Blue Coast Records: Hybrid Production Method

Laura Sydell profiled cookie Marenco last week on NPR. It was a wonderful piece about a lovely and dedicated producer, engineer, high fidelity pioneer and audiophile label owner. I was introduced to Cookie years ago at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest by our mutual friend, the late Gerry Kearby (founder of Liquid Audio…the first legal music download service). She and I bump into each other at the various trade shows. The NPR piece this week has prompted a series of lengthy emails between us. Cookie and I share so many commons challenges, life experiences and artistic pursuits, that I feel a real comfort connection with her.

It’s true that we have very different opinions on the merits of analog tape and the DSD format in particular as compared to high-definition PCM. But we do have a common approach to capturing live music making…let the musicians gather in a space and perform their music. As engineers, our job is to record the sounds that are produced in the “best” method possible. Cookie and I depart on the “best” way to record and produce a particular session but I think the end results subscribe to a common aesthetic. We are both relatively purist in our approach and simply let the music do the work.

The NPR piece included a sidebar that offered a FREE demonstration track from Blue Coast Records. I clicked over to Cookie’s site, filled in the profile information and joined her mailing list. The free downloads included 5 different versions of a tune called, “Jimmy and the Crows” by an amazing singer/songwriter Keith Greeninger and his associates Chris Kee & Brain. I clicked on the links to get digital downloads of the song encoded at 320 kbps MP3, 96 kHz/24-bit WAV and FLAC as well as DSD 2.8 / 5.6 MHz 1-bit.

All of the downloaded files were zipped. The size of the files were: MP3 – 18.3 MB, 96 Khz/24-bit FLAC – 167 MB, 96 kHz/24-bit uncompressed WAV – 261 MB, DSD 2.8 MHz – 320 MB and DSD 5.6 MHz – 640 MB. All of the files were 2.0 channel stereo.

You have to realize that these are the final mixed and mastered versions of the tune. But the most important consideration in evaluating the quality of an individual track is the not the format of the delivered file but rather the production stages that ultimately led to those final files. My mantra is…”if it wasn’t in the original recording, then it’s not going to be there in the final master!”

So I wrote to Cookie and asked her about the production stages that went into this track (and which is her typical production methodology). I am aware of her preference for analog tape and DSD. I also know that she records everyone in her own studio, mixes through an analog mixing console and uses digital reverberation to add “ambiance” to the tracks. The results that she gets are truly high-end. Listening to the Keith Greeninger track through my B&W Matrix III speakers was a joy. The voice the sound of the voice, accompanying guitar, drums and bass are clear, rich and very natural sounding. And I liked the tune a lot.

blue_coast_session_image

Figure 1 – A typical recording session at Blue Coast Records Studio…this is not Keith Greeninger but it is representative of the type of layout that Cookie uses.

Cookie responded to my email and confirmed the following information about the equipment and approach that she has developed through many years of experimentation. She also mentioned that she uses this method for her Blue Coast Records projects but will revert to the more traditional multitrack, iso booth, headphones production techniques when a client prefers a more commercial sound. As an engineer for hire, I do the same.

Cookie records the entire ensemble in the same space. She arranges them so that can see AND hear each other acoustically. There was a stereo pair of B&K 4012 place above the drums (really only snare and high hat) and run through a Millennia mic pre. She used two AKG 414 (old ones with the good capsules) spaced one behind the other to deal with unexpected amplitude bursts (to avoid distortion). These were also sent through Millennia preamps. She uses a large diaphragm Neumann U-67 on the voice, which also picks up the acoustic guitar…also through Millennia.

The microphone cables are Cookie’s own custom design, which are a blend of silver and gold. She records through a Sound Workshop console to an analog multitrack tape machine running at 15 ips. Cookie uses some mild side-chain compression on the vocals post tape during the mixdown. The entire ensemble is recorded at the same time (I prefer this approach as well); Cookie doesn’t overdub additional parts later or “repair” any of the performances after the live session. In reality, its impossible to overdub when the entire group is in the same room…the leakage of each part is found in every channel.

The sound is enhanced with the use of multiple reverberation units (Lexicon 224XL, Lexicon PCM 60…both of which use 16-bit ADC/DACs)). The “environment” or reverb amounts are usually left in tact for the entire record with occasional modifications from tune to tune.

The analog stereo mixdown from the Sound Workshop console is then captured to a Korg Recorder at 5.6 MHz DSD and a Sonoma System through Meitner converters. A mix is also done to 44.1 kHz/24-bits for the CD release.

As I said previously, the sound is extremely rich and natural sounding. Tomorrow, I’ll continue with a critical look at the spectragraphs of the different delivery formats AND talk about how Cookie’s approach fits into the over all push for higher quality sound files.

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.

4 thoughts on “Blue Coast Records: Hybrid Production Method

  • September 15, 2013 at 3:17 pm
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    Thank you, Mark, for posting about the NPR piece and my recording techniques.

    You’re interpretation of my email regarding the recording chain was pretty accurate. Couple of places where I wanted to add more details.

    When I record to analog 2″ tape, I use Dolby SR at 15ips. I’d prefer the sound of 30ips, but with the cost of tape being at $400 a reel, (giving you 15 minutes of recording time), I’ve found 15 ips with Dolby SR acceptable, not preferable to 30 ips, though. With the cost of tape being so high, if a project can be recorded to the Sonoma, DSD 2.8 (8 tracks or less) we will often record to that format.

    Mixing to the Korg at DSD5.6 is a more recent development… maybe the last 3 months… due the music listeners wanting 5.6. At this time, we still consider releases in 5.6 a ‘test’ until we can find a more professional editing environment than the Korg. We’re hoping the Sonoma will one day handle editing in 5.6, because it will allow us to stay in the DSD domain. We have not had access to the Pyramix (yet) to test how it handles DSD and editing.

    I’ve operated a commercial recording facility out of 2200 sq feet of my house for more than 30 years (http://otrstudios.com). It’s not my ideal place to record, but the price is right. πŸ™‚ The first Blue Coast Collection was recorded at a studio called The Site (located across from Skywalker Ranch). The first Collection was mixed there and at Skywalker where we did the listening tests as well and decided on our preferences. The Site had a very nice echo chamber, which is hard to find these days. Even at Skywalker, it was impossible to achieve the ambiance I was looking for without use of digital reverbs.

    More recent recordings for Blue Coast have been recorded at Grace Cathdral and at other remote locations, along with OTR Studios. We’ll tend to bring the 8 track Sonoma DSD for those projects. We often bring a backup system for recording to PCM, if we can.

    The most recent CAS 4 show (at a Burlingame hotel) gave us some incredible performances. Yes, there was the occasional sound of the airplanes coming in at SFO and the air conditioner coming on, but sometimes great performances come with an inconvenient noise floor. I’m not a fan of the sound of carpet absorbtion, although many of our customers might like it. πŸ™‚ I’m sure we’ll be adding artificial ambiance as we do for OTR Recordings.

    Our Grace Cathedral sessions never require additional reverbs. We use the sound from the church. You’ll hear the occasional cable car driving by on the left. πŸ™‚

    The criteria I’ve set for recordings on Blue Coast Records is that they are recorded without headphones and no overdubs. With a commercial recording facility this is definitely not the way most musicians want to record, however, I got the idea from listening to their rehearsals sitting in the same room and why they always seemed better than recordings in iso rooms. I choose the musicians from those that have paid me to produce their own albums. It gives me a sense of who can perform live and who I want to make the commitment to for a long term label relationship.

    For Blue Coast, I let the musicians position themselves to hear each other and the challenge becomes miking to get a good enough sound. We are often faced with noise floor issue from the mic placement. Tape hiss is never a problem, it’s always noise floor. On occasion, we might edit, if we have two takes that work together, but we won’t try to ‘fix’ a part. As you heard on the takes of Keith, Chris and Brain… that was one, live recording.. mistakes and all.. of three great players who haven’t played together in 4 years. To be able to use the DSD5.6, no editing was done. If you’ve made it to the end of the recording, you’ll hear when Keith breaks a string. Keith was a little ‘taken aback’ that I would use that recording, but I liked the performance, mistakes and all. I don’t care about perfection, but many musicians do…. and that’s why I have my own record label. πŸ™‚

    While many of the musicians scoff at the mistakes, they’ve come to realize that even many of their own fans enjoy this ‘less perfect’ style of recording. My record deals often include a ‘trade’ where the musician records for me, in my style and I record their album with all the fixes they like… except autotune.. I gotta draw the line somewhere. πŸ™‚

    Someday, I’ll let you in on my alternate life as an EDM music producer and engineer. We sample, cut and paste with the best of ’em. I even have a DJ name. I do a lot of crazy disco mixing (as a hired gun). Before I was an engineer, I had a small, insignificant career as an avant garde electronica performance artist (and almost ended up as a symphony oboist). Ah, too much to tell here.

    While you and I may not always agree on the format, I believe we may have more similarities in our fondness of great musicians and magical performances. What ever format these are captured on is better than none at all. Upcoming engineers may never learn how to place a mic or get a good performance regardless of format they are recording to. Many of our interns have learned to record from a book (in audio classes at the University level). Showing that there is a place for great recordings can change that.

    Best,
    Cookie Marenco
    Blue Coast Records

    Reply
  • September 16, 2013 at 5:08 am
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    I was shocked to read that Cookie who records & mixes in analogue is using a digital reverb! That is sacrilege especially when a google search says that the Lexicon PCM 60 samples @ 24kHz and the Lexizon 224XL @ 20kHz. How does the music get any content above 10kHz?

    Andrew.

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  • October 14, 2013 at 7:28 pm
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    Very good question, Andrew. As you can tell by the photo of my room, the natural acoustics are not optimum. If I were afforded recording at Grace Cathedral, I would use the natural acoustics. Unfortunately, not even George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch has a natural decay that I enjoy… or a live echo chamber. Since I’m not fond of the sound of my room or Skywalker’s or most recording studio’s rooms, I added enhancements.

    Since I side-chain my reverbs (meaning that the original recorded sound is on a separate track) and add the reverbs on side tracks, the recorded sound is not solely running through the reverbs.

    I realize a lot of audiophiles want to hear the sound of the room no matter how much I might cringe. Some artists feel the same way. That’s the nice thing about having my own label. I get to call the shots on the final mix. Since I’m still an indie engineer for other labels, I’ll mix how ever they instruct me.

    By the way, I’ve done experiments with our customers… no added reverb and added reverb of the same music. The vote swings to adding reverbs.

    Thanks again for asking.
    Cookie

    Reply
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