CAS 2013 Gets Underway

Ensconced in the third hotel in its four-year history, the three-day California Audio Show opened on August 9, 2013 in the five-floor Westin Hotel in Millbrae, CA. Otherwise known as the Westin SFO, the hotel resides on One Old Bayshore Highway, a hefty stone's throw from San Francisco Bay, directly across the water from the airport runway where Asiana Flight 214 crashed on July 6.

For those who turned around as they approached the hotel's main entrance, the view of three huge black trailer-like structures on the runway, positioned when the FAA investigation got underway, served as a reminder of the event that some hotel personnel and guests witnessed from afar.

As with most shows in unfamiliar hotels, many attendees' first reaction was confusion. The view inside the main entrance revealed no trace of the single Blue Coast exhibit located way to the right, nor of the other lobby exhibits and registration table located way farther to the left, around the corner, beyond the short turn, and then again to the left and right. Only folks who, for some perverse reason, chose to enter through the hotel's non-descript second entrance managed to avoid asking the inevitable, "Where's registration?" and "Where's the show?"

Happily, I immediately encountered show organizer Constantine Soo, who pointed the way to registration and more. There was a healthy line-up at 10:30AM, but later in the day, and even on other days, attendees adhered to trickle-in theory. Whether that trickled down to exhibitors and organizer alike in the form of increased sales has yet to be determined.

It was a good omen of sorts when the first music that greeted me was not mindless Muzak, but rather Maria Callas singing "Caro nome." Less good was the fact that her voice was distorting like crazy. Since that distortion was caused, not by inferior technology, but rather by a faulty component that was soon replaced, I bookmarked my time in the Westin by making that same Loggie Audio-sponsored Acapella Audio Arts/Einstein room my last stop at CAS. For an unintended ironic twist on the Christian Biblical saying, "The last shall be first" (or something to that effect—certainly not "The Germans shall inherit the Earth," which was a favorite saying of one of the major contenders for Chief Anti-Christ of the 20th Century), check out the closing blog of this show report.

Within seconds of receiving my registration badge, I found before me, smiling with great humility, Motoyuki (Yuki) Sugiura of Sony. "Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records is about to start a live recording session in the Blue Coast Records room," he announced, pointing me back around the bend, over the meadow and through the woods to the house that Marenco built. There I encountered Albert Llaguno (left) and Marenco herself (right), standing beside a table filled with CDs of albums Marenco has produced and recorded. In their hands, almost as if by magic, rested Azure, the latest album from the Steve McQuarry Trio.

Inside the room, bassist Ted Burik and pianist McQuarry were preparing for a short performance that Marenco announced she would record direct-to-DSD and, after a bit of mixing on the fly, play back to us. The recording / playback chain was impressive: Neumann U-87, BK 4012, and Neumann KM 184, and AKG 414 mikes; her own proprietary silver copper cabling; Millennia Media 8 channel solid-state preamps; EMM converters; Sonoma DSD Digital Audio Workstation (multi-track recording); Soundcraft 200 mixing console (for rough mixes and playback); Korg mr2000s (for two-channel rough mix and playback); Pass xp10 preamp; Pass X150 amp; and Sony SS-AR1 loudspeakers.

Given that I've skipped all of Marenco's previous recording events at shows in order to leave sufficient time for blogging reproduced music, and this year's show was of seemingly manageable-for-one-blogger size, I decided to stick around for a start off taste of the real thing. Settling into the first row, and soon joined by Neil Gader of The Absolute Sound, I was happy to hear Marenco announce that the performance would begin in 5.

Unfortunately, because there weren't many people in the room, Marenco stretched 5 to 10, and 10 to 15. Then she stopped announcing how soon the show would begin. Was God punishing me for not sticking to inert black and silver boxes?

Eventually, the duo, who were joined later that afternoon by saxophonist Cory Wright and drummer Greg German for the first of CAS' two formal, "closed door" concerts, began to play Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" and McQuarry's "Lunar." The latter, an interesting inversion of Miles Davis' "Solar," was one of the few novel pieces of music I heard that day.

This was the first of two un-miked acoustic performances I heard at CAS from fairly close range. What impressed me the most was the richness and fullness of the piano close up, and the diffuse sound of the bass' lowest octaves. Curiously, when played back, Marenco's rough DSD mix, achieved without the reverberation she will add to the final mix to compensate for the dryness of the room, failed to capture the piano's richness. What it did capture quite well—over-emphasize in fact—were Burik's frequent bass string snaps, and the beauty of both men's playing.

A long back and forth discussion ensued in which Marenco explained what influenced what the audience heard vs. what the mikes and equipment picked up. It will be more than interesting to hear what she does with the final mix, which will be available for free download by August 21 at bluecoastrecords.com.

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