Maffetone Revisited

Singer-songwriter Phil Maffetone, former physician to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and an artist with whom I have worked in the past (Livin’ on a Dead End Road, recorded in Oracle Arizona) asked me to remaster some of his on-line offerings. I recently completed work on The Best of Phil Maffetone, and now I am working on songs from his Nashville Bootleg, released in 2012. The process I used for remastering was different from the way I normally work.

This was an unusual request because he asked me to work with mp3’s downloaded from his website, https://maffetonemusic.com. I prefer to work with original or mastered .wav files, however they were not available, being the work of various other mastering engineers, including some high caliber folks.

The one exception was Wizard Shoes, one of my favorite Phil songs. Since no one had touched it since we originally recorded it (back in, 2008, I believe it was), I was able to work with the original 24-bit .wav file, because I keep everything that I have worked on in my archives. After running it through my great analog chain, which includes a Rupert Neve Designs Master Bus processor and A-Designs Hammer EQ, the song ended up sounding better than ever.

But back to those mp3’s… Originally, I balked at the idea of using mp3’s in a mastering context, and if you know anything about the biases of mastering engineers, this is not considered a best practice. Fortunately, the songs were well recorded, and then encoded at the highest bit rate available, 384 KBPS. The results sounded very good. Since Phil is located on the east coast these days, I used my Dropbox account to send him previews. That was made easier by the smaller size of the mp3’s.

You might ask, why bother? Weren’t they already mastered? Well these songs were all recorded over a period of several years. They were all over the place in terms of average level, varying from about -14 dB (average RMS) to some really smashed rocking numbers, at around -6 dB. Some sounded better than others, but there was no consistency. The task at hand was to make them all sound good but at more or less the same average RMS level, so that they could be downloaded as a set. Given that some were very loud, and Phil’s fans seemed to like them that way, I decided on a target level of around -12 dB, similar to many pop tunes.

I ran the songs through my high-quality analog chain, after doing some level processing in Wavelab, and then reencoded to mp3 format at 384 KBPS as the final step. The results still sounded great, but more cohesive as a set of songs, and Phil agreed.

So, for me the lesson was to put aside my biases, and get creative. There are always ways to make the music sound better, provided you have the right gear and know-how.

New Rivers of the Land CD nearing completion

I have a new CD project, Rivers of the Land, that is not quite ready for duplication, but I have put up a couple of track samples below, One-Eyed Riverboat Gambler and  River of the Ibis. This 8 month effort incorporates a mix of electronica and acoustic music for meditation, relaxation, and just plain enjoyment. Imagine yourself on a river cruise in the jungles of Central America, taking a ride on the Ibis steamer, while the sounds of the river life stream past. Its about imagination, feeling, taking a trip in your mind to other places and times. At least that is how I approach these tunes. I hope you will take the time to enjoy them.

The CD should be available for purchase on CD Baby after the first of the year, in 2019, in the meantime take a listen and look out for that bird cry near the end of Ibis. Its an actual field recording. More on that later.

Hidden Gems in Hidden Canyon

Just completed a new CD for Grand Junction singer/songwriter Tammie Martin, titled Hidden Canyon (samples below). Tammie’s original songs are evocative of the mysterious expanses and loneliness of the red canyon country around Moab and points east and west.

Her vocal style transports me to the backwoods of Kentucky or West Virginia, delivered fresh and uninhibited, while the live in the studio instrumentation is strictly down home, laid back bluegrass. The songs are backed up by local players Bob Eakle (mandolin and dobro), Lisa Eakle (banjo), with Jessica Cooper on violin, and yours truly adding some overdubs on fiddle, viola, mandola, harmonica, and electric bass.

The basic tracks were recorded by live sound engineer, Chris Bollman, at the unique public recording studio located in the Mesa County Public Library in Junction. I was pleased to be able to mix and master the tracks and produce the final CD. Hidden Canyon is available directly from Tammie, but if you are unable to catch her performances in the area, you can contact Barn Jazz and we can arrange for you to get a copy.

Back in the saddle

Our new studio in Littleton, CO is up and running and ready for recording projects, mixing, and demo mastering. More to come.

Barn Jazz Vol. 3 Released

Just in time for the holidays, my latest CD project, Barn Jazz Vol. 3, “High Fiddility”, is now available for purchase on CD Baby. You can buy individual tunes or the entire album, as well as audition clips of each of the tracks.
This collection of original fiddle tunes and songs completes the Barn Jazz trilogy, which began back in 2001 in my original Oracle, Arizona studio. Given the recent political seismic shift, think of this as a metaphorical “high” to help put it all aside while we endure the next 4 years. The photos were taken at over 11,000 feet at Boreas Pass, near Breckinridge, Colorado.
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Album Notes

I believe music, particularly instrumental music, should be all about imagery and imagination. High Fiddility is a collection of mostly original instrumental tunes and a few quirky songs guaranteed to take you into the highlands of your imagination. This is the third in the “Barn Jazz” series of albums, beginning with Barn Jazz Vol. 1, in 2003, Barn Jazz Vol. 2, The Night of the Dancing Vegetables in 2012, and finally Vol. 3, High Fiddility.

“Barn Jazz” is my term for bluegrass in a tuxedo, or jazz in hip boots played at night when the cows have gone to bed. In essence this music knows no firm boundaries, has no walls, and requires only that you listen again and again for the details, for the sounds of the crossing the high country, or marching along the Grand Valley canals of Grand Junction. You may remember lost friends like Banjo Joe, and others who are no longer with you, while you wonder where they have gone. Maybe you had a first waltz, when you awkwardly held that young lady or gentleman, or shuffled off to the stars in sidereal time. Please enjoy this music when you work, when you play or travel, or when the lights are down low and the music is turned up. Please let me know what you think, I am always curious to find out if any of these tunes touch you in certain ways.

New Directions

Barn Jazz has relocated to Littleton, Colorado. The wonderful studio space in Grand Junction has been decommissioned, while we are seeking better economic opportunities in the greater Denver area.
I am no longer accepting recording work for the near future, as I will be undertaking an intensive 5 month course in cybersecurity, beginning in mid-January. I will, however, be setting up a small composing and mixing studio in our new domicile, and will continue to accept small projects for mixing and post. I would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to all of those wonderful musicians in the GJ area with whom I have had the privilege to work.

New Iso-Room Completed at Barn Jazz

After about 2 months work by myself and 2 local, talented workers, the isolation room is now finished. The area will serve as a drum room, vocal booth for voice-overs and singer-song writers, isolation for electric guitar cab recordings, etc.

The 9′ x 9′ x 8′ high room is (according to the experts) probably the worst shape you can have acoustically speaking (a cube), but with some good treatment from GIK and ATS, the sound inside is what I would describe as “neutral” for vocal and instrument work.  It is not overly dead, nor is it reverberant. Hopefully it will sound good as a drum room as well.

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The acoustic treatment consists of four GIK tri-traps (bass traps) in the back corners, four ATS 2″ rigid rock wool panels, 2′ x 4′, on the back and side walls, and an additional GIK 2′  x 4′ x  2″ panel (white) on the right side wall. The ceiling has a 5′ x 5′ cloud of  1′ Auralex foam wedges, fastened using 2 tubes of Auralex adhesive.

The area was originally a corner alcove that was open on one side. The left and rear interior walls back up to the house stem walls (as this is in a walkout basement), and the right wall is adjacent to the bathroom.  We added a layer of 5/8″ Soundbreak board over the existing drywall to all three walls and the ceiling, using RC-1 resilient channel and soundproofing foam tape from SoundProofingSale.com to provide a buffer and air gap between the new and existing drywall.

A new front wall was constructed for the window, door, and patch panel, using wood frame and Soundbreak on both the interior and exterior of the frame, with sound proofing foam tape between the drywall and wood.  We used 2″ rock wool fiberglass from Home Depot for insulation. Mike Miller constructed the wall and put up the drywall.

Soundbreak is very heavy gypsum board that is used as a replacement for standard drywall for sound studios, apartments, etc. It weighs about 86 lbs. per sheet, and is quite expensive ($70.00). It has an excellent STC (Sound Transmission Class) rating of 53 – 60 when installed over both sides of a wood frame. We obtained this material, along with oodles of sound-proofing caulk, from a local Grand Junction vendor, Pioneer Materials.   The floor is simple utility carpet and pad from Home Depot, over vinyl and concrete.

The window consists of two panes of laminated glass, one 1/4″, and one 3/8″, set into a shallow V-shape, with about a 3/4″ to 1″ air gap between them. We used Rod Gervais’ book, “Home Recording Studio – Build It Like The Pros” for guidance on door and window construction.

The door itself is a very heavy solid core, 1 and 3/4″ thick, from Home Depot, with a door seal kit and threshold drop seal from Acoustical Solutions. Ron Standing made the window, built the door jamb, and installed the door and sealing kit. Because of the precise specifications needed for sound attenuation, this was a lengthy process covering several weeks.When the door is closed, the drop seal falls into place to seal the threshold and door bottom so that sound cannot leak under the door. The door jamb has rubber seal material attached to an aluminum backing. You know its pretty air tight when you close the door because you can hear the air squeezing out. It takes a bit of effort to close the door, which is good.

The patch panel is a through-the-wall set of jacks for 8 XLR microphone input/outputs and 4 TRS line input/outputs mounted in a black metal panel. I obtained the custom built and labeled panels from Redco.com, and then made a wood mounting box. I soldered up each side of the panel to their respective jacks, requiring 72 connections. I am really glad I had the proper tools for this (hint: resistance soldering station).The edges of the box were sealed with acoustic caulk, and the box interior stuffed with rock wool fiberglass insulation. Ron had special metal trim plates made locally for both sides of the box, to help hold it in place and provide a nice border. He then cut a hole next to the door and attached the box to a stud, and sealed the edges.

The total cost of construction was about $7200, with $4470 for materials and $2730 for labor, spread out over 2 primary work men (Mike Miller and Ron Standing), as well as two assistants and a carpet person. In addition to being the general contractor, I built the patch panel and did all of the painting (the easy stuff!).

Given that a similar-sized pre-fab isolation booth from WhisperRoom.com can cost from $10,000 to $20,000 plus shipping, this is a pretty good cost savings. The only thing missing is ventilation. Smaller booths require this, but given that the talent will be recording for short durations for the most part, the door does not have to remain closed for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Adding a vent system similar to that found in the DawBox.com design still may happen, but I did not want to risk compromising the sound isolation unless absolutely necessary.

The iso-room will help cut down on street and aircraft noise, which occasionally is an issue here. There is no such thing as “sound-proofing”, but with the ability to attenuate sudden rumbles or loud jet noises will improve our recordings and cut down on re-takes.

Next up, I will be doing some SPL measurements inside and outside of the booth to chart just how well we are doing at sound attenuation.
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Landslide! demo completed

We just finished a short 3-song project for the local Grand Junction band, Landslide, with Rick Cohee on electric guitar, Gary Schwark on drums, Theresa De Rush on keys, and Craig Kovalcik on bass.

This is a great example of a cover band doing it “live in the studio” for demo CD, something to give out to venue owners and booking agents.  This very affordable project took  only 8 hours to complete from recording setup to finished master. The final product was manufactured in house, with a full color printed CD in a clear plastic jewel case. Ready to rock a landslide!

Gary On Drums Live in the studio Theresa De RushCD cover art

Jim interviewed by the Business Times in Grand Junction

Read the interview here
Not my best picture though! 

Is Vinyl Better than Digital?

A recent NY Times article, Digital Culture, Meet Analog Fever discusses the recent fascination with more retro analog devices and media, in particular vinyl records. There is an ongoing dialog on the gear forums about the superior of one format or the other, which is really not the point. Vinyl, as an example, is a trend that is the result of a new generation discovering the sound and superior physicality of a record album. For us boomers that is not news, but one may ask what is behind this resurgence? Vinyl manufacturing plants, like United Record Pressing in Nashville, which I have visited twice, are running 24 x 7 these days.
United Record Pressing

United Record Pressing

So is analog vinyl really superior to digital music files?  In the case of mp3’s the compressed audio format degrades audio fidelity to a degree, although not many users can tell the difference between a compressed and lossless file format. Vinyl requires some roll-off  of the low end frequencies to avoid the needle jumping out of the groove on loud passages. What remains is somewhat band limited but faithful to the frequencies in a way that digital can come very close to and in many ways exceeds.  So why do some people prefer vinyl?
  1. To many it sounds better. If you grew up with it you know THAT sound, and prefer it over the exacting and sometimes overly clinical digital recordings.
  2. If you did not grow up with it, its a new thing that offers a tangible product, something you can show off if you are in a band. And it sounds better than MP3’s played through ear-buds.
  3. There is more room for liner notes and info about the band or recording that you can typically get onto a CD jacket.
  4. It’s cool, trendy.
The downsides:
  1. More expensive to manufacture, typically, 3-4X more costly than doing CD’s
  2. Somewhat limited frequency response, especially in the bass region
  3. Tendency for pops, ticks, hiss, and of course the dreaded skip when a groove is damaged. Some people like this so much that plugins have been devised that simulate bad vinyl!  Really, and I have one…
  4. LP’s in particular store fewer tracks than CD’s, typically no more than about 40 minutes total. CD’s can get up to 70+ minutes.
  5. Difficult to get into digital form unless a download card is included in the packaging (you see this more often now)
  6. Requires an old school stereo system and turntable with a RIAA balanced input, or a turntable with RIAA built in.

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Disc Cutter at Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville.


RIAA equalization is a little known aspect of vinyl, explained here in a Wikipedia article:

RIAA equalization is a form of pre-emphasis on recording and de-emphasis on playback. A recording is made with the low frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted, and on playback the opposite occurs. The net result is a flat frequency response, but with attenuation of high frequency noise such as hiss and clicks that arise from the recording medium. Reducing the low frequencies also limits the excursions the cutter needs to make when cutting a groove. Groove width is thus reduced, allowing more grooves to fit into a given surface area, permitting longer recording times. This also reduces physical stresses on the stylus which might otherwise cause distortion or groove damage during playback.

A potential drawback of the system is that rumble from the playback turntable‘s drive mechanism is amplified by the low frequency boost that occurs on playback. Players must therefore be designed to limit rumble, more so than if RIAA equalization did not occur.”

There is an even more “trendy” approach of doing studio recording direct to vinyl, without any digital intervention. That requires taking the stereo mix from the mixer or console, directly to a vinyl cutting machine, in real time.  Each master disc costs around $150.00, versus $< $1.00 for a CD. The band has to play perfectly, and there are no re-takes or editing. I would call this “extreme recording”, not for the faint of heart or the lesser of chops.

So really the issue comes down not vinyl versus CD, as each has their pros and cons.  Unless you really want to spend the extra money, you will stop at the CD level, maybe with some MP3’s thrown in for your web site.

Instead, how can we best integrate analog sound into digital recordings to get the best sound out of digital, regardless if the final product is vinyl or CD?  The answer for many audio engineers today is a “hybrid” studio setup, which I have discussed before in an earlier blog post. A professional hybrid setup offers the following:
  1. Really high quality microphones recording into high quality preamps and other outboard gear such as compressors and EQ’s.  Tube preamps are often preferred here, depending on the sound source, voice timbre, etc. The idea here is to capture it in the best analog sound up front.
  2. High quality analog to digital conversion going into the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, AKA the computer), so that the sound is not degraded. This is not hard to do these days as the cost of A-D conversion has come down significantly. Some would argue that typical computer sound cards such as the Sound Blaster are sufficient, but I disagree mostly because they are very limited in what they offer for inputs, in addition to having inferior clocking which can influence the sound to a degree.
  3. Mixing tracks via an outboard analog “mix bus” or chain of, again, high quality tube or solid state EQ’s and compressors before doing one more D-A back into the master stereo track. This involves both analog “summing” of the individual digital tracks using a console or some other outboard device that takes however many tracks are in the recording and sums them down electrically to a stereo master track. Some engineers would say that staying ITB (In the Box, i.e. no round trip to the analog domain during mixing) is better.  It really depends on how you work, but I prefer the outboard mixing approach before applying any plugins ITB, if at all. I just prefer what my analog outboard gear brings to the mixing process, and it’s often easier and more consistent than using plugins (albeit more expensive initially).
If the final product will be produced on CD we will master using 24 bit files for headroom. For CD we will need the master to be at the Red Book standard 44.1 KHz sample rate, dithered down to 16 bits as the last step. Often engineers will mix and make the analog round trip at high sample rates such as 96.1 KHz and then down-sample for CD. This requires a very fast computer and lots of disk space, but fortunately that is much easier to obtain these days.

If the final product will be on vinyl, an extra mastering step is required to attenuate the extreme highs and lows, as needed, before sending the master disk to the cutting engineer. This takes much skill, and there is a small but growing cadre of young, professional vinyl mastering engineers that are servicing the trendy LP market.

So the take away is, not all digital is created equal! Adding a bit of analog spice makes the final dish taste better, to mix my metaphors (pun intended).