Q&A with Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records

Blue Coast Records is one of a few companies to have fully embraced Direct Stream Digital (DSD) recording and delivery. Five-time Grammy nominated producer/engineer Cookie Marenco is the Founder of Blue Coast Records and we recently exchanged some emails and had a conversation about the increasing visibility of DSD in audiophile circles in part sparked by the introduction of the Mytek Stereo 192-DSD DAC at last year's RMAF. With companies like Playback Designs, EMM Labs, Fostex, and even Pioneer offering DSD-capable players, the next piece of the puzzle to fall into place is...the music.

I want to thank Cookie for taking the time to participate in this Q&A and I hope you enjoy a closer look into the world of DSD downloads.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became involved in the record business?
I've been a musician since I was four, then taught piano and oboe from the time I was 14. After a few music scholarships, I left college to become a jazz performer and composer. Like many bands, ours needed a demo, so we built a studio and went immediately into debt. The skills I learned as a music teacher, an understanding of music and an independent study of the physics of sound are really what kept our doors open. I had a passion for music, sound and pushing people to perform better than they expected from themselves.

Our studio opened in the early 80's in what became Silicon Valley. Lucasfilms was developing new digital recording for lasers and I bumped into an early digital recording pioneer, Gerry Kearby, who was working with Lucasfilms. Gerry took his technology from the Sound Droid and created the Dyaxis digital recorder. It was the first format to use a Macintosh computer, predating Digidesign's Protools. Then Studer bought Dyaxis. Those engineers have become life long friends... like Gus Skinas and Andreas Koch, who both went on to working for Sony on DSD (Direct Stream Digital) recording.

Windham Hill was also located in Silicon Valley. I was hired to work as an A&R producer for them during their golden years, 1987-1990. My studio continued to operate independently staffed. In 1990, our studio expansion was complete and I returned as an independent engineer and producer for various labels.

During the 90's, I continued working with acoustic musicians on analog tape. I never liked PCM recording, but I confess, I mixed to a lot of DAT and PCM based systems, which I now regret. Fortunately, we still have the masters on analog.

"In 1997, I became the chief engineer at Liquid Audio (another Gerry Kearby company). Liquid Audio was the first audio download company."

In 1997, I became the chief engineer at Liquid Audio (another Gerry Kearby company). Liquid Audio was the first audio download company. My job was to talk to indie artists and labels about digital distribution on the internet. They thought I was out of my mind, by the way. My other job at Liquid was recording live concerts to demonstrate to large groups how we were able to get live music on the internet worldwide in 20 minutes. In 1997, that was magic.

By 2002, Liquid was caught in the dot com bubble and sold to Walmart. At the studio, artists wanted autotune and beat detective style recording on Protools, which I despised. I decided it was time for a sabbatical.

On a trip to France, I met Jean Claude Reynaud, son of Jean Marie Reynaud, the wonderful speaker manufacturer from France. Jean Claude and I both felt the lack of quality recordings was depressing, so we created a technique for recording called E.S.E. (Extended Sound Environment). Jean Claude introduced me to his father and the audiophile community. Here was a community that appreciated the work and recordings we were doing. Those early tests of E.S.E. became the basis of Blue Coast Records.

Since you are perhaps best known in audiophile circles for your Blue Coast Records label and DSD recordings, can you talk about how you first became involved with DSD?
In the late 90's I reconnected with Gus Skinas and his work with SACD/DSD on the Sonoma systems. Gus Skinas brought his Sonoma system to the E.S.E. sessions. During our testing for the E.S.E. sessions, it was apparent to all of us that DSD sounded much better than PCM. We all agreed analog sounded the closest to the actual acoustic sound. We've been working on the Sonoma and DSD ever since.

We launched Blue Coast Records in 2007 as an SACD label. Patrick O'Connor came on board to work on the Sonoma system, website and graphics. He's our IT guy. In 2008, Patrick figured out how to deliver full sized files as much as 40x the size of MP3s and FLAC.

"By summer, 2010, we delivered the first DSD audio to customers over the internet."

By summer, 2010, we delivered the first DSD audio to customers over the internet. Soon afterwards, Andreas Koch contacted us about releasing his Playback Designs DSD DAC the following summer. The floodgates for DSD have been opened and the response is fantastic.

To meet the demands for more high quality downloads, we started Downloads NOW!, a system of delivery for artists and labels to sell their high resolution audio. We deliver music worldwide, in DSD, 96/24 and CD Quality. Downloads NOW! has more than 150 titles from qualified source material.

Can you talk about your approach to recording and do you have a preference for recording to an analog or digital medium?
I prefer working on analog tape for the sound. In some instances we'll record the source material to DSD. The cost of tape is $400 a reel, which is prohibitive when you have hundreds of takes. For those kinds of sessions, we'll work on the Sonoma. We have PCM recording in the studio for mastering to CD and the MP3 requirements of our clients.

Can you walk us through your process for creating a DSD recording including the equipment you use?
Our recording chain starts with vintage mics (B&K's, Neumann, AKG). Then we tie it together with an incredible silver alloy cable (proprietary -- we build our cables in house) to Millennia, Neve and Manley preamps and record direct to 2" analog tape or DSD for the multi-track.

We always mix to the Sonoma in DSD, though, sometimes we include the 1/2" tape. We use the Bybee Bullets inserted after the mix outputs.

"For Blue Coast Records, I avoid using compression/limiting in mastering. When I'm a hired guy, I do my best to convince the artist not to over compress, but it's difficult at times."

We master in house using as little additional processing as possible. I'm not a fan of loud mastering. For Blue Coast Records, I avoid using compression/limiting in mastering. When I'm a hired guy, I do my best to convince the artist not to over compress, but it's difficult at times.

We prep the files for our in-house aggregation and delivery of downloads from MicroStores. No doubt, it's a learning process. We rely on the input of our customers to build a better system.

Do you use the same system for listening for pleasure as you do for monitoring during the recording process?
That's a great question. Most of my personal listening is done in the studio with several monitoring systems available. We have Jean Marie Reynaud Offrandes using Pass Labs in the studio. We also have the NHT M-60's, Auratones (powered with Macintosh amps... total overkill). Also in the studio, but not used much are Tannoy Little Reds and Meyers.

We've recently added the Sony AR1s (powered with Pass) to our piano room where the artists (and myself) can sit on a big black couch and just enjoy. This is our most recent addition and we love it. The artists really appreciate the sound. For many, this is the only time they may hear the playback over such a great system.

In my home listening environment, I have the Jean Marie Reynaud Orfeo's with Pass Amps...a one of a kind black pair that are phenomenal.

You are a very vocal proponent and supporter of DSD as a playback medium. Can you tell us why you prefer DSD over PCM from a listener's perspective?
For me, DSD has a more realistic sound than PCM. PCM has a way of not allowing the dynamics to attack as sharply or drop as quickly. A cymbal sound, for instance, or guitar pluck or piano attack often sound clipped to me. I'm not a fan of dithering that's used in PCM to cover the artifacts in the lower audible range.

Not everyone agrees with me, but that's ok. The world is a big place.

"The bottom line is the consumer's taste. Do they like the music or not? Do they like the sound or not? I'll listen to a cassette if I like the music."

Some DSD downloads and SACDs originated as PCM recordings. Are there benefits to converting PCM recordings to DSD? And is there a way consumer's can determine if a given recording is in fact a native DSD recording?
I believe at some point, we'll discover there is benefit to a good transfer from PCM to DSD, but without proper disclosure to the consumer, I don't believe in the practice.

Like the food industry, where there is a lot of misuse of terms like "natural" and "organic", it's difficult to police native DSD recordings. I've seen the DSD logo on the back of SACDs where the source recording was 96/24. Getting the facts straight on how a project was recorded is very difficult. Most labels don't know where their masters are, let alone how it was recorded.

There are free software programs, like Audacity, that consumers have used to run samples of music through to test for authenticity. But, I'm not convinced that a trained person can't disguise an inferior track with some high res signal to give the impression of higher resolution than was recorded.

The bottom line is the consumer's taste. Do they like the music or not? Do they like the sound or not? I'll listen to a cassette if I like the music.

What are the differences between the DSS and DFF file formats?
This can be a complicated question but my simple answer is that DSF can handle metadata and DFF can't. We're still exploring all the differences in playback with our customers since the delivery of these formats is so new. We rely on our customer's experiences to help us improve the delivery and playback of these DSD systems.

"The professional audio world has not embraced making good quality recordings."

Why don't we see more native DSD recordings?
The professional audio world has not embraced making good quality recordings. Most engineers are feeling overwhelmed dealing with MP3 acceptance and home recordings and have given up. It's very expensive to maintain a good studio these days.

Add to that there are very few DSD recording devices out in the world. The Korg units are inexpensive, but extremely limited for professional use. The Sonoma systems are very expensive and we hope their line of products will increase soon. We see more and more pro audio manufacturers coming to the audio shows, like Mytek.

We continue to talk to educators in audio schools and at professional recording societies about the future of high quality recordings. They are encouraged by our success.

What does the future hold for DSD and DSD downloads?
We hope the adoption of DSD goes beyond just a niche for audiophiles. It will probably take 5 years for sustainable adoption. We're in it for the long haul. It took 15 years for MP3 to capture 30% of the market for consumer sales. If we reach 15% in 10 years, that will be monumental. That may not seem like much to most people, but in dollars, that's about a billion dollar industry for music sales.

Regor Ladan's picture

Great interview...and a lot to absorb here.

She answers one specific question that some of your less informed readers have asked on ocassion..why isn't EVERYTHING recorded to DSD.

The answer is the SOTA DSD system is VERY expensive..as are the tools you need to work with it. 

To tie this into your great Neil Young features...why has Neil not embraced DSD????

Ah, many questions....

tbrads's picture

Those who don't know her BlueCoast Records material, sign up for her newsletter and have a boatload of free hirez (DSD or PCM) material to download.  And go hear her comments at RMAF and CES (usually Sony room or panel discussions).


dalethorn's picture

More exposure of these recording and mastering technologies is the key. I look everywhere but don't see much. Even the audiophile forums rarely discuss DSD et al. I suppose if audiophiles and serious music listeners share enough info on this topic, it may achieve critical mass. Data storage is no longer an issue.

firedog55's picture

I personally like it. But many professionals prefer the sound of 24/192. When you add to that the fact that 24/192 is more convenient and the equipment is cheaper. It puts DSD at a disadvantage. 

mother3251's picture

Thanks for the interview with Cookie. I'd like to share this experience with you.

I mentioned to Cookie my experience with the hand held Korg MR2, he was great to correspond with.

I am a vinyl fanatic, however I wanted software to record to CD (car etc) from my SME 30 tt, and LFD preamp with Simaudio Moon amplifiers, put together with LFD silver cables. After 3 years, frustrated I bought the MR2, on a whim.

My first and subsequent recordings with DSD and transferred to CD were a revelation, wow, I could not believe how great the recordings were, they totally surpassed my expectations.

Cookie is very approachable, and I am convinced he is on the right track with DSD

tbrads's picture

but Cookie is a she, not a he. :)

And yes, I've heard great stuff recorded with a Korg.  Todd Garfinkle, of MA Recordings, not only uses one in the field but, at shows like RMAF, he brings it along for playback, as he has had it modded by a buddy in Europe (PM me if interested) and now swears by its playback too.

mother3251's picture

Hi tbrads, thankyou for the correction, and sincere apologies to Cookie.

Yes, I am interested in the mod, not used to the site, how do I PM you?