Putting the crutches away

May 16, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of requiring crutches you’ll know they can be addictive. Once you rely upon a crutch it’s a bit of an ordeal to put them away and trust again your freestanding abilities.

I remember the first time I read about musician Mark Knopfler’s first foray into digital audio. So “digital” sounding was Brothers in Arms that he ran and reran the output of the recording studio DAC through analog processors until the digititis was expunged.

That was a pretty big crutch.

Today, recording engineers have settled into the use of crutches never contemplated back in the days of analog recording. Practices like ultra-warm microphones, digital sweeteners, warming compressors, and spot EQ (to remove harshness), are used as a standard operating procedure to make up for digital’s “sound”.

Which means, of course, that an entire generation or two of recording engineers and musicians have gotten used to the idea that this is just the way you do it. They don’t know why or the history of how this developed.

It’s just the way you do it.

One of the challenges we at Octave Records face is the unwinding of all these built-in biases. With the rare technology of 4X DSD as our recording medium, we don’t have limitations imposed upon us. The recording process is finally free of a “sound”.

It’s not analog. It’s certainly not digital.

Now we can focus on choosing microphones, preamps, cables, and monitors based solely on their sonic merits.

We can now put the crutches away and learn how to walk again.

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43 comments on “Putting the crutches away”

  1. Indeed, a long way. But still the basic problems of stereo, which claims to put singers and instruments as phantom sound images exactly into the listening room in the same positions as they were localized in the concert hall, aren’t solved for 99,9% of the existing stereo-setups: cancellation of unwanted comb-filter effects caused by inter-speaker crosstalk and the shifting of deeper tones to the center (microphones aren’t human ears which can precisely localize sound sources with the help of the filter function of the pinnae and ear canals (HRTF). Thus there is much room for improvement in recording & microphone techniques as well as in reproduction techniques.

    1. While on the discussion of Brothers in Arms, armies have used microphone arrays for weapon location (source of sound) since WWI. Today’s mic arrays are ultraprecise. They can pinpoint the locate a single rifle shot and respond within milliseconds with a big boom while on the move, and unlike radar, they don’t emit radio waves letting everyone know where you are. It takes two rifle shots (in the great outdoors) for the human ear to get a good indication of direction.
      The technology exists for precise stereo imaging, perhaps people don’t know how to use it or most of these engineers work for the DOD.

  2. I often wonder what my attitude towards home-audio would be if I wasn’t mainly into Rock ‘n Roll.
    Would I be more critical?
    I’m kinda glad that I have the ability to compromise & reason realistically about the limitations of 2
    channel home-audio listening.
    In my opinion high grade weed (marijuana) is still the best & most cost effective home-audio
    upgrade, apart from cupping your ears forward towards your loudspeakers with your hands
    whilst sitting in ‘the sweet-spot’…but some might argue that weed is just another crutch 😉

    1. Many of the classic rock sounds were by accident. Whatever was available at the time. Angus Young of AC/DC used a wireless transmitter on stage and took it to the recording studio for Back in Black. The wireless system was made by Ken Schaffer. Young abandoned it in the 80s’ and his Gibson SG/Marshall sound changed.
      A Schaffer replica is now available and Young was customer number #1 for it. Here is an interesting link on the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System wireless microphone and the 30 year search trying to recreated the sound.

    2. With wire-rim eyeglasses you can bend the bows to hold your ears in a “cupped forward” position. This will free up your hands to pop gummies into your mouth or munch on brownies. 😎

  3. I’m gonna take this putting the crutches away thing, in a physical direction.
    Almost 4 years ago, I was on my way to the jim in the arria I live in, to see my friend Tarry about helppingg me build better cabinets for my speakers.
    I didn’t make it there, because a stupid nut wasn’t looking behind him when he backed in to me, knocking me to the pavement of the street that I was walking on.
    The ending result of that, my right leg was fractured in sabril places.
    They had to put me on nerve blockers and put plates rods and pens in my right leg.
    I had to ware a brace that would only allow me to bend my right leg, in a 390 degree ingle.
    They gave me a J shaped cane to use, but I didn’t take hold of it.
    But when my doctor finally took that brace off of me for good, I was glad to see that brace come off of me.
    It took me some time, but I learned to both stand up on my own two feet, and to walk again.
    Crutch, what crutch?
    I don’t need it anymore!
    Just how I put this in to the physical aspect, the very same thing can be applied to audio.

      1. Good afternoon Longgplayer!
        Truth be told, if it wasn’t for both The Lord and my lovely sweet wife, I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did.
        I oh credit to both of them for bringing me threw it!
        I love The Lord, because, he first loved me.
        He loves me so much that, he gave his only begotten Son Jesus to die on the cross for my sins.
        He loves me so much that, he gave me a very loving wife just so that, I wouldn’t have to face life alone.

  4. Brothers in Arms (1982) probably sounded different because it was one of the first recordings done using Sony’s digital tape system and Dire Straits’ first use of digital. It still had to be manually cut and spliced, like analogue tape. So it was basically an analogue process on digital tape. Plus Mark Knopfler is a technical recording nerd who has a leading studio of his own. It still won a Grammy for best engineered album. That was 40 years ago.

    PCM was invented in 1939, but digital tape recordings only really started in earnest in the mid 1970s, mainly on Denon machines. I have some of those LPs and they do sound a bit bright. Brothers in Arms was one of the first big DDD releases on CD, along with Paul Simon’s Graceland.

    So Brothers in Arms was not a digitally mastered recording as we understand today.

    Recording engineers were often well trained in those days are certainly are highly professionally trained today. Back even in the 1960s and 1970s BBC recording engineers were trained under the supervision of John Borwick. He was an academic, a studio engineer and manager and the initial editor of “Sound Recording Practise”, a bible of recording technique that has been in print continuously since 1973. He was also an audiophile, a measurementalist first and foremost, and audio editor of Gramophone for 30 years.

    The BBC did a lot of research on the performance of commercially produced microphones, going back to the 1940s. The research was publically available and still is.
    Much of this was done by Dudley Harwood, who later founded Harbeth.

    1. From what I have gleaned, & heard, Donald Fagen’s – ‘The Nightfly’ (October 1982) was digitally recorded (1981-82) approximately two & a half years before ‘Brother’s In Arms’ (May 1985) was
      & it (TN) is still an exemplary standard of digital recording, even today…better than BIA.
      “The Nightfly is one of the earliest examples of fully digital recording in popular music.” – Wikipedia

  5. It sounds like recording became a lost art.
    Maybe in the sense of R&R or pop music it has.
    Who to blame and why? Probably some of the big labels. Multitudes of reasons – but the prominent one is probably money… for instance… Maybe it’s about automating the process as much as possible. Maybe trying to eliminate as much labor cost as possible… get it done as soon as possible… and so on. Just Eliminate as much of the human element or judgment as possible. After all there’s only a few who are ‘qualified’ to be the final judges.

    For as long as I can remember there were always some albums that had a great sound compared to others. Or in other words really good recording mixing and mastering techniques. When I was younger it was prevalent to walk into a B&M store with high quality equipment and only be able to listen to genre’s of hand picked jazz or classical for the ‘proper sound’ reason. (Or so it was stated) This line has stuck with me. “If you like rock then listen to it at a concert or home and you don’t need good equipment, so move on”

    Now that I’ve aged and had time to ‘mellow’, some of the recordings from the late 50’s and early 60’s are phenomenal. Especially when the time has been taken to remaster them and attention to detail is taken.

    The practice of multitracks – isolated performers – over dubs and the so on are now the norm. This moves the mixing engineer closer to being the real artist – (at least for the recorded release of the recorded musical talent)

    Maybe 4x DSD recording is the best way to recapture some of the early recording techniques or produce technically great recordings – maybe not.

    From what I read you can have the most technically sound recording format, but if you don’t have the correct people or techniques to implement the process to its highest standard, or you don’t have the musicians producing music large groups of people want to hear, then it all becomes about maximizing ‘the niche’.

    So drop the crutches, let go of the railing, walk and then run if you are able. If not make the most of what you have.

    Do not listen to anything other than what is deemed to be a great recording on your audiophile set-up. Love the recording, learn to love the music of that great recording.

  6. Plus the current crutch of over-compressing and limiting music into a wall of undecipherable mush because all the other artists are doing it.

    This is especially loathsome as all the streaming services reprocess and limit dynamics anyway, with the end effect that NO ONE gets good sound.

  7. Paul, Great post about DSD recording and the things it eliminates by getting a natural sound without “crutches”.

    In 2008 I broke my left ankle in three places. Due to other health problems it took my ankle a little over a year to heal. I was on two real crutches for six months living in a three story house. Just going from two crutches to one and then to a cane felt like I was released from prison. ( My apologies to anyone who has actually been in prison. )

    1. Tony, six months is a loooong time to have to use crutches. Glad you finally got out of prison. Two dogs once tripped me and I fell, breaking my pelvis in two places. I was not allowed to put any weight on my right leg for six weeks. I just could not get the hang of crutches, so I used a walker and stayed on one level of my three-level house. Unfortunately, my favorite room, the kitchen, was not on my level. That made my prison even worse 🙂

      1. Ouch! No more broken bone stories. I have to have a knee replacement in about 7 weeks and I am already spooked out about that. 😮

        1. You will do fine. I don’t know your age, but I know several people in their late seventies who have had both their knees replaced, and they recovered quickly and nicely. Best of luck on that!

  8. Sorry Paul, I must say that was an insensitive remark.

    For several years in my job I worked with members of the disabled community in finding ways to create better access to public facilities. For anyone who must use crutches, whether short term or for the rest of their lives, I doubt many of them consider their crutches “addictive”. An unfortunate necessity may be more like it.

    I understand your point about audio compensations but I believe you might have found a better way of expressing that.

    1. Oh come on, man. You’re being far too sensitive. How much ‘soft language’ does Paul really need to imply in his post here? Would you rather have had him say “ putting away the personal walking sticks or canes.”
      Every time I hear someone get overly sensitive about stuff like this it definitely makes me think of this.

      You know I’m right. Stop being so sensitive. There is no malicious intent of wordplay from Paul getting his point across.


      1. No, I don’t “know” that you’re right. In fact I believe you would not say that if you had direct experience with persons with disabilities to appreciate their viewpoint. That is being insensitive.

        Consider the previous reply from John Price. He lives with one disability and offered his experience with a second one, stating his relief when relieved of that second one. Expressing relief, not that it was an ordeal to be able to walk normally again.

        I don’t believe Paul was being malicious at all, only that he had not given full thought to his analogy.

        1. So if you ‘believed’ Paul was not being malicious at all then it wasn’t worth mentioning altogether. This is now a mute point.

    2. I would’ve used alcohol…but then I’d probably offend the alcoholics.
      The world is so PC (Woke) now that you can’t say anything without offending someone.
      ‘You’re nobody ’til somebody offends you’…
      apologies to Russ Morgan, Larry Stock & James Cavanaugh…& Dean Martin.

      1. Public schools in the states push grievance politics and victimization.
        Your either an oppressor or the oppressed. No body wants to be the oppressor so everyone wants to be a victim. Kids cant help it.

  9. Crutches are all around us. From fixes in the studio (I admit guilt) to meds for chronic pain (guilty again) to lane departure warnings for people who can’t actually drive. Hell, even the cream and sugar in my coffee could be called a crutch.
    As far as audio goes, if it sounds good, it sounds good. The process doesn’t matter to me.

    PS…after all this time, you still don’t believe that I’m not a robot.

  10. I never heard 4xDSD, does the DS Mk II enable it?

    In your interview with Bernie Grundman, he didn’t make a difference between PCM and DSD artifacts vs. analog. This may not be exactly right, but also not exactly wrong.

    What does a 4xDSD recording help, if all most DAC’s can playback is x or 2xDSD (and probably also all most listeners want to store in masses due to the storage space consuming)?

    Does 4xDSD recording also help if it’s downconverted to 1x or 2x DSD for listening?

    1. jn, When you are recording the process of major concern is ADC ( not DAC ). So when you up the sampling rate by two you capture twice as much real data and you also have a 2x higher frequency anti-aliasing filter. Both of these are good things. You may down sample the data to 2xDSD for downloads, DSD for SACD’s or you may DAC the data to cut vinyl. Having more data to start with and less harmful anti-aliasing filters is always a good thing.

  11. We did the same thing in the analog days – adding top end because we knew we’d lose some in the recording and mixing process. It’s a giant leap in technology now that the storage medium is a non-issue. But analog sure did sound great! It seems, after 40 years, digital ( DSD is not PCM, but it IS still digital – the audio is stored as DIGITS on a hard drive) is finally catching up.

  12. In most cases in audio engineering/recording I think we are a bit naive to say the crutches can be thrown away given all the fallible processes of recording audio in general. As human beings it is in our nature to be tweaking and tinkering.
    I always thought Alan Parsons had the best analogy of an audio engineer in relationship to his/her recording. “It is like a potter ready to mold his/her clay.”

    Lets be honest. Good or bad spice will always be added no matter what audio codec we believe is to be the best.

    Anyhow. Love the post Paul and it definitely got me thinking.

  13. Speaking of terrific recordings. Looks like MoFi got a hold of the original Analog Master Tapes and are putting Michael Jackson’s Thriller on SACD, which celebrates greatly the 40th Ann of the album.
    I had to preorder this. People can say what they want, but Thriller is one of the best recordings (fidelity wise) of all time. I mean the bass on Billie Jean just makes my system scream ‘Thank you!’

    Anyway gentlemen. I hope you guys can get a copy if it interests you. I couldn’t pass it up.

    I’ve heard rumblings of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly even beats Brothers in Arms on a fidelity level, but I have yet to hear that recording so I cannot comment yet.

    Seems like weather it is digital (DDD) or Analog (AAD) we are privileged with some true sonic phenomenons. 🙂

    1. WOW! I have the original SACD only Thriller from Sony. It was mastered by Bernie Grundman. It was part of the original support that Sony gave to the SACD launch. My guess is the SACD was done in 1999 or 2000. I have not played the thing in over a decade, I’m sure the last time I played it I was still using my Sony SCD-1 player ( which I now no longer functioning ). There was controversy back in the day the BG pushed the volume levels above what the Scarlet book allows. Even though it’s not my usual music, I will give it a spin just to see how it sounds compared to more recent SACD’s. Most of my MoFi SACD’s I have to crank up the volume to have them sound “right”.

      1. Awe please do! I’d love to hear your findings, Tony. 🙂
        Certainly it is a copy I don’t have.
        Also I love so much of my MoFi SACD’s and the fact that they make even a quality amplifier have a proper workout. MoFi are a company that understands volume knobs can be used by us listeners. 😉
        Uncompressed and uncompromising to the loudness wars is the way I absolutely adore it and grateful to have.
        I honestly don’t have not one disappointing SACD from MoFi and I have nearly 50 of them. 😉

  14. I recently had a conversation about this with an old friend from our Motown days in Detroit. What everybody at our company had in common was that none of us had ever worked in a studio or, beside the head of sales, for a record label. We were all about solving whatever problems came up with no idea about how anything “should” be done. As a result, we pioneered a lot of good things along with what turned out to be some not so good things.

    The greatest lesson I learned is that nobody performs nearly as well wearing headphones as without. This includes the most experienced and recognized “pros.” I think 90% of modern “fixes” involve problems created by headphones. Nobody used headphones before the mid ’60s. We pioneered them around 1964 and then backed off where it didn’t work.

    The best sounding studios I’ve worked in have been live, well diffused rooms that reflect the ensemble’s sound and balance accurately to the musicians. This allows a more distant microphone placement which results in lots less need for dynamics control and other signal processing. What you want is clean, uncolored bleed. Attempts at separating things will only color the sound.

    When you begin here, the gear and resulting recordings will shine.

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