A Unique KEF Event
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.
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
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 albumhe 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 studiobut 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 somethingthe 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 subjectand he admitted to being known as GOMfor Grumpy Old Manon 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.
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.
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!
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.