites the artists. They come alive on-stage rather than sit in a studio focusing.

In homes, a good reproduction system can make a good recording sound great. It is a different experience than a live show.

Many home systems are not setup to hear anything properly. I have seen expensively installed systems with a lot of expensive gear that most users can't operate. Speakers are often hidden or not placed in a proper symmetrical environment.

Elliot Mazer with Joan Baez (reclining) and Elliot at QSS [Quadrafonic Sound Studios], Nashville

You served as a consultant to Stanford University’s Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and are credited as designing the "world's first all-digital recording studio". How has digital recording changed the music industry?
CCRMA was one of the originators of digital recording, the late Max Matthews (Princeton to CCRMA), one of the great audio minds is credited as the first person to explain the Nyquist theory which made digital audio possible. The end result of digital audio is that most people think good sound comes out an earbud playing a file that only has a small percentage of the bits used to make a digital file that sounds very close to the analog original. Movie theaters had bad sound for years. In many cases people heard better sound at home. Today movies sound better than what most people hear at home or walking around with earbuds. Movies have become digital and often use 24bits, 48kHz sample rates and decent speakers. Ioan Allen of Dolby Labs was the originator of better theatrical sound. He has an Oscar on his mantle. Credit George Lucas for insisting on better sound and building facilities for that purpose. LucasFilm took many of the ideas that we created at CCRMA and built upon them.

"The end result of digital audio is that most people think good sound comes out an earbud playing a file that only has a small percentage of the bits used to make a digital file that sounds very close to the analog original."

An article by Monty Montgomery, the developer of the OGG Vorbis audio format, titled "24/192 Music Downloads...and why they make no sense" has caused a stir and has some people questioning the value of 24/192 recordings. Montgomery claims that "Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48, and it takes up 6 times the space." He was responding directly to Neil Young's public comments that praised the 24/192 format. What is your position on this debate? Is there any value to 24/192 or is it as Montgomery claims actually inferior to 16/44.1?
That person must be deaf and is pushing his own agenda. Anybody that hears 192/24 even on bad speakers can hear the difference. The size of the files are less of a problem today with massive hard drives for under $100 and very fast wireless services. Neil [Young] is doing a great job promoting great sound. The A/D process has the biggest part in creating decent sound. Higher sample rates raise the frequency of the anti-aliasing filters. If the sample rate is 192/24 the filters and the resulting distortions are far above our hearing. I generally record and mix at 192/24.

T Bone Burnett (left), Pete Townshend, Elliot Mazer (right)

A standard listening test has people wearing calibrated earphones. The subjects push a button when they hear a sound. Most people stop hearing sound when the frequencies go up and beyond 35K. When the sweep comes down people start hearing the sounds around 50K. The OGG guy promotes a codec that mostly works at lower rates. If he cannot hear the distortions created by 44.1 or 48, he needs a hearing aid. When we hear less distortion, the music becomes more alive. Lower sample rates also make phase distortion more obvious.

You have worked with Neil Young for decades, producing among others his classic Harvest album. Mr. Young has made the headlines lately with his Pono technology and he is helping to raise awareness for HD downloads and continues to be one a few voices for better sound quality overall. Do you think hi-rez PCM, DSD, and/or Pono have a chance to become the norm for music distribution?
Pono will be a success to a smaller audience. Steve Jobs had a fantastic stereo system at home while his business sold bad sounding AAC files for iPods. I am sure Steve would love Pono and subscribe. I hope Pono offers a wide array of good music. That would be the best way to make it a success.

"Steve Jobs had a fantastic stereo system at home while his business sold bad sounding AAC files for iPods. I am sure Steve would love Pono and subscribe."

MP3 and AAC files are purchased en masse because the music is desirable. Better audio makes that music even more desirable. A friend of mine had a good stereo system. It was mostly vinyl. He played a lot of Springsteen and other rock records. His young son had a pair of earbuds and a bunch of files on his computer. One day the kid goes into his father's room when he was playing a Def Leopard album. The kid had heard that album earlier on his crap system. The kid was amazed and finally understood why his dad took so much care with his sound system.

You commented in an article for Tape Op magazine, "The audiophile breed is disappearing. They mostly don’t listen to music anyway - they listen to sound". Some of my best friends are audiophiles, as am I, and they also happen to be musicians and are very knowledgeable and passionate about music. Why do you think audiophiles have such a bad reputation?
I was referring to the many audiophile records that might have good sound and of music that is mostly boring. There are many good sounding vinyl releases. Chad at Acoustic Sounds takes great care in manufacturing and selling great disks of famous recordings. I was referring to the many recordings of organs and brass bands of abstract music that very few people care about. Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings is one of the best recording engineers whose work thrills me. Reference has some great sounding disks of good music performed by good musicians.

24 channels at 192kHz, Levon Helm's snare, The Green Board [Neil Young's famous Universal Audio 610 console used to record among other's the Elliot Mazer-produced Harvest]. Here's more from Elliot: That UA Green Board is similar to boards I used in Nashville and LA. The mike preamps that UA sells today are from that design. The Green Board was simple, sounded great and was (is) extremely reliable. I have 3 610 mike preamps here. Many of the studios in Nashville, Memphis and Muscle Shoals used UA boars with the same preamps. Neil's board came from Wally Heider Recording. I used that very board to record Ball and Chain (Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company) at Winterland and a Richie Havens album we recorded in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

What do think will help convince more (normal) people to embrace audio quality and hi-rez downloads?
They have to hear music they know on a good playback system.

Some people believe that streaming services like Spotify and MOG are the future of music distribution and companies like OraStream are beginning to offer higher quality streaming services. Do you think that people will ever lose interest in owning music?
OraStream does an amazing job making an iPhone sound good. Their adaptive streaming technology lets one hear really good sound coming over the cell network. The streamers today feel that their streaming technologies are fine. Spotify seems to have their own proprietary codecs. It all sounds like garbage to me. I think that the first streamer to use OraStream will have a huge competitive advantage.

"It all sounds like garbage to me. I think that the first streamer to use OraStream will have a huge competitive advantage."

Having worked with some of the seminal musicians of our time including Neil Young, Janis Joplin, The Band as the recording engineer for the Last Waltz concert, The Who, and Santana to name just a few, are you as excited about the current state of the music industry as you were in the 1960s and '70s?
Today is more like the 60s in that artists are on their own. The great ones bubble to the top and the mediocre ones wind up working at Walmart stocking shelves. For years, the labels signed tons of mediocre talent and made albums that might have 1 or 2 decent songs and were not worth the $18 they charged for them.

Your Wikipedia bio includes this intriguing teaser, "Mazer is currently working with a few major recording artists on a project that will help consumers hear the great audio we hear in the studios in their homes." Can you tell us more about this project?
Yes, we plan to create a network where people can easily acquire media they want and be able to play it on good equipment. More soon. Pono is a parallel effort and I helped them at the start.

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COMMENTS
deckeda's picture

I really enjoyed that. 

I had to take a break after this part and let it sink in some more:

Bob Weinstock the owner and President of Prestige Records was a customer. I talked to him when I could. He asked me what I was getting paid. I told him about $33 /week. He said he would give me $40 and teach me how to produce records. I started working for Prestige soon thereafter.

With the school-factories pumping out ProTools degrees today we're certainly living in a different time, now. 

No -- forget that. I'm having more trouble picturing any label's CEO in a music store today.

tresaino's picture

Hi Michael,

a big thanks, not so much for the interview but mostly for mentioning the Montgomery article! http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

Mazer disqualifies Montgomery in an nanosecond as BS, but did he actually read the article? It challenges many of our audiophile assumptions, but in a well argumented way, hats off.

I recently started to digitize LPs in 24/96 format and then convert them down to 16/44.1 for my iPod and car radio. I did several blind test comparisons of Norah Jones' 24/96 and 16/44.1 digitized versions of my 180g Classic Records "Come Away With Me" LP, an album I often use for tests and for demonstrations to friends. Well, I utterly failed to identify which of the two versions played - through headphones directly on the Mac, directly on the RME DAC/ADC, and finally through the big system.

I am not against high-resolution audio, but let us not forget that Mr. Mazer is in this field also for business. He should not disqualify Montgomery as a charlatan. And Michael, I follow your honest writing here and in Stereophile, and would certainly like to hear your opinion on this matter !

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...but let us not forget that Mr. Mazer is in this field also for business.

We can certainly say the same thing about Monty seeing as his work revolves around the Ogg lossy audio format that he developed. I agree that the Monty article is well-argued but he leaves out some important information including what Elliot refers to regarding anti-aliasing filters.

You can read more about this in the Bob Stuart paper "Coding High Quality Digital Audio" that Monty links to at the end of his article. It's also interesting to note that Stuart makes an argument for 24/96 in that paper, "The CD channel with 44.1kHz 16-bit coding (even with noise shaping to extend the resolution) is inadequate...Even 48kHz sampling is not quite high enough..." which runs counter to Monty's basic claim regarding higher sample rates.

While there's no disputing the value of theorizing, especially in terms of product development, as a listener this is a simple matter of preference. While I would not say that high resolution formats guarantee better sound quality since that ultimately depends on the quality of the original recording, I find that higher resolution PCM formats and DSD typically offer improved sound quality as compared to CD-quality sources.

Further, the suggestion that everyone from chip designers, to equipment manufacturers, to recording engineers and musicians who also prefer higher resolution audio formats are either all just hearing things or are purposefully deceiving people in order to sell something they know sounds worse than a CD is not a believable argument, imo.

tresaino's picture

All fair points, thanks. Thanks also for the hint to Bob Stuart's article. 

remlab's picture

The thing that I notice most readily when going from 96/24  to 44/16 to 320kbps,  is a progressive collapse of the acoustic space. The linn recording of Dunedin Consort's "Saint Matthew Passion" is a profound example that can be downloaded at all three bitrates. Download one identical sample( Just one part) of each for a total of three and listen with your eyes closed. It is almost as if the recording becomes more and more anechoic( Or would that be "less and less echoic". Hmm..) with each progressive drop in resolution. A more complete acoustic envelope can give life to music in the same way an anechoic chamber can suck the life out of it. At 24/192  though, I imagine that the law of diminishing returns would start kicking in..

weirdo12's picture

Seems to me Monty's advice at the end of the article is pretty sound for the vast majority of listeners: get better head phones (I hate head phones and personal players btw), use lossless audio (e.g. FLAC) and pray for a day when 'good' mastering is the norm. For the vast majority of listeners, hi-res audio is not a silver bullet.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

But "get better headphones" should have been at the beginning of his article, not the end, imo.

weirdo12's picture

Michael, I agree!

ShootingStar's picture

Say what you like about Monty and his article, but he writes well and he never insults anyone. Whereas Elliot calls him "deaf" just because he's questioned the assumption that 24/192 is audibly better. 

I think Elliot loses credibility when he says "anybody who hears 24/192 even on bad speakers can hear the difference". That's simply not true, and a indication that Elliot has not compared the two in a blind comparision (to eliminate confirmation bias). I don't know of anyone who has done a blind comparision who has heard an obvious difference, even on excellent speakers. 

Neil Young is an amazing songwriter and musician, and Elliot is a great producer - but I don't think either of them are also authorities on the science of sound, to the same level that Monty is. 

I'm very glad that efforts are being made to improve sound quality, but I don't think 24/192 contributes much (if anything) towards that goal.

 

(Apart from that section though, I enjoyed the rest of the intervew, thanks for sharing...!)

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Of course what this 24/192 issue ultimately comes down to is simply what we choose to listen to.

tresaino's picture

I read both Monty's and Stuart's articles one more time and find Monty's more convincing overall. Stuart's claim that 24/48 is not sufficient is not totally convincing .. has any of you been able to actually hear the difference between 24/48 and 24/96? I have not. And how many headphones or speakers are actually out there capable to play sound up to those high frequencies? Almost none. Neither our ears nor most of the audio equipment available on the market deliver. But none of that counts of course, we all need 24/192 DACs. 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...are not about the ability to play back higher frequencies. It's mainly about filters and dealing with the unwanted byproducts of the D/A process.

> But none of that counts of course, we all need 24/192 DACs.

No one needs a DAC. We buy DACs to enjoy listening to music. I find that higher sample rate PCM and DSD can sound more natural and more involving, thus more enjoyable and the differences between CD-quality and 24-bit recordings, and remember Monty claims that "24 bit audio is as useless as 192kHz sampling", are plainly obvious to me. Plainly obvious.

But there's no need to argue over preference. I'm perfectly happy listening to 24/192 files and if you prefer buying and listening to 16/44.1 where's the issue?

tresaino's picture

Monty did say that 24 bit recording has its advantages, not so much playback. I don't necessarily agree with his concern about using too much memory,which has become so cheap these days.

Agree that everyone decides what he/she likes most. For me, I never liked 16/44.1 and prefer analog, but when going digital 24/48 will do. Just for me, and I respect your and everyone else's opinion of course.

Had a studio engineer and a few other friends over for the evening, we compared 24/96 with 16/44.1 versions of McCartney's 'Jenny Wren' and all preferred the higher resolution version. Then I played the record, and he said it sounded 10 times better. But we are entering the other Michael's territory. smiley

Michael Lavorgna's picture

...can have content above CD's brick wall as well ;-)

I'm a fan of vinyl and talk about this in my last As We See It for Stereophile. It's interesting to note that people like Barry Diament of Soundkeeper Recordings talks about 24/192 as being the first time they've heard digital rival analog.

"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."~ Barry Diament

You can read the entire Q&A here.

The Federalist's picture

Mike did you happen to read (or at least browse) the white paper by Dan Lavry linked on Monty's article? It goes into sampling theorum math and is not exactly easy reading but I just thought it was interesting that a designer who puts reference/ mastering class DAC's & ADC's on the street stipulating that 44khz sampling rate is more than sufficient for reconstructing audio waveforms.... especially since the DA10 and DA11 do 24/96 & 24/192 respectively.

I personally have a digital front end that is capable of 24/192 but don't know how much good it does me. I just downloaded Muse 2nd Law record off HD Tracks at 24/96 and listened to it with a std. redbook CD rip of the same album and couldn't for the life of me spot the difference (with my wife handling the blind switching for me)... I tried to pick the high rez vesion for each track and was wrong roughly half the time. But do see the 24/192 capability as keeping my system future proof. 

I'd rather OEM's focus on implementing good jitter reduction, good power conditioning, and strong output design rather than chase higher resolution capability (ala 32/384, 768) and on the download side I'd like to see a stronger push for lossless downloads from Apple before they do high resolution.

That said I do appreciate the article and thank you for all you do Mike... I think the sound quality of my system owes a great deal of credit to your informed voice... I am able to gamble on pieces of kit with a bit more confidence having Audiostream as a resource. 

Cheers,

BW

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I don't find either article, the Lavry paper or Monty's post, to stand up against my experiences listening to 24-bit and higher sample rates.  Of course a lot has to do with the recording, the hi-fi, the room, and the listener which makes this hobby so much fun ;-).

Thanks for the kind words BW!

Cheers

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