Dr. AIX's POSTS — 07 June 2017

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A few friends have turned me on to the American Epic series currently being broadcast on PBS. The programs, which are hosted by Robert Redford and produced by Jack White and T Bone Burnett, trace the earliest days of electrical recording in America. I find the investigation into growth of the music industry, the search for new talent and forms of music, and the incredible technology applied to making recordings across America fascinating. These treasured recordings provide a glimpse into our musical heritage, the development of recording techniques and technology, and the music industry in general. The programs are definitely worth your attention.

This morning I turned on my Apple TV and noticed there was a new installment of American Epic. With Charlie out with his “pack” for the morning, I watched a series of contemporary sessions done with the only remaining functional, gravity powered, cutting lathe. There was Jack White, NAS, T Bone Burnett, Los Lobos, Elton John, The Alabama Shakes, and others gathered around a single condenser microphone playing and singing. Yep, the very same technology that was used to record the Carter family in the 1930s has been put back together at VOX Studios in Los Angeles. The American Epic program reached out these artists and convinced them to record a sub 3-4 minute track using this archaic system.

What does it take to make a new recording using a gravity driven cutting lathe? It takes musicians that can sign and play a complete tune. I requires a lot of set up time to arrange the instruments, amplifiers, and singers in a sort of virtual “mixing” console. As Jack points out to one group as they walk into the studio, “moving closer to the microphone is like moving a fader on a console”. It also means that the fidelity of the freshly cut lacquer disc is decidedly LoFi and monophonic. Listening to the tracks through my 5.1 home theater system was of historical interest but not engaging in the least when it comes to fidelity or emotional attachment.

I can certainly appreciate the love and dedication it takes to resurrect the machinery, but the resulting recordings are of no artistic value IMHO. They are curiosities for 21st century musicians — exercises in musicianship and a trip in the way back machine. I really don’t get it. Why not bring these very same musicians into an acoustically rich, live venue and record them with lots of stereo microphones, real room ambience, real world frequency response and dynamic range, and capture them with high-resolution audio equipment. That would be worthy of Sir Elton John or Willie Nelson’s time. But wait, I actually spent 17 years doing exactly that! And I shot video during the sessions.

Celebrities can make things happen that I can’t. They can get funding, they can excite other celebrity artists, they can get international distribution through PBS and other outlets. And it seems they can energize a segment of the audio community to the value of limited fidelity, mono recordings, on pieces of spinning lacquer.

Respect and reverence for the past — and even revisiting the processes and technology of the past — are laudable pursuits. But ignoring new and potentially revolutionary processes and technology to enhance musical enjoyment makes no sense to me. There’s a role for both ends of the experimental continuum. Things like real high-resolution recording, mixing in surround, and projecting beams of binauralized audio using a smart bar should be the focus going forward.

Yesterday morning, I collected, reviewed, and edited a 90 second video of reactions from attendees that sat and experienced the YARRA 3DX smart bar at the LA Audio Show. I can tell you that there was not a single negative comment — everyone from Neil Gader of The Absolute Sound to Jonathan Novick of Avermetrics had nice things to say after experiencing immersive, 3D sound from our little array. Check out the uploaded video on YouTube. If looks like our Kickstarter campaign is going to launch on July 11 AND the folks at Kickstarter have agreed to help promote the campaign. It’s going to be one of their “Projects We Love” and will be send to their community. If you want to get in on the VIP early bird special price, be sure to sign up at www.yarra3dx.com.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(17) Readers Comments

  1. Mark, I fully agree with your comment, people should devote less time to nostalgia products and dedicate more time to check and test new exciting technologies like Yarra 3DX. We’ve been living with stereo since the late 50s, multichannel is only widely used for movies but very few audiophiles have adopted despite that there is a lot of content available from SACD, DVD, BR and now PCM and DSD downloads. Most audiophiles never even tried it, but when you experience a good multichannel recording like yours, there is no way back, multichannel is the closest to the real thing you can get. Unfortunately the mass market audio companies developing multichannel only think in home cinema, the vast majority of audiophile audio vendors and music labels simply ignore multichannel, that’s a shame and a mistake.

  2. Hi Mark, interesting tale , I’ll agree w/ you wholeheartedly.But sometimes we forget that the music and the sound are two different but parallel things. The sound is the carrier for the music which in turn is the artists’ emotion and intent. The ‘hi-fi postulate’ as we know it says that when we have clean audio we have greater access to the full message of the artist.

    But just as we all started out using x-istor radios and nonetheless perceived the musical magic, it could be that Mr. White & friends think that deeper emotional impact is possible using this stone-age approach, i.e., “the medium is the message.”

    And the number of old, so-so (that’s charitable) Marantz, Sansui, Kenwood, Concept, Sherwood, and too many doggy other 70s & ’80s stereo receivers that come in here for service and ‘approval’ is easily equal to the one-day audio torture you endured.I tell folks all the time,”It’s nice to have a ’56 Chevy in your garage. But the cheapest Hyundai will drive and run much better for much longer and is much safer.” Sometimes it seems like some people have not heard of the word “progress.” Best.

  3. When with single driver, mono should be highest fidelity. Unfortunately, CD’s stereo.

    I’ve already heard Elton John’s Sacrifice & Nikita in the highest (that is incomparably higher than your Hi-End Chord DAC could ever achieve) resolution and there were 3D, attack, wide soundstage and what not.

    • I’m not sure I’m following your comment. Single driver as the highest fidelity? Not sure where you’re going here.

      • I’m not saying mono and/or even single driver necessarily are the ultimate, I’m just arguing that a difference of driver/speaker quantity makes sense in terms of sound quality.

  4. I found it really interesting and insightful hearing these old recordings and seeing the footage portrayed, telling the story and showing the evolution of musical forms from many unique places and cultures. The ‘sessions’ show is due to air here in the UK tomorrow night but i’ll probably give it a miss, i agree it’s just a curiosity deal showing the old recording technology first hand but i think a valid exercise – if nothing else it shows how damn lucky we are with the quality of recordings today all said and done….

    • It was interesting. What I would have loved to see a contemporary high-res version in full 5.1 surround done at the same time (which is what I’ve done with John McEuen and Willie Nelson). I’m willing to bet that the hi-res, 5.1 version would be way better!

  5. Mark wrote “Listening to the tracks through my 5.1 home theater system was of historical interest but not engaging in the least when it comes to fidelity or emotional attachment.”

    I’m surprised by this I’ve heard many low-fi recordings which carried the emotional connection just fine. Ultimately, fidelity does not guarantee an emotional connection to the music. Good musicianship and talent is a pre-requisit. An average musician will not be elevated by a realistic dynamic range and frequency response, or the ability to convey the nuonces of the music. Likewise, a talented musician will still shine through a poor or limited recording. How many Motown recordings suffered from poor signal-to-noise ratio and limited frequency response?

    • But wouldn’t it better to have a great performance AND a great recording?

  6. Mark,

    Regarding the YARRA demonstration, how many people can experience this phenomena at one time; does your head have to be “in a vice”? More importantly, what source material is required as input to this system, and what about source availability?

    Many years ago I heard a demonstration of directed sound; extremely high frequencies modulated to to frequencies that we can hear. It could be beamed at anyone in the room, but it was in mono.

    • The current array of 12 speakers can deliver binaural streams to three individuals with adjustable positioning. Your head is not in a “vice” Future versions will actively track your movements but we couldn’t pull that off at this price point. The system works best with multichannel sources but is amazing with stereo programming as well. Using an ultrasonic carrier is not the way to go in delivering narrow beams of sound. This system works without the carrier and can deliver stereo and more.

  7. Now here is a fine example of living in the past.

    A 1960’s recording: Karajan and the Berlin Philmoniker and Wagner. Truly names to conjure with.

    But wait. This recording now offered in “Pure Audio” 96K/24 bit hi-res???

    http://www.mdt.co.uk/wagner-der-ring-des-nibelungen-karajan-deutsche-grammophon-blu-ray-audio.html

    No doubt modern equipment and dedicated sound engineers can get something better than the original reproductions could offer at the time, but can it truly be 96/24 hi-res?

    • No, this is not a hi-res audio release, as much as the industry and hardware folks want to sell it as such. The fidelity is locked in at the time of the original session.

  8. Did you watch any of the Apple Developer’s Conference keynote? Apple says they want to tackle home audio now with a new speaker to be introduced which uses beamforming technology in a device 7″ high and about 5″ around. Seems they want to compete with Echo and Alexis but in their words they want you to be able to “rock the house”.

    Interesting I have seen no press on this (but have not gone out of my way to look). Best Buy and Amazon have been barraging me with enticements to buy the new iPad Pro which was announced or be prepared for the new Mac upgrades but nobody mentions audio in their promotions. Makes me wonder how little the general population even cares about audio quality.

    • The HomePod is pretty cool and yes, it does talk about beamforming. But it’s not directing individual channels in an attempt to create surround or immersive audio. My read is that it adjusts to the room acoustics and uses beamforming to control resonances.

  9. Hello Mark,

    Nearly two weeks ago I left a comment, including two questions, which sat here awaiting your response. My questions were not addressed, and now I notice that they been removed without comment.
    Were my questions too tough?

    • I’ve been insanely busy cutting video, preparing graphics, and helping spread the word about the upcoming YARRA 3DX Kickstarter campaign. I apologize for the delay. The answer are below.

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