Octave Records Debuts The Art of Hi-Fi Series with Volume 01: Bass (And We Interview Paul McGowan)

Octave Records Debuts The Art of Hi-Fi Series with Volume 01: Bass (And We Interview Paul McGowan)

Written by Frank Doris

PS Audio’s Octave Records’ has introduced an all-new series called The Art of Hi-Fi. Each recording in the ongoing series will showcase a different aspect of high-quality audio reproduction, beginning with the initial release, The Art of Hi-Fi, Volume 01: Bass. It offers a variety of musical selections with deep, powerful bass that will challenge the low-frequency limits of any audio system, from pipe organ to acoustic, electric and synthesizer bass and intense percussion workouts. This is also the first Octave Records disc to feature PS Audio and Octave Records CEO Paul McGowan as recording engineer.

Volume 01: Bass was recorded in pure DSD 256 on Octave Records’ Pyramix digital audio workstation. All the tracks were minimally miked using a combination of single-point stereo mics and a few spot microphones as needed. All were recorded and mixed by Paul McGowan and produced by Jessica Carson. Volume 01: Bass: features Octave’s gold disc formulation, and the disc is playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible by using any SACD player or a PS Audio SACD transport.

In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download, including DSD 256 and DSD 128, DSDDirect Mastered 176.4 kHz/24-bit, 88.2 kHz/24-bit, 44.1 kHz/24-bit, and 44.1 kHz/16-bit PCM. (SRP: $19 – $39, depending on format.)

The album’s opener, “Erase Me” by newcomer Kaitlyn Williams, features a low-frequency synthesizer and electronic percussion bed that adds a richness and warmth to this pensive song. Volume 01: Bass showcases three pipe organ works including Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, recorded at Temple Emanuel synagogue in Denver, Colorado. The awe-inspiring power of the organ is conveyed in majestic full-range sound, with a vast soundfield captured by a combination of AKG C24 and David Bock mics in a modified Decca Tree configuration. Jazz aficionados will revel in the depth and sonic realism of the ensemble playing and the 5-string electric bass on the Seth Lewis Trio’s interpretations of “Maiden Voyage” and “How Deep Is the Ocean,” and Jeremy Mohney’s swing-band, upright bass-driven “Shep’s Dream,” recorded live using a Telefunken single-point microphone.

Other cuts on Volume 01: Bass include Michael Wooten’s percussion showpiece “Rocky Mountain Rain,” Kimberly and DJ Sparr’s viola and synth duo on “Take What You Need,” and “World Wind,” where Tom Amend plays all the instruments in an alluring combination of electronic keyboards, an 808 drum machine, drums, percussion, flute and bass clarinet.

I asked Paul about the launch of The Art of Hi-Fi and the making of the disc.

Frank Doris: Why did you decide to start this new series of Octave recordings, The Art of Hi-Fi, rather than make it a part of the previously-available The Audiophile’s Guide series?

Paul McGowan: The Audiophile’s Guide series offers a combination of book and music. The book explains in a step-by-step manner how to achieve something, and the music is the example piece one can rely upon. Once you get the music sounding the way the book suggests, you know you have it. The real value to this approach of the written word backed up by a musical example is one of trust. You can trust that the musical example is exactly right.

Paul McGowan.

Paul McGowan.

The Art of HiFi series, on the other hand, is pure example without any instruction. Have a system with bass? Here’s a disc you can use to not only test out the system’s low end, but with some kick-ass music that will really show off what it can do. For example, the pipe organ pieces (there are three on the Volume 01: Bass disc) were recorded live in a synagogue. When cranked up to a loud level the bass notes from the lowest pedals will rattle the rafters and shake your pants legs.

FD: Why did you focus on bass reproduction for the first release?

PM: That’s a great question. Probably because at my core I am a bass freak. Perhaps a quarter of my reference library was chosen because they’re great recordings with extraordinary bass. The kind of bass where you say, “wow!” However, there aren’t that many tracks out there that combine both great, well-recorded music, with unfettered bass that reaches down in the lower regions. In fact, most commercial releases have a high-pass filter that limits the deep rumbling possible. Not so on this release. It’s bass in all its glory.

FD: What should people listen for in particular on some of the tracks?

PM: Just how important the lower octaves are to make a great recording. Take for example the opening track, “Erase Me.” This is a wonderful track of music from an up-and-coming young talent, Kaitlyn Williams. The synth in this piece is doing the bottom lines and, as you listen to Kaitlyn singing, the bass line adds foundation to the entire piece. There is this one satisfying low note most systems will struggle to reproduce but, when everything’s just right, the solid foundation it adds just makes perfect musical sense.

Or, take the second to the last track on the album, “World Wind,” by pianist Tom Amend. Tom’s an amazing musician and he played every instrument on this wonderful composition. When he was laying down the bass line in the studio, he was hesitant to take the synth all the way down as low as it would go. In other studio settings that would make perfect sense because it would be totally lost. In this recording, at Octave Records, I said, “hell yes! As low as you can go!” And that’s what he did. Most people won’t be able to reproduce this note on their systems, but it’s there for the fortunate few with enough subwoofer power to nail it. And, when you do…look out!

FD: What made you decide to add “recording engineer” to your curriculum vitae? And who would you say you learned from the most, or how did you learn what you like in a recording as a result of your experience with Octave Records over the past two-plus years, and from decades in the audio industry?

PM: I started my audio career in the recording studio working with Giorgio Moroder (producer for Donna Summer, Berlin, Blondie, Irene Cara and many others), and Pete Bellotte in Munich, Germany. My wife. Terri, and I were all set to run a branch of Giorgio’s Musicland recording studio before I ran into some roadblocks from the Army – my boss at the time. I have been involved with recordings on and off ever since. Starting Octave Records has been a 45-year-long dream come true for Terri and I. We’re both passionate about music and working with musicians – something we never lost over all these years.

My lifetime of involvement in the art of designing and building high-end audio equipment has naturally led me to doing recordings since, at the end of the proverbial day, all we as audiophiles do is play back recordings. I get really tired of having to sort through the bulk of great music but which is poorly recorded. I often hear a track I like, buy the album or stream it, only to find it’s a crap recording: flat, lifeless, and without much in the way of redeeming value. In fact, most recordings are like this, which is a huge disservice to artists and listeners alike. This is why we all have our treasured collections of audio gems.

At Octave we wanted to not only fix that, but perhaps most exciting to me was the chance to see how far we can push the boundaries of what’s possible. Leapfrog what’s out there today as accepted standards. We’ve done well, but I think once you have a listen to the Art of Hi-Fi series (and many of the new releases yet to come) there’s a new level of recording most have never heard. Keep your eyes open for releases recorded at our new studio in DSD 256.

FD: How did you record the particular tracks to get what you felt was the most accurate bass? I’m particularly interested in the organ tracks. Not only do they have showstopper bass, but the sense of spaciousness is remarkable. How did you get it all?

PM: That was the most fun. Terri, me, and Octave’s director, Jessica Carson, traveled to the Temple Emanuel synagogue in Denver. They have the largest pipe organ in a synagogue west of the Mississippi (who’d a thunk a pipe organ in a synagogue anyway?). We placed the amazing AKG C24 stereo microphone down into the pew seating area where the entire room was rattling from those low pedal notes. It was where the organ and room met in spectacular fashion. I added my favorite microphone for bottom end, a special condenser designed by David Bock, next to the C24 and that was the center channel. So now we had a modified classic Decca Tree microphone configuration I came up with (after a lot of experimentation) that uses a single-point Blumlein microphone (the C24) in conjunction with an omnidirectional center microphone. Then we went upstairs to where the organist sits and added a pair of spot mikes to capture what he was hearing, then blended the two together in the mix. On the Aspen FR30 loudspeakers as augmented by a REL sub in the back of the room, these organ pieces are worth the price of admission alone. Killer!

FD: My speakers in my primary audio system only have one 10-inch woofer per speaker. What am I and other people with smaller speakers missing? (Other than a subwoofer, ha!) Subjectively, this recording, on my system, sounds like it has a lot of bass but I’m thinking I’m not hearing everything. What am I missing?

PM: The foundation of music. Without a proper subwoofer, you’re missing a great deal of the fundamentals that make for a realistic recording. That “you are there feeling” (even if there are no low bass notes to speak of). I hate to suggest that it’s one of those things where you’ll know when you hear it, but it’s kind of the truth. This release is a fun ride, whether or not you have the means to fully reproduce what you have, but it should be part of anyone’s reference library.

FD: Sounds like I need to call REL or try this recording through the big PA speakers our band uses. How low a bass signal can you actually put on a recording using DSD? I have to think you can easily go into subsonic frequencies using a synthesizer. When does the bass become too low, or even dangerous to the speakers and system – or the listener, like a sound cannon?

PM: The A/D converters we use have a -3 dB point of 2 Hz and are fairly flat to about 10 Hz. I think the thing to remember is that even though we humans can only hear to 20 Hz, we can feel down to several Hertz. DSD and PCM capture how we have engineered our recordings at Octave Records, which offer full and unrestricted bandwidth flat to 10 Hz and audible to 2 Hz if there’s any information to be found at those frequencies. Our microphones are, of course, limited to just below 20 Hz which is one of the reasons that for The Art of Hi-Fi: Bass, we relied on synthesizers going directly into the mixing console. Just have a listen to Kimberly and DJ Sparr’s wild piece, “Take What You Need,” featuring a viola and synthesizer. The synth notes DJ hits are pant-flappingly low.

FD: I have to give you a left-handed complement (well, I am a lefty) on the realism of the recording quality. I was listening with our pug Gary at my side. When Jeremy Mohney counted off “Shep’s Dream,” Gary perked up and started growling at the speaker, thinking it was another person in the room.

 PM: Hah! Yep, that’s one of the major goals Terri, Jessica, and I have at Octave. Realism that’s almost frightening. We get that by using simple microphone techniques in basically live settings. The Jeremy Mohney piece was done live in the Octave tracking room as captured by a Telefunken single-point Blumlein microphone. It’s as real and live as it gets.

FD: I like the fact that many of the tracks don’t pound you over the head with bass, like some demo recordings aimed at wowing the listener, perhaps without regard to musical content. For example, yes, Seth Lewis is playing a 5-string electric bass that goes deep, but it fits the music and isn’t just some rumble that’s slapped on there.

PM: Thanks for noticing. The last thing we wanted was to make bass-crazy music that had no value as actual musical pieces. We focused hard (well, to be fair, Jessica focused hard) on keeping the musical value of each piece as enjoyable and musically satisfying as possible. I think this is one release easy enough to just put in the machine, hit Play, and enjoy on its musical merits.

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