The latest installment of Scott Hull’s blog at The Vinyl District goes into some serious detail about the vinyl groove and the cutter head that makes it. Ready for a little tech talk? Head over to the post!
It’s week three of Scott’s guest blog series at The Vinyl District, and it’s a good one! This week Scott starts getting into the geometry of the record groove, aided by some photos from the new camera we have installed on our lathe’s scope. Hope you enjoy it!
A to Z Media is a small New York City-based company that’s facilitating some of the best music packaging and manufacturing in the world today. I recently sat down with A to Z’s Sarah Robertson and Scott Pollack to discuss the state of physical media in 2011.
James: Tell me a little about the company.
Sarah: I came over from England in May of 1994 and set up the business. There was a need to serve as the conduit between large and impersonal printing and optical media plants, and small-to-medium size music companies.
Scott: That’s very much why brokers exist, to fill that gap.
Sarah: I worked from my apartment for the first year or so, and since then we’ve been in this NoHo neighborhood for the entire time, and in our current space for five years. A lot of the clients we have now are people we’ve had relationships with for many years. They may now work for different record labels, or have set up their own labels, but it’s very much been an organic growth. There was Michael Dorf from the Knitting Factory, who introduced me to John Zorn, and we still work with John’s label Tzadik today. We’ve done close to six hundred releases with them. It’s all been word of mouth.
James: As we all know, physical media is said to be in its “death throes,” despite the fact that people are still buying a good deal of CDs and records. What’s good about physical media? Why should we stick with it?
Sarah: Well it gives you the whole story. With a CD or an LP you don’t just get the music, you get the whole vision and story of the artist behind it.
Scott: The thing is, you’ve got to give people a compelling reason to want to purchase a tangible music item today. How are you going to make it compelling?
Sarah: It doesn’t have to cost a ton of money to make something compelling. I mean, when you’re talking about something really out there — if you’re printing stuff on plastic, things like that — it’s going to be expensive. But we’ve been able to do smaller, hard-bound books that are four color — really beautiful hard bound books — in a run of 3,000. This is something we’re going to be sourcing in China. We’re trying to meet two needs. People want to have beautiful packaging, but some of it, made domestically, is very, very expensive. You just can’t do it. But there are other options, and I think that’s where we see the market moving. So we’re trying to be positioned to be the resource whether you want to run 1,000 or you want to run 300,0000.
James: What would you say are the main things that people can do to improve their music packaging?
Scott: As many great packaging options as there are, there’s no substitute for good designers. We help source out the packaging materials, configurations, how it works, how it fits together. But honestly we’ve never really gotten involved in the graphic design. Packaging design, yes. But graphics no. Art direction is really important.
Sarah: It’s good for a label to have a go-to designer.
Scott: Like Tzadik. John [Zorn] was very visionary in how he wanted the music packaged, and he’s been able to maintain it.
Sarah: And he does very different things. Like in the Archival series (which is his own stuff) he’ll come up with ideas where I say “how on earth do you come up with that?” It’s taking something that is simple, and making it beautiful. Some packages are “template” but some of them are completely out there.
James: I’m always impressed with the quality of the printing of the Tzadik releases — some of the lines are so fine, yet they don’t look jaggy.
Sarah: Especially now, some of Heung-Heung’s [Tzadik house designer] things are very very fine. Did you see the Interzone release they just did? It’s really cool: a very simple black image printed on a foil stock. And embossing and debossing — it’s a very clever thought process.
Scott: Heung-Heung is getting more and more intricate.
Sarah: I’ll always say to them, honestly, that’s not going to work, you’re going too small. And John will say “trust me, it’ll work.” And then it works, miraculously. They did a tip-on wallet — an old school jacket, but a little one — and he was doing very thin type on the spine. All hand assembled. I was concerned that it wouldn’t work — and it did.
James: We just started doing vinyl with Tzadik at Masterdisk.
Sarah: Yes, we have it right here.
Scott: The artwork is absolutely beautiful. this is an old style tip-on jacket. There’s literally only a few folks who can print those. And it’s a picture disc, and it sounds really good. Beacuase picture discs don’t always sound that great.
James: Scott [Hull] worked hard on this with the plant to make sure it would come out great.
Scott: Whatever he did it sounds really really good.
Sarah: We just did some shaped vinyl for The Sword. It’s hexagonal.
James: Do you talk to the plant and they’re like, “what?”
Scott: There was one vendor in the world that was able to do that one.
Sarah: We want the record labels and the individuals to come to us and say “I want to do this,” and we say “sure.” and we find out how to make it happen.
James: What are your thoughts about the trend of super-deluxe packaging? Releases that come with both CD and vinyl, and books, and alternate albums, and headphones…
Sarah: Well, we did that with Matador [the 21st Anniversary box set]. It was an expensive package. It’s an example of a record label giving something back to the fans.
Scott: Though I think what James is talking about is the far extreme end — this uber deluxe “let’s package it with an amp” trend. We’re not really dealing with too many artists on the Springsteen and Bowie level, so our thought process tends to be how we can do something nice at a 5, 10, 20,000 piece run — and bring it in at a competitive price. If anyone can successfully do that, that’s how you’re going to be able to keep packaging relevant for the indie community. Whatever Sony’s doing for Springsteen… that’s a whole other universe.
James: OK, and what about the other end of the spectrum: indie artists starting out with a small number of fans.
Scott: I think we’re talking about runs of 1,000 or even 500. We’ll do it.
Sarah: Maybe they run a little more print on it. You get a price break as soon as you move up to 1,000 units and more on the print, so you save some money that way. But even for small runs, it’s still spot varnishes and other more expensive-looking touches.
Scott: The threshold for your basic band used to always be 1,000 pices or more. It’s now dipped to 500, and quite honestly we’re getting a lot of requests for less — people want to do 300 fully packaged items. We can do it, as can many other people in the marketplace. I think the quality is a bit iffier at that number — it’s not quite the same as the 1,000 piece run. For the price you’re going to pay per unit at 300 or 500, you might as well run 1,000. But people are saying, “I know it’s more expensive, I know the quality is not quite on par with 1,000, but I just don’t need 1,000 pieces sitting around my apartment.”
Sarah: They’re moving away from jewel boxes too. It’s much better to take wallets or digipacks on the road instead of schlepping jewel boxes.
James: So how is the CD doing in general?
Sarah: I’ve been doing optical media for probably over 20 years now. When I started, you were selling just the CD for over $1.60. Now it’s a fraction of that. The market has changed enormously. The question is how to sustain the CD as a relevant product in the marketplace. Our clients are people that still embrace a finished product.
Record labels are still getting product in the stores, even though we’ve been hit by the changes. In a way, I think it’s been a good thing. People re-evaluate how they’re going to package; how they’re going to reach the consumer. A lot of companies are stronger financially through digital sales, and any money coming in helps. I’m happy for somebody to make 3,000 CDs instead of 5,000 and be able to pay their bill because they’re doing 2,000 units in digital sales. It’s changing, and you change with it.
Scott: If digital music makes the companies that we’re working with healthier, that’s a good step for everybody. Even if they’re ultimately going to be running less physical product.
James: It seems to me that physical releases won’t go away if for no other reason than to have something to sell at shows.
Scott: Though we’ve done download cards for that purpose, too.
Sarah: Almost everyone’s putting download cards in with their vinyl. I think that’s fair enough. You’ve bought the product, you should be able to have it. You can’t ignore the digital marketplace, you’ve got to embrace it. Many of our clients are smaller companies, and, being small, they’re a bit more sprightly on their feet. The independent community are much better big-picture thinkers — they adapt, because they’ve always had to be scrappy. It’s been the same way with us. We need to think of the next thing we can do for our clients. And we do lots of different things.
Scott: We just did our first cassette in many years. It was only for 150 cassettes but it was cool. We can do 8-track, and flexi-discs are coming back. People have been clamoring for flexies for a while. I think they’re kind of expensive at the smaller run, so i don’t know if a band’s gonna sell them but they’re great for a magazine.
Sarah: I don’t think flexies are going to make some kind of big comeback though.
James: They don’t sound great.
Sarah: No, they don’t — it’s more of a novelty thing. But if magazines find that they’re able to get labels to contribute exclusive content, flexies could provide a way to introduce value back into their printed editions.
Scott: And they look pretty cool. You can do them in different colors; we spec’d one that was almost like a picture disc. But back to your question, I think the CD had a really good run. And i think it improved on the previous generations of media for the most part. You can argue about the merits of the audio — someone like Scott [Hull] would be the expert on this…
James: CDs were very convenient.
Scott: But you know what’s more convenient? The iPhone. To have a micro device that has the ability to encapsulate your entire collection and does 15 other really cool things. That’s what’s undone the CD. And it’s a natural progression. We can’t hate on that. You can’t get away from the fact that you could buy any record on iTunes at 3 o’clock in the morning from the middle of nowhere, and you can’t do that with physical media. Especially because there’s no stores. Although I have to say that I think the CD has now reached a point, price wise, that it’s on par with digital for the most part. I think labels should lower their pricing a little bit — the cost should be on par with a digital release. And if you’re introducing just a modicum of interesting packaging or content into that release, I can’t see why physical media won’t live for an indefinite period of time. It’ll keep getting smaller and smaller, but that physical pie, between CDs and vinyl, maybe cassettes, maybe a hybrid where you’re still getting the downloads — it should continue to be viable.
Sarah: I think a bigger problem is getting more people to legitimately start purchasing music again in whatever the format. I think that’s been the real shock of the last 10 to 15 years. People don’t seem to want to buy music in whatever form it’s coming. It’s partly a generational thing. When you say what’s killing the industry, digital versus finished goods, you have to look at the generational impact — how many kids are buying music? When you look at the tween to early twenties, there’s less of a frame of reference for physical media. If you appeal to a 17 year old about beautiful packaging and interesting liner notes — I don’t know if they care.
Scott: They’ve grown up in the era of free music. Why buy a physical something? The question is how can everyone in the industry get physical sales back up to par to sustain operations, pay the artist, and really make it so it could be a career choice for people all down the line in whatever facet of the music industry that might still exist.
Sarah: You can still be in a band and play out and make a living. It’s hard but it’s done.
Scott: Touring is not going anywhere. The live touring industry is pretty healthy. And that’s something you can’t replace.
James: So how long do you think it’ll be before we get CD nostalgia? We’ve got vinyl, and now cassettes…
Scott: I think a few more plants would have to go out of business. When you won’t be able to make a CD, people will say, “I like those CDs!” Well, there’s only 4 CD plants left, so it’ll take 2 months to get your CD. Remember you used to get it in a week? Now it’s going to take 2 months. I think we’re a few years away from that.
Sarah: I think we’re a few decades away.
Scott: I don’t know if there’s 20 years left in the CD business. We sure as hell hope there is. I think there will be some nostalgia for it, but it’s a few years off. But you’d be surprised. Everybody talks about “the death of the CD.” I gotta tell you, from our little perch, the plants that we work with are very very busy. You walk through these plants and all sorts of companies and industries are running CDs.
Sarah: You think of the CD as music — and certainly from A to Z’s point of view, 70% of our business is music. But we do corporate stuff. We do DVDs, CD-ROMS for the corporate market. But you walk around the plants and it’s things you’d never think of. They’re making loads and loads of CDs.
Scott: I think you could say that the reports of the demise of physical media have been greatly exaggerated.
Masterdisk and A to Z have worked on a lot of projects together, including the Loudon Wainwright III, Lou Reed, and Tzadik releases pictured above. They’re pretty much our number one referral when our independent clients ask us what they need to do to get their product finished, once the mastering process is complete. And the reason we refer them is because of the high quality of their work, and their personalized service; we know that our clients will have a good experience. To check out more of A to Z’s phenomenal packaging work, head over to their website.
We’re psyched that Scott Hull is doing a guest-blog series over at The Vinyl District, which is the official blog of Record Store Day. Look for a new post up there every Friday up until April 16, or as we know it around here, Record Store Day 2011. Scott will be talking about all aspects of the vinyl experience: from cutting records to playing them; from the history of vinyl to the future. The first post went up this morning — have a look here:
It’s only a few days into 2011 but it’s already shaping up to be an eventful year at Masterdisk HQ in New York City. Scott Hull, mastering engineer and the owner of Masterdisk, announced this week that mastering engineer Howie Weinberg has left his longtime post at the studio to strike out on his own in California, “where the climate suits his clothes” (as the old blues tune says). Scott, and the rest of the Masterdisk staff, wishes Howie the best of luck in the future.
In his place, Scott has promoted engineer Matt Agoglia to the position of Senior Engineer. Matt served as Howie’s right-hand man for three years at Masterdisk while building his own mastering clientele. Matt is taking over Howie’s mastering suite, and will continue mastering records using the same gear that he and Howie have been using for years. This classic mastering suite has been used for mastering iconic albums by The White Stripes, The Clash, Wilco, Nirvana, U2, Public Enemy, Pixies, Sonic Youth and many more.
About the departure, and the promotion, Scott said, “Of course we’re sorry to see Howie go, but this is part of how the mastering business has always worked. No one stays at any one place forever. Young engineers work with senior guys, and learn the finer points of the craft. When spots open up, the younger engineers step up to move the torch forward. I started my career as Bob Ludwig’s assistant. And when Bob left Masterdisk for Maine I was promoted to Chief Engineer in his old room. Matt’s a very good engineer, and his clients have been very happy with his projects over the past few years. I have total faith that as more people get to know his mastering style, he’ll be very successful here.”
Recent records Matt has worked on include Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach, Spoon’s Transference, Wavves’ King of the Beach, and Rogue Wave’s Permalight.
The nominees for the 53rd Grammy Awards were announced last night in Los Angeles, and we’re thrilled to see our clients up for honors!
Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint 3, which was mastered by Tony Dawsey, is up for Best Rap Album, and two of its songs have been singled out for honors too. “Empire State of Mind” is up for Record of the Year, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and Best Rap Song. Another album track, “On to the Next One,” is up for Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group and Best Rap Song. We did a brief podcast about Tony’s work on The Blueprint 3 back in June, you can listen to that here.
Laurie Anderson’s track “Flow,” from her album Homeland (mastered by Scott Hull) was nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. Competing with Ms. Anderson for that award is “Orchestral Intro” from Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach album, mastered by Howie Weinberg. Can they both win, please?
Finally, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is up for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album award for Infernal Machines, (mastered by Randy Merrill) which was released on the non-profit-model record label New Amsterdam. We’re thrilled about all of the nominations, but this one is especially satisfying because New Amsterdam is a relatively small operation and it’s great to see independent work recognized. And because it’s a darn good record! We took an in-depth look at the making of “Infernal Machines” back in April. Check it out here.
It’s Friday, and that means there’s a new Downtown Music Gallery newsletter in my inbox! Have you heard of Downtown Music Gallery? It’s a great NYC record store currently based down in Chinatown. They carry all kinds of great experimental, eclectic, and creative avant-garde, classical, rock, jazz, prog music and everything else that doesn’t fit in to a regular category. They’re also the distributor for John Zorn’s Tzadik, a record label with which we’re closely involved — Scott Hull has mastered all the Tzadik releases since 2001.
This morning’s newsletter announces three new Tzadik albums, all of which were not too long ago playing very loudly in Scott’s studio. Here they are, along with the press releases from the label, copied directly from the newsletter. Links and more info below.
JOHN ZORN//MOONCHILD: MIKE PATTON/TREVOR DUNN/JOEY BARON + MARC RIBOT – Ipsissimus (Tzadik 7386; USA) Weaving sonic dramas around the legacies of Magick and Alchemy, Moonchild is one of Zorn’s most intense and powerful projects. Active since 2006, Moonchild has released four CDs speaking directly to young, open minded and curious music lovers around the world, and their newest recording is the most varied and driving to date. Nine new duos, trios and quartets swirling with melodic and rhythmic invention featuring the searing guitar of Marc Ribot, the magical vocals of Mike Patton and Zorn’s manic sax with the astounding Dunn-Baron rhythm section. Ipsissimus is the fifth surprising installment in the remarkable Moonchild legacy. TZADIK ARCHIVAL SERIES
JESSE HARRIS – Cosmo (Tzadik 7635; USA) One of our greatest songwriters, Jesse Harris, is a Grammy Award winning composer whose songs have been recorded by Norah Jones, Smokey Robinson, Solomon Burke, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and many others. Here he returns to his roots with a fabulous group of friends to present an instrumental program of his classic songs and some brilliant new originals composed especially for this CD. Blending folk, soul, Brazilian and rock music into his own unique and personal world, Jesse’s new CD is a joyous celebration of life, love, melody and mystery. Instrumental pop in the tradition of Burt Bacharach with a 21st century twist! TZADIK KEY SERIES
OMER KLEIN – Rockets On The Balcony (Tzadik 8156; USA) Omer Klein is an exciting young pianist out of the Israeli-New York jazz scene. Born in Israel, he studied at New England Conservatory and now tours extensively with his own ensembles. Exotic and lyrical, his work blends Middle Eastern sounds with the spontaneity of jazz. Here he works with two of his closest collaborators in a free wheeling trio setting. Alternately driving and touching, Rockets on the Balcony is a beautiful example of how new generations are taking Jewish Music to profound and unexpected new places. TZADIK RADICAL JEWISH CULTURE SERIES
Each disc is $14 and can be ordered from the shop online. Dig in to some new sounds! Visit Downtown Music Gallery here.
If you’ve followed us on Twitter or on our Facebook page, you’ll be familiar with what is alternately called “Today in Masterdisk History” or “Masterdisk Flashback!” (usually depending on how many Twitter characters I have to spare).
These little updates feature records from the past — some near, some far — that were mastered here at Masterdisk. Consider it a very random reminder of some records you might have forgotten about. Or, if you’re in a more heavy mindset, be amazed at how time flies!
I’m surprised at how many of these records have articles at Wikipedia — I link to them when they do. There’s often some interesting minutia on offer.
So here’s six records mastered at Masterdisk from Septembers past!
1 YEAR AGO
Jay-Z “The Blueprint 3”
(Roc Nation/Atlantic, 9/8/09)
Mastered by Tony Dawsey at Masterdisk. Wikipedia: The Blueprint 3
3 YEARS AGO
Chris Potter Underground “Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard”
Mastered by Scott Hull at Masterdisk. Wikipedia: Chris Potter
9 YEARS AGO
John Mayer “Room for Squares”
(Aware Records (original release)/Columbia (re-release), 9/18/01)
Mastered by Scott Hull at Masterdisk. Wikipedia: Room for Squares
“The first choice is clear. I’m confident that La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano will receive little competition as the most important and beautiful new work recorded in the 1980s. Young’s achievement is unique, the recording a technological triumph.” — Kyle Gann, FANFARE November/December 1987
“…this marvelous recording of a landmark piece in contemporary music and the work that probably coined the categorical term Minimalism is born. The Well- Tuned Piano is an extremely insular, calming and personal work and a masterpiece at that. Listening to the entire five-hour-plus composition [one] discovers something new each time.” — Brooke Wentz, DOWN BEAT August 1987
The 1987 edition of La Monte Young‘s The Well Tuned Piano on Gramavision records (full title: The Well-Tuned Piano 81 X 25 6:17:50 – 11:18:59 PM NYC) is something of a holy grail for experimental, avant garde, and minimalist enthusiasts. The multi-album set was released in CD, LP and cassette editions, which, as of this writing, go for hundreds of dollars on the used market: the set is out of print.
The Well Tuned Piano is a very long (approximately five hours on the Gramavision recording) piece for just-intuned piano. Its construction is part composed and part improvised and involves series of cycling themes and sound clusters (called “clouds”).
Bob Ludwig is credited with mastering the Gramavision recording of The Well Tuned Piano, and his then-assistant (and current owner of Masterdisk) Scott Hull is credited with digital editing, which was no small task in the case of this particular recording. In fact, it was rather epic.
One July afternoon I sat down with Scott and asked him to go back to the days he spent in 1987 editing this storied recording.
THE WELL TUNED PIANO
JB:What was your role in the production of the album?
Scott Hull: Digital editing would have been my title though the task took on a life of its own. It was very unusual to take so many days to edit an album together.
The deck they used to record The Well Tuned Piano was a Sony PCM-F10 — one of the first digital recorders. The piece was a five hour continuous performance and the only recording medium that was capable of doing that in 1987 or 1988 was Beta 1 F1 — a slow speed video deck capturing 16 bit 44.1 digital.
The first part of our process at Masterdisk was getting the F1 transferred to a professional format. Because you can’t edit the F1 [tape]. There’s no method of doing digital tape editing and the music ultimately had to be cut up into sides: the ultimate destination was for CD, vinyl and cassette. Each required their own side splits and it’s a continuous performance: no breaks, no intermissions. It is a continuous performance that creates a meditative sort of atmosphere continuously.
The first problem was to transfer all the F1s to a 1630 tape system, which is professional digital audio that could be edited. But the F1 didn’t want to play particularly well. And we also had a problem because this piece was so continuous and repetitious — the themes come back again and again in cycles — that it was very hard to tell where you were in the piece just by listening. Even the composer would have trouble telling where he was in the piece unless he could listen to a significant portion of it.
We needed to find a way to time-stamp the thing. And the beta tape that was used had time code, but my professional 1630 Sony audio machine wouldn’t read it.
Bob Bielecki was the recording engineer on the project. He was known for doing some pretty wild and interesting performance art recordings, so he knew the kinds of editing challenges involved. He’s an astute technician as well — so he understood that the time code that was coming off the beta tape wasn’t clean enough for my editor to read it — and he figured he could fix it. He asked me if I had some parts he could use. We went into the shop. “Well what do you need, switches or something?” I said. He says “I need an op-amp or a transistor or two and I need a couple resistors and something to attach it all to.”
This was the evening — the session didn’t start until 7 or 8 at night — and the technician was gone. So I showed him the drawers in the shop. He rattled around for about 20 minutes and came back out with a little board that had standoffs on it, he had wired a cap around a transistor, put a couple resistors on there, attached an input connector, a volume control and an output connector. He made a time code reshaper in the shop while I wandered around wondering “what are we going to do next?”
I plugged it in and tweaked it a little and the damn thing worked. I suspect that it still sits in a drawer somewhere around here because I didn’t throw it out. I thought it was a marvel. [Ed – we did in fact find it, in July 2011; now pictured below.]
So we got the time code reshaped. It was necessary because sections of the tape had to be transferred more than once to get a proper playback. And now, thanks to Bob, each time you played back that same stretch of tape you’d get the same code so we could line it up.
JB:Why would you have to have multiple transfers to get a good playback?
SH: The slow speed beta format liked to drop out. If there was a drop out, we’d have to go back and change the tracking manually — basically fiddle with the area of tape that it was having trouble with — and figure out a way to get through it. You couldn’t generally get through the tape in one whole pass.
So, the first night was sitting with this piece attempting to get the F1 beta tape transferred to 3/4″ digital. That took many hours. I don’t recall whether we even started editing it that night or whether that was another night.
Eventually we created a running master of the entire show, split across 3 or 4 U-matic tapes with overlap. I had to recreate the F1, basically, but smooth out the overlapped edit bits. Each one of these edits had to be acoustically scrubbed-to. The time code would get me close, but I’d need to be more accurate. So I was using room noises — chair squeaks and stuff — in the recording to tell definitively if it was lining up exactly. It would have been possible to do edits in the music, but it was easier if you could find a steam pipe squeak or a bang. Because there were some occasional steam pipe bangs — you’ll hear them in the recording. We were able to seamlessly remove a couple that were in spaces where there was no music. But in the midst of the performance when somebody shuffled around or a chair moved or something there was no way to get it out with the technology we had then. Now, you might be able to get it out. Maybe you wouldn’t want to anyway — we were going for authentic representation of the event.
By the way, at the performance people were invited to bring whatever they needed to make themselves comfortable for several hours because the piece was very long. So they were sitting on pillows and blankets, some were curled up… I assume some of them fell asleep at different times, coming in and out of consciousness while listening to this thing. Because even the engineering team fell in and out of consciousness while listening to this piece! (laughs) It was very difficult to remain completely engaged for, you know, 5 or 6 hours at a time. It was just exhausting.
I don’t believe LaMonte came in for any of this. I think it was just Bob Bielecki and I doing the assembly. It was very technical.
Next we got word of where the side-breaks were supposed to be. Like how long each LP side was going to be, and where in the performance we should break for the CDs. We all needed to make sure it didn’t break in the middle of a sequence of musical events.
From the three tape running master we created three tape sets of LP, three tape sets of cassette and 3 tape sets of CD masters. Each with the appropriate fade-down at the end of each side, and fade back up.
We created the CD master first, and then we put one additional fade in the middle of each CD to create the album. I think we found the CD breaks first because we didn’t want to create more than we absolutely needed to. So after the CD masters were made the decision was made where to make the LP breaks.
I really have no idea how many days and nights were spent on assembling this thing. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. It would have been impossible even with the foundation that was funding it to actually bill for the time and the equipment that was being used for the durations that were really needed. There was only one way to do this well, and it required completely tying up a room that was normally booked for $200-250 an hour. And this is back in the 80s!
The technology today makes this so simple to pull off that it’s really easy to forget how hard it was to do this digitally. But they really wanted to guarantee that the performance was captured the truthfully. They wanted a running master from top to bottom.
After we got all the running masters together La Monte came in to listen to them with Marian Zazeela. He wanted to listen through the whole thing to hear the fades — to listen to it as a consumer would listen to it.
I got them comfortable, got the music playing back in the room, and asked them if they needed me to be in the room. They didn’t, which was good! Quite frankly at that point I’d heard this piece in its entirety about twelve times. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sit through it again and show the respect it, and they, deserved. I didn’t want to be in there looking bored! So I waited outside.
Shortly into the playback, La Monte came out to find me, looking worried. He said there was something wrong, and asked me if there was some way that the music could be playing at the wrong speed. I was immediately very concerned because of all the work we had done up to that point — we were essentially done with everything!
But there really wasn’t any way that this could have been running off speed because it’s digital, and all locks to clock, and everything about that is pretty stable. So I came back in and La Monte asked me to play a section of it, and then it got to a spot where the piano was holding a tone. And he said “There! Right there! Like that — that’s a spot I mean”. And I was very confused because I didn’t know what he was hearing. I was expecting him to be talking about something that sounded like it was warbling — you know, changing pitch.
So I stopped the music, I asked him to explain what it was that he was hearing, and we talked about it a little bit, but he suddenly stopped talking. “You hear that?” he said. I didn’t know what he was hearing. He said “I’m hearing beats NOW! There’s something in the room, even without the music being played.”
So I started shutting off equipment until I figured it out. The Sony 1630 tape recorder we were using was a big, professional video deck with a significant motor inside it. And a fan to keep the motor cool. I had two of them in the room. And these fans were running at ever so slightly different speeds. With the two machines running there was a very slight modulating sound, and it was affecting the way that La Monte was hearing the beats and the relationships within his music. The fans were effectively superimposing additional “beats” on the top of his music! His hearing was that sensitive.
I didn’t need to have both decks on while we were doing the playback so I shut one of them off and I covered the other deck with acoustic foam to cut down on the amount of noise. And then I played it back for him and he said “That’s it! It’s perfect!”
JB:The “wrong speed” question must have confused you initially considering that in digital, tape running at the wrong speed would not effect pitch.
SH: Right. It’s something we just believe in: word clock is word clock. We know now that information that’s been converted to analog and back to digital can show some microscopic drift, even with digital. Especially with workstations. But this was digital audio on video tape so it’s all referenced to video sync. Word sync is derived from the video interval sync so there’s just no way that it’s running off speed. Well, I should say that when everything’s working properly there’s no way for it to be running off-speed. La Monte was just trying to guess at what could possibly be causing the reaction he was having; this unpleasant feeling that he had.
After La Monte’s approval we went on to make running masters for the cassette, the vinyl and CD. And each one of them had to be listened to in real time; proofed for dropouts and for any other problems.
And we had one other problem through this whole process — a technical problem. During these years CD run time was generally 65 to 70 minutes. But albums started getting longer. That’s when the reissues were happening and people were trying to put out longer and longer CDs. So they came up with longer tape formats because the original 1630 tape format was a 60 minute format. Then they came out with one that was 74 minutes, and then 75 minutes, and finally these 80 minute tapes which gave you a bit of buffer at the head and tail.
Well those 80 minute tapes didn’t play so well in machines that hadn’t been modified for them. And so one out of five of all these tapes I’d pull out of a box to try to use on The Well Tuned Piano would fail. Sometimes after we had already done the whole process the tape would get a crease — it was very thin Mylar. So many of our sessions were interrupted with me lifting the cover off the tape machine and taking a crinkled tape out of the thing and figuring out where it had been damaged, monitoring it up to that point and then doing an edit in the midst of some abstract tone cloud. So there was a lot of time spent just fighting the technology to get it done.
Then I assisted the cutting engineer who was Bill Kipper I believe. Bob [Ludwig] was credited with mastering on it, but it was essentially transferred with Bob Bielecki’s sound and EQ. And the vinyl I believe was cut by Bill.
JB:What would you say is the main thing you took away with you from your work on The Well Tuned Piano?
SH: It was one of my first experiences with an artist where I learned that just because you don’t hear something you can’t say it’s not there. I mean La Monte’s hearing was absurdly accurate. Even if you can’t measure what an artist is hearing, they’re hearing something. So I learned that my first reaction can’t be “oh, you must be hearing it wrong.” That’s definitely the wrong approach.
Scott Hull has continued his work in experimental and avant garde music throughout his career. He regularly masters albums for independent artists and labels in the experimental music field, and has mastered all the releases on John Zorn’s Tzadik label since 2001.