A Unique KEF Event

All photographs by Lily Szabo Photography and used with permission

Thursday February 13 was a day most of us in New York would have preferred to stay indoors. With 10” of snow falling since the night before, the Stereophile office closed, the roads in my neighborhood impassable, and public transport iffy at best, I really didn’t want to make the trek into Manhattan. But I did and was glad to have done so. English loudspeaker manufacturer KEF, represented by a team led by the company's brand ambassador Johan Coorg (above right), was promoting a unique event for the press at MSR Studios on 48th Street featuring legendary engineer and producer Ken Scott (above left).

KEF had flown in a young band from Nashville, Staying for the Weekend, and the plan was for the band to play two songs live in the studio, with the recording produced by Ken Scott and co-produced and engineered by Derik Lee. The assembled press would hear the band live (minus the vocals, which were not amplified, but just laid down in ProTools), then crowd into the control room to hear the mix on KEF LS50s mounted on top of the console’s meter bridge. A CD would be burned for each journalist and we would all listen to it on the red KEF Blade speakers, driven by Bryston amplification, that flank Scott and Coorg in the photo.

Stereophile’s Product of 2013, the KEF LS50 was used for monitoring the recording of Nashville-based Stay for the Weekend.

The idea was to educate the press in how the recordings are made, how what is heard live is translated into recorded form, and how even a typical rock recording benefits from being played back on a true high-end audio system

Ken Scott had the audience of mainly mainstream press enthralled.

After Johan Coorg’s opening remarks, Ken Scott took the floor. Ken dropped out of high school in the 1960s to start work at London’s famed Abbey Road Studio. Among his first sessions as a lowly assistant were the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and the White album—he had us laughing at his stories of those golden days; he was asked what is was like to record Eric Clapton in George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and he had to admit that he just couldn’t remember, such was the atmosphere in the studio—but most importantly, he told us how he had learned what was important in those days of recorders with a limited number of tracks. For example, you couldn’t lay down several guitar solos and decide later which to use in the mix. You had to get it right on the fly, with perhaps only a subsequent punch-in to correct something—the opposite of these modern times, where there may be 59 different solos available to use in ProTools but no-one can decide which is the keeper.

Ken is a vocal critic of “The Loudness Wars”—see my recently posted essay on the subject—and he admitted to being known as GOM—for Grumpy Old Man—on some of the pro-audio Usenet groups. To make his point, he played us a WAV file of David Bowie’s “Suffragette City,” which he co-produced. Except that he had spliced between the original mix and a version that he had asked a colleague to mix as though it were being released today. The difference was jarring. Despite the "modern" over-compressed mix initially sounding impressive, when the original version cut in, the soundstage opened up, there was space around the instruments and Bowie’s voice sounded more natural, yet without the track losing anything. Ken played the file three times, after which there was general agreement among the mainstream press present that something had gone horribly wrong in the way recordings were made in the 40 years since Ziggy Stardust was released.

In a subsequent Q&A session, Ken cleared up the confusion some people had between lossy data compression, which reduces file size, and analog compression, which raises the level of the quiet passages so that can be as loud as the loud passages.

Staying for the Weekend played live in the studio, monitoring their performance with KEF M500 headphones.

Following Ken Scott’s presentation, Staying for the Weekend took the stage and KEF’s Stephanie Scola handed out earplugs, which the oldsters in the audience, like me, found very welcome.

The session was engineered by MSR’s Derik Lee (left), who has just won a Grammy for the musical Kinky Boots.

Listening to the mixes of the two songs on the KEF LS50s that were bring used as monitors in the control room, I was impressed by how much of the band’s live dynamics a) had been captured in the recording and b) how much of those dynamics were being reproduced by the little LS50s. We then all trooped back into the studio and listened to the evening’s work on the KEF Blades. Oh my! These no-compromise speakers allowed the great white magic of rock’n’roll to flow freely!

Ken Scott’s book, Abbey Road, NW8, to Ziggy Stardust, is well worth reading for anyone fascinated, as I am, by how the recordings we love are made.

KEF’s own report on this very successful evening can be found here. It joins some excellent essays on both music and audio technology that I recommend highly.

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COMMENTS
Oliver A.'s picture

Awesome! Wish I could've been there. Will Stereophile be reviewing the Blades? 

John Atkinson's picture

Oliver A. wrote:
Will Stereophile be reviewing the Blades?

We don't currently plan to. But Stephen Mejias will be writing a follow-up on the KEF LS50 in the May issue and Tom Norton will be reviewing the affordable KEF R700 in an early summer issue.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

pwf2739's picture

This event looks like it was not only worth braving the snow but was also a lot of  fun. And having a set of the remarkable KEF Blades, I can imagine the sound was wonderful. 

Doctor Fine's picture

John I would be most interested in hearing your thoughts about the playback of well recorded live music as it sounds in a top rated mastering room. 

Is there any attempt at all by the top mastering engineers to make their products translate consistently to domestic audio or is it totally hit or miss thus making "accurate home audio playback" a ridiculous conceit?  I have seen Bob Katz's room and also Clearmountain's and Doug Sax. 

These rooms do not look at all like the typical Stereophile guy's room as there is an effort to NOT place piles of fancy equipment smack in the middle of the mix.  My audiophile friends all insist this is "nonsense" and that the best place for amps and such is right in the middle of everything where girls can "see" it and realize how great it is.  It is so "big" the girls get all excited etc etc.  You know how girls are.

Would I be a better audiophile if I listened to beautiful sounding speakers poorly set up in a room that has huge peaks and dips and using harmonic systhesizers for power amps thus coating everything I hear with "sugar."?  All my friends are doing this and they are all "experts."

My best friend has a "sugar" system using zero negative feedback and no bass response below 50 hz.  He says he has the best system in the world.  It sounds a little "off" to me.  Am I crazy?  He says he is a "true" audiophile and as such will not be a slave to "standards" as they are all beneath him.

Should I simply buy snake oil and mystery or is there actually anything accurate about professional standards of excellence as they apply to "our" world.?

What have YOU heard John?  And WHAT are your thoughts on the subject?

Regadude's picture

Hey Doc! This ain't the place to be writing your memoirs...

corrective_unconscious's picture

I think any replies apart from abjectly admiring ones would detract from it.

jimtavegia's picture

I would have done the same thing being a native Chicagoan, feet of snow never stopped us like inches of snow does here in Hotlanta. I don't ever remember of having a "no school day" up north. And no, I am not going to tell you we had to walk 5 miles each way, both up hill.  lol    But, we did walk...no bussing back in the day. 

Or first year living in Connecticut in the 80's on opening day at Yankee Stadium there was 15 inches of snow on the ground. THAT was unbelievable to me. No game, but the next day they played and no snow to be found around the stadium.  I'm guessing trucked out like our Canadian friends do. 

I digress, what a great event and it is so important for audiophiles to go hear real music now and again.  Without that I feel we lose our frame of reference to gage our recordings and our playback gear.  

Ah, to be a fly on the wall for THAT even would have been something.  Thanks for sharing. 

ps    I did enjoy Kens book that I bought on my Kindle. 

Doctor Fine's picture

JA.

Live music with Joey who later went on to form Criterion Studios in North Miami where the Rolling Stones recorded.  In 1964 Joey and "The Accents" played at the Monte Cristo Hotel in Palm Beach using a 1960 Echolette while their bass man had a "tone ring" Fender JBL D140 "tone ring" Showman bass rig.

The other notable instruments were Hammond B3 and Joey had a Gibson Les Paul which surprised my band mates who were using ES335 and Fender Strats.  I had a Fender Precision which was much bigger than I was as I was only 13 years old and kind of chubby and short although very into bass as a jazz student.

I hired Joey and The Accents band to play our senior prom at St. Andrews Prep School in Boca Raton in 1964.  Their live sound was simply astonishing and I became a local legend for having booked them.  It was incredible and that is why Joey went on to purchase the most important recording studio in south florida history recording Aretha Franklin the Stones and many other groups.

As I later was during the 60s a bass man on stage with Led Zepplin, The Mothers of Invention, Steppenwolf and Blood Sweat and Tears (I was only the lowly "opening act" but hey---I WAS there!). 

Let me tell you the the Accents bass rig was as good as I have ever heard.  I am still tracking down a Fender JBL D140 tone ring cab.

My current bass rig is D140 Mesa 100 watt tube head and Epiphone guitar from the Jefferson Air-plane bass player Jack Cassidy.  It is a nice bass.  Although I am still keeping an eye out to purchase a Gibson EB3 like Jack Bruce as I am partial to the short neck Gibon sound also.  But so far the Jefferson Airplane bass player Jack Cassidy has the best bass out on the market that I have heard for articulation and pure tone.  Try one and see what you think...  Better than a Beatles Hoffner I think.

I keep asking you to comment on my contention that the reason the High End is in trouble is that you guys did not do as I DID and adopt pro audio mastering standards back in the 1990s.  My stuff has continued to out perform all local audiophile rigs ever since.

I love vintage equipment and owned most of it.  But Standards are necessary for the High End to earn cred with the public.

I keep waiting for your comment, John.

corrective_unconscious's picture

I think we're going to need a lot more biographical and technical information from you before anyone can properly evaluate and respond to your queries.

About 5,000 words or so should do it.

Bill B's picture

Glad they flew in a young band from Nashville.  I reckon there aren't any bands or musicians there in New York.

jimtavegia's picture

Is that the only way rock musicians can play their music is so loud it is dangerous?  Just because theoretical 24 bit is 144db doesn't mean that the playback level can't be kept at an spl of under 90db.  That is the one danger of cans and earbuds for young people is private hearing damaged by too loud music. By 50 they will have some regrets. 

spudnik's picture

Atkinson:  What do you mean you have no plans to review the Blades!?  I ordered a 3 year subscription for the sole purpose of insuring I would not miss the Sterophile/Blade review!  KEF says these speakers are revolutionary.  I depend on Sterophile to separate the truth from the hyperbole!  Why wouldn't you review them!  How does a system you haven't reviewed make the recommended list?  I'm staggered.  This isn't Mom an' Pops latest creation:  This is KEF!  A major stereophile This is Car & Driver not reviewing the new Corette!  This is like FOX not televising the NFC championship! . . .  "No plans to review . . ."  Really?!

Doctor Fine's picture

I guarantee you that John Atkinson knows a LOT about what I wrote as it was ALL bass player jibber jabber and John is (like me) a total bass equipment freak.  A Fender/JBL D140 "tone ring" cab is the kind of bass cabinet that speaks with true tonal authority.  All this junk was NOT directed at any disinterested non-musician citizen who I can appreciate would find it of zero usefullness.

What WOULD be useful would be the question"Why even GO to a pro audio mix room to audition equipment designed by a former pro audio monitor company?" Kef built the drivers for the original BBC monitor speakers I still find usefull 30 years later.  Is their new little product an attempt to bring pro audio to the domestic hobby guys?

I find it ironic in the extreme that the experts in the High End get furious with me when I opine that pro audio mastering rooms that are designed correctly are FAR superior to domestic audio.  Domestic audio has become infested with snake oil products and extremely sloppy equipment setup.  Deplorable audio rooms with hopeless lack of attention to fidelity and a complete lack of STANDARDS are the norm in home audio.

So why go to a proper sound room to hear these new KEFs?  Was it some kind of joke perhaps?

I love music.  I love the sound of great instruments as they are delicious (if top of the line).  I love great composers.  I love great audio equipment both pro audio and domestic brands.

Why are domestic audio hobby fans so convinced that "anything goes" when the pros have spent money and attention on finding out what exactly IS "correct" audio playback.  The pros are tired of hearing ten different mixes in ten different rooms.  They know that is a result of ignorance.  The mix should sound pretty much the same on balance if the gear and the rooms are designed competently.

Why do "WE" pride ourselves on how "different" our audio systems are?  Are we morons?  Don't we understand it is impossible for that kind of variety to make sense if the gear is all working properly in a proper room?

I want John to chime in on this subject someday as I have been harping on it since before my hero JGH passed away.  I have been working at a marriage of million dollar "mastering rooms" morphing into million dollar "home audio masterpieces."  For perhaps twenty years or more it is what I live and breathe.

JGH (the FOUNDER of STEREOPHILE) said the two attitudes which drove him mad were "anything goes as long as I LIKE it."    And the other thing that drove him mad about our home audio industry was "the lack of double blind testing to establish performance grading is the downfall of our hobby and why we are all unsicientific."  I agree but go even farther.

Over the last 25 years I discovered the pros were working extremely hard to build reference systems that could be standardised and used in mixing and mastering.  They sought playback that was musical, alive and consistent.  A standard "sound" which could be trusted to represent "what the recording REALLY sounds like."  They are now AHEAD of us home systems guys.

I want to know why nobody else gives a damn that the professionals are ahead of us?Right now it is just me, the Professional mastering gurus like Clearmountain, Doug Sax, Bob Katz, Steve Hoffman and the ghost of JGH.

Anybody else have an opinion?  John Atkinson where do you stand on the subject?

corrective_unconscious's picture

I might not exactly be a math whiz, but that was no 5000 words.

Doctor Fine's picture

To me and the rest of the educated smart "real world" what is truly lame are the pathetic crowd of losers who have monopolised our hobby.  These losers took the idea that was proposed by the founders of TAS and Stereophile that you have to actually "Listen" to equipment to judge it for quality instead of blindly following tests and printed specifications.

Then the losers made this common sense observation their "CREDO" and went too far promoting the idea that no such thing as "correct" actually exists any longer.  So now here we are with NO standards and no respect for the idea of a "correct" SYSTEM. 

Instead every Johnny come lately to this hobby has declared their approach "valid---because I LIKE IT."  And as a result huge amounts of money are wasted building very poorly performing super expensive tripe.

The press knows this hobby is all BS.  The public knows this hobby is all BS.  The public has moved on and has no respect for the unproductive waste of time most home audio has become.

Lame indeed.  Who is LAME?  You are my audio friends.  Lame and proud of your ignorance.  I wish good luck to those of you who seek the very real beauty of audio "truth."  To those that wish to just muck around and pretend they are too smart to actually try to build a correct system I wave bye bye as I have said all I care to about the subject.  Have fun kiddies...

Regadude's picture

[flame deleted by John Atkinson]

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