The Copper Interview

David Chesky

[David Chesky is a co-founder of audiophile label Chesky Records and download site HD Tracks. He’s established an impressive list of credits as a classical composer, jazz pianist, and producer, and is well-known as an advocate and developer of enhanced audio technology. John Seetoo spoke with David about his career, motivations, and new projects for Copper—Ed.]

Copper: You’re a respected composer and pianist, and with your brother Norman, run Chesky Records and HD Tracks.  How did music come to be so important for you?

 David Chesky: Well…I had an interest as a little kid.  Here’s the deal: my mom made everybody in the family take piano lessons.  My oldest brother – my older brother is a doctor; he plays for fun.  My younger brother doesn’t play but runs the business. For some reason, I took to music and I really enjoyed it.  I just wanted to do this from a young age and I decided that I wanted to be a musician.

C:  Great.  Did you always think you’d devote your life to music?

DC: Absolutely.  It was never ever a question.  At a young age, I just wanted to do this.

C: You never wanted to be a doctor, like your brother?

DC: No.  Well, my older brother is not a “doctor” doctor – he’s a physiologist; and he’s retired.  But hey, everybody I know became a doctor. But this is just what I wanted to do.

C: Well, the world’s a much richer place because of your musical contributions.  Your works cover a wide range of styles and forms—from jazz solo piano to jazz quintets and orchestral ballets for children, and comic operas for adults and operettas for children. Is any particular form more challenging, or more rewarding?

DC: No.  Here’s the deal: I find writing classical music is more challenging because it’s this big puzzle – there are a hundred pieces in an orchestra, and it’s a composer’s medium.  Jazz is more of a performer’s medium, because if ten orchestras play The Rite of Spring it’s pretty much going to be The Rite of Spring.  You play a little louder, faster slower….but if you give ten jazz pianists a ballad to play  like, “My Funny Valentine”, you’re going to have ten completely different compositions. So the bottom line is, I enjoy playing jazz because it’s very creative, and I enjoy writing classical music because it’s a challenge like a jigsaw puzzle.

C:  So when you compose the piece, you can hear it come out exactly as you envisioned it in your head, with all the elements…

DC: Uh-huh.  Yeah.

C: …versus the spontaneity of creating on the spot when you’re interacting with other musicians, right?

DC: Yeah.  It’s a totally different thing.  It’s fun.  It’s all fun.  You know what it’s like?  It’s like Baskin and Robbins. You don’t just want to have vanilla and chocolate all day long.  So by having all of these things all day, it just makes it more interesting.  In so far, I’d get bored.  As an audiophile, you want to try a 300 B amp, next week you’ve got a tube amp, the other week, you’ve got a solid state, you’ve got a Class A amp, doing some electrostatics, then you’ve got Quads, let me try a pair of horns…  Hey, if I had the bread, I would have 55 hi fi systems in my house!  It’s fun!  It is! (laughs)

C: I concur.  My wife gets on my case for the same thing about gear and guitars. (laughs) –Is your emphasis on works for children based upon a desire to entertain your own children?

DC: Well, two things: my entertaining for children is that I want to – part of the thing is, the children’s operas and ballets are to get them into culture.  Everybody’s children.  So, yeah, I guess my children, too. And everything I do for children – look, I write crazy operas for adults and they’re a little wacked out.  But all my children’s stuff has strong morals.  My Mice War  is a strong anti-war film.  This other thing I have, The Snow Bears,  is about the environment.  I want to teach children; I want to do positive things to get them into this.  I also, by doing this, I’m exposing them to classical music, because there’s no way to hear this, because they don’t teach this in the schools.  So…I want to get them into that.

 C: That’s great.  A lot of today’s artists’ first exposure to classical music was from the Warner Brothers cartoons, like Chuck Jones’ “What’s Opera, Doc? and stuff like that.

 DC: Yeah, but when I went to school, we had music classes, music appreciation – we don’t have that anymore.

C: Yeah, that’s true.  The curriculum has changed a lot…

DC:  It’s just so….it’s just so different.  So my thing is, ok, look: there’s a paradigm shift. Let me just tell you this one thing and I’ll tie it into this.  You know why I like high end audio? You’re into this stuff – high end audio – right?  I like it because it’s one of the few sectors in the world remaining where people don’t want to be the richest; they want to be the best.  It’s almost like an arts and crafts society.

If you go to a CES show or any show and you walk down the aisle and go up to Ken Stevens of Convergent Audio and say, “Hey man, what are you billing?  What’s the biggest thing?  How many units?”  and he’s going to go, “Huh??”  But if you walk up to Ken and say, “You know, these JL2 amps are the best amps I’ve ever heard in my life.” That’s going to make his day!  It’s a thing where people believe in the pursuit of excellence!

So when you go to these high end shows, these guys are like artists but with soldering irons instead of a paintbrush.  It’s not just making a piece of gear for a big company and say “we’re going to sell 1.8 million units”.  It’s a guy saying, “I’m going to make this piece of poetry.  I’m going to express myself.”   And that’s a great thing.  We’ve kind of lost it.

C:  Actually, what you’re saying is what I’ve heard from – you may know him – Dave Boonshoft from Aguilar Amps?

 DC:  I’ve heard the name, yeah.

 C:  He’s the head of Aguilar, who make the bass amps.  I mean, he likes getting great sales, but to him, his idea is that, “I want to make a top line amp for every working bass player that ever got stuck with a bad backline or an amp that cut out in the middle of a gig, or couldn’t get the sound that they needed”.

DC: Yeah. I mean, yeah, that’s kind of the way it is.  Anyway, that – that’s why I like high end audio.  And the same thing is, for the music, I want to get the kids into a quality thing, good classical music, that kind of thing.   So that’s kind of why I wrote all these things.  I guess Prokofiev wrote  Peter and the Wolf for the same reason.  We don’t teach this stuff anymore.  They don’t get exposure to it.  And you know something?  It’s parallel.  When good music dies and all that you have is mp3 rap records, you’re not going to need high end audio.  You’re not going to need a nice system to reproduce that.  So this whole thing is going to go away unless we get young people into it – music and high end audio.

C:  With HD Tracks, you were one of the pioneering companies in hi-res downloads. Is that field still growing, or are streaming music sources  curtailing the growth of downloads?

DC:  We’re still very healthy and solid. But at the end of the day, we have to see where it’s going to pan out.  Now we’re looking into everything, too. We’re looking into the streaming models – if they’re economically viable. We’ve kind of stayed away, because everyone in the streaming market, including musicians, are losing a fortune.  So this is a problem.

C:  When they start talking about ten-thousandth of a cent…

DC:  (laughs) Yeah…we’re looking and figuring out if there’s a good way to make money for everybody and do it in a way that would be good for everyone.

C:  Yeah.  That makes perfect sense.  There’s certainly been a revival of interest in vinyl records. Will Chesky Records get into that business in the future?

DC:  Yeah, we’re putting out a lot of vinyl these days! We’re putting out the new Macy Gray, you know – we’re getting back into vinyl.

C:  Is that a more expensive process now, since the number of vinyl pressing houses have shut down over the past decades?

DC: Yeah, it’s more expensive, but you know, it is what it is.  If people want vinyl – it’s a collector’s type of mentality and medium, and you’ve just got to pay what it is.  There’s just no getting around it.  I mean, whatever it is, we just put on our profit and pay what it is.  Yeah, it’s a lot more than it would have been if it was the Sixties, but that’s not our call.

C:  I was actually trained in audio engineering by the late Dennis Ferrante (Grammy Award winner and engineer on numerous landmark records by John Lennon, Lou Reed, Don McLean, Wynton Marsalis, and many others) and he explained to me about the importance of compression when mastering to vinyl to keep the needle from jumping too much on the cutting lathe because of the dynamics. Do you have to compromise at all, or do alternate masters when you use vinyl?

DC: The cutting engineer – they do all that, they adjust the levels.  They look at what it is, the cutting lathe, ahead of time, and they take care of all of that. They’re all computerized, the cutting heads.  They have a preview head , and the preview head knows what’s coming around the corner and adjusts for it. And if you have a talented engineer, like the guys at Sterling and all these places, they can really tweak it out.  Let me ask you a question: you worked with Dennis?  When did he pass? How old was he?

 C:  Couple of years ago.  We worked – we actually very good personal friends also.  He was in his 60’s.  He’d had cardiac problems for over 10 years. He had one of those small portable oxygen devices and he was still gigging until the end!

DC:  I knew Dennis well when we used to work at RCA (Studios) together.  Dennis was a young guy when we worked there.  He was fun. Spent a lot of time working with him til 2 in the morning; a lot of late night dinners.. My brother was real tight with him.   Did you know Juan?  [A long-time tech and fixture of the RCA studios—Ed.]

C: [Dennis was] one of my closest friends in the industry.  He taught me pretty much everything I know about audio and what I know about engineering. I met Juan, but only once. I met Ernst Jorgensen when Dennis was doing the Elvis Presley CD box set remixes for RCA.  He let me sit in on some of those sessions. He was using the Cedar system to take care of the hiss.

DC:  Right.  For the noise.

C: — Anyway, back to Chesky – Compact discs – are CDs still significant for your label?

DC:  Yeah, we still sell ‘em, but you know what?  We’re coming out with a new thing.  We’re coming out with MQA compact discs.  That’s what we’re working on today.  That’s why I was an hour late in calling you; we’re trying to figure this stuff out.  Anyway, this can be very cool because it’ll be basically a CD red book on a normal CD player, but if you plug your CD player into a DAC that has MQ 8, it’ll come out as 176(kHz), 17-bit.  So, it’ll sell for the same price as a CD, I think.  It’s not up to a regular 192 (kHz), 24 bit, but it’s pretty cool to have that on a CD.

C:  Wow.  Yeah, that kind of resolution on a CD ought to sound humongous.

DC: Yeah, so we’re just kind of working on this thing in the next few days. We’re just trying to figure it out.  But that’s why I want to come out with CDs and maybe give it a boost for a lot of people who don’t want that, not for the CD players like the MSB and all that – a lot of people like these memory players, you know?  And that could be a cool thing for that market.

C:  Back in 1978, I attended a Lou Reed concert at The Bottom Line that was recorded for his Take No Prisoners live album and I saw a number of dummy heads mounted throughout the club – my first exposure to binaural recording. You and Chesky Records have been a leader and advocate of the platform and in the releasing of binaural recordings. Are those recordings designed solely for headphone listening? Meaning, will they sound “weird” on a two-channel home stereo, the way you utilize it?

 DC:  No, no.  Look, here’s the story: we have been doing work with Princeton University, the physics lab, with Edgar Choueiri for, I don’t know, five, six or seven years or something.  Now here’s the thing.   We’re making a thing called Binaural Plus. We added diffuse-field equalization on there so that our records will play back perfectly on headphones or speakers.  So, they’re hybrid, almost.  Now, in the future, we have this thing we’ll start to sell called the BACCH  or crosstalk cancellation, you’ll be enveloped. You’ll have 3D audio from this.

You see, here’s the way it works, John.  All stereo is flawed. You sit in front of two speakers on a 60 degree triangle.  But the problem is, you have something called interaural crosstalk corruption.   The brain cannot decipher what’s going on there.  It’s like me taking you to see a 3D movie and taking off the glasses, ok?  What happens is how head to head transfer function works is, if you go to a symphony concert and the guy on the left whacks the bass drum, ok?  It hits your left ear and then it bounces around your nose, and then it hits your right ear, right?  Two things happen: obviously, it has to go a little farther to hit your right ear, so there’s a little more time and the level gets a little lower when it hits your right ear cause it travels (over) more time. So those two things, level and time, tell the brain exactly where the spatial cues are.  And that’s how we image.

But now, in hi-fi, the problem is this: the left ear hears the right speaker and the left speaker at the same time, and the right ear hears the left and right speaker at the same time, so it’s called crosstalk corruption, and the brain can’t figure out where the images are.  This is why you cannot have anything imaged outside the speaker.  But when we cancel the crosstalk in between the speakers with DSPs, you’re going to now be in an almost 360 degree soundfield.    I mean, we have that in our lab in New York; we have that in Princeton.  These are very cool things

C: This would be able to be experienced with a regular two speaker setup?  You wouldn’t need a quad or Dolby Surround setup?

DC: Any speakers you have.  We’re going to be demoing it at the Munich Hi Fi show.  We’ve been demoing it and people have been writing about it.  But all of our recording are encoded like that, so in the future when you play it back, crosstalk corruption cancels – they’re going to blow you away; there’s nothing like it.  And we can make a filter for your own ear. Everybody’s ear is like your fingerprint, they’re all different.  So no two people here are alike.  So in the future, you’ll take a picture of your ear, it’ll feed into the computer, and you’ll be where the microphone is.  It’ll fix all that stuff.

C:  Ok. We spoke earlier about audiophiles, and you yourself being known as a bit of an audiophile, and briefly involved in manufacturing speakers. Do you see opportunities for growth in home audio? Do you think headphone/personal listening is the “gateway drug” for home audio?

DC:  Well look, between me and you, I kind of dig sitting on my couch and listening to my Quads, I mean, I’m kind of into that.  But the younger generation is not into that.  The younger generation is into taking their music with them.  So I’ve seen this explosion in the headphone market.  I mean, I have tons of headphones too, and I dig them and they’re cool, but – if it’s between one or the other, I prefer sitting at home.  But when I’m on the road, sure I take some really nice headphones with me.  I can just sit in my hotel room and I can tell you, it sounds awesome.  But I guess it’s what you grow up with.  I mean, we grew up with big speakers.  When I was a kid, I used to build big speakers.  (laughs).

 C:  I hear you. I still have my Ohms.  They weigh a ton but they still sound awesome.  Where do you see as the growth areas for your business, and the music biz in general?

DC:  Well, we’re working on some projects that – we’ll see if it pans out, but I guess just putting out more products on HD Tracks and more products on the record label, and just hoping it comes around.  It’s hard to compete with “free”, you know?  It’s hard –  a lot of these streaming services are free.

C:  A lot of it is an inversion of the old model when tours would promote record sales. Now records are free promotions for concert ticket sales.

DC:  Yes, exactly.  So – wait a minute, I just found out something.  So, the MQA CD will be full 24 bit.

C:  Nice.  You have composed for films, such as Woody Allen’s  Blue Jasmine, and the Highlander TV show. Can you describe your process and approach for film scoring, and how is it similar to or different from your latest project, Mice War ?

DC:  Here’s the thing: on movie scores, we do two things.  A movie score—when I was young, I would actually score the movie.  And it’s like, “music by the pound”, you know?  Ten minutes of love, ten minutes of drama…and then what we also do is we also write – I have lots of extra cues that people just kind of buy, or records, where if it’s in a movie, the guy will say, “I really want this piece of your music, David, I like your songs, seven minutes to ten minutes of it in my movie. I want to use it.”  – and we’ll just license it.  Some film people like to do it like that.  They just hear a piece of music, they use it when they cut the film, they get attached to it, and they just want to use it.  So that works like that.

Now since for Mice War, as it’s an animated movie and my next one’s animated, what I do is – I score the entire film out before we do a thing; and then we put it together like a radio show like in the Forties, you know?  And then when it’s all done, I do the music, I do the singers, and I do the dialog,  then we give it to the animator and the animator will animate to it.

C: So it’s really like doing an opera, almost.  You’re in control of the action to what already been pre-composed, written and recorded.

DC:  Well, yeah, but when I write the dialog, I write the music at the same time.  So if I say I’m going to get you, and I’m running in all this, and I’m writing that dialog, I’m writing it on a piece of score paper, then underneath I start writing the music to fit exactly.  That’s the way I do it.  I conceive it as one thing.  Yeah, like an opera.

 C:   Wow, ok.  Well, David, that’s all I have.  Do you want to add anything further?

 DC:  Maybe I’ll see you at a show sometime, John.  Try to get over to the Munich show this year!
[My thanks to both David Chesky and John Seetoo for a fascinating interview.—Ed.]