Watershed moment

May 23, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

A watershed moment is that aha! moment of revelation. The point where the proverbial light bulb has been turned on to illuminate the darkness.

Watershed moments are memorable: like the first time I heard the difference a speaker cable makes; when (by accident) we discovered the improvements wrought by an oversized power transformer; how much of a difference small changes in VTA affect the playing of vinyl.

These moments are so enjoyable that I have come to realize they are what keeps me excited to jump into the thick of problems. To immerse myself in the unknown so that I might have a chance to unravel enough answers to yet again experience the transition of dark to light.

Aside from the chance to break new ground and push the limits of the recording arts, I am pretty certain one of the reasons for having started Octave Records is to open up new mysteries that present the opportunities for watershed moments.

One such moment came while helping our recording engineer, Zach, set up a piano recording. The choice of microphone and placement is a continuing artform with more opinions and beliefs than Carter’s got pills. What occurred to us both is that unlike end users of the recording, we have the amazing ability to stand at the piano and hear exactly what it sounds like in real-time. Not just casually listening with an attention span divorced from the moment (as we so often do), but blessed with being right there, right now, right in the moment, and then being able to do something meaningful about it. (It’s not been that long ago that the recording arts weren’t good enough to truly capture exactly what we hear)

How do the notes decay? How much body? How different distance from the instrument makes.

Then to take that aural memory fresh in our heads right into the control room and mentally compare. Then adjust, And compare again until the two match precisely.

The watershed moment came when we realized we finally have a system of recording, monitoring, and playback that is fully capable of exactly matching that which we hear.

Remarkable.

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14 comments on “Watershed moment”

  1. I thinks it’s cool that you have had the Eureka watershed moment… again.

    Then I guess the question becomes what perspective you are recording for. What the musician hears playing as they are at the instrument, or as far back as the audience may sit in any given venue.

    Closer gives more low level detail, but hearing all of that detail may detract from an over all recording. Too far back and low level details along with individual placement become lost allowing the environment being played in to become the dominant variable.

    The words ‘recording arts’ are what grabbed me….all art in and of itself is subjective and judged by the beholder.

    What’s playback setup do you listen to for that “we are there moment” when setting up microphones?

    **** OFF TOPIC*** to a certain degree

    What going to be different about an FR30 near field monitor versus the ones your qualifying Octave Records mixes on now?

    1. Everything, except that the designer is the same (just kidding).

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwxlW1YIkvI

      But it’s a serious change it seems…partly in the direction that was initially planned (at least semi active with DSP as far as I understood). And very different in size, too. Parts used and major concept topics will be the same I’d say.

      I have to search for the posts where I oracled, Paul will start building studio speakers as soon as he tries to use the home speakers for studio monitoring 😉

          1. I see that now. 😀 Part of my issue is reading e-mails while involved in other endeavors.
            Like yesterday during golf, followed by a fried whole belly clam dinner. (A New England thing I think). So thanks for the link and responses.

            Keep that crystal ball shined up…. It seems pretty accurate 😉

  2. I think it was meant to be a Eureka moment. Watershed moments are slightly different!

    Personally I think the art of piano recording has been pretty well mastered for at least 50 years. Gramophone published a list of 50 Greatest Pianists on Record last week and some of the recordings go back to the 1920s. Arrau recorded in the early 1970s is fabulous. I’ve heard a fair number of them live and even some of the performances. Obviously a huge amount depends on the venue. There are great modern recordings like Levit and I’ve heard him play the Goldbergs and Diabelli variations at Wigmore Hall (he has a residency there) and the recordings get you very close to the live performance, even though recorded in a Germany. The Gilels op. 106 is a great recording and was toured extensively in 1984 the year before he died, I heard it in a very large concert hall in London so the sound was less intimate. The recent Uchida Diabelli recorded at Snape Maltings is I think going to be an absolute classic, both for recording quality and musicianship.
    https://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/article/50-of-the-greatest-classical-pianists-on-record

    1. Steven, I agree with you that what Paul is describing is an Eureka or an ah ha moment. These are are common and fairly frequent.

      A watershed is a moment when you are faced with two choices that go in opposite directions. In my 70+ years I have had one true watershed moment in my life. I was 19 years old and had followed my high school friends to college at a small state school where most of the men and a fare number of the women majored in beer drinking ( it was a party school ). While recovering from having surgery to remove my appendix another friend advised me to apply to a well respected private university where excellence was expected. My choice to leave the party school and go to a school where academic excellence was not just demanded but also nurtured completely changed my life. The odds of me getting a Ph.D. in physics and doing R&D work at companies like Exxon and IBM if I had stayed at the party school are at least one in a million.

      This is what a watershed moment is!

  3. Replicating the soundstage in a headphone environment as well a representing same on speakers will continue to be challenging. I am still evolving in the headphone system, and yes, it’s systems and cabling art work that will satisfy the senses for some time, but given our curiosity to further our conscious awakening, we continue with the evolution of experimentations and time periods of satisfactions only to continue the cycle indefinitely. Yes, once we get hooked on listening to a near perfect soundstage, we continually strive to better it. After all, we are humans.

  4. Preach it Paul! DSD recording and playback, along with great microphones, great recording skills, a good engineer, and a GREAT artist at the top of their form all add up to creating the best possible sound quality in our lifetimes, perhaps EVER. Thanks for being at the cutting edge of this and pushing for it to be adopted.

    I worry though that while DSD is harder to work with currently as far as mixing goes, the main problem is NOT that studios can’t afford it or learn it, but that they just don’t CARE.

    That will be the hardest battle to fight before it can become a new standard. Fingers crossed it will. So please, keep pushing.

    It is so sad and ironic that here in 2022, great sounding audio is so affordable, yet is this “hobby” growing? A “decent” system can be had for right at $1000 (of course as you go up in price, the sonic capabilities also go up). Yet is music that important to people any more? I wish it would be. I wish every younger person in their 20s would dip their toe in the audiophile waters and learn to love music beyond listening on crappy earbuds and get started on this amazing journey of discovery.

    1. I have two music-loving kids in their 20s and they don’t listen on crappy earbuds, they use good quality wireless or wired headphones.

      Paul is not trying to convert the world to DSD. The SACD and DSD boats have both sailed past without getting any significant commercial traction, they are not coming back, but Octave Records does DSD because they think it’s the best sound quality. It is not harder to mix, it is impossible to mix, so it usually gets converted to analogue or PCM (DXD) for mixing. I for one never engaged and happily listen to 16/44 digital, whether from ripped CD or online sources. I don’t feel I’m missing anything.

      The fact that you can’t stream DSD instantly puts it in an extreme minority of users.

      Studios do care, but they produce music for how it is going rot be listened to, so a studio like Abbey Road can produce very high quality classical and jazz with wide dynamic range, but popular music with much narrower dynamic range because the listeners will be using a phone, cheap headphones or a mid-fi portable bluetooth speaker.

      The limitation for youngsters these days is the money and space 2-channel audio requires, but it is not dead yet. Plus headphones and a mobile phone are much better anyway to what used to be available, a boombox or portable radio.

  5. So, we should all have a real piano in out listening rooms to better tweak our systems? 😎
    Doesn’t the Heisenberg principle come into play here at some point?

    1. Only if the piano plays ultra high frequencies which have very short wave lengths. Remember that the electron tunneling distance ( which is allowed by the Heissenberg uncertainty principle ) is about 150 angstroms, So we are talking very short wavelengths. 😀

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