Q&A with Elliot Mazer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.