Steve McCormack: It's All In The Details Page 3
McCormack: Exactly. And the word "vision" is literally true; when I set out to do a product, I have an internal model that I'm measuring against. I'm not just doing something in an ambiguous way, just stabbing here and there. I have an idea of what I'm trying to achieve. As I'm trying these different designs and different boards and parts and layouts and that kind of thing, I'm measuring them against this internal yardstick and determining if they're doing what I want them to do or not. That not only makes it more personal, it also makes the process more efficient. You can spend an awful lot of time hashing out all the possible ways to do something.
As a designer, you develop a bag of tricks as time goes on—a set of things that work for you and help you achieve the result you want. It may be certain kinds of parts, ways of laying them out, power-supply designs, all of those things. You learn those things and apply them as a set of rules in design to help you achieve the particular results you want. At the same time, however, you're constantly looking for new ideas, new ways to approach solving any given problem, new materials to incorporate into your designs. And so we push the state of the art along.
Harley: How much time do you spend listening before finalizing a design—the DNA-1, for example?
McCormack: That product is typical of my designs in that it took some years to evolve. It was in design for about three years. I certainly don't keep track of the time that goes into it, but you're talking about hundreds and perhaps thousands of hours of listening and listening tests.
I'm often doing specific listening tests, which don't take a lot of time. Once the test is set up, I can go through the list of choices that I've laid out and usually I can make the decisions pretty quickly. It may be that none of the choices gets you to where you want to be by your internal model. You have to balance a set of things to get you to where you're trying to go. Every now and then you wind up having to spend a lot of time making a choice about a particular part or making a value decision about what that choice is doing musically. It's surprising to me sometimes how I can make a change in something that seems relatively simple, but it changes the musical nature of the product dramatically.
Musicality...it's a very hard word to clearly convey the meaning of to people. But it has a very clear meaning to me. I know it when I hear it, and I think most people do too. It's that sense of wanting to listen more, and of hearing things you've never heard before. Not just detail, but something of the message of the music. It has something to do with the way the music reaches me emotionally. The degree to which I can follow the instrumental lines, what the musicians are trying to say individually. There is an enormous amount of variation in how well pieces of equipment do that. Within a given product, it is the individual parts, wire, power supply, and other design aspects that allow or don't allow that to happen.
Often you're faced with two choices which seem to be equally valid in a way, but different. The trick is to make a choice—a value judgment—about which one is closer to your internal model. I think it would be a conceit to say which one is right. I'm not willing to go quite that far. It's which one is right to me, according to my internal model.
Harley: Where does this internal model come from?
McCormack: A lifetime of experience listening to live music and recording music. Working with playback systems, and just enjoying listening to music. Trying to understand what goes into making both a recording and playback system that's capable of conveying the essence of what that music's all about.
Harley: What sort of sonic characteristics can you correlate with certain electronic parts or techniques?
McCormack: All of these parts and techniques have personalities. It's fairly common knowledge at this point with, say, capacitors. Resistors are the same way. Wire is the same way. It's really true for any class of part. I'm doing it more these days with transistors and, in digital, with certain types of gates. They have an effect on the sound from our CD players and the digital [CD] drives.
Harley: Do you mean the logic family—such as TTL or CMOS?
McCormack: Not only the logic family, but the manufacturer of the individual part within a given logic family.
Harley: So you could get, say, a 7404 [a TTL inverter] from two manufacturers and they sound different operating on the digital datastream?