The Demery Chronicles (no.2)


It’s time to go public

All day and all of the night

Our first multi-channel DSD recording had been a success.  The equipment had worked and we had shown that there were differences to be heard.  So, what was next?  While I dreamed of finding myself at one of the World’s premier studios recording one of the World’s foremost rock bands, the reality was slightly more mundane.  I was going to Finland!

Each year, the Mikkeli International Music Festival takes place just after the conclusion of the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia.  The artistic director of both festivals is the legendary Valery Gergiev, chief conductor and general director of the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre and Kirov Opera.  The Mikkeli Festival is a week of various works that take place at several locations and are performed by the Mariinsky and Kirov companies.  The program is typically varied and very demanding, including the staging of a few Russian operas.

I arrived in early July, along with Erdo Groot and the rest of the Philips Classics recording team.  When I think of Finland, I think of snow and reindeer and Lapland and the Northern Lights.  The Sami people that live there have given the World the word tundra.  So, it’s going to be cold and dark, right?  Not in July!

Mikkeli is North-east of Helsinki, close to the Russian border, and very much in the South of the country.  Like much of Southern Finland, there are lakes everywhere.  In Summer, Finland can be hot.  Very hot!  Coupled to that is the fact that the Sun shines 24 hours a day.

My colleagues and I checked into the ‘luxury’ hotel that the Philips travel office had found for us.  The first bad news: it had no air-conditioning.  The second bad news: my room looked directly at the Sun all day.  Despite my attempts to keep the curtains closed, room service kept opening them after I had left each morning!  The third bad news: daytime temperatures were averaging about 35° C (95° F).  I hate the heat!  Fourth bad news: my room overlooked the street with the local late bar, so it was either close the window and fry, or open the window and listen to scintillating local conversations.  I couldn’t get any sleep either way!

Hot conditions and all those lakes are an ideal breeding ground for flying insects with great big mouths.  Researchers have just discovered that some people emit odors that make them more prone to getting bitten.  If that is the case, I must have been giving off the equivalent of a free, all you can eat Lobster Thermidor with all the trimmings and desert to follow signal.  By the end of my week in Mikkeli I looked like I had chicken pox.  There wasn’t a part of me that the little buggers wouldn’t dine on, any time, day or day!

Stolen moments

However, I was there to record some music.  We were going to capture the ‘easy’ part of the program:

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto #1
Scriabin: Prometheus
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”

Erdo used a similar technique to record these pieces as for the Schumann,  but we had had to slightly modify the analogue-to-digital converter front-end to cope with the custom vacuum-tube based equipment that was being used for this recording.  If I remember correctly, everything was also single-ended and we had to ‘float’ all the grounds!  All the pieces were to be recorded live in concert, followed by ‘patching’ sessions during the day to take care of any gross errors in the live performances.  On top of that, there were rehearsals, and, in-between, everyone had to dash off to the other venues to deliver some ‘lightweight’ fare like Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame or Moussorgsky’s Boris Godounov!!  How the performers coped with the schedule, I’ll never know.  Maybe they weren’t being bitten to death!  To compound matters, despite the air-conditioning in the hall, the very high humidity seemed to wreak havoc on the piano.  It just refused to stay in tune!  The poor piano-tuner earned his money on this trip.

The first day that the orchestra arrived was one of those special treats that I shall treasure for ever.  The concertmaster helped to run the orchestra through its paces while Erdo and his team attended to their microphone set-up.  When both were reasonably happy, maestro Gergiev entered and it was time to get serious.  My colleague, Vic Teeven, and I sat, quiet as lambs, in the best seats in the (empty) hall, and listened to the orchestra work through the pieces.  The Mariinsky under Gergiev in Russian repertoire is a joy to behold.  He urged, coaxed, and cajoled the musicians to bring forth his vision of these pieces.  It was both fascinating and exhilarating to be the only spectators.  I have no idea what he was saying to the musicians.  He could have been asking, “Who is the guy with chicken pox?” for all I know.  The rehearsal went on for hours, even though the orchestra members had traveled through the night from St. Petersburg to be there.  In fact, the ushers had to delay opening the doors for the first evening’s performance.

The live nature of the recording was a great help to us, as it meant that we didn’t have to start and stop repeatedly.  This meant that we obtained some significant material for demonstration.  We could not keep up with the rapid tempo of the ‘patching’ recordings in subsequent days –  we tried! – so were still unable to complete a commercial project.  However, we had more material to work with, and were content with that.

At the end of the concert, Gergiev came back stage to meet us.  He fixed me with his intense gaze and asked, “What did you think of the sound?”  I searched for something profound to say and came up with, “Awesome!”  At that point, the producer called him away and my moment with greatness was over.

The Broadway Melody of 1997

Throughout the Summer of 1997, progress was being made on all SA-CD related fronts.  The decision was made to show the technologies during the 103rd Audio Engineering Society (AES) Convention in New York City.  In the middle of planning the trip, my phone rang.  It was David Kawakami, the director of SA-CD activities for Sony in the United States.  We discussed the upcoming demonstrations, and then he said, “Do you think you can come over a little earlier and do some recording here?”

Columbia Records had a session planned with Wynton Marsalis in the week prior to the AES, and the opportunity to expand our limited repertoire was too good to pass up.  The sessions were to be held at New York’s Masonic Hall and called for jazz quartet and 40-piece string section.  Producing was multi-Grammy Award winner, Steve Epstein, who has gone on to produce many SA-CD titles.  The recordings would lead to the album Standard Time Vol. 5: The Midnight Blues.

This was our first experience shipping our equipment outside Europe.  The decision was made to use one of the big three courier companies.  Our schedule had tight deadlines.  We were assured that our equipment would be delivered on time.  To make life easier, Sony Music Studios had kindly agreed to act as a receiving station in New York.

Jazz from Hell

After arriving in NYC, our first call was to David Smith at Sony Music Studios.  “Your equipment hasn’t been delivered, it’s being held by US Customs.”  The courier company had screwed up big time.  The paperwork was not in order, and so the equipment could not be released.  Frantic calls were made back to Holland to no avail.  We had to wait for the courier and Customs to figure it out.  It took a couple of days.  [Worse was to happen on the return.  US Customs had decided that, as receiving party, Sony Music Studios had imported our equipment into the US, and demanded thousands of dollars in duty before they would release it back out of the country.  We had to sue to get Sony’s money back, and never used the courier company again!]

As soon as everything arrived at Sony Music Studios, we headed over to check it out.  David Kawakami arrived and introduced himself.  It was the first time we had met – he must have made a good impression on me as I ended up working for him 4 years later!  All the equipment seemed okay, so it was time to head downtown to the Masonic Hall.  David suggested that we use a shipping company called Sound Moves to handle the transfer.  They would go on to handle all our shipments from that point on!

At the Masonic Hall it was a case of more bad news.  Not only had the session started, but they were AHEAD of schedule!!!!  We then had to unpack and set up in the room next to Steve Epstein’s control room as quickly and as quietly as we could.  David Smith provided every assistance possible, both in terms of people and equipment.  With the recording taking place, we had to wait for breaks to be able to talk with Steve and his recording team of Todd Whitelock and Mark Betts.  In principle, once we had our mixing desk, monitors and DSD recording equipment ready, Todd and Mark would run some multi-pole cables to us so that we could mimic the track configuration of the stereo mixer, and also hear Steve’s stereo mix.  Steve would then come in and give his mixing instructions before getting back to the stereo room for the CD recording.

After much dashing back and forth during the pauses and playbacks, we had everything set up.  We brought up fader #1.  There was Wynton sounding glorious.  “We have a problem,” said Rob Rapley (the balance engineer called in to be Steve’s ears for the multi-channel mix).  Problem?  What problem?  “Wynton’s not supposed to be on channel 1.”  Something had gone awry in cross cabling between the rooms.  We would have to wait until the next break to fix it.  Todd, Mark, Steve and Rob ran through the set up again as quickly as they could.  They had close to 48 tracks of audio.  Cables were pulled and re-plugged over and over until Steve and Rob found a set up they were both happy with.

By the time we were set to record, we were down to the last day of recording.  There were only two more pieces left to do: The Party’s Over and The Midnight Blues.  In the hall, the musicians were arranged with the quartet playing towards the string section.  Steve decided early on to reproduce this by placing the listener looking at the quartet with the strings arranged in an arc behind the listener’s head.  In a similar vein to Erdo Groot’s alternative Walton mix, this provided a unique opportunity to follow both groups quite distinctly.

At the end of each piece, Wynton walked off-mic.  Listened to in stereo, it just sounds like the trumpet becomes more distant.  In multi-channel, you hear the trumpet move across the front image, along the right-side, exiting over your right shoulder.  I’m sure some will find the description gimmicky, but it is extremely natural when you hear it and comes down to the skill of the recording engineer.

Top of the World

With the new additions to our ‘extensive’ catalogue of multi-channel DSD recordings, we headed back up town for the demonstrations.  As the decision to carry out the first public SA-CD technology showcase had been made at the last minute, it was too late to procure floor space at the AES Convention itself.  However, since we had a number of things to explain and demonstrate, it was felt that a more formal set of presentations for small invited groups of key industry figures would be the best format to explain the many new concepts in SA-CD.

Sony graciously agreed to host the demonstrations at their headquarters in New York.  So, our gear made a brief trip back to Sony Music Studios where it was combined with the rest of our equipment, the equipment of Sony Tokyo and a small studio’s worth of speakers, amplifiers and acoustic treatments from Sony Music Studios itself.  David Kawakami had asked us to label everything SONY CLUB.

The Sony Building is a striking 650´ high design by noted architect Philip Johnson.  Known as the ‘Chippendale Tower’ due to its broken-front roof pediment, it is considered the most famous postmodern building in the United States.  Located close to Central Park and the Citicorp Building, it is now most often seen in flyovers of the nearby Trump Tower during episodes of The Apprentice!!!  It is only when I get there that I learn that the Sony Club is the top floor of the building.  For someone living in a country that has considerable areas below sea-level, working at such height was a new experience.  650´ to me equated to the cruising altitude of a KLM Cityhopper in bad weather!  How on earth do we get our several tons of equipment up to the top floor?  Fortunately, the building has a very fancy freight elevator and it probably arrived at the Club before we did.

There are no two ways about it: the views from the top are breathtaking.  The yellow cabs look like ants.  You can see the sprawling expanse of Central Park.  Standing right up against the floor to ceiling windows made you feel like you were floating.  The view from my ground floor office in Eindhoven had nothing on this.  Then Sony’s Mr. Fix-it, Vito Ziccardi, popped his head around the door and asked, “Are you ready for your drapes?”  In next to no time, Vito and his team had hung thick, black theater drape from floor to ceiling over every square inch of wall and window.  Our room was now completely black, and the view was gone.  We might as well have been on the ground floor!

With our bi-amp’ed B&W monitors set up, we took a listen.  One end of the room had a large, granite-topped cabinet that could not be removed.  Vito draped it, and we listened again.  Erdo Groot had joined us in NYC, and he still wasn’t happy with the sound.  Vito grabbed various tube-traps and diffusors and we started moving them around the room until we arrived at the best sound we could get.

Across from us, Mr. DSD, Ayataka Nishio, was working with some of his Tokyo colleagues to set up a stereo room using Wilson Watt/Puppy speakers and Cello amplification.  Between the two rooms was a bar for serving our guests refreshments and to show them some of the technologies such as DSD encoding, copy protection, hybrid disc and lossless DSD compression that would be crucial to SA-CD.  The separation between the rooms meant that audio demonstrations could be held simultaneously.

After much hard work, everything was set up and we were ready for showtime.  Then in walked a very senior Sony Music executive (since fired).  He took one look at our multi-channel set up, snorted, “You’ve set this up all wrong!” and stormed out.  The next day he would return and hear Steve Epstein praising the sound.  Before too long he was continually coming back with senior executives, butting into demonstrations and demanding that we play Wynton for them.  We all looked at each other and thought, “Jerk.”  It was then that Philips project leader Jan Biesterbos decided to lock the door for each demonstration.  I have vivid memories of this guy banging on the door like Fred Flintstone, though, fortunately, not screaming, “W-i-l-m-a!”

Spread a little happiness

The night before the first day of demonstrations we all met at the bar of our hotel to go through final discussions/preparations.  At some stage, Philips’ chief optical disc technologist, Reinier ten Kate, joined us.  He had just flown in from Amsterdam and, despite his jetlag, he was grinning like a Cheshire cat.  In his hand he held a copy of the World’s first ever hybrid disc that had been ‘hand made’ at Philips’ Optical Disc Technology Centre.  In each room of our hotel was a small, no-name, cube-shaped CD player/radio/alarm.  The reason that Reinier could not stop grinning was because the CD-layer of the first hybrid disc had played perfectly on this cheap, in-room player.  Pretty soon, the ability of hybrids to play in standard CD players would be questioned by executives from our competitors.  They failed to understand that the hybrid disc had been designed to be Red Book compliant from the outset.  We were all thrilled by Reinier’s news.  Today, no one doubts that hybrid SA-CDs play in conventional CD players.  Our first test had shown that to be the case.

The curious SA-CD collector may be wondering what was on the very first hybrid disc.  Well, as we lacked the tools to do music editing at that time, the SA-CD layer was replaced by a DVD movie – I no longer remember exactly which one, but Four Weddings And A Funeral comes to mind.  I do recall that the CD layer contained a Motown greatest hits collection.  Both sources being supplied by PolyGram.  Sadly, I don’t have a copy of this landmark disc!

It looks just like a Telefunken U-47

Entry to our presentations was by invitation only.  We were visited by two groups of people: music label executives and recording/mastering engineers.  We would need the blessing of the first group to finance the creation of SA-CD titles by the second.  During the demonstrations we played snippets from Prokofiev, Wynton Marsalis and concluded with the 8.5 minute 3rd Movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony.  Played at realistic level, you could feel the impact of the bass drum, and sense the sound waves decaying naturally into the hall acoustic in which you felt you were sitting.  Even if I say so myself, it was a compelling demonstration piece.

We had asked Erdo Groot and Steve Epstein to present their recordings.  This was to prove extremely advantageous, and would be a tactic that we would employ at all major events in subsequent years.  While the label executives were only really interested in the cost of creating SA-CD, the recording engineers wanted to know every little detail of microphone choice (apparently, silver-colored ones was not enough information), microphone placement, hall size, mixing desk, etc., etc.  By having some of their peers on hand, we were able to provide all the information they wanted.  Occasionally, someone would ask about DSD itself or the prototype recorder we had built.  That gave me an opportunity for my 15 seconds of fame before it was back to discussing microphone placement again.  What was the big deal?  If the microphones were any good, surely you could put them anywhere and get good sound!?!?!  Neumann vs. Schoeps.  Cardioid vs. Omni.  Tube pre-amps. vs. solid-state pre-amps.  It all sounded like Swahili to me!

When the microphone ‘love fest’ was over, the serious questions would begin.  How many tracks can we record?  Are there any mixers?  What about editors?  What do we do for effects, reverb, etc.?  There we were, being faced by some of the cream of the recording industry, and we didn’t really have anything to offer them.  Everything would take time.  What we wanted was for them to listen, evaluate and consider using the technology when we could make it available.  It was like the early days of digital all over again.  That comment encouraged some of our visitors, and horrified others.  However, in order to take such a big technological step forward, everyone needed to understand that, big as they are, even Philips and Sony could not revolutionize an entire industry overnight.

Amongst many others, I recall being visited by such industry legends as Greg Calbi, Frank Filipetti, Joe Gastwirt, Ted Jensen, Bob Ludwig, George Massenburg, Phil Ramone, and Mark Wilder.  Remarkably, all of them would eventually go on to produce SA-CD discs.  It would just be a case of getting the right tools into their hands.

Our first public demonstration had been a big eye-opener.  We realized that we still had much to do in order to create the infrastructure that studios needed, particularly for pop/rock music production.  We had learned that using industry people to explain their projects was much better than having some faceless nerd from a large corporation do it (and I would be that faceless nerd many times in the future!).  We had learned that people really did like the sound quality.  We had learned that multi-channel mixing was going to remain a controversial topic, and that listeners fell into one of three groups: (a) flat out hate it; (b) like ambient mixes; and (c) like aggressive mixes.  There was no way to keep all the people happy all the time on that!

While we dismantled our equipment at the end of our New York stay, David Kawakami approached with a gentleman who had attended some of the sessions.  His name was Tom Jung.  Polite as always, he said, “I don’t want to interrupt you while you’re working, but I have this project in mind and I think it would be perfect for multi-channel.  Is there any way I could get to use your recorder?”  “Sure, just let us know the details,” I replied.  I gave Tom my card.  Little did I know then what I was going to be letting myself in for.

Next: The souls of the righteous

 

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