Crafting with intent

February 15, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

In a recent post, I wrote about the power of a strong point of view—knowing where you want to go then working hard to get there.

Another way to say that is crafting with intent.

Years ago, in the golden age of recordings where labels like Mercury, Decca, and RCA, produced treasured works of great orchestras, their arsenal of recording tools was limited. Yet, despite the shortcomings, they managed to do what it takes to get where they wished to go.

Their secret was working with what they had until they got where they wanted to go. Intent and hard work can trump shortcomings in equipment and format.

Or consider another example perhaps closer to home. Time and again we’ve witnessed skillful setup of average equipment outperforming poorly placed megabuck systems.

Knowing where we want to go and what we can expect upon arrival is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal.

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51 comments on “Crafting with intent”

  1. “Time & time again we have witnessed (the) skillful setup of average equipment outperforming poorly placed megabuck systems.”..Correct-o-mundo Paul!

    In the same way a skillful set-up of recording equipment & microphones recording onto PCM can outperform a DSD recording where the set-up was not as skillful.

    Going back 48hrs…’Aspen update’…I have three questions that I, & I’m sure others here,
    would like to know:-

    1/ When can we get some drawings of the internal schematics of the ‘aspen FR30’ floorstanders?
    Regarding the internal bracing structures.
    (A couple of months ago you said that you would look into it…pun unintended)

    2/ How long do the ‘aspen FR30’s take to burn-in?

    3/ What is the maximum SPL (dB/W/m) of an ‘aspen FR30’ before distortion becomes an issue?
    (Some loudspeakers max-out at 106dB’s & some max-out at 126dB’s; but most max-out somewhere in between)
    This is what I call the ‘headroom’ of a loudspeaker & it is important to know for those who like to listen to their music at ‘realistic volume levels’.

    I’d love to see a couple of photos of the crossover, but I wouldn’t expect you to publish those…you gotta keep some things under wraps, eh? 😉

    1. Thanks, Martin. I can answer a few.

      I am still waiting for the CAD drawings. Chris recommends 100 hours of play time and I will say that they need it. When new out of the box they sound a bit stiff, especially in the bottom end. Darren broke in a pair last week using a 10Hz sinewave overnight to exercise the surrounds. They really opened up in the bottom end.

      I remember Chris babbling something about 120dB to 130dB before we concern ourselves with distortion. At any listening level a normal human is likely to use they run around 0.1% THD which is pretty amazing for a loudspeaker.

      1. Thank you Paul,
        Initial cone stiffness is of course expected…100 hrs is pretty quick, most loudspeakers that I have experienced in the last 3 years have been in the
        ‘around 500 hrs burn in’ range (including the DeVore Fidelity – ‘O/93’)

        Maxing-out at 120dB is a lot of ‘loudspeaker headroom’…I max-out at 110dB 😀

        1. Hey Rat from the way too cold of almost Canada…when i roll my Zu(s) out for listening about 6 ft (2m) …and start turning it up, ill check the Db app on my phone to see if I’m right about it being over 90DB and it usually is…point is I don’t think its distorted but its about all i can enjoy…well, maybe for a couple minutes…so 80 is usually enough . Just an observation.

            1. Hi Phil,
              The butt kicker chair was built primarily for headphone use & when I was experimenting with 5″, two-way standmounts.
              The bass that comes out of the DeVore’s is just stunning & so said butt kicker chair is on hiatus now 😉

              It would be my honour to sink a few beers with you sir.

          1. Phil, My wife has a dB app ( SPL meter ) on her phone that reads 90 dB for everything that is the least bit loud. I have no idea if there is any way to calibrate the thing. The only SPL meter I trust is my old analog meter that I got from Radio Shack twenty years ago.

          2. Phil,
            The needle on my, still functioning, analogue Radio Shack dB meter usually sweeps between 94 – 106dB from my sweet-spot eight feet away from my DeVores.

              1. Tony,
                Even after all of you protestations through the months about how loud I listen to my home-audio rig, I can still hear very low background sounds very well…but I’m only 61yo.

        2. Oh yes. The Marty McFly back to the future amp explosion moment. 🙂

          God. I gotta say that is one of the greatest cinema scenes of all time for this guy. 🙂

  2. Hi Everyone. One of the best examples I can think of in regards to crafting with intent is Producer/mixing Engineer “Flood.” His work and microphone placement was nothing short of brilliant on Depeche Mode’s ‘Violator’ album and of course the Mics used were $100 dollar SHURE SM microphones. Even to record Dave Gahan’s vocals!
    Surely this goes down as one of the most high end sounding recordings for an expense that was completely reasonable at the time in 1989/1990. 🙂

    1. Hi Neph,
      I heard a few people talking about ‘Chocolate Chip Trip’ being a
      great reference track for auditioning loudspeakers & soundstaging.
      I thought, hmm…maybe this Tool track will get me into the band, but sadly…no.
      However, it is a great track to ‘test’ loudspeakers with 🙂

      1. Hi Martin. 🙂

        You know that really is the truth. “Chocolate Trip” is an exceptional instrumental track to test low end slam and spatial positioning of instruments. Stereo panning as well. 🙂

        Also what many don’t know is that Tool’s ‘Fear Innoculum’ album was entirely recorded on 2 Inch Analog tape, then touched up ever so slightly with modern pro tools done by the brilliant mixing engineer’Joe Barresi.’
        Martin, TOOL are without a doubt an acquired taste. I can absolutely understand you not connecting with them on a musical level, but from an audio purist position ‘ fear Inoculum’ should be demoed at high Fi shows.

        Truth is my friend. If I evented a great speaker this album I’d use at trade shows. 🙂
        It really is that good and I love how the album fuses both modern and older world styles of recording methods.
        In 2019 it was easily my album of the year. 😉

  3. Triggered by your golden age example I‘m always wondering why we tend to accept or ignore when things for a good part get worse instead of better and why we then first persuade ourselves it got better although it didn’t.

    Examples are the quality of recordings which at least for quite some time continuously went down after this golden age, inspite of theoretically superior technology used. Another example certainly the degradation of sound quality for many years after the introduction of the CD, and there are others.

    Is it our receptivity to marketing strategies in general or our enthusiasm for the new without questioning it?

    The crafting intent for the new certainly is always positive, it just often takes much longer to bear fruit than expected and marketed. Sometimes 30-50 years.

    1. jazz,
      I wished now that I’d never sold my Audio Alchemy – ‘DDE v1.0’ DAC
      from 28 years ago, since I have not heard a reasonably priced DAC
      that could throw a soundstage with such pinpoint imaging since the 90’s.
      I’d love to compare it with what is available today.

      Btw, the “questioning of it?” should be done with your ears,
      instead of relying on blind faith…or as you put it,
      “receptivity to marketing strategies”.

      1. Wow a 30 years old DAC better than today’s? You must have loved it 😉

        I’m personally rather sceptical that vintage gear is superior to modern, but I’m used to the fact that vintage skills, processes and concepts can bet better than more modern ones for quite some time.

        1. I loved what it could do for what it cost back then…AU$600 (1993)
          The amount of money that you have to spend today to get the same magnificent soundstage & pinpoint imaging, 28 years later, seems
          utterly ridiculous.

          1. Martin,

            My speaker project is getting close enough to completion that I am rewarding myself by starting to shop for audio equipment. I’m starting from a clean sheet except for the speakers, so the order that I acquire components is immaterial.

            I thought that one of the last components I would getting would be the DAC, especially a used high end unit. But after a lot of research, and patient waiting for one at a price below my pain threshold, I hope to be receiving soon a PS Audio Direct Stream Junior. It’s three years old, but with the latest software upgrades, I consider it close to new technology wise as most new DACs I could afford. You may wish to add a DSJ to your list for consideration.

            Paul if you read this, Chris Hartman was very helpful in informing me on what to look for in a used unit, to ensure that even a used DSJ would met my needs.

            1. Aeroaudio,
              Thanks for the heads-up on the DSJ however I bought a new Marantz – ‘SA-12 SE’ SACD player back in October of last year with the latest DAC technology from Marantz, including DSD conversion, & so I’m gonna be sitting on that one for at least a couple of years.
              Even though I’m opposed to ‘Made in China’, purely for political reasons, the HOLO Audio – ‘May level 3 KTE’ DAC is an absolutely stunning piece of kit & I think that they are about US$6k.
              I know someone in Hollwood CA who bought one & is over the moon about it’s performance…he also owns a PS Audio DS DAC.
              If you want me to put you in contact with him just e-mail me.

              1. Thanks Martin, but the gently used DSJ will be about a quarter of that cost. And it is still the most expensive single piece of electronic audio kit I have ever purchased.

  4. Buying random pieces of audio equipment is asking for trouble. Professionally implemented DSP can cure a lot of problems, but this usually requires professional experience, sometimes available from good dealers. A bad room will always sound bad. When I was doing building work I wired up some hifi in a room with bare brick walls and wooden floors and it sounded truly terrible. I reckon a $2,000 or $1m system would have both sounded equally bad.

    Placement is of course important, but I think you have to get a lot of things right first before placement, such as room acoustics and compatible equipment suitable for the room, and good placement isn’t going to fix a fundamentally poor acoustic.

  5. I consider “pinpoint imaging” to be an undesirable sonic artifact generated by audio electronics trying to create a “hi-fi” sounding rather than a “natural” sounding reproduction of a musical event. I have never heard “pinpoint imaging” at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

    1. Ron,
      Ahh…you don’t know what you’re missing.
      It’s a real treat to be able to pick-out exactly where the musicians & singer are on that soundstage…especially with the drummer in behind the other front-line performers.
      It’s just as much of an illusion as ‘natural’ is, through a home-audio rig.

      1. Yes, but is the pinpoint the musician or is it just where the diaphragm of the microphone is? I suppose for an ‘eat the mic’ style singer the two would essentially be the same.

        For me, it’s all about tone and transparency. Sound staging and pin point spacial location are well and good, but less of a priority, But that’s just me. You set up your system as you like it [hmmmm, that might make a good title for a play] within room constraints.

        1. Stephen,
          I agree, because I’m 85% a Rock ‘n Roller & so dynamics & clarity are the most important aspect of ‘home-audio music listening’ for me…when I’m listening to the Stones, Bowie, Elton, Supertramp, etc I don’t care about the soundstaging & the imaging.
          However, I have experienced 3D soundstaging & pinpoint imaging so when I’m listening to Virna Sanzone, Katie Melua, Madeleine Peyroux, Diana Krall or Brooke Miller then yes, I want that 3D soundstage, if I have set up my rig properly…but I get that not everyone does want that experience, for their own personal reason (or maybe even because they’ve never heard it like I have & so they think that a 3D soundstage event/experience from their home-audio rig is just ‘Pie-in-the-sky snake oil’ talk, like I did until I experienced it.
          Different folks…

    2. To me, “pinpoint imaging” all depends on the captured musical event.

      A 5-piece night club live jazz ensemble in an acoustical setting (recorded via 2 mics) will be played back with pinpoint focus and air around each musician and instrument, all in their proper size and space so vividly, you are transported There in the live venue performance audience!

      A larger ensemble, like a choir, can be represented in their arrangement soundstage space with full dimensional breathe, ambiance and openness of the pinpoint placement of the 4-vocal ranges, all blending into a singular harmony of glorious vocal sounds.

      With pinpoint imaging potential in a synergistic playback system, I can be seated in row 10 to 20, with ability to hear and locate the holographic depth, width and height of each string, brass, woodwind and percussion sectional, all placed in the typical symphonic setting that offers tremendous spacial clues of recorded venue size and hall ambiance!

      Pinpoint imaging in the soundstage to me means live, realistic home playback of the source material where my system (components, speakers, room) Completely Disappears!! 😉

    3. FR and you are both right. In most concert halls sound is diffused and reflected from all directions so it’s harder to discern precise instrument locations. In a smaller venue where you sit closer to the stage and performers, you hear better each individual instrument or voice and its location. So, to simulate the live acoustic of a variety of venues, you need an audio setup that delivers pinpoint accuracy when called for. But as you say, there can be so much pinpoint accuracy as to sound unnatural. Even in a small room, direct sound waves merge with reflected sound waves, so you really don’t typically experience pinpoint accuracy. When I play my piano in my living room, I can’t precisely locate each string in space. If someone were playing an acoustic guitar and I were sitting close, I might hear the pinpoint sound of his or her string plucks, but if I’m across the room I won’t be able localize those little plucks as well. I would just know the general direction and distance the sound is coming from based on stereo hearing and other audible clues.

  6. Same can be said of some of the musical instruments used. Many guitars and other stringed instruments played by very talented blues-men years ago are considered low quality/cheap by today’s standards. Terrible action, no adjustment for intonation, poor tuners, etc. but those who mastered their craft knew how to make “inferior” instruments come alive and sing.

    I like the the story about a guitarist for Irish band Thin Lizzy. He auditioned for the band with a cheap beginner Fender-like clone (he needed money and sold his good guitar). After some initial chuckles and raised eyebrows he quickly dispelled any doubt about his skill level.

              1. Good point Fat Rat, it’s fraught with problems.
                Blame. No one can be blamed for anything these days as it may cause psychological damage.
                Craftsman. Such hierarchical elevation can give rise to feelings of superiority.
                Poor. Best avoided as it conveys an impression of social inadequacy.
                His. Gender discrimination.
                There’s probably more I’ve missed 😉

  7. Paul, Your comment about skillfully placed average gear versus poorly placed hi-end gear made me count on my fingers how many different places I have lived as an adult. It turns out to be ten ( dwellings as well as fingers ). It was 5 apartments and 5 houses. During my apartment days my audio system was a pair of two way bookshelf speakers, a receiver and a TT. Setting it up in the apartments was usually done by figuring out where it would fit since there was not a lot of space. The first two house we where in about two years each and I do recall what we did with the audio system in those houses. The last three houses we owned and we were in them about 10, 10 and 20 years ( we still live in the last house ). Over those 40 years my stereo system expanded to three way floor standing speakers, a cassette deck, a CD player, a better TT and separate amplifiers. What is interesting is that ONLY the last house had a room that was suited to properly setting up a stereo system. Most houses ( especially older houses ) are not built with an audiophile audio system in mind. Most people do not get the chance to build their own house. We tried for ten years before we bought this house to find a lot where we could build a house. To our disappointment we discovered that open land is extremely scarce in our area and ridiculously expensive. When we bought this house almost half of the appraised value was the 0.75 acre lot. Today I can easily sell this lot for more than I paid for the lot and house twenty years ago.

    My point is that while intent and skill are valuable many people with good sound systems live in dwellings that make setting it up properly impossible and have to either remodel our expand the dwelling to get the sound they want.

    1. Tony, I too have lived in ten different houses and apartments from coast to coast. Some with tiny listening rooms and some with huge listening rooms. (In my case, “listening room” means “living room.”) I was always able to set up a wonderful, natural sounding, holographic, full-range sound system in a room of any size. The key is picking the right speakers that work well in any size room and are not fussy about distance to front and side walls, plus having enough carpet and furnishings to control reflections. To me, the smaller rooms gave a musical experience as refined and satisfying as the bigger ones.

  8. Dear Fat Rat,

    I seek to avoid what I consider to be electronic artifice in music reproduction. I respect fully that many audiophiles seek hi-fi artifacts like “pinpoint imaging” and “tight bass” and “inky black backgrounds” and “clearly delineated images.”

    I try to achieve with my audio system a more natural sound that I hear in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

    1. I would love that. Other than experimenting with speaker placement and toe, I don’t know what to try until I make the attic livable . For a designated listening room. But if I’m home alone just listening, i guess pin point stereo will have to do…and wonder what all y’all expensive systems sound like. Ill go visit Paul some time and hear.

    2. The thing is, Disney Hall is not really natural. It’s a concert hall specially designed to treat and distribute sound in a certain way to reach hundreds of listeners spread throughout the hall. A violin outdoors, in a recital chamber, in a church or in your living room will sound very different than it does in Disney Hall. If everything we listened to sounded like it was in Disney Hall we would miss a lot of exciting nuances that we hear in more intimate settings.

  9. I recall (vaguely, so don’t expect gospel) reading an article on Max Wilcox’s methodology for recording Arthur Rubinstein. He preferred to record in a large room and would have a couple sturdy lads move the concert grand piano around to find what he considered the location with the best sound, a judgement call based on a discerning ear fine tuned by long experience. The piano was usually at full stick. He would then set up two omni-directional microphones (Sennheiser condensers were his preferred mics, but I don’t recall the model) and finessed the position to what he deemed the best blend of direct and room sound and stereo balance. I have an RCA Red Seal SACD of Rubinstein performing the “Moonlight”, “Les Adieux”, “Pathetique”, and “Appassionata” sonatas by Beethoven. Max Wilcox definitely deserves his highly regarded reputation.

  10. >>>>Years ago, in the golden age of recordings where labels like Mercury, Decca, and RCA, produced treasured works of great orchestras, their arsenal of recording tools was limited. Yet, despite the shortcomings, they managed to do what it takes to get where they wished to go.<

    They went with "tubes" (valves) back then. The designs with tubes covered a multitude of sins we can get with solid state. Solid state forced a rethinking of the recording technique and design which took some time to figure out.

    Today solid state can sound outstanding… But sometimes? Too purified. Tubes added a nice hue to the "portrait of sound" that was more relaxing to hear than real life.

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