David Wilson: WAMM!! WATT?!? WHOW!!! (& the Puppies!) Page 4
Atkinson: There are a lot of people who still like their Audio Research SP10s, putting to one side the tube-replacement costs.
Wilson: Exactly. Yes! For reasons which are very valid. So the industry has, I think, two directions it can take. One is it can continue to produce products which, in spite of any sonic excellence, are acceptable only to fanatics. I'm thinking, for example, of enormous full-range electrostatics that cover the width of the listening room. Or they can turn around and say, let's look at the top 2% of the American population, socioeconomically. Let's assume that, of this population of 225 million people, the top 2% can easily afford this equipment if they were aware of it and if they enjoy music that much. We're no longer talking 100,000 people, only a small percentage of whom can afford really the best, we're talking millions of people now.
But these are people who have to be educated. They have to become aware of it. And one way that they can become aware is by having products which fit their lifestyle. They can look at a compact amplifier and say, "Yeah, that really is beautiful and it'll fit anywhere. It doesn't generate too much heat, it doesn't make any noise, it just plays. And it's reliable." That market has become increasingly important over the last two years to Wilson Audio with the WATT, and now the WATT/Puppy. I would say that, at this point in time, probably a fourth of the people that buy the WATT and the WATT/Puppy are music lovers, not magazine-reading audiophiles.
Atkinson: What source do these people listen to predominantly?
Wilson: CDs. Absolutely. You and I share a great enthusiasm for the felicities of good analog sound. Although it's mixing metaphors in a way, I consider my Goldmund my light saber, Luke Skywalker's light saber, an obsolete but incredibly elegant device. But the LP has become a specialty item. I think that the record industry has been successful in its pogrom of destruction of analog. Even if more and more people demanded analog, it's too late for the major labels. On the other hand, it creates a marvelous opportunity for the small independent labels—Wilson Audio's sales of CDs and LPs are roughly equal. I'm not sure at this point how those numbers are for Reference Recordings and Sheffield and some of the other independents, but we have a real need to continue to produce analog.
Atkinson: Which came first: the WAMM or the Wilson records?
Wilson: Our first recording, concert organ music performed by James Welch, was released in 1977.
Atkinson: What gave you the impetus to get involved in recording?
Wilson: Well, I think everybody who is passionately involved in audio has at one time or another heard somebody's system produce a sound which they didn't think a stereo system could do. It's not just a record player, it's wonderful. It's a moment of magic, [following which] you view a sound system as something more than an appliance. It's special. You love what it will do for you. You might need vacuum cleaners and washing machines, but you don't love them.
My Road-to-Damascus experience occurred in 1957, on Christmas Eve. Four doors down there was a gentleman named Bob Wills who, a couple of years earlier, had journeyed to Hope, Arkansas, and, with his friend Paul Klipsch, built the Klipschorn. He was one of the original high-end audiophiles in Sacramento, California, this Bob Wills was. On Christmas Eve, he had put his Klipschorn out onto his front porch and powered it with this 50W Fisher vacuum-tube mono amplifier and a Weathers FM cartridge on a Weathers turntable—you know, all the good stuff of the day—and he was playing Christmas carols. Now, I didn't know that. I was a 12-year-old boy who wanted to hurry up and get to sleep so that I could wake up and open my chemistry set. But I kept hearing these people singing Christmas carols outside my window. After a while, I thought these guys would stop and walk on down the block, but they just kept on and on and on. I opened up the window: of course there was nobody out there. It was later on that I found out what it was, and that really made a profound impression on me. And then a friend of Bob Wills, Don Alley, was really the vector that infected me.
Atkinson: Have you had any experience since then where you've been fooled into thinking that reproduced sound was live?
Wilson: That's fairly rare, and I guess the more jaded you become, the harder it is to be fooled. But it tends to happen in unexpected places, when, in fact, you're kind of predisposed to thinking it won't happen, which adds credibility to the phenomenon. When we did the recording session back in 1987 at Mills College Concert Hall for our Brahms/Debussy sonata recording with David Abel and Julie Steinberg, we had on the stage a 9' Hamburg Steinway, and of course David was playing his Guarnerius violin. At the edge of the stage, we had a pair of Series 1 WATTs (driven by a Spectral DMA-50), using the front edge of the stage as a 2-pi steradian supporting surface.
The recording was made with me standing at the Ultramaster recorder maybe 40' away from the musicians. We'd record a few takes, then they'd come back and sit in the audience area, maybe six/seven rows out away from the WATTs, and we'd play it back. Now, my trepidations before the recording session were that the WATTs couldn't play loudly enough in that room to be of any value. Our previous experience had always been in small rooms. I wanted to try it anyway, and what we found was that, even though that hall seats 500 people, that if you were back as far as the 10th to 13th row, the playback immediately after hearing the real thing sounded very satisfying.
The moment of being fooled occurred in a very biologically natural way. The restroom was across the hall and, after finishing, you'd come back and you'd hear music playing. Question: Is it live or is it the recording? If it's being recorded at the time, you don't want to open the door. So you had to make that decision, you had to analyze the situation. You couldn't even open the door a crack because it would make noise. It was very difficult to tell whether it was live or if it was the playback. What I finally ended up using as clues was if somebody started talking, then I knew that they were listening to playback.
Atkinson: That's a situation where you have total control of everything in the chain: you chose the microphones; you made the recording; with the exception of the amplifier, you designed the playback equipment. One of my arguments with a reviewer attempting to use live sound as an absolute reference to make value judgments on components is that he or she doesn't have access to all that information. We tried to show some of the problems with this philosophical approach with the Stereophile Test CD: one track reveals how microphones act like colorizing filters, another how the A/D converter can change the sound. As a recording engineer listening to your own recordings, you can compensate for the presence of all the sound-and-music-changing equipment in the middle of the chain. But how does the ordinary person compensate for it?
Wilson: You frequently hear regular concertgoers complaining, "Well, I'm listening to this recording, and I attend concerts at least once a month. I've heard hundreds of concerts in my life, and I have never heard violins sound this bright. Therefore, the recording is bad, or the playback equipment is inaccurate." They'll criticize it because of that. Yet violins, like loudspeakers, have radiation patterns. They radiate their high frequencies at right angles to the strings. So, if you consider the violinist bowing the instrument in a playing position, and if you do as I do—have a ladder [and put the microphone] above the violin, where the sound is the most focused and the most harmonically complete, and where there's the most timbral delicacy—you'll have a sound which is definitely brighter than it would be if you were down in the audience below the level of the stage. There's a dramatic difference.
The only standard that I can use is to be aware of the sound that went into the microphone and try to reproduce that sound. I can't try to reproduce a sound that I hear out in some hall or anything like that, because you then have to filter high frequencies, you have to add more low-frequency energy. As you know, there's a whole chain of processes that you would have to do to tailor that sound, which would then distort it for everything else. So I just try to make it as accurate as I possibly can, relative to the sound that I recall going into the microphone. And always, at every session, I make a point of standing near the microphones and trying as much as possible to memorize that sound, to memorize a number of clues about the sound.
Atkinson: You have to try to break the loop of automatically assuming that if the sound is too bright, it must be the equipment that is making it too bright. You have to remember that it might be that a more accurate component is letting through more of a recording's intrinsic brightness.
Wilson: There is a very small number of people who are really qualified to make subjective value judgments of the absolute subjective accuracy of a piece of equipment. And I think those people have to have direct recording experience. There is no substitute for it. None.
Larry Archibald: Is it correct, then, to say that you are more interested in capturing the most exquisite sound you could get from that instrument rather than capturing what a person sitting in the 6th row would be hearing?
Wilson: Yes. Yes. I'm trying to capture—and this is where some aesthetic value judgments have to come in—I am imposing what I believe that instrument should sound like. Now, in doing that, let me tell you one of the criteria that I use. I look at the type of music. In this instance, we're talking about chamber music. This hall seats 525 people. It really is not an ideal hall for chamber music. Chamber music, in my opinion, after talking with several musicians about it, is intended to be performed in small rooms, surrounded by a relatively small number of people. If the room is too large, then the people further away are hearing a highly dynamically compressed, non-involving sound, a sound that leaves out a lot of the musical nuances that I'm sure the composer intended to be there. So I have to decide how to mike the recording so that the musical intent of the literature is best served.
Atkinson: But really, you're making value judgments as you capture the sound which remove the recording one step away from what really happened.
Wilson: But you have to ask yourself the question: Is the sound that you hear in the 6th row more accurate than the sound that you hear in the 10th row? Peter Moncrieff once wrote that his experiences at Davies Center in San Francisco indicated that there's only one perfect seat in that hall. Now, how he found that out, he never divulged—maybe it's the seat that he's got! So rather than try to create a hypothetical listener out there, based on value judgments and assumptions, I instead go for the most involving sound from the instrument.
Now I'm not a musician, and I frankly never intend to be one, one reason being that musicians that I record will know that I'm not competing with them, I'm not critiquing them musically as I'm listening. I'm listening to the sound, they are listening to the music, and we coexist very nicely that way. My art is capturing the sound. And I think over the last 31 years, since I built my first loudspeaker system, I have some ideas about the kind of sound I like and which, I think, serve the music that I record. Ultimately, I think you have to use your experience and judgment, and you have to make a commitment to a sound that seems right to you. If listeners accept it, fine. If they don't accept it, then find out why and see if there's something wrong with your premise.
Atkinson: What recording projects are you currently working on?
Wilson: Wilson Audio is a small company: we're forced to make decisions as to what things are most important, because we can only do basically one thing at a time. Wilson Audio right now is 15 employees, up from four employees three years ago. We are growing, but we're still a small company. So over the last six to eight months we've focused our attention on the WATT/Puppy and on general manufacturing procedures, to make them more efficient and to ensure a more uniform level of quality. And that hasn't left us anything for recordings. Now in 1990, I intend to do another large-scale symphonic wind recording. There is a project that we're working on with a solo pianist, and then there's another with a large jazz group. My intention is to do three recordings in 1990.
All analog-based, of course!