Behind the Glass

Decisions, Decisions…

Every recording ever created is just a series of important decisions made in linear fashion along a timeline. A part of the success of a recording depends on the accumulation and use of higher quality equipment. But having presided over many recordings myself, I think that it’s the decision-making that separates engineers in the recording field. When I hear a recording that is perfectly balanced to my taste, and exciting, I begin a search to find what else the recording house was a part of.

OK — decision-making is what separates all of us, in all parts of life — let’s be honest. But it’s never more apparent than in the recording field, especially for the lonely recordist working solo. Good decisions, one after another are the essence of every good recording. One bad decision and the entire venture can be wrecked, with nothing to show for everyone’s hard work.

It has been a real kick in the pants sharing my stories and recordings over the years from the live video studio Second Story Garage, which were all done in a crummy rectangular office on the second floor of Boulder’s local newspaper offices. I’ve shared my good and bad decisions alike, the former mostly propelled by uncanny luck, and the latter hopefully occurring only once— but likely again and again.

I share these in the hopes to lift the veil on how music is really made. A lot of times, it’s messy and the gear is sub-par. A string is likely to go out of tune on the best take, and sometimes the band is convinced the worst take was the only one they want to keep. Once, a singer’s feelings were so disrupted by an unintended stray comment from one of our staff that she never fully recovered her composure during the shoot. I remember when two members of a three-piece band got so drunk off the studio bar that one of them can be seen staggering through his set on our videos. Or how about when the violinist forgot her A string and the only shop in town with a spare was closing in 5 minutes.

Often, hard decisions need to be made with all sides considered. Sometimes, I’d arrive to the recording with a plan in mind, only to completely blow it up within the first 10 minutes of meeting the band.

But that’s what makes the live thing so fun. In climbing, they call it “onsighting,” as in, you’re figuring it out on first sight. An enormous challenge, and a really fun one to boot. Fortunately I had the leeway to choose my favorite take and publish it, even if a string wandered out of tune. If it sounded better to me, and had more excitement or cohesion (as well as many other subtle qualities), then it was a winner.

This column has been devoted to recordings and stories from my three and a half years of weekly recordings in this improbable studio. In all, the videographer and I captured more than 150 bands and solo performers. We have a YouTube channel where you can view all of the nearly 600 videos we made over this period, and we have a website which contains more of the companion text that reporters wrote about each session.

Early in Copper‘s infancy, I wrote about many of the better recordings in our catalog. I may ask our editor Bill to reprint one or two as time goes on, because Copper‘s readership has absolutely soared since then (thank you!!), and some of those acts are straight fire.

And I still do have quite a few good ones left to share, and I will share those in due time. But I also have had a desire to get back into the recording habit, and recently, in no small part due to this column, some doors have been swinging open in that arena.

Darren Meyers is a name you might recall from his DIY column in earlier Copper issues (he made a very cool DIY MM phono stage, check out the three installments here and here and here), or you might recognize him as the designer of our new Stellar S300 and M700 power amplifiers. He came to PS Audio for several reasons, amongst them our commitment to listening as well as measuring, our devotion to music and musicians, and because of Paul. Of course.

Darren is a younger guy, and is tuned into the whole developing scene online where bands are recording live for YouTube audiences. At SSG in 2012 when we started, there were just a small handful of recording outfits nationwide doing this, but now the number is hard to pin down — it’s huge, and this is a big trend.

My videos and stories started Darren thinking down a path that my mind had trod since the minute I was hired at PS Audio — what if we took all the resources of a world class high end audio company and applied them to these live recordings? What if we optimized our recording techniques to play best on the Infinity IRS V in PS Audio’s Music Room One? Even the better live music videos you see online still use horrible stage mics and (like I did because our room was shit) close-mic the bejeezus out of everything. And you know they’re monitoring on low-budget two-ways nearfield, or headphones.

Add that they’re mostly tracking to 2-channel stereo through, say, a used, 12-year-old digital board via optical into an iMac and using mostly Chinese mics (again I’m calling myself out — we had no budget!). Sometimes the live recording outfits sound pretty good. I’ve heard some outfits, like Audiotree or KEXP, where they are clearly trying and using some serious resources to pull off the quality.

We want to try to improve on what’s out there, but more importantly we want to make audiophile, DSD recordings with a focus on excellent music. Once Darren heard about a possible recording space through the nonprofit community music project for which his wife now works, the pieces started to fall in place. It turns out that the organization, a merger of both the Rocky Mountain Center for Musical Arts and the Colorado Music Festival, had known about Second Story Garage and was interested in creating a series just like it.

I’ll stop here in the story of our new recording project, and pick up next week. This is going to be something truly amazing for audiophiles and music lovers alike. Don’t take my word for it — check out this picture of our new recording space, below. It’s an old Lutheran chapel that was sitting unused and covered in hideous 1980s carpet. Our first request was to remove the carpet if there was wood underneath it. Even if there was concrete below, the carpet was ruining the sound in there and had to go if this was going to be the world class asset it had the potential for.

Well, the nonprofit had a few bucks left in an improvements budget, and lo and behold, there was gorgeous hard wood under the carpet. Here are photos of it freshly sanded and then fully finished with Darren and me running some piano tests.

More next issue — stay tuned!