Thursday, February 9, 2012

Dissatisfaction with Vinyl

How did the system sound? Amazing. What people found most striking was the depth, width, and height of the sound stage and how solid it was, especially the front-to-back depth. Regardless of the music played, each instrument retained its position in 3-dimensional space independent of other instruments. People would close their eyes, point to an instrument, and point at a position 6 feet or more to the outside of the speaker.

As the level of refinement grows in any playback system, so does the level of dissatisfaction of source material.  The worse a production, the more unappealing it becomes. The number of vinyl records I played dramatically dropped from hundreds to tens overnight. It was a wishful-sinful achievement.

Realizing that the system's potential was more than the source material could ever supply, I now had to find another signal source or just live with the few recordings that made it to the top of the pile. I chose to do womthing else than live with off-the-shelf recordings and decided to do live recordings I would make on my own.

I was friends with Frank Nowell, a musician who I talked into making his own harpsichord and who was well connected to the University of Denver's school of music. He had recently graduated with a degree in conducting and knew other recent graduates and undergraduates in the system. Another connection was a DJ, Gary McBride, at the classical music radio station KVOD, aka the Voice of Denver. The three of us collaborated on first making recordings of local performances at the Grant Avenue Church's Music Series, an irregular number of performances by these same collegiate connections.

I had never attempted live recording and had zero equipment, but I was confident that with the tips I got from AP Van Meter, I could do this. Well, what I thought would be simple was truly not. I started with a pair of Radio Shack PZM microphones and a JVC cassette deck. Results were in a word, terrible and I realized then that I would have to apply everything I knew about coaxing sound out of a playback system to the recording end.

I was not opposed to taking anything apart, so the microphones were at the top of the list. These mics were licensed knock-offs of the Crown PZM 30d but made with plastic parts attached to a metal base. Corded to a line transformer and battery, I modified the budget circuit and created a single-ended system for this gear. After publishing the technique to the web, many studios added this microphone to their collection.  It is unknown where this microphone appeared in subsequent recordings but it did get a lot of attention.

I rebuilt a Radio Shack part number 32-1200A (aka 320-1200) mixer removing the tons of built-in ground loops thereby drastically improving the signal-to-noise ratio and sound quality.  I also installed a 9V phantom supply specifically for these microphones and added standard XLR3 connectors. Star-quad microphone cables made from Mogami 2893 cable topped off the front end in a custom wiring configuration (non standard to eliminate ground loops in the cables) and a custom isolation transformer removed most of the troublesome wiring problems I discovered when plugging the system into wall outlets.

I tossed the JVC and replaced it with a Nakamichi BX-2 to retain portability and ease of setup.I replaced the flimsy tin RCA jacks with hard-wired Mogami star-quad cables and RCA male plugs. With this setup, I was ready.

I used either two or three microphones at concerts taking sometimes hours to set up placement using the guidelines I learned from AP Van Meter years earlier. The initial results equalled the quality of my best vinyl and I was on my way.

After gaining experience in comparing what I recorded to the actual instrument, things began to get pretty close and the PZMs being omnidirectional easily captured hall ambience.  The PZMs did, however, create other problems easily avoided with directional microphones. I decided to live with these issues opting for the realism captured with the omnis. I still have the Nak, the mics, the mixer, and a few of the master tapes and still use these tapes as a reference when reminding myself what things should sound like.

Despite the fact that the recordings were mastered on cassettes, the quality was superior to any other source material I had and still have today.  I recall with fond memories huddled at the foot of the stages headphones clamped over my ears watching the performers do their best to bring out the music that slept inside their spirits.  Some of these performances were absolutely brilliant despite the fact that their names never made it to the billboards. It was a truly remarkable time.

So now I was armed with everything I needed from good source material to a good playback system. In the years that rolled on, I patiently waited for ditigal recordings to catch up to what I was enjoying, but it took longer than the time I stayed in Colorado to do so.

I left my mountaintop home in Colorado in 2001 after 21 years of sheer audio bliss and moved into a big-rig RV, briefly settling down in Tennessee and then Florida. In 2005, we bounced into Brooksville and are still there today. The old trusty speakers were sold to a very good friend and replaced with a pair of tweaked Bozaks. The MC-2100 is stil with me having undergone yet another round of modifications (torroid power transformer,  0.28 Farad internal supply), and the preamp is a Dared MC-7P again tweaked (notes in audiogon or contact me for a PDF). The turntable is now a Pioneer PL-L1000a again tweaked.

So this is where I am today and I will next address what to look for in good gear, regardless of type, trying to correlate what is measurable to what is audible.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

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