The Copper Interview

Tom Fine, Part 3

[Tom Fine is an archival/recording/mastering engineer, and if if his name sounds familiar, it’s likely because he’s the son of Robert Fine and Wilma Cozart Fine. One of the rare husband-wife teams in music production and recording, Robert Fine ran the Fine Sound and Fine Recording studios, and Wilma Cozart Fine was the VP of Mercury Records, known for producing the legendary Living Presence series. Tom spoke with John Seetoo for Copper, and shared details of growing up in an intensely-artistic environment, and of his own career. Part 1 of the interview appeared in Copper #49 ; Part 2 appeared in Copper #50.—Ed.]

John Seetoo: As you’ve become a recording engineer yourself, do you feel  that your choice of occupation was predetermined by your environment and family?

Tom Fine: No, because I had a nearly 30-year career as a journalist and always did sound work “on the side” until recent times. I wisely listen to my mother’s advice and avoided a career the record business. I worked at a NYC recording studio as a teen and the engineers there told me not to think about any career until I went to college and figured out what I liked. I thought about getting into video post-production, because there was more money in that business than music recording, but the TV studio at my college was primitive and the guys (all guys) who ran it were not welcoming to a freshman who had worked at a more modern cable TV production facility in his hometown. In contrast, the “alternative” newspaper on campus was very welcoming to a freshman with only a little experience in the world of journalism (plus the male-female ratio on the staff was about 50-50). I immediately found my “home” at college and that led me to a journalism career, most of it spent as Managing Editor at Beverage Digest, a trade journal covering the beverage business.

I got into doing audio work through my older brother, Matt, who was one of the first employees at Audible. In the early days, Audible produced a lot of original content (Podcasts before the name was invented). They needed editors who could use this newfangled Soundforge software and crank out work quickly. I had just bought my first Windows PC at home, this was around 1996. Audible gave me a licensed copy of Soundforge and started feeding me work on a regular basis. I got very good at waveform editing and the various format/file-management aspects of digital audio production. I then started acquiring and restoring better analog gear so I could digitize my own tapes and records, to play them in the then brand new digital file players. In fact, this makes me remember my first CD-ROM burner, which cost about $300, from 1997 or so. Between CD-ROMs and Napster, I could clearly see the end of the business model for the record companies years before it imploded, so I was then REALLY glad I took my mother’s career advice!

Anyway, at about the time I had amassed some good tape machines and disc-playback gear, and had upgraded my computer audio workstation, I got a job digitizing a massive collection of recordings for Poets House in NYC. They basically digitized their whole audio library and loaded it into iPods and computer kiosks, where one could search for a poet or poem and hear recordings while seeing the words on the computer screen. This job took several years and provided money to keep upgrading the studio. At the same time, computer audio came into its own. And more transfer work started coming in, and it built up from there.

I got involved with remastering Mercury Living Presence material when Universal Music/Decca Classics, the current owner, decided to put the catalog back into print, via value-priced box sets. I reached out to them and said, let’s bring some new material into print to fill out these box sets. Between the three box sets, about 90% of the original Mercury Living Presence catalog is in print. Of course, I’d love to see the rest of it get remastered and in print.

JS: Your own bio cites your re-mastering work and gear review articles you have written.  What are your favorite projects that you have personally engineered, and if you had an unlimited budget, what would be your dream setup for a personal recording studio?

TF: I’ve enjoyed all of the projects I’ve worked on, for one reason or another. The Mercury Living Presence work is most near and dear to my heart. In particular, I enjoyed writing my parts of the booklets for Box Sets 2 and 3. Technically, I very much enjoyed remastering the Marcel Dupre box set because it was challenging and because the results have been very well-received. I used a revolutionary new system called Plangent Process for the tape transfers. Plangent was invented by a guy named Jamie Howarth. It works this way: the tapes are played back on a customized Ampex ATR-100 fitted with special heads and Plangent-designed electronics. Along with the audio channels, the Plangent system recovers the high-frequency bias signal from the tape and stores that on a separate digital track. The Plangent software then isolates and locks to the bias signal, effectively eliminating all the mechanical distortion (wow, flutter, scrape-flutter) that cause time-domain errors in analog tape recording and playback. It basically takes the problems of tape (aside from the hiss, which is still there) out of the equation, and brings the sound back to what came out of the microphones. The organ-music fans have loved the Dupre box set because getting rid of those time-domain distortions clarified both the actual musical notes and also the intonations and techniques that Dupre employed.

As for a dream setup for a studio, I’d have to really win the lottery because there would be quite the construction budget. I’d want a very well-tuned room that’s designed for big, full-range speakers and moderate listening levels (85 dBSPL peak levels). I use Amphion Two18 near-field monitors in my studio, and also listen very carefully on my “big system” in the cathedral-ceiling living room, which features the same B&W 808 monitors that my mother used to make the Mercury Living Presence CDs in the 1990s. In the studio, I use a Lynx HiLo as my digital interface with a Benchmark power amp driving the Amphions. It’s a very low-noise/low-distortion system designed for quick and accurate reproduction at moderate listening levels. The living room stereo has a Benchmark DAC2 digital interface and I use either a Benchmark or Aragon power amp to drive the B&W’s. I would call the B&W’s quite quick and clear for such large speakers moving a lot of air. I can again use moderate listening levels, so I don’t get fatigued working on either system. I know too many old engineers walking around with hearing aids, I’m very careful about SPL exposure.  I’m not sure how “different” I’d want the sound tonality to be on my “dream system” vs. what I have now, because I’ve been able to get good results and happy clients so I figure I must be hearing things effectively. But, as all people interested in audio technology know, there is always room for improvement and some new technology worth investigating is already headed down the pike.

My main winter project is going to be dismantling and rebuilding, especially rewiring, my studio. So hopefully I’ll get closer to my “dream studio” with very little money outlay! My main purpose, though, is to simplify signal flow and workflow. The studio has grown and changed over the past 10 years, with each “layer” of change kind of set on top of the previous. Time to gut-renovate it.

Robert Fine at the cutting lathe, around 1959.

Hopefully, you can tell from my answers that I’m very proud of my parents, and feel lucky to be their son. They were smart, creative people, and both had a good sense of humor (very different, with my father being from Queens and my mother being from Texas, but that was part of the fun because they made each other laugh). I’m especially grateful that they passed on their love of music and sound, because careful listening has been a source of great joy for me. I do listen to technical aspects of recordings; it’s an area of interest and I understand it to a certain extent. But I try to make sure to go beyond that and hear the music itself, and let it do its thing to my heart and soul.

[Thanks to John and Tom for an amazing interview! It’s been fascinating to learn more about the work of all three Fines.-–Ed.]

[Header photo is of C. Robert Fine at the Westrex recording console at Fine Recording Bayside, Queens, which was originally the Everest Records studio. All photos courtesy of Tom Fine.]