Sunday, 18 June 2017

A Move from the Attic

Not that I've been sequestered there for the last three-and-a-half years....
Those who know me fairly well may remember how much I love to record good acoustic music.  It's a kind of passion of mine that has been neglected somewhat over the past few decades, while I was trying to run a retail business and spend insufficient quality time with my family.  Now retirement has arrived and a major project involving the recording of the stories of folk who live or have lived in the Alvie / Red Rock district has been completed, I have decided to offer my services for a very nominal cost to performers who have in mind a Project requiring high quality sound recording and production of an album, EP or demo, etc.
Over recent years I have invested in a number of world-class items - Metric Halo digital interfaces, various types of studio microphones and editing and mastering software in particular.  And I think by now I have a fair idea how to get the best results from my gear.
To me, true stereo recording is the way to go:  when the recording is replayed on a decent system the impression is one of "You are there!".  Multi-mono "stereo" tends to sound contrived and somewhat harder to listen to.  (We do multi-track work as well, if that is the way you want to go down that path.)

If you would like to discuss your project with me, I can be reached at


Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Show and Tell....

Home sound and video shows are fascinating and even exciting events for those in search of the Perfect Home System (that they can realistically afford!).
At one such expo took place in Melbourne last week-end.  Most of the country's A/V wholesalers and retailers of note had their wares on display and demonstration.  Must admit I didn't attend, but I received a very interesting few comments from a young man who has worked in the industry for quite a few years, both in wholesale and retail "Hi-Fi" and Home Theatre installations.  The company for which he works currently is a wholesaler/importer of several of the better brands of stereo equipment, so he is familiar with a range of very high quality systems, both analogue (record players) and high-definition or CD music sources.
He was "on deck" at his company's display for much of the time, but managed to have an extended coffee break so that he could investigate the very best systems on offer at the show:  stereo systems that frequently cost about the same as the median-priced inner suburban home in Melbourne.  Scary just to think about it.  The "cutting edge" music sources were usually servers (hard drives) playing high resolution 24bit, 192KHz sample rate, hopefully recorded at that resolution, audio files - WAY better than CD standard:  just consider all those extra "bits"!
He listened carefully.  He compared.  Was he "blown away" by the sound of all these state-of-the-art music playing systems?  How impressed was he when he was listening to a set-up that cost 20 times what the average person would be prepared to pay?
Not very.
It's the law of diminishing returns when it come to spending obscene amounts of coin on a stereo.  Impresses the friends, acquaintances and family, but.
He regularly hears live music, performed on real instruments by talented human beings.  This is his "reference" sound experience.
What he heard at the show was impressive in a way - detailed, dynamic and rhythmic....
But not convincing:  very far from "You are there!".  Sterile, clinical, somewhat uncommunicative and uninvolving compared to a real performance of acoustic music - that is the acid test of any recording/replay chain.
The speakers and amplifiers and other non-digital equipment were fine:  a few comparatively subtle differences are evident when comparing "apples with apples", and even some bargains are to be found when you budget is relatively tight.

He was so impressed by the fancy digital players that he is now saving up for a decent record player.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

"Curiouser and curiouser", said Alice.....

Walked into my favourite record store last week, with, for a change, the intention of not just browsing, but actually seeking some recordings to purchase.  No CD's for me: straight over to the new and second-hand vinyl proudly on display, all in alphabetical or musical genre order.  Half an hour or so later I had made my selections.  I hadn't been in the store for over 6 months, and there seemed to be many more new LP's from which to choose.  When I commented to the sales clerk about the seeming resurgence of vinyl, he remarked that in the last 12 months their LP sales had increased by 50%.
Incident number 2: Last Friday I was in Richmond, passing a well-known Audio/Home Theatre business and what did I notice prominently displayed in their front window? :  a collection of about eight record-players.

The enjoyment of music features significantly in most people's lives in our society.  Today it seems to be all about convenience when it comes to purchasing, storing and playing our favourite tracks (OOPS, I mean songs ).  "Tracks" is so analogue and old-fashioned.  But who would be bothered storing, caring for and going through the rigmarole of playing an LP on a quaint and somewhat complicated mechanical device?  What is so attractive about placing a tiny piece of polished and shaped diamond in a groove of a rotating disc of 12inch wide plastic?

LP quiz question:  How many grooves on one side of a record containing 22 minutes of music?   (Answer given at the end of this post.)

Downloads are so quick, easy to get, convenient to store, fun  to organise and the music can be played anywhere without disturbing anyone nearby.  (Even I take my iPod walking.  Well, I have music on it and I intend to next time, if I remember.)  Digital is so "cool" and immediate.  But something is missing.  Something is not quite right.  Something could be better:  an iTunes song of our fave performer just doesn't seem to be satisfying, involving,...not sure quite what.
It's not all there.  The original recording has suffered data compression.  Subtle and not-so-subtle details have been discarded.  Dynamics have suffered, instruments and voices don't sound quite correct or convincing.  Our brains are trying to find this missing information, and so we may become irritable, mildly stressed and somewhat disappointed with the session of listening.

Yes, LP's suffer from more background noise (although a good pressing played on competent equipment will not have much noticeable "groove noise"), are a pain to keep in good condition and can only be played at specific locations.  But increasingly, it seems, people who love music and enjoy good sound are turning from digital, including CD's and downloads, and investing in a good record player to play their new and old LP's.

It is not my intention to get too "technical" on this or any future post.  Wikipedia is usually a great resource for in-depth information on digital recording and reproduction.  The theory is all there for your investigation, if you have the inclination!  But I will point out a few simple observations about digital recording and replay.
Ignoring the importance of the need for high quality analogue equipment at every stage of the process from microphone to the listener's ears, it is evident that digital technology, both hardware and software, deals with a numeric representation of sound waves:  in other words, sound received by the microphone(s) is converted to a carefully timed string of zeros and ones which can be stored on a computer.  This digital recording process is called "sampling", and is, by nature, not absolutely continuous, but switches on and off thousands of times each second.  For CD quality/standards, there are 88,200 pieces of data recorded every second.  When this digital file is "played", the numbers are retrieved with very precise timing (we hope!) and the audio waveform is reconstructed, more or less accurately, by a "digital to analogue" computer chip which converts the stream of numbers to an electrical signal which can be sent to headphones or an amplifier and speaker system as sound we can hear.
So.....The recorded data is not exactly continuous (like the operation of the ear and brain is), and accurate results, from recording to replay, are very dependent on very precise digital "clocks".  Errors occur.  Tiny, but cumulative.  Even the reading of a CD in  a player would be impossible without a sophisticated error correction system.  Digital audio files streamed from a computer hard drive are far less prone to such errors.  A good analogy for digital sound compared to a live performance would be looking at a scene through a fly-wire screen, in the case of digital.  You can still see quite well, but small details and subtle effects are missing or marred.  The finer the screen mesh, the less it is noticed.  But you know it is there!

What prompted all of the above?

Yesterday I read a couple of internet articles and watched a couple of video presentations on basic PCM (never mind !) digital audio recording and replay.  The message was:  Audio CD standard is, if the engineering is correctly applied, more than adequate for stereo reproduction of music, with no perceivable degrading of the original musical signal:  no noticeable difference between input and output would be evident to the average listener.
Wishful thinking, I'm afraid!  And definitely not in my experience.

My point to this post?  Educate your ears:  listen to a good pressing played on reasonably competent gear, and compare it to the .mp3 file, or even a CD of the same LP.  No contest, when it comes to enjoyment, emotional impact, satisfaction and involvement.

Yes, great quality digital audio is available and can sound quite "analogue" to our ears.  But don't discard your LP's for CD's or mp3's.  In any case, some of them may have disappeared from the commercial music catalogue by now.

Nearly forgot:  the answer to the LP quiz question above is one.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Now You Hear It -- Now You Don't

When I was a kid in Primary School, I had a few good friends whose homes I would visit from time to time to play.
I enjoyed music:  my parents were both good singers and my dad played piano as well.  He also had a record player.  It could only play " 78's ", but he had ingeniously connected the pick-up output to a nice cabinet-style radio set on which it was perched.  Most days after school saw me sitting under the dining-room table, which was quite close to the radio/record player, listening to one of my favourite Radio Serials.  Anyone remember Superman, Biggles, Hop Harrigan or The Lone Ranger?

At that time I was the proud possessor of a small collection of 78's - a couple of jazz numbers and 2 or 3 story records.  One of my friends occasionally invited me over to her(!) house to play records on her dad's wind-up phonograph:  no electrics here - the sound waves pressed onto the record's surface were traced by a steel needle, which caused a diaphragm connected to the needle at the end of the tubular pick-up arm to vibrate in sympathy, and the resultant sound waves were funneled down an internal horn and emerged somewhat louder through an opening in the lower front of the machine.  Volume could be controlled by adjusting two louvered doors across this front opening.  Close the doors - quieter:  open the doors - louder.  Simple but effective.
Not what you would call "Hi-Fi", but we had fun.

Two main problems with 78rpm records of those days, before the advent of the LP - short playing time and horrendous surface noise, compared to the LP record.  In addition, both the "needles" and the records themselves tended to wear quickly.

Fast forward to today...
I love some of the music and performances on those old 78's, and have in recent years been transferring many a disc to CD format, both from my collection and customers of my little business.

Here is a sample of a 78 side cut in the '40's or early '50's - Al Jolson is in good voice.  The disc was transferred on a modern turntable, with an appropriate stylus, at 33rpm, and the recorded sound file adjusted in the computer to the correct speed and pitch.  No other "monkey business" was employed...

Now for the same song, but with "state of the art" noise reduction applied.  It still isn't "Hi-Fi" quality, but surface noise and much of the damage heard in the "straight" version have largely disappeared.  Further work could have been attempted, but the result is quite satisfactory.  It's amazing what can be done using the right software these days.

Now, where did I put that Enrico Caruso record...?

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Stereo Recording the Blumlein Way

Sometimes the simple or basic ways are the best, or at least worth a try.
One of the earliest ways of producing a stereo effect using just two microphones was invented by the brilliant electronic engineer, Alan Blumlein, in the early 1930's.
It involves the positioning of two microphones or two microphone capsules one directly over the other, pointed at right angles to each other and facing the sound source.

These are two ribbon mics in this arrangement.

A ribbon mic can pick up sound equally from front
and back.

Several single-unit stereo mics have been produced using this arrangement.  Here are two available from Royer Labs:

The SF24, with built-in preamplifier,

and the SF12, without preamplifier.  I have one of these, and have successfully recorded small and large ensembles using this excellent pair of matched ribbon mics.
A high quality, high gain mic preamplifier is most important, as the output level of ribbon mics is quite low.

Enjoy this sample of a Blumlein technique recording of a concert band, recorded some years ago at a public concert (mic placement was not exactly ideal, as you might imagine!)

Thanks for listening and reading!

Sunday, 22 September 2013


From time to time I want to share some recordings I have made with you.
The problem is....Blogger will not, it seems, allow me to insert audio files on my page, only photos or videos.  Sooooo,  maybe this workaround will be the way to go.

Here is a recording made a few years ago of an acoustic guitar, using a spaced pair of matched omnidirectional condenser microphones.  The musician is David Baillie.  (Hope you don't mind, Dave!)

Precious Sound Memories

I was reminded yesterday of the fragility of a person's audio treasures.
The lady with the enquiry was most concerned that an album she owns on a music cassette is no longer available to purchase new in any other medium.  She wanted to preserve her tape by transferring it to CD format as she does not have access to a cassette tape player.  No problem:  I seem to be doing quite a bit of this lately.

No-one really knows where sound and video recording and replay technology will go in the future.  Formats come and go....anyone remember the 8-track cartridge?  It used quarter-inch magnetic tape in a chunky cassette,  first appearing in Lear Jets and later in many cars.  Check out ebay for tapes and even players.
Back in the early '60's my first foray into HiFi involved a turntable for playing the new stereo LP's and an open-reel recorder for music tapes.  The records, except for ones I discarded or sold, are still playable, but the tapes have met their demise over the intervening years.
My greatest audio treasure is a 10inch, 78rpm acetate ( a type of plastic ) disc of my father singing two songs.  It was cut in the early '40's in a small studio somewhere in Melbourne.  With careful transfer and state-of-the-art noise reduction software, it doesn't sound half bad.  I only wish my mother's fine coloratura voice was recorded somewhere.

So where are we going recording-wise?  Deeper into the digital domain, it seems.  There is quite a bit of discussion as to the best digital recording system - the one that will best preserve all the information captured by the microphones employed at the time.  Sony is heavily promoting its 1-bit DSD digital encoding format, as in SACD discs, while the rest of the professional and amateur recording world uses some form of PCM, multi-bit system.  A few die-hards prefer the recordings made by tape machines.
Does the average person buying the music of their favourite group or composer really care?  I think not.  Just consider the popularity of downloads from iTunes, etc.  Thankfully high resolution downloads are becoming increasingly available for those of us who appreciate quality reproduction of our music.
After quite a bit of research, I have to say, in my opinion, the best current, affordable, practical recording format is 24bit, 192KHz PCM, using best available encoding hardware (interfaces) and software.  DSD is a close second, but subtle artifacts from high-frequency noise are an issue.  No digital system is perfect.  No replay system is perfect.  We can only hope, at this present time, to approach the level of audio perception of the human ear and brain.
Every recording system is both fragile and ephemeral.  Some folk have thousands of tracks on their computer hard drives.  But hard drives fail.  Records and tapes wear out or are damaged beyond repair.  Formats come and go....anyone heard of Elcassette?  Thought not.
But take heart - even some of the Edison wax cylinders and players are still going strong, after more than 100 years!  Not a bad record.