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.
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.