Doing what I do and what I’ve done for over 35 years makes hanging out in a recording studio no big deal. But for audiophiles and equipment designers, getting the chance to visit a professional recording studio is a rare treat. It’s even better if you have the opportunity to participate in a session…especially a tracking session when the basic flow of the music is established by a drummer, bass players, keyboard player, and rhythm guitarist. As I said some weeks ago, it should be mandatory for high-end reviewers, equipment designers, audiophiles, and even casual listeners to get a taste of the record making process.
Record production can be done a lot of different ways. As I departed the studio last evening, the engineers and producers were starting a new R&B record by Melanie Fiona. There were no musicians present (except for the producer) as they started laying down “beats” in a sequencer. The process of creating looping parts using MIDI and virtual instruments is commonplace and dominates the commercial recording business. It’s not like it used to be. Tracks are assembled, tweaked, tuned, affected, and polished…and then a vocal track and background harmonies added.
I’ve been passed a couple of posts from Paul McGowan over the past couple of days. Paul is a friend and the head of PS Audio, a manufacturer of high-end audio equipment based in Boulder, Colorado. I’ve owned some of his equipment and always enjoy chatting with him at various trade shows. But Paul and I don’t see eye to eye on the whole DSD thing. We can agree to disagree but when he writes about the process of modern record production and PCM encoding and launches into a completely false train of thought, I have to respond and set the record straight.
Apparently, the PS Audio staff was treated to a field trip to the Super Audio Center run by Gus Skinas and Immersive Studios, which is claimed to be the only recording studio in the world with a full 32 track Sonoma DSD recording system. Just a side thought…perhaps the reason that Immersive has the world’s only 32-track DSD 64 Sonoma system is because there is zero demand for that equipment. The rare recording studio and engineer that prefers DSD to PCM have all switched to Merging Technologies Pyramix systems, which allow engineers to record in DSD or DXD and then actually do some post production work on the raw tracks. Anyway, Paul found it interesting to hear Gus’s perspective on PCM vs. DSD especially as he was introduced to the standard way that records are made these days.
You can read Paul’s post today for yourselves, but the gist is that individual instruments are recorded on individual tracks of a multitrack digital recording machine. We call it multitracking and it dominates the world of professional record production. Sure there are others that capture a live performance to stereo or even surround but it’s not common for commercial recordings. Once all of the individual (or stereo pairs of tracks) tracks have been recorded, a mixing engineer carefully balances, pans, and processed them into a stereo mix. Mixing is an art. No two mixing engineers will come up with the same sound when mixing a multitrack master. But nearly all mixes require processing of one kind or another. Can you imagine a vocalist not wanting to have reverberation added to his or her track? The same goes with almost every individual track…they get tweaked with dynamics processing, pitch modifiers, time delays, and a variety of other effects. This is perfectly normal.
Paul claims, “It is in the digital mixing process where the differences between PCM and DSD really become apparent.” What? He goes on…
“When the recording engineer mixes the five mono channels into stereo he does so digitally and places each channel into either left, right, center, or a combination of L and R to replicate the placement of the performers in acoustic space. When the session is an analog or DSD capture, the process is straightforward and everything works according to Hoyle: each instrument occupies the correct space and the listener can easily discern their position in space: left, right, front back. But when the session is a PCM capture, the acoustic space gets muddled and more difficult to separate between instruments, requiring the recording engineer to change EQ settings and manipulate the sound of the track to get it right.
What’s fascinating about this observation is that analog, with its limited dynamics and frequency response (relative to DSD or high sample rate PCM) does not experience this issue, nor does DSD (which is closer to analog).”
Virtually everything in the preceding paragraph is incorrect. I’ll explain further tomorrow…but I suggest that Paul actually participate in the production of recording in order to get his facts straight. This kind of misinformation doesn’t instill confidence in the equipment that is made by people that think this way.